A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

Whale bones on Europa

I know, I know.  We have all been instructed by Arthur C. Clarke to attempt no landings on Europa. But if you did land on Europa, wouldn’t you like to know where to go? If you do, my graduate student, Patrick Fischer, has a paper coming out that you probably want to read.

First, perhaps, it might be best to understand why anyone would want to land on Europa at all. Europa – the second of Jupiter’s four large satellites – is clearly a special place. Ever since the time of the Galileo spacecraft nearly 2 decades ago, we have recognized that Europa’s fresh icy surface, covered with cracks and ridges and transform faults, is the external signature of a vast internal salty ocean. If, on a whim, you climbed down a crack on the surface of Europa and made your way down into the ocean (which, interestingly, might be something you actually could do; though it is more likely you would get stuck and squeezed to death; hard to tell) and then you figured out how to swim down to the rocky bottom something like 100 km below the base of the ice (a depth 10 times greater than the Marianas Trench, by the way) you would instantly be able to answer what to me is one of the most interesting mysteries about Europa. What is happening at the boundary of the rocky core and the ocean? The answer has profound effects on the type of world that Europa ultimately is.

What might be happening down there? The least interesting possibility is that the bottom of the ocean is a stagnant, inactive place: water on top; rock on bottom; a little dissolution of the rock into the water in between, but, otherwise, with not much going on.  A world like this wouldn’t have much of a source of chemical energy in the ocean, and it’s hard to imagine it could support even the most elementary types of life. If you had taken all of that effort to swim all the way to this cold dark dead ocean bottom, you might start to ask yourself whether or not it was even worth it. The most interesting possibility – at least the most interesting possibility that I can think of – is that the rocky bottom of the ocean is almost like a miniature Earth, with plate tectonics, continents, deep trenches, and active spreading centers. Think about mid-ocean ridges on Earth, with their black smokers belching scalding nutrient-rich waters into a sea floor teaming with life that is surviving on these chemicals.  It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture the same sort of rich chemical soup in Europa’s ocean leading to the evolution of some sort of life, living off of the internal energy generated inside of Europa’s core. If you’re looking for Europa’s whales – which many of my friends and I often joke that we are – this is the world you want to look for them on.

Sadly, this is not Europa

Sadly, no one is going to climb down through a crack and then swim to the bottom of Europa’s ocean for a long long time, so this is where landing on the surface comes in. If the chemicals that are dissolved inside of the ocean could somehow make it to the surface, we could learn a lot about what is going on deep inside of Europa just by analyzing a little a sample of the surface.
OK,then, let’s go land! But where? You probably only get one shot at a lander, and you probably don’t get to move once you land, so you had better pick the right spot. The announcement a couple of years ago, that plumes of water jetting from Europa’s south pole had been discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope, seemed to have answered the question: land at the pole, and wait for plumes to rain down upon you (or, perhaps even more easily, fly through the plumes and collect samples without even landing!). The bad news, however, is that the plumes now appear to be elusive at best and non-existent at worst. Since their initial detection no one has been able to see them again. Are they (very) sporadic? Was the initial detection an unfortunate spurious signal that was misinterpreted? No one yet knows, but no one today is going to count on plumes for measuring the chemical composition of the ocean.

Luckily, our new paper shows that we don’t need plumes to sample the interior, and we even conveniently point out a potential landing area that is large enough to easily target with your favorite lander.

First, how do you find a landing site? What we are actually doing is simply mapping the composition of the ices across the surface of Europa. Such mapping has been going since the time of the Galileo mission, but with modern telescopic instruments and high spatial resolution adaptive optics systems on large telescope on Earth, we can do a better job of making global scale maps than the Galileo spacecraft ever could. In the earlier Galileo mapping efforts and in our own early analyses of our own data, we concentrated mainly on dividing the surface of Europa into an ice component and a non-ice component and then trying to figure out what the non-ice component was. Like the earlier Galileo analyses, we found that the dominant non-ice component is sulfuric acid that is created when sulfur (ultimately derived from volcanoes on Io!) bombards the water ice on the surface of Europa. We also found, though, that some of the non-ice material was magnesium sulfate – Epsom salts, in fact – which we suggested indicated a magnesium source coming from inside of Europa’s ocean that then mixes with the incoming sulfur.

