Monday, May 14, 2007

Nature of ‘vacuum’ of space, most massive exoplanet yet found and asphalt-eating microorganisms

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 problems in understanding the true nature of the “vacuum” of space were discussed by theoretical physicist Alvaro de Rújula from CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, and a professor of physics at Boston University at the EPL symposium, “Physics In Our Times” held Thursday at the Fondation Del Duca de l’Institut de France, Paris. See
g Abodes - astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that they have found the most massive known transiting extrasolar planet. The gas giant planet, called HAT-P-2b, contains more than eight times the mass of Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system. Its powerful gravity squashes it into a ball only slightly larger than Jupiter. See
g Life - Environmental scientists at UC Riverside have discovered that the Rancho La Brea tar pits in downtown Los Angeles house hundreds of new species of bacteria with unusual properties, allowing the bacteria to survive and grow in heavy oil and natural asphalt. See
g Intelligence - Whether you are an anxious type, or a fearless person - such individual differences in personality could be partly due to the genes you carry. In humans, it is hard to prove the existence of such "personality genes" - there are simply too many factors that influence human behavior and these factors are hard to control experimentally. See
g Message - Book alert: In “Is Anyone Out There?,” by Frank Drake, Dava Sobel, University of California astronomy and astrophysics professor Drake, aided by science journalist Sobel, responds to the title's classic question with an account of his career-long quest to gamer hard scientific data that might point to some answers. One of America's pioneer radio astronomers, Drake provides firsthand descriptions of breakthrough moments in the past 30 years of astrophysics - no encounters of any kind, just straightforward astrophysics with inconclusive experimental results. Drake's medium is science, his theory technical and his slightly anthropocentric conclusions more modest than those of the average UFO abductee. See
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
g Learning - How are key concepts of astrobiology treated in science fiction? See Note: This article is from 2001 and intended to be used as part of a classroom lesson.
g Imagining - Ben Bova, the prolific author of science fiction novels such as "Mars" and "Jupiter," studies the science and politics of astrobiology in his book, "Faint Echoes, Distant Stars." In this exclusive interview with Astrobiology Magazine, Bova shares his thoughts about astrobiology, space travel, and the discoveries of the future. See Note: This article is from 2004.
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{B0D4BC0E-D59B-4CD0-9E79-113953A58644}/m_race_guidelines.pdf.