As 2011 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on my absenteeism from Astroengine. But it’s not my fault, I’ve been typing like a madman for these guys.
But that’s enough excuses, 2012 promises to be a huge year for space, and if I get my time management skills back up to scratch, there will be a whole lot more of the blogging thing going on over here too. So to kick things off I thought I’d share a cool slide show I’ve been working on for Discovery News with Ari Espinoza of the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) — the awesome camera currently orbiting Mars aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
With the help of Ari, we managed to collect some weird-looking Mars craters (for the hell of it) and create a slide show with some of the strangest. Below are a few of my favorites, but be sure to check out the full slide show for more oddities!
The first exoplanet was discovered orbiting a Main Sequence star in 1995, and the rate of exoplanet detections has been accelerating ever since.
It is worth noting that hundreds more candidate exoplanet detections have been made, many of which have been spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Kepler is staring at the same patch of sky, waiting for alien worlds to cross the line of sight between their parent star and Earth, registering a slight dip in starlight brightness. The 1,235 candidates will be confirmed (or denied) as Kepler awaits future transits.
Detecting the slight dimming of starlight isn’t the only tool exoplanet hunters have to spot these alien worlds. The “radial velocity” method — as employed by systems such as the ESO’s HARPS — can detect the slight “wobble” of stars as orbiting worlds gravitationally “tug” on their parent stars. Both methods have their advantages and both are notching up an impressive exoplanet count. “Microlensing” has also been employed to spot a handful of exoplanets, as has direct imaging.
Exoplanetary studies are amongst the most exciting astronomical projects out there. Not only are we realizing there is a veritable zoo of worlds — some Earth-sized, others many times the mass of Jupiter — we are also pondering the most profound question: could extraterrestrial life inhabit these worlds?
For now, we have no clue, but life as we know it has a habit of springing up where we least expect it, it’s only a matter of time before we start to have some clue as to the existence of life as we don’t know it.
Imagine the scene: I’m having a romantic walk on a clear night with my wife along the beach. We see a brief flash of light and Deb says, “Hey, a meteor!” I then proceed to tell her that most meteors are actually no bigger than a grain of sand and they originate from comets, even though she already knew that. Feeling quite chuffed with myself that I was able to describe a nugget of atmospheric dynamics in 2 minutes, Deb then points up again and says, “There’s Orion. What constellation is that one?”
“Um. I have no idea,” I reply, feeling less smug. “I know how those things work, but I don’t know what they look like.”
I don’t own a telescope (yet) and I only took one course in university on practical astronomy, everything else was astrophysics. So the sad thing is that I know how stars work — from the nuclear fusion in their core to coronal dynamics (the latter of which I did my PhD in) — but if anyone asked me to point out a constellation or the location of a star… I wouldn’t have a clue.
Sure, there are the old favorites, like Orion, the Big Dipper (or Plough) and bright Polaris, but my expertise in night sky viewing is pretty limited. Although I’d usually refer any astronomy-related questions to BBC astronomy presenter (and Discovery News writer) Mark Thompson, I’d love to learn more. So, firstly, I needed a star chart.
Luckily, a few weeks ago, I received a random email from Erik Anderson from Ashland Astronomy Studio asking whether I’d like a copy of his company’s new star map poster. Being eager to boost my pitiful knowledge of the constellations, I jumped at the chance. Soon after, my poster arrived through the post.
Now this is where things got really cool. Although Erik had titled his email to me “Star Map with Exoplanet Hosts,” I’d forgotten about the “exoplanet” part. On the clear, yet detailed Ashland star map, all the major constellations and stars are plotted, along with the time of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) they can be seen. But also, there’s a symbol representing the hundreds of stars that are known to have exoplanetary systems orbiting.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been referring to my newly-framed star map, and can now confidently point into the sky, not only identifying the constellations but also some stars that possess exoplanets. Only last night, I pointed up in the general vicinity of the star 61 Virginis (near the blue giant Spica) and said, “That star has 3 worlds orbiting it.”
I’m not sure if Deb was overly impressed with my exoplanet knowledge, but I was happy to be smug again.
Although it’s only a very small part of an astronomer’s tool kit, a star map is essential. Although you can get apps for your iPhone, you can’t beat a poster that isn’t only functional, but also looks very attractive on your office wall.
