Stories tagged extraterrestrial life

You're dead to me!: Recent tests by the Curiosity rover has failed to find signs of current life on Mars,
You're dead to me!: Recent tests by the Curiosity rover has failed to find signs of current life on Mars,Courtesy NASA
Curiosity, one of the robotic explorers currently investigating the Martian environment presented NASA scientists with a bit of a set-back this week with a report that the rover has failed to detect any signs of methane on Mars. Several tests were conducted on the Red Planet over an eight month period but none produced any signs that microbial life was emitting the signature gas into the atmosphere.

"It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism," said Michael Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration. "As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don't generate methane."

NASA news release


It seems that there has been a bit of a kerfuffle about this paper in the Journal of CosmoCyanobacteria: Could cells like these have been found in space rocks?
Cyanobacteria: Could cells like these have been found in space rocks?Courtesy Microbial Diversity, Rolf Schauder and David Graham, © 1997
logy, an online-only publication apparently known for publishing controversial points of view endorsing, among other things, the hypothesis that life began outside of the Earth. The paper in question, by NASA researcher Richard Hoover, discusses structures found in three meteorites that visually and chemically resemble bacteria. If these meteorites really contain bacteria whose origins are extraterrestrial (rather than plain old Earth bacteria that contaminated the meteorite samples), it's clear that Hoover has made the kind of discovery that will represent a revolution in scientific thinking.

But that's an awfully big "if". Critics suggest that contamination is vastly more likely (see a nice collection of comments here), and generally criticize the research, the publication, and various other facets of this story.

This whole affair can be read a number of ways: as an illustration of the rule of thumb that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"; as an example of the politics that sometimes surround scientific research and publication; or even as evidence that people have a way of seeing what they want to see given ambiguous evidence.

But despite all the criticism, I confess that anything suggesting the possibility of extraterrestrial life sets my little heart a-flutterin'. Very few ideas have the same power to catch the imagination as that of alien life: that something so impossible might actually be possible, that science fiction might have some truth, that our understanding of the universe might still be completely and profoundly overturned by something so simple as a few cells inside a space rock. Remember when NASA teased this story about a revolution in astrobiological thinking? I was on pins and needles for days, hoping that they were going to announce definitive evidence of alien life. And, admit it, when you saw this story's headline you were secretly hoping for the same thing...


Longevity record holder Jeanne Calment in 1895: She was only 20 years old and would live for another 102 years.
Longevity record holder Jeanne Calment in 1895: She was only 20 years old and would live for another 102 years.Courtesy Wikipedia
You know, today is Buzz contributor Thor's birthday. I'm not sure how old he is, but I think we're pretty close in age. He may be a little younger than I am. Whatever. It doesn't matter. But if he's like me, he's not just celebrating his birthday, he's complaining about it. Complaining that he just keeps getting older and older. Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re thinking: “Well, isn’t getting older better than the alternative?” Okay, I suppose it is. And I think Thor would agree. But for some life forms, it’s way, way better.

You can see what I mean over at the NOVA website's interesting interactive that goes through a list of several oldest living creatures on Earth. You’ll see that we humans get the short end of the stick, mortality-wise. Our oldest, verified member lived to be 122 years old. She was a French woman named Jeanne Calment who attributed her long existence to eating lots of chocolate and olive oil. From our normal four-score average perspective, it’s not a bad record, but it doesn’t hold a candle to some of our fungal or botanical co-habitants. Some of those have lived for thousands of years. There’s even a genus of water-borne, microscopic creatures known as Hydra that, due to its regenerative capabilities, may have achieved immortality, although all the votes aren’t in on that feat yet.

My personal favorites, however, are the bacterial spores trapped in salt crystals that have been revived and estimated to be about 250 millions of years old! That means they were living back when some Triassic archosaurs were trying to kick-start the Age of Reptiles. They also add credence to the theory that life on Earth may have originated from bacteria-bearing meteor impacts from outer space.

