Archive for the 'Astronomy' Category

Jul 26 2019

Going Back to the Moon

Published by under Astronomy,Technology

With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon there has been a lot of talk about NASA’s plans to return. Each new dribble of news can be exciting, but a coherent plan remains elusive. Somewhat of a plan is starting to take shape, however.

In a recent commentary for the Washington Post, Astronomer Phil Plait made an interesting point – that the Apollo mission was designed to be self-limited and not a sustained effort. The point was to beat the Soviets to the moon, and so it was baked into the design of the program to do everything to get their quickly not slowly and sustainably. Further, once we did beat the Soviets to the moon, and it was clear they abandoned their own efforts to do so, support for the program faded.

I think this is correct, but it is in contrast to the naive impression I formed as a child during the Apollo program and nurtured throughout most of my life. It always seemed to me that once we became a spacefaring race, progress was inevitable. Certainly every science fiction movie reinforced this impression. Apollo was followed by the space shuttle, then the ISS. OK, that makes sense. But then progress in sending people into space seemed to wane. We now have to hitch rides to the ISS on Russian craft. NASA’s plans seem to change with each administration. Multiple conflicting visions compete for dominance, while we seem to chase our tail.

I have to now acknowledge that it’s possible the massive effort necessary to safely send people to the moon and return them to Earth may only be feasible with the political and public support generated by the cold war and an immediate space race. Without that, we don’t seem to be able to sustain the political will – which in practical purposes means money. NASA and the White House need to be on the same page, and Congress needs to provide the funding.

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May 20 2019

New Probe To Look For Life On Mars

Published by under Astronomy

One of the greatest scientific questions to remain unanswered so far concerns the existence of life outside of the Earth. So far the only place in the universe where life has been confirmed in on Earth itself. There is almost certainly life elsewhere, the universe being as big as it is, but we have not confirmed it.

Looking in other stellar systems will not be easy. We will not be traveling to any other stars anytime in the foreseeable future, so what are the options for probing for extrasolar life? We can look for the chemical signatures of life in the atmosphere. Or we can try to detect signals from a technological species. That’s pretty much it at this point, unless that life brings itself or its probes to us.

Our best bet to detect life off Earth, therefore, is to look within our own solar system. There are really only a few plausible locations for life – in the oceans beneath Europa or Enceladus, in the atmosphere of Jupiter or one of the other gas giants, or on Mars. No where else has plausible conditions for life.

Of these possibilities, Mars is the easiest to get to. We have already landed a number of probes on Mars. None of these robots, however, have been equipped with the necessary tools to directly look for life. They did examine the conditions on Mars which could potentially inform the probability of life on Mars, but that’s it. The bottom line of this examination is that conditions are not particularly suited for life as we know it, but does not exclude the possibility of life.

One interesting find is the presence of perchlorates at 0.5-1% in Martian soil, likely widely distributed around the planet. These are reactive molecules containing oxygen, and present both good and bad news for human intentions on Mars.  The bad news is that perchlorates are toxic, and any human presence on Mars will have to deal with the soil itself being a hazard. Extreme measures will be needed to protect astronauts. This is not a deal-killer, but it is a significant technical hurdle.

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May 02 2019

Pilots Reporting UFOs

The Navy recently drafted new policies for how its pilots and other personnel should report any encounters with “unexplained aerial phenomena” – more commonly known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. They say this is in response to an uptick in pilots reporting such encounters and requesting a formal way to report them.

The reporting on this topic ironically reveals the underlying problem in the first place – there is a stigma attached to the reporting of UFOs because of their cultural association with claims that they are (or may be) alien in origin. People mentally equate UFO with flying saucer (a colloquial term for any alien spacecraft of any shape).

Even sober takes on this topic focus heavily on the probability that such sightings are an alien phenomenon. Tyler Cowen does touch on many possible interpretations of UFO sightings, but spends the bulk of his commentary exploring how probable it is that aliens are visiting. He concludes it is not likely, but the chance is non-zero and deserves to be explored.

While I basically agree, I still think the framing is problematic. Essentially we are taking a phenomenon that likely has multiple causes, some known and some unknown, and focusing most of our attention on what is probably the least likely unknown possible cause. This would be like defining a new clinical syndrome by the least likely possible disease that could be causing it. This constrains our thinking, and in this case creates an unfair stigma. It also fuels conspiracy theories and wild speculation by the public. An further, it has resulted in paying too little attention to a phenomenon that may have practical real-world implications.

Returning to the medical analogy – there are fake diseases in the popular culture used to explain very real symptoms. For example, some people with chronic skin symptoms think they have a bizarre form a parasitosis. They clearly don’t, but that should not cause us to be dismissive of everyone with the same symptoms, or to ignore the search for underlying real causes.

