Map of Mars’ south polar ice. The colors show how thick the ice is, and the black rectangle shows the location of the newly discovered sub-surface lake. From Orosei et al. (2018).

As summer winds down and we prepare for the fall semester, I finally found the time to read the recent announcement about finding sub-surface water on Mars using the MARSIS radar onboard Mars Express.

Although evidence for liquid water on Mars has been reported for a long time, these reports are almost always about ancient flows or very modest, salty trickles (and the presence of water often turns out to be illusory). By contrast, if this most recent report holds up to scrutiny, there could be 10 billion liters of liquid water under the martian south pole.

That’s not much on the scale of the Great Lakes (the smallest one, Lake Erie, contains 10,000 times more water), but it’s more than a thousand times the volume of tanks at the Georgia Aquarium, which hosts more than 100,000 aquatic animals. So the martian lake could easily host a microbial zoo (although no direct evidence for that as of now).

As is common in polar regions on Earth, the martian water lies under kilometers of polar ice and is probably so cold it requires some kind of geological anti-freeze to keep from freezing solid (the kinds of mineral salts that can do the job are actually pretty common on Mars). The overburden pressure from all the ice also helps keep the water liquid.

But the fact that the lake sits underneath so much ice raises an obvious question: how did the scientists spot it in the first place? The answer is related to why the recent wildfires in the west, in addition to fouling the air, have given us very lovely sunsets.

Preferential scattering of blue light by the atmosphere.

When it first leaves the surface of the Sun, sunlight is colored white. But as it passes through the atmosphere, the light (which is a wave of electric and magnetic fields, after all) interacts electromagnetically with the atmospheric gas molecules, which themselves contain electric charges.

The closer the wavelength of the light ray is to the sizes of the molecules, the stronger this electromagnetic interaction and the more the ray can be diverted from its straight path.

Since blue light has a wavelength (500 nanometers) closer to the size of the atmospheric molecules than red light (700 nanometers, it is more readily diverted or scattered. At dusk, as the sun sets, its light has to pass through more and more of the Earth’s atmosphere. So more and more blue light is scattered away, leaving behind more red light and making the Sun look red. If you sprinkle in lots of smoke from a wildfire, you can enhance the coloration.

What does all this have to do with martian lakes? The MARSIS instrument used to find the subsurface lake uses very red radar light, with wavelengths tens to hundreds of meters long. Similar to red sunlight, such long wavelengths can easily pass through even solid rock since they’re much larger than the rocky molecules that make up the martian surface.

Reflectivity of radar light from beneath the martian south pole. The bright patch at the bottom marked with “Basal reflection” is from the sub-surface lake. From Orosei et al. (2018).

This explanation simplifies things a lot, but the upshot is that MARSIS could see the lake as a very unusual bright patch underneath all that polar ice.

What’s next? It’s possible that continued data collection and analysis will turn up other subsurface lakes on Mars. If Mars’ south pole is brimming over with these icy lakes, it could be an especially good habitat for martian microbes. So maybe the effort to find martian life should explore using the same ice drilling technology being considered for exploring the oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

A martian dust devil observed by the HiRISE instrument, in orbit around Mars.

Dust devils, whirling columns of fine particulates, have captured imaginations going back at least to the ancient Greeks, but their inner workings continue to confound and surprise scientists. Dust devils are common in arid regions on Earth, and on Mars, where “arid” doesn’t begin to describe the climate, dust devils are ubiquitous.

Especially puzzling, dust devils are better at lifting dust into the air than they ought to be. For example, in lab-simulated vortices, even when the winds are barely above a breeze, small dust grains seem to miraculously levitate and dance. So it seems that some force other than just wind must be important for lofting dust in devils. During our research group meeting today, we discussed a recent study by Gabriele Franzese and colleagues looking at one possibility: electric fields within dust devils.

As dust grains clatter around within the turbulent body of a devil, they can collide over and over again, which can transfer charge between the grains similar to the process that generates static electricity. And, for reasons that aren’t well understood, small grains like to collect negative charge.

Since small grains can be more easily lifted than large ones, small, negatively charged grains end up at higher altitude than large grains in dust devils, resulting in charge separation and a electric field. In the same way static electricity can lift small pieces of paper, these electric fields can draw in more dust grains and help explain the surprising ability of devils to lift shrouds of dust.

