Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Destination Phobos?

Phobos is one of two small moons circling the planet Mars. The other is Deimos.
Phobos as photographed from the Mars Express
It is only 3,700 miles above the  surface and circles around Mars in only 11 hours 9 minutes, which is slightly less than half a Martian day (24 hours 37 minutes). As far as we know this is lower than the moon of any other planet in our solar system. As this photo shows its appearance alone is intriguing and there is reason to suppose that it could reveal secrets about the history of its parent planet, including any biological life that may have been present over its 4 billion year history. The low density of Phobos suggests that it may be partially hollow, with underground caves and rock consisting of lightly packed microfragments. Large amounts of interior ice are also probable.

The most likely theory for its formation is that it comprises debris from the surface of Mars. This would have been thrown into orbit by meteorite collisions over the probably 4 billion years since the planet was formed and during this time the debris has coalesced to form the Phobos we see today. So within the material that makes up this satellite could be a record of life on the surface of its parent planet.

Why not go there? It would be much cheaper than visiting the surface of Mars or even that of our own Moon, which is never less than 140x closer than Phobos. This is because it is so small (mean radius 6.9 miles) that it has virtually no gravity for a spacecraft’s engines to have to battle against, so only a small amount of fuel would need to be carried and the larger distance would be covered largely by coasting from the Earth’s orbit around the Sun to that of Mars after an initial boost; similarly, but in reverse, for the return mission.

In my view this should seriously be considered as a priority destination for the MPCV (multi-person crew vehicle), also known as Orion, now being developed by NASA for missions beyond earth orbit. The Moon and nearby asteroids are other targets being evaluated for manned missions before the much bigger and more expensive step of landing men on Mars is taken. Russia and the USA both have experience of prolonged micro-gravity effects on humans, which is necessary since the trip out would take about 9 months.

I think Phobos should be the next step for a manned expedition for the following reasons:

  • It would take less energy and money to get men to Phobos than to the surface of the Moon and back (as explained above).
  • Phobos’s rocks could provide evidence of past life or absence of life on the Martian surface over billions of years.
  • Underground caves would provide an ideal shelter from cosmic bombardment, a major problem for manned missions, and a logistic base for future descents to the Martian surface. 
  • Humans on Phobos could observe Mars in great detail without risking contamination of the surface with terrestrial bacteria.

This last point is important because the occurrence or non-occurrence of any form of biological life independent of Earth would be of enormous significance in assessing the nature of its origin and putting terrestrial life into a cosmic context. Since the inception of terrestrial life there have been innumerable ejections of organic debris into space due to meteorite, asteroid and comet impacts, so that some of this is likely to have found its way to other planets. However, I believe it is possible to identifiy this life asa terrestrial in origin or otherwise.

Interest in Phobos is growing. Russia attempted to send an unmanned probe there recently (November 2011) but this failed. China had experiments on board the Russian probe, called Fobos-Grunt and the USA is also interested.

To get there or anywhere else beyond  earth orbit efficiently we need to be able to launch materials, equipment and prefabricated structures into orbit more cheaply and frequently than was possible with the Space Shuttle, so that earth orbit can serve as a base. Once a vehicle is assembled there it can be launched off into deep space without having to fight hard against gravity.

 I am still mystified as to why the Skylon spaceplane, a UK design, with its revolutionary air breathing rocket engine (SABRE), is not being developed as a matter of priority. Skylon could get mass into orbit at a fraction of the cost of any other technology of which I am aware. Presumably politics is a factor since space exploration is moving towards international cooperative ventures to share costs and expertise. There is also a major trend towards private ventures and away from government-led programmes.

My view is that the universe is there to be explored, not ignored. International space exploration projects are a way of raising our horizons and cooperating instead of stewing up the biosphere and destroying ourselves spiritually and in internecine conflict.


see also Interplanetary mining


Friday, 27 February 2015

Are some scientists from the planet Vulcan? (In honour of Leonard Nimoy)

I first published this post in 2011 but am republishing it now in honour of the passing of Leonard Nimoy who played Mr Spock in the original Star Trek series. As a keen viewer since the 1980s I have come to feel like an old friend of the missionaries on the Enterprise as they spread western ideals of love, foregiveness, justice and respect throughout the Galaxy - though never daring to mention the ultimate source of these.

 Mr Spock was often teased or rebuked by his crewmates for not understanding aspects of reality that could not be deduced or induced by logic. Love and affection, for instance, are not logical and therefore should not be acted upon. Presumably, being from the planet Vulcan, Mr Spock was not familiar with Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem, published on Earth in 1931 under the rubric Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem states that ‘in any sufficiently powerful, logically consistent formulation of logic or mathematics there must be true formulas which are neither provable or disprovable’.

Separately, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy entry on this theorem states the following: The implied moral is that truth in some way outruns provability, at least when that is considered formally.’

