Squadrons of Planet Hunters Could Find Life

The Hubble Space Telescope demonstrated that the best viewing is outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Over the years, a series of new telescopes have been lofted into space, and expanded this view into other wavelengths: Spitzer, Chandra, Compton, etc. Next up is the James Webb Space Telescope, with a mirror 6 times larger than Hubble, due for launch in 2013. But these observatories will pale in comparison when squadrons of space telescopes reach orbit. Both NASA and ESA are working on next generation space-based interferometers. They could answer one of the most fundamental questions of science: is there other life in the Universe?
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Desert Varnish Might Be a Clue for Life on Mars

Rocks in the desert can form a shiny coating known to geologists as desert varnish. This varnish forms over thousands of years, and can maintain a record of the life around it by binding DNA, amino acids, and other organic compounds into a silica glaze. Geologists from Imperial College in London think that future rovers should be equipped with instruments that can analyze Martian rocks for the presence of past life in this desert varnish.
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Lichen Can Survive in Space

Rhizocarpon geographicum, species of lichen. Image credit: ESA. Click to enlarge.
One of the main focuses in the search for living organisms on other planets and the possibilities for transfer of life between planets currently centres on bacteria, due to the organisms simplicity and the possibility of it surviving an interplanetary journey exposed to the harsh space environment.

This focus may develop to encompass more advanced organisms following the results of an ESA experiment on the recent Foton-M2 mission where it was discovered that lichens are very adept at surviving in open space.

Lichens are not actually single organisms but an association of millions of algal cells, which cooperate in the process of photosynthesis and are held in a fungal mesh. The algal cells and the fungus have a symbiotic relationship, with the algal cells providing the fungus with food and the fungus providing the alga with a suitable living environment for growth. Lichens are well known extremophiles, being able to survive the harshest environments on Earth. The most striking element of the finding is the complexity of this organism: it is multicellular, it is macroscopic and it is a eukaryote, meaning that on the evolutionary scale it is a much more modern organism than bacteria. In fact lichens can be considered as very simple ecosystems.

The experiment which took place during the Foton mission was called ‘Lichens’ and was one of the exobiology experiments that was located in the ESA Biopan facility. This exposure facility was located on the outer shell of the Foton return module and, once at the correct orbital altitude, opened to exposure the samples inside to open space, i.e. exposed to vacuum, wide fluctuations of temperature, the complete spectrum of solar UV light and bombarded with cosmic radiation. During the Foton-M2 mission, which was launched into low-Earth orbit on 31 May 2005, the lichens, which came from two different species (Rhizocarpon geographicum and Xanthoria elegans) were exposed for a total 14.6 days before being returned to Earth. At the conclusion of the mission the lid of Biopan was closed to protect the lichens from the conditions of reentry. The Biopan was thereafter transported back to ESA ‘s research facility, ESTEC, in Noordwijk, the Netherlands to be opened.

The results of the experiment were presented by one of the experiment team members, Dr. Rosa de la Torre from the Spanish Aerospace Research Establishment (INTA) in Madrid, at a post-flight review in October at ESTEC. Initial conclusions of the experiment, which is under the scientific leadership of Prof. Leopoldo Sancho from the Complutense University of Madrid, indicate that lichens have the capacity to resist full exposure to the harsh space conditions, especially high levels of UV radiation. Analysis post flight showed a full rate of survival and an unchanged ability for photosynthesis.

This experiment opens up many possibilities for future research into the possibility of transfer of life between planets. Follow up experiments could focus on questions such as to what extent lichen, if transported by a meteorite, can survive the reentry conditions into Earth’s atmosphere, i.e. what degree of shielding would be needed for lichen samples to survive? The outcome of this Biopan experiment also suggests that lichens might survive at the surface of Mars. Follow-up experiments on ground and in space are bound to provide further answers to these intriguing astrobiological questions.

Original Source: ESO News Release

Let’s Find Life

Artist illustration of the Terrestrial Planet Finder. Image credit: NASA/JPL. Click to enlarge.
Find life!

If it were up to me; if I were running NASA, or the ESA, or the plucky Canadian Space Agency, I’d narrow my focus like a laser beam to answer this fundamental question: are we alone in the Universe?

Find life on Mars
At the time that I’m writing this rant, there are two robotic rovers crawling around the surface of Mars searching for evidence that water once existed on Mars. The reasoning is that if Mars was wet for a long period of time, it would have given life an opportunity to get a foothold.

Well, the rovers have done it. Both Spirit and Opportunity have turned up evidence that Mars was warm and wet, probably for millions of years. And although there were supposed last only three months, they’re still going strong after 18 months! Their solar panels are being regularly cleaned by gusts of wind, and it’s not unreasonable to expect many more months of service.

But there’s a problem. The rovers are colour blind. They can analyze rocks, and search for past evidence of water, but they’re unable to see evidence of life. No problem, new equipment is being developed back here on Earth that would give future rovers the ability to analyze soil for the telltale traces of life. Other detectors will be able to sniff the air for a whiff of methane gas; another possible byproduct of life.

Those rovers are so successful, engineers should put future developments on hold and just start mass producing them. Build dozens and equip them with the latest and greatest instruments and turn them loose on the surface of Mars. By mass producing the same rover chassis, engineers should be able to bring the costs down significantly. Keep improving the design, but why reinvent the wheel?

If we could have 20+ rovers on the surface of Mars, sampling soil, sniffing air, and testing ice, from equator to pole, it would substantially improve our chances of finding life. It’s no guarantee, of course, but it would sure give us our best shot to find it. And if you do find life, you could send a second generation of rovers to analyze the life in great detail and learn whether we share a distant ancestor; some adventurous microbe that jumped planets.

The implications of finding life on Mars are staggering; it could mean that life is as pervasive in the Solar System as it is here on Earth. But it might also mean that all life in the Solar System is related, as there’s growing evidence that life can travel back and forth between planets on meteorites.

So, even if we find life on Mars, I think the discovery would be bittersweet. Maybe our Solar System is filled with life, but could the rest of the Universe be lifeless?

Find Life in Other Star Systems
I think it’s fair to say that the Hubble Space Telescope is one of the most productive and important science instruments ever created. It has fundamentally changed our view of the Universe we live in. It helped find extrasolar planets and discovered the mysterious dark energy which is accelerating the Universe.

But to find life on other worlds, we need more specialized tools. One of these is the Terrestrial Planet Finder, which is currently scheduled for launch in 2012-2015. If everything goes as planned, this amazingly sensitive space telescope will be finding Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars within a decade. Furthermore, it’ll be so powerful, it can analyze the atmosphere of these planets and see if any of them have large quantities of oxygen.

That’s critical. We have oxygen in our atmosphere because hardworking microbes and plants have been producing it for millions of years. Oxygen is so reactive, it really can’t exist in the atmosphere unless there’s a constant source refreshing it. So, if you find oxygen, you’ve found life.

So imagine, in just a decade from now, scientists will be able start analyzing nearby stars and turning up planets with biospheres. You could look up in the sky and start pointing out stars to your friends. “Life… life… life.”

