Tag Archives: alien

Earth-born methanogen bacteria species could survive in Mars’ crust, new study shows

University of Arkansas researchers showed that certain species of methane-producing bacteria can survive the conditions on Mars pretty easily. Considering this result, they find it “hard to believe” that simple life isn’t present on some alien planets — as long as it has access to liquid water.

Methanogens in solution inside a planetary simulator at the University of Arkansas.
Image credits Russell Cothren.

Simple organisms called methanogens could survive in the harsh conditions close to the surface of Mars and in its deeper soils, recent research suggests. The conclusion is particularly exciting as methane — a byproduct of these organisms’ activity — has been detected in the atmosphere of Mars. The gas is often closely linked to biological activity on Earth.

Living under pressure

Although dwarfed in output by Earth’s biosphere, there are non-organic sources of this gas such as volcanic eruptions. So scientists don’t yet know what to make of the methane on Mars. But its presence does lend weight to the theory that there is life on the red planet despite its rocky soil, thin atmosphere, and limited supply of liquid water. In these conditions, complex life doesn’t stand a chance. Hardy, simple life, however, does.

“We consider methanogens ideal candidates for possible life on Mars because they are anaerobic, and non-photosynthetic, meaning that they could exist in the subsurface,” said Rebecca Mickol, a Ph.D. candidate at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Science. “Just a few millimeters of Martian regolith is enough to protect the organisms from the dangerous UV and cosmic radiation that hits the surface.”

“Additionally, methane has been detected in the Martian atmosphere, via multiple space-based and ground-based sources, including the Martian rover, Curiosity. Although these findings are still controversial, the presence of methane on Mars is particularly exciting because most methane on Earth is biological in origin.”

Last year, Mickol and her team tested how well four species of methanogens could survive in the low-pressure conditions of a subsurface liquid aquifer on Mars using the planetary simulator at the University’s W.M. Keck Laboratory. The bugs performed unexpectedly well — all four cultures survived the exposure between 3 to 21 days. Given how prolific life is back here on Earth, thriving in unbelievably hostile conditions, it’s probable we’ll find it in harsh conditions elsewhere in the universe, Mickol says.

“The prevalence of life on Earth, in all kinds of ‘extreme’ environments, and the fact that life arose fairly early on in Earth’s history, makes it hard to believe there isn’t some sort of microscopic life on the other planets and moons in our solar system,” she said.

Pradeep Kumar, an assistant professor in the Physics Department, wanted to see how the methanogens could fare much deeper into Mars’ crust. He and his team tested one methanogenic species that passed Mickol’s tests, Methanothermobacter wolfeii, in a hydrostatic chamber kept at 55 degrees Celsius (131 Fahrenheit), and progressively pressurized up to 1,200 times the surface level, with pH levels varied from 4.96 to 9.13 (7.0 pH level is neutral; anything below that is acidic, and anything above is alkaline). The temperature was selected as it is the “optimal growth” interval for the species. A martian geophysical model suggests that this temperature should correspond to a depth of about 30km — for which the team selected the pressure and pH values.

M. wolfeii survived through all pressure and pH levels. In an acidic environment, its growth rate actually increased with pressure. For neutral and alkaline conditions, growth rate initially increased with pressure, then dropped as it grew.

“Given the discovery of methane in Martian atmosphere, our study raises an exciting possibility of methanogenic archaea to be a viable organism that can survive and possibly thrive in the subsurface conditions of Mars,” Kumar said.

It’s not conclusive proof that life exists on Mars — the only way to find out is to go there and dig around. But it does add to a growing body of research suggesting that even Earth-born life can survive in space. So the odds of finding alien life look better and better by the second.

The full paper “Survivability and growth kinetics of methanogenic archaea at various pHs and pressures: Implications for deep subsurface life on Mars” has been published in the journal Planetary and Space Science.

SETI observes a “strong signal,” but don’t get your hopes up just yet

A star system 94 light-years away stepped in as a potential candidate for intelligent life, after Russian astronomers detected a radio signal emerging from within.

