The world will not end today…

Okay, this is really getting pretty infuriating. I have friends, family, and strangers messaging me about when the planets will align tomorrow.

So let’s set the record straight…or at least as much as we can by answering a few simple questions regarding this Mayan end-of-the-world who-hah and why the world will NOT end today.

Where did this idea of the world ending even come from?

The ancient Maya civilization (aka the Mayans), that lived in Central America from roughly 1800 BC until the Spanish wiped the last of them out around 1700 AD were great astronomers. They had their own constellations, pre-telescopic knowledge of the Orion Nebula as a fuzzy object in the sky, and some of their sites are oriented to astronomical objects such as the Pleiades star cluster. Like many advanced cultures, the Mayans used a calendar. They didn’t invent the calendar, but they used it, like most Central American civilizations previous to Columbus coming to the New World; however, they did add on to it.

A view of a Mayan calendar wheel. Credit:

The Maya came up with a very different calendar from what we use. They have what we call “the Long Count”, which is made up of 13 “baktun”. Each “baktun” is comprised of 20 “katun”. Each “katun” is 20 “tun”, each “tun” is 18 “unial”, and each “unial” is 20 “kin”. What the heck does that mean? Well, we can easily make the metaphor that the Mayan “Long Cycle” is like a year in our very own modern day Gregorian calendar. Now, a “kin” to the Maya is equivalent to a modern day, so a Long Cycle is MUCH longer than a Gregorian year- it’s actually roughly 5,125 years. But here I’m using the analogy just to make a point.

Mayan: 1 Long Cycle = 13 baktun = 260 katun = 5,200 tun = 93,600 unial = 1,872,000 kin

Gregorian: 1 millennium = 10 centuries = 100 decades = 1,000 years = 12,000 months = 365,250 days

When you get a Gregorian calendar for your desk or wall, it usually only has a single year in it, for instance, your current calendar probably doesn’t extend into 2013. Of course that doesn’t mean that 2013 doesn’t exist, you just need a new calendar. Well, the same thing happened with the Maya, they stopped generating calendars beyond this current baktun, which would end in our modern Gregorian time at December 21, 2012 at 11:11 GMT. But like I said, this doesn’t mean the world is going to end. It’s this “reset” of the Mayan calendar that has fueled the plethora of end-of-the-world scenarios.

Looking at this another way, imagine if there WAS a cataclysmic end of the world tomorrow and then far in the future an advanced civilization found what was left our world and realized that there were no calendars that existed beyond 2013…what might they conclude? Oh no, the human calendar must have ended after January 31, 2013!? We all know that’s not true, but one could imagine how an ignorant futuristic civilization might be confused.

Based on this “end of the Mayan calendar”, people across the world and across the internet have tried to come up with ways and reasons that the world might end on December 21, 2012. Some of these catastrophes are minutely based on real things, many are not, and almost all of them are ridiculous. On top of that, the movie 2012 didn’t help the commotion.

What is a planetary alignment and is there going to be one?

A planetary alignment, or conjunction, is when planets appear to lineup in the sky from Earth and they occur fairly frequently. There are a lot of hoaxes related to the alignment of the planets and how that will impact Earth. There’s also another idea that the Earth and Sun will align with the center of the Milky Way galaxy and something cataclysmic will happen to destroy the Earth. This isn’t going to happen. Here’s an article by Francis Reddy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center that explains why an alignment with the galactic center won’t mean the end of days. So no, don’t try to go outside and look for an alignment of planets in the sky, you won’t see anything.

Now, there was some more baloney going around the internet about a planetary alignment over the pyramids at Giza on December 3, 2012. That was also a hoax… aka NOT REAL!

This photo of a supposed December 3 planetary alignment of the pyramids quickly made the rounds all over the internet. Too bad it’s not real. Credit: Bad Astronomy

Is a rogue planet or asteroid going to crash into the Earth?

