Are We Alone in the Universe?

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The universe is a big place.  In the 6th century BC Anaximander suggested that other worlds were endlessly forming and disintegrating in a universe of infinite size. In the 5th century BC Democritus, a Greek philosopher argued that there were countless other worlds containing countless other lives. Into the medieval ages and beyond, telescopes became more and more powerful, yet still the edge of the universe could not be found.

Bust of Democritus

Bust of Democritus

Today we can watch stars forming in the nebulae of dust and gas, and from the Hubble telescope a snapshot of 10,000 galaxies- each containing billions of stars.  And the theory is we are still only seeing 95% of what there is out there. Statistical extrapolations for the 1000 potentially “Goldilocks planets already identified lead to the conclusion that there are about 20 billion earth-like planets in our galaxy.

Yet… we have never found evidence of extraterrestrial activity. It was eloquently put by Enrico Fermi in his book “5 billion years of solitude: “Where the hell are they?!”

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi

If we assume that there are many planets capable of having intelligent life spawn on them, and that those planets will allow civilisations to develop for at least as long as our human ones, then why indeed have we not had any contact from them? One theory is that the distances between earth and other earth-like planets are simply to vast to be traversed. If we can never travel faster than the speed of light, and there aren’t thinks like wormholes in space, then we should resign ourselves to the fact that even if we are not alone, we will never meet another extra-terrestrial species.

The other theory is more interesting. They are avoiding us. For whatever reasons (and maybe we don’t look very nice as a species from our history) intelligent life out there has no wish to contact us. Perhaps they consider that species should rise and fall without any foreign intervention. Perhaps they are afraid of us. Perhaps they just wish to make us remain in splendid isolation, less we taint others with our warlike tendencies. Maybe they have evolved to another level of life where physical bodies have been dispensed with and we would not be able to see or understand them even if they were skimming past earth.

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Whatever the reasons, we still spend a lot of time, money and effort in trying to see if there is intelligent life beyond earth. Perhaps as science develops apace in the next few hundred years we will have made some progress towards extra-terrestrial contact. Or perhaps we are just doomed to having another 5 billion years of solitude.

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The Haunted Launch Pad

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It’s a sombre, desolated place. Weeds growing between the concrete cracks, a wind that whines through the remaining structure that was once LC-34.  People visit it regularly, read the two plaques, and bow their heads in prayer or sorrow.  This is launch pad 34, the pride of Cape Canveral, Florida in the early sixties. It was primarily used to launch the giant Saturn 1 and Saturn 1B rockets heaven-wards.

So why then do people claim that they hear not just the mournful wind, but the screams of men? Why have the authorities stopped official tours to the location? Why do certain groups want to have the place exorcised?

The answer lies in what happened on the evening of Friday 27 January 1976. Three of the United States’ finest astronauts were aboard for Project Apollo: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. First off Grissom complained of a foul odour- like sour buttermilk. Air samples showed nothing wrong.  Roger Chaffee climbed aboard, taking the right-side seat, and Ed White took the centre seat. The command module’s hatch was closed, the Saturn IB boost cover was sealed and pure oxygen was steadily pumped into the cabin. Their fate was sealed.

There were lots of minor problems, mainly with the communications and the countdown was stopped a number of times. Suddenly the controllers noticed the crew’s biomedical readings jump. This was a tell-tale indicator of increased oxygen flow in their space suits. At the same time, around 6:30:54 pm, other sensors registered a brief power surge aboard Apollo 1. Ten seconds at 6:31:04 later came the first cry and only from the spacecraft that contained language. It was the voice of  Roger Chaffee. The word was “fire”. The other sounds were distressing screams as the men expired.

Five days before on  22 January 1967, shortly before flying to the Cape for a ‘plugs-out’ launch pad test, Grissom plucked a lemon from a tree in his Houston backyard, flew it to Florida in his baggage and hung it over the Block 1 spacecraft’s hatch. He had no confidence in the mission.  It was a combination of  an “atmosphere” in the cabin of pure oxygen and an immovable hatch, that was coupled with a mysterious ignition source, never traced, that would spell incineration for Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a chamber of death.

Many visitors, relatives and witnesses to the tragedy, including NASA employees, say a weird feeling comes over all who approach the now-abandoned launch pad and some habe heard the mercifully  brief dying screams of the astronauts, and the single word “fire”. As the space programme moved, LC-34 was closed to the public. No one wanted to be reminded of one of the darkest days at Cape Canaveral, and relatives didn’t want to risk hearing the screams of their loved ones each year when visiting the shrine to their ambition, and the place of their death.

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Did Aliens Kill off the Dinosaurs?

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While the generally supported theory is that a freak asteroid hit lead to the demise of the dinoasurs, alternative theories suggest that it was no accident.

