Archive for the ‘Alien life’ Category

By Irene Klotz

Ice plumes shooting into space from Saturn’s ocean-bearing moon Enceladus contain hydrogen from hydrothermal vents, an environment that some scientists believe led to the rise of life on Earth, research publish”If correct, this observation has fundamental implications for the possibility of life on Enceladus,” geochemist Jeffrey Seewald, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, wrote in a related commentary in Science.

The discovery was made using NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which in September will end a 13-year mission exploring Saturn and its entourage of 62 known moons.

The detection of molecular hydrogen occurred in October 2015 during Cassini’s last pass through Enceladus’ plumes, when it skimmed 30 miles (49 km) above the moon’s southern pole taking samples.

In 2005, Cassini discovered Enceladus’s geysers, which shoot hundreds of miles into space. Some of the material falls back onto the surface as a fresh coat of ice, while much of the rest gathers into a halo of ice dust that feeds one of Saturn’s rings.ed on Thursday showed.

The discovery makes Enceladus the only place beyond Earth where scientists have found direct evidence of a possible energy source for life, according to the findings in the journal Science.

Similar conditions, in which hot rocks meet ocean water, may have been the cradle for the appearance of microbial life on Earth more than 4 billion years ago.

“If correct, this observation has fundamental implications for the possibility of life on Enceladus,” geochemist Jeffrey Seewald, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, wrote in a related commentary in Science.

The discovery was made using NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which in September will end a 13-year mission exploring Saturn and its entourage of 62 known moons.

The detection of molecular hydrogen occurred in October 2015 during Cassini’s last pass through Enceladus’ plumes, when it skimmed 30 miles (49 km) above the moon’s southern pole taking samples.

In 2005, Cassini discovered Enceladus’s geysers, which shoot hundreds of miles into space. Some of the material falls back onto the surface as a fresh coat of ice, while much of the rest gathers into a halo of ice dust that feeds one of Saturn’s rings.

A decade later, scientists measuring the moon’s slightly wobbly orbit around Saturn determined it holds a vast ocean buried 19- to 25 miles (30- to 40 km) beneath its icy shell. The ocean is believed to be the geysers’ source.

Several moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn are known to contain underground oceans, but Enceladus is the only one where scientists have found proof of an energy source for life.

“We’re moving toward Enceladus’s ocean being habitable, but we’re not making any claims at this point about it being inhabited,” lead author Hunter Waite, with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said in an interview.

“The next time we go back … you’re going to take something that not only picks up on the habitability story, but it starts looking for evidence for life.”

Enceladus has a diameter of 310 miles (500 km) and is one of Saturn’s innermost moons. The heat needed to keep its ocean from freezing is thought to come from tidal forces exerted by Saturn and a neighboring larger moon, Dione.

By Jennifer Frazer

In addition to irritatingly lodging themselves everywhere from shower grout to the Russian space station Mir, fungi that live inside rocks in Antarctica have managed to survive a year and half in low-Earth orbit under punishing Mars-like conditions, scientists recently reported in the journal Astrobiology. A few of them even managed to cap their year in Mars-like space by reproducing.

Why were they subjected to such an ordeal? Scientists have concluded over the past decade that Mars (which like Earth is about four and a half billion years old) supported water for long periods during its first billion years, and they wonder if life that may have evolved during that time may remain on the planet in fossilized or even fresh condition. The climate back then was more temperate than today, featuring a thicker atmosphere and a more forgiving and moist climate.

But how do you search for that life? Using life that exists in what they believe is this planet’s closest analogue, a team of scientists from Europe and the United States hoped to identify the kind of biosignatures that might prove useful in such a search, while also seeing if the Earthly life forms might be capable of withstanding current Mars-like conditions.

Which is to say, not nice.

The temperature on Mars fluctuates wildly on a daily basis. The Mars Science Laboratory rover has measured daily swings of up to 80°C (that’s 144°F), veering from -70°C(-94°F) at night to 10°C(50°F) at Martian high noon. If you can survive that, you also have to get past the super-intense ultraviolet radiation, an atmosphere of 95% carbon dioxide (the effect of which on humans was vividly illustrated at the end of Total Recall), a pressure of 600 to 900 Pascals (Earth: 101,325 Pascals), and cosmic radiation at a dose of about .2mGy/day (Earth: .001 mGy/day). I don’t know about you, but Mars is not my first vacation choice.

