Celestial Montage ESA_space_inspiration

Posted December 30th, 2010 by admin

This is my entry to the ESA (European Space Agency) art competition Create Your Space. If you like it you have until the beginning of February (2011) to vote for it. You vote by liking my comment on the ESA image on their Facebook page – here is the link you’ll need to tell you how to vote ;). I hope you all like it. I believe you need to “like” the page before you can vote. I am Sarah Snell-Pym and this entry is linked under the image of Christer Fuglesang’s Space Walk – it is quiet a way down their wall on Facebook.

Celestial Montage ESA_space_inspirationDid Life fall into this cradle
This Earth, this home –
We now attempt to climb out of?
Or is it more than a cradle
Some crucible or potters wheel
Shaping and baking us in forms renewed?

Maybe in truth it is a bit of both
And as humanity takes its first toddler steps
We begin to see the variety that our world holds


Life here investigated

In case of alien brethren
Life searched for by the heart if not the mind
As the astronaut steps out into the void
For themselves, for us, for a future
A future – As yet unknown
A future for us all
As we grow too large for this world to contain
A cradle we have explored from end to end

But it is only with eyes freshly opened
To the wonders beyond
That we begin to see what we have missed
That which hides in plan sight
The beauty of our world
We seek its twins, our mirrors –
Its twisted folly of form


And if we are on our own?
Then look at the wonders the search has wrought
And if we are not?
Then maybe we will truly see ourselves
For the first time

Until then the void is calling
And all these things?

These investigations
These satellites
And images –
Are our jumping off point
Our call to the unknown

Do you wonder what it will answer?

Of ET, Astrobiology and Arsenic

Posted December 3rd, 2010 by admin

Pandemonium broke out that NASA had found alien life – this then slowly turned into new type of life on Earth. Being in love with extremophiles and loving the concept of alternative life chemistries I found myself scratching around for more information.

The reports I was seeing was saying the microbial life form was interesting because it used Arsenic – but I know that there are quite a few things that metabolised Arsenic or at least have a tolerance to it.

I finally found things that said that the organism was made of Arsenic – this made more sense. That it was subtsituting Arsenic for Phosphorus – at first I thought “well duh it just has a tolerance to arsenic”. Arsenic is toxic to us because it gets into our major biological molecules.

If the organism is made of Arsenic as in it’s DNA etc… though rather than just the odd substitution here and there it becomes more exciting. Phosphorus is fundamental in making up the sugar backbone of DNA, it is part of every major bio molecule. DNA, RNA, proteins so that is our genetics and our enzymes for a start. Then there are the ‘powerhouses’ of cells in which energy is stored in bonds broken and formed between ATP and ADP – the P stands for Phosphorus!

And then there is the membrane of the cells themselves – they are made from phospholipids, this are fatty chains and Phosphorus again.

Before I go on about what this means – I watched the NASA press conference on it all yesterday. And the organism is a microbe from Mono Lake in California – this is a harsh environment full of heavy metal salts and the like. It is toxic and should be as dead as a door nail but it is teeming with life. Extremophiles are extremely interesting when you are thinking about possible habitats for life and therefore where to actually look for ET. But more over it looks like life on earth evolved from extremophiles and that on the early earth they may have been the norm – this would make most of the things we think of as ‘normal’ including ourselves the outliers and so the actual extremophiles!

I have to say before I continue that I found the press conference highly frustrating – it was obviously for the general public so didn’t even touch on a lot of my questions and the girl who made the discovery was rehashing and labouring the same points over and over (which is needed). Then a few of the other expert panel had a tendency to use long words that were not part of the science but just long words which I felt destroyed the whole “general public” feel of the thing.

Anyway – the organism is not made of Arsenic as such but it would appear that it can substitute Arsernic for Phosphorus without it being toxic – in fact put in conditions were it had everything it needed to grow except Phosphorus in a solution laced with Arsenic it still grew!

When they looked closely it appears that there is at least a band of DNA that is taking up the As and using it as P. Now from what I understood the organism is still mainly the same as the rest of us terrestrial organisms but can replace the use of P for As in it’s major biological molecules – only some of the DNA has been confirmed.

Now according to Steven Benner – Arsenic is easy to sub into DNA hence being toxic to us because it actually goes in easier than the P but it forms a shoddy link in the molecule – it is almost the same as P being just below it in the periodic table but those slight differences mean that it is not an exact fit. For most organisms this means that it can cause the DNA to break down at the points where the Arsenic is (or at least that is what I understood!).

Thinking about this I would think that the difference in electron orbitals (which is the main difference as the size (not mass) of the atoms nuclei is almost the same) would mean that the distribution of charges that allow weak linking and complex molecular shapes such as proteins have etc… will be different. This may mean that the bio molecules will not want to retain the same shapes and would need to be forced into shape by something else in the cell in order to stop a chain reaction resulting in the biochemistry no longer working. Biochemistry is lots of loops and chains interconnected with both positive and negative feedback loops in it – in other words it is a complex and delicate system. There are plenty of buffers there and even in ‘normal’ biochemistry it has been found that things like prions are needed to force errant proteins into shape so that all the reactions can occur in the right places, at the correct speeds, when they are needed.

This organism – is metabolically ‘normal’; it’s just doing what the rest of us are doing! It is not ET but it is interesting. A lot of what was being said yesterday was that it completely changes our perspective on things – I however have always gotten myself into debate about this subject because I quiet frankly have come across to many things that break Occam’s Razor and the whole concept of only looking for Earthlike extraterrestrial habitats because it’s easy but saying it’s because that is what life is likely to look like!

I will endeavour to write more on these subjects but for those who want to know more I suggest you head over to the NASA website.

One of the main confusions I have seen arising is that people think the organism is special because it can eat/metabolise Arsenic – this is not the case – there have been several discoveries of such organisms – it is special because it is using Arsenic as part of it’s structure!

It is also scientifically exciting because it shows that biochemistry is the process and not the components – something I used to get myself in trouble with during my Undergrad studies.


Posted April 23rd, 2009 by admin

Every April from about the 16th to the 26th there is a meteor shower – it appears to come from the constellation of Lyra hence the name. They peak on the 22nd and the morning of the 23rd so though I only found out about them yesturday I decided to try and look for some this year.

I will also make this even in for future years so that it doesn’t get forgotten again – interestingly I noted there was a meteor storm in 1982 – I would have been 1 year old at the time – could that be the brilliant meteor shower my dad woke me up for – I remember being a babe in arms so it has to have been within the first four years of my life and I don’t remember my brother being in existance.

Fun Exhibitions

Posted April 16th, 2009 by admin

As part of the International Year of Astronomy there are a number of art exhibitions being held around the Uk. At least on of these is due to end this month – they look fun and I’m hoping to get a chance to see some of them :/

The events are listed here.

European Week of Astronomy and Space Science

Posted April 9th, 2009 by admin

The University of Hertfordshire is running events for the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science on the 20th-23rd of April 2009.

The itinery looks great but unfortunatly I’m going to be to busy to go :(

Late registration is possible until the 16th of April so its not too late for anyone who’s interested :)

100 Hours of Astronomy

Posted April 2nd, 2009 by admin

Starting today and continueing all week end there will be one hundred hours of continuous astronomy this weekend. This is a global event using 80 telescopes and is like the project for the International Year of Astronomy and as we are having a party at which one astrophysicist and 2 planetary scientists are attending I hope to highjack part of the party for it!

Its technically my husbands 30th birthday party – Logain’s Run themed but we will see 😉 As it clashes with the 24 hour star party’s they are trying to encourage people to run on the 4th of April :)

You can view the astronomy live via the internet too which is quiet cool :)

Added later: ok so what actually happened is we stood around lamenting the abscence of one of the planetary dudes astrophotographing kit – he didnt bring it as he didnt think we’d have the right sort of batteries – it was his first time to our house :/

You could tell who the planetary/astro people were as we were all huddled around the BBQ’s at 11 pm toasting marshmellows whilst everybody else was inside watching logains run or trying to set up a stuff so they could watch the grand prix the next day.

Using the Electron Mircoprobe

Posted March 26th, 2009 by admin

Today I went into the lab once more and place the lunar sample into the machine – this time instead of blasting it with x-rays to get element maps I was picking out specific points to hit with an electron beam and see what they are made off.

First off we picked a selection of elements that I wanted to get proportions of and then I picked the points I wanted to know about specifically. From the element maps and the back scatter image I had taken previously I knew that I apparently had several minerals (I had trudged through four large tomes of mineralogy and lunar/planetary stuff to find out what sort of things I might have lurking in the sample. I had then taken the element maps and compared them – drawn faint sketches of them and then working out what elements I had in conjection where drew on mineral areas with coloured pens onto a printout of the backscatter image. (He told me this was actually an x-ray map just not element specific so I need to check whats what with him I think).

They seemed quiet impressed that I had done this but it seemed like the only way to make things clear to me personally. I was becoming frustrated that I couldn’t work out the actual proportions and therefore the exact minerals from the elelment maps and that I could only narrow things down. Fortunatly this is what today was actually about so I worked out how many samples I wanted and were to take the measurements – unfortunatly becuase there is a bad polish on the sample I had to be careful and was highly restricted in where I could take measurements.

But I selected 101 points – each point was going to take about 9 minutes to analyse but I specifically went in early to get it all going and as it turned out had plenty of time.

I had also narrowed down the minerals really far more accuratly that I thought I had and I had worked out stuff about my ‘dirty’ quartz that does seem to be correct which is very cool and makes me feel like I might just have a chance of doing this.

The only thing is I found myself baulkin at the interface of data and computers – there are situations that I just see no reason not to have a computer automate and I think they should be relatively easy to implement and yet there is nothing! This keeps happening every where I turn in geology and earth sciences there is just huge gaps that computers could feel reducing monkey work and increasing the amount of research that can be analysis in depth!

The only scary thing about todays stuff was that if I want to go out of the lab I have to remember to press a button that puts an alunium or copper block infront of my electron beam so that it doesn’t burn a whole in the sample – this made me quiet nervous!

This post originally appeared on mine and my husbands personal blog – with some non-astronomy irrelevant bits in.

Martian Cartography of Antiquity

Posted March 26th, 2009 by admin

A freind of mine posted this link which is an artical/post on the Official Google blog on Twitter.  It is a vedeo showing Google Mars with an historical overlay on it showing the works of Giovanni Schiaparelli. This is to celebrate his 174th birthday – this guy observed Mars through a telescope and drew maps of mars – he made quiet alot of contributions to astronomy and I’m sure I’ve read some really interesting articles on him in Astronomy Now Magizine so I shall be attempting to hunt them out at some point to do a more indepth post about this.

The naming system for martian features that he came up with whilst creating these maps is what we still use today!

I am also making a note that next year will be the 175th birthday!

Ada Lovelace Day – Monica Grady

Posted March 24th, 2009 by admin

Today is Ada Lovelace Day and the idea is to blog about women in technology who you admire or who have inspired you.

I have chosen the Cosmochemist/planetary scientist/meteoriticist Monica Grady who is currently based at the Open University but she inspired me when I met her at the natural history museum where she was in charge of meteoritics _ ie she looked after/organised research on the Uk’s meteorite collection including type specimens.

Heavily involved with the Uk’s Astrobiology Society she has helped pioneer this new subject, bringing it to the attention of the general public. As such she has written numeerous books that are greatly accessable to everybody making the science and technology involved sound fun and engaging.

This talent for inspiring the science bug in people has been extended to the television with appearances along side Patrick Moore and she gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 2003, entitled A Voyage Through Space and Time.

She has been directly involved with ESA missions as well as being a world authority on exogeology. She is an expert on carbon and nitrogen isotopes in primative meteorites making her a leading international cosmo/geochemist.

Monica has worked closely with Ian Wright (her husband) and Colin Pilinger. She even has an asteroid named in her honor – Monicagrady asteroid (4731) which is really more than cool.

With very clear opinions on what science and space technology should and shouldn’t be used for – she activily encourages discuessions and debate agian bringing potential issues to the fore. In my time as a volenteer at the natural history museum she showed me that it was possible to have a career as a woman, a good career and still have a family.

But more importantly she showed me that my chosen career did exist (Astrobiolgy) when I had been informed during my undergraduate that it did not. That I could work towards it even with back operations and the like going.

Encouraging me to try the limits of my technical understanding and push my personal boundaries so that I would be able to do not just science but good science – of the need to talk to the people running the analytical equipment/ machines and to actually take note of what I was doing and not just follow blindly trusting to a ‘recipy’ someone had given me.

At a Darwin Centre event I watch a disillusioned teenage boy who thought that space science was a waste of time and that humans here and now on earth should get all of the money to feed them rather than it being used on research. Be brought round by Monica to the realisation that he himself could be part of what changed this world for the better. Showing him that he was not an helpless sheep, that he could do things – even if they were small like voting and writing to his MP. Just becuase he was young didn’t mean he couldn’t suceed and make the world a better place and this to me sums Monica up – she inspired and then empowered, she showed vested interest in all the students who crossed her path – reguardless of weather they were GCSE work experience dudes or collegues from other institutions.

May she continue to inspire many more.

Go Monica

p.s. don’t let her near a karyoke machine especially if it has Meatloaf on it – that is her one cough downside and its quiet scary 😉

Analysing the Moon Rock

Posted March 19th, 2009 by admin

Friday saw me once again wending my weary way to London.

This time I was going in to carbon coat my lunar meteorite thin section and put it in the machine to make X-ray maps of specific elements. I felt very nervous as I hadnt done anywhere near the amount of reading I had ment to do for it what with boundary disbutes and work stuff etc…

And I had been highly confusing myself by trying to learn lunar mineralogy from scratch – complete with minerals I have never heared off! I had started making a list of elements mentioned in association with lunar minerallogy and then side tracked myself – turns out if I had completed this it would have been a very good start – oh well.

I was a bit sad when I arrived that the sample was already in being carbon coated – I assume the machine works by some sort of spluttering of carbon. You coat the sample to help get a clearer image by stopping alot of the interference(I think). This means I only got a pic of it carbon coated thin section and my hands were shaking so its not a very good picture anyway but this is a piece of the moon that fell to Earth in a meteorite that Landed in Africa.

The Carbon coating machine: the carbon coater

My piece of carbon coated moon rock! carbon coated moon rock sliver

This means I also have to be weary of terrestrial contamination when analysing it.

I took photos of the machine and bits around it!

explosive gases for the machine the machine complete with liquid nitrogen

What I have done for the mini project is just selected one breccia clast/grain out of this thin section from a few cubic cm’s of lunar meteorite to ananlyse. This really is looking at the fine detail – I always have to remember that it is part of a system, part of a big over all picture, the small makes up the big and the big affects the small.

We chose which elements to map for, then defined the mapping area which was just slightly bigger than the clast. An important fact is that no matter how good the polish on the surfacce of the section it is not completely flat so to get golod results you have to sort of take the four corners and average them into a focus plan. At least this is what I understood to be happening.

Anyway I selected with some help the elements that I wanted maps for and the grand total time was 56 hours running time for the machine – wowowow. Of course this is why I was in there on a Friday afternoon so that I could have the machine run over the weekend – I clicked the button to start it and away it went.

I then proceeded to make a fool out of my self by saying – its obviously regolith isnt it – erm… we dont know came the reply. I am also very intreged by the clast I have chosen to analyse – it looks like two main minerals interlocked in some sort of intergrowth way – each with its own specific selection of other mineral inclusions.

I am a bit worried that I just dont remember enough mineralogy to do this project justice :/

Still I think I may have some idea of whats going on but suffered that thing of not wanting to say anything incase I was wrong and they thought I was stupid and wasting their time and effort. I now need to go and work out the correct scientific termonolgy instead of inventing my own – again.

Still I got to take pics of the sample being mounted in the machine including the adding of the highly conductive copper sticky tap that also keeps it in place!

mounted for analysation

copper tape

There was one interesting point – the machine appears to do a continues scan but it doesnt it stops every …. and ‘dwells’ for…. this leads me onto something else I have been pondering recently – how different are analogue and didigital – you came make one appear as another depending on resolution etc… but this needs a me to do a bit more thinking and maybe write a few books on the nature of existance I feel!

Once I have worked out the mineral phases in the sample – which I will do from these elemental maps I will be putting it in the microprob for furthure analysis.

I think that for my oral presingtation and poster I will therefore need to focus on what we know of the moon from meteorites rather than just what we know about the moon.

I am getting very excited about all this – its the thought of being able to tie in the mineralogy of crystals grains within a clast with a brecciated meteorite to lunar and even solar and possible even universe formation processes!

Happyness is once again rock shaped. Though I am hoping the element doesn’t blow over the week end – it was a new one this week so hopefully it will last!

(This post also appears on my family blog Snell-Pym)