Friday, March 5, 2010

water and space

I know not everyone would get excited about something like this but a couple of days ago when I read these words my heart leapt:

Water is regarded as a key ingredient for life - and water exists plenty in the universe. Now scientists have found the precious element in a disk around a young star, similar to our Sun. This disk, supposedly the birth place for future planets, contains a hundred times more water than all oceans on Earth.

Why we live on a planet with liquid water, and so much of it, has long been a mystery to science but now satellites and new instruments have allowed astronomers to look more deeply into space and see what's out there with much greater precision. The water is likely located in a hot layer just above the disk midplane, where most of the available oxygen is driven into water by chemical reactions and most of it enters the disk in the form of ice around dust grains from the cold collapsing cloud.

Knowing that there's water on other planets and moons is a very exciting discovery even though it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise. After all, we're mostly water and the rest of us is stardust. Sorry, I got carried away for a moment. What I mean is that it almost seems as though we're being tempted to go out there and look around.

Just yesterday I read an article on the BBC news that water-ice (lots of it) has been found in the regolith of the moon's north pole. The craters with ice range from one to nine miles in diameter and according to NASA may contain 600 million metric tonnes of water-ice held within these impact craters. To those of us not really familiar with the metric system that's 1,322,773,573,109 lb and 4.32 oz - or one trillion, three hundred and twenty-two billion, seven hundred and seventy-three million, five hundred and seventy-three thousand and one hundred and nine pounds and a small glass full. Even the national debt hasn't got to that point yet. Ooops, sorry, yes it has.

Oh I'm sure it wouldn't be all that simple to get at - no glistening, pellucid moon pools surrounded by moon fairies and unicorns waiting for us but we're clever creatures and I think we do better when we plan big projects. Yes, Earth has to be saved. Yes, people are hungry. Yes, we don't have a good record of treating other places well when we get there but we're a long way off finding a place like Pandora. Maybe we're learning, after all. Maybe by the time we do find a world with water and a climate suitable for our species we'll be better people. After all, we're learning every day and I once read somewhere that the universe expands with our ability to see.

If we do nothing but stick around here we'll keep killing each other and the planet. We need to grow up and there's nothing like travel for broadening the mind.


Sean Jeating said...

Maybe, Susan, maybe ... sounds nicer, anyway, than 'maybe not', hm? :)

Perhaps I should not add the following: Before drinking water from distant planets, water - respectively the lack of water - will be taken as a reason for starting wars.
... Wish time would prove I was wrong.

Steve Emery said...

I LOVE this post! I HAVE had a glass of red wine, and that MIGHT be altering my judgement, but surely not too much...

When I heard about the water on the moon I rejoiced. One of the main barriers to colonization was the water/air problem, and this potentially solves both.

To me another thing about water that boggles my mind is that it expands when it freezes. The likelihood of life without this, apparently, is greatly reduced, as freezing would happen in ponds, lakes, oceans, from the bottom up, and the result would leave no liquid for life under the ice.

Then there is the electic polarity of water, which leads to all sorts of capabilities and properties ALSO important for life. It's all so beautiful to contemplate. It makes me marvel at all the "fearful symmetry."

La Belette Rouge said...

100 times more than earth? That is amazing.

Seraphine said...

"we're a long way off finding a place like Pandora."

pandora is located near shangri-la, el dorado, transoxania and burbank. it isn't far unless you live in greece or own a time-share on the moon.
speaking of time shares, does anyone know the stock symbol for time? it's something i'd like to invest in. (no, not the magazine.)
if you can corner the market on water and time, you'll be richer than all the gold in china.

susan said...

Note - The picture at the top of the post isn't the developing solar system mentioned since that picture wouldn't enlarge. Instead, I chose one from APOD, a nebula in the Orion Molecular Cloud called M78.

sean - It could be done if people got their act together. Whether it will be done is another matter :-)

I know there could be a rocky road ahead regarding supplies of potable water. Crow says human beings are crazy. I choose to keep hoping we're not suicidal.

steve - They've determined there are volatiles on the moon as well that could be processed and used as chemical rocket fuels.

The water thing is exciting. Jupiters' moon Europa is thought to have twice as much water as Earth and may have a 'habitable zone' - well, not likely for us but there may be life in the huge ocean under the ice. Then there's Callisto and Ganymede as well. Yes, it's a marvel that ice floats. Saturn's moon Enceladus even has a fountain :-) Blake was inspired.

belette - Where there's water (in liquid form) there's life. If they can see it accreting in a junior solar system there must be planets besides ours that reside in a biozone of their sun, I do miss Carl Sagan - he would have loved this.

sera - Indeed, we're all invested in time. In our hearts none of us believe we are limited a certain number of years, because we all know there is more to us without even understanding how we know. We clutch at trivial things and miss understanding our true wealth.

Utah Savage said...

I can hear Carl Sagan saying, "Billions and billions of..."

When I first looked at that gorgeous image I thought you were doing a very abstract and interesting painting on fabric.

MRMacrum said...

"Space, the Final Frontier" - what a bunch of malarkey. The final frontier exists between our ears. Should we as a species get on the same page or at least in the same chapter, we might not have to worry about exploiting Space to save our collective butts.

But the two, space exploration and saving this planet are inextricably entwined with each other. To last long enough to take advantage of what the Universe may have to offer, we need to make this place last for the forseeable future.

