Scientists Create Synthetic Life… Now What?

You talk about synthetic life like it's a bad thing - Tricia Helfer in BSG
You talk about synthetic life like it's a bad thing - Tricia Helfer in BSG

Say if you’re in space, searching for life, what do you look for? That’s simple. You look for something that resembles life on Earth; whether that be single-celled amoeba or a Star Trek-style humanoid with a lumpy head and webbed feet.

That’s life we know and understand (with some sci-fi comedy thrown in). What if there are some other unimaginable creatures that may not fit into our understanding of How Things Work™? This is a very real problem NASA has been faced with ever since the agency started sending probes to Mars and spacecraft beyond the Solar System itself. Deep space missions (like the Voyager and Pioneer probes) have intelligent life forms in mind (i.e. ones that can read, hear and interpret the Leonardo da Vinci Vitruvian Man; so it would be nice if ET also has an appreciation for fine art), but our intrepid Mars rovers and landers that have been pestering the Red Planet since the 1960s are looking for the basic building blocks of life, plus evidence of past or present life. So far, there’s been a lot of rocks turned over, yet no sign of extraterrestrial life.

Therefore, scientists at a very early stage defined “life” as a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution so we can focus on finding life we know and understand. To boost this understanding a little further, wouldn’t it be great if we could create our own evolving soup of chemicals?

Now, it seems, this has become a reality. Scientists in a Florida lab have created a beaker filled with synthetic life
Continue reading “Scientists Create Synthetic Life… Now What?”

Here’s One We Didn’t Discover Earlier

The 1998 archive Hubble image of HR 8799 after image analysis - one of the star's exoplanets have been resolved (NASA/HST)
The 1998 archive Hubble image of HR 8799 after image analysis - one of the star's exoplanets have been resolved (D. Lafrenière et al., ApJ Letters)

What’s just as exciting as directly imaging an exoplanet in a new observing campaign? To discover an exoplanet in an old observing campaign.

Like so many significant astronomical discoveries, archival images of the cosmos provide a valuable tool to astronomers. On its most basic level, astronomers can compare new images with images taken by the same (or different) observatory months, years or decades ago. This method can lead to the discovery of planets, asteroids and comets (when comparing two pictures of the night sky, a celestial object appears to move relative to the background stars). However, a new technique to analyse archived Hubble data in the search for exoplanets, has just revealed one of three known exoplanets orbiting the star HR 8699. The image in question was captured in 1998, when astronomers thought HR 8799 was an exoplanet-less star
Continue reading “Here’s One We Didn’t Discover Earlier”

Mosquito Survives in Space for 18 Months

Mosquitos: Tougher than they look
Mosquitos: Tougher than they look

According to results from a Russian biology experiment on the International Space Station (ISS), a mosquito has survived the rigours of space for 18 months. However, this little winged insect didn’t do it inside the comfort of the ISS, he did it outside, in a small can.

The experiment was carried out by the same Russian-Japanese collaboration that brought us Space Beer from space-grown barley (I think you know my feelings about that endeavour), to study the effects of microgravity on various organisms and plants. However, in this case, our little mosquito drew the short straw and was attached to the outside of the station.

The mosquito study is intended to see how the insect copes with being exposed to damaging cosmic rays and the extreme variations in temperature, in the build-up to a possible Russian manned mission to Mars. According to a Russian media source, the future Mars cosmonauts are already training for the mission in a forest outside Moscow
Continue reading “Mosquito Survives in Space for 18 Months”

Pentagon Denies Space Weapons

“The United States is not developing space weapons and could not afford to do so even if it wanted to” said an official with the Pentagon last Thursday. Space weapons have always been a bit of a hush-hush topic, and it looks like the trend hasn’t been broken with this recent announcement. The real issue surrounding the announcement is what the Pentagon’s ideas of “space weapons” are.

