Sciency Words: Venus Syndrome

March 27, 2015

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:

VENUS SYNDROME

On Thursday, we talked about what it would take to terraform Venus. Turning Venus into another Earth is, in short, difficult. So instead, how about we turn Earth into another Venus?

Mr12 Earthly Earth

In the worst-case scenario for climate change, accumulating greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere trigger a runaway greenhouse effect analogous to what happened long ago on Venus. Hence the name “Venus syndrome.”

Here’s how Venus became the charming hellhole we know today:

  • Venus had oceans: Early Venus probably had oceans of liquid water. As the early Sun grew brighter, these oceans warmed up, releasing water vapor. Water vapor, believe it or not, is a greenhouse gas. It’s transparent, so light energy passes straight through; but it traps heat, so once light energy becomes heat energy, it can’t escape.
  • The oceans boiled: The initial temperature change would have been relatively minor, but it created a positive feedback loop. More water vapor trapped more heat, which evaporated more water, which trapped more heat, until the oceans boiled away completely. Then things got worse.
  • The rocks sublimated: The temperature rose to the point that certain carbon-containing rocks sublimated (turned from solids directly into gases). Carbon dioxide took over for water vapor as Venus’s principle greenhouse gas. More CO2 caused more rocks to sublimate, generating more CO2, and… well, you get the idea.
  • The sulfur cycle began: The now ludicrous temperatures also released sulfur compounds into the planet’s atmosphere, providing the key ingredient for Venus’s infamous sulfuric acid clouds.

So could this happen on Earth? Could manmade greenhouse gases initiate a runaway greenhouse effect, ultimately boiling our oceans and sublimating the carbon and sulfur in Earth’s crust?

Mr12 Venus-y Earth

According to the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change, human activities have “virtually no chance” of causing Venus syndrome. They’re predicting less dramatic consequences: rising sea levels, mass extinctions, etc. So that’s reassuring, I guess.

The problem is we don’t know the point at which slight changes to Venus’s environment began spiraling out of control. This makes Venus the subject of rather urgent research by both climatologists and planetary scientists.

Venus syndrome is a worst-case scenario, meaning it’s the greatest extreme on a spectrum of possibilities. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore it. The story of humanity’s exodus from a Venus-like Earth needs to be told, perhaps as science fiction, before it has the chance to become science fact.

Links

2009 Assessment Report from the International Panel on Climate Change.

Venus and Mars Hold Priceless Climate-Change Warnings for Earth from The Daily Galaxy.

Could Greenhouse Gases Turn Earth into Venus? (Yes, But Not Anytime Soon) from Mother Jones.


Let’s Fix Venus

March 26, 2015

Venus wants to kill you.

Mr11 Venus Won't Lie

With its sulfuric acid clouds, dangerously high atmospheric pressure, absurdly high surface temperature, et cetera, et cetera, Venus has more options for killing humans than any other planet in the Solar System. But maybe we can fix that. Maybe we can make Venus more like Earth.

To terraform Venus (or any other planet) we must do two things:

  • Add stuff that we need to survive, like water and oxygen.
  • Remove or mitigate conditions that would harm us.

Most discussions on terraforming seem to overlook that second part, perhaps because the biggest threats to life-as-we-know-it are not always immediately obvious.

Turning Venus into Earth

Converting Venus’s noxious atmosphere of CO2 and sulfuric acid into a friendly oxygen/nitrogen mix will require some creativity. Since I’ve never personally terraformed a planet (yet), I can only guess about the tools required; but my educated guess is that some sort of bioengineered algae would work best.

We’d need something that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen. Algae already do this. We’d need something that can endure prolonged exposure to sulfuric acid and solar radiation. Some species of bacteria can do that. We’d also need something that can survive, at least at first, in a high temperature environment where water is scarce. Again, life on Earth has already shown that this is possible. We just have to design a new species that puts all of these qualities together.

Once our bioengineered algae start gobbling up Venus’s CO2, removing Venus’s primary greenhouse gas, a process of global cooling should begin. Cooler temperatures would disrupt the sulfur cycle, so the sulfuric acid clouds would start disappearing on their own, and traces of water vapor in the upper atmosphere would be able to condense into liquid water.

Admittedly, this liquid water would only result in a few puddles, so we’d still have to transport in more water. Also, I’m not sure how to deal with the atmospheric pressure. But still, we’re off to an amazing start. Unfortunately, Venus has other plans.

Mr11 Terraformed Venus

Turning Venus Back into Venus

I sometimes joke that I want to live on Venus because I’d have so many more hours in my day to get stuff done. One solar day on Venus is approximately 2,800 hours (1,400 hours of daylight plus 1,400 hours of night).

