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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: May 2001
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Astrobiology: a European perspective May 28, 2001
Mars loses face May 25, 2001
Galactic habitable zones and the Rare Earth controversy May 24, 2001
No hydrothermal vents in Lake Vostok May 23, 2001
Comet's death sheds light on the origin of life May 21, 2001
How to build a time machine? May 20, 2001
First European Workshop on Astrobiology May 16, 2001
Mystery force tugs on deep space probes May 15, 2001
Meteorite microbes brought back to life, scientists claim May 13, 2001
Watch as Mars Express and Rosetta take shape May 8, 2001
Life Everywhere talks/signings on west coast this week May 6, 2001
First issue of Astrobiology journal free online May 2, 2001


Extrasolar planet in transit across its parent star
Astrobiology: a European perspective
(May 28, 2001)


Last week's conference on astrobiology in Frascati, Italy, concluded with an optimistic message from the attendees about the prospects for life in the universe. For details, go here.

That face again
Mars loses face
(May 25, 2001)


NASA has just released this new picture of the famous Martian "face", showing once again how remarkably unlike a face it is when seen at high resolution. Ever since the head was first glimpsed by Viking from orbit back in 1975, an enthusiastic minority has insisted it represents evidence of a long-lost civilization on Mars. Despite going out of its way to image the feature using Mars Global Surveyor – no straightforward task given the spacecraft's orbit – NASA will probably not persuade the true believers with this latest picture any more than it will change the minds of those who insist that the Apollo astronauts never landed on the Moon. Percival Lowell would have been pleased. For more, go here.

Galactic habitable zones and the Rare Earth controversy
(May 24, 2001)


According to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at the University of Washington, Seattle, the Sun's location within the Milky Way Galaxy makes it almost uniquely favorable toward life – especially complex life. For more on his ideas, go here. Gonzalez is one of the chief supporters of the Rare Earth hypothesis and has had a major influence on his colleagues Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, authors of the book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, not to mention some other scientists and the public at large. Over a number of years he has pointed out various characteristics, including the proximity and size of the Moon, which he believes make our world a very special place in terms of biology. However, as I document in my new book, Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology, Gonzalez has a non-scientific reason for promoting this viewpoint: he firmly believes in Intelligent Design (a subject he writes about extensively in creationist pamphlets). In a message to Peter Ward (forwarded to me by Ward), Gonzalez wrote: "I recently received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study habitability from a design perspective – several people in the department know about it. I have not been more open about my pro-design views here at the UW because of the open hostility to such views among many faculty. But, I certainly will not apologize for admitting that my theistic theological views motivate my science and vice-versa." And so the battle of the pre-Copernicans continues!

core sample taken from above Lake Vostok
No hydrothermal vents in Lake Vostok
(May 23, 2001)


Scientists had hoped that Lake Vostok, a large body of water locked deep beneath the Antarctic ice, might harbor the rich kind of life found around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. But ice core samples taken from just above the surface of the lake have shown that Vostok lacks any such vents. Although this is disappointing, it still leaves open the possibility of finding other kinds of microbe. Lake Vostok is of special interest to astrobiologists because it is analogous in some ways to the ocean thought to lie under the icy outer crust of Europa and will enable equipment to be tested that might eventually be used to enter and sample Europa's ocean in search of life.

For more, go here.

Cometary fragmentation
Comet's death sheds light on the origin of life
(May 21, 2001)


A crucial issue in astrobiology is the amount of water and organic material delivered to new-formed worlds by colliding comets. The breakup of comet LINEAR last year has provided new data on this important issue. Comet LINEAR was discovered in September 1999 and is a newcomer to the inner regions of the solar system having recently been displaced from its old orbit in the Oort Cloud. Last summer, scientists noticed that the central part of the comet had become grossly elongated indicating that the nucleus had shattered into a swarm of mini-comets. Analysis of the fragments revealed an unusually low abundance of volatile materials such as carbon monoxide, methane, ethane, and acetylene. This suggests that LINEAR came originally, at the dawn of the solar system, from the region of Jupiter, whereas the majority of known comets formed further out, at the distances of Uranus and Neptune. The consequences for our understanding of Earth's water and exogenous organics are significant. According to a NASA statement "the same low-temperature experiments that successfully predicted the correct deuterium to hydrogen ratio in remote-origin comets predicts that a comet forming in a warmer Jupiter orbit region should have the same D to H ratio as Earth's water. Comet LINEAR broke up before this could be confirmed, but its low amount of volatile organic molecules provides a strong indication that it carried the same kind of water that comprises terrestrial seas." If comets delivered much of Earth's water, they might also have brought in a healthy supply of organics, including perhaps some very complex molecules, that helped kick start the appearance of the first organisms.

For more, go here.

time machine
How to build a time machine?
(May 20, 2001)


Theoretically it might be possible to travel back in time using a wormhole – a connection between two points that exists outside the normal spacetime continuum. However, a drawback of this scheme is that you would need "exotic matter" capable of generating negative energy to keep the wormhole open while you traveled through it. (Also, of course, you have to find or make a wormhole in the first place that leads where and when you want to go!) But now a Connecticut University physicist, Ronald Mallet has suggested a much more practical scheme for traveling in time. The key is two circulating beams of slow-moving light.

astrobiology montage
First European Workshop on Astrobiology
(May 16, 2001)


The first European Workshop on Exo/Astrobiology will be taking place at ESA/ESRIN, the European Space Agency establishment in Frascati, near Rome, May 21-23. The workshop is being organized jointly by the European Exobiology Network and the European Space Agency. For more, go here.

Mystery force tugs on deep space probes
(May 15, 2001)


The trajectories of four distant spacecraft – Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Galileo, and Ulysses – cannot be accounted for by known gravitational effects, according to the results of a new analysis. JPL's John Anderson and his colleagues believe they have taken into account all phenomena in trying to explain the movements of the probes, leaving the possibility that gravity itself may be behaving in an unexpected way.

For more, go here.

Meteorite microbes brought back to life, scientists claim
(May 13, 2001)


Two Italian scientists claim to have reanimated extraterrestrial microorganisms they say were contained within 4.5-billion-year-old meteorites. Bruno D'Argenio, a geologist with the Italian National Research Council, and Giuseppe Geraci, professor of molecular biology at Naples University, made the announcement on May 9 at a meeting of the Italian Space Agency. They argue that the "cryms" (for crystal microbes) suggest that "life can exist everywhere in the solar system, though in a quiescent state." The researchers say that the genetic code of the microbes differs from any known on Earth. The scientific community will need to be persuaded that if the bacteria-like creatures did indeed come from inside the meteorite they are not the result of terrestrial contamination.

Rosetta webcam image
Watch as Mars Express and Rosetta take shape
(May 8, 2001)


Two great interplanetary adventures will begin in 2003 – those of ESA's Rosetta and Mars Express. Cameras have been set up to show live the assembly of these two probes. Rosetta is scheduled for launch in January 2003 on an eight-year mission to comet Wirtanen. Mars Express will lift of in June 2003 bound for the Red Planet with the intriguing Beagle 2 lander piggybacking a ride. For links to the webcams, go here.

Life Everywhere talks/signings on west coast this week
(May 6, 2001)


I'll be talking about astrobiology and signing copies of my new book, Life Everywhere, at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, at 7.30 pm on Thursday, May 9, and at the University of Washington bookstore in Seattle, at 7 pm on Friday, May 10. Entrance is free.

Astrobiology journal cover
First issue of Astrobiology journal free online
(May 2, 2001)


The first (March 2001) issue of Astrobiology, a technical journal devoted to the subject, can be read free by going here.

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