Of Arsenic, Red Dwarfs and Atmospheres

NASA’s press conference today (December 2, 2010) revealed that there is a bacteria that can use arsenic instead of phosphorous to survive.  Phosphorus is one of the  six basic elements required for “life as we know it”—the others being, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. This expands the opportunities for finding life elsewhere in the Universe.

When you couple the information about these unique bacteria with the news release from Yale’s Professor Pieter van Dokkum that there are probably three times as many stars (300 sextillion!!) in the universe than previously thought, you have a whole lot of opportunities for life in the cosmos!  This announcement is about red dwarf stars, which are smaller and cooler than our Sun and have extremely long life times because they use their hydrogen fuel at such a slow rate.

One last bit of information that came out this week is from the European Southern Observatory.  Astronomers were able to analyze the atmosphere of a “super-Earth” GJ 1214b, as it passed in front of its parent star GJ1214.  The results showed that the planet has an atmosphere mostly made of water in the form of steam or at the very least it is dominated by thick clouds or haze.  This was gleaned from a planet that is over 40 light-years from us and orbits its star every 38 hours at a distance of about 2 million kilometers.  (Note that we are about 150 million km from our Sun.)

To summarize this week’s events: We’ve got a form of life on Earth that lives off an element that is poisonous to most life on our planet; three times as many stars that may have planets in the Universe; extrasolar planets that have water vapor in their atmospheres.  Sounds to me like the odds for extraterrestrial life is getting better and better!

It’s about time that ET phones our home!

Till next time,

RC Davison

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