Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Alien Faith Passed On

One fear people have of alien contact is how the proof of alien existence will affect our theologies; this includes how, beyond "just" their existence, alien theologies will affect our theologies.

One thought that popped in my head the other day was what if an alien race had in their theology that they, as a people, would corrupt and lose their true religion - their church would be without leadership, without a head, and that one day a new church leader would come, one who at first did not know they were appointed to be their leader, one who was from another race, one extrasolar and thus alien to them, who would come from the stars, learn their religion and lead their church. How would that affect us?

If their mythology predicted their church would become corrupt and they would lose all knowledge of the true religion and that someone from the heavens would come to show them the right way - that would be a call to action for many, if not most, of the churches on Earth to send missionaries and possibly fight over who would lead the aliens to the light (as Earthlings see it).

But in the first scenario - a human would need to go to the alien planet, learn their religion, and lead them. Would that cause the alien religion to be adopted by some people on Earth? Would they adopt it because it essentially elevates humans as saviors? Would they adopt it because it presents the promise of power? Would they adopt is because they have become cynical of Earth religions? Would they adopt it because they would feel accepted, part of something greater that they were not able to get, for whatever reasons (good or bad or imagined), in churches here on Earth?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Genosia - Hive Races

I was watching Star Wars: Clone Wars episode 2.7, "Legacy of Terror," and, as usual, am skeptical about insectile sentient beings ("insectoids"). As discussed in my past insectoids post, the anatomical structure of insects precludes them from obtaining great size. Although, there are instances were they could obtain larger size: a humid, oxygen rich atmosphere, or water environment. A dry environment like Genosia is not a likely habitat. However, universal biology will allow for a great range of diversity - insectile creatures on other planets may have some similarities to Earth insects, but they may well have differences, especially if they were able to evolve to high level (i.e., technological using) sentience.

But my main query from watching the episode is one of the several topics I keep returning to: hive cultures. The Genosians have a queen, who spawns the entire civilization, much as an ant queen spawns all the members of her colony. This raises some questions.

Would one queen for an entire planetary civilization even make sense? Many separate colonies ensures the species as a whole survives because a) if an accident or disease strikes down one queen, only her colony dies, the others survive and b) one queen, even if constantly laying eggs, can not hope to produce as many offspring as multiple queens. But as a species evolves to higher order sentience, it is possible that they can eventually go against biological logic: and one queen becomes dominant - eradicating all others. Sentient beings do not always have to make "natural" sense (as we humans have shown repeatedly).

Why always a queen? Even the Borg eventually has a "queen." Why can not a species have a male king who is the only one that spreads his genetic material. Much like a queen sits around constantly (24/7) producing eggs, a king could be doing not much more than just fertilizing female eggs.

If a queen, or a king, is primarily involved in replenishing the species, would they really have that much control over their subjects? Lower species control via instinct and chemical signals. Higher species may be able to fight instincts - an underground, at first, resistance to the monarchy. A non-queen individual could have a mutation that reduces the queen's influence on them. For a lower species, that probably not pose much of a threat to the queen, but for a higher level sentient species, it may prove to be a major threat.

However, let us say for argument sake that the instinct is just too deeply embedded into their makeup, and so they keep their loyalty to the queen even into their technological age. Would such an alien race be bent on making all subject to their queen? Would our shocking level of independence from each other be too much of a philosophical threat? If a queen can not stop reproducing, and the population overruns the planet (especially if "minor" queens are allowed to have colonies of their own, all ultimately loyal to the dominant "alpha" queen), they would be pressured to go out into space and find new places to colonize. It would make sense that they would find safe places such as places that are not populated by a species that would fight back and endanger a queen, or which have microbial life forms which could threaten the queen's health (though there is the scenario that if a queen dies, their species may have a mechanism for one of the subjects to take her place).

And, I wonder, what kind of theologies would a hive-minded sentient culture develop?


Image credit: Animation Factory

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alien Visitors - How to Say "Hello, World"?

Alien Etiquette Faux Pas

In ABC's "V," a rich source for those who like to speculate on alien realities, the Visitors arrive in very large space craft. Some critics think that such arrivals could not happen without our noticing. However, we Earthlings already are working on cutting edge stealth technologies that address making objects invisible to various frequencies  so it is not far-fetched to think that an even more advanced alien species would have perfected such technology. (Do these critics not have access to Discover, Scientific American, Science News, Discovery Channel, or the Science Channel?)

For me their arrival presents a different problem involved with first contact. After 9/11, and after watching movies like Independence Day and District 9, surely an advanced race would realize arriving in large ships unannounced to a jittery planet would be a monumental faux pas. Maybe early in the universe, the first space explorers made such faux pas, but it seems logical that they learned that one needs to study another planetary species carefully, learning their culture and language before contact

Lost in Space Translation (and You Thought Learning Klingon was Hard...)

But learning the culture and language of another world is fraught with incredible difficulties. Aliens that perceive the world differently than we do (live in a water world with heavier gravity, no land masses, and circling a binary star for instance), who use a different means of communicating (communicate via light, or electromagnetism, for instance), and have a different physiology and psychology (asexual, cold-blooded, egg-laying, creatures that feed by sucking the fluids out of other creatures) would have very different frames of references than we do.

And since our words have connotations, and we tend to use idioms and tropes (such as metaphors), an alien would need to understand not only our alphabets, syllabaries, and pictographs, but they would have to enter an strange world more foreign to them than our alien (to them) planet: our minds - what makes us tick. 

Think about how difficult that would be. Imagine how difficult it would be for a sentient creature that communicates via light and can see the color blue, a color to which it attaches an emotional sexual connotation, describe that color and convey its connotations to an alien sentient creature that is impassively asexual, blind, and communicates via sound. This goes beyond "lost in translation."

The Internet and World Contact Day

Thus, an alien species, from "neighbors" saying hi to those bent on being our overlords, would likely put long effort into studying us secretly at first: learn our languages and try to decipher and understand our culture, traditions, and psychology. Although, with the advent of the Internet, we've just made the job not only easier, but so much more fruitful - they can gather so much intel from afar by just tapping into our Internet via eavesdropping on our satellites.

Maybe we've hastened the arrival of World Contact Day. Time to learn The Recognized Anthem Of World Contact Day: "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft."


Image credit: 1. 20th Century Fox     2. A&M Records

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brother Alien

The Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, along with the Vatican Observatory, held its very first conference on astrobiology, a week long event which concluded yesterday.

Jesuit Father Jose Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, explained that "the questions of life's origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very interesting and deserve serious consideration. These questions offer many philosophical and theological implications."

Father Funes reiterated what he has stated in the past - that the Catholic church has no problem with the idea of extraterrestrial life. The Church can not put a limit to God's creativity. All creation falls under God, and any intelligent extra-terrestrial life, no matter how diverse, would be brothers and sisters in God's expanded family of spirit children.

However, Paul Davies, Arizona State University cosmologist, believes that discovery of intelligent extraterrestrials would create a philosophical dilemma for Christians since "they believe that God became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind, not dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets."

While some fundamentalist sects may have a problem, Father Funes believes that there is no theological crisis here. In an interview with the Catholic News Service in May 2008, he states that aliens may not need redemption as maybe they never lost God's fellowship. Father Funes pointed to the parable of the lost sheep: "We who belong to the human race could really be that lost sheep, the sinners who need a pastor." Thus, that is why God became man in Jesus on this planet - it was we who needed saving the most.

Alternatively, if the aliens also need saving, Father Funes states feels that Jesus' sacrifice would apply not only to humans, but to all intelligent beings in the universe.  I am reminded of the gospel passage where Jesus tells his disciples that "other sheep have I" - maybe that includes aliens on extrasolar planets. Jesus picked Earth as the starting point. Either way, Jesus was God incarnate and sacrificed only once.

The Catholic Church is not the only Christian sect that accepts the concept of aliens. For instance in the LDS Church accepts the idea of extraterrestrials, though they feel they will be humanoid because all intelligent advanced life will be created in God's image, as were we. Unofficially some Mormons talk about how Jesus after his resurrection went to teach "other sheep" which includes aliens, and how this proves that the Earth is the worst of all the planets - we are the only ones to crucify Jesus.

