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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: October 2001
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Rumble in the tundra: the Tunguska event revisited Oct 30, 2001
SETI's greatest nightmare: the Fermi paradox Oct 26, 2001
2001: A Mars Odyssey Oct 23, 2001
Eight new worlds Oct 16, 2001
Titan Study Group – interested scientists wanted Oct 12, 2001
Vinyl alcohol molecules found in space Oct 6, 2001
The bugs that eat the world Oct 1, 2001

trees flattened by the Tunguska event
Rumble in the tundra: the Tunguska event revisited
(Oct. 30, 2001)

Something happened on June 30, 1908, over Siberia that felled or stripped hundreds of square kilometers of forest, burned reindeer to death, and sent the tents of nomads flying through the air. Eye-witnesses reported seeing a brilliant ball hurtling across the sky. All kinds of theories have been put forward to explain the Tunguska event, including that an alien spaceship had crash-landed or the Earth had been struck by a mini black hole or a chunk of antimatter. Most serious speculation, though, has centered around two possibilities. Either the intruder was an asteroid or a comet. Until recently, the latter seemed more likely because of the absence of a crater. But now a team of Italian researchers believe that an asteroid was to blame – a low-density asteroid that exploded in the atmosphere and sent only a powerful shock wave to the ground. For more on this cosmic detective story, go here (BBC news).

Enrico Fermi
SETI's greatest nightmare: the Fermi Paradox
(Oct. 26, 2001)

"If they [intelligent extraterrestrials] exist, where are they?" mused physicist Enrico Fermi back in the formative days of SETI. It's become known as the Fermi Paradox. To paraphrase it: If other intelligent beings inhabit the Galaxy, why isn't their presence obvious to us? Surely by now, they should have colonized the entire Milky Way system-including our own Solar System? To explore the ramifications of the Paradox, begin in my own Astrobiology A-Z here and then follow through the various links. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute has started a series of articles addressing the Fermi Paradox at the extremely good website. The first of his articles can be seen here. Like myself, being a "pro-lifer" in the et field, he will be presenting reasons why there may be intelligence yet we have failed so far to detect it. Linked to the Fermi question, these days, is the "Rare Earth Hypothesis", presented most forcefully by Donald Brownlee and Peter Ward in their 2000 book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe. I specifically rebut their argument in Chapter 6 of my own book, Life Everywhere: the Maverick Science of Astrobiology. Interestingly, Amazon books are now selling the two as a discounted set. You can read the thoughts of Brownlee, Ward, and Gonzalez on the so-called galactic habitable zone in the article "Refuges for Life in a Hostile Universe," in the October 2001 issue of Scientific American, starting p. 60. In the end, of course, the question will be resolved by observation, not by dialogue, which is why the on-going efforts of SETI programs, extrasolar planet detection programs, and planetary probes equipped to detect organic materials or biological signatures are so crucial.

2001: A Mars Odyssey
(Oct. 23, 2001)

The latest NASA Mars probe – 2001 Mars Odyssey – is scheduled to enter orbit around the Red Planet on October 24 after a 200-day, 460-million-km journey. Its goals include a survey of the planet's surface with a particular view to identifying any warm and wet regions on which future landing missions could set down. If the orbital insertion is successful, Odyssey will utilize the Martian atmosphere over the coming weeks to reduce its initial 19-hour elliptical orbit into a shorter, 2-hour circular orbit of approximately 400 km altitude. The probe carries several instruments to map the chemical and mineralogical makeup of Mars, including a gamma-ray spectrometer that includes a neutron spectrometer and a high-energy neutron detector, a thermal-emission imaging system, and a Martian radiation environment experiment.

