July 2008

NASA says that at least one of the large lakes on Titan, a moon of Saturn, consists of liquid hydrocarbons. The hydrocarbon ethane has been positively spotted, making Titan the only other object besides Earth known to hold liquid on its surface.

Thanks to the Cassini mission and the data provided by numerous flybys of Titan, analysis of light absorption and reflectivity in infrared light helped confirm the existence of the liquid lake. Scientists have seen hundreds of dark, lake-like features on Titan but did not know whether these features were liquid or merely dark rock or other dark material.

The hydrocarbon lake is called Ontario Lacus in the south polar region of Titan, and slightly largely that Lake Ontario between Canada and the United States. Titan’s surface temperatures approximate 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, yet shows evidence of evaporation, rain and fluid eroded and fluid carved channels draining into the hydrocarbon lake bed.

Earth has a hydrological cycle based on water but Titan has a cycle based on methane. Scientists have ruled out the presence of water ice, ammonia, ammonia hydrate and carbon dioxide in Ontario Lacus while observations also suggest the lake is evaporating as mentioned above. The lake is ringed by a dark beach. A black lake merges with the bright shoreline. Cassini observed a shelf and beach being exposed as the liquid in the lake evaporates.

The picture below is a panorama mosaic taken by the Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft on Mars showing the midnight sun over a period of several days.


During eleven days, the path of the sun dropped lower over the northern horizon of Mars, captured by time-lapse images and composed into this mosaic. The arc in the picture is indicative of the polar nature of the Phoenix mission.

Phoenix has now been on Mars nearly 60 days. A set of imaging commands will soon be initiated to check a northwestern piece of the Martian horizon in early afternoon looking for dust devils, which are fairly prevalent on Mars. This will represent the first time Phoenix has systematically searched for dust devils. It appears to me that the resolution of the Phoenix camera is so good that any dust devils captured should make for very interesting photographs.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

This year is the 40th anniversary of Intel’s birth. Does anyone remember their very first chip? Below is a recap, based on information in a PC Magazine article.





1971 4004 400 khz 1st microprocessor
1974 8080 traffic light controllers Altair computer
1979 8088 5 mhz; 8 mhz IBM PC & clones
1982 80286 compatible with 8088 new processor family
1985 386 DX first 32 bit processor 275,000 transistors
1989 486 DX math co-processor
1994 Pentium up to 100 mhz
1995 Pentium Pro 2nd cache memory chip 5.5 million transistors
1996 Pentium II MMX technology 7.5 millions transistors
1998 Pentium II Xeon scale 4 to 8 processors workstations & servers
1999 Pentium III 500 mhz 9.5 million transistors
2000 Celeron portable PC’s performance + price
2000 Pentium 4 1.5 ghz 42 million transistors
2002 Pentium 4 3.06 ghz hyper-threading
2004 Pentium M Centrino technology low voltage technology
2005 Pentium 4 Extreme 3.8 ghz for gamers
2005 Pentium D 800 dual-core technology
2006 Core Duo speed efficient design
2007 Core 2 Quad Q6600 2.4 ghz leading edge high-end gaming
2008 Atom Z540 ultra-mobile pc’s smallest chip

What’s really amazing, looking at the table, is the number of transistors that can now be placed on a chip, 42 million versus 275,000 only twenty years ago.

Intel was founded on July 18th, 1968 by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. It’s name is an acronym for Integrated Electronics. Gordon Moore is also well know for Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors that can be inexpensively place on an integrated circuit increases exponentially, doubling every two years.

Intel has 100,000 employees and is in the Top 50 on the Fortune 500 list.

So where did the water on Mars go? The water that made all these channels and gullies and so on and so forth. Sounds like there used to be quite a bit of it. There certainly isn’t an amount of ice at the poles that would account for all the water that has flowed on the planet. So what happened to it?

There has been a lot of press lately about evidence of water discovered on Mars. nearly every month this year something has developed in the gathering of water evidence on Mars for scientists to say it definitely existed.

This isn’t really a new story though. This link to NASA’s web site talks about the Mars Global Surveyor finding evidence of water on Mars. This was in June 2000. 

What’s good about this link is that it offers an explanation as to what happened to the water that once made these gullies on Mars.