Of course, when we say "in God's image" do we really know what He meant by that? Could it be a spiritual image and not necessarily a physical one?

References:

Butt, Riazat. "Vatican Ponders Extraterrestrials." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 11 November 2009. Web. 11 November 2009. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/11/vatican-extra-terrestrials-catholic>

Maxwell, Neal A. A Wonderful Flood of Light. Bookcraft Pubs, 1990: 25.

Thavis, John. "Vatican astronomer says if aliens exist, they may not need redemption." Catholic News Service. Catholic News Service. 14 May 2008. Web. 11 November 2009. <http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0802629.htm>


Image credit: Futurama, 20th Century Fox Television. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Level 1 Parallel Words Addendum

Level 1 Déjà Vu Speculations

Earlier in Parallel Universe - are some aliens ourselves? I discussed the parallel universe essay by Dr. Max Tegmark, Cosmologist from the University of Penn. In an infinite universe, or a sufficiently large enough one, other Earths exist far far away, with the same history - a Level 1 parallel universe. These parallel universes are regions that are beyond our cosmic horizon - regions beyond the limit of our ability to see or detect. They need to be that far so that the region can be parallel - two Earths in the same space would not be parallel since they would not have the same night sky, the same environment, and observing each other could upset the parallel developments. They exist now, in the past, and yet to be, all echoing our Earth in history. Even with true random chance and free-will, another Earth can accidentally follow ours. Infinity is an eerie thing. We have twins out there. Maybe this level 1 parallel universe explains déjà vu as we somehow in some quantum manner not yet discovered connect dimly at times with our exact duplicates. Of course that would mean at the exact time we experience déjà vu, so would our double.

Jinx!

I wonder, though, if it is necessarily true that parallel Earths have to be in regions beyond our comic horizon. Could a region of space, in an infinite universe, be of such special symmetry that two identical inhabited planets could orbit separate but identical stars and still see the same constellations, have the same interstellar environment? And in discovering each other, discover each other at the exact same time, in the same exact way? It may be the rarest of the rares, but in an infinite universe, could it not still happen? How weird, and frustrating, that would be for the explorers engaging in first contact: both speaking the same thing at the same time (and marveling that they both speak the same language and look and sound the same), flipping a coin to break the impasse and both saying "heads" at the same time, so go to a quantum random number generator to break the impasse (to decide who speaks first, for instance) and while both being truly random still, by chance, coming up with the same number... Probably the further apart, the more likely random effects could affect message transmissions such that the impasse would be finally broken. But I can not help but think in a truly infinite universe, there would be a place where each Earth would always simultaneously echo/parrot each other in perfect unison - hopefully, for those two twin worlds, there would be something in physical laws of the universe that would prevent the perfect parroting from being eternally true.

Breaking the Jinx

Maybe it would be better that another Earth would be similar but not the same. It would aid in establishing a real dialogue. On a theological note, can slightly different Earths be our afterlife/reincarnation (choosing, living, other paths as ourselves)?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Visitors...

The Visitors arrive...


Yet another alien invasion show. Not that that's a bad thing (the show that is - alien invasion would be a bad thing). I am looking forward to the re-imagining of the 80's series. However, it got me to thinking again about the possible motivations for an alien species to invade the Earth, and the many difficulties involved with invading an already populated planet.

  1. Atmosphere: a sentient species will be evolved to their specific environment. Slight changes can prove to be very toxic. An alien invading Earth would need to be able to breathe our particular blend of gasses. That would be a rare alien. Ah, but what about spacesuits or masks? True, those would help, but then why take over a planet that you can not breathe unassisted on? I would think it be easier to terraform a barren, or nearly so, planet than to "terraform" one with an already fully developed ecosystem. Though as mentioned in previous posts, postbiologic / robotic sentience creatures probably can withstand a very wide range of atmospheres.

  2. Nutrition/Dietetics: a sentient species coming to Earth to use us as food would run the risk of finding us to be indigestible or even poisonous. Even if their genetics/physiology are somehow close to ours (that DNA is somehow a normal result of biochemical processes leading to life in the universe), there are many example on Earth where food that is nutritious to one creature, is not nutritious to another (and may even be poisonous). Of course, if the aliens find Earth life to be eatable, it stands to reason that Earth life would, in turn, find the aliens eatable as well, from mammalian predators to invertebrate parasites.

    But it is more likely that our physiological makeup will be too different to be of any use dietetic use. The To Serve Man recipe book would not be a top seller for aliens. Although if Earth animals were heavily processed, the aliens possibly could get some food value from them - but a lot of work for little return. Why not find a suitable barren planet, terraform it, and raise food more suitable to their physiology? If the aliens are postbiologic, which many think aliens would probably be (a next natural step in evolution for sentient species), they probably do not need biological food anymore anyway.

  3. Disease/Immunity: I have read conflicting opinions on this matter. One opinion is that humans and disease have evolved side by side - it's a continual arms race as our immune systems evolve to better protect, and diseases evolve to defeat our systems. An alien system would be, well, alien. Diseases have evolved to attack other Earth creatures and are finely tuned to Earth creatures and thus would not be able to attack an alien creature. Others are of the opinion that an alien would be wide open to attack, since their defense systems have never seen Earth diseases and thus have no finely tuned defenses or mechanisms to block or fight them.

    In addition to diseases, there are all manner of venomous arachnids, insects, snakes, toads and poisonous plants that an alien would have to contend with. Many would not care if the creature they are in contact with is from the Earth or not. How many of us have put a straw or stick into an ant hill and see the ants swarm and viciously attack the stick? Would the alien bodies be able to tolerate foreign venom or poison?

    However, with advanced nanotechnology (or technology advanced beyond it), aliens may very well have postbiologic systems to help them deal with diseases, venomous creatures, and poisonous plants - such matters may be of no real threat or concern to them.

  4. Other environmental factors: we have evolved in a particular gravity well, in a particular magnetic field, with certain ranges of light and other radiation hitting our planet's surface, and a certain range of temperatures. Any invading alien would need to have come from a planet similar to ours if they have any plans for long term domination. Unless, of course, they are postbiotic creatures.

  5. Water: many alien invasion scenarios have aliens coming for our water. Yet we are discovering that water is rather common in the cosmos. There is water on the moon, Venus, Mars, many of the moons of our gas giants, in comets and meteors. Why mess with a populated planet when water is probably much closer to home?

  6. Overpopulation: some alien scenarios have aliens invading because their home planet is overpopulated. I guess their entire solar system would have to be too, for them to move out into the stars to expand. If they were postbiologic and still felt the need to increase their population, they could easily colonize barren systems first or large space stations (Dyson spheres?).

  7. Salvation I: several scenarios have dying aliens coming to Earth in order to do medical experiments to either create some vaccine or gene therapy that can restore the alien's health, or to create alien-human hybrids so that the aliens can continue to live on, albeit in a rather different form. Besides the difficulties of two species evolving on two planets being compatible enough to be of any use to the other medically, again it would seem logical that an interstellar space faring race would be able to evolve into postbiological forms and thus not need to invade another planet to save their species. Though Studying other biologies can help uncover any universal biology laws and principles and thus help a species understand itself better.

    But let us say, for the sake of argument, that they cannot or are unwilling to go the postbiologic route and need to leave their star system (going nova?) and colonize another system (ours) and thus need to create hybrids to survive in our very alien environment (this scenario also assumes they cannot or do not have time to terraform another unpopulated world). A hybrid would feel and be different than the aliens - it would be a new species, experiencing the universe differently, and thus evolving away from the invading alien's culture and identity. How is that helping anything? They might as well just impart their knowledge to another race and consider the torch passed and not bother with the whole hybrid thing.

  8. Salvation II: ala The Day the Earth Stood Still, aliens may invade to save us from ourselves, baring any alien version of a Prime Directive, or to prevent us from being a danger to our space neighbors (not all of our space neighbors may be advanced enough to be safe from dangerous space faring races).