Consider the likelihood that there is intelligent life on other planets. Most scientists now think that even if life is as rare as hen’s teeth, the number of stars  makes it likely that there will be Goldilocks planets circling some of them, and that some of those planets are a lot older than earth. It is also feasible that a new form of propulsion might have been discovered by some of those alien races that enable them to traverse the gulf of space and develop interstellar travel. Be it some form of ion drive, or wormhole jumping, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that these advanced aliens came upon the Solar System many years ago:

They see a young world that has almost arrested development. Dinosaurs have been the dominant species on the planet for million of years. Evolution is so painfully slow, that it is unlikely they will ever devlop into intelligent life even given many more millions of years. Intervention?

Some might argue that an advanced alien race would have a “no interference”  policy when coming across inhabited worlds, much as wildlife documentary makers don’t interfere when a lion brings down a gazelle, or a pack of hyenas ambushes a baby giraffe. But what if they have some higher, more lofty goal? What if they believe that they should encourage the development of intelligent life on planets in the multiverse? It might be some quasi-religious drive that spurs this apparent altruism towards giving worlds a helping hand towards more advanced development. Rather like in the film 2001:A space Odyssey, they trigger a rush in progress of apes to man- except that this race visited earth long before the mammals, at the time of the dinosaurs. And perhaps they realised that mammals would never become dominant, and that dinosaurs could never develop into intelligent life. What to do?

Rightly or wrongly they decided to end the dinosaurs. Deflect a metoer to cause extermination of almost all life, but allowing mammals a chance to flourish. Did that really happen? Did aliens play God? No evidence, but it’s a plausible story.  One wonders what we earthlings would do if we developed interstellar travel. Would we just leave a planet and its inhabitants to evolve (or not) or would we try to encourage creation in our own image?  Well, we can put that question on hold until after we’ve developed a practical means to travel to the stars. Unles there’s life on Mars….

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Japanese Space Cannon for 2014

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It sounds like something out of Star Wars or a 1950’s Ray Bradbury Sci-Fi story, but it’s true. The Japanese have invented, built and now successfully tested (on earth) a space cannon, with the intention of- wait for it- shooting an asteroid.

It’s called the Hayabusa 2  and will be launched into space next year. It’s first target is not just any old asteroid, it will be aiming at asteroid 1999 JU3. The intention is to create a crater for gathering mineral samples.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has reported that the mission “is progressing as planned”, and is still on track to arrive at the asteroid in 2018. The asteroid is in a stable orbit inbetween earth and Mars.

When it arrives the cannon which actually detach from the mothership, where it will travel to the other side of the asteroid before detonating itself. Once in position close to the asteroid, the space cannon will detach itself and remotely fire a 4lb metal projectile into the surface of the miniature planet. The mothercraft will then land on the asteroid and collect samples that have been disturbed from underneath the surface of the asteroid. The previous ship, Hayabusa 1 skimmed material from the surface of an asteroid and successfully returned to earth. This latest project will hopefully expose valuable minerals from inside the asteroid, ones that are usually not available.

Jaxa said:

“the potential to revolutionise our understanding of pristine materials essential to understanding the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life,” 

It’s natural to think of an extension of this project being able to blast open or throw off course any large asteroid that might be heading towards earth.  The next potantially world-ending asteroid id expected about 2032.

Unfortunately, the cannon is nowhere near large enough to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. We’ve only got less than a couple of decades to sort something out for that. Ine idea being considered is  a giant catapault in space to launch a large captured asteroid towards any incoming body.  Being in space, the velocity of the launched asteroid will remain constant until it impacts aginst the invader. But one problem has been the corrosive effect of space on elastic and rubber. So perhaps we’re back to just building a much bigger space cannon. Hayabusa 3 anyone?

 

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Lost Planet that could have Contained Intelligent Life…

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We all know how close we came to getting wiped off the solar system map before we even made an appearance on earth, when an asteroid smashed into earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. Curiously it was that close shave that actually enabled mammals, and eventually humans, to become the dominant species on earth.

But it seems another planet out there might have not had such a lucky escape as out own: Astronomers studying a dying star have discovered the mashed-up remains of a water-rich asteroid. This suggests that hundreds of millions of years ago that start system may have harboured a “goldilocks” planet, with conditions not disimilar to our own, that could well have had intelligent life on it. The research appears in the latest issue of the journal Science.

Given that the conditions for life to have flourished on earth are so rare, and must include water and an atmosphere, to find evidence that there seems to have been another planet at one time, is both uplifting and concerning. Uplifting in that it may point to us not being alone in the Universe, concerning for two reasons: What happened to the inhabitants- unless they were sufficiently advanced to develop interstellar travel, they would have perished when their sun went through the final cycles of  its life. Scientists believe that the star would most likely have had a number of planets in its system before the star, expanded to become a red giant, burning everything on any planets, and then shrinking and eventually going cold.

