Category: Travel

One, Two, Three, Etc.

For Saturday June 9:        One, Two, Three, Etc. is an arts and craft company that offers Peruvian  jewelry, ornaments and accessories at local Craft Shows and Farmers’ Markets.

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Proprietor Maria is also a Dream Vacations travel agent.    Saturday, June 9 find the company at the Energy Corridor Farmers’ Market (E.C.F.M.) at 14710 Grisby Rd.
Houston, TX 77079 near Highway 6 and the Katy (I-10) Freeway.  Please see the map below.     Drop by and have a look, after Nine AM.

(It may enhance attendance to  know  that there will be a beer festival nearby).  😉


The Grand Ice Age

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Not long ago, one of my Road Trip Interest Group members (you know who you are) asked this question:

“When was the last Ice Age?”

The term “Ice Age” is somewhat ambiguous. Fluctuations in the Earth’s climate are extreme and take place over many periods of time.  There have been eras when the Earth was completely devoid of ice.  There have been other times when all the Earth’s oceans had completely turned to ice.  So, when was the last “Ice Age”?

The most recent time that has been referred to that name was the “Little Ice Age”(LIA).  When exactly that was depends on who you ask.  The chart below defines the LIA as being between the years 1400 and 1800 AD.  This was a time that saw mountain villages in Europe consumed by glaciers.  The “Frost Fairs” on the frozen River Thames in London happened at these times and the story of Hans Brinker, likewise.  There is ample evidence of the LIA in art, literature and history.   Below is a graph of results for last two millenia of proxy derived temperature differences.  You see the Little Ice Age as well as what came before.

Timespan:  2000 Years

Figure 1: The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) and the Little Ice Age (LIA).

These are differences in temperatures derived from examination of cylinders of ice drilled out of an ice sheet. Where that zero axis falls depends on how much time is included in the graph.  So, these data do not tell us what a thermometer would have said then.  But, the historical record tells us that during the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) Greenland was occupied by an agricultural civilization where none at that level of technology would be possible in today’s climate.  In Alaska there are glaciers that have retreated from the Little Ice Age and uncovered immense tree-stumps still rooted in the ground.  There are no such climax forests there today.

Thousand-year-old tree stump uncovered by the Mendenhall Glacier’s retreat from the Little Ice Age

They date to about one thousand years ago.  So, we know for a fact that the temperatures were warmer then than now.  There are some who imagine that this was only the case for the North Atlantic.  But, Alaska is not on the Atlantic, is it?  And ice cores from Antarctica tell pretty much the same story.

The time before the LIA was much warmer than the climate today.  The MWP was, itself just another in a series of warm periods, starting with the Minoan Warm Period and occurring roughly every 1000 years.  Below is a graph of oxygen-Isotope proxy temperature anomalies.

Timespan: 11,000 years. 

Figure 2.  Greenland Ice Sheet Project (GISP) temperature differences derived from ice cores.

The last “Ice Age”  (without the “Little” modifier) is to be seen at the extreme left of the Holocene graph in figure 2. It is more accurately referred to as a “Glaciation” and is a part of a (roughly) one-hundred thousand-year oscillation of extreme cold followed by short periods (10,000 years or less) of warm weather.  This cycle is revealed, among other places – in the Vostok and EPICA Ice Core Projects in Antarctica.

Timespan 450,000 years

Figure 3.  Antarctic Ice-core derived temperature differences.

You see that our current situation is an “Interglacial” age called the Holocene Climate Optimum that comes after the “Ice Age” (Glaciation). The Eemian which came before that Glaciation is another Interglacial in a long series of same, stretching back half a million years – at least.  The Holocene appears to be significantly cooler than the previous Interglacials – all of them.  (Put that in your “Global Warming” pipe and smoke it! 😉 )

While the future is not yet determined, it looks very much like the Holocene is about over and the next Glaciation is soon to be expected.

But, in all of this, there is still ice at the poles and on mountaintops.  The Glaciations seem to be the rule and the “Interglacials”, the exceptions.  Could we not say that the entire timespan above was a part of a larger “Grand Ice Age” with only the interglacial times interrupting?

What happens if we widen the time span?  Below is a graph of ocean sediment-derived temperatures.

Timespan: Five Million Years.

Figure 4.  Temperature differences derived from ocean sediments

The fact that those hundred-thousand-year cycles of the previous graph are seen lends credibility to this “proxy” of temperature.  Notice those thousand-century cycles are a recent phenomenon (relatively speaking) and followed a period of 41,000 year cycles.  Before that was a much warmer time.  There is fossil evidence that those were times when there was little or no ice on Earth at all.

Be warned that they will bring up “Global Warming” even though they can’t point to five-million-year-old Ford Explorers or make any reasonable defense of “Man-made Global Warming”.   -Steve

Quote from Antarctica:

“She recalled: “We were high up on glaciated peaks when we found a sedimentary layer packed full of fragile leaves and twigs.”

“These fossils proved to be remains of stunted bushes of beech. At only three to five million years old, they were some of the last plants to have lived on the continent before the deep freeze set in.”

The “deep freeze” referred to is when we live now!  


It may surprise you to learn that you have been here all along.

Hasta Luego,


Ice Age Now and I-90 Rocks

I am doing research for yet another article that takes me to  Ice Age Now the blog of Robert Felix (Ice Age Bob).    Bob’s current first page features a video from YouTube called I-90 Rocks.

I have driven this route a couple of times, but I wish I had seen this video before, just so I could have appreciated the Geology I was passing through.


A Long Time Ago in Argentina

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[In 2002, I was back working in Houston, but I was still sent to  South America, occasionally.  But, this particular post has to do with a private trip we made first to Peru where my wife’s family lives.  It was a convenient place to let the the two young sons visit their aunt,  uncle and grandmother while the wife and I sneaked off to Argentina for a week. the prices I quote seem ridiculously cheap and not all of that is inflation from then to now – as explained in the text.  I was writing “Ten Things You Should Know When Visiting (Blank)” articles, in those  days and I just hit a big vein of them in a long-untouched directory copied faithfully from computer to  computer over the years.

I can’t find any pictures of this particular trip and I think we were in a video camera phase at that time.  We still have the videotapes somewhere, but we never look at them.  Someday we will transfer those to digital media and look at the young strangers who took that trip so long ago.  Meanwhile I have scarfed a couple of “file photos” just to break up the text.  I have put in a few modern remarks which are set off from the 16-year-ago prose with brackets [like this].

  Ten Thing You Should Know When Visiting Buenos  AiresBuenosAires9deJulio

  1. The streets and freeways are quite clean, which is unusual in this part of the world. As in many cities there are “recyclers” who comb the garbage for anything of residual value but, astoundingly, they clean up after themselves with brooms and extra garbage bags.  This is probably because the Argentinos like to think of themselves as displaced Europeans.  I myself have higher ambitions than to be a European. [With no offence to my European friends intended – this was before I met y’all 😉 ]. The hotel even has European bathroom fixtures, complete with bidet.  Do you know anyone who actually uses a bidet?…’cause I don’t.


  1. The streets are about a bus and two cabs wide and that’s what one usually finds in the width of the street. That is, except for Avenida Nueve de Julio [Ninth of July Avenue] which is the widest in the world, they say.*   The sidewalks are about three feet wide – barely enough room for two to pass without stepping into the street.  And ye had best not, if ye want keep yerself in one piece, ’cause the buses zoom by, with inches to spare, at ridiculous speeds.