Guest article by John Nestler (website: Space Marauder)

space_weapons

The United States is not developing space weapons and could not afford to do so even if it wanted to,” said an official with the Pentagon last Thursday. Space weapons have always been a bit of a hush-hush topic, and it looks like the trend hasn’t been broken with this recent announcement. The real issue surrounding this announcement is what the Pentagon’s ideas of “space weapons” are…
Continue reading “Pentagon Denies Space Weapons”

Liquid Water on Mars?

Water droplets appear to be growing on Phoenix's leg shortly after landing on Mars (NASA)
Water droplets appear to be growing on Phoenix’s leg shortly after landing on Mars (NASA)

NASA scientists are currently trying to understand a set of images taken by the Phoenix Mars Lander shortly after it landed on the Red Planet in May 2008. The images in question show one of the robot’s legs covered in what appears to be droplets of liquid water. The droplets remain on the lander for some time, appearing to get larger and changing shape.

By now, we know that liquid water (apparently) hasn’t existed on the Martian surface for hundreds of millions of years; the atmosphere is currently too thin and too cold to support liquid water. However, the confirmed presence of perchlorate in the regolith may provide an important clue as to what might be going on…
Continue reading “Liquid Water on Mars?”

The MSL is Too Expensive? Who Cares! We’re Searching For Life!

$2.2 billion eggs. One basket. The MSL "Skycrane" lowers the 850kg rover to the Martian surface (NASA)
$2.2 billion eggs. One basket. The MSL Skycrane lowers the 850kg rover to the Martian surface (NASA)

Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly excited about any planetary mission, no matter how much it costs. However, there is something about the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) that makes me uneasy. The project may be delayed (the MSL is scheduled for a 2011 launch) and it may be costing more than NASA projected, but it’s not these factors I’m worried about.

The MSL is built on a “bigger and better” mentality; it dwarfs both of the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, plus it is packing a rather impressive suite of 10 complex scientific instruments to carry out an unprecedented campaign in the Martian dirt. Oh, and did I mention it will be powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), a complete departure from the tried and tested solar panelled rovers? Oh hold on, as the MSL weighs nearly a tonne, a brand new method of landing the thing is required (simply parachuting, air bag bouncing or rocket thruster powered landings are now passé). The “Skycrane” that looks like one of those hoverboards from Back to the Future II has been invented to gently lower the MSL (pictured above).

Still, I’m not too concerned, NASA has proven itself countless times at overcoming technological challenges. That’s why NASA is there, to research and develop new technologies and science. But what if the MSL has gone too far? What if the technology is too untried and untested? Unfortunately, it looks like the recent turn of events have taken even the MSL program manager by surprise
Continue reading “The MSL is Too Expensive? Who Cares! We’re Searching For Life!”

Can SpaceX Benefit from NASA’s Share of the Economic Stimulus Package?

The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)
The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)

Over the weekend, I discussed the pros and cons of a recent article written by Mars Society President Robert Zubrin. In his discussion for a Washington D.C. political website, he outlined his thoughts on how to enrich the US economy. One of the points raised was the argument that a manned mission to Mars would have a huge economic impact on the USA; creating jobs, invigorating science education and boosting national well being. This is a worthy argument that, in principal, holds a lot of merit. After all, the Apollo Program in the 1960’s had a lasting effect on the US, creating jobs in the aerospace industry, bolstering the economy and creating a generation of highly skilled scientists and engineers.

So why not do Apollo 2.0? Send man to Mars as a measure to recreate the economic benefits generated by the Space Race against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, no modern government would sensibly invest in such a plan. There is no political incentive to do so (well, no acute incentive that requires the US to “beat” a competing superpower in the race to strategically dominate space).

But what if the recent economic $800+ billion stimulus package could be used to stimulate another, burgeoning sector of space flight, that has both political and financial merit?

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is asking the same question. Could NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts get a boost in funding, accelerating a commercial answer to the looming 5-year gap in US manned spaceflight? This is where SpaceX needs your help…
Continue reading “Can SpaceX Benefit from NASA’s Share of the Economic Stimulus Package?”

