Images of Astrobiology

astrobiology, astronomy, Biomolecules, scicomm

The universe is turning out to be a more interesting place with each passing day for me. It’s not all about reading research articles and trawling the internet for interesting news in the vast field that is astrobiology.

I’ve been working on images related to various themes in astrobiology. This field really is a playground for the imagination, and it has something for everyone….

Recent news of a relic subsurface biosphere just beneath the surface of Mars…

Our ones and zeroes formed in starlight?

Something really special here: possible traces of limestones found in the fragments of objects orbiting a nearby white dwarf star…

 

Differing definitions of the Habitable Zone further push the limits of life in the universe..

Svante Arhenius, a swedish chemist and early pioneer of the theory of panspermia..

Ruminations on the code (codes?) that make life possible. How many languages does life have in the Universe?

Does the chemical rich, pitch black seabed of Europa host life? Does that of Enceladus?

 

The first image I created. I hope you’ve like these. There will be more! By the way, the background for this image comes from an online simulator called Goldilocks, by Jan Willem Tulp. His work can be found here. It’s really cool.

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Ganymede’s Magnetic Mysteries

scicomm

From an article in Planetaria, a fantastic blog exploring alien worlds, and my new go-to source of news!

Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is found to be producing some exceptionally strong electromagnetic waves. These waves are known as “chorus waves”, as they can be converted into sound, which we would hear as a series of bizarre chirps and whistles. In fact, they sound like an over caffeinated R2-D2!

The universe talks to us!

Ganymede is the second largest moon in the solar system after Titan, and is larger than the planet Mercury. One of the four Gallilean moons, Ganymede’s magnetic field is internally produced, unlike that of it’s sister moon Europa, whose field is induced by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.

This magnetism is the result of a highly differentiated internal structure. This means that like Earth, Ganymede has an active molten core, which interacts with upper layers, and also results in the presence of a subsurface ocean. Earth’s magnetic field is the result of it’s molten core and convection of molten iron and rock through the lower and upper mantle. Ganymede has a similar field but it weighs in at a million times stronger than our own! It’s even more intense than the magnetic field pumped out by its parent Jupiter!

This field results in the generation of powerful auroras, which are a familiar phenomenon on earth.

Ganymede’s complex structure is thought to be the result of a fairly quick formation period. During the formation of the solar system, Jupiter ( the oldest of the planets) was still an accreting cloud of gas and dust: a mini nebula much like the solar nebula forming around it. Within this Jovian nebula dozens or maybe hundreds of smaller worlds were accreting: emerging from the primordial Jovian cloud. Proto-Ganymede accreted quickly, within about 10000 years, and so it’s various layers were unable to disperse and homegenise within the moons structure. This can be inferred from the structure of other Jovian moons such as Callisto, which are shown to have an extremely homogeneous internal composition; indicating a more protracted period of accretion and formation. Most likely on the order of about 100000 years.

Jupiter displays impressive aurora as well. These are the result of interactions betweens it’s magnetic field and charged particles issuing from the highly volcanic moon Io.

Aurora and magnetic phenomena have been observed on exoplanets, in particular on mysterious objects known as brown dwarfs. These “failed stars” are quite common in the galaxy, and present a magnetic laboratory for astrobiologists and planet hunters. They are of considerable interest in this context, as they present an opportunity for researchers to examine an atmosphere that resembles that of both a star and a gas giant planet, all without the pesky glow from a nearby star!

Methods of detection and analysis of exo-magnetic fields such as these will not only aid scientists in understanding the formation of planets and stars, but also in the detection of exoplanets, and assessment of their potential habitability. Remember, life on Earth is protected by our magnetic field, so detection of such fields around exotic new worlds could be a hopeful sign.

Thanks for reading AstroBiological, giving you the universe in plain human. I hope you’ve learnt something today. I know I have, and that’s what it’s all about!
I’ll see you next time!

Find out more:

My facebook group:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/AstroB/

Gone

scicomm

Yesterday a little light went out from the world. My father in law, Joseph Abela passed away in his sleep.

Joseph hailed from the tiny speck that is Malta; an island nation that has weathered countless storms over the course of its long history. The earliest European civilisations inhabited the archipelago, which sits a stone’s throw away from Italy. Malta has been invaded, attacked, occupied, enslaved and conquered more than its fair share. Through all of this it has persisted. All I can say is these Maltese are tough cookies.

Even now Malta holds its head up high as a tiny but prosperous member of the European Union. A genuine jewel of the Mediterranean I intend to see it one day.

