Genesis mission to the sun: Did it confirm the nebular theory of formation of the solar system?

The Genesis spacecraft mission, launched in August 2001 by NASA, was designed to observe the solar wind, particles coming from the sun, entrap a sample of those particles on substrates and safely return them to Earth. The spacecraft travelled to a point about 1.5 million kilometers (or about 1 million miles) from Earth called Lagrange point, L1, where the gravitational force of the earth is matched by that of the sun. At this location the Genesis spacecraft was well outside of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic environment, allowing it to collect a ‘pristine’ sample of the solar wind. Genesis’ overall flight path resembled a series of loops (Fig. 1): first it circled five times around L1, called Halo orbit, where it remained for 850 days, then it moved back for a short loop around the opposite Lagrange point, L2, in order to position the spacecraft for a daylight return to Earth.

Figure 1: Genesis spacecraft mission trajectory. Credit: NASA/JPL

On board the spacecraft, ions from the solar-wind impacted the collectors at speeds over 200 km/sec and buried themselves in specially-selected materials. These samples were sealed in enclosures for their safe return to Earth in a sample-return capsule (SRC). Then during the return-to-Earth stage something went horribly wrong. On NASA’s Genesis Search for Origins website it is described as follows.1

On 8 September 2004 the SRC entered Earth’s atmosphere as planned, but its gravity switches were oriented incorrectly as the result of a design error and the parachute system failed to deploy. The high-speed wreck compromised the SRC and shattered many of the Genesis collectors.

The samples were scattered and shattered. But all was not lost it seemed.

However, the Genesis Preliminary Examination Team was able to show that, because the solar-wind ions were buried beneath the surface of the collectors, it is possible to detect and quantify elements in the solar-wind.1

Composition of original solar nebula

Thus in March 2005, Johnson Space Center curatorial staff started allocating solar-wind collectors to the international scientific community to see what could be determined from those samples. The purpose was to glean information on the composition of the solar wind, and hence to determine the chemical and isotopic composition of the original solar nebula which it is alleged formed our solar system. See Fig. 2. Continue reading

Why search for life in outer space?

dawn-at-ceres

Figure 1: A gamma ray and neutron detector on board Dawn was used to determine the elements in the subsurface of the dwarf planet. It found water on the dwarf planet Ceres, located in the asteroid belt between Earth and Mars. Ceres. Credit: LA Times

In a recent LA Times news item it was reported that NASA’s Dawn spacecraft mission found life’s building blocks on the dwarf planet Ceres.1  However, the reality is that all that was found are possibly some biochemical molecules, molecules that are pre-cursor molecules to form the more complex chemistry in living cells.

Organic molecules are carbon based molecules and the chemistry of life is a special subset of those but from the spacecraft data no biochemical molecules were identified.  Those would be molecules like carbohydrates, lipids, proteins and nucleic acids.

The news item reports that this new spacecraft

… using its Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer instrument, … has spotted organics lying on the surface.1

That is the only real fact in the report, that organic molecules of some sort have been found on Ceres.

While the scientists aren’t sure exactly what the compounds are, the fingerprint is characteristic of material containing carbon-hydrogen bonds, and may include components like methyl and methylene.(emphasis added)

But they don’t even know what the molecules are, and the research is hyped up in hope that scientists may find life–even just microbes–living on worlds other than our own.

We can now add this dwarf planet Ceres to other ‘space rocks’ that have been so hyped in the past few years in the quest to find life out there in the solar system. Examples are Mars,2 Enceladus (the sixth-largest moon of Saturn),3 Titan (the largest moon of Saturn),4,5 Europa (one of the 4 Galilean moons of Jupiter),6 and the asteroids.7 Continue reading

The movie “Arrival”

arrivalposterRecently I watched the 2016 movie “Arrival“. It depicts the story of the arrival, at twelve separate locations around the earth, of twelve mysterious spacecraft. The key character, a linguistics professor, Louise Banks is seconded by the military to interpret the language of alien visitors.

The movie is based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (1998).1 It was directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve and stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.

Here is the trailer from Paramount Pictures:

The 7-foot tall aliens, heptapods,2 which look something like octopuses with 7 tentacles and a human hand, are depicted as enormously technologically advanced on humans. Their 7 tentacles each have 7 tendrils, out of the centre of which they eject an ink-like substance. Remember octopuses produce a black ink like substance. (And you might ask why all the 7’s. It’s science fiction after all.)

Alien language and perception of time

These alien heptapods use a vocal communication that is unpronounceable by humans (classified as Heptapod A), but, as professor Banks discovers, they also have a written script (Heptapod B), which can be dissected and interpreted. But strangely enough the vocal and writing components are unrelated, in the sense that Heptapod B does not represent sound. Heptapod B is written with the ink-like substance they eject from their tendrils and they are able to manipulate it in space to form the characters of Heptapod B.

We are told that a deep understanding of their language can induce a non-linear perception of time in those who learn it. This idea is where it really gets crazy.arrival_2016_heptapod_and_doctor

The story introduces the concept of when one learns a new language, one also learns to think the same way that the producers of that language think–the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis–because one’s brain is rewired to think that way.

Then, with this new perception of time, time-like loops are introduced (really time paradoxes) where, because the professor experiences (in her thoughts or perception) the future, she gets knowledge (of future events) that she then uses to determine the future events she perceives.

The concept here of our perception of time does have some basis in real physics. It is still an open question of why do we remember the past and not the future. That might sound strange to some but most of the laws of physics are time reversible. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, where entropy never decreases in a closed system, but generally increases, is an exception and the primary reason we always perceive the forward arrow of time.

However, for particle physics (including electromagnetism) there is no preference to which way time flows. Physicists call this a symmetry. And in this movie this is highlighted by the name, Hannah, of the yet to be conceived daughter of Prof. Banks, about whom she experiences future memories. The word “HannaH” is a palindrome–a sequence of letters or characters that can be read either forward or backward and produce the same word.

arrival-movie-symbolsHeptapod B is written in a circular way and is palindromic. At least that is what I understood it was intended to be. Looking at one of the alien sentences (on the right) it does not seem to have reversible symmetry, in the structures that form their words (spiky bits that stick out), though, of course, a circle is not linear in one sense as it is represented on a plane.

Of course, this story is just that, a story and total fiction. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining one.  Continue reading