How do you hunt for extraterrestrial life? You visit other planets, you find new planets, you study our own planet, or you listen.
All four methods came together last night at the World Science Festival when four speakers took part in a conversation called, simply, “The Search for Life in the Universe.” When you put four lively scientists with four different ways of thinking on a stage together, consensus isn’t the first thing to emerge. But the panel could agree on one thing: If you yearn to know whether we’re alone in the universe, it’s a hell of a time to be alive.
Steve Squyres of Cornell University is one of the project leads on the Mars rovers, those endurance robots Spirit and Opportunity that continue sending back Martian data. Spirit may be stuck, but in this week’s edition of the journal Science, Squyres’ team has published a new study based on information the rover found at a rock outcropping called Comanche about four years ago.
Spirit found evidence of carbonates that would have formed in the presence of water. The rover had done that before, but what’s exciting now, Squyres says, is that the chemistry of these new carbonate finds show they formed in water of a more neutral pH, rather than the more acidic circumstances that would have formed prior carbonate finds.
That water no longer flows on the martian surface, but “this points to more life-friendly conditions” billions of years ago, he said.
2. A Second Earth?
Humans have long imagined faraway planets around other stars, Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau said. “We are all alive at this magical moment when we have the technical ability to find those planets.”
The count of known exoplanets now stands at greater than 400, and astronomers have found most of those by one of two methods. There’s the wobble, in which astronomers spy a star jostled ever so slightly by its planet’s gravity. It’s like watching a dance, Charbonneau said, “it’s just that one of the dance partners is 1,000 times heavier than the other.” Secondly, there’s the transit method, in which a planet passes in front of its star and dims the star slightly, giving away its presence.
Charbonneau is also a member of the Kepler Space Telescope team. It launched last year with the express purpose of exoplanet hunting, and at the World Science Festival he predicted it would find a truly Earth-like world in two to three more years (he’s gotten close already). Plus, in 2014, exoplanet hunters will get another assist from this bad boy, the James Webb Space Telescope, a full-scale replica of which is currently on display in Battery Park.
3. Science Staycation
“This is my favorite planet, I have to say.”
Michael J. Russell is the most Earth-focused of the four panelists who spoke last night. And he might be the most convinced that Earth is not alone in harboring life. As someone who studies the emergence of life on our homeworld, especially the possibility that it emerged in the pressure cooker of deep-sea vents, Russell is impressed by the reach and expansion of life here. And that’s a good sign for life elsewhere in the universe.
What can Earth tell us about life on distant worlds? Life, Russell says, leaves evidence of itself in the waste it leaves behind. It accelerates chemical reactions—through photosynthesis, for example. Says Russell: “The question isn’t, ‘What is life?’ What we should ask is, ‘What does life do?’”
Zeta rays. Zeta rays are the key.
OK, I don’t know what zeta rays are, and neither does Jill Tarter, longtime member of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The point is that we’re using technologies and weird physics that we didn’t know about a half-century ago when SETI was founded. Given our location in the galaxy, she says, any civilization that might like to contact us probably has had more time to mature. “We can be fairly confident that we are the youngest,” she said.
Thus, we use the methods we know—like optical and radio signals—to search for alien intelligences. But they might be trying to reach us with zeta rays, or some other crazy thing we haven’t discovered yet. That, plus the great vastness of the galaxy, tells Tarter that 50 years of nothing but silence doesn’t mean SETI is a failure. It means they’re just getting started.
[Read more about SETI's first 50 years in the feature "Call Waiting" in the July/August issue of DISCOVER, on newsstands soon.]
So what if it’s out there?
“First of all, I’m going to take a drink of champagne,” Tarter said.
In case you were worried, SETI does have a plan in place for its response to an alien signal. Tarter says the scientists won’t attempt to respond themselves, but would rather tell the world and try to reach a global consensus for our planet’s next move.
Right… “global consensus.” Tarter concedes that this sounds great on paper and is probably impossible to achieve. But in a socially connected world, maybe we can just take a vote on whether or not we want to tell E.T. we’re here.
That plan, of course, would apply only if we found intelligent life. But if we detected even “pond scum,” Squyers said, the achievement would be monumental. He’s willing to accept that habitable environments proliferate throughout the galaxy. Even in our own solar system, promising locales for life like the moons Europa and Titan lie outside what we would call the “Goldilocks Zone.” But finding that life independently arose twice just in our own tiny solar system would mean to him that the universe is “teeming with life.”
I hope it is.
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While we know what it looks like when a star explodes into a luminous supernova, here’s a chance to discover what one sounds like–sorta. Scientists have translates a supernova’s electromagnetic waves into waves of sound; and when there is sound, there is music. Enter the Grateful Dead.
The band’s famed percussionist Mickey Hart is working on a musical project to “sonify” the universe–taking sounds collected by scientists from supernovae and other astronomical phenomena and using them in his new album “Rhythms of the Universe.” To anyone who has ever heard one of the Grateful Dead’s extended “drums and space” jams, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
One astronaut’s trash is another state’s treasure. That’s the message from California as the Golden State officially registered a collection of 106 objects left behind on the moon by the Apollo 11 mission as a state historical resource. The collection encompasses about 5,000 pounds of objects, including the bottom stage of the lunar lander and the American flag planted on the moon’s surface by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
And it’s not just the tools and the flag–California has also claimed custody of bags of human waste left behind.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the logic behind the unusual decision:
The first landing on the moon by humans, on July 20, 1969, was “one of the most historical events in the last 100 to 200 years,” said Jay Correia, a historian with the Historical Resources Commission. California had a major role in developing the technology that made the trip to the moon possible.