For more, go here.

extrasolar planet
Eight new worlds
(Oct. 16, 2001)

The discovery has been announced of eight new extrasolar planets, ranging in mass from 0.8 to 10 times the mass of Jupiter, with orbital periods of six days to six years, and ranging 0.7 to 3 times the Earth-Sun distance from their parent stars. This brings the current total of known planets outside the Solar System to 74. Most significantly this latest batch of findings emphasizes the recent trend toward planetary systems that more closely resemble our own, with Jupiter-sized worlds in wider, near-circular orbits. There seems every reason to suppose this trend will continue as searches become more sensitive and run over longer periods of time. The discovery was made by an international team using the Keck telescope in Hawaii, the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) in New South Wales and the Lick telescope in California. For more, go here (BBC) and here (Spaceflight Now).

Huygens Probe
Titan Study Group – interested scientists wanted
(Oct. 12, 2001)

An international group of scientists with varied backgrounds has recently begun collaborating, via e-mail, on questions relating to organic chemistry and possible prebiological chemistry or even biology on Titan. Other scientists who may be interested are cordially invited to join. There is a particular need for additional expertise in primitive hydrocarbon chemistry and also in atmospherics. Current participants in the Titan Study Group, which is being organized by Dr. Dirk Schulze-Makuch at the Dept. of Geological Sciences, University of Texas, El Paso include: Gustav Arrhenius, Scripps Institute of Oceanography/NASA; John Bang, University of Texas at El Paso; Penny Boston, University of New Mexico; David Darling, Science Writer/Minnesota; Christian de Duve, C. de Duve Inst. of Cellular Pathology, Belgium; Huade Guan, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology; Victor Gusev, Russian Academy of Sciences; Jim Ferris, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York; Remy Hennet, SSP&A, Maryland; Jimmy Hincapie, University of Texas at El Paso; Louis Irwin, University of Texas at El Paso; Tom Kieft, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology; Vladimir Kompanichenko, Russian Academy of Sciences; Antonio Lazcano, University National Autonoma Mexico; Anthonie Muller, postdoctoral researcher; Matthew Pruis, NorthWest Research Associates; Bart Rzonca, Cracow Technical University, Poland; Dirk Schulze-Makuch, University of Texas at El Paso.

Sagittarius B2 molecular cloud
Vinyl alcohol molecules found in space
(Oct. 6, 2001)

A new molecular species has been discovered in interstellar space, in a molecular cloud near the Galactic Center known as Sag B2 (see photograph), by scientists using the 12-Meter Telescope of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Kitt Peak. It is vinyl alcohol, C2H4O – an important intermediate compound in many organic reactions on Earth. This is another significant piece in the puzzle of understanding how biochemical building blocks are assembled in space, and perhaps how life managed to start so quickly here on Earth. It certainly strengthens the cosmic link between the synthesis of organics between the stars and protobiological developments on newborn planets.

For more, go here.

tracks of rock-eating microbes
The bugs that eat the world
(Oct. 1, 2001)

Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have found evidence that one of the most pervasive and important life-forms on Earth consists of rock-eating microbes beneath the seafloor. Wherever they looked in samples of volcanic rocks from under the Atlantic and the Pacific, the researchers saw microscopic worm-like tracks made by organism that have altered the very chemistry of the rock, enabling it to exchange chemicals and minerals with seawater when they come into contact. The process influences global chemical interactions, such as the carbon cycle which plays a crucial role in the Earth's climate. Prior to this analysis, most scientists believed that the process of volcanic rock changing from one state to another was a purely chemical-physical process. Now, it seems biology is involved. If true, the tiny microbes have an importance out of all proportion to their size. Some scientists (Cornell's Tom Gold vociferous among them) think that most life on Earth, in terms of the quantity of organic matter, may not live on or near the surface of our world, but be in the form of microbes in rock in the Earth's crust. Certainly, the discovery and exploration of the "deep biosphere" has been one of the highlights of science in the past decade. Presently, no one knows how deep this biosphere goes, but there are some hints in the new data. The number of worm-like tracks in the rocks diminishes with depth; at 300 metres below the sea floor, they become much rarer. Although it is difficult to draw conclusions from samples returned from only a few sites, the research team believes it may have plumbed the depth of the biosphere – where life has hit rock bottom, so to speak. The research is published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, an online journal.

For more, go here.


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