A report released by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, thinks that “NASA should expand it’s search for life in the universe and make astrobiology an integral part of its missions”.
“An updated, more sophisticated catalog and framework will be important to enhance our ability to detect both life that might be similar to terrestrial life, and potential life that differs from life as we know it. The latter will be enabled by investigating novel agnostic biosignatures – signs of life that are not tied to a particular metabolism or molecular blueprint, or other characteristics of life as we currently know it.” tells the committee that wrote the report.
Astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, is a rapidly changing field, and NASA needs to focus on recent advancements. “Recent scientific advances in the field now provide many opportunities to strengthen the role of astrobiology in NASA missions and to increase collaboration with other scientific fields and organizations. The report finds that these changes necessitate an updated science strategy for astrobiology.”
The report mentions a need to focus the search for life within subsurface ecosystems “In particular, the report found that NASA should focus on research and exploration of possible life below the surface of a planet in light of recent advances that have demonstrated the breadth and diversity of life below Earth’s surface, the nature of fluids beneath the surface of Mars, and the likelihood of life-sustaining geological processes in planets and moons with subsurface oceans. A renewed focus on how to seek signs of subsurface life will inform astrobiology investigations of other rocky planets or moons, ocean or icy worlds, and beyond to exoplanets.”
It further details a need for NASA to “ramp up” efforts in developing mission-ready life detection technologies to advance the search for life. Specifically it details the types of collaboration needed to achieve technological feats we have yet to accomplish “For studies of life on planets outside of this solar system, the agency should implement technologies in near-term ground- and space-based direct imaging missions that can suppress the light from stars. The specialized measurements, equipment, and analysis required to take full advantage of space missions include some that exist outside of traditional space science fields, highlighting the need for interdisciplinary, non-traditional cooperation and collaboration with organizations outside of NASA.”
You can read the full report online right here.
The movie Venom, the latest thriller in Marvel’s Spider-Man franchise, plays to one of our deepest human fears: the loss of self control. In the movie, journalist Eddie Brock becomes infected with a parasite and is transformed into Venom, an alien-human hybrid. But could a parasite truly control our minds and actions?
In order to think about this scenario, we can look to biology of parasites.
Parasites are both fascinating and revolting. They fall on the continuum of symbiotic relationships where two organisms live together in intimate association.
A close relationship between two species can be mutually beneficial, where an equal trade of resources takes place, such as with bees and flowers; the bees get a source of food (pollen or nectar), and the flower has its pollen spread to other flowers in order to reproduce.
Or parasites can tip the scales in their favour and take advantage of their hosts. Often this involves the stealing of nutrients or resources. For example, the aliens from Ridley Scott’s movies use humans as incubators for the next generation of their species.
This alone would be terrifying, but the central premise of Venom is more disturbing. What if the parasite not only lives inside your body, but also takes away your autonomy and ability to control your behaviour?
Venom is the product of a symbiotic association of an alien (the black goo) and Brock (played by Tom Hardy). Brock is the host, the alien is the parasite — and the source of Venom’s violent behaviour.
Nature contains many fascinating examples of parasites that can control host behaviour and physiology, and scientific studies indicate how this might play out in the film.
One well-characterized interaction where the parasite modifies the host’s behaviour and appearance is the relationship between the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and its ant host.
These carpenter ants normally live in the tree canopy of tropical rainforests. When they leave the canopy to scavenge, some encounter the fungus and become infected by fungal spores.
The fungus uses the ant as an energy source, damaging muscle and the central nervous system. As the infection progresses, the ant develops seizures and a bizarre erratic zombie walk. Ultimately, the ant climbs a tree sapling and at solar noon clamps its mandibles onto a leaf, locking it into place until death.
The fungus — its survival and growth now ensured — grows a fruiting body (a stalk covered in spores) out of the ant’s head and releases the spores, infecting other ants. And the cycle continues.
Not only does the fungus alter the behaviour of the ant by manipulating its neurobiology, but it also changes the physiology of the ant to lock it in place even after it dies.
In reel life
If we apply this to Venom, as a first step, the alien needs to somehow invade or interface with the human host.