And it’s probably not Cryomyces antarcticus’s either, in spite of the extreme place it calls home. Cryomyces antarcticus and its relative Cryomyces minteri – the two fungi tested independently in this study — are members of a group called black fungi or black yeast for their heavily pigmented hulls that allow them to withstand a wide variety environmental stresses. Members of the group somewhat notoriously turned up a few years ago in a study that found two species of the group commonly live inside dishwashers in people’s homes (they were opportunistic human pathogns, but most humans are immune to them). But most of these fungi live quietly in the most extreme environments on earth.

The particular black fungi used in this experiment, generally considered the toughest on the planet, live in tiny tunnels of their own creation inside Antarctic rocks. This is apparently the only place they can grow without being annihilated by the crushing climate and blistering ultraviolet radiation of Antarctica. Antarctica also happens to be the place on Earth most similar – although still not particularly similar, as you have seen — to our friendly neighborhood Red Planet. This endurance has made both black fungi and their neighbors the lichens popular test pilots for Mars-like conditions on the international space station.

For example, lichen-forming fungi that create the common and beautiful orange Xanthoria elegans and also Acarospora made the same trip to the ISS previously, in a European module of the International Space Station called EXPOSE-E. Both survived the experience, and Acarospora even managed to reproduce.

But this seems to be the first time a non-lichen forming fungus has received the ISS treatment.

These particular two fungi – Cryomyces antarcticus and Cryomyces minteri – were collected from the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica in Southern Victoria Land, supposedly the most Mars-like place on Earth. They were isolated from dry sandstone onto a plate of fungus food called malt extract agar. This gelatinous disc was then dried along with the fungus living on it inside a dessicator, and sent into space like that.

Each colony was about 1mm in diameter, and each yeast cell in it was 10 micrometers in size. Like most black yeast/fungi, they have a dark outer wall.

The scientists also tested an entire community of “cryptoendolithic” organisms – those that live secretly inside rocks, including not just fungi but also rock-dwelling blue-green algae – by testing whole fragments of rocks collected on Battleship Promontory in Southern Victoria Land, Antarctica. The various organisms live in bands of varying color and depth within 1 centimeter of the rock surface.

The fungi were launched into space in February 2008 and returned to Earth on September 12, 2009. During that time they were placed in a bath of gasses as similar as possible to the atmosphere of Mars and exposed to simulated full Martian UV radiation, one-thousandth Martian UV, or kept in the dark. They also endured the cosmic background radiation of space and temperature swings between -21.7°C and 42.9°C – much warmer than Mars, but the best that could be done. Control samples remained in the dark on Earth.

Once back on Earth, the colonies and rock samples were rehydrated. Their appearance had not changed during their voyage. They were then tested for viability by diluting them in water and plating the resulting solution to see how many new colonies formed. They also estimated the percentage of cells with undamaged cell membranes by using a chemical that can only penetrate damaged cell membranes.

The scientists found that the black yeast’s ability to form new colonies was severely impaired by its time on “Mars”, but it was not zero. When kept in the dark on the ISS, about 1.5% of C. antarcticus was able to form colonies post-exposure, while only .08% of C. minteri could. Surprisingly, those exposed to .1% of Mars UV did better, with 4-5 times more surviving: just over 8% for C. antarcticus and 2% for C. minteri. Perhaps the weak radiation stimulated mutations or stress-response proteins that might have helped the fungi somehow.

With the full force of Martian radiation, the survival rates were about the same as for those samples kept in the dark, which is to say, nearly nil. By comparison, about 46% of control C. antarcticus samples kept in the dark back on Earth yielded colony forming units, while only about 17% of C. minteri did. Not super high rates, but still much higher than their space-faring comrades.

On the other hand, the percentage of cells with intact cell membranes was apparently much higher than the number that could reproduce. 65% of C. antarcticus cells remained intact regardless of UV exposure, while C. minteri’s survival rates fluctuated between 18 and 50%, again doing better with UV exposure than in the dark. Colonized rock communities yielded the highest percentage of intact cells of any samples when kept in the dark – around 75%, but some of the lowest when exposed to solar UV, with just 10-18 % surviving intact.

What explains this apparent survival discrepancy between being alive and being able to reproduce? It may be that the reproductive apparati of the fungi are more sensitive to cosmic radiation than their cell membranes and walls, the authors suggest.

The authors’ results also suggest to them that DNA is the biomolecule of choice to use to search for life on Mars, as it, like the cell membranes, survived largely intact even in cells that could no longer reproduce.