  9. Salvation III: alien missionaries come to convert us.
I am sure there is more that I have not thought of.

Alien Missions

Overall, it seems that for the most part postbiologic creatures would have very little drive to invade another planet. At least for physical reasons. But they may have psychological or theological reasons. For instance they find the postbiologic evolutionary step incredibly repugnant or blasphemous. They may fear for their safety or for the safety of other less develop extraterrestrial species and decide to keep us restrained or contained until we, in their minds, have matured enough. Maybe they have long forgotten their own early sentience past and look upon our aggression with psychological or theological horror. They may look upon us as heathens and feel the need to forcibly spread their theology upon us. Now those are scary thoughts indeed.

Image credit: ABC

Monday, October 26, 2009

Exoplanet indifference?

It is interesting how quickly humans can adapt to an environment. When Apollo 13 was heading to the Moon, and before the explosion that almost cost the lives of the astronauts on board, the public was already feeling familiar with Moon shots. It was no longer front page news, no longer worthy of extended TV coverage - in fact, it barely got covered at all, by comparison to Apollo's 11 and 12. The explosion changed all of that of course.

Has the search for exoplanets already begun to become familiar? Over 400 exoplanets have been discovered. When more are announced, it's almost met with a "Oh, isn't that nice. Honey, will you pass the salt? Hey, I hear it will rain tomorrow..."

Though what is helping to maintain some excitement is that the exoplanet search keeps getting more sophisticated and refined and finding smaller and smaller planets. We are even beginning to detect, even if just barely, the atmospheres of planets orbiting alien suns hundreds of light years away. Each new telescope that joins the hunt breathes in fresh life, and new excitement, into the search.

Rest assured that when a truly Earth-like terrestrial planet is discovered (an Earth-sized, or nearly so, terrestrial planet orbiting a stable star in the HZ), it will be an "explosive" discovery that will thrust the search for exoplanets back into the spotlight, especially if an atmosphere is detected and gives initial signs of being habitable (though even a good spectral analysis of an atmosphere probably can not prove the existence of life on the planet).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The basic life chemistry detected in another planet

The basic life chemistry detected in another planet: the hot gas planet, HD 209458b, orbiting a sun-like star 154 light years away in the constellation Pegasus.

Peering far beyond our solar system, NASA researchers have detected the basic chemistry for life in a second hot gas planet, advancing astronomers toward the goal of being able to characterize planets where life could exist. The planet is not habitable but it has the same chemistry that, if found around a rocky planet in the future, could indicate the presence of life.

"It's the second planet outside our solar system in which water, methane and carbon dioxide have been found, which are potentially important for biological processes in habitable planets," said researcher Mark Swain of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Detecting organic compounds in two exoplanets now raises the possibility that it will become commonplace to find planets with molecules that may be tied to life."
Yet more evidence of how widespread the building blocks of life are in the universe. The creation of life takes more than a source of building blocks, but those blocks are still fundamentally essential.

Read more at <http://www.physorg.com/news175274383.html>.

For more information about HD 209458 b, visit its entry in the Planetary Society's Catalog of Exoplanets at <http://www.planetary.org/exoplanets/list.php?exo=HD+209458+b>.

Reference:

Murrill, Mary Beth. "Astronomers do it Again: Find Organic Molecules Around Gas Planet (w/ Video)." PhysOrg.com. PhysOrg.com. 20 October 2009. Web. 22 October 2009. <http://www.physorg.com/news175274383.html>.


Image credit: NASA.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

If We Are Alone

It's Full of Planets!

Over 400 exoplanets discovered so far. Finding more expolantes is almost becoming normal - and its not just "hot Jupiters" that are being found. Increasingly, as our techniques and equipment improve and more telescopes are brought online to join the hunt, smaller terrestrial planets are being found. Everywhere we look, it seems, we find planets. It is looking like the universe is full of planets.

Think abut that. Full of planets. Maybe in 2001: A Space Odyssey astronaut David Bowman should've exclaimed "The thing's hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it's full of planets!"

Apply the Drake Equation, and it's looking like the universe is also full of life, including intelligent life.

However...

This does not automatically mean we are not alone. If the universe is infinite, and life arose in one spot of it, it does seem incredibly unlikely we would be the only ones. Even if the universe is not infinite - it still contains at least 100 billion galaxies, each with many stars (our own contains an estimated 100 billion stars), many of which may contain planets. The number of possible planets is astounding. However, while it may seem rather implausible, just because the universe may be populated with planets is not a Q.E.D. proof that we are not alone, despite, as Jodi Foster's character in the movie Contact propositions, that "if we are the only ones, it would be an awful waste of space, wouldn't it?"

If We Are Alone

What would that mean, if we were alone? That we are given, or by chance have, all this space in which to  explore, expand, and evolve in? If we are given all of the immense space filled with stars and planets, but no other life - what is the purpose of that gift? What are our responsibilities? Should we go forth, multiply and replenish not only the Earth but the universe? Or should we leave other planets alone and not contaminate them with Earth probes and the Earth microbes that may be on them?

And does it even have to have a meaning? The universe does not know it is immense, or teeming with planets. A star does not know that it exists. It does not feel itself traveling through space, circled by planets. Gravity acts upon it without it knowing that anything at all is happening. A planet does not know that it is barren, or that it has life on it. It is barren, or life-filled, only to us (if any of this has an echo of familiarity to it, it may be because you've read Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska's thought provoking poem "View with a Grain of Sand"). Meaning is arbitrary, maybe illusory.

What is Meant

But even if that meaning is arbitrary, and only has meaning to us - that may be enough. It may be up to us to give beauty to the universe, to create meaning, even if it is only for our benefit, our pleasure, our peace of mind.

I have no answers. I would be stunned if there were no other life forms outside the Earth. But, I also realize that true absolutes rarely exist, and to say it is impossible is wrong. It may be astronomically (if you'll excuse the pun) improbable, but not impossible.

What do you think?


Image Credits: 1. Warner Bros. 2. Chris Butler.

Monday, October 19, 2009

32 New Exoplanets Found

Exciting news. The following video announces the discovery of 32 additional exoplanets (bringing the total discovered to over 400 to date), and shows how such discoveries are made using ESO's HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher).

video

19 October 2009
For immediate release

32 New Exoplanets Found

Today, at an international ESO/CAUP exoplanet conference in Porto, the team who built the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, better known as HARPS, the spectrograph for ESO's 3.6-metre telescope, reports on the incredible discovery of some 32 new exoplanets, cementing HARPS's position as the world’s foremost exoplanet hunter. This result also increases the n umber of known low-mass planets by an impressive 30%. Over the past five years HARPS has spotted more than 75 of the roughly 400 or so exoplanets now known.

"HARPS is a unique, extremely high precision instrument that is ideal for discovering alien worlds," says Stéphane Udry, who made the announcement. “We have now completed our initial five-year programme, which has succeeded well beyond our expectations.

The latest batch of exoplanets announced today comprises no less than 32 new discoveries. Including these new results, data from HARPS have led to the discovery of more than 75 exoplanets in 30 different planetary systems. In particular, thanks to its amazing precision, the search for small planets, those with a mass of a few times that of the Earth — known as super-Earths and Neptune-like planets — has been given a dramatic boost. HARPS has facilitated the discovery of 24 of the 28 planets known with masses below 20 Earth masses . As with the previously detected super-Earths, most of the new low-mass candidates reside in multi-planet systems, with up to five planets per system.

Read more of the ESO Science News release at <http://www.eso.org/public/outreach/press-rel/pr-2009/pr-39-09.html>.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Earth Speaks? - SETI Research Project Wants Your Input!

Earth Speaks is a SETI Institute research project where they pose the two part question:
“If we discover intelligent life beyond Earth, should we reply, and if so, what should we say?”
As I have addressed in many previous blog posts on alien contact, this is an important question.

The Earth Speaks project would like your response to that question. Should we reply? Why or why not?  If we should reply, what do you think we should say? How do you think should we present ourselves? How do we address the issues of the differences between our and the alien's philosophies, theologies, and customs as well as language idioms and means of communicating? 

Join Earth Speaks (it's free) and add your response to that enduring question.