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Nov 05 2018

Oumuamua and the Alien Hypothesis

Published by under Astronomy

One year ago, in October 2017, astronomers detected the first confirmed interstellar visitor to our solar system – an asteroid dubbed Oumuamua. The name is Hawaiian for “scout”, as if the asteroid is a messenger from a distant system. A Hawaiian name was chose because the object was discovered by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii. Determining that Oumuamua was an interstellar object was not difficult – the determination was based on its trajectory. It was traveling really fast, too fast for any object originating from our own system. It’s velocity would also take it out of our system – it was moving too fast to be captured by the gravity of our sun.

All of that is cool enough, but astronomers carefully analysing the trajectory of Oumuamua discovered (and published their findings in June 2018) that its acceleration could not be explained entirely by gravity. Some force was pushing, ever-so-slightly, on the object. This acceleration could be explained by outgassing, if there were any volatiles on Oumuamua that were heating up as it got closer to the sun. These gases would be like tiny rocket engines. Observations of the object did not detect any comet-like tail, which is why it was thought to be an asteroid. But if this new observation were correct, then it would have the ices and gases associated with a comet.

Oumuamua was discovered 40 days after its closest approach to the sun, when it was already on its way out of our solar system. At this point it should have been slowing down a bit from the pull of the sun’s gravity, but instead it was speeding up slightly. This could be explained by outgassing caused by heat from the sun.

This led to a debate about whether or not Oumuamua was an asteroid with a small amount of ice, or a comet that had lost most of its ice. It seems that the object exists in the gray zone between asteroid and comet (and we run into yet another definition demarcation problem). Further, close analysis showed that Oumuamua is very elongated (often described as “cigar-shaped”) and quickly tumbling end-over-end.

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Sep 28 2018

Alien Technosignatures

I have long maintained that one of the greatest scientific questions for humanity is – are we alone in the universe? How common is life, and how common are alien technological civilizations? When we finally reach out into space, will it be empty for us to inhabit, or will we quickly encounter a galactic civilization? What will alien intelligent species be like, and what will that tell us about ourselves?

It is unfortunately likely that we will not have any real answers to any of these questions anytime soon. But that does not mean we shouldn’t look. Recently NASA held a workup to explore possible avenues of looking for alien technosignatures – signs of advanced alien civilizations that we can see from Earth. Some of the participants also held a Reddit AMA.

So – what are alien technosignatures and how can we find them?

The most basic type is radio signals. There has been an effort to listen for alien radio signals for decades, often referred to as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The idea is that radio signals are a convenient way to communicate across lightyears, and perhaps an alien world is sending out such signals for others to find. But really, we have been looking for radio signals because we can. It’s like the person looking for a lost item under a lamp post, not because they have any reason to find it there, but because the light is good.

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Sep 11 2018

The Pluto Debate Rages On

Published by under Astronomy

If you have not watched Rick and Morty, I highly recommend it. It is an adult-themed cartoon, very entertaining, and extremely well written. On one episode Jerry, while trying to help his son Morty with a science project, mistakenly says that Pluto is a planet. When Morty corrects him, Jerry doubles-down and will not relent, going as far as to call NASA to insist that Pluto be reclassified a planet. This gets the attention of the Plutonians, who are themselves engaged in a raging controversy over whether or not Pluto is a full planet, and who enlist Jerry as an “Earth scientist” to support the planet position. This plot line is really a commentary on science denial, specifically global warming denial.

The Pluto controversy back on Earth is less intense, and the stakes are lower, but it remains and interesting debate about how to optimally categorize things in science. What categories should we have, and what criteria should we use? Should scientific utility be the only measure, or should public understanding also play a role?

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh and was designated as the ninth planet. Pluto has always been, for some reason, a popular favorite, maybe because of the name, maybe because it was the smallest planet. Pluto has the most eccentric orbit of any of the classic 9 planets, and it’s orbit actually crosses over the orbit of Neptune. It is also the first Kuiper belt object discovered – a region of our solar system beyond Neptune that is full of icy objects.

Problems started for our nice planetary system when other Kuiper belt objects started to get discovered. In 2005 Eris was discovered – it is slightly smaller than Pluto but is 27% more massive (because it is more dense). Eris also has a moon, Dysnomia. Two other large Kuiper belt objects have since been confirmed and named – Makemake and Haumea.

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Jul 26 2018

Water on Mars

Published by under Astronomy

It looks like Mars has become the third body in the solar system that has a body of water beneath a cover of ice. As reported by AAAS:

Between May 2012 and December 2015, the Mars Express spacecraft was used to conduct a radar survey of a region called Planum Australe, located in the southern ice cap of Mars. A tool onboard the spacecraft sends radar pulses that penetrate the surface and ice caps of the planet and reflections off subsurface features provide scientists with information about what lies below.