NO! Of course not! NASA has a whole division of scientists, in the Near-Earth Object Program, who work to identify and track objects that could pose potential danger to Earth. So far, they have no indication that anything will impact the Earth. There are stories of a rogue world called “Nibiru” that is supposedly going to crash into the Earth. This false claim of a rogue planet-destroyer has been warped and somehow now been misconstrued even further to include an actual dwarf planet, called Eris, that lives out in the Kuiper Belt. This planet was originally referred to as “Planet X”- another claimed possible bringer of Earth’s destruction. So recap: Eris is real, was once called Planet X, Nibiru is not real…and NONE OF THEM WILL IMPACT THE EARTH.

Although it might be a nice excuse to get out of work, don’t expect a killer planet to crash into Earth and obliterate it anytime soon. Credit:

Is the Earth’s magnetic field or a polar shift going to kill us all?

Again, no. Scientists know from rocks on the floor of the oceans that the Earth’s magnetic field, which protects us from the harmful energetic particles that come streaming off the Sun, actually reverses fields. Now, generally the field of Earth does shift every 400,000 years and we’re sort of overdue for one. However, when the magnetic field does reverse (referred to as a polar shift), it won’t be instant- at least we don’t think so- and it probably won’t happen for a couple more millennia.

So there you have it, no the world will not end. Yes, scientists are pretty sure- here’s an official website from NASA addressing these issues and concerns in case you’re not convinced. And finally, yes, people on the internet are crazy. So I guess all that’s left to say then is happy new Long Cycle everyone!

Curiosity did not kill the cat…

So as I’m sure you’ve all heard, NASA’s Curiosity rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars in the early hours of yesterday morning (east coast time). In an earlier post, I relayed the video by NASA of the harrowing entry that Curiosity needed to go through to reach the Martian surface safely and highlighted that the entire elaborate landing procedure was 100% automated since it takes double the time the landing would take to occur for information to be relayed back to Earth. And all the taxings of a mission so complicated, despite all the finesse and delicacy needed to execute such a bold attempt, and despite all the things that could go wrong, the scientists and engineers at NASA succeeded. Honestly, if you watch the 7 Minutes of Terror video, realize that scientists built and programmed a machine that could do that all automatically, millions of miles away from Earth (352 million to be exact) while moving at thousands of miles per hour and have it work flawlessly, and aren’t awed and impressed, then well you should probably check your pulse.

The Mars Science Laboratory’s mission is to investigate the interior of the Gale Crater for signs of microbial life. Top left: A profile of Curiosity’s landing site, Gale Crater. Top Right: A simulation of Curiosity’s proposed mission. Bottom: A map showing the distribution of NASA’s missions to the Martian surface. Credit: BBC News

In addition to being the largest rover we’ve ever sent to another world, twice as long (about 10 feet)  and five times as heavy as NASA’s twin Mars Exploration RoversSpirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, Curiosity also has new equipment that allows it to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them, and then distribute them to various scientific instruments it carries for analysis; that internal instrument suite includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer with combined capabilities to identify a wide range of organic (carbon-containing) compounds and determine the ratios of different isotopes of key elements. There’s clearly a reason why the mission is called the Mars Science Laboratory.

This illustration from NASA shows the size and instrumentation of Curiosity that will help it to investigate the possibility of microbial life on Mars. (A) Six independent wheels allowing the rover to travel over the rocky Martian surface. (B) Equipped with 17 cameras, Curiosity will identify particular targets and then zap them with a  laser to probe their chemistry. (C) If the signal is significant, Curiosity will swing over instruments on its arm for close-up investigation. (D) Samples drilled from rock, or scooped from the soil, can be delivered to two hi-tech analysis labs inside the rover body. (E) The results are sent to Earth through antennas on the rover deck. Return commands tell the rover where it should drive next. Credit: BBC News

According to NASA, Curiosity carries with it “the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars’ surface, a payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers.” All that gear will be important as Curiosity investigates its main science objective: whether or not there is evidence of microbial life (past or present) in Martian rocks. Although both Spirit and Opportunity listed the search for life as among their scientific goals, neither rover was really equipped to search for microbial life; the twin early generation rovers were more specifically looking for water or the evidence of past water on the Martian surface and then whether that water could sustain life. Curiosity, on the other hand, is specifically equipped to look for microbial life (or evidence of it) in the rocks and soil of the Red Planet. More than just the roving explorer that its forebears were, Curiosity is for all intents and purposes a laboratory on wheels.