Patrick Fischer, in his new analysis, decided to take these ideas one step further. He wanted to know if there is anything else on the surface of Europa besides just the water ice and the sulfur products. To do so, he took the spectra of nearly 1600 separate spots on the surface of Europa and started looking for anything unusual that stood out. The answer was…… maybe. Staring at that many spectra you’re bound to find something to catch your eye. He needed a more rigorous method to group the spectra together, and eventually he developed a very clever new mathematical tool which allows you to take an arbitrary collection of spectra and automatically, with no preconceived human biases, classify them into an arbitrary number of distinct spectra, and present maps of where those materials are present on the surface. When he asked the tool to give him to find the two most distinct spectra on the surface of Europa, he reproduced the ice plus sulfur products distributions that had been known for decades. When he asked for a third distinct spectrum, though, a large region on the surface of Europa suddenly popped out as being composed of material unlike the ice or sulfur products of the previous map.  Staring back and forth between the composition map he had just made and a geological map of the surface of Europa, he was startled to realize that he had nearly precisely mapped out one of the largest regions of what is called “chaos terrain” on Europa.

Mapping the composition of the surface of Europa has shown that a few large areas have large concentrations of what are thought to be salts. These salts are systematically located in the recently resurfaced "chaos regions," which are outlined in black. One such region, named Western Powys Regio, has the highest concentration of these materials presumably derived from the internal ocean, and would make an ideal landing location for a Europa surface probe

On Europa, "chaos terrains" are regions where the icy surface appears to have been broken apart , moved around, and frozen back together. Observations by Caltech graduate student Patrick Fischer and colleagues show that these regions have a composition distinct from the rest of the surface which seems to reflect the composition of the vast ocean under the crust of Europa.

Chaos terrain was noticed early on in the Galileo mission as regions which look like the surface of Europa has become cracked and jumbled and – intriguingly – perhaps even melted in recent times. If you had to vote for a location on Europa where ocean water had recently melted through and dumped its chemicals on the surface, you would vote for chaos terrain. And now Patrick had found that on large regional scales chaos terrain has a different composition than the rest of the surface of Europa!
And what do the spectra tell us that the unique composition of this chaos terrain is? Sadly, we can’t yet tell. To date, we have not found unique compositional indicators in the spectra of this region, though our search is ongoing. Our best bet, though is that we are looking at salts left over after a large amount of ocean water flowed out on to the surface and then evaporated away. The best analogy would be to large salt flats in desert regions of the world. Just like these salt flats, the chemical composition of the salt reflects whatever materials were dissolved in the water before it evaporated. On the Earth, salt flats can contain any number of exotic salts, depending on the surrounding rock chemistry. On Europa, the salts will tell about the rock chemistry, too, though the rock is the material far below at the base of the ocean.

We think, then, that we have found a giant salty patch on the surface of Europa, and very likely the region of most recent resurfacing and undisturbed chemistry. I have tried very hard to get Patrick to call this salty patch Margaritaville, but he does not think that graduate students are quite established enough to make jokes like that. I’ll make it for him, though. And I will tell you: attempt a landing there! Margaritaville will not only have salts that tell you about the rock-ocean interaction, but it will also have samples of everything else that the ocean has to offer. Is there organic chemistry taking place in the oceans? Look in Margaritaville. Carbonates? Margaritaville. Microbes? Definitely Margaritaville. All of these are best searched for with the types of instruments currently roving around on Mars, where you grab a sample, put it into a machine, and read back out the chemical composition. But don’t forget to bring the cameras along, too, just to see what else is lying around.  The jumbled and exotic icy terrain is bound to be a spectacular site up close. You might get lucky and see a plume shooting off into the sky in the distance. And maybe, just maybe you’ll even find a few whale bones lying around.

Ten years of Eris

Ten years ago today I came in to the same office I’m in at this moment, sat down in the same chair I am sitting in now, probably stared out the window at the clear blue sky much like I’m doing right now. It’s even likely that I drank coffee out of the very cup I’m drinking out of. Other than that, though, nothing was the same. Just a week earlier, on Dec 28th 2004, I had discovered the second brightest object that we had ever seen in the Kuiper belt (the brightest, of course, being Pluto). We didn’t yet know how big it was so my mind kept spinning with possibilities. Maybe it had a dark comet like surface and so to be so bright it had to be really big! Maybe as big as Pluto! Maybe bigger! (The object, now called Haumea, is now known to be about a third of the mass of Pluto and one of the strangest objects in the outer solar system).

Perhaps even more exciting, I had discovered the object while re-processing old images that I had taken a few years back. There was another year’s worth of images to re-process. Maybe there would be more!

