The Science Behind “Chasing UFOs” – Episodes 7 and 8

1 09 2012

The Chasing UFOs team: Erin Ryder, me, and James Fox (left-to-right) interviewing Brigadier Jose Pereira. (Credit: Dave West)

Well, so I’ve gotten a little behind here on the personal blog, life’s unexpected twists and turns being what they are.  However, for completeness’s sake, I’m including links to my final two web contributions to the National Geographic Channel’s TV series, “Chasing UFOs.”

Without getting nostalgic, it’s been a heck of a ride.  Based on the content of these blogs, I think many would rightfully conclude that much of the scientific angle of the show wasn’t featured in the way I expected or would have preferred.  However, having the opportunity to engage – and more specifically – to try and deliver real planetary science content and a critical and logical scientific viewpoint to public discussions of astronomy, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the realities of spaceflight, is something I will forever appreciate.

So, without further ado, for those who might like to delve more deeply into (or simply know more about the science behind) the National Geographic Channel series “Chasing UFOs,” including global thermonuclear war and Brazilian UFOs, misidentified marmosets, upside-down moons, volcanoes and “dirty” lightning, and oil field interlopers from space, look no further!

Episode 7, “Alien Castaways” :

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/09/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-alien-castaways/

Episode 8, “Alien Baby Farm” :

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/17/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-alien-baby-farm/

Many thanks to everyone who supported me in this project, either directly or indirectly by reading these blogs.  My foray into ‘reality TV’ was at the very least an valuable education for me in the realities of TV, and at the end of the day, it was a real kick in the pants.  I had the opportunity to interact with a broad cross-section of people from around the world that I would have never had the opportunity to speak with otherwise, and hopefully as a result, at least a few were inspired to look into what we really do know about the night sky and spaceflight, and to wait just a little longer before leaping to the “It’s aliens!” hypothesis. =)

In closing this season out, I say Semper Exploro! – or, “Always Explore!”

Cheers,

Ben

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Arsenic-based life and Astrobiology

3 07 2012

File:Arsenate.png

It’s been some time since the controvertial announcement that “arsenic-based life” had been discovered on planet Earth.  With time, however, the less-sensational reality of the discovery has been made more clear, and I think it is sensible to review the current state of the research as it relates to the biochemistry of life and the idea of “alternative” biochemistries.

An Imminent Announcement

NASA "meatball" insignia 1959–82 and 1992–presentThe recap: Making some serious waves back in November of 2010, NASA released a media advisory stating that a news conference would be held days later that would reveal “an astrobiology finding” that would “impact the search for extraterrestrial life.”

The journal Science strictly embargoed details until the news conference was held.

Of course, the internet went bezerk.  NASA’s announcement, the first of its kind since the announcement of potential bacterial fossils in Mars meteoriete ALS-84001, seemed to hint to many that a rover had finally hit paydirt.  Signs of extraterrestrial biology had finally been found!

However, the rampant speculation that followed only fueled an initial spike of disappointment with the actual announcement: that young biogeochemist and astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon led a research team that discovered, as was popularly-reported, “arsenic-based” life here on Earth.

Wolfe-Simon’s discovery was  published in the journal Science and was actually met with a fair degree of sensationalism right out of the gate, followed by sharp criticism that survives to this day.

File:GFAJ-1 (grown on arsenic).jpg

Magnified cells of bacterium GFAJ-1 grown in a medium containing arsenate. (Credit: NASA)

GFAJ-1: The Arsenic Experiment

A critical question of astrobiology is whether or not life is required to take advange of the same chemistry we do, i.e., that our biochemistry is the only biochemistry that works.  If other types of chemistry were available to life, (such as silicon-based life hypothesized on Saturn’s moon Titan,) then this implies that opportunities for life elsewhere in the universe are great in number.

If not, then life may be more rare; waiting for the perfect “goldilocks” conditions before it can arise.

Testing this hypothesis, astrobiology researchers have been pressing for evidence of so-called “shadow biospheres,” or examples of life taking advantage of different or exotic chemistries right under our own noses.  In other words, seeking out environments where life might have evolved out of necessity to take advantage of different, ordinarily toxic chemical elements is one strategy to investigate the question here at home.

