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Archive for the ‘extraterrestrial’ Category

Voyager near Solar System’s edge

In astronomy, extraterrestrial, technology on December 14, 2010 at 6:37 pm

This marvelous piece of engineering, after 33 years, is still contributing to science!

According to reports from NASA it is soon reaching the edge of the solar system!

See how BBC news report it, and a brief story of this legendary spacecraft here!

Next report: the interstellar space...

What does NASA’s new life-form discovery mean?

In astronomy, evolution, extraterrestrial on December 3, 2010 at 4:37 pm

What does NASA’s new life-form discovery mean?

Scientists’ announcement of a new form of microbe raises questions about extraterrestrial life. An expert explains

By Christopher R. Walker




What does NASA’s new lifeform discovery mean?

Jodi Switzer Blum/NASA

GFAJ-1 grown on arsenic, left, and the Mono Lake Research area


In a much anticipated press conference yesterday afternoon, NASA astrobiologists announced the discovery of an amazing new kind of microbes, which extend the boundaries of what we may rightly call life. According to the press release, “NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.” Discovered in Mono Lake, an extremely salty and alkaline body of water near Yosemite National Park in California, the microorganism is the first known specimen to substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components, and has raised questions about what the discovery means for extraterrestrial life.


To find out what it really means, we called Robert Shapiro, a professor of chemistry at New York University who has written extensively about life’s origins on earth and its potential existence in outer space.

What does this mean for the discovery of life in our solar system or universe?

Not much, except that people may need to broaden their perspectives, and that we should be less “Terracentric” as we seek out new forms of life. Mostly, this discovery adds a new extremophile [organism that lives in an extreme environment] to our inventory — it pushes the boundaries out a little farther. The grand prize would be to discover an independent origin of life: life with its very own chemistry. Such a discovery wouldn’t just say that evolution is robust, it would say that life is abundant. But this discovery doesn’t do that: These organisms are not completely different in their chemical makeup from what we already know.


From what I can tell, the microbes prefer to live “normally” but may insert arsenic as a substitute for phosphorus when conditions demand it — arsenic can play the same role that phosphorus would play under normal circumstances. This is a great novelty. Arsenic is bigger and heavier than phosphorus, and its compounds are less stable. These organisms would not have done this unless they didn’t have any other choice. Just like Dr. Gerald Joyce, who was quoted in the New York Times today, I feel sorry for these creatures. Their living conditions are horrible — their environment would be poisonous to most other life on Earth.

Are there any lessons about where to focus our search for extraterrestrial life?


Broader searches are better searches. I always marveled at how parochial the searches were that focused on existing genetic assumptions. Hopefully, these findings will shift attention at NASA from [Jupiter moon] Europa — where life may be more familiar, but trapped under a deep ice cap — to [Saturn moon] Titan — where surface life could exist, but conditions are most hostile to traditional life-forms.

That said, it does reinforce Paul Davies’ “Shadow Biosphere” theory that suggests we may be missing major strains of life right here on Earth — either in places traditionally deemed too hostile to life or maybe even right under our noses. An obvious question, then, would be to ask how alternate forms of life could have escaped our notice all this time. Some argue that carbon life may have evolved from mineral life with no carbon of its own, and one could imagine experiments to test this hypothesis. You could simply introduce a carbon-free broth to a carbon-free environment, for example, and see what grows. Or as some people suggest, there could be benefits to testing radioactive environments.

You mentioned that arsenic is poisonous. Are there any industrial applications of these critters that spring to mind?


No, there’s no obvious industrial applications. It just shakes up our thinking about what’s possible.


So what’s the takeaway, then?


It’s an exciting time for risky ideas. Let’s try them. If one in 10 or one in 100 work, wow!


Source: salon.com

Has Life Spread Virally Through the Universe?

In astronomy, evolution, extraterrestrial on August 2, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Life originated in a nebular cloud, over 10 billion years ago, but may have had multiple origins in multiple locations, including in galaxies older than the Milky Way according to Rudolf Schild of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Rhawn Joseph of the Brain Research Laboratory. Multiple origins, they believe, could account for the different domains of life: archae, bacteria, eukaryotes.

The first steps toward life may have been achieved when self-replicating nano-particles initially comprised of a mixture of carbon, calcium, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, sugars, and other elements and gasses were combined and radiated, forming a nucleus around which a lipid-like permeable membrane was established, and within which DNA-bases were laddered together with phosphates and sugars; a process which may have taken billions of years.

