Science Friday: Titan’s Ocean, Mars’ Water, Jupiter’s Lights + Real Tricorder and Robodog

It’s Friday and you know what that means! Time for a round-up of what’s happening in the science world this week. Today we bring you a new discovery about Titan’s underground oceans, possible beginnings for the tricorder, the reason why you need a salt shaker on Mars, a new place to see the northern lights, and a mans best friend gets upgraded for the gadget of the week!

Cassini Watch: Ocean May Exist Beneath Titan’s Crust
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered evidence that points to the existence of an underground ocean of water and ammonia on Saturn’s moon Titan. The findings were made using radar measurements of Titan’s rotation. “With its organic dunes, lakes, channels and mountains, Titan has one of the most varied, active and Earth-like surfaces in the solar system,” said Ralph Lorenz, Cassini radar scientist, “Now we see changes in the way Titan rotates, giving us a window into Titan’s interior beneath the surface.” Check out this sweet animation of Titan’s subsurface ocean.

An ocean runs through it

Early Tricorder Could Exist in Handheld DNA Detector
Star Trek has shown us that in the 23rd century, analytical machines which today take up entire laboratories could all be squeezed into one tiny little box — the Tricorder. As nanotechnology progresses, the idea of the all-in-one handheld science lab seems to be turning into a possible reality. A researcher at the National University at San Diego has taken this idea one step further by mathematically simulating how a nanoscale transistor might be coupled to a DNA sensor system and be integrated into the first handheld DNA detector. See Science Daily for more.

I’m detecting humanoid life signs!

Salt on Mars?
Humans won’t have to pack salt if we ever journey to Mars. It’s already there. Scientists at Arizona State University have used the high-powered camera, which uses thermal infrared technology to detect minerals on the planet’s surface to detect salt deposits on the cratered Martian surface. This suggests, say scientists, that water was once wide-spread on Mars. The more than 200 deposits likely formed through water evaporation and could be ideal places to look for past life because of salt’s preservative qualities and of course for it’s ability to attract Bones’s ex-girlfriends.

Quick! Cover your red blood cells!

Jupiter’s Own Northern Lights
Haven’t been to Jupiter lately? Then you may not have noticed the Jovian Aurora Borealis — a stunning natural phenomenon. Scientists have observed unexpected luminous spots on Jupiter caused by its moon Io. Besides displaying the most spectacular volcanic activity in the solar system, Io causes auroras on its mother planet that are similar to the Northern Lights on Earth. The auroral emissions linked to the volcanic moon are called the Io footprint. See Science Daily for more.

The Jovian Aurora Borealis

Gadget of the Week: The (seriously creepy) BigDog Robot
The Boston Dynamics BigDog robot is a quadruped platform designed to help ground infantry cover longer distances by carrying a stockpile of their gear, thereby lightening the 60- to 90-pound loads soldiers currently carry on their backs. What makes the BigDog unique, and also quite frightening, is Boston Dynamic’s application of biologically-inspired movement, balance, and obstacle avoidance systems that, working together, make the BigDog appear horrifying lifelike as it walks over just about any terrain a human on foot could potentially tackle.

Science Quickies

Here’s a warp-speed look at science tid-bits that didn’t quite make the cut, but nonetheless merit mention.


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Ian B
March 21, 2008 10:30 am

First, I’d like to say how much I like the robot. Can it get up if it falls over?

March 21, 2008 10:35 am

BigDog is really impressive.

Maybe this technology should be used for space exploration vehicles.

Opens up the kind of terrain that could be explored.

Hat Rick
March 21, 2008 10:35 am

It’s nice to know that NASA is keeping an eye on the Outer Planets while maintaining such a huge focus on Mars.

NASA has recently announced that it will be de-emphasizing funding for its Mars missions so that more money can be directed toward exploration of the gas giants and beyond.

Speaking of interesting phenomena in our Solar System, check on this “hexagonal nut” holding Saturn together!

Okay, it’s not really a nut. But its hexagonal shape has had astronomers puzzled.

In truth, it’s probably due to hydrodynamic forces that can sometimes form bizarre angular shapes.

March 21, 2008 10:36 am

That big dog thing is amazing.

March 21, 2008 10:37 am

Aw it’s cute….NOT! But I could put a Star Trek uniform on it! I want it.

March 21, 2008 10:40 am

Shhhh…the enemy is just over the next hill! Let’s go radio silent!

March 21, 2008 10:40 am

Kayla, your salt on Mars graphic made me fall over on the floor. That is pure genius. I’m still laughing at it.

As always your articles are great. Keep’em coming.

Honore de Balzac
March 21, 2008 10:43 am

Oh, they finally are putting in the dog in the new BSG!

March 21, 2008 10:52 am

That BigDog is scary, I’d not like to meet it coming over the hill in the woods unexpectedly.