This image of Curiosity descending to the Martian surface with its parachute was taken by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The rover is descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe Aeolis Mons. Credit: NASA

And it’s not just the instrumentation that Curiosity is equipped with that make NASA rover 2.0 better than previous generations, but the technology it used to get to the Martian surface is leaps and bounds ahead of how Spirit and Opportunity landed. If you watch this NASA movie that highlights the landing process for the Mars Exploration Rovers (which only had six minutes of terror), you’ll notice that most of the landing procedure seems similar to Curiosity’s. Extremely high-speed entry into the Martian atmosphere, heat shield, parachute, rocket thrusters, etc. Until you get to the last step, when Spirit and Opportunity wer basically dropped onto the Martian surface at nearly 60 mph, surrounded by huge air bags, and allowed to bounce three or four times until they settled. Compared to the fine precision placement of the Curiosity rover earlier this week, the previous rovers’ landings were downright barbaric, like trying to hunt a deer by throwing rocks.

This image, one of the first returned by Curiosity, shows the rover’s shadow on the Martian surface and one of the main targets of its mission, Aeolis Mons, on the distant horizon. Credit: CNN

Rather than violently smashing the $2.6 billion rover into the surface and hoping for the best, this descent involved a sky crane and the world’s largest supersonic parachute, which allowed the spacecraft carrying Curiosity to target the specific landing area that NASA scientists had meticulously chosen. That landing area is roughly 12 km (7.5 miles) from the foot of the Martian peak previously known as Mount Sharp. Aeolis Mons, as it’s now known, is the 18,000-foot (5,500-meter) peak at the center of Gale Crater, previously known as Mount Sharp. The stratified composition of the mountain could give scientists a layer-by-layer look at the history of the planet as Curiosity attempts its two-year mission to determine whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting life.

Possibly the biggest piece of the NASA Curiosity puzzle has been the enormous PR campaign that NASA has thrown behind the rover. Not only has the rover and it’s 7 Minute of Terror video been all over the internet, TV news, newspapers, and other media outlets, but NASA has even gone out of its way to get high-level stars in the fold. Last week they released this video (above) of William Shatner, most famously known as Capt. James Tiberius Kirk of Star Trek, narrating a preview of Curiosity’s “Grand Entrance” to Mars. There was also another video featuring narration by Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation).


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Saturn’s rings explained…

This natural color image of Saturn was created from a series of images that were taken by the Cassini spacecraft during its encounter with the planet in October 2004. Credit: NASA

Of the five planets visible to the naked eye from Earth, Saturn is the furthest and slowest moving across the sky. That’s actually how Saturn got its name; the ancient Greeks named the planet after Chronos (Saturn to the Romans), the father of Zeus (Jupiter) and the God of time (a reason why chronos is a root of time-related words, as I explained in an earlier post). Galileo was the first to resolve and discover the rings of Saturn when he looked at it through his telescope in 1610. It’s incorrect status as the only ringed planet in the solar system survived until well into the latter half of the 20th century. In 1977, Saturn was joined in the ringed planet club by Uranus, after scientists observed a star passing behind the planet, a phenomenon called an occultation. Most unexpectedly, the star’s light blinked on and off nine times before disappearing behind the disc of the planet; this proved that although the rings were too dim to be seen from Earth, the material was present. Only a few years later, Voyager 1 discovered the rings of Jupiter and it wasn’t until the mid-1980’s that another stellar occultation proved the existence of  Neptune’s ring system. So it’s true, all of the gaseous outer planets, or “gas giants”, have rings, but Saturn’s are by far the most visually impressive and the only ones visible from Earth. So that leads us to a very interesting and mysterious question…why? What makes Saturn’s rings special?

As telescopes on Earth have become more and more advanced and we continue our extensive exploration of the solar system, we have pieced together a much more comprehensive understanding of Saturn’s rings than Galileo had 400 years ago. Although the rings look solid and sheet-like from Earth, we now know that the rings of Saturn are actually comprised of billions of particles of rock, ice, and dust ranging in size from microscopic to meters-wide. The brighter, more dense regions of the rings have more material to reflect light while the dark regions or “gaps” are much more scarcely populated. The debris that makes up the planet’s rings are in a very well-defined plane, only a few tens of meters thick, but extending almost 130,000 km (80,778 mi) above the planet’s surface. The gallery below shows the evolution of our understanding and imaging of Saturn’s rings.

