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home > space & science news > space & science news: June 2001

Hints of planet-sized objects in globular cluster 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, but ... Jun 1, 2001
How to stop a Martian invasion Jun 1, 2001

central region of M22
Hints of planet-sized objects in globular cluster
(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 (

Martian north pole
Polar puddles may become focus of Martian life search
(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.

asteroid collision
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 and Parkes
SETI: Some brilliant ideas
(Jun. 22, 2001)

SETI 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 here and here.

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 water.

For more, go here (SETI Institute).

Martian meteorite NWA817
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.

Orion Nebula
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 potential life.

Derbyshire UFO
Not that I believe in flying saucers, but ...
(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.

quarantine facility for hazardous biological materials
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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