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David Darling's Newsletter #39


July 6

Greetings, everyone – including all the newcomers who signed up since last time around.

This is turning out to be a busy week in space. On Tuesday, Independence Day, the space shuttle returned to flight with a picture-perfect launch from Cape Canaveral on its way to the International Space Station. Here's hoping for a continued successful mission and safe return to Earth. With all the problems the shuttle program has been having, especially following the loss of Columbia, it must take an incredible amount of guts to sit atop that thing while the countdown ticks away (and they had to do it three times, courtesy of storm clouds over the Cape).

When worlds collide

Monday saw a chunk of rock, up to half a mile wide and weighing about 50 million tons, whiz past the Earth at slightly more than the distance of the Moon. Not exactly a close shave, but this mid-sized asteroid traveling at more than 35,000 mph wasn't even known about a couple of years ago. 2004 XP14 entered the astronomical catalogs in December 2004 and was quickly tagged as a "potentially hazardous asteroid" (PHA) – one whose orbit can bring it so close to Earth that it poses a real, if slight, impact risk. Although there was never any danger of 2004 XP14 running into us this time around, it's slightly scary to think that if it had been on a collision course there wouldn't have been a darn thing we could have done about it. And this mountain-sized mass, traveling at 10 miles per second, would certainly have been capable of causing widespread mayhem, whether it came down on land or sea. If you’re interested in seeing a complete list of all known PHAs, numbering almost 800 now, go to this page maintained by the Minor Planet Center at Harvard.

Of these PHAs, about 40 have been added this year alone. What this tells you is that while we're getting better and more serious about hunting these objects down, there’re an awful lot of them waiting to be discovered. The US Congress has handed a mandate to NASA to identify 90% of near-Earth asteroids larger than 140 meters (about 450 feet) across by 2020. That's a hefty task given that there're an estimated 100,000 objects in this category.

Meanwhile we'll have to continue to hope that near misses are the worst that we have to worry about - near misses like the one on March 18, 2004, when a 100-foot-wide asteroid zipped by at a range of just 26,000 miles, only three times the Earth's diameter. Such close encounters with asteroidal minnows happen every couple of years or so on average. And although a rock the size of a small office block moving at twice the top speed of the Space Shuttle wouldn't wreck the planet, it could certainly devastate a town or city. On March 23, 1989, the asteroid Asclepius, measuring about 1,000 feet across, missed us by 400,000 miles, which doesn't sound too threatening until you realized it passed through the exact point where the Earth was just 6 hours earlier!

Of course, our planet has been hit many times, with varying degrees of severity in the past. In 1908 a mysterious explosion took place over Siberia, in the region of the Tunguska river. Check out my encyclopedia entry on this subject.

This is now thought to have been due to a chunk of a comet, perhaps weighing 30,000 tons, that blew apart about 5 miles above the ground, sending out a blast wave that felled or damaged some tens of millions of trees. (There have been more exotic explanations for the Tunguska incident, by the way, including the crash of a nuclear-powered alien spacecraft!)

Large impacts in the more remote past have wiped out entire phyla of animals and plants. The one that excavated the great Chicxulub Crater off the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico was probably due to an asteroid roughly 10 miles wide that seems to have put paid to the dinosaurs and a huge number of other species at the end of the Cretaceous period. We're not likely to be taken unawares by anything this large - most nearby asteroids bigger than several miles across are known about. But scientists are starting to think hard about what we could do if an asteroid is found that has us in its sights.

The biggest identified threat in the foreseeable future comes from Apophis, discovered in 2004 and measuring about 1,000 feet across. Here's my page on this object.