Based on the trailer, the alien appears to crawl into Brock’s mouth. The next steps are far more complicated and involve gaining control over the host’s movements and mind.
What mechanisms could explain the control that a parasite exerts on a host’s behaviour and physiology? One hypothesis is that the parasite makes proteins that interact with the biological pathways responsible for motion and behaviour in the host. In effect, the alien hijacks the human for its own use.
A recent study looked at which genes the fungus was expressing (that is, which proteins were being produced) during the ant’s death bite. The fungus likely uses toxins to target the ant’s immune system and interfere with its ability to detect environmental cues — it may even drug its victim.
In Venom, the alien must be producing molecules that reprogram Eddie’s biochemistry to give it control of his body and mind, without killing him outright.
This is tricky business, made trickier since it’s unlikely the alien parasite has co-evolved with humans for any length of time, like the fungus and ants.
From a purely biological standpoint, the alien parasite almost certainly lacks the genetic tools to hack Brock — or any other human — to any appreciable extent. But, given enough time for adaptation to occur — or some technological help — perhaps such parasites might find a way around these challenges.
One of the defining characteristics of life is its ability to reproduce. Can the alien parasite in Venom replicate and infect other hosts when Brock is no longer useful for its survival?
Fortunately for us, based on our current knowledge of biology, it’s more likely an alien parasite would kill us outright upon infection or be biologically incompatible with our neurological and physiological systems than exert any sort of mind control.
Humanity can rest easy — and so can our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.
A new project known as the Trillion Planet Survey, is launching a search for directed intelligence in M31 (The Andromeda Galaxy). The project is being run by the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The aim of the Trillion Planet Survey is to try and detect laser signals directed at us from an extraterrestrial civilization in M31. And according to researchers, this is our best target for searching to date, “Andromeda is home to at least one trillion stars, and thus at least one trillion planets. As a result, in surveying M31, we are surveying one trillion planets, and consequently one trillion possible locations of intelligent life. This is an unprecedented number of targets relative to other past SETI searches. ”
Specifically, researchers will be looking for intelligence of “similar or higher class than ours trying to broadcast their presence using an optical beam,” says lead researcher Andrew Stewart, a student at Emory University and a member of Lubin’s group (Lubin is the the lead on the Trillion Planet Survey).
Below you can read the abstract from the Trillion Planet Project:
In realm of optical SETI, searches for pulsed laser signals have historically been preferred over those for continuous wave beacons. There are many valid reasons for this, namely the near elimination of false positives and simple experimental components. However, due to significant improvements in laser technologies and light-detection systems since the mid-20th century, as well as new data from the recent Kepler mission, continuous wave searches should no longer be ignored. In this paper we propose a search for continuous wave laser beacons from an intelligent civilization in the Andromeda galaxy. Using only a 0.8 meter telescope, a standard photometric system, and an image processing pipeline, we expect to be able to detect any CW laser signal directed at us from an extraterrestrial civilization in M31, as long as the civilization is operating at a wavelength we can “see” and has left the beacon on long enough for us to detect it here on Earth. The search target is M31 due to its high stellar density relative to our own Milky Way galaxy. Andromeda is home to at least one trillion stars, and thus at least one trillion planets. As a result, in surveying M31, we are surveying one trillion planets, and consequently one trillion possible locations of intelligent life. This is an unprecedented number of targets relative to other past SETI searches. We call this the TPS or Trillion Planet Survey.
Astronomers working at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico have detected a weird radio signal, spotted when pointing their telescope at the nearby star Ross 128. They’re not getting too excited about the prospect of an alien civilisation contacting us just yet though. “In case you are wondering, the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations,” said Abel Mendez, the scientist leading the campaign.
Of course, this doesn’t stop others speculating that the signal may be just that. And it begs the question, how do you work out if a strange signal from space really is a message from aliens? The simple answer is that you have to rule out everything else first and only then can you think it may be aliens. As Sherlock Holmes said: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” But eliminating all the other possibilities isn’t exactly easy.
When radio pulsars were first detected in 1967, “little green men” were at least considered a possibility – before it was that they are rapidly rotating neutron stars. The discovery opened up a whole new area of astrophysics, so could hardly be considered a disappointment.
