Moon and Mars – Media Stars


Spot the difference! Glenelg in Scotland and on Mars.

Our close planetary neighbours, the Moon and Mars, have been receiving a bit more coverage in the media lately. Well, OK, perhaps it’s not been an all-out deluge of publicity. Not really the journalistic equivalent of a feeding frenzy, I agree. But nonetheless, the news outlets seem to have been paying a bit more attention to matters extraterrestrial of late.

The Mars Curiosity Rover has been providing a fairly steady stream of internet news, as its various systems have been checked out and scientific operations gradually get underway. However, as always, the problem for news organisations covering robotic missions is the lack of a clear human-interest angle. As we all know, what primarily drives the 24 hour news agenda are people-related stories, be they natural disasters, political scandals, celebrity gossip, crime or the effects of the present economic crisis. I am afraid a rover on Mars comes a long way down the news pecking order.

Mars twinning celebrations in Glenelg, Scotland. (image: The Oban Times)

Interestingly, if you take the same ingredients: a Mars rover, NASA scientists etc. and then add something new, like a bunch of partying Scottish highlanders, you get into a whole different territory. So it was that driving back home last Friday I heard a report on the BBC Radio 4 “PM” programme about the world’s first extraterrestrial twinning event. This was the news that Glenelg in northwest Scotland (population 300) was holding a special twinning ceremony to mark the arrival of NASA’s Curiosity rover at “Glenelg” on Mars (population: yet to be determined). The space shuttle astronaut Bonnie Dunbar attended the ceremony and gave a talk, as did Professor John Brown, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland. Doug McCuiston, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, attended the festivities via a live video link and answered questions from local villagers assembled in a marquee that had been specially erected for the occasion.

A little earlier in the month, Mars-related research was the focus of numerous internet articles. This was in response to our paper in Science Express presenting new results for the Tissint meteorite. Most internet contributions, particularly from mainstream news organisations, provided a reasonable summary of the research findings. These included: The New York Times, New Scientist, The Guardian, Sky and Telescope. But other reports went way off tangent; a notable example being Time magazine’s online piece entitled: “Could Martian Bacteria have seeded Earth?”. Fascinating stuff, but absolutely nothing to do with research reported in Science Express.

New research published in Nature and Science Express provides additional support for the giant impact model of lunar formation. (image: NASA)

The Moon displaced Mars towards the end of last week, as news organisations focussed on a group of papers reporting new research results related to the giant impact hypothesis. A study in Nature by Paniello, Day and Moynier showed that lunar magmatic rocks are enriched in the heavy isotopes of zinc and suggested that their data is consistent with a giant impact origin for the Earth and Moon. Since a range of earlier isotopic studies had called into question the giant impact model these were important results and were deservedly given significant online coverage. A News and Views article discussing the research in Nature by Tim Elliott began with the perfect opening sentence: “Like the perfect Martini, the Moon has a reputation for being dry”. Who said writing about science has to be dull!

A new giant impact model for the formation of the Earth-Moon system by Robin Canup has been published in Science Express. Shown is an off-center, low-velocity collision of two protoplanets containing 45 percent and 55 percent of the Earth’s mass. Color scales with particle temperature in kelvin, with blue-to-red indicating temperatures from 2,000 K to in excess of 6,440 K. After the initial impact, the protoplanets re-collide, merge and form a rapidly spinning Earth-mass planet surrounded by an iron-poor protolunar disk containing about 3 lunar masses. The composition of the disk and the final planet’s mantle differ by less than 1 percent. (image and caption: Southwest Research Institute)

Meanwhile, Nature’s competitor journal, Science, had arguably an even bigger scoop on its hands with the publication of two papers that effectively re-energize the giant impact model for the formation of the Earth-Moon system. Earlier versions of this model considered the present angular momentum of the system to be a primary constraint. However, the results of such simulations were not consistent with the measured geochemical composition of the Moon. In their Science Express article, Matija Ćuk and Sarah Stewart demonstrate that the initial angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system could have been significantly higher than at present and was reduced through an orbital resonance between the Sun and Moon. Ćuk and Stewart suggest that without this constraint a range of impact scenarios are compatible with the observed geochemical composition of the Earth and Moon. In a paper in the same issue of Science Express, Robin Canup builds on the work of Ćuk and Stewart to present a model for the formation of the Earth and Moon via an impact between two planets of roughly equal mass. The results presented in these two papers are highly significant and will have a major influence on future research into the formation and early evolution of the Earth and Moon. It is therefore not surprising that they have already received wide attention on the internet and blogosphere.

Professor Monica Grady discussed meteorites and Mars with Professor Jim al-Khalili on the BBC Radio 4 programme: The Life Scientific. (image: BBC)

Perhaps a little flippantly, I started out by suggesting that science news lacks a human interest angle. But of course science only happens through the drive and determination of the scientists who carry it out. But with an emphasis on objectivity and evidence-based reasoning, science itself generally downplays this human dimension. However, it’s nice to know that scientists are human too. That’s why the Radio 4 series: The Life Scientific, presented by Professor Jim al-Khalili, is such a refreshing change. Each programme in the series consists of an interview with a well-known scientist and focuses particularly on what has influenced and motivated them during their academic careers. Last week’s episode featured our own Professor Monica Grady discussing a range of topics that are close to her heart. The programme explored her fascination with the study of meteorites and what they can tell us about other planetary bodies, particularly Mars. Not unexpectedly she was enthusiastic about the new results coming from the Curiosity Rover, but pointed out that the loss of ESA’s Beagle 2 lander had been extremely disappointing. In response to the question about the likelihood of finding life on Mars Monica couldn’t resist the imortal line: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”. Science is an important activity, but clearly it’s also important to retain your sense of humour, especially when things go pear-shaped, as they inevitably do from time to time.

Cartoon that appeared in the Salzburger Nachricten. Translation by Marcus Hanke.

Blog Image Credit: (Top) Glenelg in Scotland, Wikipedia; Glenelg on Mars, NASA


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