It’s International Asteroid Day. The June 30th date was chosen to mark the anniversary of the Tunguska air blast over Siberia in 1908. This event occurred when an incoming meteor exploded in spectacular fashion as it met the Earth’s atmosphere. The resultant blast was so large that it would have registered 5.0 on the Richter scale! The UN decided to designate this day in the hope that we (as humans) would start to appreciate the threat that asteroids may play in our future. It is a certainty that an asteroid (or comet) is heading our way and unless we study them now – to work out what they’re made of and how they behave on their orbits around the Sun – we won’t know how to prevent one hitting us. It’s not just science fiction and Hollywood that has to deal with such scenarios (reference Armageddon and Deep Impact). Planetary Defence is becoming an increasingly important field of scientific research with aims to either divert or destroy space objects that might be heading our way in the future. OK, so we probably won’t need the likes of Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck playing ‘would-be’ space miners, but the chances are that we’ll send robotic spacecraft to do their job.
But I just want to point out how awesome asteroids are. They are some of the oldest objects in the Solar System and they hold many secrets about the formation of the planets. They even have the potential to tell us how Earth became the life-giving planet that it is today. The funny thing is that they are all different, taking on a multitude of shapes, sizes and compositions. We can’t just study one to find out about all of them. This is why we must go to look at more of them in space, otherwise we won’t be very well equipped to work out what to do if one is heading our way. At the same time, we’ll tease them into revealing some of their 4.5 billion year old secrets.
Anyway, it just so happens that June 30th coincides with me submitting the manuscript for my popular science book Catching Stardust. I hadn’t planned it this way, honest, the serendipity only occurred to me this morning. The final chapter of Catching Stardust deals with ‘Saving Planet Earth’; looking in detail at the various ways we plan to deal with space objects heading our way in the future. For now though, fear not, it looks like we’re safe for at least the next 100 years so there’s plenty of time to read my book and find out more before the big event!
I’ve realised that an update about my popular science book ‘Catching Stardust: comets, asteroids and the birth of the Solar System’ is long overdue and now that I’ve hit the required word target I felt it was a good time to write a little blog about my progress. For more info about the scope of the book see below for the list of chapters or please refer back to my original blog about the book that is here.
The main writing part of the book has gone really well and I’ve enjoyed it so much, honestly, I never thought it would be such fun. I began writing in earnest around February 2016 and took a ‘pregnant’ pause around June 2016. The reason being, I was literally growing a tiny human at the same time as I was (metaphorically) growing the pages of my book. I got to around 60,000 words by the time my baby was due, having been aiming for around 45,000 by that stage so I was happy to have surpassed my own little goal. This was helped somewhat by the fact that I was on bedrest for some of my pregnancy which rather focussed my mind on my laptop because there’s only so much Netflix one person can watch! I had a few months of rest from my book whilst I adapted to motherhood but I was raring to go again (if just a little sleep-deprived) in October 2016 when my writing time became very focussed into short bursts of activity and I never knew how efficient I could be. I had two chapters left to research and write (Space Mining and Saving Planet Earth) and they came together quite quickly.
I hit my 85,000 words target in February 2017 and this was a major milestone; I had a book!! Quick, time for a celebratory trip to the beach (one of the many benefits of living in California right now). However, I knew all those words needed a bit of wrangling into order. So began the stage of reading back through everything I’d written from the start, what I’ll be calling the ‘1st major phase of editing’ and I found that I was now massively re-arranging the content of the chapters and deleting hundreds of words, but don’t worry, there’s still plenty. The result is that I’m now really happy with what I’m reading, and a bit surprised that it sounds OK, having slightly forgotten what on Earth I’d written a year previously.
So this is where I am now. As part of this phase it’s time to get other people involved; sending my baby out for judgement (well, my book baby, not my actual baby). My lovely Dad was the first person to read any of my book and he will read the entire thing (which is the same as my PhD, sorry!), in fact, he’s only got two chapters to go now. At this stage I’ve begun to rope in friends to help too. My aim is to have at least one specialist and one non-specialist read each chapter. Lucky I know so many awesome people who have kindly offered to read chapters; I was inundated with offers.
