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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: November 2001
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Hubble probes exoplanet's atmosphere Nov 27, 2001
Major extrasolar planet discovery to be announced Nov 25, 2001
Fresh doubts over Martian magnetite claims Nov 20, 2001
Do you speak klingon? Nov 20, 2001
Still-active volcanoes on Mars? Nov 14, 2001
Cratering clue to Europa's ice thickness Nov 14, 2001
Pluto, Europa, and Mars probes go-ahead Nov 14, 2001
What came first? (part 2) Nov 8, 2001
What came first? Nov 3, 2001


artist impression of HD 209458
Hubble probes exoplanet's atmosphere
(Nov. 27, 2001)


The search for life signs on worlds beyond our solar system came a giant step closer today with the announcement that the Hubble Space Telescope has begun determining some of the characteristics of the atmosphere of a planet orbiting the Sunlike star HD 209458. This planet is unusual in that its orbital plane is seen virtually edge-on from Earth so that we can follow its transits across the face of its parent star. Knowing its position exactly enabled Hubble to be pointed accurately on the alien world so that its light could be analyzed for chemical composition. These are still early days and Hubble has not yet been used to look for the kinds of gases that might be diagnostic of life. In any case, this "hot Jupiter"-type world is not the sort of place one would expect to find biological activity. The significance of these new results is that they show the potential and the feasibility of the technique.

For more, go here (space.com).

extrasolar planet
Major extrasolar planet discovery to be announced Nov. 27
(Nov. 25, 2001)


"A major discovery from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope about a planet outside our Solar System will be announced in a Space Science Update at 1 p.m. EST Tuesday, Nov. 27, in the James E. Webb Auditorium at NASA Headquarters, 300 E St. SW, Washington. The discovery marks an important new capability in efforts to uncover secrets about these newly discovered extrasolar planets." So reads this NASA press release dated Nov. 21. The breakthrough concerns the known planet – a "hot Jupiter" type – that orbits the star HD 209458.

magnetite in ALH 84001
Fresh doubts over Martian magnetite claims
(NOv. 20, 2001)


The single most compelling piece of evidence for past life on Mars consists of tiny magnetite crystals in the SNC meteorite ALH 84001. Proponents of the biological hypothesis insist that the shape, size, and structure of these crystals match those produced by terrestrial bacteria and cannot, so far as we know, be produced in any way other than by the action of life. There has always been fierce debate about this-as about the other claimed biogenic traces in the Martian meteorites (the "nanofossils," carbonate, and so on). But now a new study, led by Peter Buseck at Arizona State University, argues that even some of the measurements made by electron microscope in support of the biological theory were flawed. The argument is sure to rage on.

For more, go here.

Worf from Star Trek
Do you speak Klingon?
(Nov. 20, 2001)


If we ever come across an artificial signal from among the stars, how would we go about decoding it? One approach is to consider the difficulties in interpreting text that has come down to us from past civilizations on our own planet (see lost languages). You get some idea of how tough a challenge we would face in the extraterrestrial case by considering that there are still some ancient Earth scripts whose meaning eludes us, nor is it clear how far linguists would have progressed in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics without the benefit of the Rosetta Stone. The great hope of SETI investigators is that mathematics will serve as a universal, if someone colorless, lingua franca. For more on deciphering alien messages that our SETI projects might some day intercept, see the article by Doug Vakoch of the SETI Institute here.

Mars
Still-active volcanoes on Mars?
(Nov. 14, 2001)


The case is growing that Mars remains in a geologically active state. Fresh data from Mars Global Surveyor has supplied evidence of ongoing volcanic activity, according to NASA Goddard's Susan Sakimoto and her colleagues who report their findings on Thursday, Nov. 15, to the Geological Society of America's annual meeting in Boston. The Cerberus Fossae/Elysium Basin region has apparently been erupting fairly periodically over at least the last hundred million years, up until the recent geologic past – no more than a few million years ago – Sakimoto asserts. "Future hydrologic and/or volcanic events are still conceivable," she says. If these results are confirmed, they have profound consequences for the possibility that life may still exist on Mars: the presence today of thermal and water sources would support the notion that if Martian biology evolved it may continue to survive in locally clement environs.

