by Michael D. Lemonick / Feb. 16, 2012

When the sun finally dies some 5 billion years from now, the end will come quietly, the conclusion of a long, uneventful life. Our star will, in a sense, go flabby, swelling first, releasing its outer layers into space and finally shrinking into the stellar corpse known as a white dwarf.

Things will play out quite differently for a supermassive star like Eta Carinae, which lies 7,500 light-years from Earth. Weighing at least a hundred times as much as our sun, it will go out more like an adolescent suicide bomber, blazing through its nuclear fuel in a mere couple of million years and exploding as a supernova, a blast so violent that its flash will briefly outshine the entire Milky Way. The corpse this kind of cosmic detonation leaves behind is a black hole. For Eta Carinae, that violent end might not be long in coming, according to a report in the latest Nature. “We know it’s close to the end of its life,” says astronomer Armin Rest of the Space Telescope Science Institute and the lead author of the paper. “It could explode in a thousand years, or it could happen tomorrow.” In astronomical terms, a thousand years might as well be tomorrow; as for a supernova blowing up literally tomorrow, well, that’s almost unheard of.

In 1843 Eta Carinae gave a hint that the end might be near when the hitherto nondescript body flared up to become the second brightest star in the sky, after Sirius. It stayed that way for 20 years or so, then faded and left behind a majestic, billowing cloud of gas known as the Homunculus Nebula. Eta Carinae lost some 10% of its substance in this event, which astronomers now call a “supernova impostor,” after which it has returned to relative quiet — or what passes for quiet in such an unstable object. Astronomers back in the day did the best they could to observe the 20-year flare, but without modern instruments, they couldn’t really learn much. That has frustrated investigators now just as it did then, since studying Eta Carinae in detail could tell them a lot about what caused the outburst and maybe even help them figure out when the inevitable supernova explosion is going to occur.

But as the Nature report makes clear, that understanding may now be at hand. Using a fiendishly clever new observing technique, Rest and his colleagues have been able to take readings of the original blast in real time. “We can look directly at the eruption,” says Princeton astrophysicist Jose Prieto, a co-author of the report, “as it’s never been seen before.” To understand how they did that, start with the basic fact that light from the outburst sped away from Eta Carinae in all directions. Some of it headed straight toward Earth to wow 19th century astronomers. But some of it took a detour, reflecting off dust clouds in interstellar space in what astronomers call a “light echo.” At least a bit of that echo was redirected toward Earth. The dust clouds were so far from the star that the long-delayed light is only now reaching us, and unlike in 1843, we now have the instruments to study it.

It gets even better. The 1843 flare-up played out over 20 years, which means the light-echo version will do the same. “We took observations nine months ago,” says Rest, “and we were looking at 1843. Now we’re looking at 1844. It’s like a movie. It’s really cool.” (Of course, the images are from 7,500 years before 1843 and ’44, since that’s when the stellar event occurred; it just took 7½ millennia for the light to reach us.) Better still, astronomers can see light echoes from a variety of dust clouds, at varying distances from the star. That creates detours of varying lengths, so they can see different phases of the eruption all at once.

“The big puzzle,” says Prieto, “is what caused the outburst. This star has been studied to death with all sorts of telescopes, but no one theory has ever been able to tell us what happened.” It might have been some sort of instability deep within the star itself, or the blast might have been triggered by matter dumped on Eta Carinae by a stellar companion. The good news is that the light-echo observations will give theorists a trove of information to work with — and in the next few years, says Rest, “we’ll be getting more observations, and they’ll keep getting better.”

If Eta Carinae is going to blow imminently, the obvious question is whether Earth is in mortal danger. Fortunately, the answer is no. At 7,500 light-years, the intense radiation from even a powerful supernova would lose its punch by the time it reaches us. All we’ll experience is the most spectacular light show in many centuries. The last confirmed supernova explosion in the Milky Way happened in 1604, a teasingly close five years before Galileo pointed his first, primitive telescope skyward. It is, in short, about time for another big blast, and even though the theorists haven’t weighed in, Rest has reason for hope. “There was one of these ‘supernova imposters’ in another galaxy,” he says — something similar to Eta Carinae’s 1843 outburst. “And then, a few years later … kaboom!”

Earth may soon have a second sun
by Alasdair Wilkens / Jan 20, 2011

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse is getting ready to go supernova, and when it does Earth will have a front-row seat. The explosion will be so bright that Earth will briefly seem to have two suns in the sky.

The star is located in the Orion constellation, about 640 light-years away from Earth. It’s one of the brightest and biggest stars in our galactic neighborhood – if you dropped it in our Solar System, it would extend all the way out to Jupiter, leaving Earth completely engulfed. In stellar terms, it’s predicted to explode in the very near future. Of course, the conversion from stellar to human terms is pretty extreme, as Betelgeuse is predicted to explode anytime in the next million years. But still, whether the explosion occurs in 2011 or 1002011 (give or take 640 years for the light to reach Earth), it’s going to make for one of the most unforgettable light shows in our planet’s history. For a few weeks, the supernova will be so bright that there will appear to be two stars in the sky, and night will be indistinguishable from day for much of that time. So don’t count on getting a lot of sleep when Betelgeuse explodes, because the only sensible thing for the world to do will be to throw a weeks-long global supernova party.

Physicist Brad Carter explains what Earth (and hopefully humanity) can look forward to:

“This is the final hurrah for the star. It goes bang, it explodes, it lights up – we’ll have incredible brightness for a brief period of time for a couple of weeks and then over the coming months it begins to fade and then eventually it will be very hard to see at all.”

Although there’ll be no missing the explosion, Carter points out that the vast majority of material shot out from the supernova will pass by Earth completely unnoticed:

“When a star goes bang, the first we will observe of it is a rain of tiny particles called neutrinos. They will flood through the Earth and bizarrely enough, even though the supernova we see visually will light up the night sky, 99 per cent of the energy in the supernova is released in these particles that will come through our bodies and through the Earth with absolutely no harm whatsoever.”

Indeed, just in case anyone is concerned, Betelgeuse is way too far away from Earth to do us any damage. There’s been some doomsday speculation of late around the eventual supernova – which might not happen for a million years, it bears repeating – but, as with pretty much all doomsday speculation, you can just ignore it. In any event, the Betelgeuse explosion will likely be the most dramatic supernova Earth ever witnesses – well, unless our Sun eventually explodes and destroys our planet, which would probably leave Betelgeuse the runner-up. Either way, it isn’t the first, as history has recorded the appearance of several so-called “guest stars.” Most of these just looked like short-lived stars in the night sky, but some were bright enough to be seen in the day.

The first supernova that history records is thought to have occurred in 185 CE, when a star 8,200 light-years away exploded. Chinese astronomers make explicit note of the sudden appearance of a star and its subsequent disappearance several months later, and the Romans may also have made more cryptic references to it. Astronomers have since located the remnants of the exploded star, confirming the accuracy of the ancient accounts.

The two most dramatic supernova explosions occurred in the 11th century. A supernova in 1006 – you can see its modern remnant above – is the brightest star ever recorded, appearing in the records of China, Egypt, Iraq, Italy, Japan, and Switzerland. There’s even some thought that a rock painting by the Hohokam, a Native American tribe in what is now Arizona, represents the first recorded sighting of a supernova in the Americas. Here’s the petroglyph in question, which might well record the presence of an unexpected bright light in the sky:

The various observations even allow us to pinpoint what specific type of supernova it was. In all likelihood, it was a Type Ia supernova, which for a few weeks burn as brightly as five billion suns. Astronomer Frank Winkler explains that we can work out from that supposition:

“By knowing this distance and the standard luminosity of Ia supernovae, we can calculate, in retrospect, just how bright the star must have appeared to 11th century observers. On the magnitude scale used by astronomers, it was about minus 7.5, which puts its brightness a little less than halfway between that of Venus and that of the full Moon. And all that light would have been concentrated in a single star, which must have been twinkling like crazy. There’s no doubt that it would have been a truly dazzling sight. In the spring of 1006, people could probably have read manuscripts at midnight by its light.”

The supernova of 1054 wasn’t quite as dramatic, and it seemed to go almost entirely unrecorded in Europe, although there’s some thought that records of the new star made by Irish monks got corrupted into allegorical accounts of the Antichrist. Still, the rest of the world saw it just fine, with records popping up in China, Japan, Korea, Persia, and the Americas. Astronomers of the time period wrote that it could be seen in daylight for over three weeks and remained visible in the night sky for nearly two years.

A pair of supernovas in 1572 and 1604 were extensively studied by two generations of legendary astronomers, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Since then, the Milky Way hasn’t had any supernovas visible from Earth, and so our night sky has remained rather tediously ordinary.

There’s about sixteen known candidates in our galaxy for a future supernova explosion, and quite a few of them would have a dramatic effect on our skies. But Betelgeuse is by far one of the closest, and its huge size means its explosion will be particularly dramatic. This is one cosmic disaster that we actually want to see happen sooner than later, because there may never be a sight quite like this ever again.


Astronomers discover planet made of diamond
by Ben Hirschler / Aug 25, 2011

Astronomers have spotted an exotic planet that seems to be made of diamond racing around a tiny star in our galactic backyard. The new planet is far denser than any other known so far and consists largely of carbon. Because it is so dense, scientists calculate the carbon must be crystalline, so a large part of this strange world will effectively be diamond. “The evolutionary history and amazing density of the planet all suggest it is comprised of carbon — i.e. a massive diamond orbiting a neutron star every two hours in an orbit so tight it would fit inside our own Sun,” said Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. Lying 4,000 light years away, or around an eighth of the way toward the center of the Milky Way from the Earth, the planet is probably the remnant of a once-massive star that has lost its outer layers to the so-called pulsar star it orbits. Pulsars are tiny, dead neutron stars that are only around 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in diameter and spin hundreds of times a second, emitting beams of radiation. In the case of pulsar J1719-1438, the beams regularly sweep the Earth and have been monitored by telescopes in Australia, Britain and Hawaii, allowing astronomers to detect modulations due to the gravitational pull of its unseen companion planet.

The measurements suggest the planet, which orbits its star every two hours and 10 minutes, has slightly more mass than Jupiter but is 20 times as dense, Bailes and colleagues reported in the journal Science on Thursday. In addition to carbon, the new planet is also likely to contain oxygen, which may be more prevalent at the surface and is probably increasingly rare toward the carbon-rich center. Its high density suggests the lighter elements of hydrogen and helium, which are the main constituents of gas giants like Jupiter, are not present. Just what this weird diamond world is actually like close up, however, is a mystery. “In terms of what it would look like, I don’t know I could even speculate,” said Ben Stappers of the University of Manchester. “I don’t imagine that a picture of a very shiny object is what we’re looking at here.”

by Irene Klotz / Aug 25, 2011

Astronomers have found the remains of a once-massive star, now transformed into a solid diamond five times bigger than Earth. The object circles a pulsing companion star about 4,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Serpens (The Snake), which lies about one-eighth of the way toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers noticed that the steady pulses of energy coming from the star, known as J1719-1438, were regularly and minutely disturbed, a phenomenon caused by the gravitational tug of another, smaller circling object. By measuring the pattern, scientists were able to figure out how far away the second object circles and its mass, leading to the realization that they had found a bizarre binary system, with one partner reduced to a diamond core. “In this case, something with the mass of our sun has evolved to be something the mass of a planet — quite extraordinary,” astronomer Michael Keith, with the Australia Telescope National Facility, wrote in an email to Discovery News. The companion to J1719-1438 never got big enough to produce elements much heavier than carbon, so after its lighter-weight hydrogen and helium were stripped away that would leave a solid core of carbon — diamond. “Due to the immense pressure, the carbon will be in a dense crystal-like structure, although much more closely packed than in a diamond on Earth,” Keith said.

The system is now stable, with no evidence that it will change for billions of years. “Of course, this also means that it could well have been around for a long time, just waiting for us to find it. Since it’s likely to last for longer than the Earth or the sun, I would say that in this case, a diamond really is forever,” Keith said. The diamond planet was found as part of an ongoing search for pulsating stars, known as pulsars, which scientists like to use as probes. “We’d like to find a pulsar with a black hole companion,” Michael Kramer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, told Discovery News. “It’s the exotic case that tell us most about the laws of physics and what’s going on in the universe.”

Pulsar strips a white dwarf, leaves a Jupiter-sized diamond
by John Timmer / August 25 2011

Neutron stars form from the core of a collapsing star and, as the supernova dissipates, often rotate rapidly, creating a pulsar. In less than a million years, however, their strong magnetic fields act as a brake, slowing them down considerably. In some cases, however, the neutron star will have a nearby companion, and its gravity is sufficient to start stripping mass off it. As the process continues, the neutron star will spin back up, creating what’s called a millisecond pulsar. In most cases, these companions are still around, visible as a bright star locked in an orbital embrace with a pulsar. Now, researchers have spotted one where the star is still there, but not visible—the neutron star has stripped it down to a crystaline core the size of Jupiter.

