Tag Archives: space

‘Did Mars Once Hold Life?’ Discovery Of Organic Molecules May Hold Vital Clues.

An exciting discovery by NASA’s Curiosity rover has strengthened the idea that Mars may have once been suitable for life. The chance finding of organic material in an ancient lake bed suggests Mars once held the foodstuffs necessary for life.

Although not conclusive, these findings add to the growing evidence for previous life on Mars, with seasonal methane and liquid water providing cause for excitement.  Mars is inhospitable for now, but may not have always been.

And with that, the tantalising hope that life may exist beyond earth.

mars life organic rover

Mars is considered a cold, dead world. But did life once flourish? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Curiosity’s Discovery Of Organic Molecules

The discovery of these ‘organic molecules’ asks many questions. We cannot tell exactly where they came from, perhaps remnants of long dead organisms, something crash landed from space or indeed simply ancient foodstuffs.

But what we can say is that these molecules, formed of carbon, oxygen and other elements fundamental to life as we know it, could very much  suggest something significant.  Whilst it is important to note that these structures can be created without life, life can’t exist without them.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life. ” – Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Directorate.

life organic simple mars

Life is a complex array of molecules and processes. But at its core, the foundational elements may coalesce with relative ease. Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

Food For Thought

Although direct evidence of life on Mar’s is yet to be discovered, if at all, these new findings tell us that the environment may have supported it. Biological creatures like we subsist  on organic compounds for energy, and this is consistent down the food chain.

There is little reason to thing extra-terrestrial life would be that different. In fact, many believe that the ingredients for simple life are abundant enough that finding alien organisms is almost a certainty. And the chances are that, on a fundamental level at least, we will all be built of the same stuff.

And with that, makes a strong case for a similar ecological energy source. Jennifer Eigenbrode, NASA biogeochemist says of the finding;

“It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there.”

earth life mars organic

All life as we know it evolved from the same ingredients. And these ingredients grow universally. Image courtesy of Flickr.

A New Direction In Ancient Footsteps

Although direct evidence of extra-terrestrial life eludes us, the chances are good. Although the paucity of interstellar craft and signals presents some concerning questions, it may be that life is abundant between the stars.

And you have  to look no further than your own back yard to find out why. It is likely made of common stuff.

Whilst we imagine aliens as, well, very alien, very basic life may be a natural inevitability. Current theories of the origins of life on earth centre around the unconscious replication of favourable molecules, building more complex structures over time.

Eventually, these would become us and everything else that breathes, grows and dies. And the more we learn, the more beautiful and interconnected it all becomes.

life organic mars

The size of our universe is beyond comprehension. But can we really say that it is ours? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Given the vast numbers at hand, i.e trillions of stars, innumerable planets and billions of years, chances are that Curiosity’s discovery may be just the first of a truly cosmic collection.

So what do you think, is there life out there? What does it mean for us? Let us know in the comments below.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

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Top 5 Incredible Discoveries In Space

pillars of creation top5 universe

The Universe is really, really big. And there is a lot out there. Whether you have an interest in astronomy or not, the very wonder of the Universe is, well, universal. From Interstellar’s black hole to the curious ‘Pillars Of Creation‘, there is no denying that space holds a certain beauty. And under that aesthetic, the very laws of physics not only explain the beauty, but add to it. So today, I am taking on you a whistle-stop tour through our Universe, showing you what I feel is the best of the best. So as Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says; ‘Come with me.’

Number 1: Cassiopeia A

top5 universe star supernova

Cassiopeia A. Image courtesy of Robert Sullivan

Cassiopeia A is what remains of a ‘supernova’ (an exploding star.) And its actually not that far away, at least in Universal terms. Situated about 11,000 lightyears away in our Milky Way. Not only is it an incredible sight, but also the strongest source of radio emissions beyond our solar system. These emissions are some of the many we receive every day, and others like them provide an  exciting avenue for detecting alien life.

Number 2: M101, The Pinwheel Galaxy

top5 galaxy supermassive black hole

The Pinwheel Galaxy. Image courtesy of Rob Sullivan.

The Pinwheel Galaxy is a spiral galaxy located in the Ursa Major constellation (the Big Bear.) At around 170,000 lightyears in diameter, it dwarfs our own Milky Way. And houses around 1 trillion stars. But unlike lots of galaxies, it seems to lack a central ‘supermassive black hole‘ at it’s centre. It’s mesmerising shape is a result of its rotation and gravity, as well as the influence of the gravity of other nearby Galaxies.