DNA-based life, they propose, may be a “cosmic imperative” such that life can only achieve life upon acquiring a DNA genome. Alternatively, the “Universal Genetic Code” may have won out over inferior codes through natural selection. When the first microbe evolved, it immediately began multiplying and spreading throughout the cosmos via panspermia carried by solar winds, Bolide impact, comets, ejection of living planets prior to supernova which are then captured by a newly forming solar system, galactic collisions and following the exchange of stars between galaxies.

Bacteria, archae, and viruses, act as intergalactic genetic messengers, acquiring genes from and transferring genes to life forms dwelling on other planets. Viruses also serve as gene depositories, storing vast numbers of genes which may be transferred to archae and bacteria depending on cellular needs. The acquisition of these genes from the denizens of other worlds, enables prokaryotes and viruses to immediately adapt to the most extreme environments, including those that might be encountered on other planets.


Whether the universe was created by a Big Bang Universe or an Eternal Infinite Universe, once life was established it began to evolve. Archae, bacteria, and viruses may have combined and mixed genes, fashioning the first multi-cellular eukaryote which continued to evolve. Initially, evolution on Earth-like planets was random and dictated by natural selection. Over time, increasingly complex and intelligent species evolved through natural selection whereas inferior competitors became extinct. However, their genes were copied by archae, bacteria, and viruses. If the first steps toward life in this galaxy began 13.6 billion years ago, then using Earth as an example, intelligent life might have evolved within this galaxy by 9 billion years ago. As life continued to spread throughout the cosmos, and as microbes and viruses were cast from world to world, genes continued to be exchanged via horizontal gene transfer and copies of genes coding for advanced and complex characteristics were acquired from and transferred to eukaryotes and highly evolved intelligent life.

Eventually descendants of these microbes, viruses, and their vast genetic libraries, fell to the new born Earth. The innumerable genes stored and maintained in the genomes of these viruses, coupled with prokaryote genes and those transferred to eurkaryotes, made it possible to biologically modify and terraform new Earth, and in so doing, some of these genes, now within the eurkaryote genome, were activated and expressed, replicating various species which had evolved on other worlds. Genes act on genes, and genes act on the environment and the altered environment activates and inhibits gene expression, thereby directly influencing the evolution of species.

On Earth, Schild and Joseph conclude, “the progression from simple cell to sentient intelligent being is due to the activation of viral, archae, and bacteria genes acquired from extra-terrestrial life and inserted into the Earthly eukaryote genome. What has been described as a random evolution is in fact the metamorphosis and replication of living creatures which long ago lived on other planets.”

Jason McManus via Journal of Cosmology

Stephen Hawking: The Future of Space -Manned vs Robotic Missions?

In astronomy, extraterrestrial, sci-fi, technology on March 7, 2010 at 4:06 pm

“Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long-term strategy. If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Stephen Hawking, Cambridge University

Will unmanned robotic missions be able to detect weird microscopic life-forms they are not programmed to recognize that might be lurking below the surface of Saturn’s Titan, or beneath the murky seas of Jupiter’s jumbo moon, Europa?

The answer to this question is at the core of one of the greatest of the ongoing debates in space exploration: the question of man vs. unmanned robotic missions.

NASA currently operates more than 50 robotic spacecraft that are studying Earth and reaching throughout the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond. Another 40 unmanned NASA missions are in development, and space agencies in Europe, Russia, Japan, India and China are running or building their own robotic craft.

What is not commonly known however is that many of NASA’s leading scientists also champion human exploration as a worthy goal in its own right and as a critically important part of space science in the 21st century. The Obama administration’s new NASA strategy that strongly favors robotic exploration, has opened the debate anew.

In a past issue of Scientific American Jim Bell, an astronomer and planetary scientist at Cornell University, and author of “Postcards from Mars,”  notes that “…you might think that researchers like me who are involved in robotic space exploration would dismiss astronaut missions as costly and unnecessary.”

But he then he goes on, “Although astronaut missions are much more expensive and risky than robotic craft, they are absolutely critical to the success of our exploration program.”

Astroboy171104_2The heart of the debate is this: robotic machines will only do what they are programmed to do; they are not programmed to detect weirdness: the unimaginable, the unknown, the strange non-carbon life that we may have encountered on Mars, for example with the two Viking vehicles, in 1976. Each carried equipment for sampling the Martian soil and miniature chemistry laboratories to test the samples for signs of life.The results these automated labs radioed back to Earth were enigmatic: the chemical reactions from the Martian soil were strange, unlike anything seen on Earth. But they were also unlike any reactions that living organisms would produce.

