Saturnine storms and the second space race

Paul Raven @ 07-07-2011

T’ain’t just us Earthlings experiencing erratic weather, y’know; check out this rather vast storm on Saturn, courtesy the Cassini probe. Audio is also available.

Storm on Saturn - image courtesy NASATomorrow, if all goes to plan, the Space Shuttle will launch for its very last mission before retirement (to fates as yet undecided – museum piece or rich man’s megabauble?) Cue inevitable soul-searching all over the place; here’s The Economist sounding the death knell for outer space.

It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

Well, space cadet is as space cadet does, right? Here’s a response from Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams:

As commercial space efforts move forward, a broader defense of a human future in space has to take the long-term view. Given the dangers that beset our planet, from ecological issues to economic turmoil and the potential for war, can we frame a solution that offers a rational backup plan for humanity? Planetary self-defense also involves the need for the tools to alter the trajectory of any object with the potential to strike the Earth with deadly force, and that means expanding, not contracting, our space-borne assets. Such work is not purely technical. It also teaches the invaluable lesson of multi-generational responsibility and holds out the promise of frontiers. Such challenges have enriched our early history and provide us a clear path off our planet.

We’re also a curious species, and it’s hard to see us pulling back from the challenge of answering the crucial question of whether we are alone in the galaxy. There is a huge gap, asThe Economist points out, between where we stand with space technology today and where we fantasized being as we looked forward from the Apollo days. But a case can be made for steady and incremental research that gives us new propulsion options and broadens our knowledge of how life emerges even as it protects our future. A future that includes gradual expansion into space-based habitats and the exploitation of our system’s abundant resources is an alternative to The Economist’s vision, and it’s one the public needs to hear. The infrastructure that it would build will demand the tools and the skills to move ever deeper into our system and beyond.

An editorial piece at New Scientist is similarly – if cautiously – optimistic about a NASA renaissance rather than a recession; there’s certainly lots of can-do rhetoric from them, not to mention hungry competition from up-and-coming nations with cash to spend and ambitions to fulfil. But given that the new proposed NASA budget will axe projects like the James Webb orbital telescope – Hubble’s successor, basically – I’m not sure how much mileage there is in brave words and stoic chest-thumping. Hell, some folk are even wondering whether the Space Shuttle program itself wasn’t a massive and very costly mistake [beware irritating interstitial ad; via Chairman Bruce]:

The selection in 1972 of an ambitious and technologically challenging shuttle design resulted in the most complex machine ever built. Rather than lowering the costs of access to space and making it routine, the space shuttle turned out to be an experimental vehicle with multiple inherent risks, requiring extreme care and high costs to operate safely. Other, simpler designs were considered in 1971 in the run-up to President Nixon’s final decision; in retrospect, taking a more evolutionary approach by developing one of them instead would probably have been a better choice.


Today we are in danger of repeating that mistake, given Congressional and industry pressure to move rapidly to the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle without a clear sense of how that vehicle will be used.  Important factors in the decision to move forward with the shuttle were the desire to preserve Apollo-era NASA and contractor jobs, and the political impact of program approval on the 1972 presidential election. Similar pressures are influential today. If we learn anything from the space shuttle experience, it should be that making choices with multidecade consequences on such short-term considerations is poor public policy.

And if we’ve learned anything from life in general, it’s that expecting politicians to think further ahead than the next election is a doomed enterprise. For my money, I think space exploration still has a future, but – in the West at least, and particularly the US – that future will be increasingly dominated by private enterprise.

This is a nicely resonant topic for me, as it happens. I spent last weekend in London for the Science Fiction Foundation‘s Masterclass, and one of the topics we tackled was the representation of space exploration in contemporary science fiction texts. The inescapable conclusion (for me, at least) is that space sf is dominated by a sense of nostalgia, but also – especially in what you might refer to as “heartland” sf venues like Analog and Asimov’s, whose readership were around to be inspired by the hollow rhetoric of the Apollo program – there’s a void at its heart.

