Category Archives: Planetary Science

Interplanetary Copters!

The last decade has seen an incredible bloom in small autonomous and remote controlled helicopters, AKA drones. It isn’t far wrong to call them ubiquitous, and probably the characteristic technology of the 2010s. (Sorry Siri.)

It isn’t surprising, then that NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Admin.) has some ideas about what to do with robot helicopters.

This month it is confirmed that the next planned Mars rover will have a copter aboard [3].  (To date, this appears to be known as “The Mars Helicopter”, but surely it will need to be christened with some catchy moniker. “The Red Planet Baron”?  “The Martian Air Patrol”? “The Red Planet Express”?)

This won’t be a garden variety quad copter.  Mars in not Earth, and, in particular, Mars “air” is not Earth air. The atmosphere is thin, real thin, which means less lift.  On the other hand, gravity is less than on Earth. The design will feature larger rotors spinning much faster than Terra copters.

Operating on Mars will have to be autonomous, and the flying conditions could be really hairy. Martian air is not only thin, it is cold and dusty.  And the terrain is unknown.  The odds of operating without mishap are small. The first unexpected sand storm, and it may be curtains for the flyer.  Mean time to failure may be hours or less.

Limits of power and radios means that the first mission will be short range. Unfortunately, a 2 kilo UAV will probably only do visual inspections of the surface, albeit with an option for tight close ups.  Still it will extend the footprint of the rover by quite a bit, and potentially enable atmospheric sampling.

This isn’t the only extraterrestrial copter in the works.  If Mars has a cold, thin atmosphere, Saturn’s moon Titan may have methane lakes and weather, and possibly an ocean under the icy surface.   Titan also has a cold thick atmosphere, and really low gravity—favorable for helicopters!

Planning for a landing on this intriguing world is looking at a copter, called “Dragonfly” [1, 2]. The Dragonfly design is a bit larger, and is an octocopter. <<link>>  (It is noted that it should be able to continue to operate even if one or more rotors break.)  Dragonfly is also contemplated to have a nuclear power source—Titan is too far away for solar power to be a useful option.

Titan is a lot farther away than Mars, and communications will be difficult due to radiation and other interference.  The Dragonfly will have to be really, really autonomous.

Flying conditions on Titan are unknown, but theoretically could include clouds, rain, snow, storms, who knows.  The air is methane and hydrocarbons which could gum up the flyer. Honestly, mean time to failure could be zero—it may not be able to even take off.

Both these copters are significantly different from what you might buy at the hobby store or build in your local makerspace.  But prototypes can be flown on Earth, and the autonomous control algorithms are actually not that different from Earth bound UAVs. This is a good thing, because we have to program them here, before we actually send them off.

In fact, I think this is one of the advantages of small helicopters for this use. Flying is flying, once you adjust for pressure, density, etc. It’s probably not as tricky as driving on unknown terrain.  We should be able to design autonomous software that works OK on Mars and Titan.  (Says Bob, who doesn’t have to actually make it work.)

Finally, I’ll note that a mission to Titan should ideally include an autonomous submarine or better, a tunneling submarine, to explore the lakes and cracks. I’m sure this is under study, but I don’t know that it will be possible on the first landing.

  1. Evan Ackerman, How to Conquer Titan With a Nuclear Quad Octocopter, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.
  2. Dragonfly. Dragonfly Titan Rotorcraft Lander. 2017,
  3. Karen Northon, Mars Helicopter to Fly on NASA’s Next Red Planet Rover Mission, in NASA News Releases. 2018.


We must go to Titan! We must go to Europa!

Ice Worlds, Ho!

Robot Wednesday

The Water Plumes Of Europa

Europa is interesting.  Very interesting.

It is one of at least seven “ocean worlds” in our solar system.

Orbiting Jupiter, Europa is warped and headed by the tides generated by Jupiter’s gravitation. This means that there is an ocean of liquid water, possibly larger than all of Earth’s oceans.

This ocean is covered by ice. The ice shell has not been conclusively measured, but it seems to be thin (10s of KM), and full of cracks through which tides drive ligquid water to the surface.

This active, water rich geology appears to have all the prerequisites for life. Water, chemicals, energy, tidal action, gnarly geometry.  These are the signatures of fertile habitats on Earth.  Is there life under the ice?  I, for one, want to know.

To date, we have limited direct measurements of Europa.  Hubble and ground based telescopes have imaged it from afar. In the first wave of exploration, the Voyagers flew by, and the Gallileo probe obtained the best images so far of Europa, with old and only partly working technology [2].