Assuming Star Trek‘s Borg Collective went into overdrive and decided to build a huge cube a few thousand miles wide, then yes, the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope should be able to spot it. But how could Kepler distinguish a cube from a nice spherical exoplanet?
The big assumption when looking for exoplanets that drift between distant stars and the Earth — events known as “transits” — is that the only shape these detectable exoplanets come in are spheres. Obvious really.
As a world passes in front of its parent star, a circular shadow will form. However, from Earth, we’d detect a slight dimming of the star’s “light curve” during the transit, allowing astronomers to deduce the exoplanet’s orbital period and size.
The transit method has been used to confirm the presence of hundreds of exoplanets so far, and Kepler has found over 1,200 additional exoplanet candidates. But say if astronomers paid closer attention to the shape of the received light curve; spherical objects have a distinct signature, but say if something looked different in the transiting “planet’s” light curve? Well, it could mean that something non-spherical has passed in front of a star. And what does that mean? Well, that would be a pretty convincing argument for the presence of a huge planet-sized artificial structure orbiting another star. Artifical structure = super-advanced alien civilization.
Arnold tested his theory that all manner of shapes could be detected by Kepler, assuming the transiting structure was on the scale of a few thousand miles wide. In this case, Arnold was testing his hypothesis to see whether we could detect an advanced civilization’s “shadow play.” Perhaps, rather than beaming messages by radio waves, an advanced civilization might want to signal their presence — SETI style — by blocking their sun’s light with vast sheets of lightweight material. As the shape passes in front of the star, the slight dimming of starlight would reveal an artificial presence in orbit.
By putting a series of these shapes into orbit, the aliens could create a kind of interstellar Morse code.
Of course, this is a rather “out there” idea, but I find it fascinating that Kepler could detect an alien artifact orbiting a star tens or hundreds of light-years away. Although this research is only considering orbital “billboards,” I quite like the idea that Kepler might also be able to detect a large structure like… I don’t know… a big Borg mothership. Having advanced warning of the presence of an aggressive alien race sitting on our cosmic doorstep — especially ones of the variety that like to assimilate — would be pretty handy.
In 2009, I wrote about a fascinating idea: in the hunt for “Earth-like” exoplanets, perhaps we could detect the radio emissions from a distant world possessing a magnetosphere. This basically builds on the premise that planets in the solar system, including Earth, generate electromagnetic waves as space plasma interacts with their magnetospheres. In short, with the right equipment, could we “hear” the aurorae on extra-solar planets?
In the research I reviewed, the US Naval Research Laboratory scientist concluded that he believed it was possible, but the radio telescopes we have in operation aren’t sensitive enough to detect the crackle of distant aurorae. According to a new study presented at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales, on Monday, this feat may soon become a reality, not for “Earth-like” worlds but for “Jupiter-like” worlds.
“This is the first study to predict the radio emissions by exoplanetary systems similar to those we find at Jupiter or Saturn,” said Jonathan Nichols of the University of Leicester. “At both planets, we see radio waves associated with auroras generated by interactions with ionised gas escaping from the volcanic moons, Io and Enceladus. Our study shows that we could detect emissions from radio auroras from Jupiter-like systems orbiting at distances as far out as Pluto.”
Rather than looking for the magnetospheres of Earth-like worlds — thereby finding exoplanets that have a protective magnetosphere that could nurture alien life — Nichols is focusing on larger, Jupiter-like worlds that orbit their host stars from a distance. This is basically another tool in the exoplanet-hunters’ toolbox.
Over 500 exoplanets have been confirmed to exist around other stars, and another 1,200 plus exoplanetary candidates have been cataloged by the Kepler Space Telescope. The majority of the confirmed exoplanets were spotted using the “transit method” (when the exoplanet passes in front of its host star, thereby dimming its light for astronomers to detect) and the “wobble method” (when the exoplanet gravitationally tugs on its parent star, creating a very slight shift in the star’s position for astronomers to detect), but only exoplanets with short orbital periods have been spotted so far.
The more distant the exoplanet from its host star, the longer its orbital period. To get a positive detection, it’s easy to spot an exoplanet with an orbital period of days, weeks, months, or a couple of years, but what of the exoplanets with orbits similar to Jupiter (12 years), Saturn (30 years) or even Pluto (248 years!)? If we are looking for exoplanets with extreme orbits like Pluto’s, it would be several generations-worth of observations before we’d even get a hint that a world lives there.
