Monday, November 20, 2006

Interstellar chemistry, X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle and ‘Songs of a Distant Earth’

Welcome! “Alien Life” tracks the latest discoveries and thoughts in the various elements of the famous Drake Equation. You may notice that this and future entries are shorter than usual; Career, family and book deal commitments have forced me to cut back some of my projects. Now, here’s today’s news:
g Life - In October, the sixth workshop of the European Astrobiology Network Association was held in Lyon, France. Scientists from around the world gathered to discuss topics such as interstellar chemistry, the origin of life and the search for life in the solar system. See article.
g Message - The SETI League, Inc. launched its Project Argus all-sky survey in April 1996, with the ambitious goal of real-time all-sky coverage. This SETI experiment is unique in that it employs the talents and energies of thousands of dedicated amateur radio astronomers worldwide. In its first four years, Project Argus has grown from five small prototype radio telescopes to one hundred operational stations, with hundreds more under construction. We are still decades away from our projected 5,000 stations able to see in all directions at once. Nevertheless, much has been learned about how to build radio telescopes on the cheap, operate them with the utmost of professionalism, and interpret received data with scientific rigor. See
g Cosmicus - The Air Force is working on a space vehicle that will allow government scientists to transport advanced technology into orbit, test its capability there, then bring it home to see how it fared in the harsh environment of space. The first X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle will launch from Cape Canaveral in 2008 atop a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket and land in California at either Vandenberg or Edwards. See
g Learning - Here’s a neat classroom activity courtesy of NASA: “Planets in a Bottle.” The lesson plan involves yeast experiments intended for 2nd through 4th grade students. See
g Imagining - An early “Star Trek” alien is the Thasians (http://
), who serve a deux ex machina role in one episode. The Thasians apparently are a noncorporeal life form that gave a human child incredible powers of telekinesis. Such capabilities, as exhibited by the child (now a 17-year-old teenager) appear to stem from within his own physical being, however. The Thasians themselves also are dependent on the physical reality of a spacecraft for traveling beyond their planet. Of course, how a noncorporeal life form might exist is beyond our physical science, though one might suspect it is an organized pattern of electrical impulses, somehow held together and organized without use of a physical platform (such as our brain cells) — though their powers can be transferred to such a platform, as occurs with the boy. Most likely the Thasians did not evolve as noncorporeal life forms but instead, being eons ahead of us in technology, rely on machines (using teleportation-like technology) to do their work; their own beings might be interfaced with such machines so a mere concentrated thought can command it. The Thasians, thus feeling encumbered by physical form, shifted to another dimension — again, more fiction than reality — where the very nature of that space allows the beings (electrical patterns) to remain organized, and perhaps better able to communicate with their machines. Of course, too little was said about the Thasians in the episode, though the boy did note that the Thasians do not “feel” or “touch” in the same way that humans do.
g Aftermath - Some of the best discussion of the consequences of alien contact occurs in science fiction. Here’s a novel that ranks among the most important in that dialogue: Arthur C. Clark’s “Songs of a Distant Earth.” Look for it at your library or local used book store.