The SETI Institute is using the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California to confirm an intriguing signal coming from the star HD 164595, but so far there have been no results. Credit: SETI Institute

HD 164595 is a solar system a few billion years older than the Sun, centered on a star of comparable size and brightness to the Sun. The only planet we know of so far in the system is Neptune-sized, which makes it highly unlikely to host life, but other planets may still lurk undiscovered in the system.

Before recently, HD 164595 was relatively uninteresting, a solar system like any other, but Russian scientists working with an Italian researcher, Claudio Maccone, the chair of the International Academy of Astronautics Permanent SETI Committee found an interesting signal originating there. Just to be clear: no one is saying that this is an alien signal, but it’s a possibility – unlikely, but still a possibility.

Based on the signal’s characteristics, a potential alien society would have to generate about 100 billion billion watts of energy to blast it out in all directions – a tremendous effort. Even if they somehow sent the signal only in Earth’s direction, they’d still need to produce over a trillion watts. That’s a huge figure, says Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who was not part of the team.

“The first number is hundreds of times more than all the sunlight falling on Earth,” he said. “That’s a very big energy bill.”

This is an effort much larger than what we could do from Earth, and the possibility that this is indeed an alien signal doesn’t seem terribly promising.

“Nonetheless, one should check out all reasonable possibilities, given the importance of the subject,” a SETI statement reads. “Consequently, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) was swung in the direction of HD 164595 beginning on the evening of August 28. According to our scientists Jon Richards and Gerry Harp, it has so far not found any signal anywhere in the very large patch of sky covered by the ATA.”

There’s a good chance we may have gotten worked up for nothing and the signal could have natural (astronomic) causes. In the end, we can only say that this is something “interesting,” Shostak writes.

“So what’s the bottom line? Could it be another society sending a signal our way? Of course, that’s possible. However, there are many other plausible explanations for this claimed transmission – including terrestrial interference. Without a confirmation of this signal, we can only say that it’s “interesting.” “

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope discovers 104 new planets outside of Milky Way

Using data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope during the K2 mission in combination with observations from various Earth-based telescopes, an international team of astronomers has discovered 104 new exoplanets, four of which could hold the potential for life.

An illustration of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope during the K2 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An illustration of NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope during the K2 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Prior to the K2 mission, the Kepler focused specifically on measuring the frequency with which planets with sizes and temperatures similar to the Earth occurred around sun-like stars. Now, it focuses on cooler and smaller red dwarf-type stars, which are much more common in the Milky way than sun-like stars.

The new mission also focuses on both the northern and southern hemispheres, as opposed to the initial mission, which was limited to examining a specific portion of the sky in the northern hemisphere.

“Kepler’s original mission observed a small patch of sky as it was designed to conduct a demographic survey of the different types of planets,” said Ian Crossfield of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and leader of the research. “This approach effectively meant that relatively few of the brightest, closest red dwarfs were included in Kepler’s survey. The K2 mission allows us to increase the number of small, red stars by a factor of 20 for further study.”

Of the 104 new exoplanets discovered outside of our solar system, four are of particular interest due to their potential similarities to Earth. The set of planets are between 20 to 50 percent larger than Earth and orbit a star less than half the size of the sun. In addition, two of them are believed to experience radiation levels from their star that are comparable to those experienced by the Earth.

Although the orbits of the new set of planets are fairly tight, Crossfield believes that the current data suggests that we must consider the possibility of life on such planets until further research says otherwise

“Because these smaller stars are so common in the Milky Way, it could be that life occurs much more frequently on planets orbiting cool, red stars rather than planets around stars like our sun,” he said.

The findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

Something is blocking light from a distant star, and one of the possibilities is an alien structure

I already feel guilty – after all, it’s not every day that we’re allowed to say “aliens”; in fact, it’s almost never. I hate it when people cry “aliens” whenever something strange happens, but now, Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish a report about a strange pattern of disturbances around the light of a distant star called KIC 8462852, and one of the possibilities is an alien construction.