It is obvious why Europa is a high priority for additional visits with much better instrumentation and eventually, landers.

In the mean time, we can pour over the data we have.

This month researchers report an analysis of data from the Galileo mission from 1997.  The data is measurements of the magnetosphere and plasma that the spacecraft encountered as it passed close to Europa (200 KM).  This data features a transient event, which was difficult to interpret.

The new study suggests that the measurements are related to Europa, and, in fact, represent traces of a volcanic plume of water spewed into space.

This study developed a detailed computational simulation of the plasma and ions near Europa.  Introducing a plume consistent with the telescope observations, and showed that the model closely aligns with the hitherto unexplained measurements from Galileo.  They conclude that the spacecraft did, in fact, fly through the traces of a plume of water from inside Europa.

In itself, this result isn’t too surprising.  It does support hypotheses that Europa not only has an ocean and an active icy crust, but like Enceladus, Titan, and other moons, is volcanically active.

Where there are volcanoes, there is the possibility of life as we know it.

We must go to Europa.

  1. Kenneth Chang, Europa, Jupiter’s Ocean Moon, May Shoot Plumes of Water Into Space, in The New York Times. 2018: New York.
  2. Richard J. Greenberg, \Unmasking Europa: the search for life on Jupiter’s ocean moon. 2008, Copernicus Books: New York.
  3. Xianzhe Jia, Margaret G. Kivelson, Krishan K. Khurana, and William S. Kurth, Evidence of a plume on Europa from Galileo magnetic and plasma wave signatures. Nature Astronomy, 2018/05/14 2018.


Jupiter Science from Juno Coming Out

The Juno spacecraft has been in orbit around Jupiter since July 2016, and will complete at least two more orbits under current funding (July, 2018).

One of the goals of the mission is to look in detail at the atmosphere of this gas giant.  From Earth, we can see the stripes, which are vast wind streams (in opposite directions ?!), and the Great Red Spot, the largest hurricane in the solar system. But what is going on under the cloud tops?

After more than a year of data collection, results are starting to come in.  Jonathan Fortney summarizes three new papers appearing this spring in Nature [2].  Fortney points out that Earth bound experiments and  theory have not been able to describe the complicated Hydrogen / Helium atmosphere below the surface we can see.

One study investigated the mass distribution of Jupiter by measuring the Doppler effects on the radio signals from the Juno spacecraft as it swooped past [4].  Fortney notes that this was a very finicky process, which had to account for tiny amounts of acceleration including the absorption and re-radiation of sunlight!  The researchers conclude that the bands we see extend quite deep into the atmosphere.

A second study extends this work to conclude that the strong winds decay slowly down some 3.000 kilometers [5].  I.e., the bands we see probably extend down some 3,000 kilometers into the atmosphere.

A third study finds that below that depth, the planet rotates as a solid [3]. At that depth, the pressure is such that the hydrogen ionizes and electromagnetic forces bind the material into a liquid. (This core is the source of the strong magnetic field.)  Obviously, there must be a very turbulent area at the boundary of these two regions, with huge bands of wind ripping East and West across an inner core.

These studies give a picture of a dense interior, with a deep atmosphere dominated by huge bands of strong winds.  An extremely stormy planet!

See swirling cloud formations in the northern area of Jupiter’s north temperate belt in this new view taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. The color-enhanced image was taken on Feb. 7 at 5:42 a.m. PST (8:42 a.m. EST), as Juno performed its eleventh close flyby of Jupiter. At the time the image was taken, the spacecraft was about 5,086 miles (8,186 kilometers) from the tops of the clouds of the planet at a latitude of 39.9 degrees. Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill processed this image using data from the JunoCam imager.

(Caveat:  these studies are based on the theory of gravitational harmonics which I don’t understand at all.)

Fortney suggests that Juno may be able to make further detailed observations of the Red Spot and other storms, which would be interesting details to have.  He also notes that data returned by the Cassini probe of Saturn should yield comparative measurements for the its less dense and probably deeper atmosphere.

Stay tuned. There is lots of other science coming.

The current funding ends in July, but the mission could continue for several more years if supported.

