They arrived on a hot and sunny morning, within 30 minutes from each other. First, the Hollywood film crew and then, The Scientists.
One a geologist formerly involved with the Magellan mission at JPL, now turned full-time explorer and visiting from Thailand. The other an Astrophysicist working at Esri. Greg and Eric were old friends from college and now they joined us for some alpine skiing on University Peak and a crash course in geology, destination Mars.
A bit of a chaotic breakfast kicked off the experience. Cactus picked nearby and precious Porcini found last fall burned helpless in the toxic flames of a teflon pan placed on an open campfire after the gas grill had failed. It was an unfortunate, but fitting start somehow.
The guys tied up their hammocks and we went rock hunting.
As climbers, we’d look for routes. Doing physics and math, we’d see fractals. Budding geologists, we now looked for bands shifting color in the mountains ahead. Immediately, differences became apparent. “Is there life in this?” asked the scientist. “Can I eat it?” the explorer wanted to know.
The Big Bang Theory
The weekend proceeded like a real-life episode of The Big Bang Theory. Eric flew a drone over sulfur hot springs, cooked food in solar tubes and tested rocks with a Kickstarter portable spectrometer.
Talks went something like this:
What sort of rock is that? And the green one? How far below us is hot magma flowing right now? (Turned out we reside on a former, but still active supervolcano). After a general geology intro, we got bolder.
Could there be Uranium and other radioactives on Mars? What about bacteria, maybe present also in Venus clouds? (Taking antibiotic research to a whole new level; sometimes the best solution to a problem is a bigger problem.)
What if we could overcome the Sun’s pull and land on nearby Mercury? Lacking an isolating atmosphere, the planet is actually very cold when faced away from the star. Possibly it used to be much larger and then was hit by something; either way Mercury’s core is unusually large, almost touching the crust through a thin mantle. What heavy elements would we find there?
Geologically speaking, some of the small, terrestrial planets are considered dead already. Once flowing, their magma has simply cooled and stopped. This means no more active volcanoes or moving of plates creating new lands and building new mountains. Lack of gases kills the atmosphere and with it gentle weather to stir the pot.
Mercury is one of the dead. Mars could be another. There are hypotheses about the red planet having some geology left but nobody really knows.
What the heck is metallic hydrogen?
We continued planning our expedition route. Which planets have a magnetosphere? Not only does it shield from radiation, the auroras should be spectacular. Could we fuel up liquid hydrogen on Jupiter? Metallic hydrogen by the way, what the heck is that? Oh, and could we ski down the sandy slopes on Olympus Mons? Imagine that in the low gravity of Mars.
Back in camp we tested our bounty with a tiny near infrared meter hooked up to a smartphone. A Kickstarter project catching some flak, SCiO worked well for our purposes: Quick scan of a rock and the verdict was in. Only caveat was when Greg tested his beer bottle: “Granite” the instrument insisted.
Dusk fell and the film crew took off for LA. We kicked it up. We’d talk Space, science, and engineering but also politics and philosophy. Time passed and we dared to venture into even the most treacherous grounds: God, Donald Trump, and global warming.
Below Orion and a full moon rising, we’d find many common points and agree to disagree on the rest. Darkness fell and we moved inside, the Astronomer playing a portable piano hooked up to a battery in our Alfa trailer.
Sunday night, after all had left, we sat by the fire and wrapped it up.
The Great Chain of Being
The Great Chain of Being is a train of thought first identified by Plato. For 2400 years it was the most influential way of understanding the Universe. Despite their limited knowledge and tools, ancient philosophers had a surprising understanding of such things. By heart, as if programmed into them by a divine force.
The Great Chain of Being teaches that the Universe is a rational place, in which all organism are linked in a great chain, not on one scale of low to high. Plato said there are no hierarchies in that sense. A mouse is just as good as a human, simply because the mouse is perfectly adapted to be a mouse.
In that same string, the academic and the explorer are each perfect for their assigned role. And yet, when it comes to Space exploration, despite unlocking every corner of our own planet, explorers have been strangely missing at the table. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t reached very far. Now that we are here, this is our take:
Courage. We have the technology.
Discovery of the Amazon rainforest flooded the old world with new medicines. Plants thriving in exotic environments became base for the majority of our drugs whose derivates we still use today. For comparison, Saturn’s moon Titan appears teeming with organic matter and DNA building blocks.
Foreign bacteria and new compounds could spell danger, but also life extension and cancer cure.
The age of exploration led to new science, new technology, new arts, new music, new food, new ideas. New frontiers change everything for the better, including us.
Using nuclear elements from Mars to travel even further, we would soon outrun old planet Earth. There in the far distance, it would still be deciding what is a safe amount to power the next space robot while we, atmosphere skipping across the Jovian planets, may well stumble on elements in new combinations unlocking knowledge for travel to other stars.
Refusing to view our Universe as a hostile place, where others see darkness and danger we sense not one, but many new worlds. It’s a promise of immense treasures and more, still unimaginable.
Goodbye Independence Creek
Packing up camp, I took a last stroll by the creek.
Its banks thick with wild mint, in the sparkling stream golden trout, tasting a few moments of freedom before fishermen got to them, at times this had been our only shower.
I’d find a sunny patch and wash in the mineral-rich water brought to me straight from Sierra’s mountaintops.
Burning all bridges for an impossible dream a couple of springs ago, we first pitched our tents at this very spot. Flowering Wisteria perfumed the air and distant church bells tolled while we wrestled winds and clung to hope.They were the worst of times, and the best of times.
Proving once more the old adage, that man has nothing to fear, but fear alone.
(Extra: Check the video of this song.)
A private manned mission to Mars; PythomSpace is developed in the spirit of early Earth and Space exploration style (light, fast and low cost). Using edge technology, takeoff is planned within years, rather than decades.
The astronomer chef. New ideas often come from inventors turning disadvantage to advantage. Eric's oven originated from Solar thermal collectors, boiling water by reflective solar panels.
The cave experiment. Immediately we began to solve problems: Could we pressurize for a sleeveless environment? How? Wrap in plastic? How to bring in light? Possible thermal heat from the underground? On Mars, we may live in lava tunnels to shield from elements. At the forefront of humankind, we'll shelter just like the very first ancients.
Already in our first Skype meet last fall, Greg in Thailand and us in Los Angeles, we said one day we'd go alpine skiing in the Sierra Nevada together. Last weekend, we did.