Image: CORBIS.

First of all, let’s not get overly excited here – this is just one of many possibilities, and quite possibly the least likely.

“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilisation to build,” Jason Wright, a reputable scientists  from Penn State University in the US, told The Atlantic. Wright has a solid publishing record.

KIC 8462852 is a star located in the constellation Cygnus approximately 454 parsecs (~1481 light years) from Earth. In September, a paper was published in ArXiV eloquently asked: “Where’s the flux?“. They authors observed a significant dip in the light from the star and were unable to figure out why this happened.

“Over the duration of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 was observed to undergo irregularly shaped, aperiodic dips in flux down to below the 20% level. The dipping activity can last for between 5 and 80 days,” the abstract reads

Numerous hypotheses emerged, although none was confirmed. The most likely possibility seems to be a large dust cloud of broken up comets orbiting the star elliptically, but there’s a problem with that: the problem is that if there were comets orbiting the star, you’d expect some sort of regular periodicity, but you don’t see that. There’s only a bunch of strange, light-blocking shapes with no discernible pattern to them.

Phil Plait, astronomer and author at Bad Astronomy said:

“Straight away, we know we’re not dealing with a planet here. Even a Jupiter-sized planet only blocks roughly 1 percent of this kind of star’s light, and that’s about as big as a planet gets. It can’t be due to a star, either; we’d see it if it were. And the lack of a regular, repeating signal belies both of these as well. Whatever is blocking the star is big, though, up to half the width of the star itself!”

The only plausible explanation would be that the comets just recently formed and still form a dynamic and chaotic system, but this would be an incredible coincidence: it would mean that they formed extremely recently, and astronomy doesn’t really do well with coincidences. Also, we’ve never ever seen anything like this.

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” one of the researchers, Tabetha Boyajian from Yale University in the US, said. “It was really weird.”

Artistic representation of a Dyson sphere. Image via Static.

The results have been double checked for instrumental error, and that was ruled out, so we’re left with either an extreme coincidence, something completely unforeseen, or… aliens. Futurologists have long predicted that ultimately, intelligent species will create a Dyson sphere or another – a huge megastructure of solar panels surrounding a star, and I quite light this idea. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that this is likely, but I do feel that it’s an interesting possibility. Also, Jason Wright is as reputable a scientist as you’re ever going to get; his research is skeptic and analytic, so even the fact that he’s considering something like this is exciting, but for the moment, let’s not get carried away.

Artist impression shows a beautiful, purple Kepler-36c dominating the skyline, as seen from the surface of the smaller Kepler-36b. (c) David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Two newly discovered alien planets form closest known pair in the Universe

Kepler, a space telescope on a mission to find alien planets by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, has come across a fantastic discovery. Two planets orbiting a distant star, which are closer to one another than any other two planets discovered thus far. Apparently, from the surface of the smaller planet, its neighbor would appear about the size of a 2.5 full-moon, while from the surface of the bigger planet, its dance partner would be the size of a full-moon. Indeed, this is a REAL SciFi scenario.

Artist impression shows a beautiful, purple Kepler-36c dominating the skyline, as seen from the surface of the smaller Kepler-36b. (c) David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Artist impression shows a beautiful, purple Kepler-36c dominating the skyline, as seen from the surface of the smaller Kepler-36b. CLICK for a magnified view. (c) David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

The newly found planets are located in a system 1,200 light-years from Earth. Kepler-36b is a rocky world measuring 1.5 times the radius and 4.5 times the mass of Earth, while Kepler-36c is a gaseous, Neptune-size world about eight times as massive as Earth. Kepler-36b orbits its star every 13.8 days, and Kepler-36c every 16.2 days, and at their closest, the two planets come just within about 1.2 million miles of each other. That’s only five times the Earth-moon distance and about 20 times closer to one another than any two planets in our solar system.

“These two worlds are having close encounters,” said Josh Carter, a Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a press statement.

