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).


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 St├ęphane 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).