Category: Astronomy

It's the End of the World as We Know It… or Not.

By Kevin Grazier | December 31, 2010 10:17 pm

It’s been a hectic year end, I’ve been overwhelmed with year-end stuff, and have been a bad, bad blogger.  The good news is that I’m back at it now, but the fatalistic part of me asks “What’s the point? Afterall the world is going to end in a couple hours.” You’ve not noticed? Perhaps that’s best, because it reduces the likelihood of widespread panic, but our Gregorian calendar ends at midnight December 31st! The obvious implication is that it’s the end of the world! Clearly Pope Gregory XIII had advanced divinely-inspired knowledge of the coming cataclysm.

At least that’s the logic being used to advance the whole 2012 mythos.

For both of you who haven’t heard about this, the ancient Mayan calendar ostensibly comes to an end in 2012, and there are no shortage of doomsayers who claim that the Mayans somehow had advance knowledge of the end of the world, and their calendar reflects this.  With 2012 slightly over a year away, you can be certain that this is a topic to which we’ll be turning here fairly regularly, even though it more correctly falls under the purview of “Fiction not Science”.

It’s understandable, actually.  From an evolutionary standpoint, it was practically yesterday that we hunted/gathered our own food, and lived in constant fear of being eaten by the saber toothed cat.  So in some senses our bodies are still wired for a way of life that hasn’t existed for several thousands of years. Most of us, with varying frequencies and intensities, still need to feel that primal surge of adrenaline. Some of us, myself among them, enjoy violent games like football, rugby, or hockey. Some of us, myself sometimes among them, get the ol’ adrenaline pumping through extreme sports. Some of us, myself rarely among them, enjoy roller coasters (not a fan). Many of us in all the previous categories scare ourselves by watching horror or action movies.

Some, myself definitely not among them, worry about the End of the World Scenario Du Jour. This is neither uncommon nor surprising, humans have worried about the end of the world since somebody first realized that it might, in fact, have an end. With 2012 now a year away, The End seems to be more of a player in the zeitgeist and is an ever-increasing topic of relevance in media and popular conversation. The popularity of my friend (and fellow Discover blogger) Phil Plait’s book Death From the Skies:  These are the Ways the World Will End speaks to this. Even mainstream media outlets like Fox News, LiveScience , and Fox News again, recently ran pieces examining end of the world scenarios (and even though the second Fox entry was about debunked scenarios for the End, it still implies that it’s in the forefront of thought).

Of course there was the movie 2012, but then again you can always count on Roland Emmerich to latch onto something like this and base a movie on it.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Apocalypse, Astronomy, Geology

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

Antimatter: Coming Soon to a Warp Nacelle Near You?

By Kevin Grazier | September 3, 2010 11:57 am

Any Trekker (or Trekkie) knows that the warp drives in Federation starships are powered by dilithium-moderated matter/antimatter reactions. When matter and antimatter come into contact:  BOOM! There’s a huge release of energy and the Enterprise leaps ahead at incredible speeds. Of course that’s all sci-fi, right?

What fewer Trekkers, and the public in general, realize is that antimatter is not solely the purview of science fiction: it actually exists in the real Universe–it’s not just a common sci-fi MacGuffin (like, say, artificial gravity)–and it’s not crazy to suggest it as a possible propulsion system for futuristic spacecraft. Antimatter, in short, is the same as normal matter except with the charges flipped: protons take on a negative charge (anti-protons), and electrons reverse charge to become positrons. Our Sun creates antimatter during the proton-proton chain–the fusion reaction that generates the majority of its energy; some cosmological models even suggest that antimatter should be as common as matter in our Universe. And of course antimatter is huge in sci-fi. In one of the better TOS episodes, Spock observed that the Doomsday Machine’s weapon was “…pure anti-proton…”–an antimatter particle beam.

Sci-fi generally does a good job of showing what happens when matter comes into contact with antimatter: BOOM. When particles of matter interact with theirSwitzerland  Antimatter Detector antiparticles, through the process of pair annihilation the mass of both particles is converted completely into energy–gamma rays–via the dictates of E=mc2. We still don’t know if antimatter is as common as matter in the Universe; perhaps there are entire galaxies composed chiefly of antimatter, galaxies insulated from their matter counterparts by the vast distances of inter-galactic space. One of the last (permanent) residents of the International Space Station, the CERN-built Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (at right being loaded onto a Air Force C-5 Galaxy), may help us understand how ubiquitous antimatter is in the Universe, as well as aiding scientists in determining the nature of dark matter.

So will the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer teach us the secrets of antimatter, leading inexorably to its storage, manipulation, and use? Yes…and no. The first half of that statement is true: AMS may help physicists understand the ubiquity of antimatter and perhaps have a better grasp on the nature of our universe. Understanding the nature of antimatter as a precursor to using it? That’s more of a leap. It’s the kind of statement one might make in a work of science fiction to advance a plot point (trust me on this), but it makes less sense in the real world. Both producing and containing antimatter are currently way beyond our capabilities. But if scientists could design, and engineers could build, a vessel to contain antimatter, it would go a long way towards solving our planet’s energy needs.

As far as a viable matter/antimatter propulsion, it turns out that NASA has, in fact, researched just that–spacecraft with antimatter-based propulsion systems.  Of course the Trekkers are keenly aware of the dangers associated with the term “containment failure”, and that would be a real consideration if the antimatter had to be stored. The drives being researched by NASA would be very different from the antimatter pulse drive I wrote about previously, and would generate/use antimatter–to use a business term–on a “just in time” basis. This type of main engine would dramatically cut the travel time, and open up for exploration, to countless destinations within the Solar System.


Vacations on Mars via Antimatter Express–who’s coming with me?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Space Flight

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

Megalightning vs. Superstorm

By Kevin Grazier | August 19, 2010 10:36 am

Climate scientists predict an above-average number of hurricanes for 2010 (so far we’re well below normal, but hurricane season isn’t over). Hurricanes, with their 75+ mile per hour winds, torrential rains, and associated tornado activity are frigthening.  For Earth.

The recent storms that have brought such devastating floods to China and the Iowa, as well as storms depicted in cinema like TwisterThe Perfect Storm, and The Day After Tomorrow–all based upon real events (well, 2 out of 3 anyway)– reveal Nature’s fury at its full force, right?  Absolutely!  For Earth.

There are, however, places in the Solar System where Earth’s most violent maelstroms would be considered puny, and whose most violent wind would be a gentle breeze.  The Great Red Spot of Jupiter, for example, is a hurricane-like storm roughly 2 1/2 times the size of the planet Earth that has been raging with winds up to 400 mph, and was first seen by Galileo.  In recent years, Jupiter has developed a second red spot (nicknamed “Little Red”) that began as a “perfect storm” where three jovian storms collided back in 2000, and turned red in 2006. 


The jovian planets of the outer Solar System are where one truly2313_6314_1 can view the full force of Nature’s climatic fury. Recent observations of Saturn reveal superstorms (at right) and mega lightning bolts –even a giant blizzard— that put the terrestrial equivalents to shame. 

As we explore planets in other star systems, particularly the “hot Jupiters“, we may find superstorms in their atmospheres  so huge and violent that they make those in the jovian planets the Solar System as puny in comparison as the storm of Earth are relative to those on, say, Saturn.

Megalightning vs. Superstorm“:  when that becomes a Saturday night science fiction movie, remember you heard it here first.



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