Joseph exemplified the stubbornness that has kept this nation going when all hope has seemed lost so many times. Even during the end, as his life eventually drained away he was fighting: unwilling to give a single inch of ground.

I tell you what, he didn’t care less about political correctness either. He was fun.

Science in recent decades has lost something. It’s headed along a progressivist path, trying to reduce all of human experience and history to nothing more than quantum quirks. Standing with Joe’s large family was a moving experience. Science would like us to believe that we are not much more than collectives of cells, acting as one. Yesterday I saw something more. A life was ending. Experiences, stories, arguments, knowledge: collected over a lifetime of punishment and adversity was fading away with each struggling breath.

When a priest came in and administered Last Rites, I observed something else taking place. As relatives recited prayers and blessings and the priest gave sacraments I saw what human beings have become and are capable of. We are not bags of cells, sloshing across a rocky planet in an indifferent universe. We are stories. We create beauty when we perceive simple things. Emotion, meaning and wisdom have emerged from millenia of evolution.

We are far more than the sum of our parts. In this way emergence is creation.

Joe and everything he was ultimately emerged from the firmament, and yesterday, in a kind of reversal, he reentered the slipstream.

Rest in Peace.

Twisty Twirly Ribozyme! What Is?

scicomm

This post is also available in podcast format on the Anchor app, which is available on IOS and Android:

https://anchor.fm/astro-biological/embed

https://anchor.fm/s/2561178/podcast/rss

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All life depends on information storage and transmission. No ifs or buts. DNA is the weapon of choice these days. It carries the alphabet of life, coding for almost every single permutation of biology that exists. Once, however, it may have had a more versatile forerunner.

RNA, or ribose nucleic acid, is now relegated to worker bee status in the cell. Whilst DNA lords over it’s cellular domain, providing the instructions for just about every single activity in the cell, RNA is now involved in DNA replication, via the processes of transcription and translation. Billions of years ago, however, RNA may have been much, much more.

To explain how, I have to stray from the script a little and talk about the other major players of the cell: proteins. Think of a cell as a kitchen. Where DNA is an executive chef, pretty much doing nothing but writing menus, and telling everyone how things should be done, the proteins are the poor saps slavishly working to the chef’s bidding. Proteins are the kitchen-hands, dishwashers, line cooks and general slaves of the cell.

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A recipe is great. If someone is around to make it. Image: Pixabay

If you were to look at a protein, you’d wonder why. They have a crazy variety of forms. Just imagine your cat had found a ball of yarn and left a tangled web of yarn all over the floor.

Picture the tangle. That tangle is a shape, really. It’s no different to a square, or a human head or banana or one of those weird dices that Dungeons and Dragons players use. Shape is the key word here. All proteins perform a discrete function. This function is directly tied into the shape of the protein. Most proteins look something like that mess of yarn on the floor. But it goes a little deeper than that.

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This is a very particular shape. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ok. So shape equals function in protein. How does RNA or DNA matter here?

If you picture DNA you’re probably seeing some kind of twirly, ladder like structure. That’s pretty much what a DNA molecule is: a twisty ladder; otherwise known as a double helix. DNA’s single function: information storage, is tied into this configuration. RNA is a bit different. It’s one side of that twisty ladder, or a single strand. RNA still works well as an information storage molecule. That’s how it is involved in DNA replication. Short snippets of mRNA, or messenger RNA carry instructions vital to the whole proceeding. Viruses actually use RNA as their core genetic material, not DNA.

RNA has one extra special feature. It can fold and twist into bizarre shapes like protein can. These shapes can bestow upon some RNAs the properties of a special class of proteins called enzymes. Enzymes are catalysts, meaning essentially they just make stuff happen. They kick-start biological reactions, ensuring that the cell works at all. It’s believed that some RNAs can do this, folding and twisting into new forms which are called ribozymes.

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Enter the twisty bread. Or a protein molecule? Image: Pixabay

Ribozymes are catalytic like enzymes. In the primordial brave new world of ancient Earth there were no complex cells with grand genetic machinery and a retinue of proteins doing DNA’s bidding. Life hadn’t figured out this nifty little double act yet. Back then it was the Wild West. Every bit of biological stuff floating around had to be a generalist, able to do many things: A jack of all trades if you will. RNA may have been one of these generalists. This one little ability of RNA: it’s tendency to get bent out of shape, may have been a boon to the very first life on Earth.

Anchor FM is super fun and easy to use. Download it for yourself! If I can do it, anyone can.

