Monday, October 25, 2010

US Airmen give testimony at UFO press conferece.

UFO Press Conference

27 September 2010, seven former Air Force officers spoke of UFO incidents at nuclear defense bases where the UFOs disabled the nuclear weapons. Interesting testimony, if true (not saying the testimony is not true, just that I'm keeping an open mind about the matter). UFOs always seemed a bit odd in their behavior in that they seem on one hand to not want contact, but on the other hand tease us. That is, instead of just landing outright and saying hi (I'm sure they've studied our TV, radio, and now Internet enough that they can figure out how to say "hi") or broadcasting a message, or appearing near a city and stay there for a few days so that everyone can be sure of what they saw, they "flirt" with us. Brief, momentary encounters that leave little, to no, evidence. Just enough to tantalize. Why? To test our reactions to determine if they should move to the next step? Or is it that there are galactic restrictions from contacting primitive planets but some just can't help themselves and poke at the humans while the galactic security folk aren't looking? It's intriguing.

UFOs and our Nukes

The UFOs disabling nuclear weapons sounds like a few classic science fiction movie scenarios - the UFOs coming to make sure we do not kill ourselves, saving us from ourselves. Wishful thinking? Would an alien race care that much? Would it interfere with their field observations (like scientists watching a young walrus struggle to find its mother - interfering with the observation by saving the young walrus would reduce the effectiveness of the data being collected)? Is there a Prime Directive? Is life so common that who cares if one planet's sentient beings destroy themselves? Or is life so rare that it warrants saving at the last minute?  Though I would think aliens that advanced could just snag enough humans, place them in suspended animation, to redeposit them after its all over and the planet has recovered enough for human habitation again.

Many questions, few, if any, answers.

Reference:

Gekas, Alexandra. "Daily Buzz: US Airmen Give Eerie Testimony at UFO Press Conference." The Daily WD. Woman'sDay. 28 September 2010. Web. 25 October 2010.  <http://dailywd.womansday.com/blog/2010/09/daily-buzz-us-airmen-give-eerie-testimony-at-ufo-press-conference.html>

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why the Silence from E.T.?

Humorous, but as in all good humor, a kernel of truth? I was thinking on this very thought for awhile - would advanced, especially postbiologic, beings either destroy themselves or get so wrapped up in virtual reality technology that they turn inwards and not actively care about technologically primitive aliens (not care enough to contact them)?



Reference:
Weiner, Zac. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. 18 Sept. 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2010.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Binary Stars: A Rough Neighborhood

NASA/JPL-Caltech
In an earlier post, Planets thrive around binary star systems, we learned that planetary systems around binary stars, specifically tight binary stars, may be more common than planetary systems around single stars (by a ratio of 3:1). However, the title "Planets thrive" may be misleading. While there may be more planets around tight binary star systems, they may exist in a rough neighborhood.

Gravity Slam Dancing

The problem arises from the gravitational dance of the binary stars. As they dance tightly around a common center of gravity, they find themselves moving closer to each other, always facing each other. This is not a sweet, romantic dance. The stars spin rapidly, creating massive magnetic fields and intense solar winds. But worse yet is that the intense solar winds slow the stars down, pulling them closer to each other. As stars dance closer, their gravitational effects on the planets orbiting them change - creating chaos and a great likelihood for collisions between planets, asteroids, and comets.

There Goes the Neighborhood

This chaos does not bode well for life. While it may be argued that some chaos is good as it may add to evolutionary pressure, too much chaos is not good - especially if that chaos means your planet colliding with another, or being pummeled by one too many extinction event asteroids. And even if your planet does not collide with another, it may change orbit, moving out of the habitable zone. Either way, there goes the life-giving neighborhood.

This is not to say life in a tight binary star system is impossible, or that high order sentient life cannot evolve and survive; but it does mean that such a system is not the top candidate to target in a search for life.

Reference:

Clavin, Whitney. "Pulverized Planet Dust May Lie Around Double Stars." Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA. 23 August 2010. Web. 25 August 2010.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Life in the Infrared

In1996 scientists were surprised to find a version of chlorophyll, chlorophyll d, in a cyanobacterium (blue-green algae or blue-green bacteria) that can photosynthesize light at 710nm, just in the infrared region. How it can get enough energy to photosynthesize is a mystery right now. It is possible that it acts more like chlorophyll a, passing on the captured energy to other chlorophyll molecules which then do the actual photosynthesis.

Recently, Dr Min Chen, from the University of Sydney, discovered in cyanobacterium living inside stromatolites another chlorophyll molecule which can absorb infrared light - this time deeper into the infrared range at 720 nm. This molecule, chlorophyll f, raises the same question as with chlorophyll d: how does it get enough energy from infrared light to photosynthesize oxygen? Or does it act as a helper, passing on the energy to other chlorophyll?

While this discovery has implications for biotechnology and bioenergy, it also has implications for life on other planets. As Dr. Chen remarks:

the fact that we have discovered a cyanobacterium that exploits a tiny modification in its chlorophyll molecule to photosynthesise in light that we cannot see, opens our mind to the seemingly limitless ways that organisms adapt to survive in their environment.
This helps expands the environmental range where we can look for life. For instance, it helps increase the possibility of life arising around class M stars (see Color of Life for more information). Yet more evidence that Dr. Ian Malcolm's (Jurassic Park) adage is correct: life will find a way.