There have been other cases. In 1977, astronomers detected a radio burst dubbed the “WOW signal” – and they have been debating its origin for decades. Only recently was it suggested that there could be a natural explanation: emission from a passing comet that happened to lie in the right part of the sky. However, other astronomers have cast doubt on the comet idea, so it can’t be considered to be settled just yet.
Another mysterious signal is that from Tabby’s star, which displays strange quasi-periodic dips in its brightness. Could this be evidence of orbiting alien megastructures, or is it merely a cloud of natural debris surrounding the star? Once again, the jury is still out on that one, but we have certainly not ruled out all natural possibilities yet.
The signal seen from Ross 128, which is 11 light years from Earth, consisted of quasi-periodic radio pulses across a wide range of frequencies. The observations were made on May 12 in the range 4-5 GHz and lasted about ten minutes. A periodic signal naturally draws attention to itself and could indicate an artificial origin. However, some natural processes can give rise to periodic signals too. The pulses could be due to something like solar flares coming from the red dwarf star (a small and relatively cool star). Such stars are indeed prone to this type of activity, but the researchers say the radio pulses are unlike anything ever seen from other similar stars.
Perhaps more likely is that the signals originate closer to home – arising as interference from a high altitude, Earth-orbiting artificial satellite which happened to pass through the field of view of the telescope during the observations. However, such a signal from a satellite has not been seen before either. The Arecibo team are planning further observations to try and check these possibilities.
Exoplanets and life
So, what are the chances the signal is evidence of aliens? The last 20 years have seen an explosion in the number of planets found orbiting other stars. It is likely that a large proportion of the stars in the Milky Way harbour habitable exoplanets, yet we still have no evidence of life elsewhere.
The lack of evidence for extraterrestrial life lies at the heart of the Fermi paradox. Simply put, if planets and life are common in the galaxy, why have we not found aliens yet?
My best guess, based on what we now know, is that simple life may well be common – there are probably billions of Earth-like planets out there, so it is almost inconceivable that life has only evolved on one of them. However, intelligent, communicating life may well be extremely rare – either because it doesn’t arise or because when it does, it gets wiped out fairly quickly. This idea is known as the great filter.
The best chance of spotting life in the galaxy may therefore not come from looking for radio signals, but from looking for the signature of a biosphere as an exoplanet transits across the face of its star.
By measuring the spectrum (breakdown of light according to wavelenght) of a star while its planet passes in front, then subtracting the spectrum of the star seen alone, any tiny difference must be due to the signature of the planet’s atmosphere. This signature could reveal the presence of gases like oxygen and methane, which may mean the planet hosts life – although this may just be microbes. But it may indeed be our best bet to find life in the galaxy.
What if you do spot an alien signal?
Let’s return to the signal from Ross 128. What if the astronomers at Arecibo rule out solar flares and artificial satellites as the origin of the signal? The problem is, we can only rule out the things we know about. So even if these possibilities are discounted, there may still be other causes that have not been thought of yet. In fact, this is how all science works. We can’t ever claim anything is definitely true, we can only rule out the things that are false and make a hypothesis that something else is true until proved otherwise.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t one day receive a signal that is unambiguously of alien origin. If a signal is received with such a high level of structured information that it can’t be a natural signal, then there may be no other explanation.
In this case, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), have clear protocols for what happens next. These specify that the discoverer must notify other signatories to the protocols, other astronomers around the world, and also the United Nations. All data surrounding the discovery must also be made public. Importantly, no response to the signal should be sent until international consultations have taken place. Whatever (if anything) is transmitted back in the direction the signal came from would indicate our presence, so we’d better be sure we want to announce our existence before doing so.
Maybe one day these protocols will be invoked, but until then, astronomers will keep looking for more prosaic explanations for all the weird signals they detect.
In a video release that has since been viewed over 1.2 million times, the hacking group is claiming that NASA is set to announce a siginificant discovery with regards to extraterrestrial life.
Below you can find a statement from the group:
Latest anonymous message in 2017 just arrived with a huge announcement about the Intelligent Alien Life! NASA says aliens are coming!