The system in question, which has the catchy name PSR J1719−1438, was identified in a recent survey for pulsars. Careful timing observations revealed the influence of a nearby companion—very nearby, given that it orbited the neutron star with a period of only a bit over two hours. Given the orbital information and the typical mass of a neutron star, the authors were able to estimate that the orbiting body has a mass somewhere around that of Jupiter. But that mass must be highly compact; otherwise, given the limited distance between the two, the neutron star would end up gravitationally disrupting its companion. The same goes for a helium-rich white dwarf star. The only thing that the authors calculate could fit into this uncomfortably close orbital configuration is a carbon white dwarf. So, they conclude that the “planet” orbiting the neutron star is simply the core of its previous stellar companion, stripped of most of its mass through the process that spun up the pulsar. And, in the last sentence of the paper, they drop a bit of a bombshell: “The chemical composition, pressure and dimensions of the companion make it certain to be crystallized (i.e., diamond).”

About 30 percent of the millisencond pulsars we know about don’t have a stellar companion, which raises the possibility that there are other Jupiter-mass diamonds out there awaiting our discovery. However, other fates are possible; a bit closer, and the companion star would have been devoured completely, leaving no remnant at all. And, in at least one case, a companion star seems to have been torn apart in a way converting it into a disk that has formed three planets that now orbit the neutron star. With further observations, we should get a better sense of how common these odd companions are—and possibly find something else that’s even stranger.

Science, 2011. DOI: 10.1126/science.1208890.

1031 CARAT
A diamond as big as a planet
by David Shiga / 25 August 2011

Cruising through the Milky Way in your reconnaissance craft, your sensors pick up a powerful radio beacon. Altering your course to take a closer look, you find not a ship in distress, but an ultradense sphere of neutrons, packing a sun’s worth of mass into something the size of a city. This dead remnant of a star glows red like a hot ember, and is spinning 173 times per second, emitting powerful radio beams that sweep across the sky as it rotates. While such pulsars are striking, they are nothing out of the ordinary, so you are about to resume your original course when your eye catches something sparkling near the dim red glow. A closer look reveals it to be an orb with the mass of Jupiter and about half as wide. Sensors indicate it’s made of – wait, this can’t be right – diamond! Your instruments don’t lie. You’ve just stumbled upon a 1031-carat diamond.

Glitter ball
Fanciful as it may sound, a team led by Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia may have made a similar discovery – via telescope, not a starship. Their radio survey of the sky detected the pulsar in December 2009, using the CSIRO Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia. A month later, follow-up observations with the Lovell radio telescope in Cheshire, UK, revealed periodic variations in the pulsar’s signals, indicating the existence of an orbiting companion with the mass of a planet.

That in itself was a rare find: of the 1800 or so pulsars known, only two had previously been found to harbour planets. Further analysis pointed to an even more astonishing possibility – a diamond planet. The variations in the pulsar’s signals, which stem from the planet’s gravity tugging on the pulsar, revealed that the planet’s mass is roughly equal to Jupiter’s and that it orbits the pulsar at a distance of 600,000 kilometres, 1.5 times the distance of the moon from Earth.

Danger zone
The latter point is crucial. The planet orbits so close to the pulsar that it skirts the danger zone within which the star’s gravity would rip it apart. Wait a minute, though. If it were a gas giant the size of Jupiter, part of its atmosphere would actually be inside the gravitational destruction zone, and the planet would not have survived long enough for Bailes’s team to detect it. So it must be less than about 60,000 kilometres in diameter, roughly 40 per cent of Jupiter’s width. That in turn means it is much more compact than Jupiter, which has an average density only slightly greater than water. The extremely fast rotation of the pulsar supports this conclusion. Pulsars that rotate many times each second are thought to spin up to such tremendous speeds as a result of stealing matter from a companion star. But there is no sign of such a massive companion today, so the planet is likely all that’s left of a star that was whittled down by the pulsar.

Hard-core bling
The core of a stripped down star would be mostly carbon, with a dash of oxygen. With the mass of Jupiter, such an object would be under high pressure because of its own gravity. And this would cause it to crystallise – most likely into diamond, just as carbon does deep inside the Earth. If it is a diamond, does the planet glitter like an Earthly gem? “It’s highly speculative, but if you shine a light on it, I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t sparkle like a diamond,” says Travis Metcalfe of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He previously found a white dwarf – the remnant of an old star – with a carbon-crystal core that was under higher pressure than the new planet, producing a crystalline structure distinct from diamond. Moshe Mosbacher, president of the Diamond Dealers Club in New York says he has “no clue” how much a diamond of this size would fetch, without first knowing its quality. But he is intrigued. “If there’s some way to transport it to New York and cut it, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s from inner space or outer space.”

by Eric Bland / Jan 15, 2010

Oceans of liquid diamond, filled with solid diamond icebergs, could be floating on Neptune and Uranus, according to a recent article in the journal Nature Physics. The research, based on the first detailed measurements of the melting point of diamond, found diamond behaves like water during freezing and melting, with solid forms floating atop liquid forms. The surprising revelation gives scientists a new understanding about diamonds and some of the most distant planets in our solar system. “Diamond is a relatively common material on Earth, but its melting point has never been measured,” said J. H. Eggert of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. “You can’t just raise the temperature and have it melt, you have to also go to high pressures, which makes it very difficult to measure the temperature.”

Other groups, notably scientists from Sandia National Laboratories, successfully melted diamond years ago, but they were unable to measure the pressure and temperature at which the diamond melted. Diamond is an incredibly hard material. That alone makes it difficult to melt. But diamond has another quality that makes it even harder to measure its melting point. Diamond doesn’t like to stay diamond when it gets hot. When diamond is heated to extreme temperatures it physically changes, from diamond to graphite. The graphite, and not the diamond, then melts into a liquid. The trick for the scientists was to heat the diamond up while simultaneously stopping it from transforming into graphite.

Eggert and his colleagues took a small, natural, clear diamond, about a tenth of a carat by weight and half a millimeter thick, and blasted it with lasers at ultrahigh pressures like those found on gas giants like Neptune and Uranus. The scientists liquefied the diamond at pressures 40 million times greater than what a person feels when standing at sea level on Earth. From there they slowly reduced the temperature and pressure. When the pressure dropped to about 11 million times the atmospheric pressure at sea level on Earth and the temperature dropped to about 50,000 degrees, solid chunks of diamond began to appear. The pressure kept dropping, but the temperature of the diamond remained the same, with more and more chunks of diamond forming. Then the diamond did something unexpected. The chunks of diamond didn’t sink. They floated. Microscopic diamond ice burgs floated in a tiny sea of liquid diamond. The diamond was behaving like water.

With most materials, the solid state is more dense than the liquid state. Water is an exception to that rule; when water freezes, the resulting ice is actually less dense than the surrounding water, which is why the ice floats and fish can survive a Minnesota winter. An ocean of diamond could help explain the orientation of Uranus’ and Neptune’s magnetic field as well, said Eggert. Roughly speaking, the Earth’s magnetic poles match up with the geographic poles. The magnetic and geographic poles on Uranus and Neptune do not match up; in fact, they can be up to 60 degrees off of the north-south axis. If Earth’s magnetic field were that far off it would place the magnetic north pole in Texas instead of off a Canadian island. A swirling ocean of liquid diamond could be responsible for the discrepancy.

Up to 10 percent of Uranus and Neptune is estimated to be made from carbon. A huge ocean of liquid diamond in the right place could deflect or tilt the magnetic field out of alignment with the rotation of the planet. The idea that there are oceans of liquid diamond on Neptune and Uranus is not a new idea, said Tom Duffy, a planetary scientist at Princeton University. The new Nature Physics article makes diamond oceans “look more and more plausible,” said Duffy. More research on the composition of Neptune and Uranus is needed before a truly definitive conclusion can be made, however, and this kind of research is very difficult to conduct. Scientists can either send spacecraft to these planets, or they can try to simulate the conditions on Earth. Both options require years of preparation, expensive equipment, and are subject to some of the toughest environments in the universe.


Astronomers have just solved a decade-old mystery that explains the unusual behavior of a neutron star — the dense, hot corpse left behind after a massive stellar explosion — at the center of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. It wasn’t the X-rays streaming from the center of the supernova remnant that astronomers found puzzling. It’s why the beams weren’t pulsating as expected. Now the scientists know why: The neutron star is covered with a thin atmosphere of carbon, which acts like a giant bulb to smooth light in all directions. The findings help to illustrate the extreme nature of these entities. “The carbon is unique,” Wynn Ho, a researcher with the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, told Discovery News. “The neutron stars that have been detected with atmosphere have evolved with hydrogen, and that’s what we’d expect because hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.” Scientists believe the neutron star in Cassiopeia A is so young and hot that in addition to fusing hydrogen to form helium, the surface of the star is fusing helium into carbon.

Computer models show the carbon veil to be extremely thin — up to just four inches thick — due to the immense gravitational pull of the neutron star, which is about one billion times stronger than Earth’s gravity. Though the shroud is as dense as diamonds, the star’s 3.6 million-degree Fahrenheit temperature would keep the atmosphere gaseous. “It’s incredibly hot, so it’s still a gas,” said Peter Edmonds, with the Chandra X-ray Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. irect observations of the neutron star’s atmosphere are not possible with today’s technology, given its distance and other factors, but scientists are on the lookout for other young neutron stars that may also sport carbon shells. Being based on computer models, the finding isn’t ironclad, added Edmonds, “but it’s a strong case.” Cassiopeia A’s neutron star also serves as proverbial lab rat for physicists wondering what sort of exotic matter exists inside. “We’re using it to study the neutron star interior to determine whether its interior is made of superconducting material or quark matter. You can determine this based on its temperature and its age,” Ho said. “Any exotic matter will determine how rapidly it cools over time.”

Asteroids make life’s raw materials
by Michael Marshall / 04 May 2011

Were asteroids the factories that created life’s building blocks? For the first time, rocks from an asteroid have been shown to power the synthesis of life’s essential chemicals. The asteroid in question fell to Earth on 28 September 1969, landing on the outskirts of the village of Murchison in Victoria, Australia. Tests showed it was laced with amino acids and some of the chemicals found in our genetic material.

The discovery suggested that space was not the chemically sterile place it was once thought to be, and that organic chemistry was widespread. It hinted that the molecules life needed to get started could have been produced in space, before dropping to Earth. But how did those molecules form? Raffaele Saladino of the University of Tuscia in Viterbo, Italy, and colleagues wondered if they could have been made deep inside the asteroids from which some meteorites break off. The team knew that a simple chemical present in space, called formamide, can be transformed into many biomolecules, so they used that as their starting point.

They obtained 1 gram of the Murchison meteorite, ground it to powder and removed all the organic molecules, leaving just the mineral. They mixed this with formamide and heated it to 140°C for 48 hours. The reaction produced nucleic acids – essential building blocks of DNA and RNA – as well as the amino acid glycine, carboxylic acids and a precursor to sugar (Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres, DOI: 10.1007/s11084-011-9239-0). This suggests the meteorite’s parent asteroid was a chemical factory, Saladino says. Crucially, the compounds produced are both metabolic and genetic, covering two key parts of primitive life, says Monica Grady of the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, who was not involved in the study. “If you can catalyse both reactions in the same place, from the same starting material, that’s obviously advantageous.”

The ability to produce a range of essential molecules sets the meteorite mineral apart from Earth minerals, says Mark Sephton of Imperial College London. On Earth, the formation of each biomolecule tends to be catalysed by a different mineral, meaning they end up separated and less likely to form life. Saladino’s team also found that the meteorite mineral could stabilise RNA, thought by some to have been the first genetic material. RNA reacts with water and breaks down easily. Most minerals accelerate this process, but the team found that the Murchison mineral did not. “If RNA could be synthesised [inside the asteroid], this environment would stabilise it,” Saladino says.

Raffaele Saladino
email : saladino [at] unitus [dot] it

Building blocks of life are found on asteroid
Evidence of water ice and organic compounds
by Amina Khan / April 29, 2010

For the first time, scientists have discovered evidence of water ice, as well as organic compounds, on an asteroid — findings that bolster a leading theory for the origins of life on Earth. “Up until now there was no sign that asteroids had any abundant organics or ice on them,” said Joshua P. Emery, a planetary astronomer at the University of Tennessee and an author of one of two studies on the discoveries. The new evidence supports the possibility that the essential building blocks of life came from asteroids.

The research, reported by two teams of scientists working independently, appeared online Wednesday in the journal Nature. Both teams’ conclusions are based on analyses of infrared light reflected by 24 Themis, one of the largest asteroids in the solar system. Because different materials absorb light at different wavelengths, scientists were able to establish the content of the asteroid by analyzing the light reflected by it. The asteroid contains water and organic compounds, or molecules containing carbon, the teams concluded. With water, such molecules are the building blocks for producing and sustaining living things.

Humberto Campins, an astronomer at the University of Central Florida and lead author of the other study, said his team chose 24 Themis for a closer look because two smaller asteroids in the Themis family seemed to have dust tails. Such tails had not been seen on asteroids, regarded as dry and rocky bodies, but rather on ice-filled comets — forming when ice on the comets becomes gas without first becoming a liquid and then mixes with dust from the comet.

Emery’s team was looking at the presence of hydrated minerals, commonly found on Earth as clay, at different areas in the solar system. These hydrated minerals are silicates that have been chemically bound to water molecules. Both teams chose to examine the 120-mile-wide 24 Themis because it is one of the largest, brightest asteroids in the system, and thus one of the easiest to analyze. The researchers are unsure in what amounts or proportions the water and organic molecules exist. To determine 24 Themis’ precise composition, someone — or something — would have to collect a sample from the asteroid, the researchers say. Instead, researchers hope to look at other asteroids in the Themis family to see whether more asteroids hold water — or whether scientists just got lucky.