The scientists concluded that water was the best explanation for the radar images. This is far from confirmation, but it is a strong suggestion and certainly warrants follow up.

We have known for a long time that Mars used to be a watery planet, with flowing water on its surface. There are geological features that look like ancient river beds, for example.  In order to have surface water, however, you need an atmosphere with enough pressure and warmth, so Mars likely had a thick enough atmosphere in the past. That atmosphere was lost over time, probably due to the steady pressure of the solar winds, without any significant magnetic field to protect from it (like we have on Earth).

There is also evidence for water on Mars today – there is a tiny amount of water vapor in the thin atmosphere. There is also permanent water ice in the ice caps on Mars. There is a transient and seasonal carbon dioxide ice layer in the north and a permanent carbon dioxide layer over the southern ice cap, but both are mostly water ice. In fact, if all the ice on Mars melted, it could cover the entire surface to a depth of 35 meters. Finally there is water ice in the surface soil on Mars, which occasionally boils away at the surface.

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Jul 23 2018

Oxford Study – Reanalyzing the Drake Equation

Published by under Astronomy

Earlier this year I wrote about two ways of looking at the probability of there being advanced alien civilizations – the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox, and how to resolve any apparent conflict between the two. The Drake Equation is simply a series of probabilities of all the factors necessary to have technological civilizations.

The Drake Equation is:

{\displaystyle N=R_{*}\cdot f_{\mathrm {p} }\cdot n_{\mathrm {e} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {l} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {i} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {c} }\cdot L}


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible


R = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

Of course we do not know any of the variables. All we can do is input a range of possible answers and see what range of results it spits out. That is exactly what a new study from Oxford researchers did.

This “study” does not include any new information, it is simply a new analysis of the Drake Equation, inputting what they authors think are the most reasonable figures, including the full range of our uncertainty. They argue that the uncertainty is even greater than has been previously considered the case, and when the full range of uncertainty is taken into account, the answers to how many civilizations there are out there varies by orders of magnitude.

Most importantly, the range of possible answers to the Drake Equation equals 1 – meaning that humanity is the only technological civilization in the known universe. They write:

When the model is recast to represent realistic distributions of uncertainty, we find a substantial ex ante probability of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it.

They argue that their results resolve the Fermi Paradox, which is simply a question asked by physicist Enrico Fermi – If there are any alien civilizations out there, where are they?

Fermi was musing that, given millions of years of spacefaring technology, a civilization in our galaxy could have explored and even settled the entire galaxy. The universe is 13.7 billion years old, and our galaxy, the Milky Way, is almost as old (13.5 billion years) There are an estimated 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. That is a lot of time for any civilization to explore and spread out. So why aren’t we seeing them.

One might extend this argument to SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence using radio astronomy. While SETI has explored only a small percentage of the sky, and in a small percentage of possible frequencies, the more we search the more we can say that the galaxy is not humming with alien signals.

The Fermi Paradox can be resolved in a number of ways. It’s possible that the resources necessary for interstellar travel are simply not worth it. It is also possible that our alien neighbors may respect our autonomy and are keeping their distance. But it may also be true that our nearest alien neighbor is a galaxy or more away, really making it not worth the resources to travel to our humble system. All this would take is for any one of the factors in the Drake Equation to be at the low end of estimates.

The one factor we are learning more about is the number of possible worlds in the galaxy that could potentially host life. The search for exoplanets, while still in its infancy, is rapidly finding thousands of worlds around other stars, and we are starting to be able to make statistical statements about typical stellar systems. The numbers are still biased by our search methods, but we are working toward a more accurate representative picture.

First, it turns out that planets are common around other stars. Further, Earth-like planets are also common. Further still, as pointed out by another recent study, this one from Australia, moons may be an even more abundant potential location for life than planets. Large moons around gas giants may have liquid water. We have two such candidates in our own system, Europa and Enceladus. But the researchers are talking more about moons in the goldilocks zone, where liquid water can exist on the surface.

So the answer to the Fermi paradox is not likely to be found in the number of potential host worlds. We can turn next to the probability of life of any kind developing, and that is where we get back to Europa and Enceladus. Even Mars may help inform this question. If we find life or the fossils of life on these other worlds in our own system, that would support the conclusion that life itself is abundant in the universe.

Until, however, we detect actual aliens or their signals, the rest of the factors in the equation are likely to remain a mystery. Put simply – we have a sample size of one. We don’t know how likely life is to develop intelligence, and intelligence technology, and how long such civilizations tend to last. We won’t know until we encounter evidence of aliens.

And, if there are few or no other aliens out there, we will never know the full answer. We would only have increasingly negative evidence and the sense that we are alone.