Okay, so it looks like, in the general scheme of things, we humans aren’t that impressive in the long-life department. But it doesn’t bother me too much - and again I'm guessing Thor feels the same way - because with Jeanne Calment’s record of 122 years it could mean we haven’t even reached middle age yet. Happy birthday, Thor!

NOVA site

Martian landscape: Could fossils be found in areas like this?
Martian landscape: Could fossils be found in areas like this?Courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
An National Geographic website article says the next rover mission to the planet Mars could conceivably find the fossilized remains of life that once lived there. Data from the Opportunity and Spirit rover missions found evidence of surface deposits and flowing water on the Red Planet, and sedimentary rock outcrops laid down by water in the past. Other indications suggest a vast ocean once covered the planet. Whether the planet's thin atmosphere or hostile surface environment could sustain life is unknown. But with all these signs of water, the possibility of finding signs of past life increases. A new study led by J. Alexis Palmero Rodriguez of the Planetary Science Institute theorizes that water on Mars may have been stable beneath the surface for billions of years - long enough for life to develop. And the subsurface may have seeped up through cracks in the crust and left behind deposits on the surface, and possibly fossil remains of life. Palmero and his colleagues hope a future rover mission will focus on the northern regions of the planet where fossils may be found.


No, it is not a cookbook. What gave you that silly idea?: Parts of this actual photo come from NASA.
No, it is not a cookbook. What gave you that silly idea?: Parts of this actual photo come from NASA.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Remember back a couple years when the Vatican said it was okay to believe in extraterrestrials? Well, now noted physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking says if they do exist - and he figures the odds are pretty good they do - it might not be that great an idea to try to contact them. He points to what happened to the Native Americans who greeted Columbus and figures the same kind of thing could happen to the entire human race if the aliens turn out to be a tad too aggressive and covetous of our planet and its resources.

"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet." - Stephen Hawking

And let's not forget that delightful Twilight Zone episode where apparently chummy nine-foot tall aliens arrive promising peace and prosperity and a book titled To Serve Man and start shuttling loads of humans back to their planet (supposedly for free vacations) before it's realized the "altruistic" book is actually a cookbook.

With that in mind, Hawking may have a good point. You can read more of what he thinks here. Or do you think he's just being anti-social?

Phoenix lander dig zone
Phoenix lander dig zoneCourtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University
Rumors are circulating that NASA's Phoenix Lander team has held briefings with the White House regarding some sort of forthcoming big announcement. It's unclear whether any briefings actually took place, but some folks wonder if NASA is hiding something. It could be the space agency is just doing their usual pre-hype of an upcoming announcement. Whatever the case, you can join in the speculation by going here and here or even here. Or you can listen to today's Phoenix Media Telecon and see if you can get some clues of what's happening.

NASA scientists have confirmed that on-board analysis of ice samples scooped up by the Phoenix Mars Lander earlier this summer prove water exists on the planet.

"We've seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted."

-- William Boynton, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer.

The mission has been extended through September 30.


This man used to sit in dark, smoky rooms...protecting us: Now look at what you've done to him. He even had to sell his cyanide capsule.
This man used to sit in dark, smoky rooms...protecting us: Now look at what you've done to him. He even had to sell his cyanide capsule.Courtesy laurenatclemson
I’m sorry if this is the wrong forum, but I think it’s about time for some grassroots action, you know what I mean? If we, concerned Buzzers and Buzzketeers, don’t do something soon, we will have allowed a great injustice to be committed, a travesty right under our noses; a massive government conspiracy will crumble on our watch, dozens of jobs will be lost, and countless dangerous secrets will spill into the grubby hands of the unwashed masses. Yuck.

So let’s get our act together, and vote “no” on the Denver extraterrestrial affairs commission ballot initiative. Assuming we live in Denver (a quick check at the window has confirmed that I, in fact, do not live in Denver, so this one has to be up to you guys).