Now wouldn’t that be a groundbreaking discovery? Are we alone in the Universe? We might be able to say, “nope, there’s life everywhere.”

I think the Terrestrial Planet Finder is going to be such a fundamental instrument, it’ll become a bottleneck. Scientists will be lined up for 20 years waiting for a shot to use it. We should build more than one. Once again, we should consider “mass producing” them and analyze many planets at once. Bring down the costs, and give scientists a chance to build up a census of the life surrounding us.

But are we talking about intelligent life or slime mold? We won’t really know. (Well, astronomers might figure out how to detect chloroflourocarbons and guess that a planet is in the golden age of air conditioning.)

Until we actually find intelligent life out there, we’re still going to feel a little lonely.

Find Intelligent Life in the Universe
If you’ve seen Contact, you’ll remember Jodie Foster’s character was searching the heavens with a powerful radio telescope, hoping to hear communications from a distant civilization.

This technology exists. For more than 20 years, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers have been listening to various stars and precise frequencies, hoping to hear a message from afar. The problem is that our Milky Way is an enormous place, with quadrillions of stars. And the number of frequencies are so vast, that it’ll take a long time to search the sky comprehensively.

Technology is improving, and SETI researchers are now able to scan many stars quickly in many frequencies, but it’s still a fraction of the total sky. The computing power to analyze these data is tremendous, but millions of people around the world have installed [email protected] on their personal computers to lend a hand.

Unlike the Mars rovers and various planet finding missions, SETI gets very little public funding. And this is a tragedy. In a single stroke, SETI could discover intelligent life in the Universe, and maybe even help us communicate back. I’d like to watch educational television broadcast by a civilization millions of years more advanced than us.

We need to develop a mega project to scan the entire sky at all the likely frequencies, and even search optical wavelengths too – in case aliens are using lasers to communicate with us.

Find Life: on Mars, on other planets, across the Milky Way.
We live in an amazing time in human history. We’ve wondered about our place in the Universe for thousands of years, and now we’re within arms’ reach of finding the answers. Who knows? Maybe in just a few decades we could have some definitive answers.

And if we don’t find life on Mars, orbiting other stars, or communicating to us across the vast distances of the Milky Way, it’ll tell us something else.

Something just as important.

Maybe life here on Earth is more precious than we thought. We should take better care of the planet we live on, and the creatures we share it with – it might be unique in the Universe.

Let’s start cranking out those rovers, planet finding telescopes and radio dishes and get an answer. (And if I had to choose, I’d probably advocate putting other stuff on hold while we looked).

Written by Fraser Cain

Building Life from Star-Stuff

Supernova Remnant N 63A. Image credit: Hubble Click to enlarge
Life on Earth was made possible by the death of stars. Atoms like carbon and oxygen were expelled in the last few dying gasps of stars after their final supplies of hydrogen fuel were used up.

How this star-stuff came together to form life is still a mystery, but scientists know that certain atomic combinations were necessary. Water – two hydrogen atoms linked to one oxygen atom -was vital to the development of life on Earth, and so NASA missions now search for water on other worlds in the hopes of finding life elsewhere. Organic molecules built mostly of carbon atoms are also thought to be important, since all life on Earth is carbon-based.

The most popular theories of the origin of life say the necessary chemistry occurred at hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor or in some sunlit shallow pool. However, discoveries in the past few years have shown that many of the basic materials for life form in the cold depths of space, where life as we know it is not possible.

After dying stars belch out carbon, some of the carbon atoms combine with hydrogen to form polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs — a kind of carbon soot similar to the scorched portions of burnt toast — are the most abundant organic compounds in space, and a primary ingredient of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. Although PAHs aren’t found in living cells, they can be converted into quinones, molecules that are involved in cellular energy processes. For instance, quinones play an essential role in photosynthesis, helping plants turn light into chemical energy.

The transformation of PAHs occurs in interstellar clouds of ice and dust. After floating through space, PAH soot eventually condenses into these “dense molecular clouds.” The material in these clouds blocks out some but not all of the harsh radiation of space. The radiation that does filter through modifies the PAHs and other material in the clouds.

Infrared and radio telescope observations of the clouds have detected the PAHs, as well as fatty acids, simple sugars, faint amounts of the amino acid glycine, and over 100 other molecules, including water, carbon monoxide, ammonia, formaldehyde, and hydrogen cyanide.

The clouds have never been sampled directly — they’re too far away — so to confirm what is occurring chemically in the clouds, a research team led by Max Bernstein and Scott Sandford at the Astrochemistry Laboratory at NASA’s Ames Research Center set up experiments to mimic the cloud conditions.

In one experiment, a PAH/water mixture is vapor-deposited onto salt and then bombarded with ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This allows the researchers to observe how the basic PAH skeleton turns into quinones. Irradiating a frozen mixture of water, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and methanol (a precursor chemical to formaldehyde) generates the amino acids glycine, alanine and serine — the three most abundant amino acids in living systems.

Scientists have created primitive organic cell-like structures, or vesicles.

Because UV is not the only type of radiation in space, the researchers also have used a Van de Graaff generator to bombard the PAHs with mega-electron volt (MeV) protons, which have similar energies to cosmic rays. The MeV results for the PAHs were similar although not identical to the UV bombardment. A MeV study for the amino acids has not yet been conducted.

These experiments suggest that UV and other forms of radiation provide the energy needed to break apart chemical bonds in the low temperatures and pressures of the dense clouds. Because the atoms are still locked in ice, the molecules don’t fly apart, but instead recombine into more complex structures.

In another experiment led by Jason Dworkin, a frozen mixture of water, methanol, ammonia and carbon monoxide was subjected to UV radiation. This combination yielded organic material that formed bubbles when immersed in water. These bubbles are reminiscent of cell membranes that enclose and concentrate the chemistry of life, separating it from the outside world.

The bubbles produced in this experiment were between 10 to 40 micrometers, or about the size of red blood cells. Remarkably, the bubbles fluoresced, or glowed, when exposed to UV light. Absorbing UV and converting it into visible light in this way could provide energy to a primitive cell. If such bubbles played a role in the origin of life, the fluorescence could have been a precursor to photosynthesis.

Fluorescence also could act as sunscreen, diffusing any damage that otherwise would be inflicted by UV radiation. Such a protective function would have been vital for life on the early Earth, since the ozone layer, which blocks out the sun’s most destructive UV rays, did not form until after photosynthetic life began to produce oxygen.

From space clouds to the seeds of life

Dense molecular clouds in space eventually gravitationally collapse to form new stars. Some of the leftover dust later clumps together to form asteroids and comets, and some of these asteroids clump together to form planetary cores. On our planet, life then arose from whatever basic materials were at hand.

The large molecules necessary to build living cells are:

* Proteins
* Carbohydrates (sugars)
* Lipids (fats)
* Nucleic acids

Meteorites have been found to contain amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, fatty acids (the building blocks of lipids), and nucleic acid bases. The Murchison meteorite, for instance, contains chains of fatty acids, various types of sugars, all five nucleic acid bases, and more than 70 different amino acids (life uses 20 amino acids, only six of which are in the Murchison meteorite).