Many other planets throughout the universe probably hosted intelligent life long before Earth did.
Non terrestrial officers? Have we already been to Mars? Are there actual monuments on the moon and Mars? Could there be a UFO war going on over the skies of earth in space? Are there spaceships all around earth involving extra terrestrials from other worlds? The evidence sure seems to imply that something is going on in the skies above. It would cost a lot for spaceships and a continuous flow of taxes and black budget dollars could imply a rational that there is more than meets the eye and or that of public knowledge.
The video operates on alleged information sourced from the US Science Space and Technology Committee where they quote the comments of Professor Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate:
“There are many who claim that unofficially, mankind has already made contact with aliens and not just little micro-organisms floating around inside a massive alien ocean, but advanced space-faring civilizations.
“Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t know that planets existed beyond our solar system.”
“Today we have confirmed the existence of over 3,400 exoplanets that orbit other suns, and we continue to make new discoveries.”
It’s unclear if this statement holds any credibility as some internet circles have noted that the text from Zurbuchen are repeated claims that the group is currently bringing back into light.
It’s worth noting that articles on the Anonymous blog come with a disclaimer that posts written on the site do ‘not reflect’ the viewpoints of the group. It is possible that this video, posted on YouTube, exhibits the same type of support.
Physicist Brian Cox recently weighed in on one of sciences’ biggest questions; with such a large probability for life in such an expansive universe, why haven’t we found any evidence as of yet?
The Fermi Paradox is named after Enrico Fermi, and is based on the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates, e.g., those given by the Drake equation, for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. These basic points of argument where made way back in the 1950’s and are still pondered upon today.
While Enrico Fermi notably asked “Where is everybody”, Brian Cox think he may finally have the answer, and it isn’t pretty.
According to Cox, “One solution to the Fermi paradox is that it is not possible to run a world that has the power to destroy itself and that needs global collaborative solutions to prevent that.” Cox is essentially saying that it is possible we would never find such an advanced civilization, as it’s more likely to destroy itself than reach the bounds of interstellar travel.
Cox also goes on to warn about possibilities in our own society that could mimic his theory “It may be that the growth of science and engineering inevitably outstrips the development of political expertise, leading to disaster. We could be approaching that position.”
Here’s hoping the next physicist find is a bit more positive.
Image: Jon Rolin/Flickr
People of all walks of life have speculated about what aliens have looked like for decades thanks to everything from blockbuster movies to scientific discovery. These speculations leave us wondering – what do aliens really look like? Will they take on human appearances or something we’ve yet to imagine? If we look at evolution, we can begin finding answers.
The Question of Evolution
Because we can only study the life forms we have on Earth, and we know their single origin began approximately 3.5 billion years ago, we also know 20 million species of animals were the result from this single origin, 30 separate body plans were organized into major groups referred to as phyla.
These organisms, like the Pikaia for example, gave rise to amphibians, fish, mammals, reptiles, and humans. Had the Pikaia perished, the human race could have evolved into something completely different. Therefore, questions remain about what aliens will evolve into based on the water organisms that are found on habitable planets. If different organisms exist, why would aliens evolve into creatures looking similar to humans?
Can We Expect Similarities?
It seems logical that aliens would need water, or another solvent, like humans. They’ll also likely need stability similar to humans through the use of backbone chains. Regarding replication, it also seems logical for their evolution to occur through the means of DNA, RNA, or another form of analog. We can also expect to see teeth or some other means of pursuing food. These life forms will also need a way of moving across hard surfaces, so we can expect to see a muscular foot or leg.
Can Aliens Look Insect-like?
While this theory is a cool one in movies, it doesn’t make sense in reality. The exoskeleton makes growth difficult. Therefore, the argument that aliens would look like insects would mean they’d be shedding their exoskeleton periodically. Unless the insects remain small, these life forms would become crushed underneath their weight throughout the molting process if their skeleton was external.
Will They Evolve by Chance?
Many of our evolutionary features, like five fingers and toes, may have been the result of evolutionary chance or lock-down. That’s why the jury is still out about if aliens will resemble us or not.