Venus has an abnormally slow rotation. In fact, compared to the rest of the Solar System, Venus is rotating backwards (the only planet weirder than Venus in this regard is Uranus, which rotates sideways).

1,400 hours of daylight can have some peculiar effects on a planet, especially an Earth-like planet. The oceans that our algae worked so hard to create would soon boil. Water vapor would act as a greenhouse gas. The planet’s carbon cycle would come to a grinding halt, allowing CO2 to accumulate in the atmosphere once again, and the rising temperatures would kick start a brand new sulfur cycle.

Without constant efforts by us to maintain cool temperatures on Venus, the planet would rapidly turn back into its old self. In the end, Venus kills you.

Mr11 Venus Warned You

I normally end these posts with links to some of my sources, but today, I want to end with a book recommendation: Venus Revealed by David Grinspoon. Without getting into too much technical detail, Grinspoon covers many key topics related to Venus, including a brief but illuminating section on terraforming. The book is a wealth of knowledge not only on Venus but concerning planetary science in general (although the bits about exoplanets are now out of date).


Molecular Monday: Carbon Monoxide vs. Carbon Dioxide

March 23, 2015

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Molecular Mondays. Every other Monday, we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that are the building blocks of our universe, both in reality and in science fiction. Today’s molecule—or rather, today’s molecules—are:

CARBON MONOXIDE and CARBON DIOXIDE

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the best at chemistry. So when someone told me carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are basically the same thing, I felt pretty sure this was wrong. But not 100% sure. So I did some research.

On the surface, carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) do seem kind of similar. They’re both colorless, tasteless, odorless gases. They’re both produced by combustion. And they’re both deadly to humans.

A common conversation between CO2 (on the left) and CO (on the right).

A common conversation between CO2 (on the left) and CO (on the right).

Death by Carbon Dioxide

If you breathe in too much CO2, you’re probably not getting all the oxygen you need. In most cases, this will make you feel a little uncomfortable, and you’ll probably experience an uncontrollable urge to step outside for some fresh air.

It takes a lot of CO2 to kill a human, so unless you’re knocked out or otherwise incapacitated (inhaling large quantities of CO2 could cause you to faint), you’ll probably be okay.

Carbon monoxide, on the other hand, is a more aggressive killer.

Death by Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide loves bonding with the hemoglobin in your blood. It sort of has a fetish for anything that contains iron or similar metals. So inhaling CO reduces your total oxygen intake AND reduces your blood’s capacity to transport whatever oxygen you do get.

This double whammy means it takes a lot less CO to incapacitate and kill a human. Even if you do survive, CO is reluctant to leave your bloodstream once it’s bonded with hemoglobin. So your blood could have diminished oxygen-carrying capacity for a long, long time after exposure.

Similar but Different

So are carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide basically the same thing? In some ways, yes. But if you’re human (or any other respirating animal), there is at least one crucial difference.

Links

Carbon Monoxide from Molecule of the Month.

Why Does Pure CO2 Kill You? from The Naked Scientists.

Inert Gas Asphyxiation from Wikipedia.


Sciency Words: Global Resurfacing Event

March 20, 2015

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:

GLOBAL RESURFACING EVENT

Sometime between 300 and 600 million years ago, Venus experienced what scientists call a global resurfacing event.

Mr09 Makeover

It seems that all of a sudden, in some cataclysmic event, molten hot lava spread all over the planet’s surface, covering up pretty much everything. We know this because Venus’s surface, which has been mapped using radar altimetry, appears to be much younger than the planet itself, free of many of the impact crater blemishes we find on all the other terrestrial worlds in the Solar System.

What caused the global resurfacing event is a topic of heated debate (get it… heated!). Maybe this happened due to a really bad volcano day. Maybe some large object (Venus’s former moon?) collided with the planet. Maybe aliens bombarded Venus with planet crusher missiles… you know, as a warning to the dinosaurs. It’s also possible that Venus goes through periodic resurfacing events.

If this was a one time event, you have to wonder what Venus was like before it got resurfaced. If this is a recurring event, then it could be fun (as a science fiction writer) to speculate about what might happen when the next resurfacing event begins.

Links

Craters on Venus from Universe Today.

Tectonics on Venus from Teach Astronomy.


Colonizing Venus

March 18, 2015

Mr08 Venus or Bust

No place in the Solar System (except Earth) is exactly welcoming to human life, but Venus’s anti-human hostility reaches a whole other level. Venus will try to kill you eight different ways before you even touch the ground. You’ll never have to worry about the lack of water or oxygen because you’ll already be dead.

And yet, there is serious discussion about colonizing Venus. The trick, it turns out, is to not bother trying to land. Instead, Venusian colonists would live in cities suspended in the upper atmosphere. The oxygen/nitrogen air that we breathe would have sufficient lifting force on Venus to keep our floating cities aloft, so we don’t even need helium or hydrogen balloons.

