Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Jupiter from Mars’ orbit, searching for Martian amino acids and social and political issues that will arise once we make contact with extraterrestrial

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 Abodes - The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can take interesting astronomical pictures, team scientists report today. The High Resolution Imaging Experiment based at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson has produced a view of Jupiter as seen from Mars orbit. See http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n0701/31hirisejupiter/.
g Intelligence - Fluctuations in sex hormone levels during women's menstrual cycles affect the responsiveness of their brains' reward circuitry, an imaging study at the National Institute of Mental Health, a component of the National Institutes of Health, has revealed. While women were winning rewards, their circuitry was more active if they were in a menstrual phase preceding ovulation and dominated by estrogen, compared to a phase when estrogen and progesterone are present. See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070203103344.htm.
g Message - In 2001, a group of Russian teens from Moscow, Kaluga, Voronezh and Zheleznogorsk participated directly and via the Internet in composing a Teen-Age Message to extraterrestrial intelligence, and in the selection of target stars. Their message was transmitted in the autumn of that year, from the Evpatoria Deep Space Center. See http://www.cplire.ru/html/ra&sr/irm/teen-age-message.html.
g Cosmicus - A miniature detector, 1 million times more sensitive than the ones carried by Viking, will search for amino acids on Mars. The detector will be sent to Mars aboard the European Space Agency’s ExoMars spacecraft, scheduled for a 2013 launch. See http://www.astrobio.net/news/modules.phpop=modload
g Learning - TERC and NASA are developing an interdisciplinary year-long course for middle and high school students using astrobiology as its unifying, underlying structure. Through a series of inquiry-based activities centered on the search for life on other planets, students can explore diverse concepts in chemistry, biology, physics, Earth and space science and engineering. Astrobiology provides students opportunities to master fundamental science concepts in a relevant context and apply their skill and understanding directly in a variety of investigative modes. See http://www.spaceref.com/redirect.refurl=astrobio.terc.edu/&id=2865.
g Imagining - Among the first and most memorable of “Star Trek” aliens is the salt vampire (http://www.startrek.com/startrek/
view/library/aliens/article/70657.html). Could such a creature exist, though? Forgetting the problem of its facial arrangement (eyes-nose-mouth from top to bottom), which repeats Earth’s evolutionary path for vertebrates, the salt vampire receives a mixed review. Consider its shaggy coat, which appears to be inconsistent with bipedalism in a warm climate; humans likely lost their primate hair because doing so allowed our bodies to cool better in the African savanna — and the salt vampire’s planet is hot, probably orbiting a G-class star that has entered its red giant phase (judging by climate and sky color). Of course, the creature could be a hominid that just come down from the trees, which certainly would be sparse on such a planet. But its intelligence level indicates a much longer path of evolution. Perhaps the planet was in a cold state before the star entered its red giant phase. On another note, the creature’s need for salt is voracious for the chemical is in short supply; that seems at odds with the hot desert climate for halites would form as the sun’s expansion caused the seas to evaporate. Possibly, the creature, being the last of its kind, simply had gone mad, expressing its psychosis through murder — which explains why Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock felt no mercy for it when phasering it to death at episode’s end!
g Aftermath - For some provocative reading, pick up “Sharing the Universe,” by Seth Shostak, at your local bookstore. SETI scientist Shostak almost single-handedly is outlining social and political issues that will arise once we make contact with extraterrestrials.