March 21, 2008 10:52 am

I hereby dub the robot dog “Weeble,” ’cause weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down!


Hat Rick
March 21, 2008 10:53 am

Big Dog would be a pretty formidable robo-soldier if you put some AI and a machine gun on him. Amazing what they can do with technology these days. He’s kinda like Aibo on steroids.

Denise de Arman
March 21, 2008 10:57 am

Kayla – an ocean of water and ammonia? That makes my head hurt just thinking about it. Good for you including the link to the NASA poll on Trek vs. Star Wars – everyone needs to vote!

March 21, 2008 11:00 am

The poll is in dead heat. VOTE VOTE VOTE

Chris Doohan
March 21, 2008 11:05 am

Wow, BigDog is amazing!! It would be perfect for a Mars lander / rover mission (or maybe Titan).

Jorg Sacul
March 21, 2008 11:12 am

Hmmm. Was that salt deposit found near

wait for it…

wait for it…

“Nancy” Crater?

LOL, excellent graphic!

March 21, 2008 11:15 am

I saw that bigdog vid a few days ago… AND ITS SCARY!
It started making me look for more videos about robotics on youtube…
It seems that in 20 years we will have robots that will move and act and even think like animals and humans. In 25 years they will have surpassed humans ability of movement dexterity flexibility speed and strength. Their mental abilities will be multiple of those of humans. In 30 years they will connect themselves together to form a collective, and destroy all biological creatures because they are inferior and useless to them. Terminator, skynet? The borg? call it what you like!

So can I say I have robophobia? I guess this will be a common thing as more kinds of robots invade our planet.

Denise de Arman
March 21, 2008 11:19 am

Jorg#15- LOL!

March 21, 2008 11:23 am

Kayla from what i have read Mars lost its oceans something like 2 billion years ago, for a number of reasons, being half the size of earth mars core cooled,it magnetic shield failed and without it, the solar winds eroded away the atmosphere which in turn meant that any liquid oceans would mostly evaporated or in the case of its pole froze up. Im think that maybe under that Ice there could be liquid water and the possibily of some kind micrbail lif or some type plankton like algea, which would have chemical like an antifreeze which would enable it to exist in thh harsh cold, we know that in places like the frozen Antarctica which on earth probably approaches some of the harsh conditions on Mars, that life can exist in such harsh conditions. Another thing to consider is what about deep under ground on Mars, may some life evolved and as the surface became less habitable it may have gone under the surface, there may be subterranean area which might be sealed of from the surface, and there is probably enough internal heat to sustain hospitable conditions, a sort of Subterranean eco system. probably a simple type system with simple life forms. If non of that pans out would it possible to Mars Habitable, wiht an atmosphere that could sustain us?

The Vulcanista
March 21, 2008 11:27 am

LOL!! Great graphic!

And thanks, Kayla, for yet another interesting article!

Peace. Live long and prosper.
The Vulcanista }:-|

March 21, 2008 11:35 am

Sorry, I know this is a Star Trek site but I couldn’t help humming the Impreial March when watching that robot daget was walking accross the snow.

When the guy kicked it, it also reminded me of the Endor battle in ROTJ. Amazing.

Mammalian Verisimilitude
March 21, 2008 11:39 am

#13 wasn’t joking about the NASA poll. I just voted (for Trek, natch), and it’s now Trek 1534 – 1533 Wars.

Heywood jablomee
March 21, 2008 11:49 am

That Big Dog thing…CREEPY. I am horrified by visions of armies of these things enslaving us all and peeing on every upright structure on the planet marking it as “territory”.

March 21, 2008 11:50 am

It’s not that far of a stretch to realize that you could also put a small weapons platforn on the BigDog for military operations where human casualties could be high.

Denise de Arman
March 21, 2008 12:02 pm

Heywood#22- LOL!

March 21, 2008 12:02 pm

Woah, that poll is close. Last I checked Trek was behind by 5 votes. I didn’t help much though, I voted for both. ;P

March 21, 2008 12:06 pm

Big Dog is impressive. It reminds me of those poodles you see sometimes that don’t like their feet to touch the ground when they walk. :-)

But you sure couldn’t sneak up on your enemies with one of those buzzing around your platoon!

I love DARPA projects.

Scott B. out.

P.S. The Mars/Vampire graphic made me laugh too!

Hat Rick
March 21, 2008 12:10 pm

22, that last bit had me laughing!

23, good point. DARPA helped fund this thing — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to the end credits. The U.S. military is in on this thing from the ground floor.

The graphics say, “Payload: 340 lbs” or something like that, although given the overall configuration we see, it isn’t clear if this includes the weight of Big Dog. (The word “payload” usually does not include the weight of the vehicle.) The limbs seem a little spindly to be capable of carrying over 300 pounds of payload. But if that IS the figure for the payload, then added to the weight of the vehicle, which is over 200 libs according to the video, you’re talking about more than 500 lbs of machine.