But many questions still remain about why Saturn’s rings are so much brighter than the other gassy planets. The answer scientists think, lies with the sixth-largest of Saturns 60+ moons: a small, icy world called Enceladus (shown below).

Saturn’s 6th largest moon, Enceladus, as imaged by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The blue fissures in the surface seen in the southern hemisphere are known as tiger stripes. Credit: NASA

Enceladus is roughly 500 km  in diameter (14% of the Moon) and 1.1 × 10²º kg in mass (0.2% of the Moon), but what it lacks in stature it makes up for in output. Literally. Discovered by William Herschel in 1879 (only 2 years before his discovery of the planet Uranus), Enceladus first came into the spotlight for scientists in early 1980. As John Spencer recalls in a recent article in Physics Today, that was

“…when scientists using Earth-based telescopes acquired new images of a faint outer ring of Saturn—the E ring—which had been discovered in the 1960’s. Those images revealed that the E ring’s brightness peaked at the orbit of Enceladus. They also showed that unlike Saturn’s other rings, the E ring scattered sunlight more efficiently at shorter wavelengths, which indicated that the ring was dominated by particles not much larger than the wavelength of light. Sputtering by charged particles in Saturn’s magnetosphere would erode away such micron-sized particles on time scales of decades to hundreds of years, so something had to be replenishing the ring on comparable time scales. The peak in ring density at Enceladus pointed to that moon as the likely source.”

Since then interest in the small ice-world increased exponentially and as a result Enceladus became a primary target of investigation for the joint NASA/ESA mission of the Cassini spacecraft. After only slightly whetting their appetite with two flybys of the small moon in early 2005, researchers decided to make a third flyby at a much closer range, 170 km (105 mi) instead of the planned 1000 km (621 mi). The dramatic results from this third Enceladus flyby in July 2005 were released in a special March 2006 issue of the journal Science. It was this flyby that got the high-resolution images seen above and first discovered the “four prominent parallel fractures, dubbed tiger stripes, surrounded by an intensely tectonically disrupted landscape” that the image depicts. In an even more interesting find, Cassini caught evidence of multiple plume jets erupting from the four tiger stripe fractures seen near Enceladus’s south pole.

Multiple plume jets erupting from the four tiger-stripe fractures near Enceladus’s south pole are visible in this Cassini image. The jets appear not only on the edge of Enceladus’s disk but also where they rise up into sunlight from sources on the night side of the moon. CreditNASA/JPL/SSIMosaic: Emily Lakdawalla

These plumes (shown above), currently ejecting mass at an astounding 200 kg/s, have two observable components: micron-sized ice grains and gas (99% water vapor). It is speculated that the water vapor and ice crystals that are being deposited into Saturn’s ring system by Enceladus are what have kept the planet’s rings so bright and reflective for so long.

In spite of all of this other extremely intriguing science, the most interesting thing for scientists is Enceladus’ potential for life. As one of the few places in the solar system where we know water exists, Enceladus has become a key target in the search for extraterrestrial life. Scientists speculate that liquid water might occur in several places on the tiny moon: as a global ocean between the silicate core and the ice crust, as a more local south polar sea beneath the ice shell), or as localized bodies of water in the ice shell itself.

Here is Saturn’s tiny icy moon Enceladus, imaged by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Just above the smaller moon we can see the planet’s rings and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, looming in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute



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Thank you very much, Mr. Robonauto…

Humans aren’t the only Earthlings who have left our rocky home world, although we are probably the only ones who have done it willingly. Five nations besides the U.S. have launched non-human organisms into space: Russia/USSR, France, China, Japan, and Iran. You can find a comprehensive history lesson pertaining to animals in space here on NASA’s website, but I’ll just give you a quick overview.