“Jupiter and Saturn take 12 and 30 years respectively to orbit the Sun, so you would have to be incredibly lucky or look for a very long time to spot them by a transit or a wobble,” said Nichols.
By assessing how the radio emissions for a Jupiter-like exoplanet respond to its rotation rate, the quantity of material falling into the gas giant from an orbiting moon (akin Enceladus’ plumes of water ice and dust being channeled onto the gas giant) and the exoplanet’s orbital distance, Nichols has been able to identify the characteristics of a possible target star. The hypothetical, “aurora-active” exoplanet would be located between 1 to 50 AU from an ultraviolet-bright star and it would need to have a fast spin for the resulting magnetospheric activity to be detectable at a distance of 150 light-years from Earth.
As we’re talking about exoplanets, magnetospheres and listening for radio signals, let’s throw in some alien-hunting for good measure: “In our Solar System, we have a stable system with outer gas giants and inner terrestrial planets, like Earth, where life has been able to evolve. Being able to detect Jupiter-like planets may help us find planetary systems like our own, with other planets that are capable of supporting life,” Nichols added.
Although Nichols isn’t talking about directly detecting habitable alien worlds (just that the detection of Jupiter-like exoplanets could reveal Solar System-like star systems), I think back to the 2009 research that discusses the direct detection of habitable worlds using this method: Aliens, if you’re out there, you can be as quiet as you like (to avoid predators), but the screaming radio emissions from your habitable planet’s magnetosphere will give away your location…
NASA is giving Mars rover Spirit one more month to signal that she’s still alive before search operations are scaled back and attention shifted to her sister rover Opportunity. Unfortunately, the prognosis isn’t good. It’s been a little over a year since Spirit last communicated and it’s looking increasingly likely she’s succumbed to a lack of energy and freezing conditions on the Martian surface.
This rather outlandish, sci-fi notion comes straight from the fertile minds of researchers from MIT, the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University who are proposing a biology experiment that could be sent on a future Mars surface mission. If their hypothesis is proven, we wouldn’t only have an answer for the age old question: Are we alone? but we’d also have an answer for the not-so-age-old question: Did life from Mars spawn life on Earth?
The idea goes like this: countless tons of material from Mars has landed on Earth. We know this to be true; meteorites have been discovered on Earth that originate from the Red Planet. These rocks were blasted from the Martian surface after eons of asteroid impacts, and the rocks then drifted to Earth.
If there was once life on Mars — a concept that isn’t that far-fetched, considering Mars used to boast liquid water in abundance on its surface — then perhaps some tiny organisms (not dislike the hardy cyanobacteria that is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of life to evolve on our planet) hitched a ride on these rocks. If some of these organisms survived the harsh conditions during transit from Mars to Earth and made it though the searing heat as the meteorite fell through our atmosphere, then perhaps (perhaps!) that is what sparked life on Earth.
You may have heard a few variations of this mechanism, it is of course the “panspermia” hypothesis. Panspermia assumes that life isn’t exclusive to just one rocky body like Earth, perhaps life has the ability to hop from one planet to the next, helped on its way by asteroid impacts. Not only that, but perhaps (perhaps!) tiny microorganisms could drift, encased in interstellar dust, akin to pollen drifting in the wind, seeding distant star systems.
Naturally, when considering the distance between the planets (let alone the light-years between the stars!), one might be a little skeptical of panspermia. But it certainly would help us understand how life first appeared on Earth. After all, it’s not as if the solar system has a natural quarantine system in place — if Mars had (or has) bacteria on its surface, perhaps they have been spread to Earth, like an interplanetary flu bug. Also, as experiments are showing us, microorganisms have an uncanny ability to survive in space for extended periods of time.
So, according to my esteemed Discovery News colleague Ray Villard, the MIT team led by Christopher Carr and Maria Zuber and Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, are proposing to build an instrument to send to Mars. But this instrument won’t be looking for signs of life, it will be testing the hypothetical Martian DNA and RNA. Should this interplanetary paternity test prove positive, proving a relationship between Earth Brand™ Life and Mars Brand™ Life, then this could be proof of some extraterrestrial cross-pollination.
