& SCIENCE NEWS: June 2001
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& science news > space & science news: June 2001
|Hints of planet-sized objects in
||Jun 28, 2001
|Polar puddles may become
focus of Martian life search
||Jun 25, 2001
|Chaotic end to the Cretaceous?
||Jun 27, 2001
|SETI: Some brilliant ideas
||Jun 22, 2001
|Energy for life on Europa?
||Jun 16, 2001
|Water clues in Mars rock
||Jun 14, 2001
|Mars: the opposition
||Jun 10, 2001
|How common are planets?
The good news and the bad
||Jun 6, 2001
|Not that I believe in flying saucers,
||Jun 1, 2001
|How to stop a Martian invasion
||Jun 1, 2001
Hints of planet-sized objects in globular
(Jun. 28, 2001)
Six objects roughly the mass of Saturn have been detected in the globular
cluster M22, 8,500 light years away, by researchers using the
Hubble Space Telescope. The discovery was made by accident during
work aimed at measuring the size of stars in M22 and is a major surprise
for two reasons. First, these objects appear to be roaming free –
unattached to parent stars. Second, globular clusters are poor in
heavy elements (i.e., any element other than hydrogen or helium) thought
to be essential for planet-building. The results, published in this
week's issue of Nature, reveal dark objects with masses at least a
quarter the size of Jupiter. One possibility is that they are objects,
similar to others found in the Orion Nebula, that formed in the same
way as stars but have masses less than those of brown dwarfs.
For more, go here
(ESA) and here
Polar puddles may become focus of Martian
(Jun. 28, 2001)
Based on a study of all the images of the Martian
poles returned by the Viking
Orbiters in the 1970s and the current Mars
Global Surveyor mission, two Arizona State University astrobiologists
have suggested there could be pools of open water at the poles. Meredith
Payne and Jack Farmer claim to have identified several sites of possible
recent volcano-ice interactions that could result in water –
either pools on the surface or lakes just below the ice. More detailed
studies will now be made of the regions to see if there are further
indications that water could be present. If it is found, the locations
would be prime candidates for future landers and the search for life.
For more, go here.
Chaotic end to the Cretaceous?
(Jun. 27, 2001)
The mass extinction that marked the boundary
between the Cretaceous
and Tertiary eras, and which put paid to the last of the dinosaurs,
may have been triggered by a shifting of the orbits of the inner planets.
According to a new theory put forward by Ferenc Varadi and Michael
Ghil at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), based on
simulations of planetary movements, a chaos-induced change in the
orbits of Mercury, Mars and the Earth at about the time of the dinosaur
demise may have perturbed the asteroid that eventually struck the
Earth and caused the K-T event.
For more, go here.
SETI: Some brilliant ideas
(Jun. 22, 2001)
used to be a game largely for radio astronomers. But, more and more,
those on the quest for messages from the stars are scanning the skies
at optical frequencies – hoping to see the flash of laser light
that would signify another civilization was trying to get in touch.
To learn more about this interesting trend, see Seth Shostak's articles
And let me offer you another thought for the future. Within the next
couple of decades we'll have some pretty impressive instrumentation
in orbit capable not only of identifying Earthlike planets around
other stars but of analyzing the reflected light from those worlds
to discover the makeup of their atmospheres. The signatures of molecular
oxygen, ozone, water vapor, methane and other gases in certain proportions
in the atmosphere and that of chlorophyll
on the surface would speak strongly of biological activity. Once we
suspect we've found a biosphere we could start to look for more subtle
clues – the presence in small amounts of what we would call
industrial pollutants, for example – that might indicate not
only life but a technological civilization. Finally, if we picked
up these spectroscopic hints of intelligence on a given extrasolar
world we could listen and look more closely for artificial signals
(including – in fact, primarily – stray signals) in the
radio, and other regions of the spectrum with our conventional SETI
gear. Comments anyone? It would be interesting to know if anyone has
actually given much thought to what spectral signatures would best
reveal not only the presence of advanced life but of industrial/technological
activity comparable or somewhat more advanced than our own. I predict
an interesting fusion of astrobiological and SETI techniques taking
place over the coming years.
Energy for life on Europa?