Number 3: The Pillars Of Creation

pillars of creation top5 universe

The Pillars of Creation. Image courtesy of Jack Jacowski

No list of Universal art would be complete without The Pillars of Creation. Found in the Eagle Nebula are part of a ”stellar nursery”, a huge expanse of material from which new stars are born. Our own sun was forged deep in the heart of a such a nursery. But the Pillars give us a glimpse back in time. The myriad colours represent elements present in space, such as red for sulphur  and green for hydrogen. But, like any nursery, they won’t be around forever. Eventually, cosmic winds will simply blow them apart.

Number 4: The V838 Monocerotis Halo

monocerotis halo event light

The Monocerotis Halo. Image courtesy of Maddox63.

This image captures the odd expansion and ‘echo’ of Monocerotis. The ‘halo’ itself is an artefact created by reflections of interstellar dust. The red focus is caused by the giant star itself.  During the event the star became 60,000 times more luminous than our sun. NASA followed by the phenomenon over January 2002, recording the expansion of the halo and sudden dimming of the star itself.

Number 5: Hercules A

space images top5

Hercules A. Image courtesy of Hubble Heritage

This interesting phenomenon shows two high energy plasma jets ejected by a supermassive black hole. These jets are usually a result of the high gravitational energy of a black hole, and the ring like structures outside the jets suggest that these are not the first. Hercules A is around 2.1 billion light years away. Not only do these jets provide a fascinating sight, but also tell us new things about radio waves emitted in deep space.

So thats it, a short jaunt through the Universe. But there is much more out there, so why not find your favourite and let us know? And as always, if you liked it, share it!

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr. Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates.If you liked this article and want to see more, check out Ben’s work with PORP.

 

 

 

 

Voices from the Distant Stars – The Story of a Pulsar

In space no one can hear you scream, or can they? Actually, we hear a lot from space.  We just need the right set of ears. And for a long time we have listened to the stars, and every once in a while, we hear something that might just be something special. A regular pattern that suggests an alien intelligence, or shadows on a sun suggesting a giant structure. Here are some of the great space oddities that have given us pause to reconsider our place in the Universe. One such ‘oddity’ is a Pulsar.

Voices of Little Green Men

In 1967, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell was astonished to observe regular radio pulses of 1.33 seconds in the Vulpecula constellation. The Cambridge researchers were so taken with the idea that this was some sort of interstellar beacon, a voice from distant stars, that they nicknamed the mysterious source LGM-1; “little green men 1”. In fact, the radio bursts they were receiving came from the first pulsar which was given the much more cumbersome designation ‘PSR B1919+21’. So what is a pulsar, and why do they sound like aliens?

Pulsars are neutron stars, superdense structures which may only be a few miles in diameter but pack enough mass to rival our own sun. As a result of this amount of matter existing in such a compact space, some pretty strange things start to happen. For a start, the entire star is rapidly spinning (sometimes at hundreds of times per second). This combined with its two beams of energy produces its pulse as the spinning beams move in and out of view, like a lighthouse. And we see this information as regular ‘pulses’, enough to trick us into thinking a being is looking to talk to us. But how did we discover them?

Pulsars were discovered through interplanetary scintillation (IPS), a technique in radio astronomy, which was implemented in the sixties to scan the skies for quasars: large interstellar objects emitting vast amounts of energy across a variety of frequencies. As these signals pass through space, they encounter obstacles and diffract. This effect produces a characteristic twinkle, or scintillation which can be analysed and reveal the position of such objects as pulsars. The discovery would lead to the first Nobel Prize in physics to be given to an astronomer. So even though we didn’t find aliens, we learned a lot.

What we know about Pulsars

We now understand that neutron stars are the finished product of dead stars, when all that’s left has burnt out. The end of a star is a hostile environment; these neutron stars are incredibly hot, incredibly radioactive and as I said before, they are incredibly dense. The surface would be hard and smooth, though it is unlikely that any of us would be able to set foot on one. As the dying star collapses, its rotational speed increases. Imagine that you’re spinning on an office chair and you draw in your arms and legs. You speed up, so would the pulsar. The pulses which these star remnants emit are how we’ve discovered most neutron stars.

Since the initial discovery, we’ve found over two thousand pulsars. Merely collecting them isn’t their sole reason of interest. Recently we’ve been able to confirm the existence of another type of cosmic phenomenon; gravitational waves. As the universe expands, it does not does so uniformly. Ripples in space occur as part of this hodgepodge process as well as due to galaxies colliding. As these colossal clusters approach each other, the black holes in the centre release gravitational waves. Pulsars play a part in this, due to their regularity, which is altered by the distortion of merging black holes.

