Blog 8- Final Thoughts

On our last day of class, I asked about the probability of life on Earth being the most intelligent kind of life in the Universe.  I’ve always believed that the odds of our intellectual superiority must be incredibly low given the immense size of the Universe, but I’ve never really taken the time to learn more about any fact-based arguments that support this hypothesis.

In her explanation, Dr. G talked about how she believes that it is very unlikely that we are the most advanced life force in our Galaxy, let alone in the Universe.  To explain this statement, she talked about how, due to our positioning in the Galaxy (far away from the center, with a lower concentration of Star Systems in our general vicinity), we were exposed to the heavy elements necessary for life to develop far later than other Star Systems closer to the center of the Galaxy, as these elements are exclusively created during supernovas.  I’m sure that there are more arguments that point toward the conclusion that humans are unlikely to be the most advanced lifeforms in the Universe, but I appreciated the fact that this argument could be logically articulated in such a succinct way.

In many ways, this anecdote is representative of the personal significance of my taking Astro 2110.  Throughout this class, my cursory understanding of all things extraterrestrial has been deepened, and I’ve been given the tools necessary to think critically about new discoveries in our Solar System and Galaxy.  I was wary of taking this class in January, as nobody has ever accused me of having a scientific mind.  That said, now that I have the requisite knowledge to keep thinking critically about the ever-evolving study of astronomy, I am excited to keep thinking about these issues.  Great semester!

 

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Milky Way Galaxy. We are near the outer edge, and were therefore exposed to fewer supernovas.  Source
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Blog 7- Methanogens and Life on Enceladus

Recently, a NASA reported suggested that one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, could be a world that may be conducive to supporting life (source).  Enceladus, which is covered in ice and significantly farther from the Sun than the Earth is, may not seem like a world where one might suspect life to be able to develop.  However, it is believed that conditions may exist on Enceladus that are similar to conditions that gave rise to early forms of life on Earth, namely in the form of a kind of extremophile called a methanogen.

Methanogens are microorganisms that are believed to have developed in hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, and are thought to be the earliest kind of life on Earth.  They do not need Oxygen, and create methane by consuming Hydrogen and Carbon Dioxide (source).  The Cassini mission has found that the conditions on Enceladus, which has a heated core and a subsurface ocean, are likely sufficient to support this kind of life.

To me, it is extraordinary that conditions on a distant, icy Saturnian moon may be, at least in some ways, analogous to some conditions on Earth (specifically with regard to hydrothermal vents and the subsequent development of methanogens).  With the incredible amount of biodiversity on Earth, I would not be surprised if we continue to discover different kinds of extremophiles that may be able to survive in very disparate kinds of climates observed throughout the Solar System.

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Enceladus, which may be able to support methanogens, like those found in hydrothermal vents on Earth. Source

 

Blog 6- Trump Budget and Science

While not directly related to Astro 2110, I think that it is important to touch on the potential ramifications of the President’s recently released budget for the scientific community.  While it is unlikely that this exact budget will be passed, I think that it is nonetheless important to analyze.  It seems as though while the Trump administration is keen on revitalizing NASA’s space exploration program, it will also prioritize slashing the Earth sciences program.  The budget calls for a $102 million cut to the Earth sciences program, and the end to four programs that were designed to observe the Earth from space (source).  Conversely, the Orion crew vehicle and the Space Launch System are specifically endorsed (source).

Taken with the fact that the EPA budget is supposed to be slashed dramatically under this budget proposal, I am concerned that President Trump wants to redirect public attention from the Earth to space exploration.  Space exploration is more intriguing to the general population than Earth science research, but with mounting concerns about climate change from the scientific community, it seems as though this is arguably a diversion to refocus attention away from an incredibly pertinent issue.  One could argue that space exploration- such as the race to the moon in the 60’s Cold War climate- has historically been used to manipulate public opinion in a similar way.  I hope that the scientific community has the platform to continue to fight against climate change over the next four years.

 

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Blog 5-Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot- a huge storm in Jupiter’s atmosphere- has been ongoing for seemingly as long as people have pointed their telescopes toward the planet; this means that the storm has continued for at least approximately 400 years, and most likely more.  The storm itself is twice Earth’s size.  It is known that storms on Jupiter are significantly more intense than storms on Earth.  This can be explained by the fact that since Jupiter’s surface consists of a “liquid ocean of hydrogen”, there is no solid surface that can work to decrease the severity of storms, as there is on Earth (source).

Jupiter’s atmosphere consists primarily of Hydrogen and Helium, with a small amount of water, ammonia, and ammonia hydrosulfide (source).  It is believed that the ammonia compounds color the Great Red Spot. However, scientists are perplexed by the fact that the Great Red Spot has so much color, when ammonia and ammonia hydrosulfide only make up a very small percentage of Jupiter’s atmosphere.  To find out more about this issue, scientists at Goddard have conducted experiments about whether cosmic rays or UV radiation from the Sun react with ammonia compounds in a way that could explain the colorization of the Great Red Spot.  Ultimately, while some studies have been conducted, it will be imperative to design experiments that more closely mimic conditions on Jupiter if we want to learn more about this intriguing, and enduring, storm system.  This could be valuable, as learning more about the atmospheric conditions of Jupiter could help the scientific community in their future studies on different extrasolar planets.

