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News From the Search for Extraterrestrial Life 10

In our universe, it seems, we don’t get down to the Really Simple Stuff. We just get down to smaller but still very complex stuff

Around our universe:

Here are the Pillars of Creation, a star workshop 6500 light years away in the Eagle Nebula, as seen recently by the James Webb Space Telescope:

The millions of stars seen by Hubble in globular cluster Terzan 4 are also worth a look:

While we are here: The humble proton, one of the building blocks of our universe, is “the most complicated thing” imaginable, according to Quanta:

The proton is a quantum mechanical object that exists as a haze of probabilities until an experiment forces it to take a concrete form. And its forms differ drastically depending on how researchers set up their experiment. Connecting the particle’s many faces has been the work of generations. “We’re kind of just starting to understand this system in a complete way,” said Richard Milner, a nuclear physicist at MIT.

Charlie Wood, Merrill Sherman, “Inside the Proton, the ‘Most Complicated Thing You Could Possibly Imagine” at Quanta (October 19, 2022)

In our universe, it seems, we don’t get down to the Really Simple Stuff. We just get down to smaller but still very complex stuff.

In our galaxy:

Planet formation need not be rushed, it seems: One research team suggests that astronomers’ estimates may be biased by focus on the larger stars they see: “You’re only able to measure the brightest and largest stars at those distances, and you tend to miss the smaller ones. So estimates of short protoplanetary disk lifetimes, and the resulting impact on planet formation, tend to come from samples of only larger stars. When the astronomers instead focused on lower mass stars and nearby protoplanetary disks, they found much longer lifetimes, more like 5 to 10 million years. This is more than enough time to build a planet like the Earth.” – Paul W. Sutter, Universe Today (October 18, 2022). The paper is open access.

Barium is the heaviest element yet found on exoplanets: “”The puzzling and counterintuitive part is: why is there such a heavy element in the upper layers of the atmosphere of these planets?” Tomás Azevedo Silva, research lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of Porto and Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço, both in Portugal, said in a statement released by the European Southern Observatory, which operates some of the telescopes used in the research. The high gravity of the planets means that scientists would expect heavy elements like barium to quickly fall into the lower layers of the atmosphere, so the detection was surprising.” – Robert Lea, Space.com, (October 13, 2022). Here’s their statement. This isn’t so much about the search for life as it is a reminder that there is a lot of variety out there, and many puzzles:

Exoplanets could make oxygen without life: “The researchers have found an abiotic source of oxygen that stems from sulphur dioxide. Sulphur is not rare in celestial bodies, and since volcanoes produce sulphur and pump it into the atmosphere, terrestrial volcanic exoplanets may have oxygen in their atmospheres. And life needn’t be involved.” – Evan Gough, Universe Today October 18, 2022. The paper is open access. Of course, if a planet had already made oxygen, it might be a suitable base for life, no?

Oumuamua is still a puzzle, we are told: “Although its origins are still hazy, interstellar objects like ‘Oumuamua may be the product of wandering planets in young planetary systems… ‘If objects like ‘Oumuamua are discovered in short order by Rubin–LSST, then that’s pointing to a large population of Neptune-like planets,’ [Greg] Laughlin said. ‘But if it finds no such objects, then the degree to which ‘Oumuamua was unusual will become more and more pronounced.’”– Keith Cooper, Space.com, October 20, 2022

Next door:

Could Mars once have had underground microbes?

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Ancient Mars may have had an environment capable of harboring an underground world teeming with microscopic organisms, French scientists reported Monday.

But if they existed, these simple life forms would have altered the atmosphere so profoundly that they triggered a Martian Ice Age and snuffed themselves out, the researchers concluded.

The findings provide a bleak view of the ways of the cosmos. Life — even simple life like microbes — “might actually commonly cause its own demise,” said the study’s lead author, Boris Sauterey, now a post-doctoral researcher at Sorbonne University.

Marcia Dunn, “Underground microbes may have swarmed ancient Mars” at AP News (October 10, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.

Probes might find evidence of past bacteria. Billions of tons of microbes currently live far beneath Earth’s surface:

Life in the clouds of Venus? First, there is life in the clouds of Earth: “Up to two million tons of bacteria are lofted by air currents into the atmosphere each year, along with 55 million tons of fungal spores and an unknown quantity of algae.” – BBC So, re cloudy Venus, “‘Venus is the poster child of a planet gone wrong,’ said Dr. Paul Byrne, an Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. ‘On paper, it has the same properties as Earth — same size, made of presumably the same materials in about the same proportions, same age, etc. So why is its climate and surface so different? There’s another angle: a few tens of kilometers up in the Venus atmosphere the pressure and temperature are close to those at sea level on Earth. Is that environment habitable? Understanding why Venus is the way it is will be crucial for understanding why our own world is the way it is… and why it isn’t like Venus.” (Laurence Tognetti, Universe Today, October 19, 2022) NASA has approved two missions, DaVinci and Veritas, to explore Venus in the 2030s.

Meanwhile, an Israeli company, SpaceIL, is sponsoring an experiment to grow plants on the Moon:

The plants selected for this mission are known for their hearty reputation. One, known as Triogon loliiformis, is famous for its ability to survive with little to no water. It enters a dormant state, which will be useful when being shipped to the Moon, but upon the reintroduction of water, it quickly reverts to its usual self.

That resilience, or “resurrection,” in the words of the biologists working on the project, is an excellent trait for plants in space. Whether or not it will be enough for them to thrive there remains to be seen. But we won’t have to wait too long – the mission is currently planned to set down on the Moon in 2025.

Andy Thomaswick, “SpaceIL’s Beresheet 2 Lander Will try Growing Various Plants on the Moon” at Universe Today (October 14, 2022)

Plants have been grown on Earth in lunar soil.

NASA continues the new approach of taking UFOs (also called UAPs) seriously: Here’s an update: “NASA has brought together some of the world’s leading scientists, data and artificial intelligence practitioners, aerospace safety experts, all with a specific charge, which is to tell us how to apply the full focus of science and data to UAP,” said [Daniel] Evans. “The findings will be released to the public in conjunction with NASA’s principles of transparency, openness, and scientific integrity.” (October 21, 2022) Whatever the unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) turn out to be, we need to identify them.

Our universe is fine-tuned for life, as Steve Meyer explains in The Return of the God Hypothesis:

Indeed, since the 1950s, physicists have discovered that life in the universe depends upon a highly improbable set of forces and features as well as an extremely improbable balance among many of them. The precise strengths of the fundamental forces of physics, the arrangement of matter and energy at the beginning of the universe, and many other specific features of the cosmos appear delicately balanced to allow for the possibility of life. If any one of these properties were altered ever so slightly, complex chemistry and life simply would not exist.

The fine tuning of these properties has puzzled physicists not only because of their extreme improbability, but also because there doesn’t seem to be any necessary physical or logical reason why they have to be as they are. Philosophers of science call such fine-tuning features “contingent” properties, since they could conceivably have been different without violating either the fundamental laws of physics or any necessary principle of logic or mathematics.

Stephen C. Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis (HarperCollins, 2021) p. 202, Kindle Edition.

And here’s News from the search for extraterrestrial life 9: NASA is readying a set of eight instruments for the Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor to search for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Renewed interest in white dwarfs; also, some think methyl bromide is a better biosignature gas (evidence for life) than some that are currently tested for.

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News From the Search for Extraterrestrial Life 10