Old-school space advocates have a tendency to talk about space in terms of glory, accomplishment and a sort of noble and patriotic heroism, a taming of the wild rolling plains… indeed, that whole “final frontier” riff probably sounds even sweeter, after ten misguided years of failed attempts to plant the stars’n’bars on other more mundane frontiers – as far as we know, space has no uppity natives to object to your delivery of democracy and neoliberal corporatist economics, which gives it a blank-slate patina that you can’t get anywhere else.

But therein lies the problem, and – or so I suspect – the reason why the American Dream (Extraterrestrial Edition) has faltered: beyond that noble rhetoric, the Apollo program was an ambitious (and successful) pissing contest with Russia. All the other motivations and ideals were grafted on after the fact, and they’ve all fallen away like burned-out heat-shielding. America still wants to be doing stuff in space, but it doesn’t really know why; the narrative has collapsed, and that’s why there’s no money for it.

Meanwhile, out in the BRIC, growing economies are looking for trophies, boasting rights and… well, new frontiers. The torch wasn’t passed; it’s been snatched by the trailing pack, and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. I suspect it’ll turn out that pioneer bravery and Competent Persons will have their own renaissance, and turn out not to be something exclusively American in character after all… but ambition always comes at a price.

There’ll be more stories to tell about space, I feel sure. But I’ll bet my boots that an increasing proportion of ’em won’t be written in English. 🙂



Paul Raven @ 14-01-2011

Did you enjoy that planetary impact simulator I linked to a while back? Did you enjoy it, perhaps, a little too much, and feel that your galactic karma could do with a bit of balancing? Well, what better way to atone for smashing planets to bits than by building new ones, which is exactly what NASA’s Planet Makeover webapp lets you do [via BoingBoing]. A bit of random fun for friday afternoon: adjust planet size, orbital distance, solar type and planetary age, then hit the button and see whether you’ve made a habitable world. [SPOILERS: your odds of doing so are very low. Good afternoon, Professor Drake!]

Not a new idea, of course (I had a serious hankering for a copy of SimEarth back at the start of the nineties, but never got one), but NASA have wisely brought the idea kicking and screaming into the Twentyteens by a) simplifying it and putting it on the web for free and b) using the word EXTREME! in the name.

Nucleotides in Titan’s atmosphere?

Paul Raven @ 06-01-2011

I’m somewhat surprised that I haven’t seen this story all over the place. Perhaps everyone’s taking a while to get back up to speed after the holidays… or perhaps no one wants to get burned the same way they were by the last story about life chemistry that came out of NASA’s press department.

Nonetheless, complete with obligatory “maybe real life is stranger than science fiction after all OMGZ!!” closer, here’s NASA Science News talking about an experiment that demonstrates the possibility of basic life chemistry building blocks in the atmosphere of the Saturnian moon, Titan:

Hörst and her colleagues mixed up a brew of molecules (carbon monoxide(1), molecular nitrogen and methane) found in Titan’s atmosphere. Then they zapped the concoction with radio waves – a proxy for the sun’s radiation.

What happened next didn’t make the scientists shout “it’s alive!” but it was intriguing.

[ There’s good reason to make science journalism accessible, but do we really need shitty little asides like that, NASA? This isn’t Sesame Street, for goodness’ sake… ]

A rich array of complex molecules emerged, including amino acids and nucleotides.

“Our experiment is the first proof that you can make the precursors for life up in an atmosphere, without any liquid water(2). This means life’s building blocks could form in the air and then rain down from the skies!”

[ The metal-head in me now really wants to use Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” as a voice-over bed for this article. Sing along at home! ]

“We didn’t start out to prove we could make ‘life’ in Titan’s skies,” explains Hörst. “We were trying to solve a mystery. The Cassini spacecraft detected large molecules(3) in Titan’s atmosphere, and we wanted to find out what they could be.”

In hopes of obtaining clues to the mystery molecules, Hörst used computer codes to search the lab results for matches to known molecular formulas. She decided, on a whim, to look for nucleotides and amino acids.


“We had about 5000 molecules containing the right stuff: carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. We knew we had the elements for organic molecules, but we couldn’t tell how they were arranged. It’s kind of like legos – the more there are, the more possible structures can be made. And they can be put together in many different ways.”