*[That’s it in the picture above.  If you see 10 pictures of Buenos Aires at random, five of those have this street in them]

  1. The buses themselves are 80 cents (of a Peso) and the machines you drop your coins into actually make change. Best to get a seat if you can’t reach the grab bars, ’cause these vehicles spend most of their time in robust acceleration followed by vigorous braking. For variety there are sudden lurches to the left and right.  I never found a bus schedule but the hotel staff, store clerks and food servers are most helpful in this subject, as many of them probably depend on busses.  There is a Metro (a subway, I mean to say), but I didn’t manage to see any of it.


  1. As usual, no one is marching in the street, screaming anti-American threats. The anti-American mindset exists mostly in the imagination of the press (that includes the US media), some perpetual malcontents who manage to get a lot of face time on TV and a few asinine dictators who would be universally hated in their own country if they could not whip up an anti-American frenzy as a diversion. I won’t mention names but two of  them rhyme with Bastro and Busien.  If you’re still worried about it, pretend to be from New Zealand.  Most folks don’t even know where the heck that is.  If you meet an actual Kiwi, you may have some explaining to do.


  1. The best bet for changing money is the ATM’s with several networks. They’re called “multicajeros” (mool tea kah hair ose…accent on hair).  Look for the symbol of your particular network.   You get the latest exchange rate and they are to be found in banks with armed guards standing politely about, the better not to worry about muggers.  I never have any trouble with muggers, but I am six foot three and probably weigh twice  what you do.  There are lots of armed guards in Latin American countries and they are, generally speaking, polite because they have a strong sense of self-confidence.  It has to do with the Uzi and the flack jacket.  It pays to be just as polite to them.


  1. Prices are (by law, apparently) quoted in Pesos. The symbol for Pesos is “$”.  You might have thought that was for dollars.  Apparently it began with a really skinny “P” over a regular uppercase “S”.   When, rarely, prices are quoted in US Dollars, a “U” is added before the “$” and an extra “$” is appended.  Like this:  U$$   Prices are, to say the least, astounding just now (July 2002).  Some examples of ridiculously affordable purchases: Lunch for two in a rather pleasant sidewalk cafe consisting of steak and side dish with beer and dessert:  $20  (remember – that’s  U$$ 5.63).  High quality leather jacket: $400 (about U$$ 113).  Tango show, dinner and drinks for two in a really plush dinner theater:  $220  ( U$$ 62).  I got a hand-out for a burger joint that priced the bacon double cheesburger with fries and a drink at less than one US dollar.  I was too busy at really plush dinner theaters and rather pleasant sidewalk cafes to actually eat there.


  1. One thing you never make fun of in Argentina is the Tango. Don’t worry – I didn’t learn this by painful experience, but rather by simple observation. The Tango started about a hundred years ago as a saloon dance and has evolved into a refined art form that is most highly regarded.  There are “Tango Shows” in elegant theatres where the dancers on stage perform energetic, kick intensive maneuvers that would quickly start a fist-fight on any pubic dance floor.  Instead of the original one guy with a guitar, there is an orchestra with a string section, a piano and two accordions.


[I remember this fountain, which we saw on a bus tour.  That must be the Capitol Dome behind it.  Another  bus tour took us to a Dude Ranch where Gauchos did horse-riding tricks and there was a period house with clothes and furniture of the Early 20th Century.  It was there I met the only black  man in Argentina (a tourist from Nigeria, it turns out).  He asked me to take a picture of him with one of the hats in the exhibit.  When he put it on, the “spittin’ image”  of Nat King Cole looked back at me.  It was quite a vivid impression, like having seen a ghost.  You  can tell, because I remember it to this day in 2018.  The picture below is the real Nat, of course.  That man could sing circles around most vocalists of today.  He was also an accomplished piano and banjo player.  If you can find it on Netflix or at the Redbox, watch the movie “Cat Ballou”]


  1. Another thing (or rather, person) you don’t make fun of is Eva Peron. A First Lady of renown in the fifties, she has achieved a status of near-sainthood. If you can get through a day in Buenos Aires and not see a picture of Evita, then either you were not paying attention and are in serious danger of being hit by the busses I mentioned, or you don’t know what Eva Peron looked like.


  1. There are several pedestrian streets referred to as peatonales (Pea at tone Al ess…accent on Al). These are of course lined with “retail opportunities”.  Evidently there is a long tradition of “barkers” (I don’t have a Spanish equivalent for that) who stand at strategic spots and talk up their establishment and hand out…well…hand-outs.  There are also people who want to “talk” to you for just a minute (I’m not sure what they’re up to and I don’t want to find out).  And, of  course, the depressingly common occurrence of street beggars.


  1. Don’t call home from the hotel, because they are not participating in the “ridiculously affordable” phenomenon – not on phone calls, anyway. There are telecom shops called “Locutorios” (Low coo tore ee ohs…accent on tore) where you are assigned a phone booth with a chair (they want you to be comfortable). Rates are usually posted on the front door and are reasonable.  You make all the calls you like, your accumulating charges appear on a digital readout and in the end you pay at the counter.

Buenos Aires is in the midst of a short window of opportunity for affordable travel. Argentina was well-known as an expensive place before and  I expect it will return to that status when the economy recovers.  I reckon I’ll check the news for the latest country to declare bankruptcy before I plan my next vacation.

Hasta Luego,


A Nice Place to Visit, But…

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Where to Live, if Not Earth

Life is in fact a very rare phenomenon, despite the fact that it surrounds most of us (in no small part with the “rest of us”).  You might think it to be common, but that is because you are a part of the commonality of it all.  Life is not common – outside of our planet, where it is common.

Some points about the rarity:

  1. The Earth is in the “Goldilocks Zone” (GZ) which means that it is at the right distance to be “not too hot and not too cold” for life. This is a well-known and rather trite fact to quote, but nevertheless true.  Depending on who you ask, the planets Venus and Mars are also in the GZ but apparently lifeless, thus far.
  2. The Earth is thought to have its relatively fixed spin axis because of the stabilizing influence of the moon. Other planets, without such large satellites are known to have violent shifts in inclination making environments hostile to life.  Mars has been suspected of major axial shifts on a short (geological) time scale, for example. Such a large satellite (relative to the planet it orbits – its “primary”) is a very rare condition and the only other example in the Solar System is the Pluto / Charon double planet.  And that planet -while extremely spin-stable – is way to Hell and Gone outside the GZ.
  3. Neither Mars nor Venus has a magnetic field like that of Earth which protects life from massive Solar and Cosmic radiation. It turns out that little Mercury does have a global magnetic field, but it’s hot dry surface is covered by a pitiful excuse for an atmosphere with not much more than vanishing small amounts of hydrogen and helium.  And the bare, igneous rocks of Mercury are basking in the glaring sunlight that is more than four times as intense as that experienced by Earth.
  4. The stable, near circular orbits of the planets that are common in our solar system are not so common in detected planets around other stars (Exoplanets).
  5. We have studied the Solar System extensively and know at least that conditions for life are extremely rare and Life has not yet been shown to exist anywhere else but on our own Earth.
  6. It stands to reason that intelligent life is even more scarce.  I submit to you that it is so rare as to be vanishingly small.

