What on Earth is That? #1

(Please post your guesses and your name in the comments, and we’ll give the answer next week…)

Here at What on Earth, we’re constantly stumbling across interesting photos, videos, and audio clips from NASA’s exploration of our planet (be it from space, the field, or the lab.) Whether it’s a satellite montage captured from thousands of miles up, the roar of our B-200 research aircraft, or a microscopic view of a cloud droplet, there’s literally always something strange and wonderful passing across our desks.

To have a little fun (and spare all that fascinating stuff from the circular file), we’re going to post snippets of it every now and then, usually on Fridays. What we post will change, but the question to you all will always be the same: “What on Earth is that?

Our only hints:

  • Our picks will always be related to Earth science in one way or another, and…
  •  It will have some relation to what we do at NASA.

We’ll give you a week to post your guesses, and we’ll post the answer the following Friday.


Updated 7/16/2010

So, what on Earth was that? We received a barrage of thoughtful—and creative—responses that ranged from pollen, to DNA, to carbon nanodiamonds embedded in Antarctica ice. Ant-related answers were surprisingly common. (Nope, it isn’t an ant eating salt, spitting up acid, or laying eggs.) It is, drum roll please, a microscopic view of soot from wildfire smoke in Africa. Congratulations to posters MicroMacro (comment 121), Arbeiterkind (comment 124), Mike (comment 125), Michael & Marion Dreyer (comment 130), and Rosemary Millham (comment 141), who were correct or on the right track. A more complete description of the aerosols from this particular fire, including the image above, was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research (account required).

Here are a few more details to impress your pals: Bits of soot (a type of aerosol particle) tend to clump together into the chain-like structures visible above. Wildfires, diesel trucks, factories—anything that partially burns the carbon locked away in fossil fuels and organic materials can produce soot and release it into the air. Soot makes doctors nervous as it can cause health problems when it lodges in our lungs and works its way into our bloodstream. And climatologists are wary of the particles as well because they absorb the sun’s energy and hasten global warming and climate change by heating the atmosphere directly or coating the surface of glaciers. In recent years, black carbon is an active area of research in climate science, and it’s a target of study for a number of NASA’s Earth science projects, including the forthcoming Glory satellite

Image(left) from Peter Buseck, Arizona State University. Image(right) from Jim Ross, NASADryden Flight Research Center.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

What on Earth is That #9

What on Earth is That?

  Here at What on Earth we’re offering an extra special “no prize” if you can correctly identify the large blob-like objects and the smaller objects pointed at by the arrows. Post your guesses in the comments section, and check back next week for the answer.

Here’s the question from last time
And a time before that
And that

Listen to the Sound of a Ship's Hull Gouging Through First-Year Ice

What on Earth was that grinding, thudding, scraping sound? No, it wasn’t astronauts clumping around on the Space Station, a washing machine in the midst of a cycle, or space dust hammering the Space Shuttle. It was actually the Coast Guard’s newest and most technologically advanced ice breaker — the Healy — barreling through thin, first-year ice in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska. (Multiyear ice tends to be less briny and have more air bubbles than first-year ice.) NASA science writer Kathryn Hansen is on board as part of the ICESCAPE mission, and she had this to say about the sound:

On July 7, I took a trip down into the bowels of the Healy’s bow to record the sound of the ship’s hull pummeling through thin, first-year ice (mp3 above). The rhythm and crescendos reminded me of the percussion section of an amateur orchestra.

Interestingly, icebreaking sounds completely different depending on your location in the ship. From outside on the ship’s deck you can hear the ice cracking and ocean water rushing in to fill the void. From inside in the science lounge, add the effect of vibrating bookshelves and the demise of items not properly secured.

These sounds (not to mention the earthquake-like movement) eventually blend into the background and sleep comes easily. The strange part will be returning home at the end of the month to a “quiet and still” life in the city.

By now you might be wondering, how much ice can the Healy break? Cruising at 3 knots, the ship is rated to break 4.5 feet of ice. By backing and ramming, the ship can break through 8 feet. Breaking thicker ice is possible but would take more time.

Hansen has also filed a few web videos about the expedition featuring interviews with ICESCAPE Project Scientist Kevin Arrigo and Karen Frey of Clark University that are worth checking out.

What on Earth is That #8?

What on Earth is That?

After going on hiatus for a few months, What on Earth is That is back! We’re don’t plan to post a new question every week, but we will when we have something interesting. Here’s the latest mystery sound. Know what it is? Hint: It has something to do with NASA and Earth science.

(Post your guesses in the comments section, and check back next week for the answer….)

Here’s the question from last time
And a time before that
And that

Snow Views

What on Earth was that? It may have looked like an amoeba, but it’s actually a microscopic view of a wind-blown snowflake as viewed by a scanning electron microscope. Scientists in the Electron Microscopy Unit at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, which is just up the road from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, captured the image. Scientists at Goddard typically study snow from above using satellite instruments that fly high above the surface. Despite their differences, both perspectives offer views of bewildering beauty.  See more microscopic snow crystal imagery here

Satellite imagery courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.  Snowflake imagery courtesy of the USDA.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

Volcano Music

What on Earth was that sound? Was it a bird? A plane? A humpbacked whale?

