Monday, March 19, 2007

Massive star’s death cry, water at Mars’ South Pole and how humanity might react when we receive our first interstellar phone call from ET

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 - Several times a week, astronomers detect the violent death cry of a massive star - an extraordinarily energetic release of gamma rays that takes place in just a matter of seconds to minutes, called a gamma-ray burst. The GRB's ejecta, which is thought to be beamed in narrow jets, slams into interstellar gas at near light speed. This violent collision shocks the material and produces a bright afterglow that can radiate brightly at X-ray and other wavelengths for several days, or even a few weeks. But a GRB observed by NASA's Swift satellite on July 29, 2006, generated an X-ray afterglow that remained detectable to the spacecraft's X-ray Telescope for an astonishing 125 days. See
g Abodes - New measurements of Mars' south polar region indicate extensive frozen water. The polar region contains enough frozen water to cover the whole planet in a liquid layer approximately 36 feet deep. A joint NASA-Italian Space Agency instrument on the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft provided these data. See
g Life - Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have determined the three-dimensional structure of an RNA enzyme, or "ribozyme," that carries out a fundamental reaction required to make new RNA molecules. Their results provide insight into what may have been the first self-replicating molecule to arise billions of years ago on the evolutionary path toward the emergence of life. See
g Intelligence - A good laugh may not only lift your mood, but can make you more cooperative and altruistic towards strangers, according to a new study. See
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 - Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chair of the Senate subcommittee responsible for NASA funding, formally pledged Thursday to again work with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to increase NASA funding by $1 billion. Mikulski also called for a space summit with the White House to ensure NASA gets the support and funding it needs. See
g Learning - Here’s a neat classroom resource courtesy of NASA: “Life on Earth … and Elsewhere?” This booklet contains 5 classroom activities for grades 5-10 spanning topics from "Defining Life," to "Determining the Chances of Extraterrestrial Life." See http://www.erg.pdf/.
g Imagining - Like stories about alien biologies/environments? Be sure to scour your favorite used bookstores for Piers Anthony’s “Omnivore” (1968), which examines fungal life forms.
g Aftermath - How will humanity react when we receive our first interstellar phone call from ET? Though not a new piece, SETI astronomer Seth Shostak offers some intriguing thoughts at