Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pinpointing black holes, New Horizons continues journey and a Bracewell probe

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 Stars - The European Space Agency's gamma-ray observatory, Integral, has spotted a rare kind of gamma-ray outburst. The vast explosion of energy allowed astronomers to pinpoint a possible black hole in our galaxy. See article.
g Abodes - The New Horzons spacecraft is continuing to speed through the solar system, and now it has spotted its main target: Pluto. New Horizons plans to study Pluto and its neighbors in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy bodies located on the outer edge of our solar system. Because these objects helped form the planets and may have delivered much of the Earth's water, they have a great deal to teach us about planetary formation and the solar system's potential for life. See article.
g Message - To contact an alien civilization, humanity might want to consider a Bracewell probe — a hypothetical concept for an autonomous interstellar space probe dispatched for the express purpose of communication with (an) alien civilization(s). It was proposed by Ronald N. Bracewell in a 1960 paper, as an alternative to interstellar radio communication between widely separated civilizations. See
g Cosmicus - The moon has very little atmosphere, and lots of dust. Those are some of the things being considered this week at the home of the Hubble Space Telescope, where astronomers are discussing the opportunities offered by NASA's plan to return to the moon, including the possibility of a telescope on the lunar surface. See http://news.
g Learning - Here’s a neat classroom activity: “Alien Safari.” New from NASA PlanetQuest, Alien Safari can be used in your classrooms or informal education settings to help kids discover some of the most extreme organisms on our planet, and find out what they are telling astrobiologists about the search for life beyond Earth. See
g Imagining - Like first contact stories? Then be sure to read Julie E. Czerneda’s short story "First Contact, Inc.," anthologized in “First Contact” (edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Larry Segriff, published by DAW in 1997).
g Aftermath - The scientific discussion of the evolution of life in the universe raises some key philosophical and theological issues: Will life and intelligence be found throughout the universe, or will it turn out to be exceedingly rare? Will intelligent life be capable of both rationality and moral agency? Will evolutionary biology determine its moral content or will it merely bequeath intelligent life with moral capacity, leaving moral content to be determined independently of biology? If moral agency evolves, will these species inevitably exhibit moral failure, or is our generic human experience of moral failure strictly the result of our particular evolution, leaving us to expect there to be other civilizations that are entirely benign? The discussion of these issues, though largely hypothetical, can offer insight into the theological and cultural implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence as well into a better understanding of the human condition. See