Our Alien Moon

For years, scientists have believed that the Moon was caused by a terrible collision between the Earth and a rogue alien planet.  The hypothesis was that the alien planet, called Theia, smashed into the Earth 4.5 million years ago, and the resulting dust and fragments and debris ultimately coalesced to form the Moon.

The theory looked good on the computer simulations and sounded right.  But there was one problem:  there was no physical evidence of the cataclysmic crash.  If Theia had, in fact, collided with Earth and been pulverized, why wouldn’t we find pieces of Theia and its alien geology scattered about like Indian arrowheads?  So scientists refined the theory and concluded that most of Theia ended up forming the Moon.  And they had a way to test the theory — checking out the rocks that the Apollo astronauts gathered from the lunar surface and testing them for signs of their Theianic origin.

Initial tests, however, indicated that the Moon’s geology looked just like the Earth.  It was so perplexing for our scientific friends!  But they kept testing, and now — more than 40 years after the first Moon rocks were retrieved — scientists think they have found traces of Theia.  Some of the lunar rocks show slight differences in their oxygen composition that scientists believe reflect an alien origin, and therefore would be Theia’s fingerprint.

The findings aren’t without controversy, and some scientists argue that the differences are so slight the rocks are still of Earth origin.  Others theorize that the rocks are alien after all, and that scientists were wrong to expect huge differences in planetary composition — a theory that has intriguing implications for the history of our solar system and the possibility that old Earth really isn’t as unique as we once thought.

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Red Planet, White Rock, Deep Meaning

NASA’s Curiosity rover has once again excited scientists with some provocative discoveries about Mars.

Curiosity drove over a Martian rock and broke it open, exposing a dazzling white exterior.  The striking ivory color indicates the presence of hydrated minerals in the rock.  As any person who walks around with a water bottle knows, “hydration” requires water, and hydrated minerals are those that are formed when water is found.  Curiosity also has detected clay-type minerals in a different rock — another clue suggesting the presence of water at some point.  These discoveries are part of a growing body of evidence that running water once existed on this part of the surface of Mars.

On Earth, water seems to have been a crucial building block in whatever process, or outside force, first created life.  If water flowed on the Red Planet, the odds are increased that life once existed there — and may exist there still.  Although the surface of Mars is now a dusty red desert, it is possible that water and ice remain in rock formations deep below the Martian surface.  If so, life may be found there, because studies on Earth indicate that life, once established, is remarkably hardy.  The expedition to drill into a lake buried beneath a two-mile thick sheet of ice in Antartica, for example, recently uncovered life forms even in that dark, desolate, and inhospitable location.  Why should life on Mars be any less tenacious?

I’m of the Star Trek generation.  I believe that looking for — and especially finding — life beyond the confines of our home planet is a good way to get squabbling humans to recognize that their differences are minor and not worthy of much attention in the grand scheme of things.  We need to move beyond a mindset that focuses exclusively on our own fleeting creature comforts and recognize that we live in but one tiny, wayward corner of an unimaginably vast universe.  It’s been 40 years since humans walked on the Moon.  When will we take the next step, to Mars and beyond, to see whether life in fact may be found elsewhere?

How Much Would You Pay For Space?

I’ve always wanted to go into space some day.  When I was a kid and Apollo missions were landing on the Moon every few months, that seemed like a real possibility.  Sci-fi features like 2001:  A Space Odyssey forecast that routine commercial travel to the Moon would be available a decade ago.  Of course, that didn’t happen . . . and now time seems to be running out.

But perhaps there’s still a chance for 50-something space traveler wannabes like me.  Virgin Galactic is nearing completion of the beautiful, futuristic spaceport shown at left, called the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, in the New Mexico desert.

The company plans on beginning passenger service in 2014.  When the spaceport is operational, would-be astronauts will board a small rocket plane tethered to a mother ship.  When the mother ship reaches a point nine miles above the earth, the rocket plane will be launched, the rocket will be ignited, the passengers will experience 3 gees of force as they zoom through the upper atmosphere until they encounter the blackness of space.  The pilot then will cut the rocket engine and the passengers will experience four minutes of weightlessness and have a chance to enjoy a view so vast they can see the curvature of the Earth.  Then the plane will reenter the atmosphere, hurtle back to Earth, and land on the spaceport’s long runway.

All this will be available to the average Joe — provided the average Joe can pony up $200,000 for the experience.  If I had millions of dollars in the bank, I’d do it.  Because I don’t have that kind of coin, however, I’ll just bide my time and hope that competition brings the price of space down to more manageable levels so that, someday, a codger like me will be able to enjoy the wonders of space.

Disaster Raining From The Skies

A meteor crashed yesterday in Russia’s Ural mountains, injuring at least 500 people and blowing out windows in nearby towns.  And today, Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass within a hair’s-breadth of the Earth — in galactic terms, at least — when it scoots by at a distance of 17,200 miles.