To the Moon, Five Years Later

I first published this five years ago today. It's all still true. -- MEB

My father was a rocket scientist. Well, OK, not precisely. More specifically he was a rocket engineer. Or, more precisely still, he was an engineer who worked on the computers that went into space and navigated the rockets. He worked on the Saturn V that lifted Apollo astronauts toward the moon, he worked on the Lunar Module, which touched down on the moon, he worked on the Lunar Rover, which drove astronauts around on the moon. All of this before he was 30 years old.

I never remember him talking about it at all, talking about what it was like to send men to the moon, to be involved in such a tremendous adventure, but, ten years ago, in the little farming town on the edge of the Mississippi River where he grew up, I had a conversation with one of his friends from those days, and he told me that they all felt like they had lived in a magical time. After the Apollo missions ended, they all later worked on the Space Station and more mundane things like the ticket-taker on the BART trains that I used to take when I was a graduate student living on the San Francisco Bay. But nothing in their lives was ever quite like a being a bunch of thirty-year-old kids living in northern Alabama having the blind optimism to think that if there was a rocket being built they knew enough to put the computers together to make those rockets bring people to the moon. And back. And then actually doing it.

Snow balls in space

It didn’t snow much in northern Alabama where I grew up, so, when I went to college further north, I was at a serious disadvantage when the first blizzard came through and everyone streamed out of the dorms to engage in an all night snowball fight. After my first rounds of fusillades ended up splintering to little wispy bits in midair I quickly got the hang of compaction, looking for wetter snow, and doing what I could to increase the density of the snowballs. I broke a window, confessed, and escaped punishment with the lame but true excuse that I had no idea snowballs could break windows. Friends with more snowball experience and more delinquent childhoods told me about burying a stone or two inside of the snowball to increase its destructive power.  

These look too fluffy to me. I don't think they'd survive flight.

I don’t get much snow in southern California, but I do spend a lot of my time thinking about those early snowball experiences and about the snowball fights that have made the objects of the outer solar system.

Summer project: Build a radio telescope at home

When we moved into our house more than 7 years ago now the old owners left their Dish Network satellite TV dish attached to the roof. A few months later we got a sternly worded letter from the Disk Network demanding that we send them the dish back. With my detailed knowledge of the intricacies of the American legal system my obvious response was: come and get it. Which would have been fine with me. But, actually, that was not even my response, my response was to throw the letter in the trash while thinking in my head "come and get it."

Seven year later the dish was still on the side of the house. Luckily it is on the side that I never really see, so I didn't worry about it, but every now and then I thought to myself: "I should at least go up and take down that eyesore." But I never did. Until now.

I occurred to me a while ago that a parabolic dish like that would make a fine radio telescope (OK, it will end up a microwave telescope, but we'll get into the details later).

I'm not a radio astronomer or an electrical engineer or a Ham radio guy or any of that stuff, so I really had no idea what I was talking about, but it seemed a fun project for Lilah and I to play around with for the summer and for both of us to learn a little bit about microwaves. The caveat, though, is that my electronic explanations might not be exactly right. And I might break things.

We started last week. Step 1: remove the dish from the roof and see what was there. I had to snip the coax cables that went into the house and then undo five big screws and then everything just came unceremoniously down. The main issue was figuring out how to hold the wrench, dish, and ladder at the same time without falling. Luckily I survived this crucial part. Lilah stayed far enough away to avoid getting a dish on her head but to be able to both take pictures of me and make fun of me each time I dropped something and had to go pick it up.

The dwarf planet that gets no respect

Quick: name the three largest known objects in the Kuiper belt. If you’ve been paying close attention you will instantly get Eris and Pluto, and, if pressed, you will admit that no one knows which one is bigger. And the third? An unscientific poll of people who should know the answer (my daughter, my wife, my nephew) reveals that not a single one does.

The answer, of course, is Makemake (you remember how to pronounce this, right? Mah-kay-mah-kay, Polynesian style).  Makemake was discovered just months after the discoveries of Eris and of Haumea, and all were announced within days of each other. Eris and Haumea had important stories immediately attached to them (Eris was as big as Pluto! Haumea had suspicious discovery circumstances!), so poor Makemake stayed in the shadow of its more famous contemporaries. It was so overlooked that, in the hastily called press conference in which we announced the discoveries, I couldn’t even remember the official designation of Makemake when asked (it was 2005 FY9, of course; how could I have forgotten that?).


Sometimes I like to write about things in the sky that I've been studying. Sometimes I like to write about scientific discoveries in the outer solar system. Sometimes I even write about wild speculations I have about the solar system. But, every once in a while, I get to just sit back and watch the sky go by.