The Future of Pulsars

Pulsars were originally mistaken as the beacons or lighthouses of little green men. This is the reputation which history has afforded them, though that’s not to rule out their being put to a similar use in the future. Although pulsar signals do eventually slow down as they lose spin, this takes a long time and they are relatively stable points. Future deep space travellers will have the potential to navigate via triangulation of the pulsars in 3-D space.

Present space travellers are even able to do this. In 1972, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft was launched to explore Jupiter and beyond. In 1983 it left the solar system to enter deep space. Finally, in 2003 we lost its signal. As well as numerous scientific instruments on board, the spacecraft carried an engraving depicting humans, earth and the solar system. The latter featured as a sort of map, showing its location between the relative periods of 14 pulsars to enable any visitors from beyond the stars to say hello. Alongside the Arecibo message, the Pioneer engraving will give any civilisations out there a clue that there is something else trying to make contact.

We have come full circle, as many pulsars do. From being mistaken for communications beyond the stars, we have come to use them as our own messages to what might be out there. Pulsars are certainly one of most bizarre interstellar objects which we’ve detected. Certainly, we have a lot to learn from their structure and exotic matter. In the matter of aliens versus pulsars, perhaps the truth is stranger than fiction.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr George Aitch and Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of their affiliates. Images courtesy of flickr.

Sources

  1. Burnell, S. Jocelyn Bell “Little Green Men, White Dwarfs or Pulsars?” Cosmic Search Magazine. (1977)
  2. https://www.space.com/32661-pulsars.html
  3. https://drbenjanaway.com/2018/03/18/are-we-alone-in-the-universe/
  4. https://phys.org/news/2017-10-neutron-stars.html
  5. http://web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/physics/high_schools/2013/Pulsars/pulsars02.html
  6. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/nasa-continues-to-study-pulsars-50-years-after-their-chance-discovery/
  7. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/listening-for-gravitational-waves-using-pulsars

Is The Cosmos Truly Empty? Are We All There Is? Inside; We Answer Humanity’s Most Uncomfortable Question.

The Universe is much more vast than we can imagine. It has been expanding for over 13.8 billion years,  and some of the very light we observe in the night sky is older than earth itself. And with simple life easy to assemble, and the vast numbers of planets out there, we are forced to wonder. Are we alone? And if not, where is everybody? Well the answer is fascinating, and in some cases, quite terrifying indeed.

“I’m sure the universe is full of intelligent life. It’s just been too intelligent to come here.” – Arthur C. Clarke, Futurist and Writer.

The Fermi Paradox and Kardashev Civilisations

‘In space, no one can hear you scream’ – Alien, 1979

The paradox posed by the apparent absence of intelligent life is called ‘The Fermi Paradox‘. According to the ‘Drake Equation‘, a mathematical prediction of the number of intelligences out there, there should be at least 100,000 species with advanced civilisations.

To speak of ‘Advanced’ civilisations we must first define them. The Kardashev Scale helps us to understand civilisations by their level of energy use. To summarise it quickly, the higher the number, the more advanced the technology and greater the chance the species can travel across the Universe:

  • Type 0: Fails to completely harness power of local planet (us!)
  • Type 1: Harnesses power of local planet (interplanetary species.)
  • Type 2: Harnesses power of local star (interstellar species.)
  • Type 3: Harnesses power of resident galaxy (intergalactic species.)

Alongside the energy use and travel, each jump up the ladder is presented with new challenges. And part of this challenge is why we may not see life out there. With earth relatively young (4.5 billion years or so old,) and the universe so vast, some species may have billions of years head start. So why don’t we see intergalactic fleets? Where is the hidden message from the stars?

We approach the great filters.

Great Filters Of Life

“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” – Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars IV

A ‘Great Filter‘ is a concept designed to explain the paucity of life in the Universe. It is a barrier to a species survival, and its nature is variable dependent on time. And depending on where in the species’ life it appears, it could easily explain our cosmic quandary. And if its happens late, offers a stark warning.

If a filter is early, say, at the transition from single celled to multicellular life, then we have done very well. We have overcome the major universal hurdle. But it also means that intelligent and complex life is exceedingly rare, and conversely single celled life could be everywhere. And given the distance of our nearest stars, and the time period we have been looking, chances are that us spotting another species is pretty much zero.

They are either very far away and their signals or ships have not reached us yet (consider that even at light-speed our nearest star is 10,000 years away,) or something else has claimed them in the mean time. They could have existed 10 billion years ago, and simply died out in a quiet corner far away.