Can a Mission to Mars Stimulate the Economy?

Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)
Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)

When times get tough, the world needs visionaries.

Visionaries find solutions, they invent systems and invoke change. One such figure in current events with a weight of 300 million people on his shoulders, is the new US President Barack Obama. His entire political campaign is based on bringing change to the USA (and the world), making him the most prominent political figure out there. Is he a visionary? Some would argue that he is, others would say that history will decide that point. I’m on the fence as to whether Obama will find historic solutions to these seemingly insurmountable global crises. But the thing I admire about the new US President is that he is a strong leader, and sometimes, that is all a country needs to pull itself from the precipice and back to prosperity.

So, the Obama-backed $800+ billion economic stimulus package is currently pumping through the system to eventually be divvied up and sent to areas of the economy that need to be reinvigorated. In principal, it’s a good idea. But what if it fails? Unfortunately there’s an awful lot more riding on Obama’s shoulders than 300 million hopes; $800 billion of their taxes will be keeping the new President awake until the early hours. If this all goes right, Barack Obama will go down as one of history’s visionaries; if it all goes wrong… well, let’s just not go there for the time being

There will be critics of any economic bailout, and others who think there are better options. Robert Zubrin, founder and President of the Mars Society, has come forward with his suggestions to aid economic recovery…
Continue reading “Can a Mission to Mars Stimulate the Economy?”

Mars Gets Hit By Cosmic Buckshot

Bolide breakup and impact on the surface of Mars (HiRISE/NASA)
Bolide breakup and impact on the surface of Mars (HiRISE/NASA)

Earth has been hit numerous times in recent months by some large chunks of space rock. One of the larger meteoroids to enter the atmosphere was the November fireball over Saskatchewan, Canada. In this case, an estimated 10 tonne meteorite slammed into the atmosphere, creating a bright bolide (fireball), exploding into fragments. Fortunately, eyewitnesses were able to pinpoint the location of possible debris. Sure enough, after an extensive search in the rural area of Canada, meteorite fragments were found.

However, these fragments did not impact the ground at the hyper-velocities that the original fireball was travelling at, the Earth’s thick atmosphere created an efficient barrier, through air resistance, breaking up the bolide. In this case, an energetic explosion was observed for miles around. Fragments from the fireball then fell at a maximum speed of terminal velocity, bouncing off the ground. Some fragments sat proudly on top of frozen ponds – the debris final kinetic energy was so low that little damage would have been done even if the small rocks scattered over a populated area (unless, of course, someone got hit on the head – they would have had a very bad day).

OK, so we’re well protected from most bits of junk space can throw at us. Most meteoroids, from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a small bus, will burn-up, break-up or explode high in the atmosphere, scattering bits on the ground. But what about Mars? What if Mars gets hit by a sufficiently-sized meteoroid?

Even if the meteoroid does break apart, unfortunately the atmosphere is too thin to slow the debris sufficiently. A lack of air resistance makes for more impressive impact craters. Watch your heads future Mars colonists, you could be faced with a shotgun blast from space
Continue reading “Mars Gets Hit By Cosmic Buckshot”

The Essential Selection for Space Exploration (Music)

The Astroengine Live Top 10 Space Tunes

Disco balls at Spundae, Hollywood in December 2006 (© Ian O'Neill)

Often when writing about space, I like to listen to music. Unfortunately, my brain is terrible at multitasking, so any music with vocals slows me down. However, trance music doesn’t seem to hurt my thinking-typing skills (probably due to minimal vocal tracks), so on go the headphones as I get lost in a mix of space and sound.

If you are a listener of my radio show Astroengine Live, you may be forgiven in thinking that it is based more on the music selection than my opinions on the current state of manned space flight! So I’ve decided to pair up trance and space to compile my favourite space-based tracks of all time (mainly trance and electro, but with some surprises thrown in).

Here’s Astroengine Live’s Top 10 Space Tunes, or the Essential Selection for Space Exploration
Continue reading “The Essential Selection for Space Exploration (Music)”