Whilst you’re still here, an article from fellow bloggers moosmosis outlining the central dogma of molecular biology, as alluded to in this post:

https://wp.me/p75pke-1z

Planet Building: Possible?

astroarchaeology, astronomy, scicomm, science fiction, Science fun, solar system, Uncategorized

If you don’t want to read, then listen! I have put this post up on a podcast I’m doing, available on Anchor FM, as well as certain other outlets.

https://anchor.fm/astro-biological/embed/episodes/Planet-Building-e1ff39

If anyone has read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” quadrilogy they would have been struck by some of the big ideas hidden within Douglas Adams’ deadpan humour. One of the heavy concepts that stuck with me was the idea of planet building. According to the story, Earth as we know it today is a planet sized super computer, built to perform one task: to figure out the meaning of life. A planetary architect named Slartibartfast is entrusted with overseeing the rebuild of Earth after it’s destroyed due to a galactic scale clerical error.

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Planet building.

Possible? Why not? According to prevailing theories, planets mainly form via the process of accretion. Simply put, particulate matter adrift in molecular clouds clumps under the inexorable pull of gravity, forming ever larger clumps that clump to ever larger clumps and so on. Eventually a planet or star is the inevitable result.

A newly formed exoplanet (in the dotted circle) orbits a newly formed, newly discovered star: CS Cha. Image: Space.com

Why couldn’t this be done artificially? Would it be even possible? If it’s just a matter of throwing lumps of crud at other lumps of crud and hoping they stick, then why couldn’t it be?

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Scenario:

It’s the future. Humanity lives and works in space. The asteroid belt is the new frontier or wild west. Chunks of formerly useless rock are now homesteads or villages. Distances are not overly tyrannical. An asteroid is typically only a few light seconds from another. However, asteroids can be moved. Bigger asteroids like Ceres, Vesta or Eros would comprise the main hubs of commerce and trade in this new world.

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A new frontier… Image: Maciej Rebisz

Smaller settlements such as these “homesteads” could make life easier for themselves in terms of travel times (and therefore fuel costs) to larger, more important settlements by moving closer. In the frictionless, zero gravity environment that is space this wouldn’t be too technically difficult.

Scenario:

Time has moved on. The asteroid belt is a thriving collective of trade networks and conglomerates of smaller settlements. Smaller asteroids now cluster around larger ones like space junk in low earth orbit. Economically, this proximity is making things easier for everyone, and lots of people are getting rich.

Just imagine though if humans disappeared. The zombie apocalypse hit outer space and spread to all corners of the solar system.

(That’s the fun explanation)

Every living human is gone, and the asteroid belt is now a vast ghost band, forming a wreath around the sun, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. There are all these swarms of asteroids now adrift, all artificially brought closer together by generations of enterprising human beings No course corrections keep them from colliding and so many of them are doing just that. Orbits decay, and tiny chondrite specks plough slowly into larger planetesimals.

See where I’m going with this? Over time, natural accretion would naturally lead to planets forming, or at least a large moon sized object. In millions of years the solar system could have a tenth planet (let’s just sneak Pluto back into the club. Don’t tell anyone!)

Planet Building! Essentially a garbage planet could form from the artificially placed asteroids and other objects now in very close proximity and drawn by the slow but inescapable pull of gravity.

I think it’s an exciting idea: a real megastructure! The ultimate megastructure!

What next?

This post was inspired by a chance statement in a video discussing space colonies on Isaac Arthur’s Science and Futurism youtube channel. Check it out. Isaac has a huge catalogue of lengthy discussions on some really interesting concepts. Here is a link to the relevant video if you’re interested:

Last but not least, here are links to the social media for Maciej Rebisz, the talented artist behind some fantastic space artwork, including the asteroid colony about halfway down the post.

facebook – https://www.facebook.com/maciej.rebisz

twitter – https://twitter.com/voyager212 – general updates

artstation – https://www.artstation.com/mac – art

society6 – https://society6.com/macrebisz – prints

Join me on my facebook group:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/AstroB/

And on YouTube. I’m not quite up to the standard of the venerable Mr Arthur (yet), but I’m working on it. Help me on this journey and subscribe!

http://www.youtube.com/c/BensLab

Some New Directions

scicomm

Hey all. I’m finally excited about something for the first time in awhile. I recently received a tablet from my LOVELY wife. It’s a Wacom Intuos Pro. I have been wanting an art tablet for years now. I had one once, but it was a slow, crappy little thing on slow crappy little computers. This one is a bit more high end.

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The best present ever. Creativity.