The U.S. was the first nation to send animals into space when it launched fruit flies aboard a V2 rocket on February 20, 1947. The U.S. continued its animal astronaut program by launching the first monkey (a Rhesus monkey named Albert II) and the first mouse into space in 1949 and 1950, respectively. In January 1951, the Soviet Union launched a flight carrying the dogs Tsygan and Dezik into space, but not into orbit. Both space dogs survived the flight, although one would die on a subsequent flight. On November 3, 1957, the second-ever orbiting spacecraft carried the first animal into orbit, the dog Laika, launched aboard the Soviet Sputnik 2 spacecraft (nicknamed ‘Muttnik’ in the West). Laika died during the flight, as was intended because the technology to return from orbit had not yet been developed. At least 10 other dogs were launched into orbit and numerous others on sub-orbital flights before the historic date of April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. In many cases, animals like dogs or chimps achieved major milestones in space flight before humans did.

To date, the list of animals that have traveled to space includes squirrel monkeys, rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees, guinea pigs, frogs, rats, cats, parasitic wasps, flour beetles, tortoises, wine flies, meal worms, nematodes, fish, spiders, newts, chicken embryos, turtles, brine shrimp, desert beetles, quail eggs, crickets, snails, carp, medaka, oyster toadfish, sea urchins, swordtail fish, gypsy moth eggs, stick insect eggs, silkworms, carpenter bees, harvester ants, Japanes killifish, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, moth larvae, South African flat rock scorpions, seed-harvester ants, tardigrades, and painted lady and monarch butterfly larvae. Oh right, and humans.

Apparently Robonaut 2 does Shakespeare in his spare time… Credit: NASA/JSC

But now, NASA is looking into sending another form of life into space, an android. And before any arguments start up about machines not being living beings, blah blah blah, I direct you to this Sci-Fi/equal rights gem. In any case, NASA’s newest spacefarer actually missed his 2010 flight window. The second-generation dexterous humanoid robot (Robonaut 2) was built and designed at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. As JSC explains on their website, “Our challenge is to build machines that can help humans work and explore in space. Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, the robonauts will expand our ability for construction and discovery.” Although Robonaut 2 or R2, like its predecessor Robonaut 1, is capable of handling a wide range of extravehicular activity (EVA) tools and interfaces, R2 is  up to four times faster, more compact, more dexterous, and includes a deeper and wider range of sensing than R1. Advanced technology allows R2 enough dexterity to use the same tools that astronauts currently use and its humanoid design means that Robonaut 2 can take over simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks on places such as the International Space Station.

While it’s awesome that robotics is making such amazing advancements, I for one, am hoping that robonauts will become companions for astronauts and not replacements. Although apparently the New Jersey State Police might need all the help they can get. This article from concerns ongoing attempts to solve  a 35-year-old mystery.  A supply of rock samples from the Apollo missions to the Moon were supposed to go on public display starting in 1976, when an astronaut presented the Governor’s Office with the goodwill tokens from Apollo 17, the last manned lunar landing. But last year, researchers, curators and former Governor Brendan Byrne admitted to a New Jersey newspaper that they had no idea where the gift went. Now, state police confirm they are looking for leads on the rocks, whose estimated black-market value is $5 million.

The first of many…

Last week, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft discovered the first terrestrial (rocky) exoplanet orbiting a star about 560 lightyears away from Earth. This marks the first rocky, Earth-like planet found outside of our solar system and brings the total exoplanet count to a whopping 500. If you’re really interested in keeping up to date with the exoplanet count, I suggest checking out the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Planetquest that features an up-to-date exoplanet count  (they even offer a downloadable exoplanet counter widget) and fun interactive exoplanet activities and multimedia.

The new exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-10b, is the tenth exoplanet discovered by the Kepler mission, a mission which is proving capable of fulfilling its primary science objective to “Determine the abundance of terrestrial and larger planets in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars” [1]. Unfortunately for Kepler though, as I reviewed in a previous post, the techniques we currently use to find exoplanets make it much easier to find larger planets (usually gas giants like Jupiter) than smaller rocky ones. Unfortunately, Kepler-10b is not in its star’s “habitable zone” or the correct distance from the star for water ice to exist on the planet; it’s twenty times closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. If a planet is too close to its star then all the water will evaporate and if its too far away it will all freeze. Scientists are assuming that planets with liquid water will have the highest chance of supporting life (like Earth which has a surface 70% covered by water). Kepler-10b’s extreme proximity to its parent star probably means that the surface of the planet is either scorched arid rock or possibly even covered with a layer of molten lava. In any case though, the discovery of this first terrestrial world is a great sign of things to come.