When I think of this, I imagine a ship of yore sailing for new shores. The sailors use using up all their stores and provisions. By the time the ship crashes on the reef of a new land, the crew is dead.

Spadoman said...

I'm listening in another sense. In Native American traditional teachings, the water is everything. And the women of the species take care of the water. A woman sings a song at the start of the sweaty Lodge ceremony. There are no drums, just the rattle, shaken by the woman, and the song, taking care of the water.
When I saw the movie Avatar, I wanted to be there. I wanted to go. It looked inviting. I sensed something that they had. I thought of pure food and pure water for all.
Those are my thoughts about water for now. I guess I didn't hit on the subject of water on the moon and in space, but then again, what if?
What we need to do now is respect what we have. Stop pollution, stop waste, (Americans use potable water to flush toilets!), stop taking water from each other.


Randal Graves said...

Well hell, if there's water up there, no need to conserve! Take that, you stupid treehuggers!

Though we just might need that water as we expand throughout the solar system and begin trashing other planets...

susan said...

utah - Yes, we need somebody to carry the science torch as well as him. sigh..

Thanks for the compliment but I'm not nearly so talented as all that :-)

mrm - I wasn't a star trek fan after the age of 18 and I think that when space exploration and exploitation happens it will start off much more like 'outland' than '2001'. If we were all trained meditators between the ears would be the way to go but we're still (and may always be) viscerally oriented creatures. There will be loss and disasters.

The place needs to last and that needs to be understood. Meanwhile, since 80% of the scientists in this country work either for the military or for the petro-agro-chemical-pharma industry we can only hope the other 20% and the ones outside our borders can come up with useable ideas for wiser ways of living.

spadoman - Yes, it's a planet covered in water but most of it isn't drinkable. We're also doing a bang up job of poisoning the oceans. Hurray for us. I don't know how it happened that a bunch of psychopaths wound up in positions where they own and run just about everything. It's interesting that almost everyone who saw that movie had the same reaction as you. There's definitely something wiser at our core and the Native Americans were closer to that truth.

randal - We suffer from a social disease called 'the center of the universe syndrome'. I think its only cure is to keep going further and learn to distinguish possibilities from realities.

Elaine- said...

imagine, water, where there's a distinct lack of oxygen, what a great post, very educational and thought provoking, i loved it!!!

Seraphine said...

a nebula in the orion molecular cloud

it's hard for me to think of molecules in a cloud. i mean, i know clouds are made of molecules, it's just hard to imagine molecules themselves as clouds. locusts make clouds, water vapor makes clouds, you know? molecules are the building block, not the actual thing making the cloud.
but then, it's hard for me to imagine stars having belts.
when i think of orion, i think of suspenders, because, well, stars are suspended in the night sky.
but who am I?

jams o donnell said...

That is so true Susan. People say that we should not bother with space exploration and attend to the problems on earth. Sadly I would guess that the efforts that go in to space exploration would be ploughed back in to new and more violent ways of killing people instead...

susan said...

elaine - I have a good time imagining great clouds of water raining down in translucent sheets on newly formed planets far from human craziness. Waterfalls in the sky giving life to new species would be a good thing.

sera - From what I can understand that's just the name of the huge clouds of gas whose density and size permits the formation of molecules, namely molecular hydrogen. The insides of the clouds themselves are where new stars are born - well, they get born as the gas collapses because massive internal gravity brings together enough mass and density for new stars to start up their internal nuclear furnaces. Then the proto-star is surrounded by a disc of extra material that fairly frequently can become a new solar system. I like to think of them as big mothers with very swollen bellies and I wouldn't want to be in the delivery room.

jams - It's a shame that as our science develops at an enormous rate most people haven't been educated well enough to enjoy a hint of how marvelous are the discoveries being made week by week. I'd say it's 60-40 that we'll do ourselves in.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Susan
Thanks for highlighting this significant and interesting scientific milestone for us and for your commentary. No doubt this discovery which will help enormously along with prior information to understand more clearly the impact of water molecules on the creation of newly born planetary systems.

Water is in much more abundance than was previously thought since researchers say water is the third most common molecule in our Milky Way galaxy. As you say since we are made up of 70% water and the earth’s surface is 70 % covered with water that need not come as any surprise.

But finding water in that liquid form is a different matter entirely and used to be thought unlikely or elusive because of the extreme in temperatures that operate in space. e.g water evident only in 99% frozen form and 1% water vapor.

However scientists working on the Cassini mission to Saturn have found evidence of liquid water on the planet's icy moon Enceladus, suggesting the possibility of life below its surface whilst NASA's Phoenix Lander may have possibly captured our first images of liquid water on Mars in the form of droplets splashing onto the spacecraft' when it landing, but it still remains inconclusive.

The perchlorate salts in the soil on mars can keep water liquid at sub-zero temperatures allowing the antifreeze effect to make possible liquid water to be widespread just below the surface of Mars, but it may be too salty to support life as we know it.

The gaping canyons and channels evident in the Martian landscape certainly confirm the fact that large amounts of liquid water once flowed on Mars for millions of years, theoretically capable of nurturing life.

Meanwhile I hope you manage to sort out the Canadian immigration paper nightmare soon.

Best wishes

susan said...

lindsay - I so appreciate your thoughtful comments. It's getting to late here for me to answer properly but I'll be back tomorrow.

Best wishes, as always.