Europa
Cratering clue to Europa's ice thickness
(Nov. 14, 2001)


A new study of impact craters on Europa, by Elizabeth Turtle and Elisabetta Pierazzo of the University of Arizona, published in the Nov. 9 issue of Science, suggests that the layer of ice below which may lie a watery ocean is at least 3 to 4 km thick. The researchers base their conclusion on the heights of the central peaks of several craters imaged by Galileo and Voyager. Six of 28 craters observed are large enough to have central peaks – structures formed from material deep underground. In particular, a 22-km-wide crater called Pwyll, Europa' s largest with a peak structure, has a central mountain 5 km across and about half a km high. If there were a layer of warm convecting ice immediately beneath Pwyll' s peak, this formation would have sunk in less than a year. Turtle and Pierazzo' s results are relevant to the question of whether life might exist on Europa and to the design of a future mission to attempt to penetrate the ice layer.

For more, go here.

Europa Orbiter
Pluto, Europa, and Mars probes go-ahead
(Nov. 14, 2001)


The US House and Senate conference committee has approved a $30m dollar budget to develop a mission to Pluto, given the go-ahead to the Europa Orbiter (see picture), and agreed to fully fund future missions to Mars. All three areas of exploration are of importance to astrobiology. Moreover, the Pluto decision comes in the nick of time to take advantage of a Jupiter gravity-assist to the outermost planet (not available for another decade or so) and Pluto's near-perihelion position when part of the atmosphere is still unfrozen (not available for another 200+ years). Even so, the Pluto mission won't be able to launch before 2006 which, with a journey time of at least a decade, makes it questionable how much atmosphere the probe will be able to observe. The Mars and Europa green lights are absolutely crucial to further investigations of possible life elsewhere in the solar system. Full funding of $92.1m was also granted for the Next Generation Space Telescope – Hubble's successor – and NASA was ordered to submit a plan to launch it in 2007.

cyanobacteria
What Came First? (part 2)
(Nov. 8, 2001)


One way to investigate the origin of life on Earth is to look at the fossil and genetic evidence and try to trace back our ancestry over billions of years. Another is to attempt to recreate the initial chemical steps of abiogenesis in the lab. A third way – and one that is perhaps too often ignored – is to see if, in some environments (such as deep underground), life is still forming "from scratch" today. This interesting idea is explored by science writer Sid Deutsch, a biomedical engineer at the University of South Florida in his article Let's Search for the Missing Link. You can see more of Sid's articles at his website here.

Also of relevance to the quest for the ultimate origin of life, and of the transition point between life and non-life, are "nanoforms" – purported biological entities smaller than the smallest microorganisms generally recognized by science. For an update on this research, and a claim that nanoforms have been found in a Martian meteorite, see this paper (in pdf format) presented by long-time nanoform (he curiously often uses the prefix "nanno-") advocate Robert Folk, of the University of Texas at Austin, and others.

a black smoker on the ocean bed
What came first?
(Nov. 3, 2001)


A central issue in astrobiology is how life originated on Earth and what the first form of life on this planet consisted of. Of course, we can't be sure that life throughout the universe always starts off in the same way: it may be that life can and does originate along numerous different paths, depending on the local circumstances. But knowing more about abiogenesis on our own world would be an immensely important clue in the search for life elsewhere.

One way to look into the origins of life is through laboratory experiments that seek to recreate conditions on the early Earth and discover what organic chemicals can be produced – nucleotides, oligopeptides, and so forth. Another is to look closely at the variety of microorganisms living in environments today that are similar to those presumed to have also existed 4 billion years ago or thereabouts when the first life appeared. The latter approach has recently led some researchers to suggest that rock-eating bugs below the ocean floor are the closest living relatives of our earliest ancestors. For more on this, see this article from the Astrobiology Institute. Other researchers urge caution in drawing too many conclusions about our ultimate progenitor based on existing life-forms. See this sobering article at spaceref.com, for work that suggests that although subsurface thermophiles may be the closest things to the root of the tree of life in still alive, they are merely the survivors of an era in which all of the earliest life-forms on Earth were wiped out. Moreover, we may not have a single original ancestor at all but be the result of numerous lineages that started out more or less at the same time.

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