This does not have to be a depressing thought, however, although it would be disappointing. In response to this study, Elon Musk tweeted:

This is why we must preserve the light of consciousness by becoming a spacefaring civilization & extending life to other planets.

Sure, this is a bit self-serving as his company is trying to get to Mars and this is one of his main justifications for the effort. But it is true, none-the-less. If we are the only technological intelligent species in the galaxy or even the universe, how much the more precious are we. Carl Sagan pointed that out decades ago.

If we are the beneficiaries of a fantastically unlikely series of events, so unlikely that there is only one example in 2 trillion galaxies over billions of years, then we should take all the more care to value and preserve that civilization.

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Jun 28 2018

Complex Organic Molecules on Enceladus

Published by under Astronomy

Enceladus is one of the most interesting worlds in our solar system. It is a moon of Saturn with a surface comprised entirely of bright ice. Why is the ice so reflective? Because it is constantly replenished from a subsurface ocean of salt water, which gushes through cracks in the surface as geysers.

That is intriguing enough, but the implications are even more interesting – most significantly, there is liquid water beneath the frozen surface of Enceladus. Liquid water means a couple of things. First, it means the core of Enceladus is warm. The moon is not frozen solid through. A moon that size should have frozen solid by now, so there must be some source of energy keeping it warm.

The first thought was that tidal forces from Saturn were responsible, but scientists could not make computer models fit. However, a 2017 paper hypothesized that the core of Enceladus may be porous, and this model works. The core flexes, grinding rocks together, creating heat through friction. Further, liquid water would seep into the porous rock, heat to near boiling (90 C) and then rise to the surface and gush out through cracks. Heating would be greatest at the poles, and this is therefore also where the ice is thinnest. The model fits our observations.

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May 31 2018

Panspermia Pseudoscience

Last week I wrote about a recent article claiming evidence for panspermia (the idea that life had limited origins and then seeded itself throughout the galaxy), and the underlying idea of panspermia itself. I concluded that the new paper provided no compelling evidence, and panspermia, while not impossible, is a fringe hypothesis with no credible supporting evidence.

In response one of the co-authors of the paper (Ted Steele) wrote me an e-mail, attempting to defend the paper. I welcome the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about any topic I blog about, and so here is my response. Here is the e-mail in full:

Dear Steven:

I can see you have got quite emotional (attached) – and I am sure you are therefore not thinking straight. I tried posting this reply to your Blog comment but for technical reasons( I think ) I was excluded. So I decided to email you directly and share my response with some of your academic colleagues.

I suggest you re-read our paper carefully as you read this note. See

I am a molecular immunologist and evolutionist of 50 years standing. I am also the lead author of this paper on the “Cause of the Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic? ” I do not publish scientific trivia, and apart from key books the main body of my work is published in peer reviewed journals – check me on PubMed searching “Steele EJ”. Many of my PDFs are also at my site (below). My main field is the study of the RNA and DNA editing mechanisms in the somatic hypermutation and germline evolution of antibody variable genes – however I am very interested in pragmatically evaluating the evidence consistent with or predicted by the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe Panspermia explanatory paradigm.

I have spent 10 years or more poring over and thinking about all the multifactorial evidence and all the explanations and criticisms. I expect serious critics to do what I have done – confront all the “extraordinary ” evidence in conflict with the terrestrial paradigm. Most of my co-authors have done that. Skeptics must do this – confront and evaluate the evidence and the primary literature. Here some examples from our paper, which are paradigm shifting (that is, pure nonsense under the terrestrial neo-Darwinism paradigm).

We now have a set of extraordinary facts to explain. The usual skeptical response in these situations is that “Extraordinary Explanations require Extraordinary Evidence’. The situation now is the reverse. Extraordinary, and multifactorial evidence exists now on Earth and its immediate environs. So now we must provide an “Extraordinary” explanation that fits all these facts and makes sense of them – this has been the aim of Science since time immemorial.

Four extraordinary set of biological facts are speaking for themselves:

• Eukaryotic fossils in meteorites > 4.5 billion years old ( e.g. Murchison)

• Interstellar dust Infra red extinction spectrum = infra red extinction spectrum of freeze dried E. coli (this is the most incredible scientific result I have ever seen, see Fig 1 in our paper)

• Bacteria in the cosmic dust on the external surface of the International Space Station

• Tardigrades

I have not added a list of other data, including space hardy biological data, Mars data, nor the Octopus RNA editing data, because I do not need to – four , quite unrelated, data sets are enough for biological significance. ( Statistical significance does not enter the picture). The skeptic and traditional Astrophysicist now needs to provide a convincing explanation of these data sets that avoids Panspermia.

I am a pragmatic Popperian – I deal in hard facts that require a unifying explanation.


Ted Steele

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