First and foremost, I want my book to be scientifically accurate but, obviously, it has to be well-written and interesting to read at the same time, even for people with a non-science background. My natural style is conversational, as you can probably tell from my blog, so I’ve tried to maintain that throughout the book, quite different to an academic style of writing. The last thing I wanted was for my book to read like a textbook. I mean, I love a good textbook and I’ve read some that are so well-written that I’m happy to read them in bed. But a textbook can, quite rightly, be a bit dry since they are designed as a reference text. So, this is where I wanted to make sure there was something for my readers to enjoy whether they are reading on the train, on the beach, or in bed.
I am, of course, yet to see what the Bloomsbury editors think…but that is the next stage. At the end of April 2017 I will send a first draft of the entire book to my editor. She will get back to me prior to the ‘proper’ submission in June 2017 with anything she thinks needs work. It’ll be a nerve-wracking time. All the while, I’ll continue editing and incorporating the excellent suggestions from my proof-reader friends.
Below is a list of the chapters of my book as it currently stands. I’m so excited about it, especially as I’ve found out that the designers have started to think about the book cover design too. I can’t wait to see what they come up with. So, watch this space for more news. I’ll be able to update more once I’m done with this ‘1st major phase of editing’. The timeline is still that the book will be published by Bloomsbury Sigma in the UK around March 2018, and in the US around June 2018.
A 4.6-billion-year journey into the deep freeze
Comets and Asteroids on Earth
Water and life on Earth
Saving planet Earth
That’s it for now folks. Any questions: tweet me @StarkeyStardust
Here I am talking to the lovely StarTalk team about my favourite scientific breakthrough. I was rather put on the spot to come up with my favourite breakthrough with just a few minutes warning but it was an easy decision for me. Of course the NASA Stardust mission! The mission findings completely re-wrote the history of comet and asteroid formation, and our understanding of the formation of the Solar System!
The video link needs a subscription to StarTalk All-Access content but I think it’s worth it as there’s loads of other cool stuff on the site that you can enjoy.
My new StarTalk All-Stars show is out now. I was lucky enough to persuade Dr Matt Taylor, Rosetta’s Project Scientist, to join me via Skype from London, England, to help me answer a whole bunch of awesome questions that had been sent in by StarTalk listeners from all over the world. So in this episode we talk all about the European Space Agency Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko; what we’ve found out so far from the scientific experiments and what the future holds for the spacecraft (spoiler…it’s not a happy ending). To balance out the Britishness of Matt and I, we were joined by comic co-host Chuck Nice who was absolutely hilarious as usual. I had such fun recording this show and I think you’ll enjoy it too so sit down, relax and have a listen (and a laugh). More details here on the StarTalk website.
This StarTalk All-Stars show that I was lucky enough to host is all about water in the Solar System, entitled ‘Searching for Space Water‘. If you’re in my home country, the UK, then you probably know where all of the Solar System’s water is; hee hee, it’s all around you most of the time. However, if you’re in California, where I’m living at the moment, then you’ll more likely be questioning where all the water went (seriously, no rain since April??!). Anyway, in this episode I investigate where the Solar System’s water is and I’m joined by the fascinating Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and probably the most water-enthusiastic person I’ve ever met. In the style of Cosmic Queries we have a bunch of questions to tackle sent in by StarTalk fans from all over the world. Lindy and I had no idea what the questions would be in advance and it was the job of comedian and co-host Chuck Nice to reveal the questions to us live. Luckily Lindy was on hand to help me out with answering some of these questions which took us all the way from our own Earth to moons around other planets. It was a fantastic fun-filled discussion; I hope you’ll enjoy listening to the show as much we enjoyed recording it.
I thought it was about time for a little update about my book ‘Catching Stardust’. I’ve been writing for a good few months now and I’m happy to report that it’s going well, and I’m really enjoying the process too. I now have about eight chapters, with about three left to go. Not that this means the book will be finished very soon because once I have everything written then I’m going to need to go back and check what I’ve got as I can barely remember what I wrote back in January now so I assume I might’ve repeated myself a bit…or maybe even missed something out completely…so, I’ll need to have a careful check. It’d be awful to get to the end and find that I’d completely forgotten to explain what a comet is, for example! But don’t worry, I know I haven’t forgotten anything that obvious.