“They are the closest to each other of any planetary system we’ve found,” said the report’s co-author Eric Agol of the University of Washington in a press statement. “The bigger planet is pushing the smaller planet around more, so the smaller planet was harder to find.”

Twin planets trapped in an odd dance

Were these planets to house an atmosphere similar to that of the Earth, a view from any of the two’s surface would surely seem divine; especially from the Kepler-36b, where Kepler-36c would appear in the night sky 2.5 times bigger than our full moon. Sadly, the planets are so close to their sun, that nothing could survive, and their atmosphere, especially that of the gaseous Kepler-36c, would most likely obstruct any attempts at peering outside the worlds.

“Planet c would appear roughly 2.5 times the size of the full moon when viewed from the surface of planet b. Conversely, planet b would appear about the size of the full moon on planet c,” Carter said.

“We can speculate on the appearance of planet c: It may appear slightly more purple that Neptune,” he added. “The purple hue owes to absorption of red and yellow by sodium and potassium. There could also be a slight brown tint owing to hazes of photo-disassociated methane.”

The team of researchers from the University of Washington and Harvard University, published their findings in the journal Science.

Artist impression of GJ 667Cc, orbiting around its red dwarf sun, with a stunning binary system in close proximity. (c) Guillem Anglada-Escudé, CIW

Newly discovered “super-Earth” planet might support life

The hunt for finding another Earth is making progress every day, as scientists are constantly adding new viable candidates to the list. It’s estimated that in our galaxy alone, the Milky Way, there are between 200 and 400 billion stars – out of all of these, from a statistical point of view, the chances of finding another Earth-like planet, capable of supporting life, are very much realistic. While the technology and resources diverted to this cause are extremely limited, the output so far has been phenomenal, and if anything, the results turned in so far will help scientists determine whether the conditions which lead life to blossom on Earth are of extreme rarity, if not unique. Again, if you look at the sheer number of stars in the known Universe, millions of billions, the thought that Earth is the sole home to life seems foolish.

Artist impression of  GJ 667Cc, orbiting around its red dwarf sun, with a stunning binary system in close proximity. (c) Guillem Anglada-Escudé, CIW

Artist impression of GJ 667Cc, orbiting around its red dwarf sun, with a stunning binary system in close proximity. (c) Guillem Anglada-Escudé, CIW

The latest exciting candidate is a  super-Earth called GJ 667Cc, a planet of at least 4.5 Earth masses, orbiting a dim red-dwarf star in the habitable zone –  the region where liquid water can stably exist. The planet completes a full revolution around its sun in 28 days, but even though it receives slightly less light from its star than Earth does from the sun, the  light emitted by the red dwarf is infrared, so the planet should absorb more of its incoming energy than Earth does from sunlight.

It’s believed that it has a rocky surface, a fact of high likelyhood as planets within 10 times the mass of Earth have been found to be, a critical prerequisite for supporting life. If it also has an atmosphere, than it might offer the necessary conditions for liquid water to form, and thus life. Also, because of the infrared light, the whole planet is likely covered in a redish hue, coupled with a binary system with close, visible proximity, makes GJ 667Cc sound like a faboulos sight.

“If it has an atmosphere, it’s probably reddish all the time, because the star is really red,”  said  co-discoverer Guillem Anglada-Escudé, who conducted the work while at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.. “It would be like being evening all the time.”

Other candidates aroused great excitement in the past, like the infamous Gliese 581g, only to fade out in a murmur of disappointment, as researchers discovered its chances of supporting life are practically nil after further studying. As such, the scientists that discovered GJ 667Cc advice caution, since not enough critical data that would help them determine for the very start if it’s just another space rock is currently available.  For such data to be available,  transit observation is required, such as the measurements relating to the dimming of the host star’s light as the planet passes in front of the star, as seen from Earth or by a powerful space telescope, such as Kepler. If such an observation would be possible, then scientists could determine the Earth-like candidate’s density, and from there on get an idea of its composition, which at its own term can help determine what kind of atmosphere, if any, the planet might foster. Why don’t we do it , then? With our current view of the red dwarf, a transit of GJ 667Cc has about a one-percent chance of happening, says Anglada-Escudé.

