& SCIENCE NEWS: November 2001
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& science news > space & science news: November 2001
|Hubble probes exoplanet's atmosphere
||Nov 27, 2001
|Major extrasolar planet discovery
to be announced
||Nov 25, 2001
|Fresh doubts over Martian
||Nov 20, 2001
|Do you speak klingon?
||Nov 20, 2001
||Nov 14, 2001
|Cratering clue to Europa's
||Nov 14, 2001
|Pluto, Europa, and Mars
||Nov 14, 2001
|What came first? (part 2)
||Nov 8, 2001
|What came first?
||Nov 3, 2001
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
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
NASA press release dated Nov. 21. The breakthrough concerns the known
planet – a "hot Jupiter" type – that orbits the star HD
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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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