Monday, March 3, 2008

Life in the Universe

Here's March's installment of "What's Up?"! Enjoy!

Welcome back to What's Up? After bearing the frigid temperatures of February, hopefully you were able to catch a glimpse of the vivid lunar eclipse. There won't be another like it until 2010!

This month I'll be talking about a very controversial subject: Life in the Universe. I'll try to keep most of the focus on the solar system.

Since humanity hasn't found proof of life forms originating off of from Earth, the best place to start this article off with would be the Earth, wouldn't it?

Current theories show that Earth formed from a large disk of dust and gas 4.5 billion years ago. Eventually, about 400 million years after the Earth formed, the first organisms appeared.

A billion or so years later various species existed, mainly shellfish and jellyfish. After that, things really took off. Life moved from sea to land, the dinosaurs came and went, mammals flourished and humans arose to learn more about the universe, question it and even get to read this article!

So, that still leaves the big question, "Is there life elsewhere in the universe?" The answer to that remains open for discussion.

Since humanity hasn't yet explored many other worlds to see whether they have life or not, we'll have to look at places in our solar system with the possibility of life.

Obviously, the first candidate would be Mars. With so many science fiction books and movies, the idea of life on Mars has been implanted into many people's minds. Green Martians and dry river valleys are just two examples from the multitude of crazy ideas that people have thought up over the years.

But Mars is very disappointing. It is small, frigid, and lacks a good atmosphere to protect the planet from solar radiation (get your sunscreen on!). Life may have arose there because of past water, the evidence is everywhere! With so much gray hematite (mineral that forms at the bottom of lakes, dry river valleys, and canyons that cover this planet's surface, life may have arose in the past, but it seems unlikely that life is still there now.

Further away from earth, Jupiter's moon Europa has a large ocean underneath the ice at its surface. One can only speculate about the exotic marine life that may be swimming around under the ice.

Until a drilling submarine mission is designed that can dig through seven to ten kilometers of ice to get down to the ocean we'll just have to wait.

Moving out to colder regions of the solar system we encounter Titan, Saturn's largest moon, which is in fact even bigger than Mercury!

This enormous moon has an atmosphere thicker than the Earth's! It is covered in many lakes and seas of liquid methane. Some scientist speculate that there is a large ammonia/water ocean beneath the crust. It is yet another location where further investigation will be required before we can answer the question, "Is there life elsewhere in the Universe?"
Are there other possible locations for life?

Beyond into the stars where planets around those stars are being discovered, few are a good size or distance from their sun to develop life, so the search continues....
The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence(SETI) searches for radio signals sent out from intelligent beings, elsewhere in the Universe.

Maybe someday we'll communicate with other intelligent life forms and interact and learn from them. For now we'll just have to keep searching.

While the searching continues lets head back to Earth for some sky events.

On Monday, March 3rd Mercury is at its best location for viewing in months. This early riser be visible in the western sky early in the morning. If you hate early Monday mornings at least you have this to look forward to! Catch this early riser within a few days of its best you may be able to see it.

On the 7
th there is a new moon which becomes full by the 21st, which is the day after the first day of spring on Mar. 20th. Also this month daylight savings time comes into effect (spring forward, fall back).

To finish off this month, the second Space Shuttle launch of the year takes place on Mar.11
th. It will deliver the Japanese Kibo Module to the International Space Station.
Until next month, keep looking up!

Hey Kids...
Did you hear on the news about the missile the United States sent into space to destroy a spy satellite? This satellite was about to fall to earth and could have caused some serious damage! It contained a poisonous rocket fuel so it could have made many people very sick. Just a year ago the US was angry because China was trying to test using rockets to blow up a satellite. Because the Chinese didn't want to start a fight, they never did send the missile to blow it up.

Andrew Reeves lives near Kinkora and is a member of the Athena Community Astronomy Club. His column appears the first Saturday of each month. To learn more about astronomy or the club go to or contact him at