Joshua P. Emery
email : jemery2 [at] utk [dot] edu

Humberto Campins
email : campins [at] physics.ucf [dot] edu

Did Life Come from Another World?
by David Warmflash and Benjamin Weiss / October 24, 2005

Most scientists have long assumed that life on Earth is a homegrown phenomenon. According to the conventional hypothesis, the earliest living cells emerged as a result of chemical evolution on our planet billions of years ago in a process called abiogenesis. The alternative possibility–that living cells or their precursors arrived from space–strikes many people as science fiction. Developments over the past decade, however, have given new credibility to the idea that Earth’s biosphere could have arisen from an extraterrestrial seed. Planetary scientists have learned that early in its history our solar system could have included many worlds with liquid water, the essential ingredient for life as we know it. Recent data from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers corroborate previous suspicions that water has at least intermittently flowed on the Red Planet in the past. It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that life existed on Mars long ago and perhaps continues there. Life may have also evolved on Europa, Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, which appears to possess liquid water under its icy surface. Saturn’s biggest satellite, Titan, is rich in organic compounds; given the moon’s frigid temperatures, it would be highly surprising to find living forms there, but they cannot be ruled out. Life may have even gained a toehold on torrid Venus. The Venusian surface is probably too hot and under too much atmospheric pressure to be habitable, but the planet could conceivably support microbial life high in its atmosphere. And, most likely, the surface conditions on Venus were not always so harsh. Venus may have once been similar to early Earth.

Moreover, the expanses of interplanetary space are not the forbidding barrier they once seemed. Over the past 20 years scientists have determined that more than 30 meteorites found on Earth originally came from the Martian crust, based on the composition of gases trapped within some of the rocks. Meanwhile biologists have discovered organisms durable enough to survive at least a short journey inside such meteorites. Although no one is suggesting that these particular organisms actually made the trip, they serve as a proof of principle. It is not implausible that life could have arisen on Mars and then come to Earth, or the reverse. Researchers are now intently studying the transport of biological materials between planets to get a better sense of whether it ever occurred. This effort may shed light on some of modern science’s most compelling questions: Where and how did life originate? Are radically different forms of life possible? And how common is life in the universe?

From Philosophy to the Laboratory
To the ancient philosophers, the creation of life from nonliving matter seemed so magical, so much the realm of the gods, that some actually preferred the idea that ready-made living forms had come to Earth from elsewhere. Anaxagoras, a Greek philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago, proposed a hypothesis called “panspermia” (Greek for “all seeds”), which posited that all life, and indeed all things, originated from the combination of tiny seeds pervading the cosmos. In modern times, several leading scientists–including British physicist Lord Kelvin, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius and Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA–have advocated various conceptions of panspermia. To be sure, the idea has also had less reputable proponents, but they should not detract from the fact that panspermia is a serious hypothesis, a potential phenomenon that we should not ignore when considering the distribution and evolution of life in the universe and how life came to exist specifically on Earth.

Earth’s biosphere could have arisen from an extraterrestrial seed.
In its modern form, the panspermia hypothesis addresses how biological material might have arrived on our planet but not how life originated in the first place. No matter where it started, life had to arise from nonliving matter. Abiogenesis moved from the realm of philosophy to that of experimentation in the 1950s, when chemists Stanley L. Miller and Harold C. Urey of the University of Chicago demonstrated that amino acids and other molecules important to life could be generated from simple compounds believed to exist on early Earth. It is now thought that molecules of ribonucleic acid (RNA) could have also assembled from smaller compounds and played a vital role in the development of life.

In present-day cells, specialized RNA molecules help to build proteins. Some RNAs act as messengers between the genes, which are made of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and the ribosomes, the protein factories of the cell. Other RNAs bring amino acids–the building blocks of proteins–to the ribosomes, which in turn contain yet another type of RNA. The RNAs work in concert with protein enzymes that aid in linking the amino acids together, but researchers have found that the RNAs in the ribosome can perform the crucial step of protein synthesis alone. In the early stages of life’s evolution, all the enzymes may have been RNAs, not proteins. Because RNA enzymes could have manufactured the first proteins without the need for preexisting protein enzymes to initiate the process, abiogenesis is not the chicken-and-egg problem that it was once thought to be. A prebiotic system of RNAs and proteins could have gradually developed the ability to replicate its molecular parts, crudely at first but then ever more efficiently.

This new understanding of life’s origins has transformed the scientific debate over panspermia. It is no longer an either-or question of whether the first microbes arose on Earth or arrived from space. In the chaotic early history of the solar system, our planet was subject to intense bombardment by meteorites containing simple organic compounds. The young Earth could have also received more complex molecules with enzymatic functions, molecules that were prebiotic but part of a system that was already well on its way to biology. After landing in a suitable habitat on our planet, these molecules could have continued their evolution to living cells. In other words, an intermediate scenario is possible: life could have roots both on Earth and in space. But which steps in the development of life occurred where? And once life took hold, how far did it spread?

Scientists who study panspermia used to concentrate only on assessing the basic plausibility of the idea, but they have recently sought to estimate the probability that biological materials made the journey to Earth from other planets or moons. To begin their interplanetary trip, the materials would have to be ejected from their planet of origin into space by the impact of a comet or asteroid. While traveling through space, the ejected rocks or dust particles would need to be captured by the gravity of another planet or moon, then decelerated enough to fall to the surface, passing through the atmosphere if one were present. Such transfers happen frequently throughout the solar system, although it is easier for ejected material to travel from bodies more distant from the sun to those closer in and easier for materials to end up on a more massive body. Indeed, dynamic simulations by University of British Columbia astrophysicist Brett Gladman suggest that the mass transferred from Earth to Mars is only a few percent of that delivered from Mars to Earth. For this reason, the most commonly discussed panspermia scenario involves the transport of microbes or their precursors from Mars to Earth.

Simulations of asteroid or comet impacts on Mars indicate that materials can be launched into a wide variety of orbits. Gladman and his colleagues have estimated that every few million years Mars undergoes an impact powerful enough to eject rocks that could eventually reach Earth. The interplanetary journey is usually a long one: most of the approximately one ton of Martian ejecta that lands on Earth every year has spent several million years in space. But a tiny percentage of the Martian rocks arriving on Earth’s surface–about one out of every 10 million–will have spent less than a year in space. Within three years of the impact event, about 10 fist-size rocks weighing more than 100 grams complete the voyage from Mars to Earth. Smaller debris, such as pebble-size rocks and dust particles, are even more likely to make a quick trip between planets; very large rocks do so much less frequently. Could biological entities survive this journey? First, let us consider whether microorganisms could live through the ejection process from the meteorite’s parent body. Recent laboratory impact experiments have found that certain strains of bacteria can survive the accelerations and jerks (rates of changes of acceleration) that would be encountered during a typical high-pressure ejection from Mars. It is crucial, however, that the impact and ejection do not heat the meteorites enough to destroy the biological materials within them.

Planetary geologists formerly believed that any impact ejecta with speeds exceeding the Martian escape velocity would almost certainly be vaporized or at least completely melted. This idea was later discounted, though, following the discovery of unmelted, largely intact meteorites from the moon and Mars. These findings led H. Jay Melosh of the University of Arizona to calculate that a small percentage of ejected rocks could indeed be catapulted from Mars via impact without any heating at all. In short, Melosh proposed that when the upward-propagating pressure wave resulting from an impact reaches the planetary surface, it undergoes a 180-degree phase change that nearly cancels the pressure within a thin layer of rock just below the surface. Because this “spall zone” experiences very little compression while the layers below are put under enormous pressure, rocks near the surface can be ejected relatively undeformed at high speeds.

Next, let us consider survivability during the entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Edward Anders, formerly of the Enrico Fermi Institute at the the University of Chicago, has shown that interplanetary dust particles decelerate gently in Earth’s upper atmosphere, thus avoiding heating. Meteorites, in contrast, experience significant friction, so their surfaces typically melt during atmospheric passage. The heat pulse, however, has time to travel a few millimeters at most into the meteorite’s interior, so organisms buried deep in the rock would certainly survive.

Over the past five years a series of papers by one of us (Weiss) and his colleagues analyzed two types of Martian meteorites: the nakhlites, a set of rocks blasted off Mars by an asteroid or comet impact 11 million years ago, and ALH84001, which left the Red Planet four million years earlier. (ALH84001 became famous in 1996 when a group of scientists led by David McKay of the NASA Johnson Space Center claimed that the rock showed traces of fossilized microorganisms akin to Earth’s bacteria; a decade later researchers are still debating whether the meteorite contains evidence of Martian life.) By studying the magnetic properties of the meteorites and the composition of the gases trapped within them, Weiss and his collaborators found that ALH84001 and at least two of the seven nakhlites discovered so far were not heated more than a few hundred degrees Celsius since they were part of the Martian surface. Furthermore, the fact that the nakhlites are nearly pristine rocks, untouched by high-pressure shock waves, implies that the Martian impact did not heat them above 100 degrees C. Many, though not all, terrestrial prokaryotes (simple one-celled organisms such as bacteria that lack a membrane-bound nucleus) and eukaryotes (organisms with well-defined nuclei) could survive this temperature range. This result was the first direct experimental evidence that material could travel from planet to planet without being thermally sterilized at any point from ejection to landing.

The Problem of Radiation
For panspermia to occur, however, microorganisms need to survive not only ejection from the first planet and atmospheric entry to the second but the interplanetary voyage itself. Life-bearing meteoroids and dust particles would be exposed to the vacuum of space, extremes in temperature and several different kinds of radiation. Of particular concern is the sun’s high-energy ultraviolet (UV) light, which breaks the bonds that hold together the carbon atoms of organic molecules. It is very easy to shield against UV, though; just a few millionths of a meter of opaque material is enough to protect bacteria.

Indeed, a European study using NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), a satellite deployed by the space shuttle in 1984 and retrieved from orbit by the shuttle six years later, showed that a thin aluminum cover afforded adequate UV shielding to spores of the bacterial species Bacillus subtilis. Of the spores protected by the aluminum but exposed to the vacuum and temperature extremes of space, 80 percent remained viable–researchers reanimated them into active bacterial cells at the end of the mission. As for the spores not covered by aluminum and therefore directly exposed to solar UV radiation, most were destroyed, but not all. About one in 10,000 unshielded spores stayed viable, and the presence of substances such as glucose and salts increased their survival rates. Even within an object as small as a dust particle, solar UV would not necessarily render an entire microbial colony sterile. And if the colony were inside something as large as a pebble, UV protection would be sharply increased.

Informative as it was, the LDEF study was conducted in low Earth orbit, well within our planet’s protective magnetic field. Thus, this research could not say much about the effects of interplanetary charged particles, which cannot penetrate Earth’s magnetosphere. From time to time, the sun produces bursts of energetic ions and electrons; furthermore, charged particles are a major component of the galactic cosmic radiation that constantly bombards our solar system. Protecting living things from charged particles, as well as from high-energy radiation such as gamma rays, is trickier than shielding against UV. A layer of rock just a few microns thick blocks UV, but adding more shielding actually increases the dose of other types of radiation. The reason is that charged particles and high-energy photons interact with the rocky shielding material, producing showers of secondary radiation within the meteorite. These showers could reach any microbes inside the rock unless it was very big, about two meters or more in diameter. As we have noted above, though, large rocks make fast interplanetary voyages very infrequently. Consequently, in addition to UV protection, what really matters is how resistant a microbe is to all components of space radiation and how quickly the life-bearing meteorite moves from planet to planet. The shorter the journey, the lower the total radiation dose and hence the greater the chance of survival.

In fact, B. subtilis is fairly robust in terms of its radiation resistance. Even more hardy is Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterial species that was discovered during the 1950s by agricultural scientist Arthur W. Anderson. This organism survives radiation doses given to sterilize food products and even thrives inside nuclear reactors. The same cellular mechanisms that help D. radiodurans repair its DNA, build extra-thick cell walls and otherwise protect itself from radiation also mitigate damage from dehydration. Theoretically, if organisms with such capabilities were embedded within material catapulted from Mars the way that the nakhlites and ALH84001 apparently were (that is, without excessive heating), some fraction of the organisms would still be viable after many years, perhaps several decades, in interplanetary space.

Yet the actual long-term survival of active organisms, spores or complex organic molecules beyond Earth’s magne-tosphere has never been tested. Such experiments, which would put the biological materials within simulated meteoritic materials and expose them to the environment of interplanetary space, could be conducted on the surface of the moon. In fact, biological samples were carried onboard the Apollo lunar missions as part of an early incarnation of the European radiation study. The longest Apollo mission, though, lasted no more than 12 days, and samples were kept within the Apollo spacecraft and thus not exposed to the full space-radiation environment. In the future, scientists could place experimental packages on the lunar surface or on interplanetary trajectories for several years before returning them to Earth for laboratory analysis. Researchers are currently considering these approaches. Meanwhile a long-term study known as the Martian Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE) is under way. Launched by NASA in 2001 as part of the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, MARIE’s instruments are measuring doses of galactic cosmic rays and energetic solar particles as the spacecraft circles the Red Planet. Although MARIE includes no biological material, its sensors are designed to focus on the range of space radiation that is most harmful to DNA.