Scientists say there is no chance that the asteroid will strike our planet.  Nevertheless, at 2:25 p.m. EST, the point of the asteroid’s closest approach, the nervous among us will be watching the live NASA feed, checking their watches, and peering anxiously at the skies, wondering if a computer somehow miscalculated at the 10th decimal point or if scientists really can’t determine, with complete precision, the flight path of a tumbling asteroid navigating through the complex interplay of gravitational forces of the Sun, Earth, the Moon, and other celestrial bodies in the inner solar system.  Or, perhaps, they might wonder if Asteroid 2012 DA14 isn’t a bit capricious and miffed at having been given such an uninteresting moniker and might just decide to veer from its anticipated path to wreak havoc on the residents of Mother Earth and make a more lasting name for itself.

If 2:25 passes without disaster striking, they’ll briefly breath a sigh of relief before starting to worry about the next meteorite fly-by or some possible global epidemic or the risks of a newly discovered food-borne pathogen.

Me, I’ll be driving to and from Cleveland today.  I won’t be thinking about Asteroid 2012 DA14, but I will be worrying about my fellow drivers heading north and south on the I-71 corridor.  They’ll be a lot closer than 17,200 miles away, and a lot more likely to inflict injury, disaster, and chaos.

Alpha Centauri’s Earth-Sized Planet

Science continues to achieve amazing advances in our ability to detect, measure, and analyze planets orbiting stars far outside our solar system.

So far, scientists have discovered and confirmed the existence of more than 800 planets.  Most of the planets, however, are huge gas giants, like Jupiter or Saturn in our solar system.  The latest advance in detection capabilities came this week, when scientists announced that they have detected the lightest planet to orbit a Sun-like star — and the star just happens to be Alpha Centauri, a weird, triple-star system that is the Sun’s nearest galactic neighbor.

Alpha Centauri, for those who fell asleep during astronomy class, is a mere 4.3 light years away.  Of course, one light year is 6 trillion (6,000,000,000,000) miles away, but who’s counting?  The planet scientists have detected is about the mass of our good Earth.

Before you start worrying that little green men might appear on your doorstep tonight, take a deep breath:  the Earth-sized planet is closer to Alpha Centauri B than Mercury is to the Sun, so it’s probably not conducive to life.  Still, the discovery is remarkable.  In the not too distant future, scientists will use this detection technology to find a planet about the size and mass of Earth, orbiting a star a lot like Sol, at a distance that would suggest that it is likely to be temperate.  What will that mean?  My guess is that we will train every radio telescope and sensory device we have in the direction of that planet, listen as hard as we can, and hope.

 

Venus On The Move

Venus is on the move today and tomorrow.  It’s traveling slowly across the face of the Sun, on a journey that astronomers call being “in transit” — as if Venus were hopping a subway to get from one side of the solar system to another.

These kind of astronomical events are very cool, because they happen so rarely.  There’s a “music of the spheres” sort of celestial harmony to Venus’ journey that reflects a special, highly unusual confluence of positioning of the Sun, Venus, and Earth.  It won’t happen again for 105 years.  By then, we hope, the European debt crisis will have been resolved.  In fact, some astrologers are saying that the transit of Venus might help to solve such problems.  It’s is supposed to herald in a new era of spiritual and technological revolution . . . or, it’s supposed to strongly accentuate feelings of love and hate.  With astrology, it always seems to be one or the other.

As with any solar celestial phenomenon, the news stories always caution people not to look directly at old Sol.  It’s hard to believe anyone would try to use the naked eye to check out the Venus transit, because Venus will be only a small speck against the enormous disk of the Sun.  You supposedly can see it safely by creating one of those pinhole-in-a-box projectors that the news stories typically mention in these circumstances.  I tried to make one of those devices when there was a solar eclipse during my childhood, and I gave up in frustration when it didn’t work.  This time, I’ll just rely on the photos, and in the meantime wish Venus well on her cross-town travel.

No Alien Answer — Yet

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has made huge strides in recent years.

Using new techniques, scientists have identified many apparently habitable planets, thereby suggesting that the first ingredient of extraterrestrial intelligence — a planet where a sophisticated alien race might develop — is much more common than people once thought.  Studies have shown that life has developed and thrived in the most inhospitable climates on Earth, from superhot underseas vents to the coldest ice caves at our poles.  And now, astronomers are targeting specific stars with radio frequency searches designed to hear any radio wave activity.

The astronomers examined Gliese 581, a red dwarf 20 light years away that is orbited by six planets, including two jumbo-sized Earth-like planets.  If Gliese 581 were aiming a similar array at Earth, it would hear countless radio broadcasts from 20 years ago — lots of the music of Nirvana, and reports on the upcoming Bush-Clinton presidential election, no doubt.  But from Gliese 581, the astronomers heard . . . nothing.  If there is life on the planets in the Gliese 581 system, it either hasn’t progressed to the point of using radio technology or uses some other form of communication we haven’t discovered.

The fact that we haven’t heard an answer yet doesn’t mean life isn’t out there somewhere.  The technique used on Gliese 581 was targeted at a small dot in a universe that has countless such dots.  The astronomers could experience years of radio silence from their targets, but the world would change immediately if the radio astronomers heard alien communications from just one target — as was the case in Maria Doria Russell’s excellent novel The Sparrow.

We don’t know if we’re unique, and whether Earth is the only planet in the vast universe where intelligent creatures capable of extraterrestrial communications have developed.  Being something of a skeptic, I’m not willing to accept that proposition.  Time, and some more efforts to listen in on alien radio, will tell.