So what have I covered so far and how did I go about approaching writing this book? Having never undertaken such a big writing task before – even my PhD thesis was only 35,000 words and this book will end up around 90,000 words – I decided to start at the very beginning; discussing the beginning of the Solar System. Although I have to admit that this isn’t actually quite the beginning of the book as it will, instead, form Chapter 2. I plan to provide a more general introductory chapter as Chapter 1 which I’ll write at the very end, once I have a much clearer idea of what I’ve actually ended covering throughout the rest of the book. The beginning of the Solar System is a big topic on its own, and I’ve had to summarise some topics within this, for example, the physics as 1) this isn’t my speciality and other scientists are much better placed to describe this in detail (I’ve been reading Carl Sagan’s books and they are just perfect so I’ll refer you there instead) and 2) the focus of this book is more on the birth of the comets and asteroids so the aim here is to put them into the context of the early Solar System, where these objects came from and how they formed.
Of course, before I started putting ‘pen to paper’ (or rather, ‘fingertips to keys’) I began this process with what I thought was a well thought through plan for the book. This seemed like a good idea to wrangle my ideas into a reasonable format, and it gave me confidence that I had enough content in order to make a whole book when I was worried about meeting the daunting word count. However, I’ve surprised myself how much I’ve changed this plan around as I’ve been writing as I discovered that things didn’t end up fitting in exactly where I thought they would. In some cases it didn’t take as many words to describe what I wanted to get across, but in other cases it took much longer as I’d overlooked how important something was, or just that to do it justice for a non-specialist really took some more careful thought.
One of those examples is the subject of meteorites. I was planning to slot them into a chapter with asteroids, but once I got writing about them I had so many words that I found they needed to have their own standalone chapter. In hindsight, it’s such a big topic that it seems obvious that they needed this now but I think I’d just taken for granted what I know about these cool space rocks and forgot that I would need a fair amount of space to get across this excitement. However, as much as I’ll admit that I like plans, I also enjoyed seeing how my book plan changed once I began writing, adapting to new things I wanted to add in or expand upon, and I’m now much happy with the flow of the book from chapter to chapter. I hope that non-specialists can follow my thinking too and if the book is read from start to finish then it should gradually take the reader through the topics, with each chapter building on knowledge learnt from previous chapters, so that they will understand everything I discuss and, more importantly, be as excited about comets and asteroids as I am. However, I was also keen to make each chapter standalone a little bit, sort of like an essay in itself, in case people want to dip in and out of the book (which I wouldn’t recommend because I’d prefer for the whole thing to be read but I like this being an option too) so I think it might also be possible to do this.
Catching Stardust really does cover a lot of ground (or space, perhaps), including life in the Solar System, space missions and space mining to name a few, alongside the basics of what comets and asteroids are, how they formed, and how we analyse them to find out more about the early Solar System. I’m currently working on the space mining chapter, the first of the ‘futuristic’ chapters, as I’ll describe them, simply because the science hasn’t exactly happened yet, but it’s getting close. This chapter has probably taken me the longest so far, involving a lot more research than the others but I’ve learnt so much about this exciting new area of space exploration, and the more I write about it the less like science fiction it seems. There are entire books out there dedicated to the topic of space mining and, of course, I would refer you to these if you want to have a really detailed look in to the subject, but I think that my chapter will provide a good overview of the various space mining plans, putting into context how we might be able to use comets and asteroids in our future. These space rocks don’t just allow us to see into our past, but they might hold the answers for our future to. I’ll leave you with that thought for now.
Part 2 of the StarTalk Live! show I was involved in at New York’s Beacon Theatre on Broadway last September is out now and available here or you can listen directly on the SoundCloud link above. Part 1 is already online here as it came out Friday 3rd June. In Part 2 you should hear all about the New Horizons mission, Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. However, rather hilariously, Neil and I also had a ‘debate’ on whether Pluto should be classified as a planet or not. I took on the argument that Pluto IS still a planet and Neil the opposite…you’ll have to listen to see who wins…or who persuaded the audience of their argument the best anyway. There’s also a hilarious song about Pluto which you’ll have to listen out for.
Here’s a direct link on SoundCloud to my StarTalk Live! ‘Chasing Comets’ podcast from last week. The 2nd part is out tomorrow so I’ll provide a link to it soon. You can also download the show on iTunes. Hope you enjoy listening 🙂
I’m re-posting this article from The Conversation website written my good friend Dr Jessica Barnes about her own new research that has recently been published in the journal Nature Communications. She’s looked at whether comets or asteroids delivered water to the Moon and this work has some obvious implications for water on Earth too. To save you having to sift through the more complicated journal paper I think this article summarises the research really nicely. Good job Jess!
