NASA sets aside some money for a robotic mission to Europa. “No details have been decided yet, but NASA chief financial officer Elizabeth Robinson said Tuesday that it would be launched in the mid-2020s.”
NASA announces 715 new planets found by the Kepler telescope, and that’s only from the first two years of data. “About 94 percent of the new alien worlds are smaller than Neptune, researchers said, further bolstering earlier Kepler observations that suggested the Milky Way galaxy abounds with rocky planets like Earth…four of the worlds are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and reside in the ‘habitable zone,’ that just-right range of distances that could allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces.”
Via io9, Scientists at NASA’s JPL find the strongest evidence of currently extant water on Mars yet. “We still don’t have a smoking gun for existence of water…Although we’re not sure how this process would take place without water.”
Where do bad folks go when they die? They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly. Mars? Hrm…well, maybe. Curiosity finds the remnants of what appears to be an ancient Martian lake in Yellowknife Bay, part of Gale Crater. Unfortunately, “[e]ven if there were fossils in the mudstone, Curiosity doesn’t have the right kind of equipment to see them. That job will be left to the Mars rover set to launch in 2020.”
(Klaatu barada nitko?) All that being said, one Comic-Con remake reveal I can get excited about — although “Executive Producer Seth McFarlane” gives me a moment of pause — is Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s upcoming 13-episode reboot of Cosmos.
“‘There’s never been a more important time for COSMOS to re-emerge than right now. I want to make this so entertaining, and so flashy, and so exciting that people who have no interest in science will watch just because it’s a spectacle,’” MacFarlane said in a news release.”
Of late, astronomers have been finding new planets all the time, including one right in our cosmic backyard. Still, these two seem special: NASA has found two of the most Earth-like planets yet in Kepler 62f and Kepler 62e, 1200 light years away.
“The Kepler 62 system resembles our own solar system, which also has two habitable planets: Earth and Mars, which once had water and would still be habitable today if it were more massive and had been able to hang onto its primordial atmosphere.”
Hey neighbor: Astronomers find an Earth-like planet just next door in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our sun. “Indeed, Alpha Centauri Bb is the first planet with an earth-like mass ever found orbiting a sun-like star.” That being said, prospects for life — or colonization — seem, for the time being, remote. “Unfortunately for any hope of finding life on this world, it orbits only about four million miles away…This would make Alpha Centauri B more than twenty times larger in the planet’s sky than the sun is here on earth…and more than 500 times brighter and hotter.”
A NASA/JPL simulation of Titan’s atmosphere suggests a chaotic chemical brew conducive to life on Saturn’s most interesting moon. “Now we know that sunlight in the Titan lower atmosphere can kick-start more complex organic chemistry in liquids and solids rather than just in gases.” (Titan image via this 2011 post.)
Data from Kepler’s Space Telescope suggests that an estimated 6% of red dwarf stars have planets in the habitable zone, meaning, statistically, we are basically surrounded by inhabitable worlds. “Our Sun is surrounded by a swarm of red dwarf stars. About 75 percent of the closest stars are red dwarfs.”
“Under the agency’s procedures, the box should not have been opened without knowledge of a NASA scientist who is responsible for guarding Mars against contamination from Earth. But Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley wasn’t consulted. ‘They shouldn’t have done it without telling me,’ she said. ‘It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules.’“
It seems NASA’s Curiosity may have inadvertently brought Terran microbes along with it, which could become hugely significant if the robot encounters water, in which case they become either the potential seeds of new life on Mars and/or the 21st-century equivalent of the smallpox blanket. Er…oops.
Meanwhile, while we’re bringing life to Mars, Jupiter may have once again protected us from a Deep Impact/Melancholia-like disaster. “This is the third time since 2009 amateur astronomers have witnessed an impact flash on Jupiter. The massive gas giant, which exerts considerable gravitational pull, is something of a cosmic whipping boy in our solar system, regularly shielding inner planets like Earth from potential collisions.” So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s Jupiter 3, Bruce Willis 1.
The Land of Chocolate? Astronomers find sugar molecules orbiting young star IRAS 16293-2422, 400 light years away. “‘A big question is: how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets?’ Jørgensen said. “This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere, and ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery.’”
