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WOW! SETI still hunts ET

20 Aug

Is man alone in the Universe? This is a question that many want answered, but just how difficult is it to find ET? There is, it seems, an infinite amount of stars visible from Earth and along with most of those stars come orbiting planets and moons.  So the possibility of life is great, but there is a difference between microbial, complex and intelligent life. We as Humans are fortunate enough to have lasted this long to become somewhat intelligent, so why have we not found a species like us out there?

Well the problem lies in the distances in space. People, Spaceships and radio signals all take time to traverse the Universe and when we measure these distances in light it becomes clear how much slower every other element is.  Unfortunately Humans do not have the capabilities to travel between the stars but we are exploiting all other means in getting as close as we can. NASA has provided us with telescopes to peer among the cosmos for decades. This institution has become our eyes and SETI are our ears.

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), is a collection of institutions and operations set out to look for life that has evolved to a similar state to our own. This institute is comprised by some of the most advance technologies on offer. One of which is the Allen Telescope Array at the University of California, Berkeley. Made of an eventual 350 radio telescopes this facility is be able to listen to extensive regions of the universe in the hope to receive a response.

Many of SETI’s projects are similar to this Array. Signals covering the entire wave spectrum are listened out for in the hope that somewhere out there someone or something has got the radio on.

SETI have been listening for over 50 years now and still nothing has been heard. Or has it?

Thirty-five years ago this week a signal was detected by a volunteer astronomer at OSU SETI and quickly gained fame as the strongest signal ever detected. Jerry Ehman was the man who found the strong signal amongst and otherwise standard data read, he circled the figures and wrote the word WOW next to it. Later dubbed the ‘WOW! Signal’ many had hoped that SETI had stumbled across the very first indication of intellectual life. That was on August 15th 1977, many additional attempts to locate that signal have failed but that patch of sky still remains a hotspot for SETI.

The fact is predicting where to look is the problem. We may have already looked in a place where once a great species did live or will live in the future. The truth is a civilization can last for millennia and be wiped out in a second just like our own might. Whose to say there isn’t a civilization just like ours in the Universe? Or that there has been before or will be in the future? With Space coexisting with time across such vast distances it will be near on impossible to find ET with the TV on.

Jill Tarter, former director of SETI sums it up perfectly when she explains her work and the task SETI are up against

 …the amount of searching that we’ve done in 50 years is equivalent to scooping one 8-ounce glass out of the Earth’s ocean, looking and seeing if you caught a fish. No, no fish in that glass? Well, I don’t think you’re going to conclude that there are no fish in the ocean. You just haven’t searched very well yet….

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Neptune – Seeing Her Clearly

22 Aug

This week marks rather a special one for Neptune, the planetary system has recently celebrated its first birthday since its discovery and shares another anniversary, one since the first close up pictures detailing this world were received. If this was not enough, the planet is in one of the best positions in the night sky in which to view her bewitching phosphorescence.

July 12th of this year marked Neptune’s first birthday since its discovery in September 1846 by German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle, this date was exactly 164.79 years, which is one full Neptunian year. Obviously the planet has made many more rotations while in existence but since its official naming and plotting the planet remains a young one in our eyes.

Monday 22nd August, this week, also marks the opportune time in which to gaze upon Neptune as the planet is in what is known as its opposition period, meaning it is exactly in the opposite position to that of the sun. Making the planet both at its closets point at its most bright.

However this only improves the chances of catching a glimpse of the system ever so slightly. Neptune’s distance is so great that its magnitude of 7.8, which is high on the scale of planetary brightness, means it cannot be viewed without aid of binoculars or a telescope.

To those desperate of a glimpse, Neptune can be spotted above the star Iota Aquarii, which is in the Aquarius constellation.

The planets massive orbital route is down to its distance from our sun, the distance of 2.8 billion miles, the amount of space in between causes the planet to drop to temperatures of -220 degrees Celsius.

Just like the other gas giants of our Solar System, Neptune is plagued with storms and electrical surges. Winds on the planet can reach speeds of 1,340 Mph tearing through the rich gas atmosphere. Gases such as hydrogen, helium and predominantly methane control the atmosphere and ultimately give the world its blue, green tinge. The bewitching colour is due to the fact that these gases absorb the red light emitted from the sun then reflects back less fluorescence in the form of blue light.

