Titan, Flyby 9

On December 26, 2005 Cassini returned to Titan for its ninth targeted flyby and the last of the year. The latest data includes information about Titan’s magnetic field and more images of albedo features and landmarks on the surface that have been labeled Aztlan, Quivira, Bazaruto. Elba Faculae, and Omacatl Macula. The raw images show the complex boundaries between light and dark areas that have reminded some scientists of shorelines.

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The Year in Planetary Science

Humanity improves the vision it turns on the universe in two ways: seeing farther than before and resolving greater detail. 2005 was a year of much more detail, of blurry bodies resolving into dynamic worlds and undiscovered objects in our own backyard suddenly coming into view. Augmented by robotic surrogates, adaptive optics, new remote sensing capabilities, and intelligent data-mining agents, here are the discoveries made or announced in 2005 that transformed our view of our solar system.

Spirit and Opportunity on Mars

Never before have robots on the surface of another world traveled so far or functioned for so long. Despite signs of old age, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity continue to explore Mars.

Spirit climbed a mountain, observed dust devils, and returned panoramas of Gusev Crater from its high vantage point. Opportunity spotted a meteorite, survived getting stuck in a dune, and returned images of a variety of outcrops on its way to new craters for exploration.

The 10th Planet

It was not a hoax, a conspiracy theory, or pseudoscience, but a soap opera of events that led to the announcement earlier this year of the tenth planet in our solar system, 2003 UB313. After being scooped by another team on an transneptunian object slightly smaller than Pluto, Michael E. Brown of the California Institute of Technology, Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory, and David Rabinowitz of Yale University were forced to confirm that discovery and then announce one of their own: Planet X.

The planetary body larger than Pluto and much further away from the sun was actually discovered during a reanalysis of data from October 21, 2003. Dr. Brown and his team then went back through even older observations to see if the object had shown up before but simply been missed. Sure enough, they came across an observation of 2003 UB313 made in 1989.

The story did not end there. Allegations of fraud were made against the other team, who may have used Dr. Brown’s own work as their own. Meanwhile, the debate over the definition of “planet” was reignited, with Dr. Brown strongly defending the use of that label for his discovery. For many planetary scientists, Pluto is not a planet, but simply a large member of the Kuiper Belt, a region of small objects outside the orbit of Neptune. Dr. Brown and others argue that Pluto should retain its classification as a planet simply for cultural reasons. And if Pluto remains a planet, then any object discovered to be larger than Pluto and orbiting the Sun should also be classified as a planet. Thus, Dr. Brown concluded, 2003 UB313 must be considered the 10th planet.

2003 UB313 has a surface of methane ice, just like Pluto. With the recent discovery of a companion moon scientists hope to nail down the mass and size of both objects. A decision over the classification of 2003 UB313 is still forthcoming.

The Plumes of Enceladus

A tiny moon orbiting Saturn in the frigid outer solar system should be silent and long dead. Most of Saturn’s moons are in fact just that. A series of discoveries by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005 limited this to a generalization forever by returning spectacular images of ice plumes erupting from the surface of Enceladus. The mystery, of course, is where the energy comes from to drive this activity. There is heat inside of Enceladus, heat that makes the tiger stripes near its south pole warmer than the rest of the moon, heat that causes material to vaporize or erupt from this region, resulting in kilometers-high plumes that help support a tentative but oxygen-rich local atmosphere and provide the material to constantly replenish one of Saturn’s rings.

Pulling Back the Shroud of Titan

Cassini provided humans their first glimpse of the surface of Titan late last year. The view left scientists scratching their heads. Then, on January 14, 2005 ESA’s Huygens probe descended through the thick orange smog of Titan’s atmosphere to reveal terrains that were surprisingly Earth-like, with river channels and shore lines suggesting large volumes of liquid at work. When Huygens landed it continued capturing images from the surface, including an orange-hued view of its surroundings.

Not only does the surface of Titan show the signs of active reworking by liquid, but the atmosphere is full of methane, a relatively unstable gas that would not show up in the atmosphere if it were not constantly replenished. What Huygens did not provide was images of standing liquid on the surface, long suspected as the methane reservoir. After Huygens landed it began to settle into the soil and recorded a rise of methane, presumably liquid methane that was vaporized by the heat of entry. The pebbles surrounding the landing site were well-rounded, a sign of fluvial processes here on the Earth. The highlands, where the channels start, were light, while the channel beds and sea-like lowlands were stained dark. This comes from hydrocarbons that snow from the atmosphere and are carried downstream.

Where, then, is the liquid? Huygens had stopped broadcasting from the surface of Titan, but Cassini continues to encounter Titan, with the capability to pry beneath the thick atmosphere by using various remote sensing wavelengths including radar. During one flyby, Cassini captured an image of what appears to be a lake. During another, a volcano. Persistent methane clouds have been detected.

Scientists hypothesize that Huygens landed during a dry season, or perhaps during low tide. Titan might experience monsoonal seasons with periodic torrential liquid methane rains followed by little activity. The surface is obviously quite young, but many more observations by Cassini will be necessary before scientists feel confident in their understanding of the processes at work.

