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Life, Unbounded

Life, Unbounded

Discussion and news about planets, exoplanets, and astrobiology
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    Caleb A. Scharf Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.
  • NASA Goes Big and Bold for Exoplanet Science

    The NASA vision for its Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (Credit: NASA)

                      A United States federal agency is not necessarily the first place you think of when it comes to answering some of the deepest existential questions for our species. Yet over the last half-century this is precisely where some of the greatest practical progress has been made. [...]

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    Where Would you Leave a Message From the Stars?


    A recent article by Samuel Arbesman in the science magazine Nautilus discusses the extraordinary sounding possibility that – just perhaps – a search for extraterrestrial intelligence could be made by looking at our DNA. Yes, that’s right, at DNA. Not just human DNA either, but the codes of all living organisms. It’s a fascinating, if [...]

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    Watch the First Artificial Gravity Experiment

    High above Baja California, the first artificial gravity experiment (Credit: NASA)

    Gravity, as the old joke goes, sucks. It drags us down, pulls on our weary limbs, makes our feet tired, makes parts of us droop. But it’s also a critical factor for our long term well-being. Astronauts and cosmonauts circling the Earth over the past 60 years have discovered that zero-g, or microgravity, is really [...]

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    The March 11 Solar Flare

    Gulp (NASA/SDO)

    We live a mere 93 million miles from an enormous fusion reactor. It’s easy to overlook this, after all the Sun is only about halfway through its long slog of converting protons into helium nuclei deep inside its core. Decommissioning is still a few billion years in the future. But our nearest star can occasionally [...]

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    The Grand Texture of Planets


                  In an idle moment, while staring at a set of solar system data, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to display a set of planetary surfaces on an equal footing, where the overall texture of these worlds was visible (although topography is probably a more [...]

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    Have we got Solar System Habitability Backwards?


    Enceladus, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Triton, Pluto, Eris…they may all have, or have had, large oceans of liquid water trapped beneath a frozen crust. That poses some interesting questions. I’ve written before on these pages (and elsewhere) about the wealth of evidence for internal bodies of liquid water in our solar system. Since the Pioneer, and [...]

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    A Blizzard of Astrobiology

    A wet Mars? (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger)

    Astrobiology has one key advantage when it comes to tooting its own horn – it can lay claim to a diverse range of scientific research as being relevant to the study of life in the universe. In that spirit (and an optimistic celebration of what might, just possibly, hopefully, be the advent of spring-like conditions [...]

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    Tricksy Mars may be Obscuring Signs of Organic Matter

    The view from Curiosity (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

    [Correction: jarosite has indeed been detected on Mars, this post has been updated to reflect that fact.] Picture a hot volcanic spring. Mineral-laden acidic water flows through sulfur-rich rocks. A foul odor hangs in the air. For us it’s a nasty environment, best enjoyed through the lens of a tourist’s camera. But for tough thermophilic [...]

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    Titan Loses its Speckles

    A 3-D view of a region of Kraken Mare showing the sharp turns in a 'river' (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI)

    Some of the most stunning images of Saturn’s moon Titan are made using a synthetic aperture radar to penetrate the thick atmosphere to see the frigid surface. But radar images are prone to what’s called ‘speckle noise’. This is the granular texture that covers the radar maps, and it’s caused by the physical roughness of [...]

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    Is AI Dangerous? That Depends…


    Somewhere in the long list of topics that are relevant to astrobiology is the question of ‘intelligence’. Is human-like, technological intelligence likely to be common across the universe? Are we merely an evolutionary blip, our intelligence consigning us to a dead-end in the fossil record? Or is intelligence something that the entropy-driven, complexity-producing, universe is [...]

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