From Figure 5 of Franzese et al. (2018), the electric field associated with a dust devil.

For their field study of active dust devils, Franzese and colleagues set up meteorological equipment in the deserts of Morroco and left it there, steadily measuring wind speeds, dust loading, and electric fields. As dust devils skittered past their instruments, they registered as dips and spikes in the data logs. After recovering the instruments and analyzing the data, Franzese and colleagues found more than 500 dust devils had visited their instruments over a three month time-span.


The dust devils displayed a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and, most importantly, electric fields. The picture at left shows the electric field measured for one particularly strong dust devil. In this case, the devil exhibited an enormous electric field, 12,000 V/m. For comparison, such strong electric fields usually seen within storm clouds. Franzese and colleagues show that the strength of field measured for a devil correlates one-to-one with the amount of dust within the devil, so it seems likely electric fields do play some role in the lofting the dust.

Since humidity in the air can wick away static charge, dust devils on arid Mars probably exhibit even stronger electric fields than on Earth, which may help explain why martian devils are so much more common there: even faint whirlwinds manage to lift dust. These same electric fields could also present a danger to human exploration of Mars, though, potentially damaging sensitive electronics. Or at the very least, making a case of the Mondays even worse.

At our research group meeting on Friday, we discussed an interesting paper from Dr. Tom Barclay and colleagues, which explored how many and what kinds of planets we might find with the TESS mission, launched in April this year.

As Barclay et al. argue, trying to estimate the planet yield from an upcoming survey provides several benefits. For instance, knowing how many planets TESS may find can help astronomers figure out how much time to allot for follow-up observations at large observatories. Also, thinking about TESS discoveries is like staying awake on Christmas eve, anticipating all the presents – it’s just plain exciting.

And make no mistake – TESS will be another game-changer. Kepler focused on figuring out how many of each kind of planet there is in our galaxy, but as one of the trade-offs to facilitate this kind of statistical study, most of the systems found by Kepler are much too far away and dim for us to conduct follow-up studies and learn more about the systems.

TESS takes a different tack, focusing on bright, nearby stars for which additional characterization of the planets will be easier. For instance, some of the planets discovered by TESS will be observed by NASA’s next behemoth, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will reveal the planets’ atmospheres in exquisite detail.

Barclay’s paper lets us shake the presents under the TESS tree, hinting at the goodies inside. By modeling a wide variety of planets in orbit around the 3+ million stars that TESS will see, they try to simulate the kinds of observations the mission will collect and figure out which planets TESS can find easily and which ones it will struggle with.

For example, they find TESS may discover nearly 300 planets with radii smaller than twice the Earth’s.  Among these potentially Earth-like planets, roughly ten will orbit in the temperate zone, making them  possible oases for extraterrestrial life.

After reading these results about potentially habitable planets, I was also excited about their prediction that TESS may find 12,000+ giant (i.e. Jupiter-sized) planets. Barclay et al. caution that these objects will be especially hard to distinguish from astrophysical false positives. But these planets may also reveal some of the most interesting astrophysical phenomena, so if there are any clever tricks to extricate these planets, the effort might prove worthwhile.

A pine grove on Puget Sound’s campus.

Just recently returned from the meeting of the Northwestern Section of the American Physical Society, which took place on the lovely campus of the University of Puget Sound.

It was a cozy meeting of physicists and student physicists from throughout the northwest, and there was a variety of talks and posters on topics from gravitational waves to DNA computers to diversity in science.

One of the talks that really stuck out in my mind was the banquet presentation from Puget Sound’s Prof. James Evans about the antikythera mechanism, a mysterious barnacle-encrusted gearwork recovered from an ancient Grecian shipwreck.

Constructed by an unknown artisan in about 200 BC (according to Evans), the machine could track the date, follow lunar phases, predict solar eclipses, and even maybe show planetary motions  — all with the turn of a single crank.

For my presentation, I gave a brief overview of exoplanet astronomy, with a focus on how these discoveries have begun to hone our ideas about alien life and extraterrestrial civilizations. I’ve posted by presentation below.