  1. Jonathan Amos, Jupiter’s winds run deep into the planet, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2018.
  2. Jonathan Fortney, A deeper look at Jupiter. Nature, 555:168-169, March 7 2018.
  3. T. Guillot, Y. Miguel, B. Militzer, W. B. Hubbard, Y. Kaspi, E. Galanti, H. Cao, R. Helled, S. M. Wahl, L. Iess, W. M. Folkner, D. J. Stevenson, J. I. Lunine, D. R. Reese, A. Biekman, M. Parisi, D. Durante, J. E. P. Connerney, S. M. Levin, and S. J. Bolton, A suppression of differential rotation in Jupiter’s deep interior. Nature, 555:227, 03/07/online 2018.
  4. L. Iess, W. M. Folkner, D. Durante, M. Parisi, Y. Kaspi, E. Galanti, T. Guillot, W. B. Hubbard, D. J. Stevenson, J. D. Anderson, D. R. Buccino, L. Gomez Casajus, A. Milani, R. Park, P. Racioppa, D. Serra, P. Tortora, M. Zannoni, H. Cao, R. Helled, J. I. Lunine, Y. Miguel, B. Militzer, S. Wahl, J. E. P. Connerney, S. M. Levin, and S. J. Bolton, Measurement of Jupiter’s asymmetric gravity field. Nature, 555:220, 03/07/online 2018.
  5. Y. Kaspi, E. Galanti, W. B. Hubbard, D. J. Stevenson, S. J. Bolton, L. Iess, T. Guillot, J. Bloxham, J. E. P. Connerney, H. Cao, D. Durante, W. M. Folkner, R. Helled, A. P. Ingersoll, S. M. Levin, J. I. Lunine, Y. Miguel, B. Militzer, M. Parisi, and S. M. Wahl, Jupiter’s atmospheric jet streams extend thousands of kilometres deep. Nature, 555:223, 03/07/online 2018.


Space Saturday


Dormant Microbes on Mars?

I’m as much of a geeky space enthusiast as the next nerd, and I still want to find evidence of life beyond Earth. I still think there is life out there, even though there is no sign yet.

But after decades of faithful geeking, I’ve gone rather off Mars.  It’s close by, it’s really similar to Earth. It had water on the surface ‘recently’, and likely has ice underground.  But we’ve been watching closely for more than a century, and there is still no evidence of life, or even that life once existed there. By now, if we do find something, it’s likely to be pretty small beer.

(Let’s go to Titan, Enceladus, and the other ice worlds—that’s where we’ll find the coolest stuff, IMO.)

The problem with Mars is that it is too cold, too airless, and way, way too dry.  Granted, it’s at the boundary of what Earth life could conceivably handle, and people are still exploring that boundary, in the hope that something might be hanging on the edge of the cliff.

This winter a team led from Technical University Berlin report a detailed study of one of the most “Martian” terrains on Earth, the Atacama desert in Chile [2].  Home to important telescope projects, the Atacama is high and dry and cold.  Not mush lives there except human scientists, who thrive under the cloudless and dark skies.

Any microbes that live in the Atacama must not only adapt to salty, cold, high UV environment, it is likely to go dormant for long dry periods, waking up when water is available. So, if there are microbes that are inactive most of the time, the fact that we haven’t seen much isn’t conclusive. The new study amassed an array of data that shows that there is a population of microbial life in the soil, even if we haven’t directly encountered them [2].

Much of the report documents just how ‘Martian’ the area is. Little water, lots of accumulated salts, high UV from unfiltered sunlight.  The areas inland get rain every decade or so (though there was a lucky rainstorm during the study period.)

It is important to note that one of the tricky things is to identify microbes that have dropped in from elsewhere from any that live permanently in the area. The study collected a number subsoil samples which are relatively isolated.

The study basically assayed the DNA found in the soils, comparing to profiles in other soils. They identified ‘live’ and ‘dead’ DNA. The former indicates living populations, the latter reflects living populations in the recent past. The reserchers also measured endospores, which are characteristic of dormant but potentially viable microbes.  Finally, the study measured a variety of metabolites, indicators of active life.

The overall results showed that, as would be expected, the biomass is considerably less in the more arid samples.  But even the driest samples showed evidence of episodic populations of microbes.

“our study shows that even the lowest precipitation levels on Earth can sustain episodic incidences of microbial activity.” (p.5)

This is a really neat bit of work.  This sort of multi-method, multi-measurement investigation is a very promising path toward understanding not only Atacama but many other environments.

Of course, this research was motivated by interest in the possible ecologies of Mars.  Sigh.

“The insights gained from the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert can serve as a working model for Mars, where environmental stresses are even harsher. If life ever evolved on Mars, the results presented here suggest that it could have endured the transition from the early aquatic stage, through increasing aridity cycles, and perhaps even found a subsurface niche beneath today’s severely hyperarid surface.”