The atmospheric pressure at the surface of Mars is about 100 times less than it is at sea level on Earth. This lower pressure allows the liquid water to boil, violently and intensely. The gullies formed from the rapid outflow of water from the interior, creating these chasms before the water boiled off. The outflow of water and debris from inside Mars must have occurred repeatedly, over and over.

There is an oddity to the gullies. They are found in the coldest regions of Mars, not quite where one would expect to find them.


The water on Mars is believed to be about a quarter of a mile below the surface. Certainly reachable by humans, as some mines are Earth reach down a mile underground. This means human explorers to Mars could access the water for drinking, for creating breathable air, and for extracting oxygen and hydrogen for energy.

Okay, so now I have another question. If the water boiled off, where did the hydrogen and oxygen go? Mars atmosphere is thinner than the atmosphere on Earth.

Oh well. One answer satisfies for now. I thought it was a very interesting answer too.

I subscribe to The New Yorker magazine and have read it on and off since seventh grade, when I used to carry home The New Yorker and Time magazine from a couples throw away pile, whom I worked for, performing yard work for them, and would have carried off their empty Calvert whiskey bottles if they in fact hadn’t been quite so empty.

I never get the sense that The New Yorker is right wing or even right of center. They seem to me to be middle of the road with left of center tendencies. This is why their magazine cover that’s in the news this week is perplexing.

I wonder if it is a case of the marketing department run amok? Surely this will sell a lot of magazines, with collectors even hoping to put them back up for sale on eBay in a few years.

One of the regular writers for The New Yorker is Hendrick Hertzberg who recognized the passing of Jesse Helms in his blog for the magazine by writing this:

July 4, 2008

Dropping the Helmsman

Far too late for it to do anybody any good, Jesse Helms has died. He has done so on Independence Day, which, since he was born too late to own slaves and in too liberal an age to allow him to outlaw sedition, will forever be his only resemblance to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

It is rude to speak ill of the dead. Luckily, I did so ahead of time.”

I offer his quote as evidence that the magazine dishes it out to both parties and the members thereof.

I find the cover in bad taste, as a satirical vehicle, it lacks conveyance of understanding, and just plain ‘dirty pool’ as it were. Satire is only effective if you understand what they are trying to get at. Dunderhead that I am, I’m usually good at recognizing satire and love it as a form of comedic entertainment.

On the other hand, this seems to be proof that Senator Obama is the guy to beat in November. Everyone wants to expose the leading contender in politics, sports, business or whatever else is attracting the most attention at the moment.

A test of Senator Obama’s character will be how he responds to this. If I was him, I would announce that I would subscribe to the magazine just so I could have the pleasure of canceling it after the first issue arrives.

Me, I’m not canceling. Poor taste happens all the time, usually in combination with poor manners. I think it is a good magazine that just got a little off base this week.

A fork-like probe will be used for the first time by the Phoenix Lander on Mars to analyze the Martian soil.

Mars Lander Probing Soil

The robotic arm of the Lander has inserted this probe, consisting of four spikes, into the Martian soil as a test of the insertion process. The prongs of this probe, which is capable of thermal and electrical conductivity, will be used as a tool to test how easily heat and electricity move from prong to prong, gathering information about frozen or unfrozen water in the soil. The prongs are about a half inch long, or 1.5 centimeters.

The probe sits on a “knuckle” of the 7.7 foot long robotic arm. Previously, it was used to assess water vapor in the Martian air. This would be the first time soil measurements have been done by the probe.

The Democratic National Convention Committee announced today that the acceptance speech that their candidate, Barack Obama, will give is to be held on August 28 at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, now known as Invesco Field. This venue will accommodate more than 75,000 fans, oops, I mean supporters, and will occur on the final night of the convention.

Traditionally this speech is given inside the convention area and only party insiders usually see it live and in person. This venue will allow many ‘regular’ people to attend and presumably create a lot of excitement in the process.

Coincidentally, or not perhaps, the date of his acceptance speech will be the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King giving a famous speech of his own; the “I Have a Dream” speech. It will be interesting to see what Senator Obama’s speech will say and how it is regarded in terms of memorability on the morning after.

Can John McCain do something similar? One wonders what it might be.

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