I love comets. When I first started graduate school to get my Ph.D. in astronomy, I wanted to study the most distant galaxies in the world. But my Ph.D. advisor really wanted me to start by doing a project studying a comet (actually, he wanted all  of his graduate students to start with comets, because no one stuck with them; they jumped to galaxies as fast as they could). I fell in love with comets. Mostly, I think, I fell in love with the fact that you could use huge telescope to study things in the sky that you could actually see with your eyes or with binocular or with a camera. Things that were real. 

So I was pretty excited  about the prospect of Comet Panstarrs close to the tiny tiny crescent moon tonight. We have a great western horizon from my house and I was pretty sure we would have good views. Scientifically, I have nothing at stake. I'm not involved in any attempts to look at the comet with telescopes big or small, on the ground or in space. I just wanted to see it.

So I waited.

The tiny crescent moon was going to be easier to see, so up and down, back and forth, with binoculars I searched. THERE! It was, 25 minutes after sunset, higher than I thought. This was good news. It would be a good ~30 minutes before the comet set. Long enough that even my daughter Lilah would be able to see it.

(Lilah uses a placemat every day that has astronomy pictures [including, yes, Planet Pluto. It was a present. Really] on it, including comets. She is really really excited about seeing one in real life).

I had set out the camera and tripod earlier, and started taking long exposures, hoping to capture the comet. I kept seeing something. Maybe. To the left. Where I knew it should. Be. But? Well? I dunno.

Until, finally, jackpot:

See it? Barely? Something like 6 lunar diameters to the left of the moon?

Sea salt (part 3)

[You should probably start with Part 1]

The first thing that you notice when you look at a spectrum of Europa -- from the Earth, from a spacecraft, it doesn’t really matter – is the ice. Ice is everywhere. The spectrum of ice is a very distinctive looking thing, with a quickly recognizable pattern of regions where the sunlight reflects strongly from the surface and regions where there is less reflectance (and remember the regions here means spectral regions, which means, essentially, we stare at one small spot on the surface, put the light through a prism to spread it all out, and see which colors of the rainbow are present and which are absent. In our case our rainbow is in infrared light that your eye can’t see, but the idea is still the same).

Sea Salt (part 2)

[don’t miss part 1] 

One of the biggest problems with trying to figure out what is on the surface of Europa was that the spectrograph on the Galileo spacecraft didn’t have a very fine view of the reflected light coming off the surface. The analogy I used in Part 1 was that Galileo was looking at fingerprints where you could only discern the rough pattern and not the individual ridges. You couldn’t use those fingerprints to know for sure who had smudged your crystal, though you might be able to rule out some people and you might become more suspicious of others.

There are two main reasons that the views from Galileo were not as fine as we would like. First Galileo was old when it arrived at Jupiter. Serious work began on the spacecraft in 1977, and with typical delays and atypical space shuttle accidents, it was finally launched, via a space shuttle, in 1989. Even the trip to Jupiter took longer than initially planned -- the shuttle accident spawned new rules which required the use of a less powerful rocket to launch Galileo from the orbiting shuttle -- so Galileo could not go directly to Jupiter but instead had to get gravity sligshots off of Venus and Earth before finally heading towards Jupiter and arriving in 1995, nearly twenty years after construction began. It was old on the first day it took data at Jupiter. (It was intentionally crashed into Jupiter in 2002 to prevent, among other things, an accidental crash into Europa, which would clearly disturb the whales).  Not surprisingly, the old technology was not as good as current technology in seeing precise spectral fingerprints.

Sea Salt (part 1)

Ever wonder what it would taste like if you could lick the icy surface of Jupiter’s Europa? The answer may be that it would taste a lot like that last mouthful of water that you accidentally drank when you were swimming at the beach on your last vacation. Just don’t take too long of a taste. At nearly 300 degrees (F) below zero your tongue will stick fast.

The composition of the surface of Europa has been hotly debated since the Galileo mission attempted to make detailed measurements more than a decade ago. Galileo’s tool for measuring the composition was spectroscopy – looking at the sunlight that reflects off of the surface of Europa and seeing which molecules leave characteristic fingerprints in that reflected sunlight. It’s a powerful technique, one that led to the initial discovery of water ice on the Galilean satellite, the discovery of frozen methane on distant bodies like Eris and Pluto and Makemake, and is even used on the Earth to map out mineral deposits for potential exploitation.