 When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth

When I was young (that was back in the Cretaceous Era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth), very little was known of what lay beyond that same Earth, even within our own Solar System.  It was thought that conditions for Life probably existed on Venus and almost certainly on Mars.

Seasonal changes on Mars that we now know to be dust patterns were taken as sure signs of life. We are now accustomed to sharp clear images of the planets thanks to space probes and extensive image processing of telescope photos.  What was available in the early Sixties was not much more than grainy, very low-resolution pictures.  As far as Mars was concerned, the expectation of life there was still active right up until the first fly-by images came from Mariner 4 on July 14, 1964.

Atlantis Region on Mars - Mariner 4
Actual Mariner 4 Image of Mars from 1964.  Note the linear artifacts and the extremely  low resolution.       Photo Credit: NASA

 Those images showed a moon-like, crater-covered surface and the atmosphere was confirmed to be a vanishingly thin layer of carbon dioxide. Those who had held out hope for life on Mars were bitterly disappointed.  I know because I was there and this was not at all what I had been led to expect.  I am not pointing fingers, you understand.  Virtually everybody – scientists included – expected to see something like the early images of desert areas of Earth from space – with, maybe, some cactus plants (roadrunners and coyotes optional).  But, these Doses of Reality really were indistinguishable from the airless, lifeless moon and a bitter disillusionment to all.  It happened that Mariner 4 did not see the more interesting parts of Mars that later restored some (diminished) hope for life when Mariner 9 images began to arrive.

Probes to Venus sent back even worse news. Cloud-covered Venus had been expected to be a very warm, rainy, damp or perhaps ocean-covered place.  All of those scenarios were explored in stories and novels, back in the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  If that “Golden Age” phrase puzzles you, go and read these authors:  Heinlein, Azimov, Clarke and Bradbury.

Earth observations had already begun to indicate harsh conditions. Measurements from probes revealed that planet to be a quite literal “Hell-hole” with a hot, thick, dry and “crushing” atmosphere that could melt lead.  Liquid water – long thought to be a Life “prerequisite” is just a busted myth on Venus.

Actual surface image from Venus by the Soviet Lander Venera in 1975.  The probe died not long after this. The vertical “artifacts” are data packets that occasionally interrupted  the image transmission.  Data storage in those days was measured in kilobytes and so things had to be done in “near-real-time”.

While Jupiter does possess a magnetic field, it is also surrounded by intense belts of radiation that are trapped in that field.  In this regard, I have found some quotes that throw doubt on the chances of hospitable environments on Jupiter’s moon Europa – long thought (after the Voyager probes, that is) to be a good candidate for life.

Europa. The lack of craters and the linear features (we call ‘em “cracks” where I come from) suggest active Geology.  Some have suggested that the contrasting dark colors of said cracks suggest biology.  That may be grasping at straws, IMHO

Some of those doubts:

A Probe called Pioneer 10 was actually the first to encounter Jupiter and there was some concern about radiation levels:

“The level of radiation at Jupiter was ten times more powerful than Pioneer’s designers had predicted, leading to fears that the probe would not survive; however, with a few minor glitches, it managed to pass through the radiation belts, saved in large part by the fact that Jupiter’s magnetosphere had “wobbled” slightly upward at that point, moving away from the spacecraft. However, Pioneer 11 did lose most images of Io, as the radiation had caused its imaging photo polarimeter to receive a number of spurious commands. The subsequent and far more technologically advanced Voyager spacecraft had to be redesigned to cope with the massive radiation levels.”   (Magnetosphere of Jupiter, n.d.)

And then there was this, which hammered fifteen more nails into the Europa/Life Coffin::

“The radiation level at the surface of Europa is equivalent to a dose of about 5400 mSv (540 rem) per day,[40] an amount of radiation that would cause severe illness or death in human beings exposed for a single day.:[41]

  1. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, Revised ed., US DOD 1962, pp. 592–593

You might argue that there is a “Goldilocks” Zone deep under Europa’s Ice in a Salty Sea of liquid water.  Probably more liquid water than on all of the Earth. The miles of ice and water might well protect from radiation.  The idea that life could exist there is reasonable, but completely unproven. But is that someplace you want to spend your retirement?

There was also a very thorough work on the radiation dose expected for Apollo astronauts while passing through the Van Allen Radiation Belts (VABR) on the way to moon landings.  It concluded that the dose of radiation was relatively tolerable – mostly because the men did not spend much time there.

So far, places where Earth-like conditions exist are:  Earth.


  1. Almost all “Environments” off-Earth are without significant atmospheres, with way too much atmosphere or under miles of ice, submerged in salty seas.
  2. Many “Environments” off-Earth also tend to be radioactive enough to kill you in a day or two.
  3. None of these so called “Environments” has actually been shown to harbor any kind of life.
  4. In every case, these are places that many adventurous people would like to visit. But, without bringing along a complete life support system with you – including when you are “out for a walk” – they are no place you could “live”.

And Then We Get to Titan

Titan is the largest moon of Saturn.  It is the third largest moon in the Solar System and larger than planets Mercury and Pluto.  And it is just lousy with Earth-like qualities.  It has a very dense atmosphere that exceeds the Earth’s sea-level pressure by about 50%.

Looking on the Brightside of Titan
Titan in visible light. Photo credit: NASA

This first image is pretty much what Voyager 1 saw during its pass by Saturn, arranged especially to look at Titan.  It has been known that Titan has an atmosphere since that fact was discovered by Gerald Kuiper (rhymes with “hyper”) in 1944.  It became obvious then that to see under this veil of clouds would require more than the cameras aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft.  Mostly for that reason was Voyager 2 was cleared (after the successful encounter of Voyager 1 with the satellite) to ignore Titan and continue on a trajectory that would take it to Uranus and Neptune.  Had Voyager 1 failed at Titan, Voyager 2 would have followed its brother out of the plane of the Solar System, never having had the opportunity to see the last two Giant planets Uranus and Neptune.  Titan got such priority because of its atmosphere which is unique for satellites of any planet.

Titan in Infrared light.  The colors here are – of course – “made up” since you cannot (nor can I – so don’t feel bad) see in infrared light. Having said that…does this not remind you – a bit – of the Earth?  Photo credit: NASA

This second image is from the later Cassini probe that was sent to orbit Saturn and (knowing what Voyager could not see) included an infrared camera which – with some filtering -could see down to the Titanian surface.

While there have been many learned speculations that an exotic form of life might exist that “breathes” hydrogen and exhales methane and “eats” acetylene, none has as yet been detected.  “Conventional” Life-as-we-know-it (LAWKI) does these things with oxygen, carbon dioxide and glucose, respectively.

There are indeed Methanogens (i.e., Life that makes methane) on Earth but all of them use liquid water as their “solvent” and none use hydrocarbon liquids as would be the case for the imagined Titanian lifeforms.

I have found no references that indicate the radiation environment is a problem at Titan. This large moon of Saturn is expected to have a subsurface ocean as Europa is thought to have, with the same speculations of “conventional” lifeforms and the same problems to be expected.

