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home > space & science news > space & science news: March 2002

Astrobiology and ... the octopus Mar 28, 2002
Amino acids ubiquitous in space, studies suggest Mar 27, 2002
Star travel: Fact, fiction, or friction Mar 23, 2002
Magnetities in ALH84001: Biogenicity debate continues Mar 17, 2002
Mystery spots deserve closer look Mar 13, 2002
Planets may have formed in the cosmic dawn Mar 8, 2002
Odyssey find sends Mars life hopes soaring Mar 3, 2002

largest octopus ever found
Astrobiology and ... the octopus
(Mar. 28, 2002)

The world's biggest known octopus has just turned up in a New Zealand freezer. It was recognized as such by marine biologist Steve O'Shea of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) who was sorting through the specimens-mostly squid-in his laboratory's deep-freeze. O'Shea estimates that, when alive, the animal would have measured at least four meters in length and weighed 75 kilograms. That's about double the size of any previously seen Haliphron atlanticus – the species to which O'Shea has provisionally assigned the creature. It was recovered in October 2001 in 920 meters of water south east of the Chatham Islands, by a research vessel. Adding to the mystery, no H. atlanticus has ever previously been caught in the South Pacific.

This follows close-on the heels of another spectacular cephalopod discovery – a brand new species of squid (go here for this story). And it further emphasizes the fact that Earth's oceans still hide many secrets, of interest to biologists and astrobiologists alike. Cephalopods are particularly fascinating when it comes to speculating what life might be like on other worlds and, especially, what other forms intelligence may take.

Follow this link for more on cephalopod intelligence. Go here to find out more about the work of NIWA.

Orion Nebula
Amino acids ubiquitous in space, studies suggest
(Mar. 27, 2002)

The results of two different studies, reported in this week's Nature, support the growing belief that some of the building blocks of life are routinely manufactured in space and then delivered to the surface of newborn worlds. By simulating the interaction between high-energy ultraviolet from hot, young stars and interstellar ice grains at around minus 258 degrees Celsius (15 degrees above absolute zero) researchers in the US and Germany have demonstrated the production of a variety of amino acids under conditions like those found in star-forming clouds. The two groups, led by Max Bernstein of the Seti Institute and Uwe Meierhenrich of Bremen University, started out with simple molecules, such as carbon monoxide and ammonia, and were able to generate a cocktail of amino acids, including glycine, alanine, serine and proline. The experiments differed in the amount of water in the initial mixture. Interestingly, the water-deficient mixture resulted in a richer brew of amino acids.

For more, go here.

antimatter-powered starship
Star travel: Fact, fiction, or friction?
(Mar. 23, 2002)

Will we ever reach the stars and be able to search for extraterrestrial life beyond the solar system in person, or at least via robot probes? You can come up to speed, as it were, on some historical and more recent attempts to answer this question by referring to some of the entries in the Astrobiology A-Z, including those on interstellar travel, the Orion Project, the British Interplanetary Society's Project Daedalus, and the intriguing Alcubierre warp drive. For a skeptical view on the prospects of star-travel, see Sid Deutsch's entertaining article here. In a sense, we have already launched four "starships" in the form of Voyagers 1 and 2, and Pioneers 10 and 11, but these will be long defunct before they ever come within a couple of light years of another star. A follow-on and much faster mission to penetrate the fringes of interstellar space has already been proposed by JPL, though in the current fiscal climate it seems unlikely that the Interstellar Probe will be launched any time soon. More ambitious still are the ideas being discussed by NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project and Penn State's antimatter propulsion group. The idea of literally sailing to the stars is described in this NASA news story. Some of the psychological and societal problems of long-duration interstellar travel are dealt with by NASA's Geoffery A. Landis and others here ( Happy trekking!

magnetite crystals in ALH84001
Magnetites in ALH84001: Biogenicity debate continues
(Mar. 17, 2002)

The earliest seafloor hydrothermal vents – supposedly more than three billion years old – may be nothing more than deposits from underground springs active in the last few thousand years. That is the claim of two US geologists who carried out a new analysis of rocks from South Africa which were previously dated to the Archaean period – when life first began to diversify. The findings could have important implications for our understanding of the early Earth and the microbial life forms that lived there. But one authority on the geology of the Barberton greenstone belt - where the rocks are found – launched a vigorous defence of evidence that they contain ancient hydrothermal vents.

