Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Cutting-Edge Astrobiology

Astrobiology Magazine is an online publication from NASA. In addition to news relating to possible life on other worlds, and Frequently Asked Questions about astrobiology, there are a number of interesting feature articles.

Some highlights:
Debating Life's Boundaries, Life as We Don't Know It, What is Life?, The Basic Rules of the Universe - panels from the Astrobiology Science Conference last March.

• "Great Debates" about terraforming , the possibility of life on other planets, and the threat of asteroids hitting earth. The "debaters" include both scientists and science fiction authors Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Bear.

• An overview of Mars in Film

• Article about the possibility of alien infection ala Andromeda Strain.

• Film maker James Cameron on Mars and extreme life.

• "Table Talk" interviews with scientists and authors, including Bruce Runnegar, paleontologist and director of the Astrobiology Institute, Jack Farmer's testimony for the "Life in the Universe" hearings before the House Subcommiteee on Space and Aeronautics, and Philip Ball on "Water and Life"

• "
Perspectives" in essay form from a wide range of authors, from neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks to Frank Drake (developer of the "Drake Equation")

• Special sections on the Extreme Life, possible Life on Mars, and more.

Here are the top 10 astrobiology stories of 2006:

January 2006: Stardust
As they clustered around the Stardust sample return capsule, Donald Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator from the University of Washington in Seattle, warned his team they might not be able to see any comet dust. The tiny particles may have made such small tracks in the aerogel collector that they would not be visible to the naked eye.
Wearing white bunny suits in a clean room at Johnson Space Center, the team anxiously examined the collector tray… and then broke into delighted celebration. Small black holes dotted the wispy aerogel tiles, and some were as large as half a centimeter wide.
January 2006: New Horizons Mission to Pluto Launched
After visiting Pluto, Charon, and the two newly discovered moons, an extended mission would allow the New Horizons spacecraft to encounter one or two Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). Because the Kuiper Belt is so vast, the closest KBO to Pluto is about 1 AU away, the same distance between the Earth and the sun.
March 2006: Water on Enceladus?
NASA's Cassini spacecraft may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The rare occurrence of liquid water so near the surface raises many new questions about the mysterious moon.
March 2006: MRO Test Snaps
The first test images of Mars from NASA's newest spacecraft provide a tantalizing preview of what the orbiter will reveal when its main science mission begins next fall.
March 2006: Icy Super Earth Found
An international collaboration of astronomers has discovered a "super-Earth" orbiting in the cold outer regions of a distant solar system about 9,000 light-years away. The planet weighs 13 times as much as Earth, and at minus 330 degrees Fahrenheit, it's one of the coldest planets ever discovered outside our solar system.
June 2006: Venus Seeing Double
ESA's Venus Express data undoubtedly confirm for the first time the presence of a huge 'double-eye' atmospheric vortex at the planet's south pole. This striking result comes from analysis of the data gathered by the spacecraft during the first orbit around the planet.
October 2006: Looking Down on Opportunity
While Opportunity spent its first week at the crater, NASA's newest eye in the Martian sky photographed the rover and its surroundings from above. The level of detail in the photo from the high-resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will help guide the rover's exploration of Victoria.
September 2006: Saturn's Methane Moon
Saturn's moon Titan seems to have little in common with Earth. At just 93 Kelvin, the giant moon is beyond ice cold, and its atmosphere is dominated by methane rather than nitrogen and oxygen. But in July, radar on NASA-ESA's Cassini-Huygens mission found a landscape with a striking resemblance to Earth.
A methane molecule contains a single carbon atom. The methane that formed these depressions was probably converted by solar-powered processes into the two-carbon hydrocarbon ethane, and eventually into other hydrocarbons and "a whole suite of nitrogen-bearing molecules," Lunine says. Under the right conditions, these simple molecules could become the building blocks of life.
November 2006: MGS Over and Out?
NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has likely finished its operating career. The spacecraft has served the longest and been the most productive of any mission ever sent to the red planet.
December 2006: Water Flows Today on Mars
NASA photographs have revealed bright new deposits seen in two gullies on Mars that suggest water carried sediment through them sometime during the past seven years.
Finally, if you can't find the information you are interested in, you can always Ask an Astrobiologist.

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