No, it was fiercely hot gas whooshing through the guts of a volcano — Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica, to be precise. Milton Garces, the director of the Infrasound Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, recorded the sound clip we posted last week.

Garces explains the phenomenon this way:

“Much like human voicings are defined by the combination of air flow through the vocal chords, tract, and mouth shapes, this harmonic tremor sound is shaped by the interaction of volcanic gases as they are released and flow through open conduits.”

NASA satellites have got Earth’s volcanoes covered from orbit. They provide round-the-clock monitoring of volcanic eruptions in progress or those possibly on the way. Just two of the satellites used to monitor volcanic activity are Aqua (with its MODIS instrument) and Terra (with its ASTER instrument).

Volcanologists use the satellite data from NASA’s fleet to detect heat and telltale volcanic gases emanating from volcanic vents. Also, Global Positioning System satellite devices allow researchers to gauge subtle changes in the land surface near volcanoes.

And once a volcano pops off, NASA satellites track drifting ash clouds that could threaten aircraft. (You may recall the shenanigans of a certain unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, earlier this year.)

As the NASA birds pass silently overhead, Garces clambers up live volcanoes to record their subterranean rumblings. He uses the sounds to diagnose the physical status of volcanic plumbing systems – for example, whether they might be recharging with molten rock (magma) and getting ready to erupt.

These very low frequency waves are called infrasound. In fact, they are too low in their raw form to be audible to humans. So Garces speeds them up artificially to a frequency range the human hearing can detect. Here’s how he explained it to us:

“This signal, which has been sped up by a factor a hundred to make it audible, in reality has a dominant periodicity of about 1 cycle per second (1 Hz). In the field, it sounds like a chugging sound with 1 s puffs, and it is not tonal at all. We lose our sense of tonality at frequencies below around 16 Hz, so infrasound, however harmonious, will be perceived by us more like a beat than a tune.”

In other words, volcano infrasound is pretty interesting to a scientist, but you can’t dance to it — or at least it would be the ultimate slow dance.

— Daniel Pendick,
Geeked on Goddard
; Eyjafjallajokull image
courtesy of NASA Goddard’s MODIS Rapid Response Team

Hungry? Try a Honeypot Ant…

If I’ve learned anything as a science writer, it’s that scientists produce such a flood of fantastically odd factoids that boredom isn’t much of an occupational hazard. Heck, the chances that deep boredom will strike during work are right down there with the odds a cataclysmic disaster will obliterate humanity come 2012.  (Pretty much impossible, in other words.)

I got a healthy reminder of this last week when a bug expert—an entomologist, in proper scientific parlance—by the name of Benoit Guenard turned me on to some photos of a truly bizarre genus of ant called Myrmecocystus.  A slice of one of those photos—a group of jaw-droppingly obese honeypot ants hanging from the roof of a nestbecame our most recent “What On Earth is That?”

This particular type of ant, which lives in deserts, is like something out of The Matrix.  When food is plentiful, honeypot colonies select certain workers—entomologists call them repletes—to serve as food receptacles for the group. The other workers tuck the repletes away in a safe spot, and then literally stuff them with food until the back sections of the repletes literally swell up like water balloons.

Grape-sized repletes so fat they cannot walk are common. When food gets short, hungry workers just wander over to a replete, poke and prod it a bit, and wait for it to upchuck lunch. If that’s not bizarre enough, it turns out that rival honeypot ant colonies have a habit of raiding one another and plundering–then enslaving–repletes.  Stranger yet, it’s not just ants that have a taste for repletes; they’re something of a local delicacy among certain tribes in Australia.

Guenard, it so happened, was the perfect guy to ask about weird ants such as Myrmecocystus. He is in the midst of—get this—an effort to classify all the ant genera in world. That may not sound like much, but it’s an enormously ambitious task when you consider that biologists have yet to name something like half of the ant species scurrying around us.  

Nobody knows the total number of ant genera in the world, or species for that matter, Guenard tells me, since biologists have never managed to cobble together a systematic search at the scale required. That’s not for lack of effort. In the nineties, an ambitious effort to name every single species on Earth (not just ants but all species) in a mere 25 years—the equivalent of a Moon shot for taxonomists–flamed out when the tech bubble burst and the project lost its funding. Other efforts to classify smaller bits of ecological real estate have suffered similar fates.

Still, there are biologists out there like Guenard doing their best to continue counting. Guenard, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, participates in the Global Ant Diversity Project, an effort led by his adviser Rob Dunn and sponsored, in part, by NASA. (I first met Dunn at a NASA-sponsored Ecological Forecasting conference where he was explaining how he uses satellite data to predict global patterns of ant diversity. Check out this PowerPoint if you want to learn more about how that works). 

Guenard updates the growing ant database as new information turns up in the scientific literature, but he also keeps an astonishing website and blog that brims with eye-popping photography and commentary about ant species that I’m willing to bet you never knew existed. Take a look, for example, at these Pachycondyla chinensis doing battle with some hapless-looking termites. Or look at this pint-sized worker intimidating a hermit crab dozens of times its size. 

I certainly couldn’t get enough ants from the website, so I gave Guenard a few calls this week to pick his brains about ants and honeypot ants in particular. Here’s a clip from our conversation in which we discuss, among other things, the scientific value of ant licking, replete raiding, and how to tickle an ant to make it spit.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team