Although Mars-based life may not use DNA genetic material, then again, it just might. It certainly seems to have worked well for us here on Earth.

Even though few of the fungi exposed to Mars-like conditions survived well enough to reproduce, in all cases, at least a fraction did. Perhaps that is the material thing. A similar previous experiment showed one green alga, Stichococcus, and one fungus, Acarospora were able to reproduce after a very similar trip on the space station. Another experiment with the bacterium Bacillus subtilis found that up to 20% of their spores were able to germinate and grow after Mars-like exposure. Theoretically, it only takes one or two to hang on and adapt to these conditions to found a whole lineage of Mars-tolerant life (the major reason, by the way, for NASA’s Planetary Protection Program).

On the other hand, some have suggested that long-term survival of Earthly life is impossible on Mars. Given the extremely low reproductive ability after just 1.5 years, this study did nothing to undermine that idea either.

But all of our studies have tested life that evolved on Earth. What about life that evolved on Mars? There’s just no telling how similar or dissimilar such creatures — supposing they exist or ever existed – might be.


The Chinese government is relocating thousands of villagers to complete construction by September of the world’s biggest radio telescope, whose intended purpose is to detect signs of extraterrestrial life.

The telescope would be 500 meters, or 1,640 feet, in diameter, by far the largest of its kind in the world. It is called FAST, for Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, and costs an estimated 1.2 billion renminbi, or $184 million.

The mass relocation was announced on Tuesday in a report by Xinhua, the state news agency. The report said officials were relocating 2,029 families, a total of 9,110 people, living within a three-mile radius of the telescope in the area of Pingtang and Luodian Counties in the southwestern province of Guizhou.

Officials plan to give each person the equivalent of $1,800 for housing compensation, the report said. Guizhou is one of China’s poorest provinces.

Forced relocations for infrastructure projects are common across China, and the people being moved by officials often complain both of the eviction from their homes and inadequate compensation. The Three Gorges Dam displaced more than one million people along the Yangtze River, and the middle route of the gargantuan South-North Water Diversion Project has resulted in the relocation of 350,000 people to make way for a series of canals.

The Chinese government has announced ambitious plans for its space program, at a time when the American one is in retreat. China aims to put an astronaut on the moon and a space station in orbit. The FAST project is another important element in the larger plan.

The telescope is being built in a wide depression among karst hills. The depression is far from cities and ideal for picking up radio transmissions, the Xinhua report said. Scientists began looking for a site in 1994 and finally settled on the Dawodang depression.

If the truth is out there, then some Chinese scientists are confident that the giant telescope will find it. The current largest operational radio telescope is the 300-meter-diameter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, but FAST in Guizhou will far surpass that.

Li Di, a chief scientist with the National Astronomical Observatories under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told China Daily last year that “with a larger signal receiving area and more flexibility, FAST will be able to scan two times more sky area than Arecibo, with three to five times higher sensitivity.”

Last November, scientists successfully tested the telescope’s “retina,” which weighs 33 tons and is suspended 460 to 525 feet above the reflector dish, which was half-finished at the time, China Daily reported.

The telescope has 4,500 panels that are mostly triangular and whose sides measure 36 feet, the report said. Those create a parabolic shape. The panels move and, by doing so, alter the shape of the antenna, which is supposed to pick up radio signals from distant corners of the universe. Those signals would then be reflected to a focal point.

Mr. Li told China Daily that engineers were aiming to install all the panels by this June and complete debugging by September.

“Ultimately, exploring the unknown is the nature of mankind,” he said, adding that it was “as visceral as feeding and clothing ourselves.”

“It drives us to a greater future,” he said.

A large cluster of objects in space look like something you would “expect an alien civilization to build”, astronomers have said.

Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish a report on the “bizarre” star system – suggesting the objects could be a “swarm of megastructures”.

He told The Independent: “I can’t figure this thing out and that’s why it’s so interesting, so cool – it just doesn’t seem to make sense.”

Speaking to The Atlantic, Mr Wright said: “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilisation to build. I was fascinated by how crazy it looked.”

The snappily named KIC 8462852 star lies just above the Milky Way, between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. It first attracted the attention of astronomers in 2009, when the Kepler Space Telescope identified it as a candidate for having orbiting Earth-like planets.

But KIC 8462852 was emitting a stranger light pattern than any of the other stars in Kepler’s search for habitable planets.