Shifting gears…

January has been a big month for crazy astronomical stories gone awry in the media. After the zodiac controversy that hit last week, this week a new craze has exploded after an interview with Dr. Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, published by In the interview, Dr. Carter talks about the expected supernova of the red giant star Betelgeuse (yes, it’s pronounced Beetlejuice…Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice). The article is riddled with inaccuracies and just downright wrong information. First of all, the writer, Claire Connelly, tries to inaccurately spin the story to appeal to Star Wars fans by making it seem like Earth will have two suns like the fictional world of Tatooine. Connelly says, “[I]t’s not just a figment of George Lucas’s imagination – twin suns are real. And here’s the big news – they could be coming to Earth. Yes, any day now we see a second sun light up the sky, if only for a matter of weeks.” While it is true that “twin suns” are in fact real (we know that roughly half of the stars in are galaxy exist in multiple-star systems), there is no way that the Earth can ever have twin Suns. Binary star systems usually form together, meaning the other Sun would have to have been created at the same time as our Sun (which obviously did not happen). I suppose a very rare case could occur where a star comes in close contact to another star and the effect of gravity causes them to fall into mutual orbit, but the Sun is way too far away from any other stars (the closest is 4.2 lightyears away) and if that ever did happen, the planets in our solar system would probably be flung out of their orbits altogether. While it’s true that when Betelegeuse does supernova (which could be tomorrow or in another million years), we will be able to see the supernova during the daylight hours (much like how we see Venus in the early morning hours before sunrise), it doesn’t mean that we’ll have two suns or that “one day, night will become day for several weeks on Earth.” The supernova will just look like an extremely bright star in the sky that will be visible at night and during the day for a few weeks. The article goes on to make allusions to the Mayan 2012 apocalypse predictions, imply associations between the word “Betelgeuse” and the devil, and to erroneously state that Betelgeuse is the “second biggest star in the universe” (it’s the second largest in its constellation, Orion).

Of course, even though several reputable new sources quickly tried to convince people that the claims in this article were nonsense (see FoxNews and Discovery), others quickly tried to jump on the lead and continued to erroneously echo the story (I’m looking at you, Huffington Post). Just another example of how poor journalism can fuel public paranoia and misinformation.

Betelgeuse is the red giant star that makes up Orion’s left shoulder in the sky.

Anyways, to wrap up this post, I figured I’d give you some fun information about Betelgeuse and its constellation Orion. Betelgeuse is the reddish star seen in the upper left of Orion, commonly seen as his left shoulder (see image above). It’s roughly 10 million years old and large enough that if it replaced our Sun, it would extend all the way out past the orbit of Jupiter. Orion, known as the famous hunter of the Greeks who was killed by Scorpio because he refused to acknowledge the gods, is also known by several other names around the world. In Egyptian lore, he is the god Osiris, who rules over the afterlife and judges the dead. In Arabic mythology, he is known as Al-Jabbar or The Giant and the name Betelgeuse, which comes to us from Arabic like many other star names, is said to loosely translate to “the Giant’s armpit”.


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Arsenic and old lakes…

Earlier this week, NASA announced that it had it was going to hold a big press conference on Thursday to make a major announcement. For most of the week, the blogosphere was crazy with speculation. Had NASA found extraterrestrial life? Did they find an Earth-like exoplanet? Were they finally going to reveal secret mission of the X-37B space plane? Nope. NASA threw the proverbial screwball on Thursday that it had in fact discovered alien life…in California.

Before any Area 51/Roswell/government conspiracists start screaming “I told you so!”, NASA found “alien”, not “extraterrestrial” life. The 760,000 year-old Mono Lake is located just east of Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It has been cut off from its freshwater sources for over 50 years, so it’s chemical composition of the water has increased drastically in salinity (saltiness), alkalinity, and now has a large percentage of arsenic. Arsenic is notoriously poisonous to humans and other multicellular life because of its chemical similarities to phosphorus, one of the main building blocks of life. Phosphorus is elemental in the development of the energy-carrying molecule found in all cells (adenosine triphosphate or ATP) and the phospholipids that make up all cell walls; phosphorus (along with carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur) is considered to be one of the six basic building blocks of all known life. Notice the lack of arsenic in that list.