With this objective in mind, Wolfe-Simon (and colleagues) proposed that instead of phosphate (PO4), life might find a way to substitute arsenate (AsO4, depicted in the header)  into its DNA.  Specifically, by isolating an extremophile (an exotic bacterium) from the bizarre ecosystem at work in the alakaline, salt-ridden, and arsenic-laden Mono Lake, Wolfe-Simon’s research team claimed success: the identification of an organism that was capable of substituting arsenic for a small percentage of its phosphorus!

Clarifying “Arsenic-based” 

Wolfe-Simon’s findings, which were obtained when the GFAJ-1 bacteria were grown in a culture doped with arsenate, are more accurately described as identifying a potential “arsenic-utilizing” as opposed to “arsenic-based” form of life.  Even so, the results were considered a boon for those proposing widening the technical search for extraterrestrial life.  In this view, should life be utilizing very different biochemistry than what we’re accustomed to, it is possible that the instruments on our rovers, etc., might not even detect it (or recognize what it was that was being detected).

However, the results have been hotly-debated since, and more recently, have been outright cast into doubt when researchers just this year used a separate analytical method and failed to detect arsenic in the GFAJ-1 bacteria.

The Take-Home

The jury is still out considering whether or not we’ve actually detected so-called “alien” biochemistry or hard evidence of a shadow biosphere.  That having been said, the justification and approach is still in my opinion a solid one.

It remains within the realm of possibility that extraterrestrial life (or terrestrial life under extreme conditions) might, due to opportunity or necessity, be chemically different from our own.

Food for thought.





Xenoarchaeology Online

9 10 2010

I am excited to report that my article, “A call for proactive xenoarchaeological guidelines – Scientific, policy and socio-political considerations,” has been published online by the journal Space Policy as an in-press corrected proof as it awaits publication in an upcoming issue.  (I mentioned working on it previously in a post here.)

The thrust of the paper is that when you consider the galactic timescales and hazards we know to be in play against the evolution of alien life, we’re likely to discover evidence of life before we discover astrobiology itself.  Further, it’s only a matter of time before we identify suspected material evidence of astrobiological activity.  -And regardless of whether or not it turns out to be a real find, we should be prepared to investigate and evaluate it will the scientific rigor deserving of an actual find, with the foresight to successfully manage information verification and public dissemination.

The paper is a stab at highlighting the applicable scientific protocols, planetary pitfalls, and social snags a xenoarchaeological investigation might face in the hopes of stimulating discussion toward the development of a fully-fledged field of study.

Here’s to making it one step closer (academically, anyway) to the stars.  Feedback welcome.

UPDATE 11/2010:  The article has been officially published in Space Policy Volume 26, Issue 4, November 2010, Pages 209-213.





Hawking Space Exploration Paradox: Death or Enslavement

27 09 2010

Dr. Stephen Hawking. (Credit: Associated Press)

During the last six months, famed theoretical physicist and science oracle Dr. Stephen Hawking has proposed much to garner headlines.  (A suggestion that ‘universe creation’ may be a natural process comes to mind.)  However, when looking at the implications of his recent propositions, a hidden space exploration paradigm takes form.

It would seem that in Dr. Hawking’s best estimations, space exploration is inexorably linked to the struggle for humanity’s survival.  His astro-colonial challenge is framed between two opposing threats: The first is that if we do not learn to cooperate and start concerted space exploration and colonization, the human race will wipe itself out in two centuries; The second is that advanced alien life is certain to exist, and if we reveal ourselves to the extraterrestrial environment, such life will pose a threat to our civilization (a la War of the Worlds).

What does this mean?  Well, this might initially seem to imply a “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” paradox, which I mentioned as this post’s title.  However, when developed further, the propositions have a deeper implication: A golden path between the chasms on either side.

By assessing Dr. Hawking’s admittedly apocalyptic predictions in reverse, he essentially states that we’ll make it if we create a synergy of earnest, cooperative space exploration and diligent, even paranoid SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) reconnaissance.  In doing so, we engender the maturity of our civilization on Earth, develop resource and environmental security for our perpetual existence about the Sun, and cultivate an advanced awareness of our stellar neighborhood – an early warning system for potentially threateneing ETIs (extraterrestrial intellegiences).

So, it’s possible he’s really saying that we have a shot.

The first step in evading threats is cultivating an awareness of them.  In that light, maybe that’s the reason he’s come out with these statements lately – to help us find the razor’s edge between self-destruction and galactic naivety.

Just a thought.








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