Life’s Nice With Liquid, Gas And Ice

A series of remarkable bell-shaped icicles line the underside of an ice shelf over the Brule River this weekend. They were created by a combination of water dripping from the shelf and river water flow. Photo: Bob King

Mud turned to ice under our feet last night as the temperature dropped to 20 F. I spoke before a group of naturalists at the Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center north of Duluth. After the talk we walked outside and set up a telescope in a parking lot for a tour the spring sky. Our shoes sank in the soft ground at first, but by session’s end, the puddles had solidified into icy patches. We soon were sliding to the telescope as each took their turn at the eyepiece.

Water vapor is carried around the globe by weather systems. This satellite image shows the distribution of water vapor over Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. White areas have high concentrations of water vapor, while dark regions are relatively dry. Credit and copyright: Eumetsat

In only an hour’s time, water went from fluid to solid literally beneath our feet. And don’t forget the vapor. Though invisible, it permeated the air around us.

Water is the most important chemical to life and can be found in all three of its states – solid, liquid and gas – simultaneously on Earth. Since life depends on water, ours is the most suitable world we know of where it can thrive.

Our group had a joyful time looking at Saturn, always a rave-getter, double stars, galaxies and little bit of everything in the universe.

I kept thinking about that water, though. How many planets around the thousands of stars we saw might be fortunate enough to have the H2O so necessary for life? With the number of known extrasolar planets now at 539 and counting, I’m confident we’ll find one like Earth within our lifetimes, another blue planet in the Goldilocks zone , where liquid water can set up shop, flow where it may and serve as a medium for an extraterrestrial evolution of life.

This image is the first ever obtained from a spacecraft in orbit about Mercury. The dominant rayed crater in at top is Debussy, named after the 20th century French composer. Mercury's south polar region is near the bottom. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins U. A. P. L./Carnegie Institution of Washington

Today the first images taken by the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury are being released. The approximately one-year mission will focus on a creating a detailed map of the entire planet in addition to studying its topography, crustal minerals, magnetic field and more.

Claude Debussy circa 1908

It gives me a little thrill that the first image sent back by the probe included the striking crater Debussy, named after Claude Debussy, one of my favorite composers. His atmospheric and impressionistic music stands in stark contrast to the rough-edged, cratered landscape of the solar system’s innermost planet.

According to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, craters on Mercury are named after deceased artists, musicians and authors who have been significant figures for more than 50 years. Mountains are named for the word “hot” in various languages and valleys for radio telescope facilities. To learn how other features of the moons and planets of the solar system get their names, click on over the Group’s planetary names page.

The crater near the bottom of the left hand image is a beautiful example of a relatively small, simple, fresh impact feature on Mercury. The image at right is striped by rays of material from another crater outside the frame. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins U. A. P. L./Carnegie Institution of Washington

Above are two additional images taken by MESSENGER from orbit released this afternoon. To see more, please click HERE.

1 Response

  1. Hi Bob – long time reader, first time commenter. What a great resource you listed for the IAU’s nomenclature! I had no idea there was an official naming system.

    And I just love that the MESSENGER data is finally coming in. We’re seeing history unfold!

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