Was Life On Mars Discovered 30 Years Ago?

Simply put, there is life on Mars – or at least that’s the most plausible explanation that NASA scientists can put forward in order to explain certain observations in the lab. A robotic mission launched thirty years ago, the Viking 1 and Viking 2, brought soil samples back to Earth and these have been thoroughly tested for the presence of Martian life, and the tests have been encouraging.

Life Hiding Somewhere?: Photo returned by the Viking Spacecraft (Photo Courtesy: GSFC, NASA)

One of the packages brought back by the Viking spacecraft was collected by the Labeled Release (LR) apparatus. This sample is particularly interesting.

The ticks of life

Soil microbes metabolize and release carbon dioxide, using up minerals in the soil. The carbon in the carbon dioxide contains one radioactive atom in a million million atoms, but since there are lots of carbon atoms around, there is a lot of radioactive carbon as well. And this shows up in any instrument that measures radioactivity, like a Geiger Counter. So the idea is that if a soil sample emits more than its share of radioactive rays, the chances are very high indeed that there are microbes inside, that are churning out carbon dioxide gas, which can escape and be detected. The detector will produce more counts than normal.

They found exactly that! A control sample was put in to confirm that this is indeed due to some source of microbe inside the soil sample. This sample was baked at a high temperature to kill any microbe that might be present. When the two samples were checked for radiation, the unbaked LR sample clocked around 10,000 counts per minute, while the background was only about 100.

However, this is not true of the other two experiments on the Viking spacecraft. This non-confirmation led to the dismissal of the probability of life.

The diurnal cycle of life

Life on any planet, especially if local, adjusts its living patterns – sleeping, hunting etc. – according to the clock on that planet. Lifeforms on Earth have a 24 hour clock schedule, but on Mars the day is 24.7 hours long, and that will be the so-called ‘circadian rhythm’.

The funny thing is that the radiation emitted by the LR apparatus sample also shows this daily cycle. The radiation goes down, indicating a period of inactivity, then goes up again. The oscillation is periodic with the exact period of 24.66 hours.

Joseph Miller, a neurobiologist at University of Southern California, and a member of the study says:

That is basically a circadian rhythm, and we think circadian rhythms are a good signal for life.

No one has yet cultured a Martian microbe. The next spacecraft explorer – Curiosity – which is scheduled to land on Mars in a few days will shed much more light on this very critical issue.

We may not only have company in the Universe, it might even be just next door.
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Discovered ‘Super-Earth’ Could Harbor Life: Is This Our Cosmic Neighbor?

According to a huge announcement by the European Southern Observatory, more than 50 alien planets discovered by its telescope could harbour life. Out of these 50, 16 are so-called super Earths’, or planets that are similar to our own, but bigger.

The Goldilocks Zone

Earth is unique in the sense that it is a rocky planet, contains water in liquid form and is at an optimum distance from the host star. This allows the temperature to be within habitable range, as well as supports diverse weather conditions. These are the signs that astronomers were looking for while scouring the sky with the exo-planet hunting telescope. Sixteen of the potentially habitable 50 were declared to be Earth-like.

An Artist's Impression of the Alien Planet (Courtesy: ESO)

Amongst these 16, one of the planets caught the astronomers’ attention. This Super-Earth, called HD 85512b, orbits its star within the habitable region a narrow region around the star where conditions could be optimal to support known forms of life.

Finding an Alien Planet

The ESO’s instrument of pride is the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) telescope. The HARPS telescope is more a spectroscope than a conventional telescope. It measures changes in the spectral signature of a planet-star system. This simply means that the light intensity and wavelength both change and tracking these gives hints of a planet orbiting a star. Accurate measurements can give the mass of the planet, and sometimes, even the composition.

Planets tug on stars due to gravity and this makes the star wobble slightly. These radial velocity signals’ can be easily picked up by HARPS. The enormous resolution of HARPS ensures that it can even detect the slightest of wobbles.

HD 85512b is located pretty close by too. It is only 35 light-years away and is estimated to be 3.6 times more massive than the Earth. Orbiting in the habitable region’, the super-Earth could possibly support liquid water.

