June 25, 2009

The Living Rings of an Exoplanet

Saturn RingsAn idea came to my mind immediately after I learned that one of the rings of Saturn is being replenished by ejected material from Enceladus.
What if on a distant exoplanetary system, life manages to spark and thrive within the sub-surface ocean of an Enceladus-like exomoon? And if that exomoon spews out material the same way Enceladus does, then microscopic lifeforms may get ejected along with the salty nutrients, perhaps by piggybacking on ice crystals or water droplets of the plumes. If they survive the trip outward through the vents, what comes next is fascinating: Life on Exoplanetary rings! They will then thrive off the minerals and nutrients of the rings as it is replenished by the exomoon.
We call these resilient organisms as Extremophiles. They are those that thrive in harsh environments where we don't expect life to flourish.
Do you remember the water bear that survived in outer space? Remember the recently-discovered species of bacteria that live in Earth's Stratosphere? We can almost say that with extremophiles, anything is possible! Therefore, this conjecture of life on planetary rings is worth pondering upon.
What will these "Living Exoplanet Rings" look like? Well, if it exists then it would provide a spectacular sight to behold.Enceladus
Imagine a multi-colored band of rings, each band occupied by different species adapted to the properties of each ring. If this scenario happened on Enceladus, it would not just be the E-rings that would be populated by micro-organisms. As they feed, evolve and grow in size, some species would migrate to another orbit or band of ring.
And if these living ring ecosystem evolves with enough complexity, they may even pulsate, sparkle or glitter. Imagine all the colors and beauty that a "living ring" of a planet would exhibit. It would be like a flat coral reef in space. The beauty of an artificial Planetary Ring Art Installation is no match for the primeval art created by Nature and Life.
And what would these microscopic "ring organisms" look like? Well, perhaps it may look just like any other cellular lifeform but in this scenario it may develop a crytal-like structure in it's membrane to enable itself to link and separate with other crystals. Or perhaps they may exploit the ionized particles in the rings to use magnetism for 'locomotion'. I am simply postulating a mechanism by which they can increase or decrease their size and mass in order to migrate to other rings of orbit. They may utilize crystals for other purposes as well, bending and focusing light for cellular communication, and perhaps for chemical synthesis--in other words--for cooking!
I speculate that once a migration loop occurs between those thriving on the rings and those living on the exomoon, then the rate and diversity of evolution of these ring-lifeforms may be boosted, along with hastened mutations caused by cosmic rays. Those that get swept back onto the orbiting moon would reproduce to create another set of species that is already adapted to live on the planetary rings, plus some random extra qualities of the next generation. All they need to do is ride on the jet stream from the sub-surface ocean through the vents and out into space and onto the rings, and the cycle goes on.
If we further take into account the possibility that the ring organisms may eventually end up on the planet itself, then a diverse ecosystem will be created that encompasses a moon, a planet, and it's rings.
You see, the presence of life makes things a little bit more exciting. And for planetary rings, it may be true as well--even when it is within the confines of conjecture and imagination.

ESA: Sodium salts point to subsurface ocean on Enceladus

June 22, 2009

Planetary Recession

Planetary RecessionPlanetary Recession is defined as the decline of the rate at which new planets are discovered, which may be attributed to an economic recession--resulting in the lack of funds for planet-hunting efforts.
I whimsically coined "Planetary Recession" after I noticed that the number of exoplanet discoveries this year are so few compared to last year. As the graph shows, one would think that since we're already half-way of 2009 we should now have at least 30 new exoplanet discoveries, yet we only have a handful.
Also this concept comes after I learned that TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) was not selected by the NASA Small Explorer (SMEX) Program.
Considering the fact that there are billions of planets out there, and that planet-hunting (dare i call it Exoplanetology?) may become a recognized profession someday, one would think that there would be a positive rate or upward curve at which new exoplanet discoveries would trickle in every year.
It's just sad that a slowdown of exoplanet discoveries may be somehow related to the lack of funding due to economic recession. Thus coining the term "Planetary Recession" is an attempt to playfully soften the blow, or inject a sense of humor at least.
On the bright side, Kepler will soon bring a sudden surge of exoplanet count within two or three years from now. And hopefully it comes with the recovery of the economy of our planet as well.