Titan is covered with hydrocarbons.  These are compounds of hydrogen and carbon that would be called “petroleum” here on Earth.  Methane rains down out of the atmosphere and heavier hydrocarbons – solids at that temperature – cover much of the surface resembling sand dunes.  These “organic” compounds that have that name because they are -on Earth at least – generally made by lifeforms.  I have not read any speculations that Titan’s organics are life-generated.

Titan by virtue of its distance from the sun to Saturn (being 10X that for Earth) receives sunlight arriving there at one percent of what the Earth enjoys.  The cloud cover that Titan is notorious for reduces that to one tenth of one percent. Photosynthesis would seem very unlikely.  That contributes to a big problem with the idea of Life on Titan.  Namely, the temperature, which is so very cold (call it -200 F) that liquid water is decidedly out of the question.

There are, in fact “Great-Lake-size” bodies of liquid on the surface, but they are composed of mostly methane (CH4) – which on Earth is the main component of what’s called Natural Gas.  As mentioned earlier, methane is a minor component of Titan’s atmosphere, just as water vapor is in our own Earthly atmosphere and it precipitates to the surface like same.

That would seem to wrap it up for extra-terrestrial life.  Several possibilities for environments which show a potential for life, but no evidence that such life exists.

 Whatever lifeforms we see fit to deposit…

(from Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan, in reference to the “Genesis Project”)

The surface of Titan, photographed by the Huygens
Lander on Jan 14, 2005. Photo Credit: NASA

Titan’s atmosphere is composed of mostly nitrogen with about 5% methane near ground level with a trace of free hydrogen.   While Earth’s atmosphere is similar, being 80% Nitrogen – the remainder consisting mostly of oxygen with a few trace gasses – that of Titan has no free oxygen.

Again, the ground-level air pressure on Titan exceeds that which you  are currently experiencing – even as you read.  This makes Titan is the only place where walking around outdoors without a space suit might be possible.

There are a few problems with that idea, though.

  • Titan is extremely cold and would require the Walker to bundle up in arctic gear. Heavy-duty arctic gear.
  • This Pedestrian would be breathing from an air tank – like a SCUBA diver. There is (again) no free oxygen in the atmosphere. Let’s say that you use a re-breather and don’t exhaust any oxygen into the atmosphere.  Probably best considering the methane.
  • That methane (known to drizzle out of the haze you see in the distance) might require a raincoat over all that arctic gear. I doubt you would want to be soaked with evaporating methane when you go inside – where you will definitely have oxygen around.
  • The ground where the Huygens probe landed was described as comparable to wet clay. I can’t vouch for the stability or traction achievable on such a surface. Water ice would not be a problem, since at that temperature it is indistinguishable from rock. But those hydrocarbons that cover the surface are much closer to their melting points and could pose a slip hazard.  Other places – who knows?
  • Don’t let the picture fool you, it will be dark. That photo was taken with a sensitive research instrument. Remember that Titan orbits the planet Saturn, which is ten times as far from the Sun as the Earth.  Only one percent of Earthly sunlight reaches Titan and only one tenth of that is able to penetrate the clouds.  A moon-lit night on Earth might be the very best level of illumination you could expect.
  • You would need artificial lighting, especially through the roughly eight days of darkness when the sun is below the local horizon.
  • That brings up electrical generation. Solar panels would  be useless in the dimly lit haze. While fierce winds were measured during the descent of Huygens through the atmosphere, surface winds are likely  to be intermittent and not particularly strong.  So, you won’t want to  depend on windmills for power.  The probe was powered by batteries, which died after about 90 minutes.  No, you will be taking your own power supply to Titan and it will be nuclear in nature – something like a radio-isotope generator.  Every probe that made it past Jupiter yet has used such “nukes” for power.


Indigenous Life in the Solar System – once thought so likely – has been shown to be non-existent as far as we know.  This is despite decades of intense research toward finding such life.

There is not much to offer for Human occupation “off-Earth” , either.  Unless you want to live life completely indoors, surrounded by radiation shielding or in a space suit (much like being “indoors”)  Titan is pretty much it.

Having found this one special second place in the Solar System where some semblance of normal human activity is indeed possible, the list of activities is rather short. You won’t be farming.  Astronomy is out, but if you happen to be on the side of Titan that faces Saturn, that ringed planet might be barely visible through the haze.  Hiking is good and there might be some spectacular landscapes (not at the Huygens landing zone, I’ll admit).  Night-vision goggles might be appropriate.

There is one aspect might make it all worthwhile.  Titan’s gravity is a bit less than that of our Moon.  About 1/6th of Earth.  That combined with the thick atmosphere should make human-powered flight possible.  Not just possible, but easy!  Even if all your cold-weather clothes, SCUBA gear and “wings” weigh as much as you do, you  would still have only one third of your weight on Earth.

There is a sub-culture of misinformed people who  think that Humanity’s only salvation will be to move to “another planet”.  These folks tend to be against things like fossil fuels and nuclear power.  Ironically, if Titan (about the best you can find) is your “other planet”, you will be surrounded by petroleum and using nukes for electricity – in bitter cold and perpetual (more-or-less) darkness.

But you could fly!

Ex Scientia, Veritas,



Star Trek II quote:   “Instead of a dead moon, a living, breathing planet, capable of sustaining whatever lifeforms we see fit to deposit on it.” – Dr. Carol Marcus

Van Allen Belt Radiation:

Mars Axis instability:

Venus (Venera):



Radioisotope generator:


The Walkabout in Pictures  – Part II

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You will see the skyline of Chicago – a once mighty city – often referred to as the “Second City” because its population that was second only to New York.  

ChcagoSkylineCU“Second City” – soon to be Fourth.

Los Angeles passed up Chicago as “Second City” a while back,  Houston will pass it up as Third in the next census or soon after.  The “Windy City” (so named for its politicians, not its weather) is being abandoned as was Detroit.  Higher taxes, raging crime and corrupt politicians chased out businesses and taxpayers who could afford to leave.  The pols then raised taxes again to compensate and the spiral continues.  Illinois residents are furious with Chicago for breaking the State’s budget.  There was talk of abolishing the State of  Illinois and parcelling it out to the surrounding states.  I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but if I was – for example – an Indiana Resident, I’d tell my representatives, “No way you are going to pawn off Illinois debt on me!”

Driving in this city with an 18 wheeler is ain’t no picnic neither.  Anyone who says different is a masochist who loves to be abused.  The same goes for Los Angeles and New York.  Houston and Dallas are merely frustrating and confusing because the Jill, the Navigation Computer has no clue about recent construction and thinks you are on the surface streets when you are actually on the expanded freeway.  She keeps urging you  to turn left and take the on ramp – until out of desperation you move to the older left-hand lanes.  Then she will shut up and recognize the Interstate again. 

CropdusterCould be Texas or Kansas or Tennessee, for that matter.  Crop dusters are seen all over the farmland of America.  I suspect the pilots love their jobs since they can fly aerobatics all the time.  Your average airline pilots must envy them.

 My Uncle (father’s older brother) was a pilot for the duration of World War Two and Korea.  He started the first aerial crop dusting operation in Texas after that.  It had to be a great pleasure for him to maneuver like what you see here since he had flown great lumbering B-17’s in Europe and B-29’s in the Pacific theater.   There is a very good story about my Uncle flying Dad around in a piper cub.  Stay tuned.