This theorem is a landmark in philosophical and mathematical logic. It proves that a scientific theory of everything is inherently impossible and, by implication, we have to go to something transcendental to connect with a greater truth than that reachable by logic alone (important though logic is). What is staggering is that some cosmologists and theoretical physicists of high intelligence persist in ignoring this theorem, often, it seems in a fruitless attempt to pretend there is no creative agency behind the universe. Are they aware of the theorem or is it they don’t understand it or is it just that they don’t want to know?

Unlike scientists, mathematicians on the frontiers of computer technology are forced to adhere to it because it is a powerful tool in gauging the computability of certain mathematical functions.

For an excellent and clear account of Goedel’s world shattering theorem and its implications click here.

Finally, a disclaimer – I am not a mathematical logician or professional philosopher. I am not even intelligent by any conventional measure. However, I am interested in a lot of things and persistent and as one who believes in God I am committed to truth.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Microbiology: our changing perception of nature

Recent developments in the field of microbiology (see below), together with advances in epigenetics, horizontal gene transfer by viruses, fungal networks and quantum biology, contribute towards a perception of the biological world very different from that of a selfish-gene-driven machine. Increasingly it is seen to be an intricately interconnected ecosystem with purposeful evolution of immense complexity. The protein coding gene is only 1% of the human genome: the rest is an unfolding mystery. There is miraculous engineering, organisation, data transfer and decision taking from the macroscopic to the microscopic. Whether it is a tropical rain forest or  biochemical pathways within a cell, the characteristic that stands out is one of systems cooperating to produce new systems of larger functionality.

Results of the Human Microbiome Project

A 5 year study involving 80 research institutions and funded mainly by the US government has sequenced the genes present in the bacteria, fungi and viruses, collectively known as microbes, present in and on the human body. Here are the main results as reported in Focus, August 2012, p.12 and The Economist, August 18, p.62-4.
  • The human digestive system alone has 100 trillion bacterial cells, which is 10x the number of body cells and weighing a total of about 1 kilogramme. NB: bacterial cells are typically only about 1/50th the volume of a human cell, which normally has a diameter in the range 5-40 microns. In all the human microbiome contains 3 million genes compared to the 23,000 of the human genome.

  • There are 10,000 different species of bacteria, viruses and fungi which reside on the skin, on the palms, in the nose, intestines, throat, hair and vagina, behind the ears and in other places.

  • The colony present in a person is unique to that person and the variation between people is very large. Despite this variation there are a core set of functions common to all.

  • Disease lies dormant in almost everyone. Pathogens are present all the time and do no harm until for no apparent reason they go on the attack. E.g.: heart disease, diabetes (both 1 and 2), multiple sclerosis, eczema and asthma. Conversely, they can also protect the body from infection, as with clostridium difficile (severe diarrhoea etc.). This arises when antibiotics kill off the beneficial bacteria.

  • The bacteria in the gut breaks down food that cannot be broken down by the digestive enzymes produced by the body, turning it into vitamins. Surprisingly, the gut bacteria varies substantially from person to person yet the function is the same.

 Expanding on this last point, complex carbohydrates are turned into formic, acetic and butyric acid. These are then  passed through the walls of the gut into the bloodstream where a miraculous biochemical pathway converts them into energy or layers of fat.  10-15% of the energy used by an adult is provided in this way.

See also more recently a post dated 17 February 2015 from the Scientific American
 'Microbes in our gut are essential to our well being.'    

The March 2015 issue of Focus has as its cover story ‘How Bacteria change your mood.’

Antibiotic resistance

 The prevailing dogma has been that bacteria mutate in response to modern antibiotics, until they become resistant. No doubt there is some truth in this, although my understanding is that the actual mutations are far from random. But a much wider picture is emerging. It now appears that bacteria present in the biosphere some 4 million years before modern antibiotics were invented were already resistant to them. In other words when ever a new antibiotic is launched on the market the chances are that somewhere on Earth there is a bacteria which can beat it. This will have big implications for drug research and evolutionary theory.

The evidence for this came to light in the discovery of bacteria present in the Lechuguilla caves in New Mexico. These had been isolated from human influences for 4-7 million years. Of those that could be grown in petri dishes over 70% were found to be resistant to antibiotics.


It may be that antibiotic resistance to any conceivable antibiotic is present in bacteria somewhere in the biosphere and it is only a matter of time before it finds its way to a patient under treatment. If so, the effort should be focused on  more robust ways of treating infections.

Possibly complementing this finding there is recent evidence that resistance to penicillin, sulfonamide and tetracycline is present in soil bacteria. See

I am sure there is much more going on in biology than I can possibly keep track of or comprehend but I hope this gives you a taste of just how much our understanding of the biosphere is evolving.

author, 2077: Knights of Peace 

see also
 Natural technology: the bacterium

Evolution IS progress

Project GENOME turns junk DNA into treasure

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