Should we move heavy industry off of the planet Earth and into space? That’s what Jeff Bezos believes we should be doing, rather than sending the first man to Mars. His vision is to send men to space as a means of saving the planet. He’s explained that our planet is superior and, for that reason, we should be doing everything to ensure its protection. That’s why he believes going into space will accomplish this goal. When giving this serious thought, extraterrestrials could save the human race!
Zoning Earth for Light Industrial and Residential
Rather than having heavy energy work on earth, Bezos believes this work should be done in space. His believe further includes the building of gigantic chip factories in outer space. It, for examples, makes better sense to have solar energy in space for factories because the sun is available 24-hours per day, seven days per week.
While visiting and inhabiting other planets are historic, it’s not as resourceful as putting industry in space. We have to be realistic about the growth in our planet’s population and, if industry moves to space, we’re better able to accommodate this eventuality. He says we have to be aware of the fact that we can’t put a freeze on the growth in our population.
The Use of Reusable Rockets
It’s Bezos’ plan to incorporate the use of reusable rockets into his plan for entrepreneurs so they’re low cost and available through Blue Origin. Not only will these rockets cut down on waste but they’ll help cut down on the millions of dollars in jettison machinery the industry loses following each launch. The European Space Agency, Japan, and Russia are also testing similar technology. Blue Origin in Bezos’ rocket company and he believes it will help him achieve his goal of building giant factories and solar panels in space.
While his vision to move heavy industry entirely off of the Earth may sound impossible, it’s not unfeasible with the right vision and resources. Bezos is currently talking about how, if we continue working on these plans and focus our energies properly, it will come to fruition in the next few hundred years.
One select star (KIC 8462852) dominated headlines earlier this month when it was suggested that an “unknown object” was travelling within it’s orbit. The internet ran amuck with these findings, suggesting it was an alien megastructure with early theories pointing to a Dyson sphere.
The story initially broke on The Atlantic when Jason Wright, an astrophysicist from Pennsylvania State University suggested that a massive dip in light seen from the star (up to 20 percent) could potentially be caused by an object that is “artificial in origin”.
But, it turns out we were reading too much science fiction.
Following this suggestion were two studies, one from SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and one from NASA. SETI focused the Allen Telescope Array of 42 antennas on the system with hopes of finding any signal that could be artificial in origin; their lack of success seemed to be the first breakdown of theory.
More recently, a new study from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is suggesting that this mysterious object spotted around the star is nothing more than a swarm of comets.
The study itself was led by Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University and was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. It examined the amount of infrared light that was observably emitted from the star and referenced this with traditional findings to understand the potential “object”. The findings favor the idea that a swarm of comets had blocked out the star in 2011, and subsequently in 2013 and most recently 2015.
The results of the findings may be less than spectacular for those of us wishing to find extraterrestrial technology, but the findings are still far from conclusive, and Marengo maintains that a comet is only the most “likely” of theories:
We may not know yet what’s going on around this star. But that’s what makes it so interesting.
Voyager 1 and 2 are the furthest man made objects to have ever travelled from earth. Launched deep into space in 1977 Voyager 1 and 2 are now over 16,484,173,981 kilometers away from our planet and counting. It will take the Voyager crafts nearly tens of thousands of years to reach the closest star system, Andromeda and Ursa Minor.
On board both craft are messages specifically designed for any form of extraterrestrial life that may happen to pick them up. The message (as seen above) is known as The Golden Record. It’s said to contain basic information about our knowledge of science and our position in the universe. A specific attention is paid to our grasp of the atom. Most interestingly, there are also detailed instructions on how to “play” The Golden Record using a device onboard – giving it’s on looker a brief view into life on planet earth.
The record contains 116 images that depict life on our planet, and the good folks at VOX put these pictures together in one amazing video. Watch below to see our message to the aliens:
Included on the record is a recording of more than 50 languages, specific “earth sounds”, over 90 minutes of music, and a message from at the time US president Jimmy Carter. Carter’s message reads as follows:
“This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings,” the message says. “We hope someday, having solved the problems we have, to join a community of galactic civilizations.”
Voyager 1 and 2 are still communicating with earth, and you can follow their journey right here.
Both craft will run out of power in the 2020’s; we have a very brief period for someone to find this message.