Among the structures identified in the lab experiment so far are five nucleotides found in DNA and RNA, and two amino acids. But she says there could be more amino acids in the mix.

How could those molecules have gotten there? The ice geysers of Enceladus are a possible answer, apparently, though this is all strictly speculative stuff at this point.

Search-for-alien-life bonus material! Antarctica’s massive Lake Vostok may finally give up its secrets (presuming it has any, natch) now that a Russian team has come up with a way to sample the lake’s water without contaminating its effectively closed ecosystem with dirty surface-monkey germs. What mysterious things might we discover lurking miles beneath the ice? Whatever’s down there, it might give us some more clues to what’s going on on Enceladus…

The perils of science hyperbole

Paul Raven @ 13-12-2010

The fallout from the NASA paper on arsenic-eating critters has taught us a lot more about the life-cycle of exciting science stories than it has about the life-cycle of the critters themselves. Molecular biologist and super-sharp sf commentator Athena Andreadis does a post-mortem:

This is not the first or only time NASA administrators have been callously cavalier.  Yet even though the latest debacle didn’t claim lives like the Challenger incident did, it was just as damaging in every other way.  And whereas the Challenger disaster was partly instigated by pressure from the White House (Reagan needed an exclamation point for his State of the Union address), this time the hole in NASA’s credibility is entirely self-inflicted.  Something went wrong in the process, and all the gatekeeping functions failed disastrously.


NASA spokespeople, as well as Wolfe-Simon and Oremland, have stated that the only legitimate and acceptable critiques are those that will appear in peer-reviewed venues – and that others are welcome to do experiments to confirm or disprove their findings.

The former statement is remarkably arrogant and hypocritical, given the NASA publicity hyperdrive around the paper: embargoes, synchronized watches, melodramatic hints of “new life”, of a discovery with “major impact on astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life”.  This is called leading with your chin.  And if you live by PR, you cannot act shocked and dismayed when you die by PR.

As for duplicating the group’s experiments, the burden of proof lies with the original researchers. This burden increases if their claims are extraordinary.  The team that published the paper was being paid to do the work by a grant (or, possibly, by earmarked NASA money, which implies much less competition). For anyone else to confirm or disprove their findings, they will have to carve effort, time and money out of already committed funds — or apply for a grant specifically geared to this, and wait for at least a year (usually more) for the money to be awarded.  It’s essentially having to clean up someone else’s mess on your own time and dime.

Hyperbolic science PR is nothing new, of course, but it’s damaging and counter-productive in these politically-charged times:

By disbursing hype, NASA administrators handed ready-made ammunition to the already strong and growing anti-intellectual, anti-scientific groups in US society: to creationists and proponents of (un)intelligent design; to climate change denialists and young-earth biblical fundamentalists; to politicians who have been slashing everything “non-essential” (except, of course, war spending and capital gains income).  It jeopardized the still-struggling discipline of astrobiology.  And it jeopardized the future of a young scientist who is at least enthusiastic about her research even if her critical thinking needs a booster shot – or a more rigorous mentor.

There’s some sort of deep sad irony in here: our hunger for exciting new truths can jeopardise our chances of discovering them.

The arsenic aliens that aren’t

Paul Raven @ 03-12-2010

Typical, really; the day I’m away from my desk, a big sf-flavoured story hits the blogosphere. I speak, of course, of NASA’s press conference about the discovery of “alien” life… not at the top of the gravity well, but at the bottom of an arsenic-laced lake in Yosemite National Park. From Wired UK (whose new page layouts are much easier on the eye, but disappointingly similar to their US counterparts):

The bacteria, found in the bed of Mono Lake, are believed to exist as a second form of life — using arsenic in cells in place of the phosphorous found in most living cells.

That suggests that they’ve developed entirely independently from our life, implying that if life has evolved twice on Earth, then it’s far more likely to have evolved off Earth too — especially as it’s believed by astronomers that among stars similar to the Sun, as many as one in four could have small rocky planets like Earth, at least some of which would occupy the same “goldilocks zone” that Earth exists in — neither too hot, nor too cold, for life to emerge.

