Stories tagged outer space

Aurora alert

by Gene on Dec. 15th, 2010

According to the Aurora Alert mailing list, a solar event on Dec 14th may produce auroral displays (northern lights) starting around midnight tonight, Wednesday 12/15, and continuing Thursday 12/16 and possibly Friday 12/17. Your best bet for seeing the lights -- if they occur -- is to get away from the city, find a dark place with a clear view to the north, and look low on the horizon. Clouds will block your view, so if it's overcast, don't bother.


Is anybody out there?: If not, it'd be fine by me!
Is anybody out there?: If not, it'd be fine by me!Courtesy NASA

Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe? That’s a hot topic, both among astronomers and right here on Science Buzz. The argument goes like this:
• There are about 100 billion galaxies in the known Universe
• Each galaxy has about 100 billion stars.
• Even if only a small fraction of them have planets, that’s still an awful lot. Ya gotta figure at least some of them developed intelligent life.

And thus we go looking for signs of life in outer space: probes to Mars, searches for organic molecules, even scanning the skies for radio signals. So far… nothing.

Nick Bostrom is glad. This Oxford professor argues that finding life on other planets would be bad news for us here on Earth.

The way he sees it is this:
• The Universe is about 14.5 billion years old.
• Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.
• That’s plenty of time for intelligent life anywhere else in our galaxy, or even a nearby galaxy, to come pay a visit.
• They haven’t.

This convinces Bostrom that interstellar travel must be impossible – if it wasn’t, someone would have stopped in by now, if only to ask for directions.

What makes interstellar travel impossible? Bostrom and economist Robin Hanson theorize (or “theorise” – they are British, after all) the existence of one or more “Great Filters.” The evolution of life, from primordial ooze to galactic explorer, requires a vast number of steps, some so complicated as to be virtually impossible. Obviously, one of those steps has been preventing interstellar travel for the past 14.5 billion years, so it must be pretty good.

What does all this have to do with life here on Earth? Simply this: the identity of this filter, and whether it lies ahead of us or behind us, may very well determine the fate of all humanity.

If the filter lies behind us—especially if the filter lies wayyyy behind us—then we’re in good shape. We’ve passed the barrier that has stopped everybody else. But if the filter lies close to us—or, worse yet, ahead of us—then it spells big trouble. For example, perhaps the only way to travel the stars is to harness some great energy source: nuclear power, or perhaps something we haven’t discovered yet. And perhaps every civilization in the history of the Universe that discovered this power ended up blowing themselves up. It’s unlikely that we would be any different.

Bostrom’s conclusion is counter-intuitive but compelling. If, as we explore the Universe, we find life is rare, then that’s good news—Earth succeeded where every other planet failed. But if we find that life, especially complex, intelligent life, is common, then that doesn’t bode well at all. Whatever stopped those planets is likely going to stop us, too.

*(PS: The answer is, Tommy James and the Shondells, later covered by Tiffany -- both proof that intelligent life is exceedingly rare, even here on Earth.)


It's lonely out in space / on such a timeless flight: It was 47 years ago today that Lt. Gagarin rode a rocket ship into history, burning out his fuse up here alone.
It's lonely out in space / on such a timeless flight: It was 47 years ago today that Lt. Gagarin rode a rocket ship into history, burning out his fuse up here alone.Courtesy NASA

On April 12, 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (and how long has it been since you've heard that particular sequence of words?) became the first human being in outer space. Tonight, people in 50 countries on 7 continents are planning parties to celebrate. Don't miss out on the fun! And start planning now for the big 50th anniversary celebration in just three years.

Encladaeus, a moon of Saturn, is emitting jets of very pure water, forcing scientists to reconsider just what the heck is going on up there.

Not our moon, but Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Scientists are planning new missions to explore Europa, which they now believe contains a water-filled ocean, and possibly life.

Scientists have announced the discovery of the largest planet yet found, some 1.7 times the size of Jupiter, and circling a star 1,400 light years away.