A NASA-funded research project that was researching the ecology of Mono Lake found a new strain of the common bacteria group of Gammaproteobacteria that successfully substituted arsenic for phosphorus in all of its cellular structures. The new strain, GFAJ-1, is the FIRST and ONLY living organism ever found to incorporate arsenic in its cellular makeup; it’s also the only organism ever discovered to not have phosphorus in its cellular makeup. The new microorganism’s DNA has been characterized as “unlike anything ever seen before on Earth”.

Life just never ceases to amaze us. No matter where we look for life, no matter how harsh or improbable the environment is, we seem to find life there: rocks miles underground, the very depths of the ocean, areas deprived of oxygen, areas of extreme heat and cold. The extremely resilient, unique organisms that can survive these odd environments are known as extremophiles. I’ve said it before: no matter what, life finds a way. The discovery is huge (and bankrolled by NASA) because it has major implications as we continue to search for extraterrestrial life. It was believed that any life that we found beyond Earth would be similar to that found on Earth (and therefore probably found in similar environments), but this new expansion of the definition of life on Earth opens the door to new possibilities. Some scientists have speculated that there may be non-carbon-based lifeforms on other worlds (all life on Earth is carbon-based) or that life exists that could be methane- or ammonia-soluble (life on Earth is water-soluble). We know that Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, has large liquid methane seas and oceans covering its surface, so if methane-soluble life does exist, Titan would be a great place to look.


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Water, water everywhere…

Many of you might remember last October when there was a big hub-bub in the media about NASA attempting to bomb the Moon. Just an fyi, that didn’t actually happen; the media likes to make a much bigger deal about NASA’s missions than they should and they often bastardize the information once they try to pass it on the the public. Anyways, as you can read here, NASA didn’t try to bomb the Moon, they simply crashed into it. Yes, on purpose this time, it wasn’t another Mars Orbiter mishap. The mission in question, the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), was sent into the heart of Cabeus, a 61 mile-wide crater near the Moon’s southern pole, at over 5000 mph. The resultant cloud of ejecta sprayed out from the explosion/crash was then flown through by LCROSS’s companion satellite, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and analyzed.

The reason for the mission was to see if we can find water on the Moon. Why would water on the Moon be important you ask? The first reason is obvious, future lunar explorers will need to drink and not having to ship water with the explorers will save us a boatload of money. The oxygen from the water could also be separated from the H2O to supply a lunar base while the hydrogen component could be used as fuel. For awhile now, scientists have realized that the regions of the Moon visited by the 6 Apollo missions were fairly unimpressive, uninteresting areas (at least as far as long-term lunar habitation goes). All of the Apollo missions visited the maria, or seas, of the Moon, low flat regions of basaltic ash which formed as pools of molten rock oozed to the surface of the Moon and then cooled billions of years ago. As cool as that sounds, we’ve realized that it’s actually craters which hold the most potential for real scientific discovery because in the shadows along the walls of lunar craters it is dark and cold enough for liquid water ice to exist without evaporating away. In fact, due to the steep inclines of crater walls, some parts inside craters never see sunlight at all. LRO’s analysis of the impact’s resultant ejecta cloud found that approximately 5.6% of Cabeus might be water. That’s a pretty big number when you consider that it would cost us $50,000 per pound to ship water with the astronauts and that there are thousands of other craters on the surface of the Moon.

The unfortunate part of all this though is that the U.S. may not get a chance to utilize this resource. As I chronicled in a recent post, President Obama’s new vision for NASA includes the cancellation of Project Constellation which had us aiming to return to the Moon by 2020. With the program’s cancellation and subsequent phasing out of the Space Shuttle, the U.S. won’t be getting to the Moon anytime soon. Our friends in the Far East might actually be the ones getting all this water: India plans on going to the Moon by 2020 and China by 2025. It’s a little bit ironic that India, which has issues finding clean water supplies for its one billion plus inhabitants might be the first to reach an entirely untapped water source nearly 240,000 miles away.


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