Future Studies
As we have shown, panspermia is plausible theoretically. But in addition, important aspects of the hypothesis have made the transition from plausibility to quantitative science. Meteorite evidence shows that material has been transferred between planets throughout the history of the solar system and that this process still occurs at a well-established rate. Furthermore, laboratory studies have demonstrated that a sizable fraction of microorganisms within a piece of planetary material ejected from a Mars-size planet could survive ejection into space and entry through Earth’s atmosphere. But other parts of the panspermia hypothesis are harder to pin down. Investigators need more data to determine whether radiation-resistant organisms such as B. subtilis or D. radiodurans could live through an interplanetary journey. And even this research would not reveal the likelihood that it actually happened in the case of Earth’s biosphere, because the studies involve present-day terrestrial life-forms; the organisms living billions of years ago could have fared much worse or much better.

Moreover, scientists cannot quantify the likelihood that life exists or once existed on planets other than Earth. Researchers simply do not know enough about the origin of any system of life, including that of Earth, to draw solid conclusions about the probability of abiogenesis occurring on any particular world. Given suitable ingredients and conditions, perhaps life needs hundreds of millions of years to get started. Or perhaps five minutes is enough. All we can say with any certainty is that by 2.7 billion years ago, or perhaps several hundred million years earlier, life-forms were thriving on Earth.

Because it is not possible at this time to quantify all the steps of the panspermia scenario, investigators cannot estimate how much biological material or how many living cells most likely arrived at Earth’s surface in a given period. Moreover, the transfer of viable organisms does not automatically imply the successful seeding of the planet that receives them, particularly if the planet already has life. If, for example, Martian microbes arrived on Earth after life independently arose on our planet, the extraterrestrial organisms may not have been able to replace or coexist with the homegrown species. It is also conceivable that Martian life did find a suitable niche on Earth but that scientists have simply not identified it yet. Researchers have inventoried no more than a few percent of the total number of bacterial species on this planet. Groups of organisms that are genetically unrelated to the known life on Earth might exist unrecognized right under our noses.

Ultimately, scientists may not be able to know whether and to what extent panspermia has occurred until they discover life on another planet or moon. For example, if future space missions find life on the Red Planet and report that Martian biochemistry is very different from our own, researchers would know immediately that life on Earth did not come from Mars. If the biochemistries were similar, however, scientists might begin to wonder if perhaps the two biospheres had a common origin. Assuming that Martian life-forms used DNA to store genetic information, investigators could study the nucleotide sequences to settle the question. If the Martian DNA sequences did not follow the same genetic code used by living cells on Earth to make proteins, researchers would conclude that Mars-Earth panspermia is doubtful. But many other scenarios are possible. Investigators might find that Martian life uses RNA or something else entirely to guide its replication. Indeed, yet-to-be-discovered organisms on Earth may fall into this category as well, and the exotic terrestrial creatures might turn out to be related to the Martian life-forms.

Whether terrestrial life emerged on Earth or through biological seeding from space or as the result of some intermediate scenario, the answer would be meaningful. The confirmation of Mars-Earth panspermia would suggest that life, once started, could readily spread within a star system. If, on the other hand, researchers find evidence of Martian organisms that emerged independently of terrestrial life, it would suggest that abiogenesis can occur with ease throughout the cosmos. What is more, biologists would be able to compare Earth organisms with alien forms and develop a more general definition of life. We would finally begin to understand the laws of biology the way we understand the laws of chemistry and physics–as fundamental properties of nature.


Artist’s concept of the NanoSail-D spacecraft in orbit. Credit: NASA

NASA’s first solar sail makes unlikely comeback in orbit
by Stephen Clark / January 22, 2011

After testing the nerves of engineers, NASA confirmed Friday a tiny satellite unfurled an ultra-thin solar sail, a technology that has far-reaching applications both near Earth and in deep space. Project officials have “multiple confirmations” of a successful sail deployment, according to Dean Alhorn, the NanoSail-D mission’s project manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The 8.5-pound spacecraft, NASA’s first solar sail mission, transmitted a beacon signal indicating it attempted to release the sail, which measures 100 square feet and is made of a polymer material called CP1. The membrane is about 3 microns thick, tens of times thinner than a human hair. Not only did engineers get a positive beacon signal from the spacecraft, but ground-based observers reported they saw a different signature from the satellite as it passed overhead. “That signature is consistent with the size change we would normally see if it deployed,” Alhorn said Friday. “What they saw was significant enough for us to have a high confidence that we did deploy the sail.” The deployment occurred around 10 p.m. EST Thursday, according to NASA.

The membrane was wound on a spindle inside a triple CubeSat spacecraft about the size of a loaf of bread. Four spring-loaded guide booms were designed pop out of the compact spacecraft, then the polymer membrane was supposed to stretch tight in a diamond shape within about five seconds. That’s if the sail deployment went as planned. This week marked a significant turnaround for the NanoSail-D project. Officials were growing concerned over the spacecraft’s silence after its scheduled deployment from a mothership satellite named FASTSAT. NanoSail-D launched Nov. 19 inside FASTSAT, a NASA technology demonstration satellite. The craft was programmed to compute a time to release NanoSail-D, but officials never heard from the miniature satellite after its scheduled Dec. 6 separation. Telemetry indicated FASTSAT commanded separation of the subsatellite and the container’s door opened, but NASA couldn’t find NanoSail-D, leading officials to believe it was stuck inside its carrier. “When it was stuck inside, it was very depressing after working on this for three years,” Alhorn said, adding there is no definitive answer for why the craft failed to deploy on the first try. More than six weeks later, FASTSAT radioed Earth that it released NanoSail-D. The deployment was spontaneous, according to NASA.

Alhorn said NanoSail-D’s battery will be drained over the next few days, so the satellite’s beacon signal could die soon. Amateur ham radio operators around the world are listening for radio transmissions from the satellite. But there is still an opportunity for visual observers to catch a glimpse of the satellite. Although officials expect NanoSail-D to be dim for most of its mission, brief flares in brightness could make it visible to the naked eye. The spacecraft is tumbling right now, Alhorn said, but atmospheric drag in low Earth orbit should stabilize the sail’s attitude like a kite. Officials expect NanoSail-D will remain in space between 70 and 120 days until it eventually succumbs to drag and burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. The uncertainty depends on solar activity, which can increase drag for low Earth orbit satellites, causing them to lose altitude.

NASA is calling upon satellite watchers to track the satellite and take pictures. The best time to view the craft is around dawn and dusk. When the sail is tumbling, it could be visible anywhere in the sky, but once its orientation stabilizes, the best viewing will be when the satellite is close to the horizon, according to NASA. Observers can enter their location to find sighting opportunities for NanoSail-D. Because the sail is flying just above the atmosphere, drag is the largest force acting upon the spacecraft. NanoSail-D’s primary objective was to deploy the solar sail and re-enter the atmosphere, not perform any complex maneuvers or flight tests. “We actually did what we said we were going to do,” Alhorn said. “We hope, if there’s enough solar thrust, we might be able to see how much power this design can get.”

Solar sails work by harnessing the pressure of sunlight. Units of light called photons generate miniscule levels of thrust when they collide with a solar sail, much like a kite or sailboat responds to wind. They don’t generate much thrust, but sails can propel lightweight spacecraft long distances into the solar system on timescales much faster than chemical rockets. A Japanese solar sail mission, named Ikaros, successfully demonstrated solar sailing on the way from Earth to Venus last summer. NanoSail-D’s potential applications are closer to home. NASA and the U.S. military are interested in inexpensive methods of removing retired satellites from clogged traffic lanes in orbit. The military tracks nearly 16,000 objects larger than 4 inches circling Earth, and even small debris moving at high speeds pose serious threats to active spacecraft. DARPA, the Pentagon’s research and development agency, is studying concepts to pull debris and old satellites out of operational orbits. Such a job is technically challenging, but legal and political hurdles loom even taller, according to experts.

Low-cost CubeSat spacecraft like NanoSail-D could prove solar sails can be packed inside canisters like parachutes, providing a disposal system when satellites are finished with their missions. Over time, sails could slow satellite velocities enough to move the craft to graveyard orbits or into the atmosphere for a destructive re-entry. “It’s possible we could use this sail in the future, or some system similar to it, to aerobrake or de-orbit existing satellites,” Alhorn said. The spacecraft cost about $250,000 to build and test, according to Alhorn. NanoSail-D was originally scheduled to test Alhorn’s solar sail concept in 2008, but the CubeSat was lost in a rocket mishap. NASA had built two NanoSail-D spacecraft, so the agency sought a launch opportunity for the ground spare. The U.S. Air Force provided a Minotaur 4 rocket to launch FASTSAT, NanoSail-D and a cache of military payloads from Alaska in November. “It looked like this thing was going to never going to work,” Alhorn said. “But when we got a launch, we were happy. Then it didn’t come out, and it was a another disappointment in a long chain of solar sail failures. But lo and behold, it ejected on its own.”


Sun-rider: Japanese solar sail propelled by sun’s photons
by Tiffany Hsu / July 15, 2010

Just when you thought your rooftop solar installation was cool, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has outdone you by putting solar panels in space. And these ones do more than just generate power – they’re able to help maneuver and accelerate the unmanned spacecraft to which they’re attached. The so-called Ikaros solar sail is literally being pushed by sunlight, the space agency said on its website Friday. Particles of light from the sun known as photons exert pressure when they fall on the solar sail’s super-reflective panels, which are embedded into the sail. The small but ongoing thrust exerts about 0.0002 pounds of force on the nearly 700-pound Ikaros. The kite-like drone, which can spin at up to 20 revolutions per minute, has thin-film solar cells built into its 46-feet-wide, 66-feet-diagonal frame.

The craft was launched in May from the Tanegashima Space Center. Ikaros, which stands for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun, was launched with the Akatsuki drone bound for orbit around Venus. Soon, scientists expect to be able to control the Ikaros’ velocity, according to the nonprofit Planetary Society of Pasadena, which is tracking the drone’s progress. The society is planning its own solar sail launch for about a year from now. The LightSail 1 will be lighter – around 10 pounds – and cost under $2 million.

The Japanese space agency already has other grand plans to collect solar power in space by 2030 and beam the energy down to Earth using projects covering several square miles and costing billions of dollars. “The main direction of all of this is that it’s a future propulsion method for planetary, interplanetary and maybe even interstellar missions,” said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. “Basically, it allows you to fly around the solar system without any fuel.” Now that’s true space-age energy efficiency.

Ikaros sail photographed by a tiny camera onboard. {Credit: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency}


As every sailor knows, to tack a sailboat is to sail the boat at an angle into the wind. Solar sails can do their own form of tacking by using the force of sunlight pushing out from the sun to actually move closer the sun. Spacecraft, including solar sails, travel around the sun in orbits. A spacecraft that is propelled by a rocket can shrink its orbit, and thus move closer to the sun, by thrusting the rocket in the opposite direction as the spacecraft’s motion. Similarly, if a solar sail can produce thrust in the opposite direction as the spacecraft’s motion, its orbit will also shrink. By producing thrust in the same direction as the spacecraft’s motion, the orbit will expand, and the spacecraft will move farther away from the sun. A rocket can thrust opposite its motion by pointing the rocket engine forward along the path of its motion. This produces a force from the rocket engine that is in the opposite direction as the spacecraft’s motion.

Solar sails are more complex. The force produced by sunlight on a solar sail is the addition of the forces from the incoming sunlight and the reflected sunlight. This force always points away from the sun, and is at an angle that is close to a right angle to the surface of the sail. If this force is angled back along the solar sail’s path, the spacecraft’s orbit will start to shrink, bringing it closer to the sun. If the force is angled foreward along the spacecraft’s path, the orbit will grow and the solar sail will head farther from the sun. This is the general idea behind “tacking into the sun” for solar sails. In real practice, the behavior of a solar sail is more complicated because sunlight pushes not only along the spacecraft’s orbit, but also straight out from the sun. These effects are beyond the scope of this document, however. To visualize how this works, take a look at the following images.

Travelling away from the sun:

Travelling towards the sun:

An illustration shows antimatter shooting above a thunderstorm.
An illustration shows high-energy electrons and positrons from Earth traveling into space. {Illustration J. Dwyer/FIT, NASA}

Thunderstorms Shoot Antimatter Beams Into Space
by Richard A. Lovett / January 11, 2011

Thunderstorms can shoot beams of antimatter into space—and the beams are so intense they can be spotted by spacecraft thousands of miles away, scientists have announced. Most so-called normal matter is made of subatomic particles such as electrons and protons. Antimatter, on the other hand, is made of particles that have the same masses and spins as their counterparts but with opposite charges and magnetic properties. Recently, radiation detectors on NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope lighted up for about 30 milliseconds with the distinctive signature of positrons, the antimatter counterparts of electrons.

Scientists were able to trace the concentrated burst of radiation to a lightning flash over Namibia, at least 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) away from the Earth-orbiting telescope, which was passing above Egypt at the time. “This is a fundamental new discovery about how our planet works,” said Steven Cummer, a lightning researcher from Duke University who was not part of the study team. “The idea that any planet has thunderstorms that can create antimatter and launch it into space is something out of science fiction. The fact that our own planet is doing it is truly amazing.”