By way of Eric of Kestrel’s Nest, our radio telescopes find signs of life on Mars…us. Hey, at least the system works. Although, does anyone else have a problem with UNC-Chapel Hill calling their robotic telescope network SKYNET? Inviting calamity, I say.
And we know exactly whose fault it is. In response to the 35-year-old “WOW signal“, we the people of Earth have apparently chosen as our herald Stephen Colbert, whose response above will be broadcast in the direction of its origin by National Geographic via the Arecibo radio telescope.
Hrm….isn’t the Mighty Colbert a bit too droll for alien intelligences? I fear this will set off a Douglas Adams-style miscommunication that will end very badly for all parties involved. Second, why would any alien race be able to make sense of Prometheus? There was no sense there to be had.
Moreover, just today scientists announced the discovery of two Earth-sized planets — Kepler 20e and Kepler 20f. “‘For the first time, we’ve crossed the threshold of finding Earth-size worlds,’ Torres says. ‘The next step is having an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone.’” And apparently Kepler 20f may have once had water, not unlike a planet closer to home…
“This is the single most bullet-proof observation that I can think of that we’ve made this entire mission regarding the liquid water.” Something to consider if we don’t manage to tackle global warming by 2006 — the prior existence of water on Mars is further confirmed through a trail of gypsum left within an ancient rock. “Both the chemistry and the structure ‘just scream water,’ Squyres added.“
And, on a grander scale, astronomers have begun to uncover supermassive black holes (no, not those ones) at the centers of galaxies. These are “the biggest, baddest black holes yet found in the universe, abyssal yawns 10 times the size of our solar system into which billions of Suns have vanished like a guilty thought.” In other words, plenty of room for Maximillian Schell to get lost in there…Tread carefully.
From a few weeks ago and languishing in the bookmarks, scientists find nematodes a mile below the Earth’s surface, raising the possibility of similar life on other worlds. The spice must flow… “The two lead researchers…said the discovery of creatures so far below ground, with nervous, digestive and reproductive systems, was akin to finding ‘Moby Dick in Lake Ontario.‘”
Another casualty of the lousy economy and the budget crises (in this case, California’s) SETI’s Allen Telescope Array goes dark. “‘We have the radio antennae up, but we can’t run them without operating funds,’ he added. ‘Honestly, if everybody contributed just 3 extra cents on their 1040 tax forms, we could find out if we have cosmic company.‘”
After its initial sweep of 1/400th of the sky, NASA’s Kepler telescope finds over 1200 planets — 54 of them potentially inhabitable. (The picture above is a rendering of the six-planet Kepler-11 system, 2000 light-years away.)
Discover‘s Phil Plait puts today’s findings in proper perspective: “Mind you, Kepler is only looking at a sample of stars that is one one-millionth of all the stars in the Milky Way. So it’s not totally silly to take these numbers and multiply them by a million to estimate how many planets there may be in the galaxy…70 million Earth-size planets, and a million in the habitable zone of their stars. A frakking million. In our galaxy alone.”
“Our findings are a reminder that life as we know it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine,” Felisa Wolfe-Simon, an astrobiology researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey, said.“
Whoa. NASA announces it has discovered a strange new bacteria in California’s Mono Lake that use arsenic instead of phosphorus, previously considered indispensable to life. “It gets in there and sort of gums up the works of our biochemical machinery,’ ASU’s Ariel Anbar, a co-author of the Science paper, explained.
Big doings? Definitely — The existence of these viable microbes suggests new biochemical possibilities for life on distant (or even not-so-distant) planets. But Discover‘s Ed Yong advises caution: “The discovery is amazing, but it’s easy to go overboard with it…For a start, the bacteria – a strain known as GFAJ-1 – don’t depend on arsenic. They still contain detectable levels of phosphorus in their molecules and they actually grow better on phosphorus if given the chance. It’s just that they might be able to do without this typically essential element – an extreme and impressive ability in itself.“
Update: “As soon as Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. ‘I was outraged at how bad the science was,’ she told me.” Hold the champagne: Slate‘s Carl Zimmer surveys the scientific pushback, and it is considerable. “‘[N]one of the arguments are very convincing on their own.’ That was about as positive as the critics could get. ‘This paper should not have been published,’ said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.”