It’s official. Even people in space are tweeting. NASA announced today that astronaut T.J. Creamer on the International Space Station has become the first person to tweet directly from space, making use of a brand new direct Internet connection. Creamer tweeted: “Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station — the 1st live tweet from Space! More soon, send your ?s”
Yay. Space tweets. Sweet.
In the past, astronauts could use email and twitter–but they had to relay their messages to ground control in Houston, who then sent them on. But now, thanks to the new system of personal Web access, called the Crew Support LAN, astronauts can take advantage of existing communication links to and from the station and browse the Web directly.
If you are a single male, please answer the following questions:
Repellent body odor? No?
Superfluous and abundant body hair?
Socially awkward? No again…?
Then why are you still single? And what are the odds of you finding a girlfriend this year?
Economics grad student Peter Backus of the U.K.’s University of Warwick pondered that question, and put his mathematical skills to good use to calculate his chances of hooking up in 2010. As Backus found, the odds of him finding an appropriate love interest on any given night out are 1 in 285,000. Backus used the Drake equation to calculate these odds of finding love and wrote it up as “Why I don’t have a girlfriend: An application of the Drake Equation to love in the UK.”
As New Scientist explains:
For the uninitiated, the Drake equation was set out by Frank Drake, one of the founders of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It estimates the number of alien civilisations we should expect to find in our galaxy.
Instead of spending time and money planning a manned mission to Mars, why not send an army of robots into space to do all the work? A fleet of robots could be deployed to explore far-away planets, according to researchers at Caltech’s Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory.
From the Telegraph:
Robotic airships and satellites will fly above the surface of the distant world, commanding squadrons of wheeled rovers and floating robot boats…The systems will transform planetary exploration, says [Wolfgang] Fink, who envisages the cybernetic adventurers mapping the land and seascapes of Saturn’s moon, Titan—believed to have lakes of standing liquid—as well as closer planetary neighbors like Mars.
Researchers say the robots could command themselves and other robots with little input from ground control. All of which seems like a great idea, since the human space flight program isn’t likely to take off anytime soon.
Discoblog: Billionaire to Throw a “Tickle Party” in Space
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Discoblog: Japan’s First Lady Claims She Went to Venus, Consorted With Aliens
• Hit the red-light district on the cheap: Berlin brothels are offering discounts to “green” customers that arrive on bike.
• New robotic prosthetic hand lets users regain their sense of touch.
• Do space flights make people crazy? The European Space Agency is looking for a few volunteers to spend 520 days in total isolation to study space travel’s psychological effects.
• Going green? Not if you own a pet. A new book argues that owning a dog has the same carbon footprint as driving 6,000 miles a year in a Land Rover.
• Mix & match brains: Scientists try to create a bird chimera to study the evolution of birdsong.
Astronauts can’t be all business all the time; sometimes you just have to cut loose. Well that’s exactly what billionaire red-nosed clown Guy Laliberte intends to help the astronauts do when they blast into space tomorrow.
From the AP:
The man who hopes to be the first clown in space, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, said Tuesday he would tickle fellow astronauts as they sleep aboard the International Space Station.
The crew must be ecstatic to have him aboard. Laliberte might want to stick to handing out red noses and let the astronauts rest up so they can, um, fly a space shuttle.
MSNBC.com compiled a slideshow of their top nine space antics, a list that will surely include Laliberte’s ticklefest in the future. But for now it seems that astronauts’ favorite pastimes involve playing space golf, eating space fast-food, and dumping space trash.
Discoblog: Bad Breath? Body Odor? Don’t Bother Applying to China’s Space Program
Discoblog: Scientists Examine Underwear Astronaut Wore for a Month
Discoblog: Today’s Conservation Gimmick: Drink Your Shower Water!
• Bizarre condition of the day: phantosmia, where you smell something and can’t stop smelling it, sometimes for months.
• Thank goodness we’re doing something productive in space: A satellite is tracking and improving French wine harvests.
• The Romantics managed to mesh science and poetry. Any hope for the rest of us?
• Technology can be sexist; news at 11.
• Is the double-secret hangover cure really…asparagus?
It seems hygiene in space is all the rage. First, it was the odor-resistant underwear that one astronaut wore for a month. Now, China’s space program has come up with 100 rules for potential ‘nauts—and anyone with bad breath, dental cavities, body odor, or a family history of serious disease within the past three generations need not apply (apparently the program is looking only for “super human beings”).
Shi Bing Bing, a doctor at the 454th Air Force Hospital in Nanjing, eastern China, said the new rules will help China send the best of the best into space.
“Bad body odour will affect fellow colleagues in the narrow confines of a space shuttle,” he said. “These astronauts could be regarded as super human beings.”
Mr Shi’s hospital has now carried out a first screening of candidates to weed out those who fell foul of the 100 rules. A further two screenings will whittle hopefuls down to the small band who will follow in the footsteps of China’s space pioneers, chosen in 1997.
We hate to say it, but sometimes discrimination stinks.
Discoblog: Scientists Examine Underwear Astronaut Wore for a Month
Discoblog: Cooking in Space: Slow, Mediocre, and Dangerous
Discoblog: What Happens to Your Underwear in Space?
Image: flickr / Valerie Everett