Although this is complete conjecture at this time, as there is no proof that life has ever existed on Mars (despite what research in dodgy research journals tell us), it is certainly an interesting idea that would not only test the hypothesis of panspermia, but also give us a clue about the potential human colonization of Mars.
This could give us pause about sending humans to a germ-laden alien world. It would be an ironic twist on the H.G. Wells classic 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” where invading Martians succumb to the common cold from Earth microbes.
See, Wells’ Martian warriors should have done genome testing first.
Judging by an exuberant claim by Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, one would think we now know there’s life on this strangely familiar world.
“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it,” Vogt told Discovery News when the announcement broke on Wednesday.
Why did he say that his personal view was that the chances for life on Gliese 581g are 100%? At first glance, it is easy to see where he’s coming from.
Firstly, the exoplanet orbits close to a small red dwarf star (called Gliese 581), with a fast-paced orbit of 37 days. This is important as the energy output of a red dwarf is tiny when compared to our Sun (which is a yellow dwarf star, in case you were wondering) — to receive an equivalent amount of heating as the Earth, Gliese 581g needs to be much closer to its star.
Also, it isn’t orbiting too close. It is within the habitable zone (or the “Goldilocks zone,” i.e., a zone that’s not too hot or too cold) of the system. Therefore there’s a high probability that if water is present on its surface, it’s likely to be in liquid form. The presence of liquid water would be exciting as Earth Brand™ life likes liquid water.
Secondly, Gliese 581g is small for an exoplanet discovered thus far. Weighing in at a minimum mass of 3x that of the Earth, it could certainly have some Earth-like qualities. This has another implication; the world has enough gravitational oomph to hold onto an atmosphere — another ingredient that life seems to like (assuming it’s not of the bone-crushing, lead-boiling, Venus-type atmosphere).
But there’s a few complications. To be within the habitable zone of its parent star, Gliese 581g will be “tidally locked.” This means that one side of the exoplanet will always be facing the star. On the far side (or, indeed, the “dark side”) it will be cold whilst the near side will always be hot. Having one perpetual day doesn’t sound very Earth-like to me. But there is an upside to this strange orbit.
“This planet doesn’t have days and nights. Wherever you are on this planet, the sun is in the same position all the time. You have very stable zones where the ecosystem stays the same temperature… basically forever,” Vogt said. “If life can evolve, it’s going to have billions and billions of years to adapt to the surface.”
So a tidally-locked planet could have a stable atmosphere and perhaps life could evolve as a result. What could be considered to be a negative has just become a positive.
With all this good news, why wouldn’t life be thriving on this world?
Unknowns and Assumptions
There’s still a lot of unknowns and assumptions being made. For a start, the presence of Gliese 581g was detected by measuring the “wobble” of the star as the exoplanet orbits (its gravity tugs on the star as it circles). Therefore its mass and orbital radius can be derived. But we have no information about its atmosphere; the world doesn’t pass in front (or “transit”) the star from our perspective, so we can’t get a peek into its atmosphere.
Therefore we have zero clue as to whether it even has an atmosphere. It might not have an atmosphere, but then again it could have a very thick atmosphere — two extremes that would would put a stop to any Earth Brand™ life evolving. Also, we have zero clue if there’s any water there, it’s just guesswork that suggests there might be. There’s also the huge unknown as to whether life is ubiquitous in the cosmos or not.
Bread in the Oven
It’s a bit like baking a loaf of bread when you have all the necessary ingredients to make bread, but you have no clue about what quantities to use. Gliese 581g appears to have most of the ingredients for life (and with a few assumptions, it has all the ingredients for life), but we only have a general idea as to what quantities these ingredients come in.
If you threw flour, water and yeast straight into the breadmaker in random quantities, would you get a loaf of bread? What if you forgot to add the yeast?
Gliese 581g is that breadmaker. Unfortunately we have no clue if it can make bread.
How do we know this? Psychics — or “military grade remote viewers” as they like to be called — “saw” it, and their vision corroborated a Mars satellite photo that shows “man-made domes,” “pipelines” and a “huge nozzle shooting liquid spray.”