Scientists already knew that thunderstorms can emit gamma rays—the most energetic form of light—and that gamma rays in turn can create positrons through a process called pair formation. When a gamma ray with the right amount of energy interacts with an air atom, energy from the gamma ray is converted into matter, one electron and one positron, lightning expert Joseph Dwyer said yesterday during a meeting of theAmerican Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington. Scientists wouldn’t have been surprised to see a few positrons accompanying any intense gamma ray burst, added Dwyer, of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. But the lightning flash detected by Fermi appeared to have produced about 100 trillion positrons: “That’s a lot,” he said.

What seems to have happened is that positrons created by the lightning were herded into a tight beam by Earth’s magnetic field, said study leader Michael Briggs of the University of Alabama, Huntsville. The beam funneled positrons from the Namibian storm to the Fermi spacecraft. A few milliseconds after hitting the spacecraft, the beam struck a more northerly section of Earth’s magnetic field, Briggs added. This caused some of the positrons to bounce back the way they had come, hitting the spacecraft with a second beam, like an echo.

Earth is constantly being bombarded by radiation from the sun, as well as cosmic rays from distant but violent events, such as powerful supernovae. Considering the amount of positrons in the beam Fermi detected, the thunderstorm was briefly creating more radiation—in the form of positrons and gamma rays—than what hits Earth’s atmosphere from all other cosmic sources combined, Dwyer noted. The researcher has previously said, however, that the danger of thunderstorm radiation to airline travelers is extremely low. Duke’s Cummer added that nobody knows why some thunderstorms produce gamma rays while most do not. “We really don’t understand a lot of the details about how lighting works,” he said. But discovering the creation of positrons “gives us a very, very important clue as to what’s happening.”

{A paper about the discovery of antimatter in thunderstorms has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.}


Antimatter seems impossibly exotic, something that exists only in particle accelerators or in cosmic events many light-years away. But the next time there’s a big thunderstorm, look up at the sky: you’re looking at the creation of natural antimatter bursts. NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope picked up on the antimatter by monitoring several recent thunderstorms. Lightning is known to produce what’s known as a terrestrial gamma-ray flash, or TGF, which is basically a brief burst of gamma-rays. There are a few different ways to create gamma-rays, including the collision of an electron and its antimatter counterpart, the positron. When these two particles annihilate each other, they create gamma-rays with energies of precisely 511,000 electron volts. Fermi can pick up on the specific energies of the gamma-rays, and it was able to find at least four of the 130 observed TGFs with that particular energy signature. This isn’t a common phenomenon, then, but neither is it particularly rare, considering Fermi has only been watching the storms for about a year.

So how is the antimatter created in the first place? Thunderstorms possess electric fields at the tops of their systems, and particularly powerful storms are able to funnel huge swaths of electrons upwards at great speed. These electrons run into molecules, which alter their course and cause the electrons to emit gamma-rays. Some of these gamma-rays, traveling at near the speed of light, then pass near an atomic nucleus, which cause the ray to turn into an electron and positron. The matter and antimatter pair then travel out into space along Earth’s magnetic field. The entire process only takes a couple of milliseconds. Amazingly, we’ve only known that thunderstorms can create gamma-rays (not to mention x-rays) for about a year, so the realization that they can create antimatter as well would have been unimaginable as recently as 2009. Duke researcher Steven Cummer puts it simply: “I think this is one of the most exciting discoveries in geoscience in a very long time. [It] seems like something straight out of science fiction.”

Illustration: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center / J. Dwyer, Florida Inst. of Technology

ASA’s Fermi Catches Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter into Space /  01.10.11

Scientists using NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected beams of antimatter produced above thunderstorms on Earth, a phenomenon never seen before. Scientists think the antimatter particles were formed in a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF), a brief burst produced inside thunderstorms and shown to be associated with lightning. It is estimated that about 500 TGFs occur daily worldwide, but most go undetected. “These signals are the first direct evidence that thunderstorms make antimatter particle beams,” said Michael Briggs, a member of Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). He presented the findings Monday, during a news briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

Fermi is designed to monitor gamma rays, the highest energy form of light. When antimatter striking Fermi collides with a particle of normal matter, both particles immediately are annihilated and transformed into gamma rays. The GBM has detected gamma rays with energies of 511,000 electron volts, a signal indicating an electron has met its antimatter counterpart, a positron. Although Fermi’s GBM is designed to observe high-energy events in the universe, it’s also providing valuable insights into this strange phenomenon. The GBM constantly monitors the entire celestial sky above and the Earth below. The GBM team has identified 130 TGFs since Fermi’s launch in 2008. “In orbit for less than three years, the Fermi mission has proven to be an amazing tool to probe the universe. Now we learn that it can discover mysteries much, much closer to home,” said Ilana Harrus, Fermi program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

On Dec. 14, 2009, while NASA’s Fermi flew over Egypt, the spacecraft intercepted a particle beam from a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF) that occurred over its horizon. Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor detected the signal of positrons annihilating on the spacecraft — not once, but twice. After passing Fermi, some of the particles reflected off of a magnetic “mirror” point and returned.

The spacecraft was located immediately above a thunderstorm for most of the observed TGFs, but in four cases, storms were far from Fermi. In addition, lightning-generated radio signals detected by a global monitoring network indicated the only lightning at the time was hundreds or more miles away. During one TGF, which occurred on Dec. 14, 2009, Fermi was located over Egypt. But the active storm was in Zambia, some 2,800 miles to the south. The distant storm was below Fermi’s horizon, so any gamma rays it produced could not have been detected. “Even though Fermi couldn’t see the storm, the spacecraft nevertheless was magnetically connected to it,” said Joseph Dwyer at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla. “The TGF produced high-speed electrons and positrons, which then rode up Earth’s magnetic field to strike the spacecraft.”

The beam continued past Fermi, reached a location, known as a mirror point, where its motion was reversed, and then hit the spacecraft a second time just 23 milliseconds later. Each time, positrons in the beam collided with electrons in the spacecraft. The particles annihilated each other, emitting gamma rays detected by Fermi’s GBM.

graphic depicting how Fermi detected a terrestrial gamma-ray flash

Scientists long have suspected TGFs arise from the strong electric fields near the tops of thunderstorms. Under the right conditions, they say, the field becomes strong enough that it drives an upward avalanche of electrons. Reaching speeds nearly as fast as light, the high-energy electrons give off gamma rays when they’re deflected by air molecules. Normally, these gamma rays are detected as a TGF. But the cascading electrons produce so many gamma rays that they blast electrons and positrons clear out of the atmosphere. This happens when the gamma-ray energy transforms into a pair of particles: an electron and a positron. It’s these particles that reach Fermi’s orbit. The detection of positrons shows many high-energy particles are being ejected from the atmosphere. In fact, scientists now think that all TGFs emit electron/positron beams. A paper on the findings has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters.

“The Fermi results put us a step closer to understanding how TGFs work,” said Steven Cummer at Duke University. “We still have to figure out what is special about these storms and the precise role lightning plays in the process.” NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership. It is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. It was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States. The GBM Instrument Operations Center is located at the National Space Science Technology Center in Huntsville, Ala. The team includes a collaboration of scientists from UAH, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany and other institutions.

What is Consuming Hydrogen and Acetylene on Titan / 06.03.10

Two new papers based on data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft scrutinize the complex chemical activity on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. While non-biological chemistry offers one possible explanation, some scientists believe these chemical signatures bolster the argument for a primitive, exotic form of life or precursor to life on Titan’s surface. According to one theory put forth by astrobiologists, the signatures fulfill two important conditions necessary for a hypothesized “methane-based life.” One key finding comes from a paper online now in the journal Icarus that shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan’s atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. Another paper online now in the Journal of Geophysical Research maps hydrocarbons on the Titan surface and finds a lack of acetylene.

This lack of acetylene is important because that chemical would likely be the best energy source for a methane-based life on Titan, said Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., who proposed a set of conditions necessary for this kind of methane-based life on Titan in 2005. One interpretation of the acetylene data is that the hydrocarbon is being consumed as food. But McKay said the flow of hydrogen is even more critical because all of their proposed mechanisms involved the consumption of hydrogen. “We suggested hydrogen consumption because it’s the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth,” McKay said. “If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth.”

To date, methane-based life forms are only hypothetical. Scientists have not yet detected this form of life anywhere, though there are liquid-water-based microbes on Earth that thrive on methane or produce it as a waste product. On Titan, where temperatures are around 90 Kelvin (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), a methane-based organism would have to use a substance that is liquid as its medium for living processes, but not water itself. Water is frozen solid on Titan’s surface and much too cold to support life as we know it. The list of liquid candidates is very short: liquid methane and related molecules like ethane. While liquid water is widely regarded as necessary for life, there has been extensive speculation published in the scientific literature that this is not a strict requirement.

The new hydrogen findings are consistent with conditions that could produce an exotic, methane-based life form, but do not definitively prove its existence, said Darrell Strobel, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who authored the paper on hydrogen. Strobel, who studies the upper atmospheres of Saturn and Titan, analyzed data from Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer and ion and neutral mass spectrometer in his new paper. The paper describes densities of hydrogen in different parts of the atmosphere and the surface. Previous models had predicted that hydrogen molecules, a byproduct of ultraviolet sunlight breaking apart acetylene and methane molecules in the upper atmosphere, should be distributed fairly evenly throughout the atmospheric layers.

imagery from Galileo showing emission of gases

Strobel found a disparity in the hydrogen densities that lead to a flow down to the surface at a rate of about 10,000 trillion trillion hydrogen molecules per second. This is about the same rate at which the molecules escape out of the upper atmosphere. “It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” Strobel said. “I didn’t expect this result, because molecular hydrogen is extremely chemically inert in the atmosphere, very light and buoyant. It should ‘float’ to the top of the atmosphere and escape.”

Strobel said it is not likely that hydrogen is being stored in a cave or underground space on Titan. The Titan surface is also so cold that a chemical process that involved a catalyst would be needed to convert hydrogen molecules and acetylene back to methane, even though overall there would be a net release of energy. The energy barrier could be overcome if there were an unknown mineral acting as the catalyst on Titan’s surface. The hydrocarbon mapping research, led by Roger Clark, a Cassini team scientist based at the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, examines data from Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer. Scientists had expected the sun’s interactions with chemicals in the atmosphere to produce acetylene that falls down to coat the Titan surface. But Cassini detected no acetylene on the surface.

In addition Cassini’s spectrometer detected an absence of water ice on the Titan surface, but loads of benzene and another material, which appears to be an organic compound that scientists have not yet been able to identify. The findings lead scientists to believe that the organic compounds are shellacking over the water ice that makes up Titan’s bedrock with a film of hydrocarbons at least a few millimeters to centimeters thick, but possibly much deeper in some places. The ice remains covered up even as liquid methane and ethane flow all over Titan’s surface and fill up lakes and seas much as liquid water does on Earth. “Titan’s atmospheric chemistry is cranking out organic compounds that rain down on the surface so fast that even as streams of liquid methane and ethane at the surface wash the organics off, the ice gets quickly covered again,” Clark said. “All that implies Titan is a dynamic place where organic chemistry is happening now.”

The absence of detectable acetylene on the Titan surface can very well have a non-biological explanation, said Mark Allen, principal investigator with the NASA Astrobiology Institute Titan team. Allen is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Allen said one possibility is that sunlight or cosmic rays are transforming the acetylene in icy aerosols in the atmosphere into more complex molecules that would fall to the ground with no acetylene signature. “Scientific conservatism suggests that a biological explanation should be the last choice after all non-biological explanations are addressed,” Allen said. “We have a lot of work to do to rule out possible non-biological explanations. It is more likely that a chemical process, without biology, can explain these results – for example, reactions involving mineral catalysts.”

“These new results are surprising and exciting,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “Cassini has many more flybys of Titan that might help us sort out just what is happening at the surface.” The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Jia-Rui Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Cathy Weselby 650-604-2791
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Life on Saturn’s Titan: Could It be Methane Based?
by Casey Kazan / March 20, 2010

Saturn’s giant moon Titan has water frozen as hard as granite and Great Lakes-sized bodies of fed by a complete liquid cycle, much like the hydrological cycle on Earth, but made up of methane and ethane rather than on water. Methane and ethane, the simplest hydrocarbon molecules, can assemble themselves into fantastically complex structures. Since complex hydrocarbons form the basis of life on Earth, scientists are wondering if hydrocarbon chemistry on Titan could have crossed the chasm from inanimate matter to some form of life? Titan has been considered a “unique world in the solar system” since 1908 when, the Spanish astronomer, José Comas y Solá, discovered that it had an atmosphere, something non-existent on other moons. It seems perfectly appropriate that one of the prime candidates for life in our solar system, Saturn’s largest moon, should have surface lakes, lightning, shorelines, relatively thick nitrogen atmosphere -and seasons. Titan can be viewed as an early-model Earth. And 100% of all known Earths have awesome life on them. The significantly lower temperature is a bit of a stumbling block (it’s ten times as far from the sun as us), but there’s a strong possibility of subterranean microbial life – or even a prebiotic “Life could happen!” environment. If a space traveler ever visits Titan, they will find a world where temperatures plunge to minus 274 degrees Fahrenheit, methane rains from the sky and dunes of ice or tar cover the planet’s most arid regions -a cold mirror image of Earth’s tropical climate, according to scientists at the University of Chicago.

