Saturday, December 11, 2010

Captain's Log: SpaceX, Horta, ETs, Planet Farms, and Billions and Billions More Stars

In the universe Star Trek explores, there's a lot of news to catch up on. First, about that universe. It's a lot bigger than we thought. Really a lot. And it's flat.

According to research published in Nature, the study of binary star systems (like the one in the Hubble photo) suggests that the kind of matter we can see--normal matter--makes up only 4% of the universe. Dark energy makes up 73%. What is dark energy? Well..."Dark energy is believed to pervade the essence of space and time, forcing a kind of "anti-gravity" that fits cosmologists' equations but that is otherwise a mysterious quantity." Once these scientists came to this conclusion, they could plot what the universe looks like, and it's flat. As Einstein predicted, but not as other cosmologists theorize. So stay tuned.

The universe got bigger in another way--that old fashioned normal matter way. Using photos like the Hubble view on the bottom of the stack above, scientists now figure there are at least three times as many stars in our universe as previously believed.

More stars mean the possibility of more planets, which also ups the odds on there being life out there--especially since the number of exoplanets located just passed 500.

The theoretical chance of life elsewhere also got a boost--or maybe did--by NASA scientists who claim to have discovered an arsenic-based lifeform. The apparent discovery (now however being challenged) led to a range of speculations, from a "shadow biosphere" of unknown life on Earth to the boost it gives to the idea that there are many more ways for life to develop on other planets. One article that put all this together quotes NASA astrobiologist Bruce McKay as saying, "There are real things we can point to and show that being optimistic about life elsewhere is not silly." Dedicated Trek fans may recall that McKay is featured extensively in the "terraforming" documentary that's part of the Star Trek III DVD package.

Another Trek tie-in came from those NASA scientists themselves in announcing the arsenic-based form. Trek Movie covered this like a glove--the scientists referred to the Horta (from the famous TOS ep "Devil in the Dark") which was a silicone-based lifeform. There was also some recent scientific speculation about living clouds. "Imagine a cloud of stellar dust several light years across quietly drifting through space. Powered by its own bursting stars feeding it oxygen, carbon, life-giving chemistries, could it not become a slightly lonely but vastly oversized life form? An enormous space traveler?"

Astrobiologist David Grinspoon has revived the idea, though it goes back to at least Carl Sagan, whose speculations were more modest: life winging along in clouds over Jupiter. This story refers to science fiction versions as well. Though the great Olaf Stapledon wrote about intelligent stars and conscious galaxies, Star Trek did produce a more modest kind of living energy cloud, in the Companion (TOS ep Metamorphosis) to Zefram Cochrane.

But if there isn't indigenous life on planets that humans explore, can they grow any--for food? Again, the possibilities of new life forms and the discoveries of life flourishing in places that used to seem too hostile have encouraged Bruce McKay's fellow astrobiologists to think seriously about how to grow earth stuff on other planets, in alien soil or even without it. This story made the Trek connection: "Growing plants without any soil may conjure up images from a "Star Trek" movie, but it's hardly science fiction."

The possibilities for actually traveling in space again also got a boost last week, when the SpaceX Falcon rocket sent a capsule into orbit (the one with the blue wings in photo above) and returned it safely to earth--the first non-government company to do it. The flight was so successful that the next two tests may be combined into one, and the future for more frequent and cheaper spaceflights as well as opening up the experience of space flight to more people (rich ones mostly at first) just got a lot closer.
(Thanks to Trekcore for HD images from TOS.)

1 comment:

Beach Bum said...

Great post!

Hope SpaceX and other private ventures bring space flight to some of us common folks eventually. In no way am I rich but the just the fact that my childhood dream of at least sailing close by the moon is enough.

The prospect of "living clouds" light-years wide is a mind-blowing concept. Just thinking of a such a massive life-form like that brings to mind ideas of godhood.