Before we get bogged down with the details, let’s get one thing straight: remote viewing is not a scientific tool and has never been proven to work. It is pseudoscience. Sure, the U.S. military became interested in investigating remote viewing as a spying weapon (unsurprisingly, the superpowers were pretty keen on investigating every avenue to spy on the enemy during the Cold War), but funding was withdrawn in the 90’s as it was proven remote sensing was ineffective and any positive results could not be replicated.
Most recently, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence carried out a suite of experiments on a group of remote viewers to see how their brains reacted during the viewing phase. There appeared to be no measurable change in brain activity, and besides, none of the psychics tested could access the desired targets anyway, rendering the whole thing pointless.
But these facts don’t seem to dissuade Dr. Courtney Brown from trying to justify a scientific basis for his “Evidence for Artificiality on Mars” presentation. Not surprisingly, one of the Examiner’s “Exopolitics” writers is very exited about this non-research, saying, “An apparent active industrial site on the surface of Mars with a “large nozzle shooting a liquid spray” onto an apparent industrial waste area has been successfully located and explored in a remote viewing study conducted by the Farsight Institute in March 2010 using nine highly trained remote viewers and methodologies developed by the U.S. military.”
Here’s the region of Mars we’re talking about, helpfully labeled to show the targets for the remote viewers. These targets are obviously highly suspicious, they look nothing like the rest of the Aram Chaos region of Mars (*squints*):
Take a look at the original Mars Global Surveyor images of the site. It might take a couple of minutes to find the area of interest, which isn’t surprising as it looks like the rest of Mars.
Now the remote viewers have their targets, the Farsight Institute carried out some kind of experiment and Dr. Brown — a guy with a book to sell (where have we seen that before?) — discusses the astonishing results. In case you think I’ve eaten a funny-looking mushroom or been lobotomized by a trained hamster, this “evidence” for remote viewing is listed on the Farsight Institute’s webpages. I’m not making this up.
In the Mars orbiter photo (above), a spraying fountain of some “liquid” (target 1a) can be seen. In fact, this is the whole reason why Brown has taken an interest in this region. “We wouldn’t be interested in these domes if it wasn’t for the spray,” he said, “but the spray really caught our attention.” This spray is being ejected by a mountain-shaped dome (target 1b) via a horizontal “pipe.” There is a shadow under the spray indicating it is being ejected at some height. There is also another “highly reflective” dome below the other dome (target 1c). “It looks like it’s made out of some kind of resin material,” Brown remarks.
So, using their psychic powers, the military-grade remote viewers managed to access some fascinating details about the site — they even drew some vague scribbles of their visions.
The artificial structures on Mars were originally built by ancient builders and the current occupants do not understand its technology. They need spare parts, but don’t have any. The mystery technology in operation generates power and there are intense flashing lights at the site. The occupants on site — of which there are more men than women — are despondent (because there are more men than women? Because no one knows they’re there? There’s no good coffee in the canteen? Just guessing). The occupants, assumed to be human, are in a lot of hardship and they aren’t allowed to return home.
Apart from sounding like a sweat house scene ripped straight from an 18th Century Jane Austin novel, the very idea the U.S. military has some kind of black operation on the Red Planet is hilarious. But to single out one tiny region of the planet by pure chance (because Brown thinks he sees a pipe gushing water over the landscape) and creating a fantasy world using zero logical thought is amazing to me.
The “gushing fluid” feature could be any one of a huge number of geological features. To me, it looks like a landslide; lighter material that has been dislodged, causing rubble to tumble down the slope. It could even be ice mixed in with regolith after an avalanche, ice crystals falling from the top of the mesa (a hill; not what Brown describes as anything man-made) scattering over the darker colored material further down the slope.
The shadow Brown points to is not caused by this “spraying liquid” feature, it’s simply darker-colored material in the Martian soil. There goes that theory. As for the other suggestions of man-made structures… well, that’s just Brown’s vivid imagination. I’m finding it hard to see any man-made domes. They’re just hills.
This crazy theory could be picked at for hours, but I’m still in amazement that people like Brown can discuss a subject like this with such conviction. There is overwhelming evidence that easily debunks the idea that there is an industrial complex on Aram Chaos. Unfortunately, for people peddling their pseudo-scientific ideas, common sense and logical thought seem to be concepts they have trouble grasping.