Earth Speaks project home page:
<http://earthspeaks.seti.org/>

Earth Speaks on Twitter:
<http://twitter.com/SETiEarthSpeaks>


Image credit: 1. Lynette Cook.

NASA's Astrobiology Roadmap

NASA Astrobiology Roadmap 2008

The NASA Astrobiology Roadmap provides guidance for research and technology development across the NASA enterprises that encompass the space, Earth, and biological sciences. The ongoing development of astrobiology roadmaps embodies the contributions of diverse scientists and technologists from government, universities, and private institutions. The Roadmap addresses three basic questions: how does life begin and evolve, does life exist elsewhere in the universe, and what is the future of life on Earth and beyond? Seven Science Goals outline the following key domains of investigation: understanding the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the universe, exploring for habitable environments and life in our own Solar System, understanding the emergence of life, determining how early life on Earth interacted and evolved with its changing environment, understanding the evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of life, determining the principles that will shape life in the future, and recognizing signatures of life on other worlds and on early Earth. For each of these goals, Science Objectives outline more specific high priority efforts for the next three to five years. These eighteen objectives are being integrated with NASA strategic planning.

Download the 2008 NASA Astrobiology Roadmap here.
Note: the 2008 NASA Astrobiology Roadmap is the latest version and supersedes the one I mentioned two years ago.

Reference:

"Astrobiology Roadmap." NASA Astrobiology. NASA. 6 February 2008. Web. 17 October 2009. <http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/roadmap>.

Image credit: NASA

Europa's Liquid Ocean May Be Oxygen Rich

New research suggests that there is plenty of oxygen available in the subsurface ocean of Europa to support oxygen-based metabolic processes for life similar to that on Earth. In fact, there may be enough oxygen to support complex, animal-like organisms with greater oxygen demands than microorganisms.

Europa's ice cyclically renews - the top crust is only 50 million years old, replenished by water from below coming through  fissures. This cycle brings into the under-ice ocean surface oxygen produced by energetic charged particles. The rate is faster than oxygen build up in Earth's oceans - thus Europa's ocean may be able to support more complex creatures than was once thought. And, importantly, this buildup had a delay; oxygen is actually toxic to pre-biotic chemistry. Life, as we know it, needs the early pre-biotic chemical process to happen without the damaging effects of oxygen.

We need to send probes to Europa. If we find life there, it will be strong indication that 1) life can form outside of the Godilock's Zone, or the Habitable Zone and 2) life can form on icy moons orbiting gas giants. Since icy moons orbiting gas giants may be more common than small terrestrial planets orbiting in the HZ of its parent star, it means that we should not ignore gas giants when looking for extrasolar life.

Reference:

"Jupiter's Moon Europa Has Enough Oxygen for Life." PhysOrg.com. PhysOrg.com. 16 October 2009. Web. 16 October 2009. <http://www.physorg.com/news174918239.html>


Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Friday, October 16, 2009

To Mars in 39 Days?


(PhysOrg.com) -- Last Wednesday, the Ad Astra Rocket Company tested what is currently the most powerful plasma rocket in the world. As the Webster, Texas, company announced, the VASIMR VX-200 engine ran at 201 kilowatts in a vacuum chamber, passing the 200-kilowatt mark for the first time. The test also marks the first time that a small-scale prototype of the company's VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) rocket engine has been demonstrated at full power.
If they succeed on large scale tests, this will be a quantum leap in space exploration - opening the door to greatly speed up, and increase the range of, exploration of our solar system, including places that may harbor some form of life.

Plasma rockets (or electric rockets) are less expensive to launch than conventional chemical rockets. They need to use much less fuel to push the same weight as conventional rocket engines, and have longer engine life. In addition, the costs for human exploration are less as well: shorter trips mean less supplies are required. Another important bonus for human explorers is that a much shorter trip means they will receive far less cosmic radiation, and will have less bone loss.




References:

"VASIMR page." Ad Astra Rocket Company. Ad Astra Rocket Company. n.d. Web. 16 October 2009. <http://www.adastrarocket.com/VASIMR.html>

Zyga, Lisa. "Plasma Rocket Could Travel to Mars in 39 Days." PhysOrg.com. PhysOrg.com. 6 October 2009. Web. 16 October 2009. <http://www.physorg.com/news174031552.html>



Image credits: Ad Astra Rocket Company

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Reason Not to Contact?

Shoot Stone First, Ask Questions Later

A little while back CNN had a story about a strange creature in Panama that crawled out of some rocks towards a group of teenagers, who upon seeing it, got scared and stoned the slow moving hairless beast to death. Speculation is that it was a type of young sloth, though one with a genetic abnormality.

I think that possibly space faring aliens would theorize something like that could happen, and would prefer to not visit a panicky bunch of apes, or at least put it off until those apes became a bit more sophisticated. So they observe instead - not bothering to contact us. (Maybe UFO sightings are their way of safely testing our aggressiveness to strangers from time to time - trying to gauge by our reactions when it is safe to take the next step.)

I, Avatar, Come in Peace

Or, if they did want to visit, another reason to send avatars - robot/android explorers that the aliens could control from the safety of their orbiting mothership. No worries about germs, poisonous gasses (to the aliens) in the air, and panicky locals.

Dangerously Lost in Translation: The Difficulties Inherent in Alien Communication

Contact is fraught with enough difficulties from method of communication, to language differences, to customs (including what is considered rude, blasphemous, or criminal), that meeting actually in person would probably be not advised. Send in the avatars (or better yet, observe the sentient beings, determine how the communicate, learn it, and then, when you think they are ready, send them a message from a safe distance).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Music to an Alien's Ears?

Interstellar Message Composition

The SETI Institute has an interesting (but not unexpected if you think about it) department: Interstellar Message Composition. Is Director, presently Dr. Douglas Vakoch, a psychologist, is charged with figuring out how to create a message that would communicate, inform, aliens about Earth and humanity. It is a most challenging task. To help him with this task, he is gathering mathematicians, scientists, and artists.

Mathematically Speaking?

Mathematics is considered, at least by mathematicians, to be a universal language. After all, it seems logical that all higher order intelligent sentient species would need to devellop an understanding of mathematics if they are to explore and apply the physical laws of the universe. If physical laws are constant in the universe, or at least in our region, then the mathematics would be the same as well.

Of course, there are some limitations to communication via mathematics. Sure, we can establish that we are both burdened with trying to solve differential equations. We can show each other that we all know the Fibonacci sequence (though the aliens will, undoubtedly, call it by a different name), but how do we use mathematics to communicate a smell of coffee in the morning, the beauty of a butterfly fluttering between flowers, or the incredible delicious taste of Mochi cream (the best Japanese sweet ever made).

Making Sense With Different Senses

There is a connection between music and mathematics. As explained in the Exploratorium article on the SETI mission to craft a message to the stars
Music is largely rooted in math, a quality that makes it a good candidate as a form of interstellar communication. Aesthetically, humans seem to seek patterns, and many of the melodies we find pleasing often contain some sort of mathematical pattern.
I grant you that music is largely rooted in math. Bach's music, which I love, is very mathematical. Humans are pattern seekers, and it could be argued that most intelligent sentient beings would be likewise. Also, I understand that since a love for music is inherent in humans, generally speaking, informing aliens about music is helping to inform them of what it is to be human. However, what is music to our ears, may be just a strange mish-mash of mathematical patterns to an alien's. To them, at best it could be a strange noise.

What if  the aliens communicate with each other through light - changing colors as well as intensity, or, if they have several light producing organs, via changing the number of lights visible as well as pulse lengths. The mathematical patterns for what passes as music to them - a light symphony - could be very different from the mathematical patterns produced by human musical instruments, or the human voice.  These human produced sounds may not translate well, and have the aliens pondering the meaning behind the weird signal they were receiving. Would they think to convert the radio pulses into light pulses? But how to convert? Which radio frequency or pulse should be three lights blinking twice, and which should be two lights blinking three times and changing color? It would be a meaningless message - a failed message.