Well, maybe.

But honestly, I don’t see that any current Earth environment is actually much of a model for current Mars.  There is no rain at all on Mars. There may be a few places underground that see water episodically, but we don’t know of anything.  Basically, the best case on Mars is akin to the worst case on Earth.  And, most important of all, on Earth there is a gigantic reservoir of life outside the Atacama that has colonized and continues to colonize the ‘worst case’ areas.  Martian life would have to make it on its own.

As the researchers say, Atacama might be a model for the first period of a dessicating Mars. If there once were microbial life, it might have survived in episodic colonies as the planet dried out.  But when the episodes become centuries or millennia apart, all bets are off.

Are there wet episodes on Mars today?  And if so, how often do they happen?  If the annual growth and melting ice caps are associated with a kind of underground ‘rainy seasons’, then maybe microbes could have adapted to live there. That would be interesting to find out—especially to learn if any such microbes are independent or related to life on Earth.

But I guarantee that they won’t resemble the Atacama very closely, because they have not been fed by billions of years of invasions from the hot, wet, lowlands of Earth.

  1. Jonathan Amos, Atacama’s lessons about life on Mars, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2018.
  2. Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Dirk Wagner, Samuel P. Kounaves, Kai Mangelsdorf, Kevin G. Devine, Jean-Pierre de Vera, Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, Hans-Peter Grossart, Victor Parro, Martin Kaupenjohann, Albert Galy, Beate Schneider, Alessandro Airo, Jan Frösler, Alfonso F. Davila, Felix L. Arens, Luis Cáceres, Francisco Solís Cornejo, Daniel Carrizo, Lewis Dartnell, Jocelyne DiRuggiero, Markus Flury, Lars Ganzert, Mark O. Gessner, Peter Grathwohl, Lisa Guan, Jacob Heinz, Matthias Hess, Frank Keppler, Deborah Maus, Christopher P. McKay, Rainer U. Meckenstock, Wren Montgomery, Elizabeth A. Oberlin, Alexander J. Probst, Johan S. Sáenz, Tobias Sattler, Janosch Schirmack, Mark A. Sephton, Michael Schloter, Jenny Uhl, Bernardita Valenzuela, Gisle Vestergaard, Lars Wörmer, and Pedro Zamorano, Transitory microbial habitat in the hyperarid Atacama Desert. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018.


PS.  Another good name for a band:

The Possible Ecologies of Mars

Life On Ocean Worlds

One of the great philosophical mysteries of our age is, in the words ascribed to Enrico Fermi (AKA, “the pope of physics”): “Where is Everybody?” [3]  (This is known as Fermi’s Paradox, though he didn’t originate it, nor is it really a ‘paradox’.  It’s still a Fermi-grade question, though.)

Humans have been watching the skies for millennia, and in the past century have looked ever wider and deeper into the universe, not to mention into physics and the biology. Everything we know indicates that there could very well be life and even technological civilizations everywhere in the vast universe.  But we have never seen evidence of life beyond Earth.

Where is everybody?

Coming up with answers to Fermi’s question is a great scientific parlor game.

In 2002, Stephen Webb describes 50 answers [2], and in his 2015 update he gives 75 (!) [3].  The “solutions” listed by Webb range from “they are already here”, through “they are so strange we don’t recognize that they are there”, as well as the possibility that life really is very, very rare.

Along the way, he points out many uncertainties in our estimates of how likely the development of life and “intelligent” life may be (e.g., we have only our own planet to extrapolate from), as well as unknowable hypotheses about the possible psychology or politics of putative non-human civilizations (e.g., just because we want to talk to everyone doesn’t mean anyone wants to talk to us).

There are also disturbing warnings that “civilizations” are likely to self-destruct before escaping their home planet, or, even worse, may be snuffed out in the nest by predators or catastrophes. (With this in mind, blasting our electromagnetic presence in all directions might not have been a healthy life style choice.)

Webb’s compendium of “solutions” is fun to read, but the game is hardly over.

At the 2017 Habitable Worlds workshop, S. Alan Stern proposes yet another solution to the Fermi Paradox: most life evolves in “interior water ocean worlds”, i.e., in oceans under thick ice covers [1].

most life, and most intelligent life in the universe inhabits interior water ocean worlds (WOWs) where their presence is cloaked by massive overlying burdens of rock or ice between their abode and the universe.

There are several such worlds in our own solar system, and at times in the past the Earth itself flirted with such conditions, covered over with a kilometer of ice.

