Is There Life On Maaaars?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I've been having an uncharacteristic moment of curiosity lately, and that curiosity is about life outside Earth.  Usually I don't care.  I'm much more of a "let's explore and discover the physical laws of the universe" kind of guy.  But today, it's all about life out there, and why not?  Some pretty interesting things have happened in the last week.

1. ESA's Mars500 Simulation Ended
So I have to admit, I knew nothing about this project until I read the article today.  Doesn't prevent me from thinking it's amazing.  In short, a crew of 6 was stuck together in an in-lab "spacecraft" for 17 months, performing the tasks necessary for a real mission to Mars including "entering" orbit and "landing" on Mars.  Conditions were controlled exactly as if they were actually travelling and they completed experiments on the problems brought about by long space missions.  Maybe this will open up opportunities for an actual space mission to Mars after studying the physiological and psychological effects of longterm isolation.  Very cool.  Here is a compiled video diary of their time during the simulation:

2. A New Way to Look for Aliens
Avi Loeb and Edwin Turner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Princeton University, respectively have suggested a new way to look for extraterrestrial intelligence: doing it the same way we find civilisation on earth.  They intend to look for the lights from their cities.  These two operate on the assumption that life evolves in the light of the nearest star and that any intelligent life forms would have learned to make light and extend their days.  They would have to find a way to filter out the light from the star.  They suggest that one method of doing this is to look for bright areas in a dark phase of the planet's orbit (think of the dark side of the moon).  Unfortunately, this method would require far more powerful telescopes than we now have, but it's definitely a start.

3. Organic Molecule "Sweet Spots"
This isn't technically, astrophysics, however I think it still has a place in a post about life outside Earth.  Astrobiologists at Rensselaer (one of the reasons I didn't apply there was I couldn't spell it on the first try) have discovered areas of higher methanol concentration surrounding some, but not all, newly formed stars.  Methanol is apparently one of the precursors to more complex organic molecules which may give rise to life.  They call this a "sweet spot" of physical conditions that allow these organic molecules to form.  Even more interestingly, from studying concentrations in comets, they have determined that our solar system is painfully average in the methanol department.  In other words, we're not all that special and life still managed to appear on earth.  The implication here is there may be other solar systems out there with greater methanol concentrations that lend themselves more easily to the appearance of life than our own!


One Response to Is There Life On Maaaars?

  1. woooahhh, i had nooo idea about the isolation experiment! that's crazy! being an astronaut sounds really glamorous but there's no way i could do that. 6 people in a small space for 17 months! yikes!