“We may have to abandon this notion of using the Milky Way as a template for the rest of the universe,” Dr. van Dokkum said. If the findings are correct, an undercount of dwarfs would mean astronomers have underestimated the masses of galaxies, and that would mean that galaxies developed earlier and faster than currently thought.“
Another big happening on the astrobiology front. As first seen at Dangerous Meta, a joint Harvard-Yale study published in Nature finds that our universe may have three times as many stars as we thought. “That suggests a universe of roughly 100 sextillion stars, with an approximate margin of error of about 10 times fewer or 10 times more.“
“[I]t probably has a solid surface just like Earth. Much more important, it sits smack in the middle of the so-called habitable zone, orbiting at just the right distance from the star to let water remain liquid rather than freezing solid or boiling away. As far as we know, that’s a minimum requirement for the presence of life.“
Some might remember that Gliese 581c was all the rage two years ago. Apparently, this one — in the same solar system but only just discovered — is even closer to the real deal. (Good thing the NASA authorization just passed…)
In potentially very big doings, two astrobiology papers suggest that some form of life is currently consuming gas and fuel on Saturn’s moon of Titan (The gas being hydrogen and fuel being acetylane, which would make sense for a methane-based life form.) “We suggested hydrogen consumption because it’s the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth. If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth.’” Yes, that would be exciting.
Update: NASA’s Chris McKay advises scientific caution. “This is a still a long way from ‘evidence of life’. However, it is extremely interesting.”
“In April, the world will celebrate the quinquagenary of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, so it seems a good time to take stock of the silence. Three new books tackle the issue in three different ways. One, an immensely readable investigation of the SETI enterprise (with a surprising conclusion); the second, a technical guide to what we should be looking for and how; and the third, a left-field argument that the alien question has already been answered.“
In New Scientist, Michael Hanlon surveys three new books about the continuing search for alien life, and attempts to grapple with the Fermi paradox.”Today it is rare to meet an astronomer who doesn’t believe that the universe is teeming with life. There is a feeling in the air that light will soon be shed on some of science’s most fundamental questions: is Earth’s biosphere unique? Do other minds ponder the universe?“
“‘We would have never dreamed you would find a rocky planet so close,’ he said. ‘Its year is less than one of our days.’” Astronomers discover the first rocky planet outside our solar system in CoRoT-7b.
But don’t prep the colony ship just yet: “It is so close to the star it orbits ‘that the place may well look like Dante’s Inferno, with a probable temperature on its ‘day face’ above 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius) and minus-328 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 200 degrees Celsius) on its night face,’ said Didier Queloz of Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, the project leader.” Eh, we’ll work with it.
“‘We’re thrilled to have identified clear signs of water on a planet that is trillions of miles away,’ said study leader Giovanna Tinetti of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris in France.” Scientists discover clear signs of existing water well outside the solar system at HD 189733b, a Jupiter-ish gas giant in the Vulpecula constellation, 64 light years away. “The researchers found that the planet absorbed starlight in such a way that could only be explained by the presence of water vapor in its atmosphere.“
NASA prepares a probe, named Phoenix, to dig for water on Mars. “Upon reaching Mars in May 2008, the spacecraft is to land just as the winter ice begins to recede around the polar cap.“
“Because of its temperature and relative proximity, this planet will most probably be a very important target of the future space missions dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. On the treasure map of the Universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X.” The big news today, of course: Astronomers announce the discovery of an earth-like planet, Gliese 581c, at the galactically tiny distance of 120 trillion miles (20.5 light years) away. (For the stargazers, Gliese 581 is a red dwarf “located in the northeastern part of constellation Libra.”) Of course, we still don’t know if we even have to go that far to find extraterrestrial life — Europa, Mars, Ganymede, and Callisto all still pose unresolved questions. Nevertheless, it’s an exciting moment in our history to discover the first planet far afield that might possibly be inhabited (and inhabitable)…and even more exciting to know that there’ll assuredly be many more to come. The stars, our destination!