Reference:

Chen, Min, et. al. "A Red-Shifted Chlorophyll." Science Magazine. 19 August 2010. Web. 21 August 2010. <http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/science.1191127>

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Book Reviews

Book reviews will focus on topics related to exoplanets and astrobiology. These will mainly be non-fiction works, though I will also review the occasional pertinent work of science fiction.

The list of books to review is surprisingly longer than I had first expected. But I am happy that this topic is getting increased attention.

The first book reviewed will be Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI institute.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Tour of the Exoplanets in Celestia

Celestia is a freeware program that

doesn't confine you to the surface of the Earth. You can travel throughout the solar system, to any of over 100,000 stars, or even beyond the galaxy.
Some folk have written Celestia scripts which will show you what the night sky would look like from an exoplanet (including where in the sky is our sun). For example, Ian Musgrave of Australia has written a script that takes you on a tour of three exoplanets (including showing you what the night sky would look like in the direction of our sun). It can be found in his Astroblog: A Tour of the Exoplanets in Celestia post.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Interview with Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI Research

Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI Research, is trying to find an answer to a question people have asked forever: is there life on other planets?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Galactic Biosphere?

My Brother/Sister, the Alien

In Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (a full review is forthcoming), Dr. Shostak, in his brief mention of panspermia as one possible way life originated on Earth, brings up an interesting point about panspermia:

Panspermia's importance would change if life could survive in rocks that travel not just between adjacent planets but between the stars. If interstellar infection is possible, just a few points of genesis - or even one - might conceivably seed the entire galaxy. So life's beginnings could be highly improbable, but life's distribution could be widespread. In essence, the "biosphere" would extend over light-years. (88)
Thus, if life originating on its own is rare, we can see a scenario where that life eventually spreads throughout the galaxy. We would all be members of the same galactic biosphere - brother and sister creatures in one galactic family

Another way life can spread from one genesis is seeding by an early alien sentient race. This is a notion used by some Hollywood writers. In many science fiction shows we often see humanoid aliens. One reason is that especially for early Hollywood, humanoid aliens were easier on the special effects budget, thus sometimes writers and producers explained the similarity among humans and aliens by using the idea of early race spreading their DNA throughout the galaxy. For instance, in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode (Season 6 episode "The Chase"), we discover there was an ancient race that seeded the galaxy (leaving clues in each "offspring's" DNA), thus explaining why so many alien races looked so similar. Why would sentient aliens purposefully seed the galaxy? It may be difficult to understand their motivations for sowing their seed amongst the stars, but some possibilities are:
  1. as a means to continue their species / terraforming, 
  2. by accident, 
  3. as scientific experiments, 
  4. as the result of a religious decree (one purpose for life is to spread life, to join in on creation, e.g.) or 
  5. a combination of the above.
The Grand Diversity of Life

But even if the residents of the Milky Way are related,  life, as we have seen on Earth, comes in a stunning array of diversity. From the deep sea, to deep mines, to hot springs, to tropical forests, to arid deserts, to perpetual frozen ice caps we find life in a myriad of forms. If we look into Earth's past via the fossil record, we find even more strange life forms. Extend this into space, onto other planets, and even if there is a common biosphere bound, the variety of expressions life can take will be mind boggling.

Or, My Half-Brother/Half-Sister, the Alien 

In addition, even if life originating on its own is a rare occurrence, in a galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars (estimates run between 200 - 400 billion) and with even more planets (possibly a couple of trillion), there is the possibility that life has originated independently in at least a few places. There could be several galactic families. One wonders if primitive, slow metabolic germs from different origins land on the same planet, would there be a possibility that they could intermix, creating a hybrid life form.
    Life in the (Extremely) Slow Lane

    But back to the rare origin idea. Dr. Shostak is skeptical of this idea as this would involve million year rides on blasted (from a meteor impact), life-infected, rocks through the harsh vacuum of space. However, as I discussed in an earlier post, Panspermia, Long-Lived Bacteria, and Interstellar Distances, scientists have found microbes with very slow metabolisms that are over a hundred thousand years old living deep (as in miles deep - never seeing the light or fresh air of day) in rocks, and others that have survived lying dormant for a half a million years deep in permafrost. Some studies indicate some bacteria can live suspended in sediments, amber, and halite for millions of years.

    So maybe there is a galactic biosphere. Aliens that come to realize this may develop philosophies and  theologies that accepts all life on all planets around all stars in the galaxy as extended family.

    One way to answer this question is to find life on another planet - even "just" microbial life. If we find that life originated more than once in the same solar system, it is a strong indicator that life originating on its own is not all that rare. It does not mean that panspermia is not an ancillary method, but that the galactic biosphere has gotten more complex and is, in fact, a large collection of individual (though not necessarily isolated) biospheres.


    References:

    Shostak, Seth. Confessions of An Alien Hunter. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009.

    Image credit: 1. "DNA" by Lynette Cook. 2. "Dark Matter" by Ryan Bliss, DigitalBlaphemy