Category: Aliens

Does Mars Have Alien Life? Break Out the Planetary Breathalyzer

By Kevin Grazier | October 4, 2010 2:57 pm

I recently speculated that spacecraft both orbiting and sitting upon Mars may have already detected signs of life.  In particular, some spacecraft have detected signs of methane:

In 2004 the European Space Agency probe Mars Express detected the presence of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. Methane can be produced geologically (and Mars is not short on volcanoes), or biologically. (Though media reports of that observation got a bit out of hand.) Either way, this is an important observation and research on the source of this methane is still ongoing.

Methanethiol-3D-vdWThe existence of methane is ambiguous: Though methane is produced biologically, as I wrote above, it’s also produced geologically (and, in fact, the methane detected on Mars tends to be both localized and emanating from some of the more volcanic regions). It can also be delivered by comets. Given its ubiquity, methane may raise hopes, but in the end turn out to be a poor biomarker. Detecting life elsewhere will require multiple lines of evidence.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Astronomy

Carbon Dioxide Sucks: It Cooks Our Planet & Makes First Contact Harder

By Kevin Grazier | September 23, 2010 5:35 pm

Planets, in particular habitable planets, are so common in works of science fiction that there’s a tendency to assume that they’d be common in the real Universe. There is little hard data to support that notion–not yet anyway. Just 15 years ago, the only planets astronomers knew where the nine that orbited one star: Sol. (I’m not attempting to promote Pluto-back-to-full-fledged-planethood, but it was considered a planet back then, hence the inclusion.) We have now identified over 490 planets (and counting) orbiting other stars. So although stars with planets seem to be fairly ubiquitous, perhaps even the rule rather than the exception, that still raises the question of the abundance of habitable planets.


Until recently the detection methods astronomers used for finding extrasolar planets has had a distinct bias–the planets we’ve found tend to be large, Jupiter-like, and close to their parent stars. Now the Kepler spacecraft has just begun its search for extrasolar Earths and, in a very short time, has already found over 700 candidate stars that could have Earth-sized planets. As followup studies examine these candidate stars further, is it only a matter of time until another “Earth” is detected? Certainly, but we may have to sift through a lot of near-misses first.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Astronomy, Space

Have We Already Discovered Alien Life—on Mars?

By Kevin Grazier | September 17, 2010 2:23 pm

Planets and moons do not give up their secrets willingly or easily — they make us work for every clue we get.  That seems particularly true when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life. Even then, some bodies in the Solar System make us work harder than others.

Take Titan, for example. Two weeks ago, I wrote that observations of Titan from Cassini have been interpreted by some as possible signs of life, in particular:

Now it turns out that computer simulations based upon Cassini observations, simulations which hint at depletions of various chemical species at Titan’s surface may again hint at the possibility of life on Titan. The results are very preliminary, but fascinating nevertheless.

It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever be able to make a positive determination if there’s life on Titan based upon Cassini data alone. Cassini is, after all, an orbiter, and its observations of Titan’s surface come from hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers away–limited to those that can be attained during flybys. To ascertain the presence of life, we’ll need what scientists in the field of remote sensing call “ground truth”–we’ll have to wait until we are able to send a followup probe to the surface of Titan. Perhaps we’ll send a probe to Titan similar to Tiny–the Titan rover who has guest-starred in episodes of this season’s Eureka.


Even then it could turn out that, unless NASA’s version of Tiny returns samples to Earth for human examination, the results could remain ambiguous and leave scientists scratching their heads. That is what’s happening with Mars.

Titan hides its secrets beneath a thick photochemical haze, but when it comes to planets that jealously guard their secrets, Mars is the champion. The Great Galactic Ghoul of Mars destroys our spacecraft. Mars throws us curve balls; Mars lies to us. Mars even laughs at the spacecraft it does allow to explore it.

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Let’s Play Predict the Future: Where Is Science Going Over the Next 30 Years?

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 14, 2010 11:50 am

whereAs part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?

Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:

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Cosmic Rays: By-Product of Distant Alien Warfare?

By Kevin Grazier | September 9, 2010 11:11 am

One of the most energetic phenomena observed (to date anyway) are gamma ray bursts or GRBs. As the name implies, GRBs are brief, but super intense, pulses of gamma ray energy that have been observed in distant galaxies. Two types of gamma ray bursts have been observed (to date anyway): long-period gamma ray bursts last for seconds to minutes and seem to be associated with supernova events; short period bursts last for milliseconds and may represent a cataclysmic outpouring of energy from colliding neutron stars.