The second most discussed time for a great filter is the transition from a type 0 to type 1 civilisation. At this time a species is likely playing with very dangerous energies, but still subject to internal warfare, religious zealotry and nationalism. It may very well be that no one ever gets this far, as they blow themselves up before they can. Who knows how many potential galaxy faring species have been wiped out in their own nuclear war?

I mean look at us, the leader of the free world is goading a nuclear power with Tweets.

Lost In Transition

“Can there be any question that the human is the least harmonious beast in the forest and the creature most toxic to the nest?”  – Randy Thornhorn, Author.

For us as humans, this is quite concerning. If the great filter is placed here, and the universe is silent, then our chances are pretty low. If in the whole of space time, given even the most restrictive metrics, we hear nothing, then it means most species cannot survive becoming a Type 1 civilisation. We assume here that the transition between 1-2, or 2-3, is easier as war is less likely. But yet, we see nothing to reassure ourselves.

It says something quite profound about intelligence. If life cannot readily pass this transition, it means that intelligence hits a wall. The intraspecies dynamics are too complicated to allow for general progress. The stupid wins out. Its not hard to imagine a far off civilisation annihilating itself over resources, religion or power struggles.

We are judgemental, prone to violence, capricious and short-sighted. If we imagine any of these species to behave like us, it tells a sad story.

But Have Hope

The Great filter only talks about survival, not intent and behaviour. The Universe could be teeming with intelligent life, but we haven’t seen it yet. And there could be good reasons for that.

Perhaps ‘they’ are already here, but we cannot see them. This could be because we simply don’t know what we are looking for. Radio waves are pretty simple, and an advanced species may have moved onto something more reliable. Our skies could be filled with alien messages, ranging from the profound to intergalactic cable, and we would have no idea.

They may not want to see us. Maybe they will only talk with Type 1+ civilisations, because anything less is a waste of time or dangerous. We wouldn’t extend a hand to a lion, so why would they consider us any better? We haven’t proved we can be peaceful even amongst ourselves.  An alien species would consider this option very seriously.

Or perhaps it simply isn’t worth it. Travelling interstellar distances takes generations of time and is likely very costly, and what can we offer? New technology, unlikely? Resources? Its probably cheaper to mine local asteroids. Philosophy, art, music? Perhaps, but what intergalactic government will commission an art research grant tantamount to a million year field trip?

Are We Alone?

‘The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” – Carl Sagan, Contact

Given what we know about the Universe, it seems very unlikely. Simple molecular life is probably not uncommon, but the absence of intelligent life is less reassuring. We may indeed be heading toward a fiery fate, or perhaps will be the first interstellar species out there. One day we might bypass Voyager 1 and say ‘Hello’ to ET first hand (or claw,) but for now it doesn’t seem too likely.

But don’t take it too hard. The Universe is grand, time long and life likely easy. There may be something out there, asking just the same questions. And one day, with a smidge of luck, we can answer those questions for them. Unless we decide to blow them up.

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  • Learn more about great filters in this handy video by Kurzgesagt

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Robert Sullivan

Sources

  • http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/03/21/age_of_the_universe_planck_results_show_universe_is_13_82_billion_years.html
  • https://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html
  • https://futurism.com/the-kardashev-scale-type-i-ii-iii-iv-v-civilization/
  • https://www.space.com/24854-how-old-is-earth.html
  • http://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/greatfilter.html

The above sources are true as of 18/3/17. If you would like to discredit them, feel free. It brings us closer to the truth, and I can always cry about it later.

 

Ever Wondered Who You Are? Stop Waiting And Find Out.

You are a human. One of billions alive today, and one of many more that have passed on. You are built of biological tissues that work harmoniously to stay alive, requiring energy to remain altogether, reproduce and, eventually, die. Given the apparent silence of the Universe (where are all the aliens?!) our type of ‘complex life’ seems very rare indeed. But who are you? Where did you come from? And where the hell is everyone else?

Genesis

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – Genesis 1, The Holy Bible (New International Version.)

Whether you believe in God or not, the Universe had a beginning (or atleast a defined start to its current iteration.) Big Bang or Simulation, we are 13.8 billion years (or a few thousand if you are religious,) into its life. The Earth came into being around 4.5 billion years ago, likely due to the accumulation of interstellar particles under gravity. And this seems common, in the known universe planets number in the many trillions.

From this perspective, we are not that special. There are trillions of planets in a huge Universe (possibly one of many.) But, there is something that sets us apart (clue, its you.)