Neptune, named after the roman god of water and the sea, is the eighth and final planet in our Solar System. At over 30,760 miles wide it is not the biggest but still 17 times the size of Earth.

Much of this information has been collected over the last two decades merited to the NASA led Voyager 2 Space Craft, launched from Florida in the late 1970’s.

On Thursday 25th August, this week, Voyager will celebrate 22 years since sending back its first images of Neptune, enabling scientists to understand its atmosphere, weather patterns and orbital movements.

According to NASA’s scientists they state that the craft could carry on communicating, quietly, until 2025, thats 48 years after its launch.

Without the first observations and innovations of science, Neptune would still be the blurry, blue marble at the foot of the Solar System.

[COSMIC BODIES] – Frozen Oceans

12 Aug

Ever since man first started to gaze out into the skies, he has always wondered if he is alone. Is life possible among the millions of stars he could see or even just in this small band of planets we call the Solar System? Ever since man has had the aid to his eyes and knowledge of science, he has been able to come closer to the conclusion of that question.

Places like Mars and The Moon (Lunar) have always had romanticisms about alien life living on their surfaces, and as of yet we are still to proven wrong. I’d like to introduce two more alluring worlds among our Solar System that show decent signs of a habitat for E.T.

These worlds are far out into the more inhospitable regions of our host star system; they both orbit huge gas giant planets and both have a temperature that is lower than -150 degrees Celsius.

These worlds are the small icy Moons; Europa, who orbits Jupiter, and Enceladus, who’s host planet is Saturn. These worlds, although some distance apart, share a few similarities in the essential aspects for them to support life. Both moons share the most important of these, water, and lots of it. In fact, Enceladus is believed to be made up of 91% water vapor.

As a species we know that water is an essential building block for life, you only have to look around you for proof. So it seems entirely plausible that these moons can be the habitat for some bizarre marine life as there is already so much of it here on Earth.

Enceladus is a tiny moon, smaller than Great Britain, which sits in the E-ring of the planet Saturn, over 147,000 miles away from its host. Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, the man who also discovered Uranus, Enceladus is the sixth moon of Saturnian orbit and the brightest object in the solar system. Believed to reflect 99% sunlight off its surface, Enceladus is small but an incredible find. Scientists are excited about this moon because of it’s surface appearance and subterranean goings-on.

In 2005 a probe named ‘Cassini’ was sent passed Enceladus with instructions to take photographs. The satellite took some amazing images of giant jets of liquid water protruding into outer space some 80 miles. This indicated the presence of liquid water and the possibility of a subterranean ocean beneath its icy surface.

The area of interest became known as the ‘tiger stripes’, a series of linear depressions on the surface indicating a raised temperature in the south Polar Regions. This proved the presence of an ice volcano fuelled by underground heat.

‘This finding is a crucial new piece of evidence showing that environmental conditions favorable to the emergence of life can be sustained on icy bodies orbiting gas giant planets’ – Nicolas Altobelli, ESA project scientist for Cassini.

No impact craters in the surrounding area also implies that this region is young, therefore ever changing. A spectacle this moon shares with her step-sister Europa.

Jupiters moon Europa

Europa is a Jovian moon, meaning it orbits within the realms of Jupiter, and is also one of four of the Galilean moons. Named by Galileo Galilei, in respect to a Greek queen, Europa was discovered in 1610, along with the three other closets moons to Jupiter. Although somewhat bigger than Enceladus, Europa is still smaller than our moon but with a high potential to preserve life due to its huge ocean. Scientists believe the surfaces layer, some -160 degrees Celsius, is tens of kilometers thick and the water layer below is thought to be 50 -105 kilometers deep, that’s more water than Earths oceans combined.  This leads scientists to believe that the shear size of the ocean underneath, in comparison to the size and diversity to life on Earth, that life on Europa is a mathematical certainty.

‘we calculate that the odds of finding life in the waters of Europa are 122 out of 123. The 122 known bodies of saltwater harbor microbial life. The 123rd body of saltwater, Europa’s vast ocean, is the body that has yet to be tested. Therefore, the odds are 122 of 123 in favor of finding life, or above 99%’– David Darling, part time astronomer and science writer.

Europa is close to Jupiter, so close that the massive planet exerts tidal pressures on the moon much like the relationship the Earth has with it’s lunar neighbour. This causes ‘plates’ on the moons surface to crack and move due to warm temperatures below the surface most probably caused by underwater hydrothermal vents.