Read more. Source: BBC

Mars and its polar spots
Mystery Martian spots deserve closer look
(Mar. 13, 2002)

Earlier this year, three Hungarian researchers claimed that dark spots which appear near the south pole of Mars in early spring, may be patches of vegetation. For the earlier report on this, go here. The idea remains unsubstantiated but scientists at a meeting at ESTEC, the European Space Agency's technical center in the Netherlands, agreed that the features are interesting enough to warrant closer inspection by the Agency's Mars Express probe. Mars Express is due to enter orbit around the Red Planet in late 2003 and release the Beagle lander.

For more, go here (ESA).

WR 112
Planets may have formed in the cosmic dawn
(Mar. 8, 2002)

Planet-building demands heavy elements-elements like carbon, silicon, and oxygen-that only form in the interior of massive stars. But individual atoms and molecules alone are not enough. The accretion process that leads to terrestrial-type worlds and to the rocky-metallic cores of gas giants also requires the presence of dust grains to act as seeds for initial growth. This fact suggested that planets might not be possible in the early universe because the kind of large, bright, hot stars presumed to have existed then were not thought to be good dust providers; it seemed that their harsh radiation would have broken into atoms any dust they produced before it could escape into interstellar space. However, Anthony Moffat at the University of Montreal, Sergey Marchenko at Western Kentucky University, and their colleagues, have now presented evidence that dust grains can indeed escape from the vicinity of hot, massive stars. They studied the region around a 14,000-light-year-distant star in its youth, known as WR 112 – the "WR" standing for "Wolf-Rayet" – which has a stellar companion. Strong winds of atoms and charged particles stream out from both stars, and where the opposing streams collide, they are compressed and create dust. Because the stars orbit each other, the dust is sprayed into space in a spiral pattern, like water from a rotating garden sprinkler. The observations made with the Gemini North Telescope, on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, reveal carbon dust out to about 100 times the distance of Pluto from our Sun-far enough away to escape the system without being destroyed. The research is reported in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Mars Odyssey
Odyssey find sends Mars life hopes soaring
(Mar. 3, 2002)

Early science results from Mars Odyssey indicate the presence of massive fields of ice on the Red Planet. The speed and extent of the discovery have stunned scientists who had only just directed the probe's instruments toward the Martian surface. The data they have received is the strongest indication yet that the planet once harboured life, and may still support it today. "The signal we're getting is loud and clear. We're not just looking at surface frost. There's lots of ice on Mars," said project scientist Stephen Saunders. Odyssey is designed to conduct the first chemical analysis of the entire Martian surface. Launched on April 7, 2001, it reached Mars in October and has been slowly maneuvering itself into a low orbit since then. Last week, scientists turned on their instruments and began surveying the planet. Within hours they were rewarded with a mass of data, including strong evidence of water. Such early results are unprecedented in a mission of this nature. "We have a whopping signal," said Arizona University's William Boynton who directs the probe's water-detectors. "It blew us away." Odyssey uses three different devices to determine the chemical constituents of Martian soil. The planet's surface is bombarded by cosmic rays, and each chemical constituent of its soil emits a high-energy subatomic particle when struck by such radiation. Each chemical produces a particle of a particular type and energy, and this acts as a signature for its presence. All three water-detectors on Odyssey have observed substantial amounts of water in the Martian soil. "The fact we see a clear signature of ice from three different instruments makes the conclusion that there are significant amounts... a sound one," said Boynton. For more, go here ( Visit the Mars Odyssey website at JPL here.


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