Because such carbonaceous meteorites are generally uniform in composition, they are thought to be representative of the initial dust cloud from which the sun and solar system were born. So it seems that nearly everything needed for life was available at the beginning, and meteorites and comets then make fresh deliveries of these materials to the planets over time.

If this is true, and if molecular dust clouds are chemically similar throughout the galaxy, then the ingredients for life should be widespread.

The downside of the abiotic production of the ingredients for life is that none of them can be used as “biomarkers,” indicators that life exists in a particular environment.

Max Bernstein points to the Alan Hills meteorite 84001 as an example of biomarkers that didn’t provide proof of life. In 1996, Dave McKay of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and his colleagues announced there were four possible biomarkers within this martian meteorite. ALH84001 had carbon globules containing PAHs, a mineral distribution suggestive of biological chemistry, magnetite crystals resembling those produced by bacteria, and bacteria-like shapes. While each alone was not thought to be evidence for life, the four in conjunction seemed compelling.

After the McKay announcement, subsequent studies found that each of these so-called biomarkers also could be produced by non-living means. Most scientists therefore are now inclined to believe that the meteorite does not contain fossilized alien life.

“As soon as they had the result, people went gunning for them because that’s the way it works,” says Bernstein. “Our chances of not making an error when we come up with a biomarker on Mars or on Europa will be much better if we’ve already done the equivalent of what those guys did after McKay, et al., published their article.”

Bernstein says that by simulating conditions on other planets, scientists can figure out what should be happening there chemically and geologically. Then, when we visit a planet, we can see how closely reality matches the predictions. If there’s anything on the planet that we didn’t expect to find, that could be an indication that life processes have altered the picture.

“What you have on Mars or on Europa is material that’s been delivered,” says Bernstein. “Plus, you have whatever has formed subsequently from whatever conditions are present. So (to look for life), you need to look at the molecules that are there, and keep in mind the chemistry that may have happened over time.”

Bernstein thinks chirality, or a molecule’s “handedness,” could be a biomarker on other worlds. Biological molecules often come in two forms that, while chemically identical, have opposite shapes: a “left-handed” one, and its mirror image, a “right-handed” one. A molecule’s handedness is due to how the atoms bond. While handedness is evenly dispersed throughout nature, in most cases living systems on Earth have left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. If molecules on other planets show a different preference in handedness, says Bernstein, that could be an indication of alien life.

“If you went to Mars or Europa and you saw a bias the same as ours, with sugars or amino acids having our chirality, then people would simply suspect it was contamination,” says Bernstein. “But if you saw an amino acid with a bias towards the right, or if you saw a sugar that had a bias towards the left — in other words, not our form — that would be really compelling.”

However, Bernstein notes that the chiral forms found in meteorites reflect what is seen on Earth: meteorites contain left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. If meteorites represent the template for life on Earth, then life elsewhere in the solar system also may reflect that same bias in handedness. Thus, something more than chirality may be needed for proof of life. Bernstein says that finding chains of molecules, “such as a couple of amino acids linked together,” also could be evidence for life, “because in meteorites we tend to just see single molecules.”

Original Source: NASA Astrobiology

Proof of Life?

Mars south polar cap. Image credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS Click to enlarge
Pamela Conrad, an astrobiologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has traveled to the ends of the Earth to study life. Conrad recently appeared in James Cameron’s 3-D documentary “Aliens of the Deep,” where she and several other scientists investigated strange creatures that inhabit the ocean floor.

On June 16, 2005, Conrad gave a lecture called, “A Bipolar Year: What We Can Learn About Looking for Life on Other Planets By Working in Cold Deserts.”

In part 2 of this edited transcript, Conrad describes how her work in cold deserts could aid the search for alien life.

“If we were to find life on Mars, and that life lived in the rocks, how would we study it? You can’t answer that question unless you first do some experiments on Earth. And that’s what we’re doing in the Arctic and in the Antarctic.

In the Arctic we looked at a volcano about a 150 to 200 thousand years old, made of weathered basalt. It’s very interesting weathered basalt, because it contains minerals that look very much like some of the unexplainable minerals in the controversial martian meteorite that was described to have fossilized life in it.

In the Arctic site that we went to — Svalbard, Norway — there are polar bears. So when you go to the Arctic, you have to have some training in shooting. They don’t want you to kill polar bears, but they want you to be able to do so if he’s about to kill you. So we started our expedition to the Arctic with a half-day of gun training. It was fun shooting at paper targets, but I don’t know what I’d do if I were confronted with a polar bear looking at me with dinner in his eyes.

There are no polar bears in the Antarctic, but the sea life is abundant and diverse. At McMurdo Base, there are penguins, there are birds called skua, there are a couple of different types of seals. As you go farther away from the base by the shore, you get to places that are desolate. We investigated a place in the McMurdo Dry Valleys called Battleship Promontory. The rocks there are sandstone, and they were originally deposited underwater. Inside these rocks, thriving layered communities of microbes make their existence. They freeze solid during the winter and come back to life during the summer. Of course, the summer at its most exuberant heat wave only gets to be about 10 degrees Centigrade.

NASA’s strategy for looking for life is to first look around quickly, and process a lot of information. When you get to the interesting stuff, you might take a longer amount of time, and do it more carefully with higher resolution. You wouldn’t want to do something really destructive first, because you might destroy the thing you’re trying to study. You want to be as minimally invasive as possible. Some techniques are very invasive: taking a hammer and whacking on a rock and breaking it into pieces certainly makes you unable to look at the basic overall structure, the geomorphology, of that rock. So when you’re looking for life in rock, if you’re trying to be non-destructive, you can’t crack open the rock and look inside. So there has to be some kind of clue of life on the surface of the rock.

Porphyrins are a ubiquitous class of naturally occurring compounds with many important biological representatives including hemes, chlorophylls, and several others. Life anywhere is going to have some sort of electron transport or energy harnessing system. The common ones on Earth are based on porphyrins, which have very specific shapes.

We would like to bring samples back from places like Mars, but right now we don’t know how to do that. In the future, we will do that, but then it would be a very long experiment. We have to develop the technology to do it, we have to get to Mars safely, we have to get the samples, and we have to safely get it back. That’s a complex problem.

Eventually, there will be human exploration. I want to go to every cool place I can, but I don’t think I’ll go to Mars anytime soon. But there are a lot of people who want to go to other planets, and as we listen to the different strategies and paths that NASA takes, I’m sure that that will happen in time. Right now, I’m focussing on things that might prepare us for the type of solar system exploration that we’re doing right now: sending out a spacecraft, landing it, and doing an experiment.

So my team is developing strategies for life detection, using methods that are non-destructive and quick. We survey the landscape with a minimally invasive tool, we look for the contrast in the chemistry of the rock and the chemistry of organisms that might be on or in the rock. We do it in cold deserts because cold deserts are analogous to the kind of environment we find on Mars. Mars is much drier and much colder, but that’s about as close as we can get here.