And what of the possibility that some aliens may communicate through their version of a sense of smell? As some languages have a limited syllabary which still yields a large number of meaningful words created from combining different syllables in different orders, so could a olfactory language be made up of a limited "syllabary" of orders or chemical signals. Such signals would be difficult to overlap, and so there would be no equivalent for chords, or harmonies. How would our music translate to them? Would they have anything equivalent to music, something they could see our music as an analogy to of theirs, or would our music leave them utterly confused?

Lost in Translation

If there is difficulty in translating between two Earth languages, how much more so would there be between an Earth language and an alien language? Different Earth languages have different rhythms, different patterns, and different idioms. It is difficult enough to translate technical manual (as comedians like to poke fun at from time to time), but to translate poetry can sometimes be nearly impossible. It may very well be the same with sending music out as a way to communicate the Earth and humanity to the aliens. They may find what we send the mathematical equivalent of a babbling fool, or dismiss what they "hear" as mysterious noise that may, or may not, have an artificial origin.

And then there is cultural differences. What if music is only used as a means of communicating aggression, or to mate, or to mark territory? They may see the mathematical roots, and realize it is a message sent by another sentient species, but they may have quite a different interpretation of what it means.

Pardon My Alien Faux Pas.

Maybe that is why aliens have been silent. If some of the reports of UFO are authentic, and there are aliens observing us, they have been rather quiet and evidence has been fleeting - maybe it is because there are such differences between them and us that observation of culture is first needed - so that dangerous faux pas are avoided. Alien cultures can be, and most likely are, extremely different from ours. If communication problems have caused painful faux pas between Earth cultures then it is highly likely that communication problems between us and aliens would be astronomically more difficult and fraught with faux pas.

The desire to communicate with aliens is understandable. It is in our nature to explore. And any aliens venturing out into the stars will be explorers themselves. The thirst for knowledge is hard to resist. However, communicating with aliens is something we should approach with much caution and patience.

Freshman Interstellar Message Composition 101

But if we could communicate, what new and exciting classes would be taught at college!

Interesting stuff, this.


Reference:

"Douglas Vakoch and Interstellar Message-Making." Origins: Astrobiology: The Search for Life.n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2009. <http://www.exploratorium.edu/origins/arecibo/tools/vakoch.html> Exploratorium.

Image credits: 1. Lynette Cook.  2. Animation Factory

Saturday, September 19, 2009

You Can Help Find Exo-Earths

From The Planetary Society, a way that laypersons can get involved in the search for terrestrial exoplanets:

FINDS Exo-Earths

A thrilling new hunt for Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars is starting...

The Planetary Society is teaming up with planet hunters Geoff Marcy of the University of California at Berkeley and Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University to help with the quest to find other "Earths," other worlds like our own, elsewhere in our galaxy.

The project is called FINDS Exo-Earths (which stands for Fiber-optic Improved Next generation Doppler Search for Exo-Earths).

This new high-end optical system will be installed on the 3-meter telescope at the Lick Observatory, dramatically increasing discoveries of smaller exoplanets and playing a crucial role in verifying Earth-sized planet candidates from the Kepler planet-hunter mission.

This is exactly the kind of project the Society has always excelled at. It's a small, vital effort, overlooked and under-valued by the space community's "Powers That Be." And we can see that it offers an incredible cost-benefit ratio.

Imagine: a way to specifically hunt for and discover Earth-sized planets orbiting far distant suns. This could truly revolutionize exoplanet exploration. It will, at the very least, massively expand our scientific knowledge; at best, it could eventually prove a major step forward in the dream of finding life native to another world. It will also provide valuable backing to NASA's Kepler mission, a vital goal all in itself.

How Does FINDS Exo-Earths Work?

When planet hunters train their telescopes on the stars, they usually aren't looking for an actual visual image of any planets. The distances are simply too vast. Rather, they seek evidence of those distant planets based on the behavior of the light from the stars themselves.

The most common method is called the "radial velocity technique," which relies on measuring minute Doppler effect changes in the star's light. The starlight changes because orbiting planets "tug" on their stars; so, as they circle, a minute Doppler effect occurs in the starlight. This tug either pulls the light waves slightly apart, or pushes them slightly together, changing their frequency. (It's the same effect that occurs to sound waves when a train rushes by you, with the sound of its whistle suddenly dropping in pitch.)

You can imagine how small these changes are, and how hard to detect. Modern technologies make it possible, but there are limits. For example, the terrific 3-meter telescope at the Lick Observatory can detect Doppler velocities of about 5 meters per second. That's good enough to spot enormous Jupiter-sized planets.

But to identify smaller worlds -- the ones more likely to have life -- a telescope must be able to detect Doppler velocities of 1 meter per second. To detect a planet the size and density of Earth, the precision would have to be under 0.5 meters per second.

The Marcy-Fischer team has tackled this problem by devising not one, but two optical systems to be used in tandem. The first is a fiber optics array that will make the cone of light entering the telescope's spectrometer "uniform," and therefore resilient to naturally occurring changes that foul up Doppler measurements.

The second part is an adaptive optics system that will keep the maximum amount of light flowing through the system -- that is, providing a better "signal-to-noise ratio."

Altogether, this bundle of new technology is referred to as Fiber-optic Improved Next generation Doppler Search for Exo-Earths, or FINDS. At Lick, it could improve detection to the 1-meter range, enabling additional discovery of many Neptune-sized planets and larger. If Marcy-Fischer can do all that with our help, then it will be on to the Keck Telescope, where 0.5 meter precision (and Earth-size planet discoveries) can happen.

And, once our instrument is adapted for the Keck Telescope, FINDS Exo-Earths will provide crucial follow-up for planets found by the Kepler mission. Specifically, the Keck Telescope -- equipped with FINDS -- will rule out false positive detections of Earth-sized worlds.

We're on the brink of discovering Earth-like planets around other stars -- worlds that may support life. You can play a key role in the hunt!
To make a secure tax-deductible donation to the FINDS Exo-Earths project, visit the Project's donation Web page at <https://planetary.org/join/donate/0903exow/>. The Planetary Society's FINDS Exo-Earths Project main Web page is at <http://planetary.org/programs/projects/finds/>.


Reference:

"Projects: FINDS Exo-Earths." What We Do. The Planetary Society. n.d. Web. 19 September 2009. <http://planetary.org/programs/projects/finds/>

Image credit: Ryan Bliss, DigitalBlasphemy

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

First Solid Evidence for a Rocky Exoplanet!

The following is a breaking news release from the European Space Organization:

ESO 33/09 - Science Release

16 September 2009
For immediate release

First Solid Evidence for a Rocky Exoplanet

Mass and density of smallest exoplanet finally measured

The longest set of HARPS measurements ever made has firmly established the nature of the smallest and fastest-orbiting exoplanet known, CoRoT-7b, revealing its mass as five times that of Earth's. Combined with CoRoT-7b's known radius, which is less than twice that of our terrestrial home, this tells us that the exoplanet's density is quite similar to the Earth's, suggesting a solid, rocky world. The extensive dataset also reveals the presence of another so-called super-Earth in this alien solar system.
"This is science at its thrilling and amazing best," says Didier Queloz, leader of the team that made the observations. "We did everything we could to learn what the object discovered by the CoRoT satellite looks like and we found a unique system."

In February 2009, the discovery by the CoRoT satellite [1] of a small exoplanet around a rather unremarkable star named TYC 4799-1733-1 was announced one year after its detection and after several months of painstaking measurements with many telescopes on the ground, including several from ESO. The star, now known as CoRoT-7, is located towards the constellation of Monoceros (the Unicorn) at a distance of about 500 light-years. Slightly smaller and cooler than our Sun, CoRoT-7 is also thought to be younger, with an age of about 1.5 billion years.

Every 20.4 hours, the planet eclipses a small fraction of the light of the star for a little over one hour by one part in 3000 [2]. This planet, designated CoRoT-7b, is only 2.5 million kilometres away from its host star, or 23 times closer than Mercury is to the Sun. It has a radius that is about 80% greater than the Earth's.

The initial set of measurements, however, could not provide the mass of the exoplanet. Such a result requires extremely precise measurements of the velocity of the star, which is pulled a tiny amount by the gravitational tug of the orbiting exoplanet. The problem with CoRoT-7b is that these tiny signals are blurred by stellar activity in the form of "starspots" (just like sunspots on our Sun), which are cooler regions on the surface of the star. Therefore, the main signal is linked to the rotation of the star, with makes one complete revolution in about 23 days.