Artist’s concept of Europa’s frozen surface. Credit: JPL-Caltech

Stern notes that these worlds appear to be highly conducive to the development of life.  The ice cap protects and stabilizes the ocean environment, providing a nest for fragile life to develop over long, evolutionary periods of time.  Thus, however likely life is to develop, ice worlds are prime candidates for successful evolution.

However, Stern also makes the interesting inference that life that evolved under a deep ice cap would have no direct view of the universe.  The protective shield overhead would also block out most evidence of other stars and planets. An emerging civilization under the ice would not know about the universe, at least until technology develops that detects (indirectly) the space above the ice.  Even then, intelligent beings might have difficulty imagining life that does not live under ice, so they might not think to look for signals from us or send signals we could detect.

Stern also argues that life adapted to an ice-covered ocean would find space travel difficult, at least compared to species adapted to the surface under a gaseous atmosphere. In addition to the technical challenge of penetrating many kilometers of rock hard ice, life-support would be necessary to support a dense, liquid environment.

He combines these arguments to answer the “Where is everybody?” question:  if much life develops in ice covered oceans, and any civilizations in such environments unlikely to know or care about the wider universe, then this explains why we haven’t heard from them.

This is an interesting idea to think about.  It is certainly useful to break out of the parochial idea that an Earthlike planet is the only or ideal locus for life or “civilization”.  In fact, we know that life on Earth has just barely survived at least five major extinction events, and an ice world might well be a safer crèche.

I’ll also note that his comment that life on such a planet “either cannot communicate or are simply not aware that other worlds exist” works both ways.  It is difficult for us to detect such inhabitants, and we haven’t be looking until recently.  In our own solar system, there are several ice worlds, but we still have no idea if they are inhabited or not.

On the other hand, several aspects of Stern’s argument are less convincing to me.

An ice-covered ocean world might be a favorable site for life to start, but it might also be a closed system that is quickly exhausted.  Experience on Earth certainly indicates that a closed “ark” will rapidly be overgrown, clogged, and die out.   It is likely that only some ice worlds will be sufficiently “active” or open enough for life to persist.  But who knows until we actually check.

I have to say that I find the arguments about the supposed psychology of native to ice worlds highly speculative, to say the least.  It is true that life on Earth can directly sense the solar system and wider universe, and there are plausible arguments that this knowledge has strongly influenced the development of what we call intelligence.  But it is very difficult to guess the implications of not having an open sky.

I also think that, should a technological civilization develop under an icecap, it will surely develop undertanding of the outside universe. They’ll surely learn about gravity, and when they learn to detect and manipulate electromagnetism, they’ll soon notice a lot of interesting stuff coming in through their icy roof.  For that matter, no matter how difficult space travel might be, wouldn’t they deploy robot explorers and harvesters on the outer side of the ice.  And from that perch, who would not look up and see other worlds?

In short, I’ll buy the idea that ice worlds are good places for life to develop, though they may not be great places to sustain life for billions of years.  But I reserve judgement on questions of how the lack of a sky might influence the development of “civilizations”.

In this article, Stern describes yet one more case for why there could be some extraterrestrial civilizations that we have not seen or heard.  But this clearly isn’t “the answer”. He joins the roster of all the dozens of other hypotheses (Indeed, Webb has a solution called “Cloudy Skies Are Common” ([3], p. 183), which probably subsumes Stern’s solution as a sub case.).

On the other hand, this thesis is yet more reason why icy ocean worlds are really interesting and really need to be explored..  There very well could be life under the ice, and we really should find out what we can.

We have several such worlds close at hand in our solar system that we could visit and actually see what is down under the ice. (EuropaEceladus!  Titan!)

Let’s go, already!

  1. S. Alan Stern, An Answer to Fermi’s Paradox in the Prevalence of Ocean Worlds?, in Habitable Worlds 2017: A System Science Workshop. 2017: Laramie, Wyoming.
  2. Stephen Webb, If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … WHERE IS EVERYBODY? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life, New York, Copernicus Books In Association With Praxis Pub, 2002.
  3. Stephen Webb, If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … WHERE IS EVERYBODY? Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life, New York, Springer, 2015.


Space Saturday

Revised Estimates on Methane Levels in The Atmosphere

As the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans warm up, theoretical models suggest that this is due to the effects of increased levels of various gasses, including CO2 and Methane (CH4).  But where are those gasses coming from, exactly?

In the case of Methane in the atmosphere, there are many sources, including human agriculture (livestock), fossil fuel use (oil, coal, gas), natural sources such as wetlands, as well as changes in chemical sinks that absorb Methane.  Uncertainties about the sources of Methane mean that projections of future growth are imprecise.