Similar to the polar emissions from a neutron star, seen as a pulsar if the observer is within the cone traced out by the polar streams, gamma ray emissions from a GRB are very directional as well as intense. If a GRB went off anywhere within our galaxy, yes the entire galaxy, and Earth was in line with one of the two polar beams, all life on Earth would be extinct within hours. In his book “Death from the Skies,” fellow Discover blogger Phil Plait has a great description of what life on Earth would be like in its last minutes, and my co-author Ges Seger and I examined this phenomena in this short story.  Now before you lie awake at night worrying, here’s a podcast describing why we should be safe from GRBs.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Apocalypse, Astronomy, Top Posts

Rainbow Federation: The 5 Most Diverse Crews in Space

By Kyle Munkittrick | September 2, 2010 5:24 pm

How mind-blowing is it that this picture is from THE PAST!?!?!

Once or twice before I’ve made a case for diversity as a hallmark of good science fiction. Regardless of one’s present political affiliations, we like our sci-fi casts to be a plurality of uncanny and unfamiliar characters. The future of our species is, in part, dependent upon how well we get along with other forms of sentient life. So which stellar explorers would earn the stamp of approval from the Rainbow Coalition of the 24½th Century? After weeding out (most) all-human crews (sorry BSG!) and some of the less well-known teams (sorry Bucky O’Hare!), I’ve come up with a top five list. We’ve got genetic mutants, alcoholic robots, holograms, bisexual aliens, snarky A.I., clones, cryonauts, cyborgs, and every variant of human being imaginable. Did I leave anyone out?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Space, Utter Nerd
MORE ABOUT: Diversity

Is AI More Common Than Biological Intelligence Across the Universe?

By Malcolm MacIver | August 31, 2010 6:04 pm

In a recent article, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomer Seth Shostak makes an intriguing claim: SETI should start pointing its telescopes toward corners of the known universe that would be friendly not just to intelligent aliens but to artificial alien intelligence. The basis of his suggestion is that any form of life intelligent enough to generate the kinds of radio signals that SETI is looking for would be “quickly” superseded by an artificial intelligence of their creation. Here, going on our own rate of progress toward AI, Shostak suggests that this radio-to-AI delay is a small handful of centuries.

These artificial intelligences, not likely to have had the “nostalgia module” installed, may quickly flee the home planet like a teenager trying to pretend it isn’t related to its parents. If nothing else, they will likely need to do this to find further resources such as materials and energy. Where would they want to go? Shostak speculates they may go to places where large amounts of energy can be obtained, such as near large stars or black holes.

Alien's harvesting the energy of a star for a worm hole
Stephen Hawking imagines aliens covering stars with mirrors
to generate enough power for worm holes

Stephen Hawking has suggested one reason to go to high-energy regions would be to make worm holes through space-time to travel vast distances quickly. These areas are not hospitable to life as we know it, and so are not currently the target of SETI’s telescopes searching for signals of such life.

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Between Titan's Icy Surface and Blazing Core, There Just May Be Life

By Kevin Grazier | August 25, 2010 11:11 am

A few weeks back I blogged about SETICon, the first-ever conference held around the central theme of the search for intelligent life “out there”  — not quite a science conference, but not really a sci-fi convention either. SETICon was not only unique, but it was also a blast. Bring on SETICon II!

Despite years of searching, Klingons and Asgard, Daleks and Vorlons are still firmly entrenched within the realm of science fiction — for not only do we know of no intelligent life in our galaxy outside of that on Earth, we know of no life period. Finding even a microbe would be huge. (The find would be huge, the microbe would be small — hence the “micro” portion of the word. We have no expectation of finding gargantuan Martian astronaut-sucking amoebae, as in Angry Red Planet.)

While we may have to look to the stars for signs of intelligence, the search for life is a somewhat different — though obviously related — matter and we  shouldn’t forget that there are many potential abodes of life within our own Solar System. Surprisingly many are in the outer solar system, and receive only a faint glimmer of Sol’s life-giving radiation. Given the diversity of extremophile organisms discovered in the depths of Earth’s oceans (like the tube worms at right) — as well as  other places that would initially seem counter-intuitive — organisms that live their entire lives never seeing a single photon from the Sun, it appears that the presence of liquid water is much more of a requirement for life than is sunlight.

Planetary scientists now have strong evidence to support the presence of oceans of liquid water under the icy crusts of outer Solar System moons like Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede orbiting Jupiter, as well as Saturn’s Titan. For large Jovian moons, subsurface oceans seen to be the rule, rather than the exception.