Asteroids most likely delivered water to the moon – here’s how we cracked it
One of the moon’s greatest mysteries has long been whether it has any water. During the Apollo era in 1960s and 70s, scientists were convinced it was dry and dusty – estimating there was less than one part in a billion water. However, over the last decade, analyses of lunar samples have revealed that there is a considerable amount of water inside the moon – up to several hundred parts per million – and that it’s been there since the satellite was very young.
But exactly where this internal water came from has remained an enigma. There have been many suggestions, such as comets or asteroids bringing it there. Another is that some of the water could have been there since the moon formed, from material that originally came from the Earth. Now our new study suggests that most of the water inside the moon must have been delivered by asteroids some 4.5 to 4.3 billion years ago.
The moon formed some 4.5 billion years ago – shortly after Earth. But whereas Earth has been constantly renovated through the effects of plate tectonics, the moon has been relatively quiet. The Earth’s ever-changing face means that we know very little of its earliest history. The moon, however, has acted like a time capsule, helping us better understand its history – and the Earth’s.
Digging for water
To probe how water got to the moon’s interior, we performed calculations using published data for water in lunar samples and bulk estimates of water inside the moon. We also used data available for the water content and composition of meteorites and comets. The model also accounted for different types of water, (such as “heavy water” which is made up of relatively more deuterium than hydrogen). This is very useful because because water in different objects in the solar system has different signatures – most comets, for example, have heavy water.
By calculating different mixtures of water from different sources and comparing the results to what we observe for the moon, we discovered that water-rich carbonaceous asteroids are the most likely candidates for bringing the majority of “volatile elements” (elements and compounds with low boiling points) to the moon – such as water, nitrogen and carbon. We also found that comets most likely delivered a maximum of 20% of such elements to the lunar interior.
Based on the data and models currently available, we think that these impacts happened over a couple of hundred million years after the moon formed, just before its huge magma ocean solidified. The asteroids and comets crashed into this magma ocean and were likely retained (rather than boiled off) due to a thermal lid which formed at the surface of the huge pool of magma.
The results are important because they tell us about the kinds of objects that struck both the moon and the Earth more than four billion years ago. Potentially it could also help us understand the origin of water in the Earth. In fact, water inside the Earth is so similar in composition to the water in the moon that, along with other geochemical evidence, it seems likely that our water also came from asteroids.
Of course, this is not an open and shut case, there is still a lot that we do not know about water and other volatiles in the moon and how they relate to each other. For example, we still need to fully understand the processes that operated inside the moon over geological time and work out what happened to the volatiles when lavas were erupted to the lunar surface. We can gain a huge amount of information from further study of samples returned from the Apollo and Luna missions. There are some 382kg of such samples, but only 2% have been investigated for analyses of volatiles.
But ultimately, we need to explore the entire moon to properly understand it. Our work is timely especially in light of the plans to send robotic and human prospecting missions to previously unexplored regions of the moon. In fact, the Apollo astronauts covered a distance on the lunar surface equivalent to a return journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow, so there is every possibility that rocks from the far side and polar regions of the moon may tell a different story.
In addition to the water trapped in glasses and minerals, there is also water-ice and other volatiles on the surface of the moon. As national space agencies gear up for the next era of lunar missions they are primarily focused on investigating how much water is on the surface, where it is and in what form. This will be crucial to determine whether water can be used as a resource for sustaining a moon base or enabling further exploration of the solar system. My feeling is that our nearest neighbour still has a lot to show and tell, and that the next 10 to 20 years are going to be eye-opening.
Tomorrow (June 3rd) you can listen to Part 1 of the StarTalk Live! show I was involved in at New York’s Beacon Theatre on Broadway last September. It’s a really fun show, mostly because the other guests on stage were hilarious and made the whole experience such a giggle. On stage with me were the amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson as host, joined by Ilana Glazer, Eugene Mirman and Paul Adsit. The audience were also fantastic, as seems usual for StarTalk Live!
I guess the show could be described as a rather ‘icy’ though because we discuss various cold space objects; the Rosetta mission and comets, then the New Horizons mission, Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. As it was a long live show the podcast has been split into two so this week you’ll hear the first cometary half. Part 2, I believe, should be available on Friday 10th June which covers Pluto and New Horizons, so watch this space for an update. And enjoy!