My group has been working with an optical technique. I like to describe it as the black light you can buy at PetCo, where you shine the light on the carpet to look for dog or cat pee. Only ours is a little bit higher tech and more specific than that, because there isn’t any dog or cat pee in the areas where we go. Our technique is called “laser-induced native fluorescence.” You take a very short wavelength of light – an invisible wavelength deep into the ultraviolet – and you illuminate a spot. If that spot has organic molecules, that spot glows. And the color of the glow tells you something about what kind of molecule it is, how big it is, how complicated it is. And it’s really cool because it’s fast – you can do this in 50 microseconds. Even though ultraviolet light can be damaging, we have a very short blast. So this is a very minimally invasive technique, because it doesn’t harm living things. The microbes that we’ve detected using this method don’t die.

The machine is about the size of a shoebox, and you can take it anywhere you want to immediately tell where you have life and where you don’t.

We’ve used this tool in the Arctic, sticking it into holes to determine whether or not certain minerals have any organic molecules associated with them – the specific organic molecules that might be associated with the presence of microbes. That tells us whether to grab any rocks and take them back to the lab to look for organisms. We’ve also used the tool on a manipulator arm of a deep-sea submersible and detected organic molecules coming out of hydrothermal vents on the sea floor.

In Antarctica, the organisms live in a certain type of rock that has a lot of pore space to hold water. That means they’re better able to maintain hydration. Temperatures in the rock swing, but not as wildly as the outside air because of heat that’s absorbed by the rock during the day. Also, the kind of minerals that make up that rock are transparent to ultraviolet light. If the basis of your food chain is photosynthesis, then you’ve got be underneath a mineral that transmits light.

There are different kinds of organisms that live in the rock. The kind of organism that lives in the pores spaces of rock don’t go very deep — maybe a centimeter and a half if you have a really thick community. But you do see chemical evidence going a few centimeters deeper into the rock.

There are other kinds of organisms that don’t live in the pore spaces. They migrate into the cracks in rocks. They are called “chasmoliths.” They typically do chemosynthesis, that is, they rip out chemistry associated with the rock, and they either oxidize some ion, or reduce some other ion, and this whole cycle of oxidizing something and reducing something is akin to the respiration we do. Since it doesn’t involve photosynthesis, they don’t need light, so they can go deeper into the rock. But the chemistry in the rock influences how deeply they can go — these tiny organisms have a community structure that has a specific set of chemical conditions that support it. If you change that set of chemical conditions, you have a whole different environment. Another limitation is you can’t go too deep and use up too much space, or thermodynamically you can’t continue to do chemistry because you’ll drown in your own poop. That’s an unfortunate state of affairs.

You can tell the difference between one bacterium and another with our instrument, because different chemicals are on the surface of the organisms. Just using fluorescence can tell you the difference between basic types of bacteria. If you have a spore, and you want know what species you have, you use other techniques, like looking at the vibrational properties of the atomic bond.

One of the cool things about looking for microbial life on Earth is that microbes are everywhere. Most of the biodiversity on Earth is microbial, and they can live in challenging environments. You have to give them credit for being clever in terms of coming up with adaptive strategies to cope with stressful environments.

When we think of looking for fossils of past life, we tend to think of stuff like dinosaur bones. Astrobiologists don’t really expect to find dinosaurs on Mars, although I do have a National Enquirer cover that differs.

But you can find fossil structures in rocks, created from organisms that were in the sediment as it was being lithified – made into a rock. You can also try to find chemical fossils, signs that there was life there. There are some chemicals that are really big molecules that are very hardy and withstand a lot. We just have to be clever enough to distinguish the chemistry associated with the rock from the chemistry associated with the living things.”

Original Source: NASA Astrobiology

Zo? Heads Back to the Desert to Search for Life

Zo?, an autonomous solar-powered rover. Image credit: NASA Click to enlarge
Carnegie Mellon University researchers and their colleagues from NASA’s Ames Research Center, the universities of Tennessee, Arizona and Iowa, as well as Chilean researchers at Universidad Catolica del Norte (Antofagasta) are preparing for the final stage of a three-year project to develop a prototype robotic astrobiologist, a robot that can explore and study life in the driest desert on Earth.

The team will direct and monitor Zo?, an autonomous solar-powered rover developed at Carnegie Mellon, as it travels 180 kilometers in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Zo? is equipped with scientific instruments to seek and identify micro-organisms and to characterize their habitats. It will use them as it explores three diverse regions of the desert during its two-month stay, which runs from August 22 to October 22.

The results of this expedition ultimately may enable future robots to seek life on Mars, as well as enabling the discovery of new information about the distribution of life on Earth.

The search-for-life project was begun in 2003 under NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology Program for Exploring Planets, or ASTEP, which concentrates on pushing the limits of technology to study life in harsh environments.

Zo?’s abilities represent the culmination of three years of work to determine the optimum design, software and instrumentation for a robot that can autonomously investigate different habitats. During the 2004 field season, Zo? exceeded scientists’ expectations when it traveled 55 kilometers autonomously and detected living organisms using its onboard Fluorescence Imager (FI) to locate chlorophyll and other organic molecules.

“Our goal with this final investigation is to develop a method to create a real-time, 3D topographic ‘map’ of life at the microscopic level,” said Nathalie Cabrol, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames and the SETI Institute who heads the science investigation aspects of the project. “This map eventually could be integrated with satellite data to create an unprecedented tool for studies of large-scale environmental activities on life in specific areas. This concept can be applied to planetary research and also on Earth to explore other extreme environments.”

“This is the first time a robot is looking for life,” said Carnegie Mellon associate research professor David Wettergreen, who leads the project. “We have worked with rovers and individual instruments before, but Zo? is a complete system for life seeking. We are working toward full autonomy of each day’s activities, including scheduling time and resource use, control of instrument deployment and navigation between study areas.

“Last year we learned that the Fluorescence Imager can detect organisms in this environment. This year we’ll be able to see how densely an area is populated with organisms and map their distribution. We intend to have the robot make as many as 100 observations and make advances in procedural developments like how to decide where to explore.”

Zo? will visit a foggy coastal region, the dry Andean altiplano, and an area in the desert’s arid interior that receives no precipitation for decades at a time. At these sites, the rover’s activities will be guided remotely from an operations center in Pittsburgh where the researchers will characterize the environment, seek clear proof of life and map the distribution of various habitats. During last year’s mission, the team carried out experiments using an imager able to detect fluorescence in an area underneath the rover. The FI detects signals from two fluorescent dyes that mark carbohydrates and proteins ? as well as the natural fluorescence of chlorophyll. The FI, developed by Alan Waggoner, director of the university’s Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center (MBIC), was not fully automated last year. Scientists had to follow the rover and spray dyes onto the sample area. This year, Zo? can spray a mixture of dyes for DNA, protein, lipid and carbohydrates without human intervention.