On April 13, 2036 (a Sunday as it happens), Apophis could strike the Earth. The odds are pretty low, admittedly, but all that could change depending on what happens during a close approach by Apophis to the Earth in 2029. If the asteroid manages to pass through a 600-yard-wide corridor in space called a gravitational keyhole, we might be in trouble because that could lock Apophis onto an intercept course. Waiting until then to learn our possible fate would leave it too late, however, to put any plan into action to divert or destroy the intruder. In view of this, several groups, including the B612 Foundation led by ex-Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweikart, are pushing for plans to be drawn up for a planetary defense system without delay. One possibility is to detonate one or more nuclear devices inside or on the surface of the asteroid. I was interested to see that a Red Storm Cray XT3 computer at Sandia Labs, in Albuquergue, New Mexico, had been used to run some simulations on the likely outcome of various nuclear strategies. Many moons ago, I worked at Cray in Minneapolis as its applications software manager.

Red rain update

If some space rocks bring death and destruction, it's just possible that others bring life. The summer of 2001 saw strange showers of colored rain - red, orange, and other hues - falling on the southern Indian state of Kerala. Intriguingly the showers started just a few hours after a bright flash and a sonic boom was witnessed in the area, almost certainly due to the passage of a fireball. Eighty-five percent of the red rain fell with 10 days of the fireball event, the rest of coming down over a further period stretching into September. Here’s my page on the story.

Early on the scene, gathering samples and interviewing eyewitness, was Godfrey Louis, a researcher at the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala. His microscopic investigations showed that the particles in the red rain were biological cells, a conclusion that’s since been confirmed by other teams in the UK, at the universities of Sheffield and Cardiff.

Sheffield microbiologist Milton Wainwright claims to have found DNA in the red rain cells using fluorescent staining techniques but the Cardiff group, led by the panspermia proponent Chandra Wickramasinghe (long-time colleague of the late Fred Hoyle), has so far been unable to extract and amplify any DNA, which would be the crucial test of its presence. But finding or not finding DNA in the Kerala fallout, wouldn’t really help decide whether it came from space or is terrestrial in origin.

Louis is convinced that the red rain came from a fragment of a comet that broke up in the atmosphere. He points to the coincidence of the fireball, the geographical and time distribution of the subsequent rain showers, the huge amount of cells that fell (at least 50 tons from July to September 2001), and the lack of any known precedent in the region. His latest research, which he spoke about in an e-mail to me last week, suggests that the red rain cells replicate in a very unusual way and that they reproduce best at 300 degrees Centigrade. I’d like to see this research looked at by other life-science groups because, as Louis points, nothing on Earth thrives at these kind of temperatures. Why aren’t more laboratories examining the Kerala samples? Why is it proving so difficult to extract the DNA? If we find it so hard to establish definitively the nature and origin of such a massive biological fallout in our own planetary backyard, what chance do we have of identifying life remotely in much smaller quantities on Mars or other neighboring worlds?

Is SETI a religion?

This question was the theme of a radio discussion I had with Jill Tarter, Director of the SETI Institute, and Seth Shostak, the Institute’s senior astronomer, in May. The newsletter I wrote following this interview formed the basis for an article which was published last month on the space.com website.

It proved quite controversial and led to an unusually large number of e-mail replies. I wanted to share extracts from a few of these, covering some of the theological spectrum, with you. The full names of the senders have been withheld to protect the innocent!


I read with interest your article on ‘Of Faith and Facts: Is SETI a Religion?’ which appeared today on space.com. I noted that you neglected to address what religion is on a fundamental basis: Belief in a higher being/s and belief that human beings are inferior to that higher being/s. Some fervent followers of SETI-ism do believe that human beings are the low species on the totem pole when it comes the Cosmic Brotherhood Of Superior Technological Species. To quote your own article on the issue of intelligence: ‘And you might even throw Homo sapiens into that mix on the rare occasions when we live up to our self-proclaimed species name.’ This suggests a belief in the inferiority of human beings to other so-called ‘higher’ intelligences. You also neglected to mention that all religions require a believer to make a leap of faith without tangible evidence. So does SETI and the search for life beyond Earth: We know it must exist, but we don't have any tangible evidence for it. SETI does share aspects of all the major Western and Eastern faiths. It also has a strict doctrine of belief that must be adhered to, otherwise you, Jill Tarter, and others in the SETI community may take steps and – actions to disavow the heretics – which is another aspect of all religions. Religions do have followers. So does SETI. Most religions has iconic symbols. So does SETI. An artistic impression of an Earth-like planet orbiting another stay is just one example of iconic imagery that SETI has used. There are other parallels between religion and SETI that you do not address in your article. I'd love to write a follow-up for space.com to your article exploring "The Cult of SETI-ISM" and why it has a belief system that parallels religious beliefs. I should mention that while I'm a Conservative Jew, not a Christian, I am not a former astronaut, scientist and/or religious scholar.” Joseph


