Monday, June 27, 2005

Fomalhaut’s dust ring, disappearing Earth and why aliens wouldn’t look like us

Welcome! "Alien Life" tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. Here's today's news:
g Stars - British astronomers last week saw the first images from an ambitious new program of discovery, the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey. The survey will scour the sky with the world's most powerful infrared survey camera to find some of the dimmest and most distant objects in the universe. See article.
g Abodes - A dust ring around the bright star Fomalhaut is off-center, suggesting a planet may be orbiting the star. Visible images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope show details of this dust ring staring back at us from space. See article.
g Life - Hummingbirds are masters of the air - unique among birds for their ability to hover for long periods of time. Using a sophisticated digital imaging technique, scientists have now determined the aerodynamics of hummingbird flight. These latest data disprove conclusions from numerous earlier studies that hummingbirds hovered like insects despite their profound muscle and skeletal differences. See article.
g Intelligence - Brain sizes can be estimated from the internal volume of fossil skulls. When a corrective formula for body size is used, average brain size is a good indicator of relative intelligence. The overall brain body ratio of non-human primates is above that of vertebrates as a whole. The brain body ratio of Homo compared to that of the non-human primates is even greater. The following graph shows that all primates brain/body ratios lie on or above the regression line. New World monkeys, such as marmosets, are much less intelligent than Old World monkeys, such as macaques and baboons. Chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and early hominids (Australopithecus afarensis) have about the same brain/body ratio. Homo ergaster and Homo sapiens lead the crowd. See article.
g Message - A pioneer of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has warned that for any intelligent aliens trying to search for us, "the Earth is going to disappear" very soon. Frank Drake's point, made at a SETI workshop at Harvard University, is that television services are increasingly being delivered by technologies that do not leak radio frequencies into space. But he added that in some ways the observation is good news for SETI, as it means that the failure of Earth-based observers to detect aliens so far may be less worrisome than it would otherwise seem. See article. Note: This article is from 2004.
g Cosmicus - Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered a tiny biological structure that is highly electrically conductive. This breakthrough helps describe how microorganisms can clean up groundwater and produce electricity from renewable resources. It may also have applications in the emerging field of nanotechnology, which develops advanced materials and devices in extremely small dimensions. See article.
g Learning - Looking for an overview of the astrobiological field? Try "Introduction to Exobiology", which explores the field from a lay perspective and includes a self-test. It's part of the Cruising Chemistry project at Duke.
g Imagining - Would extraterrestrials look like us? Why not? In sci-fi movies, aliens are often basically humanoid in size and shape, like the Klingons in “Star Trek,” or various characters in the “Star Wars” films. Even the robots are built on anthropomorphic lines, because there's an actor inside that suit, whether it's furry, scaly or metallic. The advent of computer-generated imagery means this limitation might be left aside, but alien monsters still tend to be given broad similarities to our own form: bilateral symmetry, and something that looks like a head. See article.
g Aftermath - While formal principles have been adopted for the eventuality of detecting intelligent life in our galaxy (SETI Principles), no such guidelines exist for the discovery of non-intelligent extraterrestrial life within the solar system. Current scientifically based planetary protection policies for solar system exploration address how to undertake exploration, but do not provide clear guidance on what to do if and when life is detected. Considering that Martian life could be detected under several different robotic and human exploration scenarios in the coming decades, it is appropriate to anticipate how detection of non-intelligent, microbial life could impact future exploration missions and activities, especially on Mars. This paper discusses a proposed set of interim guidelines based loosely on the SETI Principles and addresses issues extending from the time of discovery through future handling and treatment of extraterrestrial life on Mars or elsewhere. Based on an analysis of both scientific and ethical considerations, there is a clear need for developing operating protocols applicable at the time of discovery and a decision making framework that anticipates future missions and activities, both robotic and human. There is growing scientific confidence that the discovery of extraterrestrial life in some form is nearly inevitable. If and when life is discovered beyond Earth, non-scientific dimensions may strongly influence decisions about the nature andscope of future missions and activities. It is appropriate to encourage international discussion and consideration of the issues prior to an event of such historical significance. See article.

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