To get an answer, astronomers had to call upon the best exoplanet-hunting device in the world, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph attached to the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

"Even though HARPS is certainly unbeaten when it comes to detecting small exoplanets, the measurements of CoRoT-7b proved to be so demanding that we had to gather 70 hours of observations on the star," says co-author François Bouchy.

HARPS delivered, allowing the astronomers to tease out the 20.4-hour signal in the data. This figure led them to infer that CoRoT-7b has a mass of about five Earth masses, placing it in rare company as one of the lightest exoplanets yet found.

"Since the planet's orbit is aligned so that we see it crossing the face of its parent star — it is said to be transiting — we can actually measure, and not simply infer, the mass of the exoplanet, which is the smallest that has been precisely measured for an exoplanet [3]," says team member Claire Moutou. "Moreover, as we have both the radius and the mass, we can determine the density and get a better idea of the internal structure of this planet."

With a mass much closer to that of Earth than, for example, ice giant Neptune's 17 Earth masses, CoRoT-7b belongs to the category of "super-Earth" exoplanets. About a dozen of these bodies have been detected, though in the case of CoRoT-7b, this is the first time that the density has been measured for such a small exoplanet. The calculated density is close to Earth's, suggesting that the planet's composition is similarly rocky.

"CoRoT-7b resulted in a 'tour de force' of astronomical measurements. The superb light curves of the space telescope CoRoT gave us the best radius measurement, and HARPS the best mass measurement for an exoplanet. Both were needed to discover a rocky planet with the same density as the Earth," says co-author Artie Hatzes.

CoRoT-7b earns another distinction as the closest known exoplanet to its host star, which also makes it the fastest — it orbits its star at a speed of more than 750 000 kilometres per hour, more than seven times faster than the Earth's motion around the Sun. "In fact, CoRoT-7b is so close that the place may well look like Dante's Inferno, with a probable temperature on its 'day-face' above 2000 degrees and minus 200 degrees on its night face. Theoretical models suggest that the planet may have lava or boiling oceans on its surface. With such extreme conditions this planet is definitively not a place for life to develop," says Queloz.

As a further testament to HARPS' sublime precision, the astronomers found from their dataset that CoRoT-7 hosts another exoplanet slightly further away than CoRoT-7b. Designated CoRoT-7c, it circles its host star in 3 days and 17 hours and has a mass about eight times that of Earth, so it too is classified as a super-Earth. Unlike CoRoT-7b, this sister world does not pass in front of its star as seen from Earth, so astronomers cannot measure its radius and thus its density.

Given these findings, CoRoT-7 stands as the first star known to have a planetary system made of two short period super-Earths with one that transits its host.

Notes

[1] The CoRoT mission is a cooperation between France and its international partners: ESA, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Germany and Spain.

[2] We see exactly the same effect in our Solar System when Mercury or Venus transits the solar disc, as Venus did on 8 June 2004 (ESO PR 03/04). In the past centuries such events were used to estimate the Sun-Earth distance, with extremely useful implications for astrophysics and celestial mechanics.

[3] Gliese 581e, also discovered with HARPS, has a minimum mass about twice the Earth's mass (see ESO 15/09), but the exact geometry of the orbit is undefined, making its real mass unknown. In the case of CoRoT-7b, as the planet is transiting, the geometry is well defined, allowing the astronomers to measure the mass of the planet precisely.

More Information

This research was presented in a paper to appear in a special issue of the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal on CoRoT, volume 506-1, 22 October 2009: "The CoRoT-7 planetary system: two orbiting Super-Earths", by D. Queloz et al.

The team is composed of D. Queloz, R. Alonso, C. Lovis, M. Mayor, F. Pepe, D. Segransan, and S. Udry (Observatoire de Genève, Switzerland), F. Bouchy, F. and G. Hébrard, G. (IAP, Paris, France), C. Moutou, M. Barbieri, P. Barge, M. Deleuil, L. Jorda, and A. Llebaria (Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, France), A. Hatzes, D. Gandolfi, E. Guenther, M. Hartmann, and G. Wuchterl (Thüringer Landessternwarte Tautenburg, Germany), M. Auvergne, A. Baglin, D. Rouan, and J. Schneider (LESIA, CNRS, Observatoire de Paris, France), W. Benz (University of Bern, Switzerland), P. Bordé, A. Léger, and M. Ollivier (IAS, UMR 8617 CNRS, Université Paris-Sud, France), H. Deeg (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Spain), R. Dvorak (University of Vienna, Austria), A. Erikson and H. Rauer (DLR, Berlin, Germany), S. Ferraz Mello (IAG-Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil), M. Fridlund (European Space Agency, ESTEC, The Netherlands), M. Gillon and P. Magain (Université de Liège, Belgium), T. Guillot (Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, CNRS UMR 6202, Nice France), H. Lammer (Austrian Academy of Sciences), T. Mazeh (Tel Aviv University, Israel), and M. Pätzold (Köln University, Germany).

ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".

Links

Contacts
Didier Queloz
Geneva Observatory, Switzerland
Phone: +41 22 379 2477
E-mail: didier.queloz (at) unige.ch

François Bouchy
IAP, Paris and OHP, St Michel l'Observatoire, France
Phone: 33 4 92 70 64 94
E-mail: bouchy (at) iap.fr

Claire Moutou
Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, France
Phone: +33 4 91 05 59 66
E-mail: Claire.Moutou (at) oamp.fr

Artie Hatzes
Thüringer Landessternwarte Tautenburg, Germany
Phone: +49 36 42 78 63 55
Mobile: +49 (0)163 69 13 863
E-mail: artie (at) tls-tautenburg.de

ESO La Silla - Paranal - ELT Press Officer: Henri Boffin - +49 89 3200 6222 - hbofin@eso.org
ESO Press Officer in Chile: Valeria Foncea - +56 2 463 3123 - vfoncea@eso.org
National contacts for the media: http://www.eso.org/public/outreach/eson/

Dante's Inferno

Maybe we should call this planet Dante, it sure is one hellava planet as it shows how detection methods are advancing rapidly and that our galaxy, if not the universe, will be found to be abundantly populated with planets - from gas giants to smaller terrestrials. So while this first confirmed rocky planet is a blast furnace, it is just the first to be found. Improved planet hunting devices are in development which will increase our ability to discover terrestrials. We are still just at the beginning of an exiting search.

Reference:

"First Solid Evidence for a Rocky Exoplanet." Press Releases 2009. ESO for the Public. ESO. 16 Sept. 2009. Web. 16 Sept. 2009. <http://www.eso.org/public/outreach/press-rel/pr-2009/pr-33-09.html>


Image credit: ESO

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pathways Towards Habitable Planets

Conference

I knew it had to happen - a conference centered on the search for habitable planets. Pathways Towards Habitable Planets is being held at Barcelona, Spain, 14-18 September. Short notice, I know - I have signed up for their distribution list so that next year I will be able to give a decent heads up.

From their Web site:

The aim of this conference is to help integrate the prospective efforts in Europe and in the US, build a community around this theme, and bring together several pathways towards that final goal.
Conference Offerings

It should prove to be a very interesting conference. Looking over their program, there does not appear to be one talk I would pass up. Though if I could only attend two presentations:
  1. first, I would have to say Dr. David Kipping's presentation, "The Detectability of Habitable Exomoons," is not to be missed. As I have mentioned before, I strongly believe that we should not only look for life on habitable planets, but on large moons as well. Planet moons like Star Wars' Endor may not be just in the realm of science fiction (and will likely prove to be more interesting and exciting than what has been so far imagined).
  2. Second, I would have to attend J. Scheider's "'Are We Alone?' in different cultures" presentation. Dr. Scheider - I believe you have a book concept there: an exploration of how different culture's answer that enduring question: "are we alone?
Why It Matters

This is exiting stuff. One long running theme for the human race has been exploration: climbing a mountain to peer over the horizon, sailing across forbidding seas in small, fragile craft, spreading out across the globe until no continent was left. We are meant to explore. It is our nature.

