& SCIENCE NEWS: May 2001
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& science news > space & science news: May 2001
|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
||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
||May 16, 2001
|Mystery force tugs on deep
||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
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.
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
(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!
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.
Comet's death sheds light on the origin
(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
For more, go here.
How to build a time machine?
(May 20, 2001)
Theoretically it might be possible to travel back in time using a
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.
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,
| 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,
(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.
Watch as Mars Express and Rosetta take
(May 8, 2001)
Two great interplanetary adventures will begin in 2003 – those
of ESA's Rosetta and
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.
First issue of Astrobiology journal free
(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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