Leaving aside the actual story for a moment, the meta-story – namely how excited the public can get about the possible announcement of alien life – is worth considering as well. I’ve got no criticism for NASA over the way they framed their announcement; it’s no more duplicitous than the PR operations of the average corporation or government, and I know which I’d rather be paying attention to. But as New Scientist points out, the possibility of actual evidence for extraterrestrial life – which is what a lot of people thought (or hoped) was on the cards – was embraced with a cheery enthusiasm by all sorts of news outlets. Perhaps the world’s gotten so weird lately that nothing can surprise us any more… or perhaps we’re still secretly hoping that sentient ET(s) will turn up, Intervention-style, and pull our collective homo sapiens backsides out of the frying pan we’ve been cheerfully heating up for ourselves. (The writer – and reader! – in me would still quite like the latter to happen, not because I think we actually deserve a species-level bailout, but because the frying pan would doubtless be succeeded by a very interesting succession of fires.)

Anyway, the important thing about the arsenic-alien-life story is that it’s not quite as big a deal as the headlines would have it. It’s still pretty fascinating stuff that connects to extremophile life, but – as explained by Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams – it’s not evidence for “shadow biospheres”, and doesn’t really tell us anything about extraterrestrial life that we haven’t already hypothesised.

Let’s leave the astrobiology aside for the moment and simply focus on the fact that life is fantastically adaptable in terms of biochemistry, and can pull off surprises at every turn. That’s always a result worth trumpeting, even if it leaves the wilder press speculations in the dust. After all, it’s long been assumed that the six elements that underlay the basic chemistry of life are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. Despite persistent speculation, few thought life could exist without them.


Can these bacteria replace phosphate with arsenic naturally? Wolfe-Simon herself says thirty years of work remain to figure out exactly what’s going on, a comment on the preliminary nature of this work, which remains controversial in some quarters and is in obvious need of extensive follow-up. No shadow biosphere yet, but obviously the quest is ongoing because of its implications, and we’ve now received one very tantalizing piece of evidence that such things may be possible.

If life really did start here more than once — a finding that is not remotely demonstrated by this work — then we can talk about how likely it will have done the same thing on distant planets, upping the chances that we live in a universe where life emerges whenever given the chance.

And here’s PZ Myers, taking a break from being Dawkins’ bulldog to dig into the actual science of the paper:

You’d predict just from looking at the [periodic] table that arsenic ought to have some chemical similarities to phosphorus, and you’d be right. Arsenic can substitute for phosphorus in many chemical reactions.

This is, in fact, one of the reasons arsenic is toxic. It’s similar, but not identical, to phosphorus, and can take its place in chemical reactions fundamental to life, for instance in the glycolytic pathway of basic metabolism. That it’s not identical, though, means that it actually gums up the process and brings it to a halt, blocking respiration and killing the cell by starving it of ATP.

Got it? Arsenic already participates in earthly chemistry, badly. It’s just off enough from phosphorus to bollix up the biology, so it’s generally bad for us to have it around.


So what does it all mean? It means that researchers have found that some earthly bacteria that live in literally poisonous environments are adapted to find the presence of arsenic dramatically less lethal, and that they can even incorporate arsenic into their routine, familiar chemistry.

It doesn’t say a lot about evolutionary history, I’m afraid. These are derived forms of bacteria that are adapting to artificially stringent environmental conditions, and they were found in a geologically young lake — so no, this is not the bacterium primeval. This lake also happens to be on Earth, not Saturn, although maybe being in California gives them extra weirdness points, so I don’t know that it can even say much about extraterrestrial life. It does say that life can survive in a surprisingly broad range of conditions, but we already knew that.

I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment myself, really; cynical I may be (YA RLY) but I’d still love to hear we’d found solid evidence of truly alien life. But you know what? News that the life we already know works in weirder and more tenacious ways than we previously thought is enough to give me a sensawunda kick. I suspect that if you’re not continually astonished by nature’s diversity, you probably don’t yet know enough about it*.

[ * Yeah, I’ve been binging on documentaries from the BBC’s iPlayer service on these chilly evenings; so sue me. I might as well enjoy bachelordom to the full, no? 😉 ]

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