The Life in the Atacama project is funded with a $3 million, three-year grant from NASA to Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute in the School of Computer Science. They collaborate with MBIC scientists, who received a separate $900,000 NASA grant to develop fluorescent dyes and automated microscopes to locate various forms of life.

The science team uses EventScope, a remote experience browser developed by researchers at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry in Carnegie Mellon’s College of Fine Arts, to guide Zo?. It enables scientists and the public to experience the Atacama environment through the rover’s “eyes” and various sensors. During the field investigation, scientists will interact with Zo? in a science operations control room at the Remote Experience and Learning Lab in Pittsburgh. Scientists from NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Tennessee, University of Arizona, the British Antarctic Survey and the European Space Agency will participate.

For more information, images and field reports from the Atacama, visit: www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/atacama.

Original Source: Carnegie Mellon News Release

Mapping Life on Earth Could Predict Finding it on Mars

Pathfinder’s image of Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL. Click to enlarge.
A geologist from Washington University in St. Louis is developing new techniques to render a more coherent story of how primitive life arose and diverged on Earth ? with implications for Mars.

Carrine Blank, Ph.D., Washington University assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences, has some insight concerning terrestrial microbes that could lead to provocative conclusions about the nature of life on Mars and other planets.
Carinne Blank (below) has a method she uses to date ancient life forms that could be helpful for specimens from Mars.
Carinne Blank (below) has a method she uses to date ancient life forms that could be helpful for specimens from Mars.

Blank approaches the task by resolving phylogenetic trees. These trees, based upon genetic sequencing data, trace the genetic relationships between what we think of as primitive organisms through trait development. The relationships between early forms of life can illuminate the relationships between organisms present on Earth today ? which fossil evidence and a method called isotopic fractionation have failed to show conclusively.

Blank most recently presented her research at the 2004 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.

Haves and have-nots
Microorganisms can be divided into haves and have-nots: cells of eukaryotes contain a nucleus, while prokaryotic organisms cells do not. Prokaryotic organisms encompass archeal and bacterial domains of life. Archeal organisms diverge further into euryarcheota and Crenarcheota lineages. By piecing together genetic sequences of the three types of prokaryotic organisms, Blank creates a genetic flow chart, which can be interpreted to trace the appearance of environmental adaptations across billions of years of evolution.

Genes are inherited from parents, but can transfer from one organism to another without reproducing by a process called lateral gene transfer. Modular metabolic genes, which are not critical for cell production, account for most lateral gene transfers between microbes.

“There is a lot we’re beginning to understand in terms of bacterial evolution that is still not quite clear,” Blank said. “What we’re trying to resolve is the evolutionary history of the core of the bacterial cell. The core is that which is not undergoing this lateral gene transfer, or does it extremely rarely.”

Jumping genes
Jumping genes may be a headache for researchers, but they serve an important ecological purpose, helping other organisms to succeed in their habitats, and can illuminate trait development across the tree of life.

“We try to construct the core with gene sequences, and then we look at the distribution of traits such as those involved in metabolism by laying it onto the tree,” she said.

Timely appearances of certain traits among prokaryotes on the tree of life can betray a trend of habitat divergence, facilitated by lateral gene transfer. The emergence of traits corresponding to measurable changes in the known geologic record allow researchers to date organisms with relative certainty. Blank can then use chronological data to analyze niche specialization, “where these organisms like to grow,” among members of each life domain over geologic time.

Habitat divergence among bacteria is consistent with patterns of divergence among the other prokaryotes, Blank’s research shows. She notes a pervasive trend of cyanobacterial organisms diverging from low-salinity environments into marine environments over time.

“We have the ancestral Archeae ? it diverges into two major lineages, the Crenarchaeota and the Euryarchaeota, one which grows in marine environments, the other on continents,” Blank said. “They grow and diverge for perhaps a billion years, and then they start colonizing each other’s environments. The marine Euryarchaeota eventually colonize the terrestrial environments and the Crenarchaeota colonize the marine environments. My point is that it could have taken a very long time for them to come back and to form even more complex ecosystems. So the literal interpretation of these patterns is that early habitat specialization could have lasted for a billion years.”

After mapping early habitat divergences onto the tree, Blank observes that the ancestors of each of the three kinds of prokaryotes inhabited one of Earth’s three types of hydrothermal systems, which include sulfurous steam vents like those which smatter the Yellowstone caldera, hydrothermal deep-sea vents, and boiling silica-depositing springs.

“Is it a coincidence, then, that we have three hydrothermal habitats and three major groups of prokaryotes? We aren’t sure,” she said. “This could suggest that we have some really ancient habitat specialization. These lineages specialize in these three habitats, and diverge in these habitats for many hundreds of million years before they start moving into other types of habitats.”

The ‘peculiar’ ancestor
It isn’t clear why bacteria diversified later, though environmental changes, like periods of global glaciation nicknamed “snowball Earth,” could have provided the impetus that demanded microbial adaptation. Whatever the cause, new adaptive microbial traits can be very different from those of their “peculiar” ancestors. It seems that, on some level, humans and bacteria can relate.

“If we see these major patterns of divergence on Earth, we should expect to see similar patterns on life on Mars, that is, if life ever existed there,” Blank said. “Not the same patterns, because Mars has had a different history, but we should see trends that are analogous. You would expect to see a peculiar ancestor specialized to a unique niche, eventually diverging into descendants that have very different traits than their ancestor did. These descendents would have adapted to changes that would’ve happened in Mars’s history.”

Original Source: WUSTL News Release

Where Does Intelligent Life Come From?

Image credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic
A lot of things had to go well for life to come about. If you go way back, it all begins with a Big Bang universe giving birth to space and time. In that early universe light echoed about, slowed in vibrancy, the primordial elements coalesced then condensed into a first generation of massive breeder stars. After warming to the notion (by gravitational compression), primordial matter began fusing in stellar cores and a lesser form of light moved outward to warm and illuminate a young and potentially ever-expanding Universe.

More time and more space saw many of those early blue stars implode (after living very short lives). Subsequent explosions spewed vast quantities of heavier – non-primordial – atoms into space. Out of this rich cosmic endowment new stars formed – many with planetary attendants. Because such second and third generation suns are less massive than their progenitors, they burn slower, cooler, and much, much longer – something essential to the kind of benignly consistent energy levels needed to make organic life possible.

Although breeder stars formed within a few hundred million years of the Big Bang, life here on Earth took its time. Our Sun – a third generation star of modest mass – formed some nine-billion years later. Life-forms developed a little more than one billion years after that. As this occurred, molecules combined to form organic compounds which – under suitable conditions – joined together as amino acids, proteins, and cells. During all this one layer of complexity was added to another and creatures became ever more perceptive of the world around them. Eventually – after more billions of years – vision developed. And vision – added to an subjective sense of awareness – made it possible for the Universe to look back at itself.