Kepler works by analysing light from distant places in the universe — looking for changes that take place when planets move in front of their stars. But the dip in starlight from KIC 8462852 does not seem to be the normal pattern for a planet.

Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale, told The Atlantic: “We’d never seen anything like this star. It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”

In 2011 the star was flagged up again by several members of Kepler’s “Planet Hunters” team – a group of ‘citizen scientists’ tasked with analysing the data from the 150,000 stars Kepler was watching.

The analysts tagged the star as “interesting “ and “bizarre” because it was surrounded by a mass of matter in tight formation.

This was consistent with the mass of debris that surrounds a young star just as it did with our sun before the planets formed. However this star was not young and the debris must have been deposited around it fairly recently or it would have been clumped together by gravity – or swallowed by the star itself.

Boyajian, who oversees the Planet Hunters project, recently published a paper looking at all the possible natural explanations for the objects and found all of them wanting except one – that another star had pulled a string of comets close to KIC 8462852. But he said even this would involve an incredibly improbable coincidence.

A this stage Mr Wright, the astronomer from Penn State University, and his colleague Andrew Siemion, the Director of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), got involved. Now the possibility the objects were created by intelligent creatures is being taken very seriously by the team.

As civilisations become more technologically advanced, they create new and better ways of collecting energy — with the end result being the harnessing of energy directly from their star. If the speculation about a megastructure being placed around the star system is correct, scientists say it could be a huge set of solar panels placed around the star.

The three astronomers want to point a radio dish at the star to look for wavelengths associated with technological civilisations. And the first observations could be ready to take place as early as January, with follow-up observations potentially coming even quicker.

“If things go really well, the follow-up could happen sooner,” Wright told The Atlantic. “If we saw something exciting… we’d be asking to go on right away.”

Thanks to Kebmodee and David Frey for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

British astrophysicist and cosmologist, Sir Martin Rees, believes if we manage to detect aliens, it will not be by stumbling across organic life, but from picking up a signal made by machines.

It’s likely these machines will have evolved from organic alien beings, and that humans will also make the transition from biological to mechanical in the future.

Sir Martin said that while the way we think has led to all culture and science on Earth, it will be a brief precursor to more powerful machine ‘brains’.

He thinks that life away from Earth has probably already gone through this transition from organic to machine.

On a planet orbiting a star far older than the sun, life ‘may have evolved much of the way toward a dominant machine intelligence,’ he writes.

Sir Martin believes it could be one or two more centuries before humans are overtaken by machine intelligence, which will then evolve over billions of years, either with us, or replacing us.

‘This suggests that if we were to detect ET, it would be far more likely to be inorganic: We would be most unlikely to “catch” alien intelligence in the brief sliver of time when it was still in organic form,’ he writes.

Despite this, the astronomer said Seti searches are worthwhile, because the stakes are so high.

Seti seeks our electromagnetic transmissions thought to be made artificially, but even if it did hit the jackpot and detect a possible message sent by aliens, Sir Martin says it is unlikely we would be able to decode it.

He thinks such a signal would probably be a byproduct or malfunction of a complex machine far beyond our understanding that could trace its lineage back to organic alien beings, which may still exist on a planet, or have died out.

He also points out that even if intelligence is widespread across the cosmos, we may only ever recognise a fraction of it because ‘brains’ may take a form unrecognisable to humans.

For example, instead of being an alien civilisation, ET may be a single integrated intelligence.

He mused that the galaxy may already teem with advanced life and that our descendants could ‘plug in’ to a galactic community.

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Klingon was the chosen language for the Welsh government in its response to queries about UFO sightings at Cardiff Airport.

While English and Welsh are the usual forms of communications in the Senedd, it opted for the native tongue of the enemies of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk.

Shadow Health Minister Darren Millar had asked for details of UFOs sightings and asked if research would be funded.

A Welsh government spokesman responded with: “jang vIDa je due luq.”

The Welsh government statement continued: “‘ach ghotvam’e’ QI’yaH devolve qaS.”

In full it said it translated as: “The minister will reply in due course. However this is a non-devolved matter.”

It is believed to be the first time the Welsh government has chosen to communicate in Klingon.

Mr Millar, shadow health minister and AM for Clwyd West, submitted three questions to economy, science and transport minister Edwina Hart about UFO reports around the airport and across the rest of Wales.

Responding to the government’s unusual diversion into trilingualism, Mr Millar said: “I’ve always suspected that Labour ministers came from another planet. This response confirms it.”