Titan Cross Section
Cross Section of Titan. Image credit: NASA

Titan, in particular, raises eyebrows. The moon is slightly larger than Mercury, and the instant Gerard Kuiper confirmed that this moon had a methane-rich atmosphere back in 1944, Titan became a leading candidate for harboring life within the Solar System.

In his 1944 paper, Kuiper wrote that the spectrometry from his telescopic observations suggested that Titan was orange (8th paragraph). So there was an expectation of “oranginess” when the twin Voyager spacecraft flew past in 1981. The observations of Voyager allowed scientists to determine 1) the depth of Titan’s atmosphere; and related to that 2) Titan was slightly smaller than Ganymede, because Titan’s atmospheric depth had been underestimated; and 3) a temperature/pressure profile for Titan’s atmosphere.

Scientists determined that the temperature at the surface of Titan was a chilly 94 Kelvins (about -280 Fahrenheit). Well, so much for life on Titan. Life is based upon chemical processes and, in general, chemical processes proceed faster at higher temperatures. Not only was 94 Kelvins too low a temperature for life-sustaining processes as we know them, most chemicals (chiefly water) important to life as we know it are frozen at that temperature.

So under the category of “potential abodes of life,” Titan was relegated to the category of “also ran.” Titan was referred to as similar to a “pre-biotic” (pre-life) Earth, or like the “Early Earth in a deep freeze.” Even bolder claims were made that Titan may have its day as a habitable abode in a few billion years when our Sun swells to become a red giant.


Enter Cassini/Huygens. Since arriving at the Saturn system in July 2004, the Cassini and Huygens spacecraft have been imaging, sniffing, and landing on Titan, rewriting the textbook on this moon in the process (and I did a podcast on this very subject for “365 Days of Astronomy” last November 12th). In fact, this past  June 21st, Cassini had its closest flyby of the moon Titan that it will have during the entire mission.

Now it turns out that computer simulations based upon Cassini observations, simulations which hint at depletions of various chemical species at Titan’s surface may again hint at the possibility of life on Titan. The results are very preliminary, but fascinating nevertheless.

In the past six years we’ve still learned enough about Titan not to rule out the presence of life. In addition to that subsurface ocean previously mentioned, there appears to be cryovolcanism on Titan’s surface — in one instance Cassini may have imaged an actual eruption. If Titan’s surface rocks are composed of ice, and magma is melted rock, and hydrocarbons like ethane and methane are common on Titan, then it’s not too big of a stretch to imagine that magma chambers in Titan’s subsurface could be life-sustaining cauldrons of hydrocarbon-laced water. Microbes surviving in a magma chamber on a moon of Saturn is a concept that would have been the purview of science fiction only a few years ago, now it’s a real consideration.

Life on Titan? I guarantee that we’ve not heard the last on this subject.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Astronomy

First Dinosaurs, Now Aliens Invade San Diego!

By Kevin Grazier | August 19, 2010 3:16 pm

First, in Jurassic Park 2:  The Lost World, it was a T-Rex rampaging through downtown San Diego munching on house pets. Now aliensaliens_inside_small have stealthily invaded the San Diego Air & Space Museum. This particular invasion, however, was invited–the Air & Space Museum is hosting the Science of Aliens traveling exhibit: a fun mix of science and science fiction.

The exhibit is broken down into four areas:


The alien fiction section was small, and had a collection of movie props, videos, and sections devoted to Roswell and the Alien Autopsy video.  Interestingly the content in the Roswell section was donated by the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM, so I felt it was slightly skewed in favor of the object that crashed at Roswell being of an extraterrestrial nature, while the content provided for the Alien Autopsy video practically screamed “THIS WAS A HOAX!”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Astronomy, Cyborgs, Movies, Robots, TV, Utter Nerd

When Science Met Sci-Fi (and Had an Alien Baby Called SETICon)

By Kevin Grazier | July 6, 2010 1:55 pm

SETIconIt isn’t a sci-fi convention, but it isn’t quite a scientific conference either. Sponsored by the SETI Institute, it’s SETICon, a convention where the overarching theme is exploration of the question, “Are we alone in the Universe?” While many science fiction conventions (Dragon*Con comes to mind here) have space, science, and/or skeptics programming, SETICon is less a sci-fi convention, and more a science convention.

The con’s website bills it as:

A “con” unlike any you’ve ever attended. Scientists, celebrities and sci-fi writers in a mind-meld of entertainment and scientific exploration. Panels, presentations, and face-time with some of your favorite researchers. If you only attend one ‘con’ this year, SETIcon should be it!

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