(Jun. 16, 2001)
Scientists are becoming more and more convinced that an ocean of salty
water exists beneath the icy surface of Europa,
and possibly that of its neighboring moons Ganymede
and Callisto. But
even if there is an ocean on Europa, it's a huge jump to claim that
it contains life. Water is only one of the ingredients for life as
we known it. Two others are a source of suitable (carbon-based) chemicals
and an energy source. The latter, especially, seems to be a bit of
a problem in a putative sub-ice ocean because it would be permanently
dark. The vast majority of life on Earth depends in some way on photosynthesis,
directly or indirectly. On Europa that isn't an option. Yet, according
to an article in the June 15, 2001 issue of Science, by Chris
Chyba if the SETI Institute and Stanford's Kevin Hand, organisms on
the Jovian moon could still make a living by extracting energy from
oxidizing agents such as molecular oxygen which forms on Europa's
surface and may be transported through cracks in the ice into the
ocean depths. Alternatively, say Chyba and Hands, the oxygen could
come from the decay of radioactive potassium in the ice crust and
For more, go here
Water clues in Mars rock
(Jun. 14, 2001)
NWA817 may sound like a flight from Minneapolis to Seattle. In fact,
it's the designation of a meteorite found in the Sahara desert that
is known to have come from Mars.
Now French researchers are claiming that the 104-gram rock may contain
water that originated below the Martian surface. If verified this
would add to the evidence for deep sub-surface aquifers on the Red
Planet, a scenario painted by some of those who suggest that life
may still exist on our nearby neighboring world. As always, however,
in these cases, there remains the specter of contamination. Desert-found
meteorites have almost certainly been subjected to quite heavy weathering
and this raises the possibility that the water inside the rocks could
be of earthly origin.
For more on this story, go here.
For more on the Martian meteorites in general, go here.
Mars: the opposition
(Jun. 10, 2001)
No, this isn't about critics of our plans to further explore the Red
Planet. Mars really is
in opposition at
the moment – meaning that the fourth planet and ours happen
to be just about as close in their orbits as they ever get. Consequently,
Mars appears as a vivid red "star" in the night sky. During these
times of opposition there are often an unusually large number of UFO
reports due to people mistaking the red newcomer for an artificial
object. Also, of course, there is a long history of observations of
Mars at these periods of close approach when past astronomers have
done their best to catch glimpses of surface features for improving
their maps. The famous canals
were charted in exquisite detail by Percival
Lowell at oppositions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
For more on this opposition, see the SETI Institute article here.
How common are planets? The good news
and the bad
(Jun. 6, 2001)
We know that planets exist around other stars because more than 60
have already been discovered. But how common are they? Two separate
pieces of research published over the past week present conflicting
arguments. On the one hand, astronomers at UCLA have found evidence
for an asteroid belt around the nearby young star Zeta Leporis which
hints that planet formation may also be taking place in this system.
For more on this, go here.
On the other hand, astronomers at the University of Colorado have
published a paper in which they claim that bright O-
and B-type stars in
the Orion Nebula are acting like blow-torches and destroying circumstellar
disks around neighboring stars before they have a chance to give birth
to planets. For more on this, go here.
These are intriguing times in the search for other Earths and their
Not that I believe in flying saucers,
(Jun. 1, 2001)
Readers of this site and of my book The Extraterrestrial Encyclopedia
will know that I'm rather a skeptic when it comes to tales of UFO
sightings. My version of how the flying saucer myth came into being
is related here and
elsewhere in the Astrobiology A-Z (see left menu). But I rather like
this story – click here
– of how a British housewife (from Bonsall, Derbyshire, near
where I grew up) has sold video footage of a UFO to a Hollywood film
maker and how NASA is also interested because the images are similar
to those of a phenomenon photographed from the Space Shuttle some
time ago. Perhaps the least likely possibility is that it is a spacecraft
from another world. But then again, what is the explanation?
Answers on a postcard, please.
How to stop a Martian invasion
(Jun. 1, 2001)
A report entitled "The Quarantine and Certification of Mars Samples",
released June 29 by the National Research Council's Committee on Planetary
and Lunar Exploration (COMPLEX),
urges that work start immediately on a quarantine facility to handle
any future samples returned from Mars. Such a facility was recommended
in a 1997 report based on the chance, however small, that Martian
organisms could infect the Earth. Said John Wood, chairman of COMPLEX
and staff scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics:
"Building this type of quarantine facility is a project of enormous
complexity. We strongly recommend that this process get underway as
soon as possible."
The committee's report recommended that the facility be similar to
Biosafety Laboratory Level 4 facilities (shown in picture) that currently
exist to deal with dangerous terrestrial organisms such as the Ebola
virus. Planning and building BSL-4 facilities, like those at the Centers
for Disease Control in Atlanta and a U.S. Army base in Maryland, can
take at least seven years. The report noted that such a facility should
be up and running for at least two years before launching a sample
return mission, which NASA plans for no sooner that 2011.
For more, go here.
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