GeologicaalMountainsMountains are a majestic presence that reduce the grim drudgery of driving to irrelevance.  They rise up out of the plains and grow slowly in the distance until, suddenly the near-infinite horizon has shortened into a winding, ascent through a labyrinth of rocky facades.

GeologyMassifShadowThe Earth rises around to blot out the sky.  Geology surrounds and penetrates the mood.  But while beauty dominates the view, the meandering highway demands respect – and vigilant attention.  The tranquil excursion across the plains is left far behind and a new paradigm – ever-changing in direction and elevation – absorbs the traveler’s reality.

 Geology_BlackCLudsSnowOut of thin air, an equally majestic skyscape. 

Cold fronts in Kansas are visible from many miles away, bisecting the sky.  North Texas produces some menacing dark, churning clouds that bring hail and threaten with funnel clouds.  I have some photos of that, but they evade detection.

weird-clouds-in-nebraska This image I titled “Weird Clouds in Nebraska”.

I know my readers are tired of hearing this:  As often happens, the photos do not do justice to the eye-witnessed scene.

Geology_FrozenReservoirA frozen reservoir.  But for that thin blue streak, ice and sky would be indistinguishable.  This is from a “scenic pull-out” and lucky for me, the “no trucks” sign did not appear.

Geology_MountainsSpiresUtah.  The “cap rocks” are harder than the underlying rock layers, which are gradually washed away in the rare showers or blown off by persistent winds to create these copious pillars.

Geology_Outcrop_TreesA ridge – from the road it looks like limestone –  harbors the only trees within the horizon. The phenomenon, when mostly vertical it is called a “dyke” and when horizontal, a “sill”.   I suspect it is also an aquifer that carries water to the surface – hence the trees.


A detour in Arizona sent me through this corridor, near Prescott.  This straight-away was one of a very few.  There is an overwhelming abundance of scenic beauty to be seen in the Western half of America.

Geology_SaltFlatsSalt flats on the edges of the Great Salt Lake (in the distance).  In my few passes of this area, I don’t remember seeing GSL without clouds.  Whether Climate or Coincidence, I can’t say.

Geology_ThatHotelInWyomingOn emerging from a tunnel in Western Wyoming.  See how the architect has matched the colors to the landscape.  This is an especially compelling tableau in the glow of the full Moon. The light reflects vividly off the snow as to make a brighter than expected nocturnal landscape.

VOlcanoNecksWinterVolcano necks that resist weathering and wind up with sides so steep they won’t hold the snow.   The famous Devil’s Tower (featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is found in Wyoming.  Alas, it is off the major truck routes.

 Hasta Luego,


Out of the Shoe Box

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

     Goingwalkabout began as a chronicle of an unexpected journey through a stage of life.  It continues, in this new phase as a journey through Space (see Sneaking Up on Pluto, Part 1 & Part2) and in in this particular series, a voyage through Time.  I bring you greetings from a far-off place called “The Past”.  Since I have seen more of it than most of you, I’ll bet you will be surprised, amused and/or interested…unless you are one of those smarty-pants teenagers (I had two) who already know everything.

–.  —  ..  -.  –.  .–  .-  .-..  -.-  .-   -… —  ..-  –

Over the decades that now collectively inhibit gainful employment for Your Humble Narrator, he has embarked on many motivating sojourns.  Until recently, most all of them have been solitary travels and hence he has not many photos that include himself.  These travels occurred before the advent of the “selfie”, you see.

As we are now passing through a period when current travel is inhibited, I have gone to that repository so well known by every amateur photographer with age of about three score of years.

To explain to our progeny:

Once upon a time, photographs were accomplished by quaint little boxes referred to by the name that Merriam Webster says is from Late Latin and actually means a “room” in a building.  Rooms back then were not much bigger than boxes and well…   Back to the point:  Cameras recorded pictures on a plastic strip that was covered by an emulsion that changed chemically when exposed to light.  The “film” in the “camera” was hidden in darkness until the “shutter”…

OK, Look!  People wound up with little pieces of thick stiff paper with the pictures printed on them.  And that was it.  So, they stored the papers in a shoebox.  I have several such shoeboxes and a scanner.  So – look out, world – you are soon to be “exposed” like a piece of film to all my little pieces of paper.

For this first outing, I took the first four pictures that looked like they might scan well – pretty much at random.  This is only a test.  Had a real emergency occurred…


Figure 1:  That skyline is downtown Los Angeles in 1985.  Unless I am mistaken, this picture was taken from Griffith Park Observatory. 

The haze you see is not weather, but air pollution.  That stuff was called SMOG and was notoriously almost always hanging around Los Angeles, in those days.  Spoiled-rotten, neophyte, ignorami “environmentalists” of the recent era would have you believe that the air has never been dirtier than it is today.  They were not around when dirty air was King.  I was.  This was the normal condition of LA for this era and decades before.

The comedy show “My Favorite Martian” had an episode where Leonardo Da Vinci was catapulted forward in time to 1970’s LA.  One of his first comments was, “How is it you have a brown sky?”.  I seem to remember he was played by the very talented character actor Keenan Wynn, but I could be wrong.  In fact, I begin to doubt it – but check out that link anyway.

By the way, Los Angeles is the most abbreviated place on Earth.  Its real name is, “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora, la Reyna de los Angeles de la Porciuncula*” and they call it “L.A.”

*Or maybe something longer…


Figure 2: 1985  So early in the series, we have an exception to the rule that Steve does not appear in the photos.

I was indeed, traveling alone as was my constant habit.  I prevailed on a fellow tourist to take my picture here at the top of a ski lift in Arizona, Just North of Flagstaff.   I believe this is now called “Snowbowl”.  I came here on the Southwest Chief – that’s a train – from Los Angeles which you saw in the previous picture.    You see my attire is not suited to skiing weather.  My, how observant are my intelligent readers!  Yes, I was there in the summer and they operated the ski lift for folks who wanted to go up and look around.  There is a long story involved with getting to this point that will have to wait patiently until I scan the other pictures.


Figure 3:  The Sydney (Australia) Tower 1990.

This requires a regression of some extent.  Long ago in a place we now know as a “poor” neighborhood of Houston, a young boy had an elementary school teacher who was a last-minute substitute, that stayed on for  most of the year (if not all – it  was over half a century ago!)   This lady (whose name – I am sorry to say – I have forgotten) inspired young Steven (for that was my name then when Father “Steve” still walked the Earth) with tales of her homeland – Australia.  She taught us to sing “Waltzing Matilda” and fascinated us with stories of – for example – the place where a person travelling across Australia had to de-train while the cars were lifted up and set on new “bogies” that allowed them to continue on the different rail “gauge” that existed to the West.  She told us of the “Tropical Cyclones” (just like our own Hurricanes – only rotating the other way.*) that broke the wind gauges at 200 miles per hour.  And -yes – Australia was pre-metric in those days.

So, when Your Humble Narrator was working in South America and could not re-enter the US for tax reasons, he went (alone, again) to fulfill a childhood aspiration to visit Australia – in 1990.

*I can explain that later – when I have scanned the other pictures of “OZ”.

PicoBolivar1990Figure 4:  This is a view from the Highest and Longest Cable Car in the World.