Empirical research into the fundamentals of life shows that a concoction of well-chosen elements (hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, & nitrogen) exposed to non-ionizing ultraviolet radiation forms amino acids. Amino acids themselves have a remarkable capacity to chain together into proteins. And proteins have a rather “protean” ability to give shape and behavior to cells. It is now considered entirely possible that the very first amino acids took form in space1 – shielded from harder forms of radiation within vast clouds comprised of primordial and star-stuff material. For this reason, life may be an ubiquitous phenomenon simply awaiting only certain favorable conditions to take root and grow into a wide variety of forms.

Currently, exobiologists believe that liquid water is essential to the formation and multiplication of organic life. Water is an extraordinary substance. As a mild solvent, water enables other molecules to dissociate and mix. Meanwhile it is very stable and is transparent to visible light – something useful if biotics are to derive energy directly from sunlight. Finally water holds temperature well, carries off excess heat through vaporization, and floats when cooled to solidify as ice.

According to NASA exobiologist Andrew Pohorille, “Water brings organic molecules together and permits organization into structures that ultimately became cells.” In so doing, water acts in an unparalleled matrix enabling organic molecules to form self-organizing structures. Andrew cites one property uniquely associated with water that makes self-organization and growth possible: “The hydrophobic effect is responsible for the fact that water and oil don’t mix, soaps and detergents ‘capture’ oily dirt during washing in water and for a vast number of other phenomena. More generally, hydrophobic effect is responsible for segregating nonpolar (oily) molecules or parts of molecules from water, so they can stick together even though they are not bonded. In biology these are precisely the interactions responsible for the formation of membranous cell walls and for folding proteins into functional structures.”

For water to take the liquid state, it must remain in a relatively narrow range of temperatures and pressures. Because of this only a certain few well-placed planets – and possibly a handful of large moons are favored with the conditions needed to let life live. In many cases it all comes down to a form of celestial real estate – location, location, location…

Early life on Earth was very simple in form and behavior. Though cellular, they lacked a central nucleus (prokaryotic) and other sub-structures (organelles). Lacking a nucleus such cells reproduced asexually. These anaerobes subsisted primarily by creating (anabolizing) methane gas from hydrogen and carbon-dioxide. They liked heat – and there was plenty of it to go around!

The fact that life developed on Earth should not be as surprising as one might think. Life is now considered far more robust than once imagined. Even now hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean eject near-boiling water. Adjacent to such vents life – in the form of giant tube worms and clams – flourishes. Deep under the surface of the Earth mineral-metabolizing anaerobic bacteria are found. Such conditions were thought impossible throughout most of the 20th century. Life seems to spring up under even the harshest of conditions.

As life forms advanced on our world, cells developed organelles – some by incorporating lesser, more specialized cells into their structures. The planet cooled, its atmosphere clarified and sunlight played upon the oceans. Primitive bacteria arose that fixed energy from sunlight as food. Some remained prokaryotic while others developed a nucleus (eukaryotic). These primitive bacteria increased the oxygen content of the Earth’s atmosphere. All this transpired some 2 billion years ago and was essential to support the quality and quantity of life currently populating “the Blue Planet”.

Originally the atmosphere consisted of less than 1% oxygen – but as levels increased, bacteria-eating life-forms adapted to synthesize water from oxygen and hydrogen. This released far more energy than methane metabolism is capable of. The controlled synthesis of water was a huge accomplishment for life. Consider the high school chemistry lab experiments where hydrogen and oxygen gas are combined, heated then explode. Primitive life forms had to learn to handle this very volatile stuff in a far safer manner – putting phosphorus to task in the conversion of ADP to ATP and back again.

Later – roughly 1 billion years ago – the simplest multi-cellular creatures took form. This occurred as cells came together for the common good. But such creatures were simple colonies. Each cell was fully self-contained and took care of its own needs. All they required was constant exposure to the warm broth of the early oceans to acquire nutrients and eliminate wastes.

The next great step in the evolution of life2
came as specialized cell tissue types developed. Muscle, nerve, epidermis and cartilage advanced the development of the many complex life-forms now populating our planet – from flowering plant to budding young astronomer! But that very first organized creature may very well have been a worm (annelid) burrowing through the marine slime of some 700 million years ago. Lacking eyes and a central nervous system it possessed only the capacity to touch and to taste. But now life had the capacity to differentiate and specialize. The creature itself became the ocean…

With the advent of well-organized creatures the pace of life quickened:

By 500 MYA, the first vertebrates evolved. These were probably eel-like creatures lacking in sight but sensitive to chemical – and possibly electrical – changes in their environments.

By 450 MYA, the first animals (insects) joined rooting plants on land.

Some 400 MYA the first vertebrates climbed out of the sea. This may have been an amphibious fish subsisting on insects and plant-life along the shore.

By 350 MYA – the first “iguana-like” reptiles emerged. These possessed strong, hard, jaws in a one-piece skull. As they grew larger, such reptiles lightened their skulls by adding orifices (beyond simple eye sockets). Before dinosaurs dominated the earth, crocodiles, turtles, and pterasaurs (flying reptiles) preceded them.

Primitive mammals go back almost 220MY. Most of these creatures were small and rodent-like. Later versions developed the placenta – but earlier species simply hatched eggs internally. All mammals of course, are warm-blooded and because of this must eat voraciously to maintain body temperature – especially on cold windy nights tracking down faint galaxies along the Eridanus river…

Like mammals, warm-blooded birds require more food than reptiles – but like reptiles – laid eggs. Not a bad idea for a creature of flight! Today celestial birds fly (such as late summer’s Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle) because real birds took wing some 150 MYA.

The earliest primates existed even during the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs Strong evidence supports the idea that the dinosaurs themselves passed as a group after an asteroid – or comet – impacted the Yucatan peninsula of the United States of Mexico. After this catastrophic event temperatures fell as a “non-nuclear” winter descended. Under such conditions food was spare, but warm-bloodedness came into its own. It wasn?t long however before one type of a “gigantism” soon replaced another – mammals themselves grew to extraordinary sizes and the largest developed in the womb of the sea and now take the form of the great whales.

The end of the “terrible lizards” was not the first mass-extinction of life – four previous die-offs had preceded it. Today, aware of the potential for other such cataclysmic impacts, some of the world’s astronomers keep an eye on near-earth orbiting chunks of debris left over from the formation of the solar system. The smallest types – meteors for instance – put on harmless celestial light shows. Larger meteors (bolides) occasionally spread “flame” and trail “smoke” as they crash to Earth. Larger bodies have left wakes of natural devastation across miles of forests – without even leaving a trace of their own “party crashing” material behind. But larger intruders have little such modesty. An asteroid or comet one kilometer in diameter would spell absolute calamity for a population center. Bodies ten times that size may account for massive die-offs of the type that spelled the end of the dinosauria.

Human beings first walked upright some 6MYA. This probably occurred as the path diverged between proto-chimpanzees and early hominids. That divergence followed a ten million year period of rapid primate evolution and blended into a six-million year cycle of human evolution. The first stone tools were crafted by human hand roughly 2 million years ago. Fire was harnessed by some enterprising member of the human species a million years later. Technology gained momentum very slowly – hundreds of thousands of years have passed without any significant improvement in the tools used by the tribal societies of long past.