Titan’s ice is stronger than most bedrock found on earth, yet it is more brittle, causing it to erode more easily, according to new research by San Francisco State University Assistant Professor Leonard Sklar. Sklar and his team developed new measurements from tests on ice as cold as minus 170 degrees Celcius which demonstrate that ice gets stronger as temperature decreases. Understanding ice and its resistance to erosion is critical to answering how Titan’s earth-like landscape formed. Titan has lakes, rivers and dunes, but its bedrock is made of ice as cold as minus 180 degrees Celcius, eroded by rivers of liquid methane. “You have all these things that are analogous to Earth. At the same time, it’s foreign and unfamiliar,” said Ray Pierrehumbert, the Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences at Chicago. Titan, one of Saturn’s 60 moons, is the only moon in the solar system large enough to support an atmosphere. Pierrehumbert and colleague Jonathan Mitchell, have been comparing observations of Titan collected by the Cassini space probe and the Hubble Space Telescope with their own computer simulations of the moon’s atmosphere. “One of the things that attracts me about Titan is that it has a lot of the same circulation features as Earth, but done with completely different substances that work at different temperatures,” Pierrehumbert said. On Earth, for example, water forms liquid and is relatively active as a vapor in the atmosphere. But on Titan, water is a rock. “It’s not more volatile on Titan than sand is on Earth.”

Methane-natural gas-assumes an Earth-like role of water on Titan. It exists in enough abundance to condense into rain and form puddles on the surface within the range of temperatures that occur on Titan. “The ironic thing on Titan is that although it’s much colder than Earth, it actually acts like a super-hot Earth rather than a snowball Earth, because at Titan temperatures, methane is more volatile than water vapor is at Earth temperatures,” Pierrehumbert said. Pierrehumbert and Mitchell even go so far as to call Titan’s climate tropical, even though it sounds odd for a moon that orbits Saturn more than nine times farther from the sun than Earth. Along with the behavior of methane, Titan’s slow rotation rate also contributes to its tropical nature. Earth’s tropical weather systems extend only to plus or minus 30 degrees of latitude from the equator. But on Titan, which rotates only once every 16 days, “the tropical weather system extends to the entire planet,” Pierrehumbert said.

Titan’s dense, nitrogen-methane atmosphere responds much more slowly than Earth’s atmosphere, as it receives about 100 times less sunlight than Earth. Seasons on Titan last more than seven Earth years. Its clouds form and move much like those on Earth, but in a much slower, more lingering fashion. Physicists from the University of Granada and University of Valencia, analyzing data sent by the Cassini-Huygens probe from Titan, have “unequivocally” proved that there is natural electrical activity on Titan. The world scientist community believes that the probability of organic molecules, precursors of life, being formed is higher on planets or moons which have an atmosphere with electrical storms.

Scientists with NASA’s Cassini mission have monitored Titan’s atmosphere for three-and-a-half years, between July 2004 and December 2007, and observed more than 200 clouds. They found that the way these clouds are distributed around Titan matches scientists’ global circulation models. The only exception is timing — clouds are still noticeable in the southern hemisphere while fall is approaching. “Titan’s clouds don’t move with the seasons exactly as we expected,” said Sebastien Rodriguez of the University of Paris Diderot, in collaboration with Cassini visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team members at the University of Nantes, France. “We see lots of clouds during the summer in the southern hemisphere, and this summer weather seems to last into the early fall. It looks like Indian summer on Earth, even if the mechanisms are radically different on Titan from those on Earth. Titan may then experience a warmer and wetter early autumn than forecasted by the models.”

On Earth, abnormally warm, dry weather periods in late autumn occur when low-pressure systems are blocked in the winter hemisphere. By contrast, scientists think the sluggishness of temperature changes at the surface and low atmosphere on Titan may be responsible for its unexpected warm and wet, hence cloudy, late summer. Scientists will continue to observe the long-term changes during Cassini’s extended mission, which runs until the fall of 2010, which will offer plenty of opportunities to monitor climate change on Titan — the spacecraft makes its next flyby of the moon on June 6. We’ll learn if the sluggish weather is the result of a slow rate of temperature change at the surface.

Cassini results so far don’t show if Titan has an ocean beneath the surface, but scientists say this hypothesis is very plausible and they intend to keep investigating. Detecting tides induced by Saturn, a goal of the radio science team, would provide the clearest evidence for such a hidden water layer. “Additional flybys may tell us whether the crust is thick or thin todaf,” says Jonathan Lunine, a Cassini interdisciplinary investigator with the University of Rome, Tor Vergata, Italy, and the University of Arizona, Tucson. “With that information we may have a better understanding of how methane, the ephemeral working fluid of Titan’s rivers, lakes and clouds, has been resupplied over geologic time. Like the history of water on Earth, this is fundamental to a deep picture of the nature of Titan through time.”

{The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.}

The team found two types of bacteria living in Lost Hammer that feed off the methane and likely breathe sulfate.

Bacteria Suited for Life on Mars Discovered / June 9, 2010

Researchers in Canada and the United States have discovered that methane-eating bacteria survive in a unique spring located on Axel Heiberg Island in Northern Canada. Because the environment there is similar to possible past or present springs on Mars, scientists surmise that the “Red Planet” might also be able to support a form of life. Canadian and U.S. scientists say they’ve concluded life might survive on Mars since they’ve found evidence of bacteria in a martian-like environment on Earth. Researchers at Canada’s McGill University, the University of Toronto, the National Research Council of Canada and the SETI Institute in the United States say they have discovered methane-eating bacteria survive in a unique spring located on Axel Heiberg Island in Northern Canada. Lyle Whyte, a McGill microbiologist, said the Lost Hammer Spring supports microbial life — and the spring’s environment is similar to possible past or present springs on Mars. That, he said, means the “Red Planet” might also support a form of life. The Canadian spring’s sub-zero water is so salty it doesn’t freeze and it has no consumable oxygen in it. There are, however, big bubbles of methane that come to the surface, which had provoked the researchers’ curiosity as to whether the gas was being produced geologically or biologically and whether anything could survive in such an extreme hypersaline sub-zero environment. “We were surprised that we did not find methanogenic bacteria that produce methane at Lost Hammer,” Whyte said. “But we did find other very unique anaerobic organisms — organisms that survive by essentially eating methane and probably breathing sulfate instead of oxygen.”

{The research appeared in the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal.}

Titan’s atmosphere oddity consistent with methane-based life
by John Timmer / June 4, 2010

Something strange is afoot in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, according to data sent back from the Cassini mission. Data returned from a spectrometer on Cassini indicates that there’s a large flux of hydrogen in the moon’s atmosphere, with the gas forming in the upper atmosphere and being removed from the atmosphere at Titan’s surface. We don’t currently know what process is ensuring its removal, but the amounts of hydrogen being taken out of the atmosphere are consistent with an earlier proposal of methane-based life.

Titan’s atmosphere is rich in hydrocarbon compounds, and chemical changes in the upper atmosphere are driven by the arrival of ultraviolet light from the sun. One of the expected results of the UV exposure is the liberation of molecular hydrogen from methane via a process that produces more complex hydrocarbons. With little oxygen to react with, the molecular hydrogen should remain stable. Some of it will escape into space, but a new paper indicates that a substantial amount of that hydrogen migrates down through the atmosphere towards Titan’s surface. Since it’s not accumulating there, some chemical process must be removing it from the atmosphere; right now, we don’t know what that process is, and, as NASA’s own news piece on the topic notes, the first option for scientists is to consider simple chemistry.

However, the abstract of the paper notes that this level of hydrogen consumption is consistent with an earlier prediction of methanogenic life. In short, the life would get its energy by “burning” the hydrogen with a carbon source instead of oxygen, releasing methane (CH4) in the process. The source of the carbon is where a second paper (not yet online) comes in. Models of Titan’s upper atmosphere suggest that significant amounts of acetylene should be produced by the reactions there, and this would provide an excellent source of carbon to any hypothetical metabolisms. The surprise of the second paper is that there’s very little acetylene to be found on Titan’s surface. Two chemical enigmas certainly don’t constitute life, and the authors of the latter paper provide a variety of ways to account for the acetylene shortage that don’t involve an organism. It’s also important to remember that there won’t be anything resembling liquid water on the surface of Titan, so anything alive there would have to be living in a methane/ethane soup (not to mention at temperatures nearing -200°C).

Scientists are a cautious bunch, and it’s likely that these results will remain in limbo for a while. The discovery of plumes of methane in the atmosphere of Mars was another chemical enigma that might be evidence for life. It’s been about a year and a half since their announcement and nobody has come up with a satisfying explanation for their presence (at least as far as I’m aware), but the scientific community is nowhere close to ready to call that conclusive evidence for life.

Icarus, 2010. DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2010.03.003
Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres, 2010.10.1029/2009JE003369.

Mars makes methane: sign of life or geology at work?
by John Timmer / January 15, 2009

The more we look at the surface of the Red Planet, the more interesting things we’re finding there. The latest results haven’t even required a trip to Mars. Instead, a series of spectroscopy readings from telescopes in Hawaii have tracked changes in the composition of Mars’ atmosphere over time. To the researchers’ surprise, the Martian summer triggered large releases of methane into the atmosphere from three distinct regions on the planet. Right now, the researchers say they don’t have sufficient data to determine if the source of the methane is biological or geological.

The data themselves are being reported in a paper that is being released by Science today, and NASA hosted a press conference to describe them. The basic technique involved using a spectrometer hooked up to one of the large Hawaiian telescopes (over the span of several years of observations, they used several individual telescopes). They took samples from multiple pixels along the north-south axis to get one dimension of spatial resolution; the rotation of the planet itself provided a second. Absorption peaks from the gasses in the earth’s atmosphere were subtracted, leaving the signal from Mars’ atmosphere behind.

During the winter, the area of the spectrum that includes a signal of methane was basically a blank. But, as Martian summer arrived in the northern hemisphere, three distinct areas of the planet started showing signs of methane production. Eventually, three distinct atmospheric plumes appeared, representing a total of 19,000 metric tons of methane; the research suggests a production rate of over a half-kilogram of a second at its peak, a rate comparable to that of hydrocarbon seeps on earth.

As might be inferred from the low levels present in the winter, Mars doesn’t provide a hospitable environment for methane. The researchers estimate that, should this be a one-time only event, the methane that’s released would have a half life of four years; if this is an annual event, it must last less than a year. Given the oxidants found by the Mars Phoenix Lander and the dust storms that sweep that material into the sky on a regular basis, the authors suggest that it probably shouldn’t be viewed as a surprise that the methane doesn’t last.

So, where is it coming from? At the press conference, the NASA scientists noted that no plumes came from the area that’s normally covered by an ice cap during the Martian winter, so it’s not simply a matter of the source being blocked for part of the year. The areas where it does come from are within regions of the planet that have been found to have had liquid water in the past. Beyond that, however, the three plume sources seem to have little in common. The authors note that Terra Sabae has sub-surface hydrogen, Nili Fossae has hydrated minerals, and Syrtis Major has a volatile-rich substrate. Of course, it’s possible that there are small regions within these areas that do share some geochemistry. Mars is now tectonically dead, and the lack of sulfur dioxide suggests that the gas is not coming from any volcanic activity. Still, there is no way to rule out that some hot mantle material hasn’t come into contact with the regions’ residual water, which could create a steam reaction with minerals that could liberate water. On earth, however, these sorts of faults tend to create notable surface features, and cool fairly rapidly.

The alternative that springs to everyone’s mind is a biological source. The finding that bacteria can live at the bottom of South African mines provides a model cited by the authors. Radioactive activity could break apart water and release hydrogen, which the bacteria react with carbon dioxide to release energy, with methane as a byproduct. The problem for either of these cases is that the production of methane would be occurring several kilometers down in the crust, so it’s nothing that would be accessible to machinery NASA plans to send to Mars any time soon. Biological activity tends to involve lighter isotopes of elements, so it’s possible that mass spectroscopy of the methane might provide a clue, but getting a concentrated sample would be very difficult. It came out during the press call that one of the regions was a potential site for the Mars Science Lab that was eliminated late in the planning stages; since that mission has now been delayed until 2011, there’s a chance that decision will be revisited.

Although there’s no good way to distinguish among the possible sources, the finding is a clear indication that Mars remains an active planet, and liquid water is almost certainly associated with that activity. As Martian years take two on earth, scientists will be anxiously waiting to see whether the plumes return next Martian summer, an event that would rule out some of the more unlikely sources. In the mean time, the discovery will almost certainly inspire a lot of scientists to start thinking about a variety of chemical processes that could produce methane, and trying to determine ways to test whether any of those are operating on the red planet.

In the deep, a community of one
by John Timmer / October 9, 2008

As researchers probed a varity of environments that were once thought to be inhospitable to life, they were surprised to find large bacterial communities thriving in places like near-boiling hot springs and volcanic vents deep in the ocean. Faced with this evidence, it was fair to wonder just where the outer edges of survival might be. We may have a hint of that from samples taken from deep in South African mines, which show that life can make it nearly three kilometers down, but it’s far from the thriving communities we find in other extreme environments. In fact, it looks like the bacterial “community” in the mine may be comprised of a single species.

The authors of a paper describing the organism, to be published today in Science, can’t rule out the possibility that there are other microorganisms down in the mine, but their approach seems to make the possibility very unlikely. To start with, they filtered a total of 5,600 liters of mine water to get their sample, which gave other microbes plenty of opportunities to make themselves known. Of the DNA sequences obtained from this sample, over 99.9 percent were from this single species; over half of the remainder were obvious contaminants from their own lab. If anything else is there, it’s a small minority of the life present.