The photo is near the top of the four “assents” of the cable car system that takes the tourist from Merida, Venezuela to the top of “Pico Bolivar” 5007 meters above sea level.  That was the figure on the “standard” tourist map back in 1990.  You may find it quoted as 4,978 meters in the online literature.  That puts it at 16, 332 to 16,427 feet – in either case over THREE miles.  To quote Mr.  Spock: “A difference that makes no difference is no difference.”  However, it is an excellent talking point for responding to Denverites when they try to appear superior by saying they live a pitiful little mile above sea-level.  😉

Actually, the cable car goes to ”Pico Espejo” (Mirror Peak) which is not quite so high.  But you can climb to Pico Bolivar from there and you bet I did.

I was NOT travelling alone, this time. There is another quite complicated story associated with this place – involving newlyweds and a failure of technology that left people stranded upon this mountain.  This too must wait until more shoebox photos are scanned.

I will say that the pictures scanned far better than my expectation.  The exercise was successful.  We are go for launch.

Hasta Luego,


Venezuela’s Final Chapter

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   VenMap

Political commentary is not my intuitive arena.  However, my time spent in Venezuela – though long ago – was a transforming experience in my life.   This fact compels me to express my view of the situation in what was once a free nation.  It was far from perfect, as are all such nations.  But it was a paradise by comparison to what is left of it – and more so to what it may become if nothing is done.

I will categorize this under “Energy” since that subject is a vital element in the fate of Venezuela.  I don’t have a “Politics” category and I’m not sure I want one.  The piece was published in American Thinker.  Follow the link below.

Venezuela’s Final Chapter


Sneaking Up on Pluto (Part 1)

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations


From 1930, when it was discovered by High School Graduate Clyde Tombaugh until recently, Pluto remained a dot of light in a telescope. The way to find a planet is to see it move amongst the “fixed stars”. The further from the Sun the planet is, the slower it moves. In Figure A you will see the original “Discovery Images” of Pluto.


Figure A: The “Discovery” photos of Pluto.

Lest it seem too easy, Tombaugh spent 10 months photographing the majority of the sky and poring through pairs of images like those above. Computer generated “blink comparisons” are now common and you have probably seen examples. In 1930 two photos (glass plates with silver-based photo-emulsions) were put into a contraption with two optical paths that were alternated to the eyepiece by means of a moving mirror. He was probably looking at the original negatives, not prints. Not only was this system far from perfect, but there were also asteroids that exhibit the same behavior as the targeted planet. Those had to be tracked down and eliminated by arguments based on their apparent velocity or brightness or perhaps by looking them up in the records, if they were known. There was a similar moving pair of dots in these very images – they are cropped out here. Those moved a bit slower, which would indicate an even greater distance from the Sun, but were brighter, which would indicate a smaller distance. The apparent slowness could be caused by an asteroid in a place along its elliptical orbit where it was moving mostly toward or away from Earth. Since nobody called it a planet then, I assume it was eliminated for one of those reasons. There are some dots that appear in one photo and not in the other, you should be able to see at least 5 examples of that in Figure A. That may be due to a difference in atmospheric conditions between successive photos. That is confirmed by the fact that the stars in the January 23 photo are a bit bigger (which means brighter in star images on photographic plates).   Another thing might account for single appearances would be a meteor falling through the atmosphere in a direction nearly straight at the telescope. So, you see that Tombaugh’s task was far from simple. One annoyance he did not have to deal with was the vast number of spacecraft now in orbit around the Earth.

Pluto was named by a contest, which was won by an 11year-old girl named Venetia Burney, from Oxford, England. She purportedly received a Five Pound Note for her prize. That does not sound like much, but it would be the inflation-adjusted equivalent of about 250 dollars at today’s exchange rates. She had kept to the tradition of choosing names from Greek mythology. I will just quote (5) an abbreviated explanation of those to put this in context:

  • Mercury (Hermes) is the god of commerce, travel and thievery in Roman mythology…
  • Venus (Aphrodite) is the Roman goddess of love and beauty…
  • Earth…is the only planet whose English name does not derive from Greek/Roman mythology.
  • Mars (Ares) is the Roman god of War.
  • Jupiter was the King of the Gods in Roman mythology…
  • Saturn (Cronus) is the Roman god of agriculture…
  • Uranus is the ancient Roman deity of the Heavens…
  • Neptune (Poseidon), was the Roman god of the Sea…
  • Pluto (Hades) is the Roman god of the underworld…

Let me just note here for you conventional people – I refer to Pluto as a planet. I know they decided to make a new classification of “dwarf planet”. So, if you object to me calling Pluto a “planet” please remember that Earth is a “rocky planet” and Jupiter is a “gas giant planet”. But they are all planets, are they not?

Back to Venetia: As I remembered, she chose Pluto because the first two letters would honor Percival Lowell, which was the name of a notable Astronomer and of the Observatory where Tombaugh made the discovery. Some say that it was because Pluto is a dark and far-away place like the underworld, and that might be another reason. However, I found that there was an interview with the lady herself in 2006 (2) in which she says:

“Yes, I don’t quite know why I suggested it. I think it was on March the 14th, 1930 and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. And my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason, I after a short pause, said, “Why not call it Pluto?” I did know, I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children’s books that I had read, and of course I did know about the solar system and the names the other planets have. And so I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn’t been used. And there it was.”

Perhaps the other reasons were why the judges chose her as the winner. The interview seems to be on solid ground, but watch out on the internet. I found one source that said Clyde himself named the planet and I have known that not to be so, since I was young (back in the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth). In another case, when I searched “who named Pluto”, the first hit was “The boy who named Pluto”. Let’s be charitable and assume that was about the Disney cartoon dog. By the way, did you ever notice that Pluto was a dog and Goofy was a dog, but Goofy stood on two feet, wore clothes and talked, in vivid contrast to poor Pluto? Some Disney dogs are more equal than others, it seems.

Back to the planet, now.

A Better View – Just Barely

In Science Fiction, Pluto was usually described as a nearly featureless ball of rock covered by layers of frozen gasses. After being examined by the Hubble Space Telescope the public image of Pluto was enhanced to a resolution of several dots. Some assumptions were made about what happens between the pixels and the processed image in Figure B is the result. This would seem to indicate that the SciFi characterization is erroneous. We will see.

I should mention that in 1978, a moon of Pluto was discovered, called Charon:

“…a Greek mythological figure:[12] Charon (/ˈkɛərɒn/ or /ˈkɛərən/Greek Χάρων) is the ferryman of the dead…” (4)

It is a remarkable satellite, being the largest – relative to its planet – in the Solar System.



Figure B: The interpreted version of the Hubble Space Telescope image of Pluto.

Sneaking Up – Quickly

The New Horizons probe was launched on January 19, 2006. It is a relatively small spacecraft by modern standards and it was launched on one of the most powerful rockets available today. Even so, its speed toward Pluto was not nearly enough to get it there in ”merely” ten years. So, it was launched on a carefully chosen trajectory that would take it past Jupiter. There, it was accelerated by Jupiter’s gravity and redirected on a path toward Pluto. This is not a free ride, though. Jupiter gave a boost to New Horizons, but lost the same amount of energy (and didn’t miss it at all) from its revolution about the Sun. This sort of thing happens with many asteroids and comets that pass near Jupiter. Some are slung outward and gain speed, others are slowed and fall into orbits that take them closer to the Sun (a few, to collide with the inner planets) – and Jupiter gains a little. A few are captured into orbits around Jupiter itself. One comet (Shoemaker-Levy) famously was torn into multiple pieces by the tidal forces involved in a “close-encounter”. Those fragments were captured into an elongated orbit. The orbit – at the low end – happened to intersect the planet. That is another fascinating story, but I digress. Those of you who know me are not surprised.