All but one of Cassini’s moon flybys over the next two and a half years will be of Titan. These flybys will be at altitudes of 2000 kilometers (1300 miles) or lower to provide even more detailed data about the surface of Titan.

Deep Impact

We bombed the hell out of a comet and learned that what we thought we knew about these objects was wrong.

On July 03, 2005 Deep Impact encountered Comet Tempel 1. When the event was over, Comet Tempel 1 had a new crater and a rising plume of debris from colliding with the Deep Impact impactor. The parent probe captured images and other data of the impact that are still be analyzed.

What we learned:

  • Comets vary greatly among each other in their surface terrain.
  • These surface terrains can be quite complex.
  • Some comets are loosely packed, held together by gravity.
  • Comets may be compositionally quite complex.

Deep Impact detected the presence of water vapor and carbon dioxide gas after impact, while the Spitzer Space Telescope detected “clays; iron-containing compounds; carbonates, the minerals in seashells; crystallized silicates, such as the green olivine minerals found on beaches and in the gemstone peridot; and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon-containing compounds found in car exhaust and on burnt toast” according to September 07, 2005 press release from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The parent probe continues to function and was placed into a new orbit that will allow mission scientists to return to Comet Tempel 1 or encounter a different comet in a few years.

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Welcome to the New Frontier Channel

Frontier Channel has been through a lot of changes over the years, but the changes going into effect over the next month are the biggest yet. The news site has been moved to frontierchannel.com from frontierchannel.tv, which will become “VIDEO Frontier Channel” and home to our first video content (coming soon.) The podcast “RADIO Frontier Channel” remains at radio.frontierchannel.tv, but will soon undergo its own face lift.

One major task remains: converting previous articles to the new layout and moving them from frontierchannel.tv to frontierchannel.com. So far the few articles from 2000 and 2002 have been successfully moved and the short format articles prior to December 2004 are in progress. The December 2004 and a majority of the 2005 articles are next but will take the longest to complete.

As a result of this move, links from search engines and other sites will be broken. The previous RSS news feed has been replaced with http://feeds.feedburner.com/frontierchannel. I apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your patience. This will likely be the last major hierarchical change made to Frontier Channel.

Along with the move comes a new look for Frontier Channel. Gone is the magazine format and here to stay is the news portal format. More color and variety has been added, the layout is cleaner, and soon there will be new pages to better explain Frontier Channel and its features.

Some things remain the same. For one, images continue to be large format. The overall emphasis of Frontier Channel has always been on images, because rapidly accelerating progress in science and technology is best presented and appreciated visually. A textual description cannot do justice to the recently discovered water ice plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example. With this in mind, VIDEO Frontier Channel and an enhanced RADIO Frontier Channel will soon join Frontier Channel to bring you the wonders of the Great Frontiers in all their audiovisual splendor.

Clear to the Center of the Milky Way

The clearest image yet (above left, compare to image above yet) of the center of our galaxy has been captured by the 10-meter Keck II Telescope at the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii. The image show the area surrounding Sagittarius A*, the name given to the energy source believed to be a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. This new clarity has allowed scientists to better characterize the black hole and energy flares in its vicinity. The results are published online and in an upcoming issue of ApJ in the paper “The First Laser Guide Star Adaptive Optics Observations of the Galactic Center: Sgr A*’s Infrared Color and the Extended Red Emission in its Vicinity“.

Black holes remain cyphers due to their very nature. Because not even light can escape the gravitational tug of these bodies, by definition they cannot be seen directly. Activity in the space surrounding black holes, however, led to their discovery and provided astrophysicists with data to better explain the phenomena. As matter interacts violently with a black hole’s event horizon (the sphere of “no return”) it releases energy. Images at various wavelengths were taken of Sagittarius A* to better characterize this released energy.

The latest imaging feat was accomplished by using a breakthrough technology called Laser Guide Star adaptive optics. A laser pointing up from the observatory creates an artificial point of light in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This virtual star helps the instrument adapt to changing atmospheric conditions to produce images undistorted by the intervening atmosphere. Adaptive optics has emerged in the last decade as a technique for improving Earth-based telescopes beyond the capabilities of even space telescopes like Hubble.

Adaptive optics and related techniques continue to progress rapidly and over the next few years several projects around the world will see existing telescopes outfitted and new telescopes standardized with the technology.

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Displaying Strange New Realities

The 19-inch LCD monitor in my home has become small compared to the two 23-inch LCD monitors I use at work. A few of my colleagues have one 23-inch and one 30-inch high definition LCD on their desks. With larger monitors comes superior video entertainment, more real estate for more open programs, and relief for tasks that are rather confined. These improvements are not, of course, the end of the story. The technological progress that has held my rapt attention for the past ten years has taught me that making current tasks more efficient and easier on the eye are just first order effects. Most significant are the unanticipated tasks that improved technologies will allow, tasks that often replace a host of previous tasks and provide new ways for interacting with data.