There are still areas on the Earth that remain largely unknown. We have the depths of the oceans where many mysterious life forms swim in the dark, waiting to be seen for the first time by wonder-filled eyes of undersea explorers. But as incredible as the diversity of life is on our mother Earth, much of which is yet to be discovered and studied, out across the vast space-ocean lie islands of life to be discovered that will expand even more our understanding of the diversity of life. And we will find yet again that T.S. Eliot was right, as he wrote in his poem "Little Gidding":
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Conference Blogger (Tweeter)?

But alas, I have classes to teach, and the conference falls at the beginning of the Fall quarter - it would be difficult to miss the first week of classes. Someone needs to blog from that conference. If anyone attending the Pathways Towards Habitable Planets conference is planing on blogging (or tweeting) about their conference experience, please let me know, I will be more than happy to link to your blog.

Reference:

Pathways Towards Habitable Planets. n.d. Web. 8 Sept. 2009. <http://www.pathways2009.net/>

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Comet Contains Building Block for Life


Recently NASA scientists discovered glycine, a fundamental building block for life, in samples of Comet Wild 2 collected by the Stardust spacecraft:

"Glycine is an amino acid used by living organisms to make proteins, and this is the first time an amino acid has been found in a comet," said Jamie Elsila of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Our discovery supports the theory that some of life's ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite and comet impacts."
This find adds to the growing body of evidence that the building blocks for life are common in the universe.

Reference

"Life's Building Block Discovered in a Comet." News. Astronomy. 18 Aug. 2009. Web. 2 Sept. 2009. <http://www.astronomy.com/asy/default.aspx?c=a&id=8562>

Image credit: NASA

Monday, August 31, 2009

Wrong Way Planet

Scientists have discovered that WASP-17 is orbiting its star in the opposite direction (retrograde) of its star's spin. Most planets orbit their stars in the same direction of their star's spin. WASP-17 must have had a violent past, such as a near collision early in its life, for it to be in a retrograde orbit. Because of this violent past, it does not have a circular orbit.

This got me to wondering - if, in this possibly infinite universe, there exists a life harboring planet that orbits its star in the wrong direction, and by an extremely rare stroke of luck, orbits its star in a nearly circular orbit (eccentric orbits are not as conducive to life). Would the sentient species that arises, seeing that their planet orbits in the opposite direction from all the other planets in their star system (and later, they discover, around other star systems as well), think that this is a sign that they are special above all others? When they later find life on other planets, and find that those planets orbit with their star, would they think them inferior, or infidels?

Of course maybe they would reason differently than humans. Maybe they would think the opposite. Or have little emotions and thus not really moved one way or the other, other than curiosity as to why their planet is different.

By they way, the planet gets its name for the SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) program, not because it is a planet inhabited by hymenopterans, or by white Anglo-Saxon protestants...


References

Alexander, Amir. "Scientists Detect 'Wrong-Way' Planet." Planetary News. The Planetary Society. 12 Aug. 2009. Web. 31 Aug. 2009. <
http://planetary.org/news/2009/0812_Scientists_Detect_WrongWay_Planet.html>

"SuperWASP Homepage." SuperWASP - Wide Angle Search for Planets. 3 June 2009. Web 31 Aug. 2009. <http://www.superwasp.org/>


Image credit: ESA/C. Carreau

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Sun's Twin? (and does that mean another Earth as well?)

Another Sol?

An article by Bob Berman in this month's (Oct 2009) issue of Astronomy mentions that

of the 1,000 nearest stars within 3 dozen light-years, only one matches our Sun's temperature, size, and luminosity and has the same precise spectral class of G2V (a main sequence star with a surface temperature of about 9980 degrees Fahrenheit...).
In addition, that twin star is similar in age, though a bit older: the Sun is 4.6 billion years old, while this twin star is 5 to 6 billion years old.

One in a Thousand

That twin star? Alpha Centauri A. As Bob Berman points out - of all those 1,000 stars the only one that is the Sun's close twin is also the nearest naked-eye star (4.35 light-years away). An amazing coincidence. 

Hopefully the new generation telescopes, especially the whose main tasks are to search for exoplanets, will aim their sights on the Centauri trinary system. It would almost be criminal not to take a closer look. If there is a terrestrial planet circling Alpha Centauri A, the new generation telescopes should be able to find it. With Alpha Centauri A a bit older than the Sun, unless life evolved on Earth quicker than usual, a terrestrial planet in a habitable zone around Alpha Centauri A would have had plenty of time for sentient life to arise.

Long Distance Relationship

Of course, maybe sentient life does not survive its early years of sentience and there is no longer any sentient life to discover... But let us be optimistic for a moment and say that it survives. 4.35 light-years away would allow for communication via radio waves or laser. Sure, it would take 8.7 years for each message to be answered (4.35 years for it to travel there, and 4.35 years for the answer to travel back), but it still could be done.

But should we try to communicate with them? The wonders are tempting, but there is the possibility of danger...


References

"Alpha Centauri - A Candidate for Terrestrial Planets And Intelligent Life." Smoot Group Cosmology. The Smoot Group. 15 Oct. 1997. Web. 30 Aug. 2009. <http://aether.lbl.gov/www/classes/p139/speed/Alpha-Centauri.html>

Berman, Bob. "A dozen cool facts." Strange Universe. Astronomy. Oct 2009: 16. Print.


Image Credit: The Smoot Group.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Life from Clay

The Two Faces of RNA

Scientists at Howard Hughes Medical Institute are closing in on how life arose from inorganic material. RNA was first thought to be essentially a way of storing the genetic information need to build proteins. But Tom Cech and Sidney Altman discovered in  the 1980s that RNA can catalyze cellular chemical reactions. This led some scientist to speculate that RNA may have come before DNA. RNA may be one of the "missing-links" in the evolution of DNA from simple chemicals.

Life from Clay

Dr. Jack W. Szostak  and his team looked at montmorillonite, a clay mixture that existed in the early Earth, and discovered that it helped
  1. the formation of vesicles (a small fluid filled sac) formed from fatty acids,
  2. the formation of RNA, and
  3. RNA to move into the vesicles (the RNA stuck to the clay and "rode" it into the vesicles.
The result is a cell-like structure.

So, the creation myths that involve life being formed from clay may be on to something after all.

Universal Biology

The above chemical processes ended up creating a cell-like structure. Life is a natural result of certain chemical processes that build on each other. A watery terrestrial planet in a habitable zone will have weathering of rocks, forming clay.  If the laws of chemistry are the same throughout the universe (or even in just our galactic region), then life will arise on more than just our planet.


Reference:

 "HHMI Scientist Bio: Jack W. Szostak, Ph.D." HHMI Investigators. Scientists and Research. Howard Hughes Medical Institute. n.d. Web. 29 Aug. 2009. <http://www.hhmi.org/research/investigators/szostak_bio.html>

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Future for Some Habitable Moons

Exchanging Rings?

I was watching BBC's 1999 miniseries The Planets (shown on the Science channel) recently; they were showing several episodes in a row.

In one episode they discussed how Saturn's rings will, eventually, vanish. But that the moon of another outer planet, Neptune, would break up from tidal forces as it slowly spirals in toward the planet, creating another planet with rings rivaling that of Saturn's lost rings. We would swap one ringed planet for another.

Yes, Neptune already has a ring system, but it is very dark - being comprised mostly of rocky debris while Saturn's bright rings are comprised mostly of ice. Neptune's moons are composed of rock and ice - a break up of, say Triton (one of three moons in the solar system with an atmosphere), would create a ring of ice around the planet, giving it a shimmering, shining ring system.

Spiraling Moons

This got me to thinking about the habitable moon discussions. Tidal forces are what help heat the moons (if Europa has liquid water under its icy surface, for instance, it will be the result of tidal forces). The very tidal forces that would allow for the possibility of life, which would allow for a moon to be habitable, may also signal its early demise - if the moon is slowly spiraling in.