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Blog 4- Voyager Missions and Chuck Berry

Music fans around the world mourned the loss of Chuck Berry after his death on March 18th.  Credited by many as the original rocker, his use of the double stop, his stage presence, and masterful songwriting skills came to define what a rocker should aspire to emulate.

When the Voyager Program was officially kicked off in August, 1977, Berry was already a living music legend.  The Voyager Program was initially launched in 1977 so as to explore the Jovian planets efficiently; Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were favorably aligned at this time.  The data collected from the Voyager missions has been very important;  their proximity to the outer planets has allowed the science community to more efficiently collect data about them, and map their features in ways that were previously impossible through only earth-based examination.  Their studies of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune have proved invaluable.

The Voyager story did not end with an exploration of the outer planets.  They have continued their journey, and are now exploring interstellar space, which is the space in between star systems in a galaxy.  The Voyager probes have traveled farther than any other spacecraft launched from Earth.

To bring this back to Chuck Berry: When the Voyager probes were launched, a “Golden Record” was included, which had songs that were considered to be important and would be played if the probe ever encountered intelligent extra-terrestrial life.  On this record was “Johnny B. Goode”.

Below is the letter that Carl Sagan wrote to Chuck Berry on his 60th birthday.

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Blog 3-Spectroscopy

Spectroscopy is a scientific technique that “measures light that is emitted, absorbed, or scattered by materials and can be used to study, identify and quantify those materials” (Source).  Therefore, spectroscopy can be used to provide invaluable information about different objects based on the light they emit and absorb (which is referred to as the emission or absorption spectrum).  Spectroscopy has many applications, many of which are related to our Solar System.  For instance, during the Deep Impact Mission, the flyby spacecraft was equipped with a Spectrometer in order to take “snapshots” that captured the infrared fingerprint of different objects.  While this is very interesting, I am also intrigued by the personalization and commercialization of spectroscopy.  I just read an article that talked about how a new iPhone compatible spectroscopy chip was just created.  While it has not been integrated into the iPhone yet, the implications of doing so could be huge.  For instance, people could use this built in spectrometer to ascertain caffeine levels in an individual cup of coffee, or find out how much gluten was in a particular entree.  This would theoretically be possible because, as mentioned earlier, each object has an “infrared fingerprint”.  I’m always interested to see how seemingly obscure technology developed by either the military or very practical scientific research can be integrated in to the average consumer’s life.

 

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Spectrometer next to iPhone and Apple Watch. Source

 

 

Blog 2-Archaeoastronomy

Archaeoastronomy is defined as the branch of archaeology that deals with the “apparent use by prehistoric civilizations of astronomical techniques to establish the seasons or the cycle of the year, especially as evidenced in the construction of megaliths and other ritual structures” (Source).  As such, studying how ancient cultures studied and interacted with space and celestial objects can help us understand more about their ideologies, worldviews, and religious beliefs.  In India, an important archaeoastronomical discovery was made in 2016.  A team of Indian archaeologists discovered what is believed to be the only megalithic site in the country (Source) in Mudumal village.  The structure, which consists of approximately 80 menhirs (12-14 feet tall) and 2,000 alignment stones, is believed to have been constructed around 5,000 B.C.  In total, the structure spans 80 acres.  Researchers believe that that this site is the oldest observatory in South Asia, and found a cup-mark depiction of Ursa Major on one of the menhirs.  Interestingly enough, the depiction of Ursa Major included not only the major stars in the constellation, but other peripheral stars.  Astronomy has played an important role in many Indian cultures for thousands of years, and temples throughout the country are designed so that the Sun strikes a particular part of the temple at a particular time.  That said, as this Mudumal structure is considered to be the oldest observatory in South Asia, this discovery is incredibly significant.  

 

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Blog 1- The Cosmic Calendar

The Cosmic Calendar is an interesting way to conceptualize the history of the universe.  The Cosmic Calendar was invented by astronomer Carl Sagan (source), and condenses the chronology of the universe into a single year.  The Big Bang occurs on January 1st, and current history is at the very end of December 31st.  I think that the Cosmic Calendar is a great way to understand the fleeting history of the human experience in relation to the vast magnitude of the universe.  On the Cosmic Calendar,  Earth was formed on September 14th (source). On December 31st, the first humans came in to existence at approximately 10:30pm (source). Agriculture was first used at 11:59:20, and Christ was born at 11:59:56 (source).  Astronomy was actually developed at 11:59:50 (source).  The Cosmic Calendar shows that, relatively, humans have existed for a very short time in relation to both the history of the universe and the history of the Earth.  This is both impressive and concerning, as while humans have accomplished a lot in our “few hours” of existence, we have also caused a significant amount of damage to the Earth in this incredibly short amount of time.  I think that if more people really thought about the brief amount of time that we have been around, people might be more concerned about climate change.  To me, this fits well with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s forward in our textbook.  By understanding more about the cosmos and the universe, it becomes possible to understand how, rather than being the center of the universe, we are just a very small part of it.  Below is a picture of the Cosmic Calendar.

 

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Source here.