Check out this previous piece we’ve covered on ZME Science, if you want to learn more about how scientists find new planets and how they can semi-accurately determine if a planet is Earth-like or not.

An international team of scientists pulled the newly announced planet from data gathered by the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Precision Searcher, or HARPS, a Swiss-led project that monitors stars for the gentle gravitational tugs produced by orbiting planets. By developing a new method for processing HARPS data, the team of astro-scientists managed to discover GJ 667Cc.

It’s possible that we’ll never know for sure if GJ 667Cc is a really a safe heaven for life, but if anything, the discovery proves that interesting prospects for Earth-like planets are abundant, and research is set on the right path.

“The truth is, we may never know,” said astrophysicist Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s difficult to determine habitability without knowing the planet’s composition, or anything about its atmosphere and how much of the star’s energy is absorbed. “But overall I’m excited,” she says. “Whatever is going on, this is the start of the next era in exoplanets. We’re going to start seeing super-Earths in habitable zones all the time.”

The astronomers’ discovery was described in a recently published paper in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters. 


NASA slams alien life claims

Two days ago, the whole world was teeming with excitement, after some NASA researchers reported finding traces of alien life in meteorites; now, even their employer distances itself from them, and the whole scientific world seems to frown upon this work. However, in what is a very unusual move, NASA has denied any involvement with the paper, and even the Journal of Astrobiology refused to published the paper.

However, lead author Richard Hoover, engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama did publish his research in the online Journal of Cosmology, a publication which supports the idea that life came from outer space. Of course Fox News, in their usual and disturbing way, made big (and biased) news from this report, which led to NASA condemning the study; and it didn’t take long until other scientists followed too.

Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s science mission directorate issued a statement which left little to interpretation, stating that:

“NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts…. NASA was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication.”

Now, the Journal of Cosmology is not your average publication; the 2 year publication claims to be peer reviewed, but this time, they published the report BEFORE having other peers review it, which is highly unprofessional and unethical. The journal was reported to be closed on Monday, being “killed by thieves and crooks” at the journal Science and other subscription-based periodicals. I’m not really sure at all what the situation is, but in this particular case, they messed up – if you want to ensure the accuracy of a publication, you have to peer review it before publishing it.

Biologists from all over the world have dashed and bashed the paper, claiming that other structures similar to those of the bacteria can easily be found in nature, and contamination cannot be ruled out either.

“Move along folks. There’s nothing to see here,” wrote Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia,

Mister Hoover was unavailable for comments.

Picture source

Othman denies being appointed as “ambassador for aliens”

I have to say, I’m a bit confused. The whole science world and media was buzzing with the “alien ambassador“. The Malaysian astrophysicist was supposed to discuss her requirements the next week, but apparently she denied being appointed in this weird position in an e-mail to the Guardian. There isn’t a lot of information available right now, but it seems what she said was “It sounds really cool but I have to deny it”. I’ll keep you tuned whenever a development will occur.

Meet the Earth’s ambassador to extraterrestrials

In case you didn’t know the United Nations has appointed an ambassador for our little planet, in case aliens somehow contact us in the near future. Who was chosen for this position that could be crucial in the highly unlikely event of a discussion with aliens ? Mazlan Othman, head of the Office for Outer Space Affairs.

The Malaysian astrophysicist will discuss her duties and requirements in Buckinghamshire, England next week. Here’s what she had to say during a speech she gave to fellow scientists:

“The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day humankind will receive signals from extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.”

Well congratulations to her ! She could after all, represent the entire human race in case aliens decide to have a little chit chat with us – no pressure at all. However, if we were to be contacted by aliens, it would probably be via radio or something, it’s really doubtful that they will just park here and come out for a talk.