The bacteria, which goes by the name Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator, is pretty homogeneous itself. Of 2.3 million bases present in the genome, all but 32 appeared to be identical in all of the population of bacteria that was sequenced. That’s a lower rate than the human population, and all the more striking given the amount of time that DNA has to pick up mutations; estimates of the nutrient availability (generated primarily from the energy given off during radioactive decay) indicate that it may take 100 to 1,000 years for a cell to divide.

With no other organisms present to engage in symbiosis with, the bacteria carry genes to do everything they need. They can make all the amino acids, extract useful carbon from carbon monoxide, and either fix nitrogen or obtain it from ammonia in the water. Oxygen is scarce in the environment, and the organism doesn’t appear to make any proteins that could possibly protect them from it. To run its metabolism, it reduces SO4. If it runs short of any of these, it has a flagella and chemosensory proteins that help it move off in search of more.

Extreme environments tend to be inhabited by archaea, so this bacteria is somewhat an exception to the rule. But the authors note that many of the key genes that enable it to survive in the hostile deeps of the mine actually originated in archaea, but were picked up by horizontal gene transfer. In this sense, it’s more of an exception that proves the rule. The fact that this organism requires such a diverse array of capabilities simply to survive, and is the only thing that manages to do so, suggests that this environment represents one of the outer edges of survivability for terrestrial life.

Extreme bugs back idea of life on Mars
by Kelly Young and David L Chandler / 07 December 2005

Methane-producing microbes have been discovered in two extreme environments on Earth – buried under kilometres of ice in Greenland and living in hot, dry desert soil. The findings lend weight to the idea that similar organisms may have lived on Mars. Live microbes making methane were found in a glacial ice core sample retrieved from three kilometres under Greenland by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, US. It is the first time such archaea have been found at that depth, says Buford Price, one of the research team, which published its results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0507601102).

Scientists had already noticed that the concentrations of methane in the lowest 90 metres of the ice core was 10 times as high as that at other depths. Now the Berkeley scientists have found the likely cause – correspondingly higher levels of microbes that produce methane, known as methanogens. Areas of high methane concentration in the Martian atmosphere have been spotted by Europe’s Mars Express spacecraft, but its origin is uncertain. A renewable source of methane would be needed, as otherwise ultraviolet light from the Sun would have destroyed it within 340 years. The methane could come from a geological source, such as unseen volcanic activity, or biological sources such as methanogens.

Poor-man’s borehole
Price’s group used the data from Greenland to devise a scenario on Mars, in order to guide future missions. The methanogens in the ice cores existed at -10°C, but could produce more methane in warmer conditions. In order to account for the methane seen on Mars, they calculated the bugs would have to live at 0°C or above. This temperature is likely to occur between 150 metres and 8 kilometres beneath the Martian surface, depending on the rock type. It would then take between 15 years and 30,000 years for that methane to percolate up to the surface. “In my opinion, there’s no way in my lifetime that NASA will find a way of drilling a borehole 150 metres deep [on Mars],” Price told New Scientist. “But the poor-man’s borehole is just looking at what’s been thrown out of a crater.” So a spacecraft could be sent to a large crater where higher levels of atmospheric methane have been detected. The lander could then drill a shorter distance down into the crater to try to find evidence of life.

Desert dwellers
Another new study, reported in the journal Icarus (vol 178, p 277), has also discovered methanogens in a harsh environment on Earth. Researchers studied dozens of soil and vapour samples from five different desert environments in Utah, Idaho and California in the US, and in Canada and Chile. Of these, five soil samples and three vapour samples from the vicinity of the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah were found to have signs of viable methanogens. The methane in the vapour samples was 300 times higher than background levels. One of the team, Timothy Kral of the University of Arkansas, US, told New Scientist that dry conditions usually kill this type of microbe: “So finding them in a dry place is not what everyone would have expected.”

Methanogens require anaerobic (oxygen-free) environments to survive, and most combine carbon dioxide and hydrogen to generate energy. Kral explains that their samples were collected from possible anaerobic settings such as dry-channel deposits 70 centimetres underground. The surface of Mars is also very dry, so the finding helps support the idea that the methane detected there could be an indicator of current microbial activity. The lesson for Mars, says Andrew Knoll, a biogeochemist at Harvard University, US, and a member of the Mars rover science team, is that methanogenesis may be possible there, but only when the right conditions of a limited-oxygen environment and availability of nutrients occur.

A whiff of life on the Red Planet
by Jenny Hogan / 16 February 2005

A leading European Space Agency scientist says he has found a gas in the Martian atmosphere that he believes can only be explained by the presence of life. But the few researchers who have been privy to the facts say that such a conclusion is premature. Vittorio Formisano of the Institute of Physics and Interplanetary Science in Rome will be speaking next week at the first conference dedicated to the results from ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft. The craft has been orbiting the Red Planet since December 2003. Agustin Chicarro, the project scientist for Mars Express and the organiser of the conference in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, says he expects sparks to fly. “We have allocated one full hour of debate – it could be a lively discussion.”

Scientists are understandably cautious. The list of discredited claims for life on Mars is long: from canals built by intelligent beings that early astronomers thought they saw, to “bacteria fossils” found in a Martian meteorite that fell in Antarctica. The fossil-like structures, which were discovered in 1996, are now thought to have been etched by chemical processes. The debate reignited last year when three teams, including one led by Formisano, independently detected methane on Mars – a gas that bacteria produce on Earth. Some speculated that similar microbes could be producing the methane on Mars. But others argued that methane at the observed concentrations could be explained by non-biological processes producing about 150 tonnes of methane per year. A comet that crashed on Mars long ago or some kind of volcanic activity could supply that amount.

Soil-based life
Now Formisano is saying that there is much more methane on Mars. He bases this on the detection of a different gas, formaldehyde, by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS), an instrument on Mars Express that he runs. Formisano averaged thousands of measurements taken by the PFS and calculated that the Martian atmosphere has formaldehyde in concentrations of 130 parts per billion. He thinks that the gas is being produced by the oxidation of methane and estimates that 2.5 million tonnes of methane per year are needed to produce it. “I believe that until it is demonstrated that non-biological processes can produce this, possibly the only way to produce so much methane is life,” he says. “My conclusion is there must be life in the soil of Mars.”

The presence of formaldehyde could explain why earlier studies found uneven distributions of methane on Mars, says Formisano. Because methane takes hundreds of years to break down by itself, the wind should even out the concentration of the gas around the planet. But if it is being oxidised in some regions, such as those that are rich in iron compounds, then you would find less methane in those areas. But other experts, including Formisano’s collaborators on the PFS and other principal investigators on the Mars Express mission to whom Formisano has presented his work, advise caution. He may be alone in pursuing formaldehyde, says one of his collaborators, Sushil Atreya from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, US.

Pushed to the limit
Others warn that Formisano is pushing the instrument to its limit in trying to look for formaldehyde. To identify compounds, the PFS looks for dark absorption lines in the spectrum of light reflected from Mars. Formaldehyde absorbs a handful of infrared wavelengths, but the instrument is not sensitive enough to see the individual lines. “It is not 100% convincing,” says Therese Encrenaz, from the Paris Observatory, France, another of Formisano’s colleagues. “But I think it deserves further work.”

Even if Formisano has found formaldehyde, it is not necessarily coming from the oxidation of methane. And even if there are large amounts of methane on the Red Planet, it might not be biological in origin. “Frankly, we don’t know what the internal geology of Mars is like. To draw conclusions on whether it is biological or not at this stage is damn risky,” says Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, US, who last year found methane on Mars using Earth-based telescopes.

Formisano agrees that he has no conclusive proof. “I cannot demonstrate for sure,” he says. “But these hints for life I have found are the best one can get. The next step is to go there and look for it.” Future missions, such as NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory now in the planning stage, will look for and analyse organic molecules in the soil. While other evidence suggests that Mars was and may still be hospitable to life, ESA is playing it safe. “If this issue was a bit less controversial, then maybe we would be at the point of having some kind of press conference,” says Chicarro. “But we need to leave the scientific community to its natural course and have it debated there.” Debate at next week’s conference is certain.

Crater Critters: Where Mars Microbes Might Lurk
by Robert Roy Britt / 20 December 2005

The more scientists have learned about Mars in recent years, the more some believe that finding life might involve a deep drilling project. With the surface of the red planet desolate and mostly dry, one consistently appealing idea has been that pockets of underground water might harbor microbes. The problem is, studies have suggested reaching the pockets might require drilling a thousand feet (hundreds of meters) below the surface. P. Buford Price, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has an idea for another place to look. If there is any life in the belly of Mars, some of it might be found around meteor craters, where rock has been tossed up from deep down.

The idea fits with recent suggestions by European scientists that pockets of methane in Martian air could be signs of life below. Methane should not last more than 300 years in the atmosphere, so the concentrations of it suggest a source that might be biological, the Europeans reason. On Earth, even in solid rock 660 feet (200 meters) below the surface, methanogens have been found to thrive. Methanogens are ancient relatives of bacteria that take in hydrogen and carbon dioxide and emit methane. Price and his colleagues have found that the same creatures deep in Antarctic ice emit enough methane to affect concentrations of the gas detected in drilling projects. Methane pockets in ice cores taken from Greenland registered levels of the gas that in spots were 10 times higher than expected. “We found methanogens at precisely those depths where excess methane had been found, and nowhere else,” Price said.

Craters already dug
While Earth and Mars are very different places, and no one knows whether the source of the methane on Mars has anything to do with life (it could be geologic in nature) Price figures the whole thing can be tested out without the need to drill too far down. Under Antarctic ice, his team was able to detect concentrations of methanogens as low as 16 per cubic inch. “Detecting this concentration of microbes is within the ability of state-of-the-art instruments, if they could be flown to Mars and if the lander could drop down at a place where Mars orbiters have found the methane concentration highest,” Price said. “There are oodles of craters on Mars from meteorites and small asteroids colliding with Mars and churning up material from a suitable depth, so if you looked around the rim of a crater and scooped up some dirt, you might find them if you land where the methane oozing out of the interior is highest.” The idea was published online earlier this month by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bizarre Creature in Idaho Raises Prospects for Life on Mars
By Robert Roy Britt / 16 January 2002

They eat hydrogen, breathe carbon dioxide, and belch methane. And they form the root of an ecosystem unlike any previously known on Earth. Meet the methanogen, a tiny organism living in complete darkness 660 feet (200 meters) underneath the surface of Idaho. Researchers report in the Jan. 17 issue of the journal Nature the discovery of a community of various organisms dominated and supported by these methanogens, creatures they say could represent just the sort of life to look for when turning over rocks on Mars. The work, along with another report this week of life found in extreme conditions in Antarctica, adds to mounting evidence for life’s tenacity and creativity, fueling increased speculation about the prospects for life on other worlds.

Extreme diet
Unlike other organisms at the bottom of the food chain, methanogens need little of the traditional sustenance that biologists associate with life. They get by without oxygen and no help from sunlight, said the U.S. Geological Survey’s Francis H. Chapelle, who led the study along with Derek Lovley of the University of Massachusetts. Methanogens simply feed off hydrogen in the rocks around an underground hot spring. No one knew if life could live in such conditions. So the Idaho site was chosen for its lack of organic matter, stuff that is originally produced by sunlight-powered organisms and is known to support other subsurface ecosystems. “This kind of microbial community has never been found on Earth,” Chapelle told SPACE.com, adding that it “may be representative of the kinds of life that initially evolved on the early Earth, and which may presently occur on Mars or Europa.”

Methanogens belong to an ancient group related to bacteria, called the archaea. All archaea are outfitted for survival in extreme environments. They are thought to have dominated primitive Earth, when oxygen was a rare commodity. Idaho is not the only home to methanogens. They cause gas in the digestive tracts of humans. And they’re found in oxygen-deprived mud at the bottom of swamps. But they are not seen as essential to supporting other life in these environments, as is the case in Idaho.

Life as we know it
Places considered most likely to harbor extraterrestrial life — pockets of underground water on Mars or an ocean under the frozen crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa — are only presumed to exist, and since they exist below the surface and get no sunlight, any life there would have to have an alternative means of fuel. The new finding shows that the recipe for life is simpler than previously thought, that sunlight is not needed, and that improves the prospects for finding ET, researchers said. “Hydrogen may well be an important requirement for extraterrestrial life,” Chapelle said.

And hydrogen is everywhere. It’s the most abundant element in the universe. Importantly, preliminary data recently sent back by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft suggests there may be a wealth of hydrogen within 3 feet (1 meter) of the surface of Mars, just south of the permanently frozen north polar region. Other studies have shown Mars and Europa might both contain suitable hydrogen-rich environments. “If hydrogen is indeed present on Mars in association with liquid water, the kind of metabolism we describe … may occur on Mars,” Chapelle said. William B. Whitman, a University of Georgia microbiologists who was not involved in the new study, said methanogens were hypothesized to exist in environments like the one studied in Idaho, but that it was unusual that they dominate the community of microbes within which they live. “This community composition has not been described before,” Whitman said. And what does it say about life as we know it? “It certainly strengthens the rationale for looking in more kinds of places, especially the subsurface of some of the other planets,” Whitman said.