The increase in display size will reach a point where the keyboard and mouse simply do not make sense anymore. 3-D, voice and haptic user interfaces will arise to deal with all that display real estate. In doing so, the software programs we use will change, and, in a parallel we should now recognize, will be rapidly replaced by brand new software programs that accomplish old and new tasks in more efficient and higher level ways.

What does it mean to have a display the size of your wall? Do you sit up close or farther away? Can you contain the entire view in a single glance or must you make use of your periphery and more complicated head movements? To interact with the display will you want to sit as you do today with a mouse and keyboard, or will you stand and interact with body motions? How will your brain deal with both visual content from material reality and superimposed yet photorealistic cyberscapes on every surface that can act as a display?

Now image that all of these surfaces suddenly gain what seems to be infinite depth. This is no linear rise in display real estate. As we move away from 2-D representations of data and increasingly view 3-D representations through time, we enter a world no human brain has ever encountered, brought to us by the competitive forces that compel companies to produce larger and larger displays. There is currently no monitor available or planned that will allow us to even capture a glimpse of that strange new reality.

Image Credit: Sharp Electronics – “65-inch photo2”, Samsung Electronics (South Korea) – “0104_OLEDTV_view”

“Ergonomics, Not Productivity”

In a Business 2.0 article from last month entitled “Dude, You’re Getting a Dell — Every Five Seconds” there is a priceless quote by Richard Komm, Dell’s “factory-design guru” regarding the choice of tasks for robots to handle:

“All of our automation is driven by ergonomics, not productivity.”

How convenient that ergonomic solutions of this nature also have the benefit of increasing productivity, lowering overhead, and further decreasing the relevance of human labor.

There are both benefits and serious consequences that result from the accelerating trend to replace human labor. Despite the potential to realize the long-fabled “leisure society”, the transition may very well be a violent one. Regardless, Marshall Brain’s Robotic Nation will arrive, likely sooner rather than later. Pretending that today’s early steps down that road are driven by ergonomic considerations is just one of many explanations companies and governments will eventually give to placate troubled citizens and workers. Others will include:

  • “We are allowing our workers to spend more time with their families.”
  • “The stress of living in today’s cutting edge world requires careful management of time, including time away from work.”
  • “Our workers are safer than ever.”
  • “Our workers can take on more rewarding and high-level tasks that make use of their creativity.”
  • “Our customers demand faster turn around.”
  • “To compete, we must balance our human and technological strengths.”
  • “We are paying for our employee’s to go back to school, because their education should be our focus. That way, our employees can become more empowered and competitive in today’s ever-shifting business landscape.”

People might respond better to these explanations, but the truth is, robots and automation are soon to be cheaper, faster, better, more efficient, quieter, less demanding, and fresher smelling than humans. I personally prefer the more blunt appraisal.

Society is Technology is Society

Participants at “social news site” Digg.com are quick to digg and even quicker to criticize. A first time submitter learned the hard way that the link he/she/other had submitted was to an article that was over three years old. “November 18, 2002[.] A little outdated, don’t you think?” responded one fellow digger. “Certainly outdated when the primary focus here is technology!” Another wrote “Congratulation on your first dig[sic], it was only 3 years late!”

Though not likely to admit it, every person who submits a story on the “social news site” Digg.com does so as much for recognition by their peers as for any real interest in the relevant topics. Screwing up by that community’s standards results in a quick lesson in social editing, tagging, and bookmarking, a lesson that will not likely be forgotten. The process is not 100 percent efficient; the submission mentioned above still ended up on the site’s fabled front page, dugg by hundreds of reviewers who also probably missed the published date of the article. Still, the fact that at the very heart of the social aspects of the latest Internet boom is, of all things, peer pressure, tells us something very important: society is technology, technology is society.

This might be obvious to some, but it is an idea generally shunned by the rest, the same majority that refuses to accept the parallels between biological and digital processes that continue to vastly acceleration progress in both biology and computing. Sites like Digg.com reveal humans in union with their computers, improving their pattern-recognition abilities via online social interactions, becoming data mining agents, Amazon’s own “artificial artificial intelligence,” in an ever expanding database of information.

This was rarely predicted in previous visions of the future. Cyberpunk came close but missed with its cyborg antiheroes witnessing the birth of alien artificial intelligences somehow removed from the human condition. Singularitarian visions have come the closest (Vinge’s “zipheads” come to mind – see previous blog entry) but often mistake the parallels between biology and computing and society and technology as transcendence rather than self-organization following physical laws in a complex material universe.

And Web 2.0 proponents who focus on the social aspects of the trend miss that this is only a way station where we will rapidly learn from the tedium of reprogramming and plugging ourselves into dumb technology how to create vastly more efficient true artificial intelligences. These AI will not be truly alien nor wholly human, neither gods nor mortals, never transcendent and not supernatural, but physical and complex, part parent and part child, like clouds and complex weather patterns self-organizing from water droplets and dust.