This thing has opened up creaking doors in my brain, which I thought had fused shut. It’s even been helping me in a therapeutic sense. I have had some pretty dark years recently, and they have taken their toll. This tablet has enabled my mind to properly elucidate and crystallise several things which have been weighing me down…

alien

I’ve always loved cartooning, and this guy, whilst new, brought back some memories…

Sometimes art can give a form to nameless and shapeless fears. It can help you contain and control them, by capturing them on paper (so to speak)…

lonely boy

Innocence lost…

monster2

A nameless monster..

This tablet is already hard at work, helping me with my next video, which takes a look at how a quaint little engine from the nineteenth century could help us take a real look at the surface of Venus!

Lots of things sloshing around in my head! The video is shaping up to be a lot of fun! I hope you can check it out when it’s up! I will start putting up artwork as it comes. Here’s the thumbnail for the video..What do you think?venus video thumbnail

Find me on my facebook group, where astrobiology is the name of the game!

https://www.facebook.com/groups/AstroB/

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A trip to Titan, with it’s discoverer!

scicomm

Having a tiny and insignificant YouTube channel is kind of liberating. It’s been two years since I began my channel, and to be completely honest I can’t see it leaping into the stratosphere anytime soon. Ah well! I’m my own boss, and I’ll put up whatever I like!

This latest video was a look at Titan (again), with a look at the life and times of it’s discoverer: Christiaan Huygens. Check it out here:

Are you a fan of Astrobiology? I’d love to hear from you!

I promise I’ll get busy with this blog too!

Ben.

Exploring Titan: a Channel Update

astrobiology, scicomm, Science fun, solar system, Uncategorized

My tiny little channel lives! I’m almost at 200 subscribers.

UPDATE: 3rd APRIL 2018

200 Subscribers!

Back to the post.

That is peanuts, but it tells me this channel is definitely trending on an upward trajectory. My most recent video “A Brief History of Astrobiology” is doing well (hint, check it out!)

Watch it for an irreverant look at astrobiology over the ages.

My next one will take a closer look at Titan through the imaginary eyes of its discoverer; Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch astronomer who spied this mysterious moon in 1655. I plan on taking Huygens there for a grand tour. He may even meet his namesake!

huygens_astronaut

What would a 17th century stargazer think upon seeing his high tech namesake, at rest on a frozen plain on Titan?

The tale of Huygens incredible discovery, as well as his amazing mind is worth a single video, and so that’s exactly what this new one is, the story of the exploration of Titan, from 1655 up until some imaginary mission sometime in the late 2020s, when a drone flies through the thick soupy atmosphere of this exotic moon. Maybe (just maybe) a submarine will explore the methane seas that dot the moons northern expanses. I personally can’t wait for both to happen.

Titan boasts liquid hydrocarbon lakes at its north pole

This would be quite a view.

Here are a few screen shots from the upcoming video:

titan drone flight.00_04_24_12.Still005

A drones eye view of titan, seen through a veil of organic haze and interference.

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The drone takes wing, dropped into the atmosphere of Titan. One of the mysterious methane seas can be just discerned through the haze coating the landscape.

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A night time flight over a methane lake. Beneath the frigid surface a small submarine drone looks for signs of methane based aquatic life.

I’m super excited about this one, and I am sure it’s going to be a lot of fun. Stay tuned!

Ben.

An Accidental Ecosystem in Space

astroarchaeology, astroarcheology, astrobiology, Biology, ecology, scicomm, science fiction, Uncategorized

Update:

I’m always interested in podcasting, and I’ve created an episode of a tentative series on the Anchor app. It’s just this blog post read out. Convenient for those whom listening is a better way to digest content. Here’s the link:

Listen to my segment “Abandonment among the stars” on Anchor: https://anchor.fm/astro-biological/episodes/Ecosystems-in-an-Abandoned-Megastructure-e1e59n/Abandonment-among-the-stars-a3bp5i

Imagine this. It’s the distant future. Space travellers have discovered a huge structure in deep space. Let’s assume the travellers aren’t human. These beings have stumbled upon the greatest discovery in their history. A vast megastructure, hundreds of kilometres long, it’s a huge cylinder spinning slowly across interstellar space. The structure is a riotous collection of cyclinders, and other smaller structures seemingly thrown together. Tests on the structure reveal it’s very old: several thousand years at least. No signals or signs of current occupation can be found, and it’s determined after several years of examination and debate that the structure is abandoned.

An O’Neill cylinder, adrift in cyberspace.. A 3D model of a physical model I plan to build.

The very first team is sent on board…

What do they find?

The structure is derelict, to say the least. The team can safely determine this. There are no signs of intelligent life.