Only further studies will reveal whether this super-Earth is indeed inhabited by beings as complex as those found on Earth. Have we just found the home of our intergalactic neighbour?

SETI’s Telescope Array Kept Alive By Donations From Many, Including Actor Jodie Foster

The desire for extra-terrestrial contact is too much to resist. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, California, suffered a big blow a few months ago, when its main array of radio-telescope the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) was put out of operation due to budget cuts both from the Centre and the State. However, a week ago it was revived and it’s doing what it does best look out for radio signals from outer space.

SETI’s ATA: Fresh hopes

SETI’s ATA was handed a new lease of life by numerous donors, who shelled out large amounts and helped SETI reach its campaign goal of $200,000. It ended up with a collection of $223,000 thanks to 2557 donors. One of the star donors was Jodie Foster, actor in the female lead in the film Contact’. Her donation amount however, is not known.

The Movie

In the movie, Foster played a very passionate and extremely gifted scientist, who goes from pillar-to-post searching for funds when the initial funds for her Radio Telescope expedition suddenly dry up. When she receives periodic signals from an unmistakably alien intelligence source, she suddenly gets the attention of the science community. Contact! Who can possibly forget the frenetic passion enthused by Foster when she hears the first Contact – a periodic metallic ring buzzing on her laptop? Watch it here.

Deciphering the coded message, the science community builds a device, which is tested by Foster. It turns out to be a device, which creates a wormhole. When she relates this experience, no one believes her and even the scientist in her doubts it! Based on the book by the same name written by Carl Sagan, Contact is scientifically accurate both in fact and spirit. (I would personally recommend it!)

Reality

Foster, like her character in the movie, says that the ATA is too good to go. The telescopes:

could turn science fiction into science fact, but only if it is actively searching the skies. I support the effort to bring the array out of hibernation.

The ATA was founded based on a grand fund donated by Paul Allen. SETI realises the need to find new and long-term sources of funding.

One momentous discovery can turn it around for SETI. Everyone hopes that the movie-like beep-beep-beep’ can pull it out of the forced slumber.

Alien Hunting: SETI Puts ATA On Hibernation Due To Fund Crunch

The famous Allen Telescope Array (ATA) has been suspended from active operation by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) due to fund crunch. For SETI, which is almost five decades old, this is the worst it has ever seen.  The news of the suspension was broken by Tom Pierson, CEO of SETI institute, on 22nd April in an open letter to SETI donors.

 

Courtesy: SETI

 

SETI was designed to listen to and interpret signals coming from space in the hope that extra-terrestrial life-forms might beam communication symbols at us or at some other civilization, which we might intercept. With its 42 radio telescopes, the ATA (or ATA-42, as it was often called) formed a formidable backbone for this mission. It was founded in 2007 with generous donations from Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder, after whom the array has been named. The array is now kept just alive with a bare minimum of crew looking after it, so that it doesn’t deteriorate.

ATA was being funded by the University of California, Berkeley, and as per expansion plans, nearly 300 new dishes were to be put up in the near future (taking the total to nearly 350). However, recently the funds have dried up and SETI is running around looking for sponsors simply to keep its esteemed array alive.

The Allen Telescope Array

SETI has received criticism from many quarters in the half-century of its operation. Most of what it listens to is static. This is to be expected, but many say that the search itself is futile, or at best, time and money sapping. It also has had its share of well-wishers, most notably the late Carl Sagan.

SETI argues that detection of even a single positive signal will be gold. Till now, no confirmatory detection has been made.

However, ATA was used for more than listening for alien signals. It was used for mapping and classifying extragalactic radio sources, such as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN’s). It was also used to monitor 40 billion billion stars in the inner Galactic plane with the hope of detecting some strong artificial radio transmission. ATA is known for its sensitivity and a large field of view (nearly 2.5 degree at 21 cm wavelength the H-I line).

A positive detection now will put the ATA back on course. Here’s wishing SETI happy alien hunting.