So, for some habitable moons, their lifespans may be shorter than those of habitable planets. Which has a bearing on the rise of high order sentient life. High order sentient life probably needs a very long time to arise. Imagine being an alien race finally creating technology and exploring their solar system, only to find that their world will die long before their sun will.


Of course the flip side of the coin is shown by our moon. The Moon is slowly spiraling away from the Earth (at 3.8 centimeters, or about 2.5 inches, per year). However, while in 500 million years or so there won't be any full eclipses anymore, we won't lose the moon. Eventually the Moon and the Earth will become gravitationally locked together. At some point the Earth and Moon will become locked - the same side of the Earth will always face the same side of the moon. When that happens the Moon will quit spiraling away from us.

Why? It has to do with the fact that the Earth has large oceans. Right now the Earth rotates faster than the Moon revolves around it. The tidal bulge created by the Moon's gravitational pull moves ahead and actually forces the Moon to speed up a tiny bit. This causes its orbit to get larger. When the Earth and Moon are locked, the tidal bulge won't move faster than the Moon. High tide will be permanent in some areas, and low tide permanent in others.

image credit: digitalblasphemy.com
"Thetis Moon" © DigitalBlasphemy.com
I still believe that we may find more habitable moons than habitable planets. But that some moons may spiral into toward their planet billions of years before their system's sun(s) die, will be one reason why it may be harder for high order sentient life to arise on some moons.

References

Cain, Fraser. "Ep. 17: Where Does the Moon Come From?" Astronomy Cast. 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 24 Aug. 2009. <http://www.astronomycast.com/solar-system/episode-17-where-does-the-moon-come-from/>

Mihos, Chris. "Neptune's Moons." Journey Through the Galaxy. Astronomy Dept. Case Western Reserve University. 13 Sept. 2006. Web. 24 Aug. 2009. <http://burro.astr.cwru.edu/stu/neptune_moons.html>

Scharringhausen, Britt. "Is the Moon moving away from the Earth? When was this discovered?" Curious About Astronomy: Ask an Astronomer. Cornell University. 21 nov. 2002. Web. 24 Aug. 2009. <http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/question.php?number=124>

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Future of Human Evolution.

I came across a Web site today which will be of some interest to those interested in speculating about alien life: The Future Human Evolution Website at <http://www.humansfuture.org/>. Yes, it is about human life and not alien life, but speculating about the future of human evolution and speculating about alien life, especially alien sentient life, overlap. If there is a Universal Biology, then examining the evolution of human life, and the future of our evolution (both natural and artificially guided) will inform our discussion and speculations on the evolution of alien sentient life.

Technology Singularity - Or, We Are Borg

The overlap is particularly salient when it comes to speculations regarding the technology singularity - when technology advances to the point that it becomes sentient. This advancement also allows sentient races who feel they have reached the limits of what biology can do for them to integrate themselves (partially or, eventually, fully) with advanced technology/machines. This is also referred to as "postbiologic." Some scientists feel this technology singularity may arrive for the human race as early as 2040, though most feel that it is more likely to be much later, the year 3000 or so.

For More Information

For more information about universal biology, visit my initial post on the topic, Universal Biologies?

For more information about postbiologic evolution or the technology singularity, visit my post Robot Aliens, The Tecnological Singularity, and Where did I leave my Borg party body?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Panspermia, Long-Lived Bacteria, and Interstellar Distances


"Dark Matter" © DigitalBlasphemy.com
I was checking out astrobiology groups on Facebook and came across a discussion on astrogensis at the "Astrobiology - Life in the Universe" Facebook group. An entry by one poster made the statement "With regards to panspermia, distances are simply too vast for living organisms to be transferred from beyond the solar system." Let's take a closer look at this problem.

The Problem

The problem stated is one of vast distances - the time for even a fast traveling extraterrestrial asteroid from even the closest star system would take an exorbitant period of time. If the average speed of an asteroid in the main belt is around 47,000 mph, and the distance to Alpha Centauri is 4.4 light-years or 25,848,247,139.8 miles (Proxima Centauri is sometimes closer, but let's go with the main star), then it would take that asteroid about 101,304 years to reach Earth.

Hardiness of Bacteria

Recently, bacteria have been found buried deep in solid rock - bacteria with very slow metabolic states and are probably thousands of years old. Penn State scientists discovered in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) dormant ultra-small bacteria (Chryseobacterium greenlandensis) trapped 2 miles deep in 120,000 year old ice core samples. The scientists were able to bring them back and found it needed few nutrients to live. The scientists figure their small size helped them so survive trapped so long in the ice. Some studies indicate some bacteria can live suspended in sediments, amber, and halite for millions of years. In 2007 a group of scientists published a paper provided evidence for bacteria surviving in some frozen permafrost samples up to a half a million years. We have seen from other posts the ability for some bacteria and viruses to survive the vacuum of space. In a previous post I reported that even the small, multicellular Water Bear can survive periods in space - including normally deadly doses of ionizing radiation (Water Bears in Space!).


Illustration © European Space Organization
Spacefaring Bacteria?

With Alpha Centauri 101,304 years away (by asteroid) and bacteria that can lie dormant for at least 120,000 years (and especially those that can lie dormant for 1/2 million years), it seems that some unicellular life could theoretically make the trip. The red dwarf planetary system Gliese 581 (with one planet that is warm and terrestrial) is 20.5 light-years away, or around 471,984.5 years away at main belt asteroid velocities. Still within the range of some unicellular creatures. We have seen in earlier posts that there are scenarios where red dwarf systems can be hospitable to life.

Sol's Close Encounters

There is something else to consider as well. Our solar system is not a fixed point in the galaxy. Some researchers feel that the Sun had some close encounters with other solar systems during its 4.6 billion years of existence. The distance that a bacteria hosting extraterrestrial asteroid could have been even smaller than 4.4 light years. Some scientists feel that the Sun may have had a close encounter with another star 4 billion years ago - a very close encounter: the other star may have come as close as 14 to 19 billion miles (Neptune is 4.7 billion miles away from the Sun). That is close enough for major gravitational permutations of each solar system - including the possible exchange of an outer planet. That's right - our solar system could have, in its outermost reaches, a planet from another system left behind from this close encounter.

Let us say the other system already had life established on it. The close encounter with our Sun could cause asteroids to be jostled and sent colliding into the system's life-bearing planet, throwing up chunks of the planet into space. One of those chunks could have been captured by our solar system and eventually made it to Earth (just like some Martian "chunks" have made it to Earth, the result of some asteroid impact on the surface of Mars ejecting Martian rocks into space). Or the other system could already have asteroids with dormant unicellular life on them left over from collisions it had within itself before encountering the Sun, and one or more of those asteroids captured by our solar system.

Conclusion

In conclusion, with regards to panspermia, some stellar distances are not too vast for living organisms to be transverse and end up on Earth. Does not mean it has actually happened - the chances are still probably rather small. But the distances are not too vast, at least for stellar distances of 21 light-years or less.


References:


Coghlan, Andy. "'Resurrection Bug' Revived after 120,000 Years." Life.
New Scientist. 15 June 2009. Web. 30 July 2009. <http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17305-resurrection-bug-revived-after-120000-years.html>

"Did Our Sun Capture Alien Worlds? Close Encounter May Explain Some Objects Beyond Neptune." Science News. ScienceDaily. 9 Dec. 2004. Web. 30 July 2009. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/12/041208235835.htm>

Jordan, Heather. "Astrogenesis Discussion Board." Astrobiology - Life in the Universe. Facebook. 26 Mar. 2008. Web. 30 July 2009. <http://www.facebook.com/s.php?init=srp&sf=r&k=200000010&n=-1&q=life%20in%20the%20universe#/topic.php?uid=19809898338&topic=8155>

Johnson, Sarah S., Martin B. Hebsgaardt, Torben R. Christensen, et. al. "Ancient Bacteria Show Evidence of DNA Repair." PNAS. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 25 July 2007. Web. 30 July 2009. <http://www.pnas.org/content/104/36/14401.full>

"Novel bacterial species found trapped in Greenland's ice."
Penn State Live. Penn State University. 3 June 2008. Web. 30 July 2009. <http://live.psu.edu/story/31052>