Ben Bova, the science-fiction author of Titan and The Aftermath, his most recent novels in is his ongoing series about the expansion of the human race throughout the Solar System, points out in an interview that most scientists examining the Viking results, reluctantly concluded that was lifeless: “But the fact is that the landers were equipped only to detect signs of Earth-type life. The chemical reactions observed could have been the results of Martian life. They certainly were not ordinary inorganic chemistry.”

The debate over the meaning of the Viking results, Bova concludes, is still unsettled, more than 30 years later. But a human biologist or biochemist could have learned a lot more and settled the matter, one way or the other, within a few hours.

What are we looking for, exactly, when we search for alien life? That’s the cosmic question pondered in the report from the National Research Council, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems. For more than five years, a committee of scientists tried to imagine what life-as-we-don’t-know-it might be like. Their conclusion: Life may exist in non-carbon forms completely unlike anything we see on Earth.

The human vs.machine debate is a false construct: robotic unmanned spacecraft are directed by human beings on Earth. Unless disabled by fierce sandstorms, our rovers are in constant realtime communication with their masters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as will the New Horizons spacecraft now heading for Pluto with human monitors watching over it.

Stephen Hawking, world-celebrated expert on the cosmological theories of gravity and black holes who holds Issac Newton’s Lucasian Chair at Cambridge University, has strong views on the future of the human species and space trael. At last year’s 50th anniversary for NASA. Hawking proposed that the world should devote about 10 times as much as NASA’s current budget – or 0.25% of the world’s financial resources – to space exploration. Hawking backed the space agency’s goals of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and sending humans to Mars shortly after that.

The Moon is a good place to start because it is “close by and relatively easy to reach”, Hawking said. “The Moon could be a base for travel to the rest of the solar system,” he added. would be “the obvious next target”, with its abundant supplies of frozen water, and the intriguing possibility that life may have been present there in the past.

“A goal of a base on the Moon by 2020 and of a manned landing on Mars by 2025 would reignite the space program and give it a sense of purpose in the same way that President Kennedy’s Moon target did in the 1960s,” he said.

Hawking said that any long-term site for a human base should have a significant gravity field, because long missions in microgravity lead to health issues such as bone loss.

Hawking favors human space exploration, rather than just sending robots to explore space, a position taken by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, among others.

Eventually, Hawking said, humanity should try to expand to Earth-like planets around other stars. If only 1% of the 1000 or so stars within 30 light years of Earth has an Earth-size planet at the right distance from its star for liquid water to exist, that would make for 10 such planets in our solar system’s neighbourhood, he said.

“We cannot envision visiting them with current technology, but we should make interstellar travel a long-term aim,” he said. “By long term, I mean over the next 200 to 500 years.” Humanity can afford to battle earthly problems like climate change and still have plenty of resources left over for colonizing space, he said.

“Even if we were to increase the international [space exploration] budget 20 times to make a serious effort to go into space, it would only be a small fraction of world GDP,” he said. GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is a measure of a country’s economic activity.

Hawking  believes that traveling into space is the only way humans will be able to survive in the long-term. “Life on Earth,” Hawking has said, “is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers … I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.”

Another of his famous quotes reiterates his position that we need to get off the planet relatively soon. “I don’t think the human race will survive the next 1,000 years unless we spread into space.”

The problems with Hawking’s solution is that while it may save a “seed” of human life- a few lucky specimens- it won’t save Earth’s inhabitants. The majority of Earthlings would surely be left behind on a planet increasingly unfit for life.

Hawking argued that the world can afford 0.25% of its collective GDP to devote to space colonization. “Isn’t our future worth a quarter of a percent?” he asked. The physicist also speculated on the reasons that SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) projects have not yet detected any alien civilizations, offering three possibilities: that life of any kind is very rare in the universe; that simple life forms are common, but intelligent life rare; or that intelligent life tends to quickly destroy itself.

“Personally, I favour the second possibility – that primitive life is relatively common, but that intelligent life is very rare,” he said. “Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth.”

Source: DailyGalaxy

Chile’s Great Observatories are Searching for Earth’s Twin

In astronomy, extraterrestrial on March 2, 2010 at 10:44 am

Among the international astronomical observatories in Chile is the Gemini Observatory (South) at 2,700 meters (8,858 ft) elevation on Cerro Pachón (a mountain in the Chilean Andes) and the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, a 2,635 meter (8,645 ft) high mountain in the Atacama desert.