Modern humans originated more than 200,000 years ago. Some 125 thousand years later an event occurred that may have reduced the entire human population of planet Earth to less than 10,000 individuals. That event was not extra-terrestrial in nature – the Earth itself probably belched forth “fire and brimstone” during the eruption of a gas-charged magma chamber (similar to that beneath Yellowstone National Park in the western USA). Another 65,000 years passed and the stone age gave way to the age of agriculture. By 5000 years ago the first city-states coalesced within fertile valleys surrounded by far less hospitable climes. Whole civilizations have come and gone. Each passing a torch of culture and slowly evolving technology to the next. Today it has been only a few short centuries since the first human hand shaped lenses of glass and turned the human eye upon the things of the Night Sky.

Today huge mirrors and space probes allow us to contemplate the vast reaches of the universe. We see a Cosmos dynamic and quite possibly thrilling with life more abundant than anyone could possibly imagine. Like light and matter, life may very well be a fundamental quality of the space-time continuum. Life could be as universal as gravitation – and as personal as an evening alone with a telescope beneath the night sky…


1 In fact, the radio-frequency spectrographic fingerprint of at least one amino acid (glycine) has been found in vast clouds of dust and gas within the interstellar medium (ISM). (See Amino acid found in deep space).

2 That life develops from less sophisticated to more sophisticated forms is a question beyond scientific dispute. Precisely how this process takes place is an issue of deep division in human society. Astronomers – unlike biologists – are not required to hold any particular theory on this issue. Whether chance mutation and natural selection drives the process or some unseen “hand” exists to bring such things about is outside the realm of astronomical inquiry. Astronomers are interested in structures, conditions, and processes in the universe at large. As life becomes more salient to that discussion, astronomy – in particular exobiology – will have more to say about the matter. But the very fact that astronomers can allow nature to speak on such issues as a sudden and instantaneous “creation ex nihilo” in the form of a Big Bang shows just how flexible astronomical thinking is in regard to ultimate origins.

Acknowledgment: My thanks goes out to exobiologist

Andrew Pohorille of NASA who enlightened me as to the great significance of the hydrophobic effect on the formation of self-organizing structures. For more information on exobiology please see NASA’s Exobiology Life Through Space and Time official website through which I had the good fortune of contacting Andrew.

About The Author:
Inspired by the early 1900’s masterpiece: “The Sky Through Three, Four, and Five Inch Telescopes”, Jeff Barbour got a start in astronomy and space science at the age of seven. Currently Jeff devotes much of his time observing the heavens and maintaining the website
Astro.Geekjoy.

Are We Alone?

Image Credit: “Seeking” ?1998
Lynette Cook. Used with Permission.
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
– German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860)

Are we alone? Given the immensity of the Cosmos, a mathematical impossibility. Will we ever come to know we are not alone? That’s a tougher question. But should first contact occur today we could be in for a shock1. So right now may be a good time to prepare. And perhaps the best way to prepare is to imagine the possibility…

Numerous psychological studies have shown that “imagining a thing” makes us more receptive to the possibility. In fact many of the great breakthroughs in scientific thought came about as a result of the proper use of the creative imagination. Sir Isaac Newton saw the motions of all moons and planets everywhere in the simple fall of a ripe apple from the boughs of a tree. Albert Einstein perceived the relativity of all time and space while contemplating the accelerated motion of a trolley car moving away from the face of a public clocktower. We human beings might want to take a few moments and think about how we will respond should ET make an appearence in our small corner of the cosmos.

So, take a moment and relax. (Yes it’s true, deep breathing does help!) Imagine a universe populated with many and diverse forms of intelligent life. Extend yourself through time and space toward distant systems of suns and planets. See simple organisms thrilling to the rhythms of light and matter working in harmony to develop ever more sophisticated life-forms. Follow the earliest interstellar craft as they move tirelessly from system to system toward some distant beckoning beacon of promise. Surf beams of radiant energy flung like arrows from far away lighthouses upon the Ocean of Space.

Someday such imaginings may be confirmed by rock solid science – perhaps SETI will detect an indisputable signal from beyond, or “Michael Rennie” emerges as an emissary from the Galactic Federation of Planetary Systems trailed by Gort – the Wonder Robot.

Given the likelihood that such space-faring or highly communicative intelligences exist, and given all the billions of years for off-world intelligence to develop the means to travel and communicate, plus our own recent efforts to find them out, why don’t we know already?

One, and possibly the very best answer is “We aren’t ready.”

The human imagination also has its down-side: Imagine the initial shock and ridicule as we humans attempt to upright a world overturned by what for many will be an impossible event. Consider also how governments and institutions, groups and individuals, have responded to similar reports in the past. Remember “Mars-rock”? Do we hear much of it now? And what about pilot Hap Arnold’s “flying saucer” report. Can we really say that we have taken clear-headed, scientific looks at such things? Or is our normal response one of incredulity and ridicule? Hmmmm…

To know is to see truth wherever it may be found. No, we’re not saying that UFO’s have visited the Earth. What we are saying is that our response to those who make such claims is often one of ridicule and disrespect. Is it not possible that compassion and open-mindedness would be more appropriate?

So let’s seek truth where it can be found – right here on Earth. We can start by looking for unsuspected signs of intelligence around us2. Let’s take a clear-eyed look at our animal friends by setting aside prejudices concerning their intelligence. Those goldfish in the aquarium can be surprisingly sensitive about things. Walk near the tank during the day and they ignore you. Come feeding time, and you are the most interesting thing in the world to them.

To be sure we are very unlikely to learn that the universe is suffused with intelligence until we get past our own anthrocentrism. It took a lot of hard work (and self-sacrifice) by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo just to get western society to finally step “up to the edge” and see that the Blue Planet is most definitely not flat nor does it act as the axis around which all things celestial swing.

And even with the signs of intelligence abounding on our homeworld today we persist in thinking that all creatures exist for us, our amusement, our purposes. Under such conditions can we possibly appreciate how truly intelligent they are? And to be more germane, do we really think ET might want to come out and play with us under such circumstances?

Today we don’t seem to be ready to accept anything other than the myth of being alone. Yes, one way to tell this does have to do with how we relate to other creatures on the Blue Planet, but there are other reasons to doubt our readiness as well. Consider our political institutions; Why is it that our leaders and their associates spend so much time “down-playing” the truth of things, presenting specious arguments to motivate behavior, or putting controversial issues into the spin cycle? Is it because of hidden political or economic agendas? Or possibly because they don’t believe we can handle reality3?

Meanwhile high overhead, ET approaches the Earth – third stone from the Sun – and initiates a scan of the EM spectrum. Newscasts portray crisis after crisis, violence, conflict, bloodshed, environmental degradation. How would you – an intelligent being from elsewhere respond?

Personally, I’d activate the cloaking device.