Mr Millar asked:

1) Will the minister make a statement on how many reports of unidentified flying objects there have been at Cardiff Airport since its acquisition by the Welsh government?

2) What discussions has the Welsh government had with the Ministry of Defence regarding sightings of unidentified flying objects in Wales in each of the past five years?

3) What consideration has the Welsh government given to the funding of research into sightings of unidentified flying objects in Wales?

During a panel discussion on Tuesday, April 7 NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan had some exciting news:

“I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years,” Stofan said.

However, Stofan and the team of panelists were less sure about exactly where humankind will discover the first signs of alien life.

“I think we’re one generation away in our solar system, whether it’s on an icy moon or on Mars, and one generation [away] on a planet around a nearby star,” said another panelist member and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld.

Last month, Business Insider spoke with NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay about where he thought humankind would first find signs of alien life in our solar system. Surprisingly, the most likely place is not nearby or on any surface.

We need to start looking underground, according to McKay.

“Things are better below the surface,” says McKay, who is a senior scientist with NASA’s Planetary Systems Branch. She investigates where else life could exist in our solar system.

Unfortunately, designing and dispatching a lander that can dig deep beneath a planet’s surface is incredibly difficult and expensive. The only places scientists have drilled, collected, and examined samples beneath the surface is on the moon and Mars.

One place where we wouldn’t need to dig and drill is on Saturn’s tiny moon, Enceladus. It harbors a massive ocean underneath a thick layer of ice on its surface. Two different teams of scientists found compelling evidence there that indicates active volcanoes line the tiny moon’s seafloor.

McKay is excited about the prospect of Enceladus for another reason though. “Enceladus is most likely to give us an answer soonest,” he said. “The reason is Enceladus has a plume coming into space.”

In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft flew by Enceladus and spotted plumes of water vapor and other materials gushing out of its surface. If there’s life in the solar system, the first place we’re likely to find it is inside of those plumes, McKay said.

Sadly, Cassini is not equipped with the right instruments to detect signs of life in these plumes. And right now, NASA has no plans to dispatch another probe to Saturn or its moons anytime soon. That’s not stopping McKay and others from discussing what they’d look for there if they had the chance.

“I’d suggest that the best molecules to measure are amino acids, the building blocks of proteins,” McKay said during a live webcast hosted by The Kavli Foundation in January. “Life on Earth has made specific choices in amino acids. It uses a set of just 20 amino acids to build proteins, and those amino acids are all left-handed.”

Left-handed amino acids are chemically identical (meaning they have all the same atoms in the same amounts) to right-handed animo acids. The difference is that they are structured in a way so they’re mirror images of one another, just like how your right and left hands are the same shape but don’t line up when you put one on top of the other.

One of the outstanding mysteries in astrobiology is why RNA and DNA is only constructed from proteins built by left-handed amino acids. Regardless of why or how, this fact will come in handy during potential future studies of Enceladus.

“If Chris were to find amino acids in the plumes of Enceladus, the challenge becomes determining whether they are the products of a biological process,” Steven Benner, president of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida, said during the webcast. “If he were to find that they’re all the same hand, that would be convincing, because that’s what makes the protein evolvable.”

For McKay, the excitement of the hunt is not just about discovering whether aliens exist. It’s discovering unique alien life that is completely different from life on Earth, which might be quite a bit harder since the building blocks of life are so complex.

“In my mind that’s the real question. Not, ‘Is there life on these other worlds?’ but ‘iI there a second genesis of life on these other worlds?'” McKay told Business Insider. “That’s a subtlety that’s not obvious until you think about it.”

A second-genesis of alien life could, in theory, have a completely different biomolecular structure from life on Earth. Right now, scientists debate whether or not life on Earth originated on another celestial object, like Mars, that then hitched a ride to Earth inside of a meteorite.

That is not a stretch to imagine, researchers say, since Mars was covered with liquid water around the same time that life is believed to have begun on Earth. If we do find evidence of life on Mars and it has the same DNA as us, then it’s probably our cousins, McKay told Business Insider.

If we want to find truly unique alien life, then we’ll have to travel farther than next door.

“As we go from Mars to Europa to Enceladus to Titan, as the worlds get farther away from Earth the conditions get less and less like Earth,” McKay said. “We’re more likely to find life that’s not related to us the farther out we go.”

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Thanks to Da Brayn