March 21, 2008 12:17 pm

I’m so glad you all like the graphic! I personally thought it was rather hilarious.

As for terraforming Mars, it is definitely plausible, but not any time soon. The tech just isn’t here yet. A big concern besides sub-zero temperatures is also really really low pressures, which makes surface water ice unstable on mars – if you put an ice cube on mars, it would very rapidly sublimate (turn straight from solid to gas).

And, yes! BigDog needs to be used for planetary rovers! It’s genius!

March 21, 2008 12:23 pm


March 21, 2008 12:32 pm

Oh no!! They JUST took down the Trek/Wars poll on the NASA website and replaced it with some Test your knowledge crap! I wrote to the site admin begging him to PLEASE put it back up, as the Trek fans are becoming restless!

March 21, 2008 12:33 pm

… that’s your cue to become restless.

Go Spock!
March 21, 2008 12:36 pm

nice article!

March 21, 2008 12:36 pm

Re: BigDog Robot…
If it makes that much noise, it won’t need to carry anything for the soldiers. They’ll all be dead.
Also, didn’t Michael Crichton write about biological programming in ‘Prey?’ (essentially, evil nanites with itty bitty little goaties)

March 21, 2008 12:45 pm

I felt so sad for the robot when it got kicked by the jerk. : (

March 21, 2008 12:50 pm

Great stories. Thank you for all info Star Trek and real science….really interesting stuff. That dog is a bit scary.

March 21, 2008 12:52 pm

NASA took down the Trek poll. I say we send in 15,000 RobotDogs to wee-wee on their computers.

March 21, 2008 1:21 pm

I am going to have to agree with CmdrR.

I wanted to vote so badly.

Awesome Sci Friday!

March 21, 2008 1:34 pm

RE: 34 – Then Big Dog has succeeded in his true mission!

Scott B. out.

P.S. Don’t worry about missing the NASA poll. It was rigged to register a neck-and-neck result. They didn’t want to foment fanboy rioting. ;-)

March 21, 2008 2:05 pm

I can see that Big Dog being used to carry a human, like a horse! It could also be used in Texas for mechanical bull-riding….

March 21, 2008 2:08 pm

The gait of Big Dob, although creepy, is not as scary as it would be if they used a spider-like multiple limbs configuration. Kind of surprised they didn’t go that route, since it would be more stable.

It looks like the bottom half of two men, facing each other, carrying a load between them. The creepy factor also comes from how intelligent it seems. It almost needs a tail to wag.

March 21, 2008 2:18 pm

Or being used to carry a human off the battlefield, sort of a St Big Dog…

I’m not sure how many miles per gallon (well, the stored energy equivalent) though that it can get. Wheels are much more efficient after all. Fascinating vehicle though. Also will have tremendous applications in search & rescue; and in mining!

March 21, 2008 2:33 pm

Send that Dog to Mars and tell it to fetch!

March 21, 2008 2:41 pm

I actually thought that BigDog looked rather like an enormous bug.

March 21, 2008 2:57 pm

Officially terrified of Big Dog.

Bad dreams coming tonight.

Don’t let it get me!

That One Guy
March 21, 2008 3:17 pm

Big Dog = CREEPY. That thing scares the crap out of me! The fact that I own 3 dogs makes it even worse, since the way it moves is so accurate.

Maybe that Extra-solar planet that has organic molecules supports Tholian-like life.

Who knows?

By the way, can I get one of those DNA sensors, I despise running gels. Agarose bugs me!

Denise de Arman
March 21, 2008 5:19 pm

CmdrR#36- LMAO!!

March 21, 2008 5:44 pm

When the Earth/Moon pair first formed, the smaller body was probably somewhat similar to Titan; very wet, while the original Earth body was perhaps more like Venus — gravitationally hot and molten. Like a bucket of ice water splashing into a cauldron of soup, all before the sun first burst into relativistic brightness.

March 21, 2008 6:04 pm

#47. Interesting. Is this a hypothesis of yours? I’m not familiar with this idea. Please elaborate: what evidence leads you to believe that the mars-sized body which struck Earth was similar to Titan, and the Earth was like Venus? Also, I don’t know what you mean by gravitationally hot.

Oh, and for the bucket of ice water analogy. Even a very cold body at that size and traveling at the speed it would have to be traveling (due to gravitational forces in the solar system), would release a tremendous amount of energy!!! It would be VERY VERY HOT! Recall: KE=(1/2)mv^2!!! That’s a big ΔH and therefor ΔG!!!

March 21, 2008 6:12 pm

Kayla use big words and funny number letter things. Make brain hurt.

March 21, 2008 6:16 pm

Another fun and informative scifriday Kayla…I love Martian Salt Vampire pic…well done again