Global levels and isotopic composition of CH4 are measured by satellites, as are other atmospheric chemicals.  Satellites also measure vegetation growth on land and sea and large fires.  Wild fires release Methane and other gasses, so increases in the frequency or duration of fires is one possible source of increased Methane.

Puruseing an accurate assessment of this question, John R. Worden and colleagues report on efforts to improve the understanding of the total amount of biomass burning and the amount of Methane contributed [2], This is a complicated problem because fires are sporadic and irregular, and the effects are not necessarily easy to measure (e.g., to estimate how much and what kind of vegetation burned).

Their excellent study uses multiple data sources.

we combine bottom-up esti- mates of fire emissions, based on burnt area measurements, with the top-down CO emissions estimates…, based on the satellite concentration data” ([2], p. 2)

This is a very tricky bit of work, which has to take into consideration the details and error ranges of the different data sources it combines.

The overall results show that emissions from burning biomass were lower than previous estimates based on burned area. This brings the estimate into agreement with measures of atmospheric gasses. The finding that the atmospheric isotope studies accurately estimate emissions from burning biomass suggests that the increases in fossil fuel emissions from those same studies are accurate as well.

Overall, the study shows that the area of burned vegetation is not necessarily a good measure of the amount of emissions.  Combining multiple satellite datasets showed that the relationship is non-linear. This makes sense: all vegetation is not the same, nor are all fires equivalent.

It is also important to note that emissions from burning biomass are not themselves particularly large, and in fact are smaller than previous estimates.  The important thing is that this study makes the data from all sources more consistent with each other, increasing confidence in the accuracy of the data and the theoretical models.

Nice work.

  1. Adam Voiland. 2018. “What is Behind Rising Levels of Methane in the Atmosphere?” NASA Earrth Observatory, January 11.
  2. John R. Worden, A. Anthony Bloom, Sudhanshu Pandey, Zhe Jiang, Helen M. Worden, Thomas W. Walker, Sander Houweling, and Thomas Röckmann. 2017. “Reduced biomass burning emissions reconcile conflicting estimates of the post-2006 atmospheric methane budget.” Nature Communications 8 (1):2227. doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-02246-0


Space Saturday

Thirty Years of Space Archaeology

Over the sixty years of the Space Age, remote sensing from the air and space has developed into an amazing tool. Originally driven by military necessity, remote sensing from space has revolutionized Earth Science as well as planetary science in the whole solar system. There simply would be no arguments about climate change if not for terabytes of satellite data clearly and irrefutably showing world wide trends.

Airborne and satellite measurements have also begun to revolutionize archaeology. Remote sensing can see through jungle and sand, and cover thousands of kilometers with centimeter resolution. It not lonely helps find where to dig, it gives an essential bigger picture to understand what has been dug up.

For many modern archaeologists, remote sensing tools have become as valuable as carbon dating.

This summer Pola Lem discussed the history of space archaeology[1], Beginning with declassified images from spy satellites, imagery from the US Space Shuttle and now an ever growing fleet of Earth Observing satellites from many nations, archaeologists can explore areas of interest “from their desk” before rolling the dice on an expensive, dangerous, and time consuming excavation.

Lem recounts the 1985 observations of the Omani desert from the Space Shuttle. Based on historical guesswork, the radar imagery detected evidence to locate the ancient oasis and city of Ubar. This is the first recorded instances of space imagery being used specifically for archaeology.

Okay, let me get this straight: You want to use my spaceship to find your lost city?

Even more important is the development of LIDAR (light detection and ranging) deployed on aircraft and nowadays on UAVs. Lidar can generate extremely precise elevation maps which reveal buried structures or ancient landscapes. (Lidar is also one of the key technologies for intelligent and self-driving vehicles.) Lidar is especially useful for seeing through jungle foliage, and has led to discovery of vast new evidence about pre-Colombian Mesoamerica.

In a rather Karmic cycle, archaeology is threatened by the data they thrive upon. Space Archaeology was born from public release of declassified military secrets, and now many archaeologies try to keep their satellite imagery secret to protect the sites from looters. (This is unlikely to work for long—it is easy to get remote sensing data.) Archaeologists now seeks to use remote sensing to protect ancient sites from tourism and looting.

  1. Pola Lem, Peering through the Sands of Time: Searching for the Origins of Space Archaeology, in The Earth Observatory – Features. 2017, NASA.


Space Saturday