ET is no dummy – he/she/it is after all an intelligent life-form possessed of advanced technology. One scan of Earth’s broadcast media and ET soon comes to see that this is not a place to be trifled with: The natives are restless. Emotion overrules reason. Reaction upstages proaction. Nations practice deception and ill-will in relationships – internal and external. Angry voices shout each other down – not just on the streets but in the houses of governance as well. We are not a happy bunch.

And yet the future remains always a bright star of possibility. Hope springs eternal in ET’s breast (or left antibular thorax as the case may be…)

ET of course, has seen such things before. Countless worlds of lesser and greater advancement have been encountered. Before ET learned the wisdom of keeping a safe distance, he-she-it actually tried to help a few troubled worlds such as our own. In the end ET may have had to overcome shock, ignorance, even bloody insurgencies. Costs were great, rewards few. Now ET waits – waits for us to pass certain tests – tests defined in some intragalactic protocol: “The Prime Directive”.

So the hailing frequencies are locked down. ET goes stealth. “Subspace” signals are transmitted to ET Central: “Earthlings are still at it. Planet approaching ecological crisis. Species dying off. The few have much, many have little. Schedule re-visit next solar maximum. Report over and out.”

Today our instruments can peer back to the very threshold of the Big Bang – nearly 13.7 million lightyears distant in time and space, millions and millions of galaxies, billions and billions of Suns. Who knows how many planets – many equal to or superior to our own in fecundity and arability. Some populated as yet only by single-cell organisms. Others by beings possessed of no organic form whatsoever. It doesn’t even take the imagination to see the possibility anymore. Those of us interested in astronomy also read and watch science fiction. All the heavy lifting has been done for us. Fantastic lifeforms dwell in fabulous environs undergoing incredible adventures: Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon Five – you name it – we’ve seen it. And yes, many of us believe in our hearts – but even so, we want to know.

Even now we scan the heavens seeking proof. The SETI project is bringing its array of parallel narrow-band scanning recievers on line. We hope against hope that some not-too-circumspect intelligence is out there broadcasting narrowband signals intentionally (or not) seeking to conclusively demonstrate their presence in our universe.

Will SETI find them out? And if so, how will we respond to the reality?

It is possible to uncover intelligence in this way, but intelligent life-forms not only learn from experience but in advance of experience as well. Do we here on Earth choose to project our presence intentionally into the interstellar medium4?

No – that particular notion has already been discarded and perhaps wisely so. We know what we are like – others could be worse!

Psychology plays a big role in choices made by intelligent creatures. When they don’t trust others, they “down-play” the truth or offer specious arguments. When they make mistakes, they put things in the “spin cycle”. When they see other intelligences doing these kinds of things with great regularity they know that contact is to be avoided. Perhaps this is at essence in first contact protocol. Until truth is welcomed – even at the expense of notions held dear – a world is not ready. Otherwise the cost of engagement is too high, benefits too low, and outcomes too unpredictable – or worse – dangerous.

But we may detect extraterrestial intelligence in other ways. It’s a solid assumption that all advancing technologies pass through a broadband em broadcast phase. During such an era civilizations “leak” evidence of their existence. Unfortunately, even our largest radio telescope would be hard pressed to detect broadband transmissions – such as Earth’s – from as close as the Alpha Centauri system. Meanwhile the window on em broadcast may even be closing here on earth. How many of us watch television programs delivered by antenna today? Less than a half-century ago every house had its own “rabbit ears”. One-hundred years from now we may be EM mute…

We might also intercept a signal in transit between two worlds. Such an event would be serendipitous – luck would play a huge role. First we would have to be more or less line of sight. Why? Because the tighter such a signal is foused the further it travels without attenuation. Although laser (and maser) transmissions do diffract over great distances, we would still need to be well-placed to pick one up. Meanwhile such signals may not necessarily be narrow band in frequency. Why? Because phase-modulated transmission may be the most efficient way to transmit pictures, sounds, and data across space5.

Despite all these barriers to revelation what practical steps can we now take to prepare for some future “first contact”?

Assisted by writers of science fiction and purveyors of motion pictures, we’ve already made a start by imagining the possibility. Animal behaviorists have helped prepare us by investigating various types and degrees of intelligence in the natural world. Psychologists and socioligists have done the same thing in the realms of our own species.

Meanwhile on an individual basis we can all learn to pay more attention to intelligence as seen within our families, among friends, associates – and even strangers. (Perhaps especially strangers.) All this makes us more aware of what intelligence is and how it is communicated.

On the broadest possible levels we must all further our ability to welcome and speak truth – despite any pain it may leave in its wake.

Having done our own personal work, “homeworld work” can go forward. Collectively we can work together to expunge the seeds and uproot the weeds of war on the planet. Although this means holstering our weapons, it also means overcoming a persistent propensity toward propaganda, religious strife, scientific contention, and undue corporate economic advantage.

And of great importance at this time is the need to be more supportive of other homeworld species – irrespective of intelligence. Ecology teaches us that every creature plays an important role in Earth’s biosphere. Perhaps it should become a matter of human education, demographical planning, economics, and political activity to ensure that this particular insight truly guides our choices and behavior. After all so long as we remain exploitative of lesser species no truly intelligent extraterrerestial species is likely to have much to do with us. Scarier still, if there are any “bad boys” out there, they could easily rationalize “taking over the joint”.

So let’s say we clean up our act. What happens next?

Isn’t that enough? To live in a world where truth multiplies, nature is respected, intelligence is recognized, and peace reigns supreme is actually quite appealing in itself – for most intelligences worthy of interstellar relations.

But this article is not about social transformation per se – it’s about the very real possibility of first contact – something that could transpire even before our children take a leading role in the unfolding story of human history.

Are we ready to get ready?

If intelligence can germinate here, it can flower elsewhere. Why, of course, it’s all so – “self-evident!”


1 The 1997 hit movie “Contact” (based on a novel by Carl Sagan) portrayed the many and varied ways in which human beings responded to scientific proof of the existence of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence.

2 According to a BBC News article a captive African grey parrot named N’kisi has a vocabulary of almost one thousand words, shows evidence of a sense of humour, and devises new words and concocts phrases as needed.

3 Irrespective of its overall merits, US efforts to topple an Iraqi dictatorship were found to be based on overstated evidence. (See Conclusions of Senate’s Iraq report) Such misuses of information often occur when a government is unable to speak plainly to its citizens concerning matters of importance.

4 In an article published by the title Quantum Communication Between the Stars? SETI Institute member Seth Shostak recalls the heated response of England’s Astronomer Royal to the ad hoc messaging of M13 during a 1974 ceremonial at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

5 The narrower the frequency used to transmit data through space the higher the signal-to-noise ratio. The most efficient mode of such transmission is to digitally switch a carrier frequency “on and off”. Such serial modes of transmission however, are very slow at transfering large amounts of data through space in short amounts of time. Such signals are however very useful for saying things like “look at me I am here!”.

About The Author: Inspired by the early 1900’s masterpiece: “The Sky Through Three, Four, and Five Inch Telescopes”, Jeff Barbour got a start in astronomy and space science at the age of seven. Currently Jeff devotes much of his time observing the heavens and maintaining the website Astro.Geekjoy.