“Your statement, ‘It isn't an unreasonable hypothesis that if intelligence has come about on one planet that it may also have arisen elsewhere, especially given the vast number of stars in this and other galaxies,’ caught my attention. I immediately asked myself, ‘What difference would it make to mankind if another life form were found in some far reaching galaxy?’ I am unable to get to the answer to this thought. I am sure that we hold differing views on how life first arrived on our planet and we will agree on some benefits of finding intelligent life on adjacent planets but I am most interested in what your answer would be to the question.“ Dan


“I caught your article and I find the search for ET something we indeed should do, however SETI to me is like NASA getting us back to the Moon. Unless SETI is the group who verifies a claim of contact they will mock all other claims. Specific is the UFO contacts in which credible people from all walks of life. If they were open minded? But clearly they believe how ET should communicate and they are the one's who will receive it! I have a thought. Let's say another planet on the far side of a galaxy decides to send a message to a planet it knows has life on it, how would they do it? My thought is that perhaps they have no need for a physical body and sent one of themselves in pure essence to us, then entered into the womb of say a virgin and became a physical again. Then this messenger would have the chance to walk around our world and see first hand who and what we are. To believe that this is far fetched would show just how blind to other means of communication they would be. SETI serves its own needs! The same goes for NASA. People wanting to get into space are doing so without NASA! A big surprise will come to SETI when a message is received in a manner not thought possible by them.” Michael


“I think the question of how much faith is a factor in scientific discovery, particularly studies that focus on a search for the unproven, is a provocative philosophical question. We've yet to find anything, but many remain convinced that there is something to find. I believe that it is an admirable act of faith. (I can search Waikiki for diamonds, based on the statistical likelihood that one of millions of tourists lost one, but is that science?) Defining religion is always difficult, but I want to contest your definition of religion requiring worship. While Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Shinto are definitely are worship based, others are not necessarily so. Westerners frequently confuse Buddhism with the worship of Buddha, but most Buddhism is a practical philosophical study that holds Buddha as an ideal practitioner and shrines as a focal points of contemplation. Enlightenment is achieved not through worship, but through following his example. My understanding is that Confucianism and Taoism are also more practical philosophies, as is Unitarian-Universalists. Science and religion are two different studies with different methodologies, but they need not be mutually exclusive. Both religious fundamentalists and scientists are prone to discount the other based on limited understanding. For the religious to do so is consistent with their reliance on faith over fact. When scientists make false statements of fact about religion, based on a biased sampling, the irony is unacceptable. Some scientists use the lack of religious evidence as proof of non-existence. As a SETI researcher, I'm sure you can understand how that, too, is unacceptable.” Christopher