Gemini South is approximately 800 km (500 miles) north of the epicenter and the VLT is approximately 1,370 km (850 miles) north of the epicenter. Undoubtedly both locations would have experienced some seismic activity.

But as you would expect Chile’s observatories such as the VLT have some novel anti-earthquake safety measures in place, with the entire telescope is designed to swing during an earthquake, and securing the primary mirror prevents it from rattling against the metal tubes that surround it.

European astronomers based here recently discovered the smallest planet yet found orbiting another star. The discovery suggests that the Milky Way is full of small-mass planets and that with more time and improved instruments like NASA’s recently launched Kepler satellite, they would eventually find Earth-like planets in orbits suitable for life around other stars.

The newly found planet could be as little as only 1.9 times as massive as the Earth and belongs to a dim red star known as Gliese 581, which lies about 20 light-years from Earth in the constellation Libra.

“The holy grail of current exoplanet research is the detection of a rocky, Earth-like planet in the ‘habitable zone’ — a region around the host star with the right conditions for water to be liquid on a planet’s surface”, says Michel Mayor from the Geneva Observatory, who led the European team to this stunning breakthrough.

The Swiss, French and Portuguese astronomers manning the ESO’s La Silla 3.6m telescope were responsible for the original discovery of Gliese 581c, an exo-planet that revolves around Gliese 581. It is older than our solar system and its year lasts only 13 days, since it is 14 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the our Sun.  Astronomers also say—based on initial high-tech models and density-mass calculations—this quasi-Earth’s surface is either rocky or ocean-covered—both Earth-like geographical qualities.

ESO is the intergovernmental European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere. On behalf of its thirteen member states ESO operates a suite of the world’s most advanced ground-based astronomical telescopes located at the La Silla Paranal Observatory in the Atacama.

Planet Gliese 581 e orbits its host star – located only 20.5 light-years away in the constellation Libra  — in just 3.15 days. “With only 1.9 Earth-masses, it is the least massive exoplanet ever detected and is, very likely, a rocky planet”, says co-author Xavier Bonfils from Grenoble Observatory.

From previous observations — also obtained with the HARPS spectrograph at ESO’s La Silla Observatory -a suite of the world’s most advanced ground-based astronomical telescopes-  this star was known to harbor a system with a Neptune-sized planet b and two super-Earths. With the discovery of Gliese 581 e, the planetary system now has four known planets, with masses of about 1.9 (planet e), 16 (planet b), 5 (planet c), and 7 Earth-masses (planet d).

The planet farthest out, Gliese 581 d, orbits its host star in 66.8 days. “Gliese 581 d is probably too massive to be made only of rocky material, but we can speculate that it is an icy planet that has migrated closer to the star,” says team member Stephane Udry. The new observations have revealed that this planet is in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist. “‘d’ could even be covered by a large and deep ocean — it is the first serious ‘water world’ candidate,” continued Udry

“It is amazing to see how far we have come since we discovered the first exoplanet around a normal star in 1995 — the one around 51 Pegasi,” says Mayor. “The mass of Gliese 581 e is 80 times less than that of 51 Pegasi b. This is tremendous progress in just 14 years.”

The astronomers are confident that they can still do better. “With similar observing conditions an Earth-like planet located in the middle of the habitable zone of a red dwarf star could be detectable,” says Bonfils. “The hunt continues.”

La Silla is located in the epicenter of the Atacama Desert’s 5000 meter-high plateau of Chajnantor. Nearby, the European Southern Observatory’s  ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) Observatory project is under construction -a giant, international observatory composed initially of 66 high-precision telescopes, operating at wavelengths of 0.3 to 9.6 mm.

Alma_2 The ALMA antennas will be electronically combined and provide astronomical observations which are equivalent to a single large telescope of tremendous size and resolution, able to probe the Universe at millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution, with an accuracy up to ten times better than the Hubble Space Telescope.

ALMA will be the forefront instrument for studying the cool universe – the relic radiation of the Big Bang, and the molecular gas and dust that constitute the very building blocks of stars, planetary systems, galaxies, and life itself.

In the meantime, odds are good that twin Earths with lukewarm temperatures will likely be discovered by the ESO team earthquke hazards notwithstanding..