This is also the likely fate of our planet, assuming we don’t get hit by another giant asteroid. Our sun too will become a red giant and then a white dwarf, and finally a black dwarf- a dead star emitting no heat.

Astronomers studying the light emitted by the asteroid, known as GD 61, located 150 light years away from the Earth, detected an abundance of “rocky” elements such as magnesium, silicon and iron. They also found oxygen in quantities that indicated a very large amount of water. Only a water-rich massive asteroid, or minor planet, can explain the observations. GD61, at least 90 kilometres in diameter, would have been drawn in by the white dwarf’s powerful gravity and ripped apart. It is highly likely that rocky, water-covered, Earth-like planets also existed in the system.

Dr Jay Farihi, from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, said:

“The finding of water in a large asteroid means the building blocks of habitable planets existed – and maybe still exist – in the GD 61 system, and likely also around substantial number of similar parent stars. These water-rich building blocks, and the terrestrial planets they build, may in fact be common – a system cannot create things as big as asteroids and avoid building planets, and GD 61 had the ingredients to deliver lots of water to their surfaces. Our results demonstrate that there was definitely potential for habitable planets in this exoplanetary system.”

 

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One Way Trip To Mars Anyone?

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Travel to Mars? Then stay there till you die? Personally, I’d prefer to stay at home put my feet up and watch the excellent John Carpenter film “Ghosts of Mars”. But many thousands of people think differently and have paid an application fee to be considered to join Mars One, the  $6-billion project that plans to establish a permanent human colony on Mars in twelve years time. 165,000 people have applied, from more than 140 countries.  And nearly 5% of those applying are Canadians. Is  life really that boring in Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg?

Mars One was conceived by Dutch Entrepreneur Bas Landlorp. The plan is for a first group to establish the colony in 2025 with just four settlers. Then additional groups would travel mout every couple of years. But even if the thought of living out the rest of your life in a tank on an airless planet doesn’t worry you, there are pther significant risks. Such as a launch disaster, a component malfunction during the journey,  a disaster at touch-down, or problems with the air conditioning.

Many of those applying are doing it for altruistic reasons, such as the furtherance of mankind, and the development of space travel and planet colonisation. There are also those who want to plant the flag of their particular country or be the first to pray to their God on Mars and so bring glory and recognition. Then there are others who will fall at the first hurdle when trying to establish the sanity of applicants. For example one applicant known only as Collin, 26, from Canada chose to submit a full video poem, which included these verses:

“I am a scientist, adventurer, wizard and explorer/Philosopher, technician and confidant ninja warrior/My brain is sane enough to sustain itself on such a lengthy trip/I will bond in trust and faith with fellow astronauts on the ship.”

Another applicant is convinced that the sun will consume the earth and so wants to be well away from here when that happens. But someone ought to tell him that that’s not due for another 100,000 years.

Landlorp was hoping for a million applicants, so the project has already hit some problems- the deadline is now closed. The next step is the whittling of 165,000 down to four. It’s likely that an X-Factor type TV show will be the vehicle to select the winners and also provide revenue to buy the gas for the trip.

 

 

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Science Fiction to Become Science Fact? Folding Space

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In Frank Herbert’s Science Fiction series of books “Dune”, “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune”, there are creatures known as Spacing Guild Navigators whose bodies and minds have been transformed by taking a drug (“melange”). One of these creatures is required to be on board any ship travelling long distances in space because in their altered state they can use their brains to imagine space and then “fold” it and  therefore make the ship travel almost instantaneously from one point in the galaxy to another.

As we discover more stars that look as though they may contain habitable planets, the problem of how to travel the vast distances within a human lifetime becomes more immediate. Unless Einsteinian laws about not being able to travel faster than the speed of light can be undone, it looks like we will be earth-bound forever.  However the concept of folding space could be a way to effect interstellar travel withour breaking Einstein’s laws.

Imagine that the earth is a soft and malleable beach ball. You are in Paris on this ball, and you want to travel to Tokyo. If you could take Paris on the world beach ball and pull it across to touch Tokyo, then you would merely walk from Paris to Tokyo where they touch. The beach ball would then bounce back into shape. Now expand that concept to the cosmos- and imagine the cosmos is a giant space beach ball. Earth to Alpha Centauri? No problem. Fasten your seat belt and enjoy a few seconds of the in-flight movie (Star Trek?)

That’s the theory, and there are many people, including physicists and scientists, who think that this concept is possible to effect. However there are two drawbacks. One is the amount of energy it would take to produce the fold. The second is what effect the fold would have on time, and on other people. There are many ideas on this, but until a model can be produced that will simulate space folding, we won’t know for sure.  Maybe we should just look for that drug found on Dune and produced by the Spice Worm in the Frank Herbert books. Until then, the stars will remain a long long way away.

 

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