Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Twilight Geek: Where Is Everybody?

Not that long ago, astronomers were wondering if there could be life "out there." One argument, favored by Carl Sagan, was that there are so many stars that there must be a large number of them that have planets and thus so many planets that it was likely that some form of life arose on some of them. Put another way, no matter how small you wanted to make the chances of life developing, there are likely so many opportunities that life should have appeared in a goodly number of places.

That argument, of course, was logic drawn from probabilities. And life has still never been found anywhere other than Earth. But with what is being learned now, the question really is shifting from "Is there life out there?" to "How can there not be life out there?" For example, astronomers have actually mapped the climate of a planet called HD 189733b, which orbits a star some 63 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. Last month, reported that
[r]esearchers say they have found the best evidence to date that planets outside our solar system have water.

“Water is the quintessence of life as we know it,” said Yuk Yung, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. It’s “exciting to find that it is as abundant in another solar system as it is in ours.” Yung is co-author of a paper on the finding, appearing in this week’s issue of the research journal Nature. ...

Researchers had predicted that planets of its class, called “hot Jupiters,” would contain water vapor; recent observations had also suggested as much. The new research confirmed this, using the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope’s particularly keen ability to study near­by stars and their planets, scientists said. ...

“Finding water on this planet implies that other planets in the universe, possibly even rocky ones, could also have water,” said co-author Sean Carey of the Spitzer Science Center at Cal­tech.
We know that water ice and water vapor exist on Mars and it's possible that liquid water still flows occasionally on the surface in brief spurts. Icy water geysers may well be on Saturn's moon Enceladus. There might be water on Pluto's moon Charon. We know Jupiter's moon Europa has a surface covered with water ice - and it probably has a liquid ocean underneath the frozen surface. Even our own Moon might harbor water, at least in the form of frost. We're finding water all over our solar system - and now elsewhere in the galaxy as well.

On top of that, within the last year, astronomers have found three molecules in space carrying a negative electrical charge. Big whoop, you say? It is. You see, scientists had discovered about 130 neutral and about a dozen positively-charged molecules in space but thought negatively-charged ones wouldn't be found because radiation would knock off the excess electrons, which carry the negative electrical charge, leaving the molecule either neutral or positive.

Still big whoop? Try this:
“This discovery continues to add to the diversity and complexity that is already seen in the chemistry of interstellar space,” said Anthony J. Remijan of the Charlottesville, Va.-based National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

“It also adds to the number of paths available for making the complex organic molecules,” the ingredients of life, he added. Such substances are thought to have formed in the same giant clouds that give rise to stars and planets.
Get it now? The discovery adds to the number of ways that organic molecules on which life is based could arise, making the formation of such molecules - and thus life - that much more likely.

No, this doesn't mean that SETI will hit paydirt any day now. It doesn't even mean that there is another intelligent species anywhere out there (and please no cracks about if there's intelligence here). It does make it increasingly likely that whether it be brainiacs or bacteria, the universe in all its wonder is glowing with life.

No comments:

// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');