& SCIENCE NEWS: August 2001
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& science news > space & science news: August 2001
Other wordly weather: a clue to life elsewhere
(Aug. 30, 2001)
Among the most exciting upcoming developments in astrobiology are
interferometers – arrays of telescopes working as one –
that will be able to image the planets of other solar systems and
analyze their spectra. Several such projects are in the works, including
the pioneer Starlight mission (a.k.a. Space Technology 3 and the New
Millennium Interferometer) and the much more ambitious Terrestrial
Planet Finder and ESA's Darwin.
Now comes news from a group at Princeton that the faint light from
far-off planetary systems could be used, with the help of a piece
of software, to tell about the distribution of land, water, and cloud-cover.
Such information would be valuable in indicating which worlds are
most promising in the further search for life (and also providing
those in the SETI community with specific promising targets at which
to point their detection gear).
more. Source: space.com
Dust to dust: Thoughts on Fred Hoyle's
(Aug. 26, 2001)
Always a Hoyle admirer, I was sad to hear of his death last week (April
22). In a world of scientific orthodoxy, Fred Hoyle
went out of his way to see the other side of the argument. For the
last quarter century he has been the most vociferous proponent of
the panspermia hypothesis,
insisting that not only complex molecules can form between the stars
but so too can life itself. Well, most of us haven't quite caught
up to him on the latter part of that thesis but Hoyle has certainly
been vindicated in his belief – stated several years before
the first organics were found in interstellar clouds – that
there are amino acids, sugars, etc, in the voids between suns. And,
of course, NASA is now getting ready to look for primitive cellular
material in space. So, who knows?
But Fred Hoyle's fame does rest entirely or even mainly on his panspermia
notions. Without question he was one of the most distinguished astrophysicists
of his generation, providing vital clues to several puzzles in nucleosynthesis
and stellar evolution.
He will also be remembered for his long (and not-quite-lost-yet) battle
against the Big Bang theory – ironically, a term he coined.
And lastly, and most fondly, he will be remembered for his science
fiction, including A
for Andromeda and, best of all, The
Black Cloud. For an obituary by his colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe,
New Kuiper Belt object bigger than Ceres
(Aug. 24, 2001)
It seems that the Kuiper
Belt – the band of ice-rock bodies that extends beyond the
orbit of Pluto (and
to which Pluto probably once belonged) – is to going to have
some interesting surprises for us. The newly-discovered KB object,
temporarily designated 2001 KX76, has been confirmed as exceeding
in size the previously largest-known asteroid, Ceres.
This makes it the biggest known object in the solar system after the
Sun and nine planets. For more, go here.
More conventional exoplanets starting
(Aug. 16, 2001)
It's pleasing to note that one of the predictions I make in my new
book Life Everywhere is already starting to come true-namely,
the first "normal" extrasolar
planets are beginning to be discovered. Because of the search
methods conventionally used in planet-hunting, it's the super-big,
super-close-in worlds that tend to be picked up first. To date, our
list of exoplanets is dominated by "hot Jupiters" and "eccentric Jupiters".
But now it seems, as the planet searches become more sensitive (and
long-running), the first signs of normally-placed gas giants are starting
to appear. That most successful of planet-hunting teams, Geoff Marcy
and Debra Fischer at the University of California, Berkeley, and Paul
Butler at the Carnegie Institution, Washington, have announced evidence
of another planet in the 47
Ursae Majoris system, already to known to harbor a super-Jupiter
in a circular orbit at a distance of about 2 AU. Now the team say
they have detected wobbles caused by a world with about three-quarters
the mass of Jupiter in a near-circular orbit further out. As Fischer
remarks: "With 47 Ursae Majoris, it's heartwarming to find a planetary
system that finally reminds us of our solar system." Almost certainly,
it will the first of many.
For more, go here.
Genesis in space
(Aug. 15, 2001)
Following its successful launch, NASA's Genesis
spacecraft is heading toward the first Lagrangian
point in Earth's orbit from the vicinity of which it will conduct
its mission-to collect samples of the solar wind and interplanetary
dust using high-purity wafers set in wing-like arrays. Three years
from now, the samples that it's gathered – 10 to 20 micrograms
of pristine interplanetary dust – will be recovered in a return
capsule over the Utah desert. As its name implies, Genesis will help
shed light on the makeup of the cloud from which the solar system
formed. But will it also help us understand more clearly the origin
of life? One of the hottest issues in astrobiology today concerns
the relative importance of indigenous (home-grown) vs. exogenous (incoming)
matter in the steps leading to the first organisms on a world. Few
astrobiologists would yet be prepared to suggest that life, or even
protolife, might originate in space and then seed new-formed planets.
But that is precisely what a Polish research team is claiming. The
group at Jagiellonian University believe they have created a biogenic
molecule simply by exposing space dust to high-energy radiation. As
in the case of another recent claim – of alien bacteria from
the upper atmosphere – the astrobiological community will need
a great deal of convincing. But these are certainly interesting times.
For more, go here.
Other Earths – the odds just shortened
(Aug. 11, 2001)
Earthlike planets may be common even in binary star systems according
to a new theoretical study by Stephen Kortenkamp at the University
of Maryland and his colleagues. The work, published in the August
10 issue of Science, suggests that, in some cases, the presence
of another large object besides the main star – either a companion
star or a gas giant – could actually encourage the growth of
small worlds. In the past, astronomers suspected that while terrestrial
planets might be able to form in widely-separated binary systems they
may not be able to build up in systems where the separation was only
10-100 times the Earth-Sun distance. According to the new computer
model, says Kortenkamp, "you could have terrestrial planets forming
when the stars are closer together than traditionally thought."
For more, go here.
| Venus in Keflavik
(Aug. 6, 2001)
Regular visitors to this site will have noticed a hiatus in my normally
regular coverage of astrobiological news. In fact, I've just returned
home to Minnesota after a month-long trip to England and Scotland,
drinking warm beer, walking the fells (now accessible again after
the foot-and-mouth outbreak), and catching up with family and friends.
My reading on the journey consisted of one of Ben Bova's excellent
hard SF novels – Venus (available from all good airport
bookstores!) His speculations about possible Venusian lifeforms helped
while away the hours on the plane and the stop-overs at Keflavik –
Space bugs claim met with skepticism
(Aug. 5, 2001)
The most recent claim by Chandra Wickramasinghe
and his colleagues at Cardiff University, Wales, that they have recovered
alien microbes from high in the Earth's atmosphere has been given
a cool response by other astrobiologists. Wickramasinghe told a conference
that a balloon flight at an altitude of 41 kilometers had recovered
clumps of microbes that most probably had their origin in outer space.
He and Fred Hoyle have
long advocated the view that life can develop in interstellar space
and be delivered to planets by passing comets. But this remains an
unorthodox hypothesis and most scientists will tend to suspect that
the newly-found organisms have been lofted from the Earth's surface
unless more detailed tests at the genetic level suggest otherwise.
For more, see the BBC report here.
Did Viking find life after all?
(Aug. 5, 2001)
The official NASA verdict on the Viking
biology experiments is that they drew a blank in the search for Martian
life. But a quarter of a century after the twin probes reached the
surface of the Red Planet, some in the scientific community are starting
to question that verdict.
For more, go here.
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