New Horizons went speeding on toward Pluto. It was now the fastest known object in the Solar System – natural or manmade. Although it will not be in the Solar System much longer and will join four other spacecraft that are on their way to the stars. In January of 2015, the resolution of the photos from New Horizons became better than the Hubble images. Yet, still they were not much to see. In fact, Figure C, below was taken in early April and is the first color rendering of Pluto and its big moon Charon.


Figure C:   Pluto and Charon April 9, 2015           Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Are you disappointed? I was, too. I had the January “better than Hubble” date on my calendar for about six years and this was the best they had in April. But I understood that they did not do all that complicated image processing that they applied to the Hubble picture. Why not?   Because, in the New Horizons case, they had only to wait a few months to see far better resolution, so why bother? With Hubble, it was all they could hope for years and they had to have something to write papers about, in the meantime. I have been to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, several times. Those guys have to publish or die. It is not like Geophysics where you can accomplish actual profits by your efforts. Planetary Scientists are sadly dependent on Academic and Government funding. I found their attitudes to be shockingly predatory toward one another as compared to the polite, collegial attitudes of Geophysicists to which I was accustomed. But, I digress again. If you think I get sidetracked easily, imagine being me trying to get through college.

The Pluto imaging situation did improve as time went by and I can share with you another image, this time from early July of ‘15. The images cover most of what can be imaged by New Horizons. Charon and Pluto always show the same face to each other in their orbits around a common center. They are “tidally locked” which is an erudite way of saying the same thing. Also, the plane of their common orbit is not in the same plane as their orbit around the sun. That means that there are dark areas on both bodies that will not be seen by New Horizons. There was a time when we could have seen all of both, but that was in about 1985. I know that because I saw a lecture by a NASA Scientist about the subject by Dr. Paul Schenk (3). The good Doctor is a very good presenter – near as good as your humble Narrator. I had invited my family to travel the hour down to the Clear Lake area with me to see this public lecture and my niece gave me a provisional acceptance. I advised her that the dress code would be “business casual” (based on my Geophysics experience). This illusion was shattered when Dr. Schenk showed up in jeans and a polo shirt.

Figure D shows what will be seen, in greater detail.


Figure D: Pluto and Charon – July 1, 2015       Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

These images reveal that the earlier much-processed image from the Hubble Telescope is valid in its depiction of Pluto as varied in color and brightness. I see that this will need to be a series of at least two parts. But I assure you, Astute Readers, that there is much more and better to come.


Pluto stopped being a dot or a smudge and became a planet, with five (count ‘em, five) satellites – one that is near half Pluto’s size. It has craters, as you would expect out of most planets, but it also has vast smooth plains and mountains unassociated with any craters. The dot is now a fascinating variegated world. All this will be discussed in Part Two of this series.

More:   7-1-15_Pluto_Charon_color_hemispheres_annotated_JHUAPL_NASA_SWRI  Sneaking Up on Pluto (Part 2) 

Post Menu  


  1. Clyde Tombaugh:
  2. Venetia Burney Interview:
  3. New Horizons Mission:  Cosmic Explorations – A Speaker Series, Lunar and Planetary Institute, September 3, 2015  NASA’s exploration of Ceres and Pluto: An Update, Dr. Paul Schenk
  4. Charon:
  5. Planetary Names:

Sneaking Up on Pluto (Part 2)

SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

December 2015


I always tend think of the exploration of the Solar System as something everybody knows about and that is probably erroneous for two reasons. First, not everyone was fascinated by the subject at the time, as I was and second, lots of you individuals are not old enough to have been paying attention when it happened. I would assume that some of this is taught in school, but I really can’t say, since it was just beginning to happen when I was at S.P Waltrip High in Houston. Both Shelly Duval and Patrick Swayze had graduated before I got there, in case some fans of either want to know.

One thing that might puzzle the average student might be why we had images of all the Outer planets by the 1970s and 80s and nothing but a dot or smudge for Pluto. That all relates to what was called at the time “The Grand Tour”. As it happened, there was an alignment of the outer planets in the 70’s and 80’s such that it would be possible to use gravity assisted orbital adjustments (“the slingshot effect”) to make it possible for a space probe to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in one long and carefully managed trajectory. That’s another interesting story and I would be happy to tell it later.

Unfortunately, Pluto was not properly aligned to be next in the series of these visits. Why not? One way it was explained to me was: Any trajectory plotted for a probe approaching Neptune to send the probe to Pluto would intersect Neptune itself. So, that is why Pluto remained an unvisited backwater of the Solar System until now.

            The alignment of the outer worlds by 2006 was scattered enough that only Jupiter could help send the craft to Pluto and then only in a certain window of time. Missing that window would lengthen then the mission severely or delay the launch by about twelve years until Jupiter came by again. Fortunately, the launch came off well on the first try.

A considerable amount of data was collected in the Jupiter flyby (2). A lot of what was last seen by the Magellan Orbiter was updated and enhanced. Figure AA is a view of the Jovian moon Io which is far more volcanically active than the Earth. That is pronounced with a short “I” by all the Ivory Tower PhD’s and a long “I” by normal people. Major changes in its Geology (Don’t give me a hard time about that word!) were detected.

Many other moons and Jupiter itself were imaged and studied, but we are talking about Pluto, here.


Figure AA: A view of Jupiter’s moon Io as seen from New Horizons during its fly-by of JupiterCredits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New Horizons Spacecraft

            Figure A is the New Horizons Spacecraft. The main body of the spacecraft is about the size of a grand piano and the whole thing masses as much as a medium sized truck


Figure A: The New Horizons Spacecraft  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute       

New Horizons (NH) incorporates all that has been learned over the years. The Voyager probes (one of which actually made the complete “Grand Tour”) each had a main antenna that was capable of constant communications with the Earth. This necessitated what is called a “scan platform” that held the instruments that need precise pointing, that moved independently of the antenna. That configuration had proven troublesome on one of the Voyager probes and data were lost. That is because data storage was actually on a ½ inch, 8 track magnetic tape with a total capacity of about ½ Megabyte and a top baud rate of 56 kilobits per second (3). That’s what I said – “stone knives and bear skins!” – so, real-time transmission was required for image data.

The newer probes including NH have fixed instruments that are pointed by turning the entire spacecraft. This in turn means that the probe cannot talk to the Earth and take instrument readings at the same time. What makes it all possible is an enormous memory capacity that is capable of high data rates. This was a luxury that earlier probes could not enjoy. The disagreeable result was that the probe was “radio silent” as it collected the bulk of the science data at Pluto. This is simply because it was busy pointing instrument and taking readings.

That large dish antenna labeled “REX” in the Figure was a lot smaller than they might like but it was also a trade-off to allow more instrumentation. That means that, while the data could be acquired in a big rush during the fly-by, the data return rate was dismally slow by comparison. So much so that the NH is still downloading data, months after the fly-by and will be doing so until November of 2016.

The other instruments are described here as quoted from the New Horizons web site (1):

“The New Horizons team selected instruments that not only would directly measure NASA’s items of interest, but also provide backup to other instruments on the spacecraft should one fail during the mission. The science payload includes seven instruments:

Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.

Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).

REX: (Radio Science EXperiment) Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.

LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s farside and provides high resolution geologic data. SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.

PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.

SDC: (Student Dust Counter) Built and operated by students; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.”

The alert reader will note that the same antenna (REX) that returns data to the Earth is also listed as an instrument. It is used to measure the changes in an Earth-NH transmission as the signal is eclipsed by Pluto’s atmosphere and surface and the same situation was also measured at Charon, thus characterizing the atmosphere of Pluto and of Charon (if any).

A Better View – Like “Way!”

            If you are wondering why I have gone on so long about the discovery, naming and early characterization of Pluto, Astute Readers, I will now confess:   I wanted to convey – just a bit – that long-delayed anticipation that I felt – literally for years – in awaiting the results of the NH mission. Hence, the title of this article “Sneaking up on Pluto”. That said, I hasten to present a Portrait of the Happy Couple, Pluto and Charon. Please see figure B.

nh-pluto-charon-v2-10-1-15Figure B. Pluto and Charon           Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

First, I must point out that this graphic is a composite. That is to say that while they are absolutely valid images of Pluto and Charon, they have been cut and pasted into this “Family Album”.

You will no doubt notice some very intriguing and unexpected features of both the planet and its satellite. Far from a near-featureless cratered ice-ball, it is obvious (by lack of craters in some regions) that Pluto has undergone recent changes. There are distinct regions of very different character and color. Charon has a great chasm that spans its diameter and crosses its equator.

The early much interpreted, computer generated images from the scant data received by the Hubble Telescope that indicated differentiated terrain are richly confirmed. The most pronounced feature is the large plain of ice that quickly became known as the “Heart” at this resolution much of it seems featureless and hence craterless. The standard procedure for dating terrain on solar system objects is to count the number of craters of different sizes. When the craters are many and varied, the terrain is obviously very old. When you see an area with no craters, then it is very new, relatively speaking. The Heart was later “officially” named “Tombaugh Regio” in appropriate honor of Pluto’s discoverer.

I should mention that I referred to Tombaugh as a High School Graduate previously, but I feel obliged to point out that he later earned a PhD. My reference to his educational status at the time of the discovery was no slight, but rather was my tribute to the idea that Excellence does not require certification. I have known and worked with many brilliant PhD’s. I have also known and worked with some who were so over-specialized as to be (in my humble opinion) rather shallow and uninteresting people, outside of their rather small zone of competence.

The smooth-looking part (on the left) of Tombaugh Regio is now called “Sputnik Planum”. As we will see in the next images, it is not nearly as featureless as it first appeared.

Pluto in Detail

            I will take a leap forward now to some of the most up-to-date images. Figure D is a close-up of the dark region near the Southwest of the Tombaugh Regio. It covers a confluence of three terrain types, the smooth, icy plains at top, the mountains (obviously not associates with craters) in the center and more “conventional” cratered landscape at the bottom.

nh-dark-areas-9-10-15Figure D: The Dark Area at the Southwest of Tombaugh Regio. Please note the three distinct terrains Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

 The icy plains are now revealed to have distinct polygonal divisions. The ice in question is actually solid Nitrogen and Methane which, at the ambient temperature of about -230° C behave much like Earth-temperature water ice and flow slowly into valleys as they accumulate. The Mountains at the center of this image are quite clearly not related to craters and probably contain a large fraction of water ice which at Pluto temperatures is as hard and durable as rock. I will cite the good Doctor Shenck (4), again for this insight.

Pluto has been moving farther from the Sun since 1985 and you might expect that the atmosphere could be condensing out to be frozen on the surface. What did puzzle me was the contention that we have no evidence of Pluto’s atmosphere actually freezing out as it moves farther from the Sun. I asked Doctor Shenck if there might be some deposition of atmospheric gasses in the seasonal total-dark areas of the Southern hemisphere and if there might be some data (yet to be downloaded) from instruments that might answer that. He replied positively to both questions.

This image in Figure D seemed to me to give some merit to the idea that some atmospheric “fall out” may have already taken place. The crater at lower left in the image, quite clearly indicates that the ice there accumulated, did not flow from anywhere else, but must have condensed (been deposited) out of the atmosphere. Also, I mentioned that the ice appears to be flowing into valleys and I ask you, how can ice flow if there is not a new supply being deposited on the existing mass of ice? For the record, this image was not available when I spoke to Dr. Schenck.

Just during the writing of this article the answers came from this quote from a NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute Press Release:

“Key to understanding activity on Pluto is the role of the deep layer of solid nitrogen and other volatile ices that fill the left side of Pluto’s ‘heart’ — a vast, 620-mile (1,000-kilometre) -wide basin, informally named Sputnik Planum. New numerical models of thermal convection within this ice layer not only explain the numerous polygonal ice features seen on Sputnik Planum’s surface, but indicate this layer may be up to a few miles thick. Evaporation of this nitrogen and condensation on higher surrounding terrain leads to glacial flow back toward the basin; additional numerical models of nitrogen ice flow show how Pluto’s landscape has been and is still being transformed.”

Figure E is a higher resolution image from the edge of the Tombaugh Regio that shows much more texture to the icy plains and a much better look at the mountains.

color-swath-use-12-10-15_closeupFigure E: High resolution color image at the edge of Tombaugh Regio         Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Figure F is an even higher resolution of another region of the icy plains. Notice how the ridges that divide the segments are seemingly being covered up with what look like dunes to me. I don’t know what to think of those. But the aforementioned press release indicates that there is a Nitrogen/Methane cycle of evaporation and condensation that drives the glacier-like accumulations. It seems that these gasses play the role of water on Earth, that exists in solid, liquid and gaseous forms on the same planet. Now, there is no evidence (yet) of any liquids on Pluto and I suspect that the cycle is one of sublimation (solid to gaseous) and deposition (gas to solid).

ClosePlainsDunesFigure F: Higher resolution image of the icy plains Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI


Despite the previously mentioned low data rate, the data are accruing at an overwhelming rate and the unmitigated diversity and complexity of this information will no doubt keep Planetary Scientists employed for years to come. I really need to publish this before it gets even further obsolete. But one thing is clear. Pluto is far from the static, frozen, cratered, icy rock it was imagined to be. It is a dynamic and complex world and IMHO, deserves the designation of “Planet” without qualifiers.

Still, it is a tantalizing irritation that the New Horizons probe only provided a “snap shot” of the situation at Pluto and we can only find out what happens next by a similar, massive effort to launch another such probe. It is perhaps a comfort to remember that the technology of the New Horizons probe is about 15 years out-of-date now and the next such probe would be faster, better, cheaper and -especially- less massive. It is not unreasonable to imagine that a Pluto orbiter could be within the realm of possibility. Even if decades later, a new probe could see the changes and the longer the delay, the more obvious those might be.



  1. New Horizons Spacecraft:
  2. Jupiter Flyby:
  3. Voyager Data Rate:
  4. New Horizons Mission:Dawn and New Horizons MissionsSept. 3, 2015 Lunar and Planetary Institute, Lunar and Planetary Institute September 3, 2015   NASA’s Exploration of Ceres and Pluto: An Update, Dr. Paul Schenk
  5. Charon: