Sphagnum Moss Beats John Glenn Into Space

Remember John Glenn? Alan Shepherd? Yuri Gagarin? The victim heroes shot into space aboard an oversized bottle rocket. It was an age when children dreamed of being treated likewise…shot into space, what to do there was indeterminate. The whole point was to sit atop a lit fuse, calmly, as said heroic.
Not all childhoods were like that but among the weirder sort, meaning farmkids, there was always that certain semi-lethal high altitude trick to attempt, next time from the top of the haymow. Snow cover added to the daring; particularly generous snow banks were sought out – relative to the height one could plummet without caution to how many pieces might result.
Similarly we were attracted by various propellants and projectiles. If it began with the ubiquitous slingshot and soon after roamed off into mind-blowing elixirs of catapults, bazookas, bow and arrows, some of whom launched a standard household 2 x 4 quite nicely. Later a means was found to set fire to that wood. After which our father wanted his cable winch back and leaf springs reinstalled on the truck. The 2 x 4 was never seen again.
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It is a natural human bias to think we invented rocket propulsion or at least the Chinese did. More precisely invented gunpowder from a miraculous combination of charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter. To this list of accomplishments: Leonardo designed the first airplane, Icarus flew it, and the Wright Brothers made a bicycle famous. All this may be true but flight was invented by Mother Nature. The basswood has been flight-worthy for some 40 million years and flies as well as Leonardo’s helicopter did. On a fall day while harvesting corn, I watched the milkweed reinvent the dream of getting from point A to point B with a degree of style and grace, an economy of energy as poetic as it is efficient. When the light is right on a late evening I watch a host of spiders clutter the troposphere with their migration. At such a moment I regret my vocation is with tractors and seeders, harrows and plows, all to plant the next crop and there is milkweed doing it so effortlessly. I am somewhat shamed by my crude technique, neither is it so elegant to watch.
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Sphagnum moss is one of the more common plants on the earth with 285 species. One percent of the earth’s surface is covered with sphagnum moss, leaving behind deep regenerative mats of previous growth.
The contribution of sphagnum moss is increasingly appreciated for its stabilizing role in the planetary carbon cycle.
Sphagnum moss is a lowly plant, some say primitive, not even up to the evolutionary station of flower power. Its presence turns local water chemistry strongly acidic, in turn limiting competition for the space to a few hardy trees and brethren bog plants. Very few of which are worth anything, though valiant efforts continue for the crane-berry.
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Peat is the common name for the vegetative/soil combination that is consequent to sphagnum moss. In the United States peat is referenced more derogatively as muck. Peat soils in Scotland and England were once so common and of such quantity a peat stove was developed in the mid-18th century and became a characteristic of every farmhouse with its open fire grate and distinctive aroma. Certain Irish/Scots potables are yet manufactured on the assumption a clientele exists for a peat-cured aftertaste, the bottle of which is discriminately priced. None too shabby for the universal swamp weed called sphagnum moss.
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What is new to science and sphagnum moss is 36,000 g’s, that is g’s as in g-force. John Glenn and Yuri Gagarin in their respective rides to space experienced about 10g force on their deceleration from orbit, a corresponding 6-8g going into orbit. Fighter pilots train to a limit of 8g, a few tolerate 10g, 14g is predictably fatal – things like heart and lungs torn away from where they commonly reside.
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A recent paper by Dwight Whitaker and Joan Edwards of Williams College describes how sphagnum moss disperses its spores, the method involving an exploding canister to propel the spore to altitudes of 10 – 20cm to aid widespread distribution of the spores. Explaining how a low-lying plant type can capture extensive areas of the landscape. A 10cm altitude may not sound terribly dramatic but when the space capsule (spore) is microscopic in size, that 10cm altitude equals a space launch equivalent. None of it propelled by liquid oxygen, kerosene, or liquid hydrogen.
How this launch-phase is accomplished is a new discovery, despite sphagnum moss has a world-wide distribution and has been utilized for centuries for everything from home heating to packing crate excelsior. Similar principles are found in nature where trip mechanisms launch spores and seeds or in the case of filtering sponges act as waste disposal. Children, I might wager, could be more engaged to potty training if a like explosive discharge were within human practice.
The fascination is how this humble moss accomplishes an explosive capsule attached to a spore body. The capsule starts out spherical when wet, but on drying becomes cylindrical, leaving behind a volume of air compressed by additional drying, i.e. a natural born spud gun.
When this air bladder bursts, 20-200,000 spores are launched vertically; as seen at microscopic levels, the blast is concentrated by an ominous looking vortex ring, dead-ringer for a mushroom cloud. The spores lofted to an altitude of 20 cm engage air turbulence and “orbit” away from their mother Earth, the very same as the more famous John and Yuri.