“In response to your question, 'Is SETI a religion?’ I would like to put in a perspective from Christian theology, which if taken at face historical value, argues this idea exactly, that according to the opening account in John's Gospel, Earth was invaded by God in the person of Christ, and assumed flesh, walking among us: Cosmic Maker among Men, but as the account reveals like the SETI quest, a problem with detection was also apparent, despite the manifest evidence by what he did, and even acknowledged by the extra-biblical evidence of the Jewish historian Josephus. Indeed, faith based movements have no real basis if what they're saying is untrue, and that's why I like the New Testament account by the same writer of the Gospel, who in his first epistle (I John) after formal greetings, begins his letter by saying, "what our eyes have seen and hands have handled, we declare unto you!" It seems here we have visual and tactile contact. Furthermore, this guy new Him personally, communicating on the same frequency. I also like St Paul's conversion as after this life changing event on the Road to Damascus, he set about to defend the historical basis of the physical existence of Christ and explain his message, especially his open defense of his resurrection, based on more than 500 hundred eyewitnesses (I Corinthians 15). Indeed, he said if it's not true, we have no basis for our faith. For faith without basis is meaningless. And significantly when cornered about such evidence, St. Paul who prior to his conversion was the most outspoken critic against Christianity, now was appealing to the knowledge of his hearers, despite their open opposition to his radically changed message. So what changed him? He had an 'after event' extra-dimensional encounter with that same One who ascended into the heavens off the Mount of Olives sometime around early May in 30AD, in the presence of many eyewitnesses. So despite Dr. Jerry Ehman's famous 1977 "WOW" signal from OSU's Big Ear antenna, which briefly grabbed our attention, historical Christianity has been saying all along that Contact has already been made in the Incarnation, Life and Resurrection of Christ, having been visited by the Man from the Outside. And in case we miss the point, we are due for a Second Coming (Matthew 24, Luke 17) which this time will be very public leaving no one wondering and attended by cosmic events!

“Even Australian astrophysicist and SETI advocate, the late Dr. Bobbie Vaile, was also a Bible believing Christian quite open about her faith, which is an important reference point in canvassing the wider issues in the SETI quest, although this category of 'intelligence' would be better termed Extra-Dimensional Intelligence (EDI), as it explores wider ultimate causal questions. Even the late Fred Hoyle said in 1983, ‘I am certain the universe has a creator...and is consciously being controlled at this very moment...I see a creator like one of our chaps.’ But as for making contact Hoyle admitted, ‘If only we knew how!?’ Well, Christianity answers that question, saying not only did he ‘became one of our chaps!,’ but declared that Man can have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ, implying we are not alone in the Universe and we are dealing with a knowable Being. And although God isn't detectable by radio receivers, evidence of his handiwork is everywhere in creation, and more importantly He is detectable by the human heart and completely tangible in the personal experience of all who choose to believe. Although Frank Drake has his famous Drake Equation on the possibility ETs' elsewhere in the cosmos, Christianity says Contact has already been made 2000 years ago when Jesus stepped into human history, answering that central question 'Is anybody out there?' And if other intelligent life exists in deep space, could not God also be its author? James


“While you may have a pretty good handle on SETI and the science surrounding it, you have missed the mark in a sense in your sweeping definition of religion: ‘Religions are characterized by two factors: worship - in other words, some system of devotion directed toward one or more omniscient and supranatural beings - and faith in the absence of material evidence.’ Consider Buddhism, which, except in certain formulations, has neither supernatural beings, nor omniscience, nor faith in the absence of material evidence, but which nevertheless offers religious solace to millions of Buddhists. The Dalai Lama, arguably the world's most well-known Buddhist, puts it like this: ‘Although Buddhist contemplative tradition and modern science have evolved from different historical, intellectual and cultural roots, I believe that at heart they share significant commonalities, especially in their basic philosophical outlook and methodology. On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes, whether conceptualized as a transcendent being, as an eternal, unchanging principle such as soul, or as a fundamental substratum of reality. Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect. From the methodological perspective, both traditions emphasize the role of empiricism. For example, in the Buddhist investigative tradition, between the three recognized sources of knowledge – experience, reason and testimony – it is the evidence of the experience that takes precedence, with reason coming second and testimony last.’ Religion is a complex and varied phenomenon, and it's not all Western theism.” Mike


That’s it for now.

The very best to you,
David Darling