Mechanisms keeping the cylinder habitable are still somewhat operational. By some miracle of engineering the cylinder still has gravity as well.

But that’s not to say that life hasn’t found a way.
The structure is exploding with life!
The structure is essentially intact. It continues to rotate, driven by some unknown energy source and mechanism. It orbits a medium sized yellow star, lying just beyond the orbital path of the second planet out from this sun. The second planet is completely uninhabitable.

Image: Pixabay

There is a third planet from the Sun which seems habitable. Other expeditions are already exploring that world, and it seems this cylinder was built by whatever sentient beings once lived there.

Image source: Unknown

The structure is an oasis of life, all alone in the night. The builders may have long vanished, but the other organisms they brought on board: whether they be pets, food or pests, don’t seem to know they shouldn’t be here claiming this place as their own. It’s become an accidental ecosystem that has no business being out here and yet out here it is.

….

A couple of weeks I decided to do something different with all the video stuff I do. I did a livestream on facebook and periscope. The topic of my stream was the very question addressed above: what new ecosystems and organisms could arise in an abandoned, livable space station were the human occupants to disappear?

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Image: Pixabay

It actually really got me thinking. The whole thing began as a random question on Isaac Arthur’s Science and Futurism facebook group. To my surprise there were a lot of great comments and ideas in response to this question.

I’ve addressed this subject matter before. A blog post explored the nature of interactions between the natural world and those sad, abandoned places on the periphery of civilisation. It’s like discovering a completely new world when I stumble upon these “transitional” places. Imagine finding such a world like the cylinder orbiting Venus. Just how and in what direction would any life on board manage?

It’s a really interesting question, and ties into the nature of life and how it has spread across our own planet. Most life existing today hasn’t arisen spontaneously from the firmament. Nothing’s done that for around 4 billion years. No, life has migrated, hitched rides or been tossed about by catastrophe and happenstance. It has essentially gone where the wind blows, and taken root wherever it has landed. The theory of panspermia relies on this vagrancy to offer an explanation for how life might have appeared here in the first place. I personally think Panspermia is very plausible.

In some ways we’ve seen panspermia in action, from a certain point of view.

This is of course, a very tenuous observation I make, but the principle is the same, using the example of Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean. This tiny little mound of dirt popping up from the waves is a giant ecological lab, an ongoing experiment that began over 150 years ago. All manner of species: some introduced, some native, were thrown together, on a barren little rock. Within decades, the island was a lush green paradise, with new ecosystems and new equilibriums. Quite amazing really, and Ascension Island represents a window into the greening of a dead planet such as Mars.

So. To return to the premise of this post. Explorers find a derelict space colony, now overrun by non human life. We’ve seen this on Earth too. Life is especially good at exploiting new niches. When the dinosaurs perished, the mammals that had lived in their shadow for 180 million years suddenly had an entire planet all to themselves. This resulted in the Tertiary radiation, a speciation event rivalling the Cambrian Explosion in the profusion of new species of mammal that suddenly appeared to exploit all this open space. Disaster ecology is an area of study devoted to this knack life has of adapting to catastrophe and finding new balances. Places like Ascension Island are one example of this. Others, like Chernobyl, are another.

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Life is doing nicely in the radiation soaked wilderness of Chernobyl. Image: James Beasley and Sarah Webster, National Geographic Creative

So what of my superstructure, adrift in orbit around Venus? It would take several posts to really give it some justice, and so that’s what I’m going to do. A few posts on the post human world in a self contained semi functional space colony.

I must admit I have not been active with this blog lately. I have been busier than usual with new work and things in personal life shifting and changing constantly. It’s never forgotten. This will be attended to, and posts are going to start going up on a more frequent basis. Stay tuned, keep reading and I’ll be writing soon.

Ben.

Hacked: the human edition

scicomm

The story of the original hackers…

The Biochemist Blog

By Natalie Hamer, Newcastle University

In today’s western society, almost every individual owns a piece of technology. Be that a mobile phone, a tablet or a computer; technology has become so integrated into our lives that we use it daily to complete simple tasks such as communicating, banking and even shopping. The more we depend on technology, the more criminals will try to exploit this dependency to steal our private information for gain. As technology advances and our cyber security measures improve, so too do the methods employed by these so-called ‘hackers’ to breech our defences and exploit the weaknesses in our systems. Although this may seem like a very modern issue, hacking has actually been around for billions of years.

Code Image Computer coding. Photo by Joffi, Source: Pixabay.

The Scourge of Life

Viruses have plagued man-kind for as long as we can remember. From the common cold to HIV, our cells…

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