Molecules And Man

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is’ – Albert Camus, Novelist, Playwright and Essayist

Over our relatively short stage-time (a tiny fraction of what the Universe will likely live before becoming an entropic, cold wasteland,) Earth has been home to something truly spectacular. Life. Whether it be the pet project of a deity (which Science would lead you to disregard,) or something to do with molecular replication, you cannot deny that it is special. Why? Because we haven’t seen it anywhere else (yet!)

Current theories propose that certain molecular configurations of highly reactive atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen,) began to replicate due to their increased stability and preferential ability to induce change in free atoms floating near by. If you have studied biology, its a little like the ‘induced‘ reaction of enzymes. But on a simple level, becoming more complicated over time.

‘We are all survival machines, but ‘we’ does not mean just people’ – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Chances are that this type of life is fairly common, as given the large numbers of planets out there, even with a tiny fraction of chance, some would have created the same tiny ‘creatures’ (if you will.) It may very well be that we spot such simple life on Saturn’s moon of Titan, or deep in Martian rock (and some suggest we already have!)

But when did these collections of molecules become more complex? And how? The symbiotic theory suggests that large molecules engulfed smaller to create the first eukaryotes (i.e. multicellular organisms,) which then coalesced to create those with different systems. These were ‘biological’, and relied on interactions between different parts to stay ‘alive’.

Evolution, the scientific theory that attempts to explain life, makes two strong points:

  1. Individual variation in a species will occur by chance (i.e when our genes replicate, they make mistakes, giving a different appearance, behaviour or some other trait.)
  2. If this individual variation is ‘adaptive’, i.e it means it will benefit the individual and species overall, it will likely become predominant in the species (sounds a bit like the molecules right?)

TLDR: Humans are just the current species specific iteration of a long chain or organisms. Cue the book burning.

Something Special (?)

Is mankind alone in the universe? Or are there somewhere other intelligent beings looking up into their night sky from very different worlds and asking the same kind of question? – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist, Turtle-Neck Enthusiast.

So likelihood is we are the end result of endless generations of molecules, subject to evolutionary pressures and bound by the physical laws of the universe, slowly becoming more and more like us (and other creatures.) But this seems entirely natural, and almost inevitable.  But we don’t see it everywhere in the universe, and this is called the Fermi Paradox.

Actually, The Drake equation suggests that given even restrictive rules, there should be at least 100,000 to  15 million civilizations out there. Even with modifications, we should still see thousands.

SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,) is a large array of radar dishes scanning the cosmos. It is pointed toward areas of interest, looking for radio waves from far-flung civilisations. These scientists look for certain signals, such as familiar universal numbers, primes, repeating patterns or something else irregular.) So far, aside from the WOW signal, nothing particularly special has turned up.

We seem to be alone.

But are we really? The Universe is very old, and the laws governing what we understand life needs aren’t very forgiving. We need a certain gravity, heat, energy and abundancy of atoms, time and space. The chances are that even with this caveat, life is out there. But we may never see it, and there are reasons why (stay tuned.)

Who Are You?

For now, when you ask yourself who you are, muse on our shared history. Don’t worry so much about social labels, age or race. If you dare, ignore species altogether. The answer is very humbling and can be expressed in one sentence.

You are a biomass of self-believing consciousness, built from familiar atoms under restrictive universal laws, tuned by selective environmental pressures, and just a small part of something much beyond your comprehension.

And that, for me at least, is pretty freeing.

What’s Next?

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  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
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  • Learn more about our history by reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything.’ (Seriously, do it!)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Felix Jody Kirnawan

Sources

  • https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=genesis+1&version=NIV
  • https://www.space.com/25126-big-bang-theory.html
  • https://www.space.com/24054-how-old-is-the-universe.html
  • https://www.space.com/32543-universe-a-simulation-asimov-debate.html
  • https://www.universetoday.com/75805/how-old-is-the-earth/
  • www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3455512/Earth-really-special-None-700-million-trillion-planets-known-universe-similar-study-finds.html
  • https://www.spaceanswers.com/deep-space/what-is-heat-death/
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Albert-Camus
  • https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/what-is-gravity/en/
  • https://study.com/academy/lesson/induced-fit-enzyme-model-definition-theory-quiz.html
  • https://www.space.com/25219-drake-equation.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation
  • https://www.britannica.com/science/evolution-scientific-theory
  • https://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html
  • https://uk.news.yahoo.com/mars-fossils-curiosity-rover-team-questions-report-potential-120314046.html
  • https://www.seti.org/
  • https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140316-carl-sagan-science-galaxies-space/

The sources above are true as of 17/3/18. Feel free to discredit them, it only brings us closer to the truth. My feelings won’t be hurt.

 

 

 

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