NASA has even produced this video showing what our first manned mission to Venus might look like. Get ready for space blimps!

The magic number is 55. At an altitude of 55 kilometers above the Venusian surface, the temperature is about the same as a warm summer’s day on Earth, with 90% Earth gravity and atmospheric pressure only a hair above Earth normal. The environment actually sounds pleasant—aside from the hurricane force winds and sulfuric acid clouds.

So could we colonize Venus? Sure. It’s definitely possible, and there may be good scientific reasons for doing it. Just so long as I’m not the one who has to go.

Links

Colonization of Venus, a proposal by Geoffrey A. Landis.

Acid Clouds and Lightning from ESA.

Super-Hurricane-Force Winds on Venus are Getting Stronger from ESA.


Venus and Mother Russia

March 16, 2015

If you want to land on Mars, the United States can help. The U.S. has a pretty good track record for successfully landing space probes on Mars. But if you’d rather land on Venus, talk to the Russians. They’ll tell you how it’s done.

Mr07 Vodka

In fact, I’d say Russia’s special relationship with Venus began in 1761 when Russian astronomer Mikhail Lomonosov discovered that Venus has its own atmosphere.

In more recent history, Russia’s Venus-related accomplishments include:

  • Venera 1: First spacecraft ever sent to Venus, or any other planet for that matter. Sadly, radio contact was lost before Venera 1 reached its destination.
  • Kosmos 27: Failed in Earth orbit.
  • Zond-1: Failed on route to Venus.
  • Venera 3: First spacecraft to land on Venus. Well, crash land.

Okay, a lot of these missions didn’t go so well, but the Soviet space program can teach us all the value of persistence. And eventually, Russian persistence paid off.

  • Venera 4: Successfully transmitted data from inside Venus’s atmosphere.
  • Venera 7: First successful landing on Venus. Plenty of data transmitted back to Earth.
  • Venera 11 and 12: Observed thunderstorms on Venus.
  • Venera 13: First color photos from the surface of Venus.
  • Vega 1 and 2: First weather balloons deployed to study Venus’s atmosphere.

As an interesting side note, Russia’s Venera 4 entered Venus’s atmosphere at almost the same time that the U.S.’s Mariner 5 was passing by. Despite the tensions of the Cold War, this was just too good an opportunity to pass up. The sharing of data from the two spacecraft was one of the earliest examples of international cooperation in space exploration.

Russia’s next mission to Venus won’t be for a while. The launch of the Venera-D space probe is currently scheduled for 2024.

Links

Russia’s Unmanned Missions to Venus from Russian Space Web.

When the Veneras Challenged Venus’s Hellish Atmosphere from Discovery News.

Soviet Balloon Probes May Have Seen Rain on Venus from Wired.com.


Sciency Words: Ad Hoc Hypothesis

March 13, 2015

Sciency Words BIO copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:

AD HOC HYPOTHESIS

“Ad hoc” is a Latin phrase meaning “for this,” as in “for this one and only one purpose.” Within the sciences, the term has rather negative connotations. Basically, it’s technical jargon for “Oh come on! You just made that up!”

A scientific hypothesis can be labeled “ad hoc” if any one of the following conditions are met.

  • The hypothesis attempts to explain one and only one phenomenon.
  • The hypothesis contradicts part or all of our current body of scientific knowledge.
  • The hypothesis cannot be tested in any meaningful way.

The ad-hoc-ness of an ad hoc hypothesis increases when you find any combination of the above conditions. Please remember that ad hoc hypotheses are not necessarily wrong, but in the minds of scientists, they are highly suspect.

You’ll encounter the term ad hoc in many scientific papers as well as in books and articles about science. There’s even an event called BAH-Fest (that’s the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses) where professional scientists compete over who can come up with the most hilarious ad hoc hypothesis.

And yet, the term does not seem to appear very often in science fiction, despite the fact that it fits so well with a common Sci Fi trope: the scientific genius whose radical new theory has not been accepted by his/her peers.

Rejected dialogue from Back to the Future:

Marty McFly: But Doc, your time travel theory falls apart without the ad hoc explanation of the flux capacitor.

Or as a response to meaningless technobabble:

Rejected dialogue from Star Trek:

Ensign Chekov: The ship must have entered some sort of quantum asymmetrical graviton loop singularity!

Commander Spock: Mr. Chekov, kindly refrain from postulating ad hoc theories. We must investigate this phenomenon further.

Or in any discussion involving conspiracy theories:

Rejected dialogue from The X-Files:

Agent Mulder: These crop circles must be part of an elaborate government cover-up.

Agent Scully: Do you have any evidence for that, or is this just another ad hoc hypothesis?

Okay, maybe those aren’t the best examples. So how would you use the term ad hoc in a story?


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