This below surface phenomena is also true of Enceladus and as we recently discovered, on our planet, life does not necessarily require sunlight to exist.

Hydrothermal vents were discovered just in the last decade, they prove that life can go on without heat provided for it by the Sun. These vents send columns of water reaching temperatures of 460 degrees Celsius from the core and out into the depths of our oceans. Crabs, worms and bacteria like creatures were discovered to be living within this eco-system and thriving well without sunlight. It was clearly all down to these vents and the heat they were giving off that allowed complex life to live in such an extreme enviroment. Now scientists were excited because they thought that this could just as easily be true of any other body supporting water or water ice.

Underwater Hydrothermal Vents

So scientists from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) went on the hunt for worlds that looked like a suitable home for these hydrothermal vents and their answers were both Europa and Enceladus.

As mentioned before Enceladus has a satellite nearby already, named Cassini after the Italian/French astronomer of the 17th and 18th century. Launched in 1997 Cassini has beamed back tons of information surrounding Saturn and her moon system and will continue to do so for the 20-year duration of its mission.

ESA and NASA also had a similar, but far more advanced, probe that was scheduled for launch in 2020 in order to understand Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede. NASA have since pulled out of the mission called, Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) and have left ESA to fund its own quest to the region, Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE).

Russian interests have also spurred this assignment forwards as they look to actually having a lander set up home on the moon. In an attempt to understand Europa’s icy surface and subterranean ocean the Europa Lander will be separated from the main rocket in order to carry out various fly-by missions. This launch looks likely to be scheduled far beyond its original date of 2020.

Until this mission we still have a lot to understand about both these moons complexity and intriguing imagery. They both leave us wondering just what lies beneath their surfaces and how much of it is Alien and how much is familiar.

For Galileo to have gazed up and wondered so much and known so little speaks the same of us today. With his help, along with Herschel and the understanding of the critical aspects of life, we can envisage, like Galileo did, the grandeur of celestial knowledge while still understanding so little.

JUNO – Misson to understand complex Jupiter

2 Aug

Nasa will this week launch a brand new satellite into the orbit of the biggest planet in our Solar System. This new spacecraft will aid humans in understanding more about Jupiter and her atmospheric moods.

Juno, as the satellite is named, is due for launch on 5th August 2011 with a window of 3 weeks allowing for any launch complications. The craft will propel out of the Earths atmosphere attached to an Atlas Rocket, numbered V551, from a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida.

Juno will career towards Jupiter, once being detached from the rocket, at nearly 160,000 miles per hour. However astonishing this speed is, the craft will still take 5 years to reach its destination circling above the dangerous atmosphere of the fifth planet from the Sun.

Jupiter is a strange and inhabitable place that consists of toxic storms of gas and lightning that ravage its structure. The planet is just over 483 million miles away from the Sun making its freezing temperatures reach -160 degrees Celsius. Which is shy of the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth doubled. Jupiter is 318 times the mass of Earth stretching out over a distance of 88,000 miles.

Jupiter’s surface atmosphere is dominated by what is known as the Great Red Spot. This ‘Spot’ is actually 3 times the size of our planet and is made up of a giant storm that has been ravaging Jupiter since records began. With a complex consistency of Water, Methane, Ammonia and Hydrogen this spot, as well as the rest of Jupiter, is thought to render the planet completely lifeless. So Juno will not be alien hunting on its long journey to the planet.

What Juno will be helping scientists with is, understanding even more about its bizarre atmosphere, the planets gravity and magnetic fields along with how the magnetosphere and Auroras behave at the planets polar regions. With state of the art cameras and sampling equipment on board this should be the only thorough cross section we need of Jupiter, at least for the time being.  The craft is a lot bigger than you would think, reaching a height of 14 feet with a panel span of 66 feet, when fully retracted. Juno will be the first ever solar paneled space craft to be released into the Outer Solar System when its launch period opens on Friday.

Scott Bolton, the missions chief investigator says ‘…the team is really excited that the final days of preparation, which we’ve been looking forward to for years, are finally here. We are ready to go’.

After Juno has completed its 10 year mission of reaching Jupiter and conducting 33 orbits around this gigantic planet, it will send its last transmission before being plummeted purposely towards the surface to be broken apart in its storm system. By that time the knowledge that the satellite would have communicated will be forever essential in our understanding of the solar system and beyond.

For 3D information detailing the craft itself visit:

http://missionjuno.swri.edu/