It seems that Denver local Jeff Peckman is hot on the heels of the government’s alien cover-up division, and he’s got a hot injection of video evidence ready for when he catches it.

Five years ago either Peckman or a friend of his (The article doesn’t make this totally clear) was concerned that he may have had a peeping Tom problem. Employing a unique new method for dealing with peeping Toms, Peckman (or, again, possibly his friend) set up a video camera on a tripod in his living room, and pointed it at the window with the night vision setting turned on. Sure enough, the camera caught a sneaky little peeper. However, the little perve turned out to be something other than a mask-free human—a large, smooth, alien looking head appears in the video, scanning the room and blinking.

As of the present time, Peckman has only released a single still frame from the video (which can be seen at the link above), but the irrefutable evidence of alien incursions into the privacy of an American home has prompted him to bring the issue to the highest levels of local government. Pending the collection of 4,000 signatures, Peckman hopes to bring a ballot initiative to the people of Denver, so that they might vote to create an extraterrestrial affairs commission.

The E.A.C. would be composed of 18 members appointed by the mayor, and tasked with defending the city, in the event that aliens, “or their vehicles,” were to arrive in Denver.

Formation of the E.A.C. would be a major blow to the government conspiracy that we have all come to rely upon. Shadowy bureaucrats would be turned out on the streets, and stripped of their abilities to protect a population that, frankly, maybe no longer deserves their tender concern.

A vote for “no” is a vote to keep us all in the blissful dark. Vote “no.”

Let your ballots do the talking.


Inside Victoria Crater: View of Martian stratigraphic layer informally named "Lyell", the lowermost of three layers found inside of Victoria Crater by the Mars rover Opportunity.
Inside Victoria Crater: View of Martian stratigraphic layer informally named "Lyell", the lowermost of three layers found inside of Victoria Crater by the Mars rover Opportunity.Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University
The science gathered so far by the two Martian rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, suggests the Red Planet may have been a bit too inhospitable to support even the toughest forms of life.

Although strong evidence of water (at least in the planet’s past) has been found on Mars, recent assessment of the data shows it contains a much higher salt content than expected and that practically puts the kibosh on hopes of any microbes flourishing there.

Opportunity spent time recently examining strata exposed on the inner wall of Victoria Crater. NASA scientists hoped it would show a record of the ground surface as it existed prior to impact that created the crater. But analysis suggests it to be the top of an underground water table, and after reassessing earlier data, and performing some computer modeling, researchers think the environment may have been too harsh to support life.

"At first, we focused on acidity, because the environment would have been very acidic," said Dr. Andrew Knoll, a Harvard biologist who is a member of the rover science team. "Now, we also appreciate the high salinity of the water when it left behind the minerals Opportunity found. This tightens the noose on the possibility of life."

Knoll spoke at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

"Life at the Martian surface would have been very challenging for the last 4 billion years. The best hopes for a story of life on Mars are at environments we haven't studied yet -- older ones, subsurface ones," he said.

Lower, more ancient, geological layers may hold a more hospitable picture of a less briny Martian environment, but the current rover missions aren’t set up to examine that.

"Our next missions, Phoenix and Mars Science Laboratory, mark a transition from water to habitability -- assessing whether sites where there's been water have had conditions suited to life," said Charles Elachi, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Where conditions were habitable, later missions may look for evidence of life."

The Phoenix lander is expected to reach Mars on May 25, 2008 in an area farther north on the planet where it will study the icy subsurface for viable signs of life. The Mars Science Laboratory will launch in the fall of 2009.

Opportunity and Spirit, the two rovers operating presently on opposite sides of the Mars, were sent there with one mission in mind: finding evidence of water. The missions were expected to last a mere three months, but have far surpassed that due to the robots’ high endurance, and problem-solving ingenuity of NASA engineers back on Earth. The robots are now entering their fifth year exploring the Martian surface.

NASA press release
BBC story
Mars info
More about Mars (with less salt)