June 19, 2009

Aren't You Glad You're Not on Daxam?

Sodam YatI still remember the time when i looked at Orion's belt, the big and small Dipper and the Pleiades when I was a young child. Looking back, I now appreciate even more those times as a teenager when I spent countless hours laying on our roof just gazing at the stars.
Imagine if someone stopped you from looking up. Imagine if it was against the law to look at the stars. What a terrible world that would be!
Believe it or not, but that world exists. It's called Daxam. It's the home planet of Sodam Yat, the Daxamite member of the Green Lantern Corps.
As a young child, Sodam was prohibited from exploring the stars. His father shattered his telescopes and lenses to keep his eyes from the skies.
Fiction as it may be, this story is worth mentioning to inspire others to look up. No one is stopping us from looking up but ourselves. Each of us is only here for a moment to walk the earth and taste the immensity and infinity of the cosmos by simply gazing at the night sky. It's a precious moment and a wonderful privilege to be able to look at the stars!

June 18, 2009

Bizarre New Worlds

Bizarre New WorldsThis issue is simply too interesting for me to go unnoticed. Imagine the core of worlds made of diamonds. With enough pressure, it's possible! And there's plenty of ways that pressure is generated in the universe.
Now the cover art is also worth taking a look. Do you notice anything unusual with the ringed planet in the background? Aside from the beauty of it, take a look at how many rings that huge planet has. It has got 3 rings! Multi-layered rings? Is that possible? I hope some Astrophysicist writes up an ArXiv article about the possibility of it because it's beautiful! Or perhaps is it too good to be true?

June 6, 2009

The Extremophile Zone (EZ)

Extremophile Zone
Any point outside the Habitable Zone (HZ) can potentially be an Extremophile Zone (EZ)
Judging from the fact that the Habitable Zone (HZ) is such a narrow region around a star or a galaxy, the difficulty in searching for planets and life around such areas calls for an alternative route:
I simply propose that we "consider" life in a region that we can call, The Extremophile Zone (EZ).
Any area that lie outside the Habitable Zone can potentially be an Extremophile Zone. Introducing this concept will expand the venue of our efforts in the search for life.
You see, we are at a kind of stand-still right now in where we aim to find life: Liquid water at the Goldilocks Zone. It is a major guide in the search for life but it is out-of-reach for those who do not have the specific instruments, or the right kind of telescopes.
Perhaps a different approach may prove to be fun and imaginative at the same time. Instead of snobbing exoplanets that are not within the habitable zone, we could instead appreciate them more and then postulate the "extreme" forms of life that may thrive on each new-found world (small "bubbles" of Habitable Zones may even exist within extremophile zones).
A web-based system can be built that stores updated exoplanetary data and then also accept ideas from enthusiasts, amateurs and professionals about what type of extreme life could survive on each world if it did manage to start up. This "proactive" system would then be a mix of crowdsourcing, web2.0/social media, gaming, and an expert system, or AI. (See how the Fold.It, and GalaxyZoo is facilitated).
It's somewhat of a different flow than the usual search for life. This method will bank on sheer numbers of factual data, plus a massive input of theory and imagination, a creative dose of fun, and an ingenious system to crunch it all into 'diamonds'. In time, with some fuzzy logic and Science, perhaps it may produce useful insights regarding life on future exoplanet discoveries.
Imagine a database of a thousand exoplanets each with a hundred ideas--honed via web2.0, social media, or even peer review--on how life may thrive on it. And then imagine a system that will mix-and-match ideas with the properties of the newest exoplanet discovery. I think it will produce a valid insight and might give Astrobiologists some new biomarkers to look for. It may even form another loop in scientific research.
A thousand exoplanet count is not too far off (we have a total of 349 as of this writing). Perhaps next year we'll reach that milestone.
Now imagine ten thousand worlds and the brain of a HiveMind+AI thinking about life on those worlds. The possibilities are enormous. And if such a system ever materializes in the future, then it will make every exoplanet discovery as precious and important as the ones that lie in the Habitable Zone.