Wild life
The methanogen discovery is one in a long string of findings over the past two decades showing how resilient and creative life can be. Researchers have found simple organisms in relatively dry valleys of Antarctica, in pockets of water under permanent packs of ice, deep inside Earth and huddled around hydrothermal vents at pitch-black ocean bottoms. Growing knowledge of Mars and recent findings on Earth bolster notions that the Red Planet may be the best place to look for similar extremophiles, as they are called.

Earlier this week, an international team of researchers said they had discovered organisms clinging to life in frigid, salty soil in Antarctica. Average temperatures in the Quartermain Mountains, where the microorganisms were found, are typically less 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-30 C). Less than a half-inch of precipitation falls each year. No place on Earth is more like Mars, the researchers said. The study uncovered fungi and a common bacteria living just below the surface in salt-laden soil, which dramatically lowers the freezing temperature of water by a method not completely understood. The researchers say the same phenomenon may occur on Mars. Other research suggests that soil conditions on parts of Mars could be very similar to the Antarctic dirt. “The glacial climates of Antarctica would have led to glaciers that produced the same kinds of surfaces that were sampled in Antarctica and that we see on Mars today,” said Victor R. Baker of the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona. The Antarctic finding, led by William C. Mahaney of York University in Canada, will be presented in the journal Icarus. Baker and other geologists helped Mahaney interpret the discovery in the context of the potential for life on Mars.

Waiting game
Whether life exists beyond Earth is the greatest question in the minds of many scientists. No other single question channels more funding for space-related scientific research. Yet while the prospects for ET seem to grow with each new discovery on Earth, the plain fact is nobody knows if Mars does or ever did harbor life. Solid evidence could come from robotic probes. NASA alone has several planned over the next decade. Yet many researchers say a human mission to Mars — which is not even in the planning stages at NASA — might be required to literally dig up the necessary evidence. Oxygen-breathing creatures might be wise not to hold their breath for an answer to the ultimate question.

New Life Form Found in Mars-Like Conditions
by Robert Roy Britt / 31 July 2003

Leave it to California to come up with creatures that could be from Mars. Leave it to scientists to make them green. A new species of bacteria has been discovered thriving without oxygen in the harsh waters of northern California’s Mono lake, where conditions perhaps resemble places on the red planet that might support similar life forms, scientists announced Wednesday. A dye used in the laboratory to sort living things from dead stuff rendered the creatures green in an image released by NASA. Under a microscope, the bacteria look like miniature corkscrews winnowing through samples of the highly alkaline water in which they thrive.

There is no solid evidence for life on Mars, so discussion of it is speculative. But on Earth in recent years, researchers have found several species of “extremophiles,” microorganisms that exist in conditions most living things cannot tolerate. The newfound extremophile, called Spirochaeta americana, swims in a high-mineral, salty environment where the pH can reach 10.5, compared to a range of 6.5 to 7.5 that is generally suggested for backyard hot tubs and swimming pools. “The environment these bacteria inhabit would be distinctly inhospitable to many other life forms, including humans,” said Elena Pikuta, a microbiologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Spirochaeta americana joins a growing list of organisms on Earth that don’t mind extreme heat, cold, darkness or other awful conditions. They are ancient life forms that have endured most of what the planet can throw at them. Extremophiles have been found under Antarctic ice, around superhot volcanic vents, eating rock beneath the sea floor munching on hydrogen and belching methane inside Earth’s crust, and even in the waste from nuclear reactors.

Yet fragile
The new species was discovered in a laboratory by analyzing water and mud collected during a single day’s visit to the lake. Outside their native habitat, the hardy creatures turn out to be surprisingly fragile. “These extremely thin and graceful bacteria move with an elegant motion,” Pikuta said. “Their cell walls are very delicate, and it is difficult to keep them alive for long periods in the laboratory.” It is primarily their ability to survive without oxygen that interests astrobiologists, those who study how and whether life might arise beyond Earth. “Since other bodies of the solar system [planets and moons] lack our oxygen-rich atmosphere, microorganisms that thrive without oxygen are good candidates for astrobiology research,” said Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “If, or when, we find life on other planets, our first discoveries will probably be microorganisms.” Hoover worked with Pikuta on the study, which was published in the May issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

Mono Lake is not like anything known on Mars. But there are is some common ground. Mono is the remnant of a much larger lake whose water level in the Pleistocene era was some 427 feet (130 meters) higher. Some scientists have speculated that depressions seen on Mars might be sites of former lakes. Much of NASA’s Mars program is currently geared toward finding places on the red planet where liquid water might exist. Water is one ingredient needed by all life as we know it. But even if there is liquid water on Mars, that does not guarantee life. “Planets like Mars have conditions that would challenge the existence of highly organized multicellular organisms such as we find on Earth, but that doesn’t mean these harsh places can’t sustain microbial life forms,” Hoover said. “By studying microorganisms found in Earth’s extreme places, like Mono Lake, we can better understand how life might exist on Mars.”

Have We Discovered Evidence For Life On Titan
by Chris McKay / Jun 08, 2010

Recent results from the Cassini mission suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are depleted at the surface of Titan. Both results are still preliminary and the hydrogen loss in particular is the result of a computer calculation, and not a direct measurement. However the findings are interesting for astrobiology.
Heather Smith and I, in a paper published 5 years ago (McKay and Smith, 2005) suggested that methane-based (rather than water-based) life – ie, organisms called methanogens – on Titan could consume hydrogen, acetylene, and ethane. The key conclusion of that paper (last line of the abstract) was “The results of the recent Huygens probe could indicate the presence of such life by anomalous depletions of acetylene and ethane as well as hydrogen at the surface.”

Now there seems to be evidence for all three of these on Titan. Clark et al. (2010, in press in JGR) are reporting depletions of acetylene at the surface. And it has been long appreciated that there is not as much ethane as expected on the surface of Titan. And now Strobel (2010, in press in Icarus) predicts a strong flux of hydrogen into the surface. This is a still a long way from “evidence of life”. However, it is extremely interesting. Benner et al. (2004) first suggested that the liquid hydrocarbons on Titan could be the basis for life, playing the role that water does for life on Earth. Those researchers pointed out that “… in many senses, hydrocarbon solvents are better than water for managing complex organic chemical reactivity”.

Two papers in 2005 followed up on this logic by computing the energy available for methanogenic life based on the consumption of both the organics in Titan’s atmosphere along with the hydrogen in the atmosphere (McKay and Smith, 2005; Schulze-Makuch and Grinspoon, 2005). Both papers made the case that H2 on Titan would play the role that O2 plays on Earth. On Earth organisms (like humans) can react O2 with organic material to derive energy for life’s functions. On Titan organisms could react H2 with organic material to derive energy. The waste product of O2 metabolism on Earth is CO2 and H2O; on Titan the waste product of H2 metabolism would be CH4. As a result of the Cassini mission, there is now abundant evidence for CH4, even in liquid form, on Titan.

Organic molecules on the surface of Titan (such as acetylene, ethane, and solid organics) would release energy if they reacted with hydrogen to form methane. Acetylene gives the most energy. However this reaction will not proceed under ordinary conditions. This is similar to our experience on Earth. Consider a chocolate bar in a jar full of air. The organics in the chocolate would release energy if they reacted with the oxygen in the air but the reaction does not proceed under normal conditions. There are three ways to make it proceed: heat it to high temperatures (fire), expose it to a suitable metal catalyst that promotes the reaction, or eat it and use biological catalysts to cause the reaction. Biology can thrive in an environment that is rich in chemical energy but requires a catalyst for the chemical energy to be released. Such is the case on Titan.

McKay and Smith (2005) predicted that if there were life on Titan living in liquid methane then that life should be widespread on the surface because liquid methane is widespread on the surface. We have direct evidence that the surface of Titan at the landing site of the Huygens Probe near the equator was moist with methane, and radar and near-infrared imagery from Cassini have revealed extensive polar lakes on Titan, both north and south. Methane-based life would have a lot of environments in which to live. Again, this is analogous to Earth. Life is widespread on Earth because it uses water and water is widespread on Earth.

Furthermore, because it is widespread, life on Earth, in turn, has a profound effect on the environment. For example, each spring the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere drops as plants consume it to form leaves; each autumn, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere goes up as these leaves decompose. That is, because of the ubiquity of life, the Earth breathes: one breath in during the spring, one breath out during the autumn. Widespread life has observable effects. Taking this logic to Titan, McKay and Smith (2005) predicted that Titanian life at the surface would consume near-surface hydrogen and that this might be detectable. The depletion of hydrogen is key because all the chemical methods suggested for life to derive energy from the environment on Titan involve consumption of hydrogen (McKay and Smith 2005; Schulze-Makuch and Grinspoon 2005). Acetylene, ethane, and solid organic material could all be consumed as well. Acetylene yields the most energy, but all give enough energy for microorganisms to live.

A few notes about liquid methane based life on Titan. First, while such life would produce CH4 it would not be a net source of CH4 but would be merely recycling C back into CH4 – undoing the photochemistry caused by sunlight in the upper atmosphere. It does not explain the persistence of CH4 on Titan over geological time. Second, it is impossible to predict any isotopic effect that this life might have on C. On Earth, methanogens produce CH4 from CO2+H2, or from organic material derived from CO2. The net reaction is CO2 + 4H2 => CH4 + 2H2O and thus methanogens on Earth are a net source of CH4 in a world of CO2. The enzymes that mediate these reactions create methane with a large isotopic enrichment of 12C over 13C of ~5%.

On Titan, it has been predicted that methanogens would produce CH4 by C2H2 + 3H2 => 2CH4 (eg. McKay and Smith 2005). This is obviously not a net source of CH4: it merely recycles CH4, thereby undoing the photolysis of CH4 and there is no a priori reason to expect the resulting CH4 to exhibit an isotopic shift from these reactions. The C-C bond in acetylene is strong but this by itself does not imply a strong isotopic selectivity. For example, life on Earth breaks the strong bond between the N atoms in N2 without leaving a clear isotopic effect. Thus, the istopic state of C on Titan is not relevant to the question of the presence of Titanian methanogens..

The data that suggests that there is less ethane on Titan than expected is well established (Lorenz et al. 2008). Photochemical models have predicted that Titan should have a layer of ethane sufficient to cover the entire surface to a thickness of many meters but Cassini has found no such layer. The new results of Clark et al. (2010) find a lack of acetylene on the surface despite its expected production in the atmosphere and subsequent deposition on the ground. There was also no evidence of acetylene in the gases released from the surface after the Huygens Probe landing (Niemann et al. 2005, Lorenz et al. 2006). Thus, the evidence for less ethane and less acetylene than expected seems clear and incontrovertible.

The depletion of ethane and acetylene become significant in the astrobiological sense because of this latest report of a hydrogen flux into the surface This is the key that suggests that these depletions are not just due to a lack of production but are due to some kind of chemical reaction at the surface. The determination by Strobel (2010) that there is a flux of hydrogen into the surface of Titan is not the result of a direct observation. Rather it is the result of a computer simulation designed to fit measurements of the hydrogen concentration in the lower and upper atmosphere in a self-consistent way. It is not presently clear from Strobel’s results how dependent his conclusion of a hydrogen flux into the surface is on the way the computer simulation is constructed or on how accurately it simulates the Titan chemistry.

In conclusion, there are four possibilities for the recently reported findings, listed in order of their likely reality:
1. The determination that there is a strong flux of hydrogen into the surface is mistaken. It will be interesting to see if other researchers, in trying to duplicate Strobel’s results, reach the same conclusion.
2. There is a physical process that is transporting H2 from the upper atmosphere into the lower atmosphere. One possibility is adsorption onto the solid organic atmospheric haze particles which eventually fall to the ground. However this would be a flux of H2, and not a net loss of H2.
3. If the loss of hydrogen at the surface is correct, the non-biological explanation requires that there be some sort of surface catalyst, presently unknown, that can mediate the hydrogenation reaction at 95 K, the temperature of the Titan surface. That would be quite interesting and a startling find although not as startling as the presence of life.
4. The depletion of hydrogen, acetylene, and ethane, is due to a new type of liquid-methane based life form as predicted (Benner et al. 2004, McKay and Smith 2005, and Schulze-Makuch and Grinspoon 2005).

+ Benner, S.A., A. Ricardo and M.A. Carrigan (2004) Is there a common chemical model for life in the universe? Current Opinion in Chemical Biology 8, 672-689. Clark, R. N., J. M. Curchin, J. W. Barnes, R. Jaumann, L. Soderblom, D. P. Cruikshank, R. H. Brown, S. Rodriguez, J. Lunine, K. Stephan, T. M. Hoefen, S. Le Mouelic, C. Sotin, K. H. Baines, B. J. Buratti, and P. D. Nicholson (2010) Detection and Mapping of Hydrocarbon Deposits on Titan. J. Geophys. Res., doi:10.1029/2009JE003369, in press.
+ Lorenz, L.D., H.B. Niemann, D.N. Harpold, S.H. Way, and J.C. Zarnecki (2006) Titan’s damp ground: Constraints on Titan surface thermal properties from the temperature evolution of the Huygens GCMS inlet. Meteoritics and Planetary Science 41, 1705-1714.
+ Lorenz, R.D., K.L. Mitchell, R.L. Kirk, A.G. Hayes, O. Aharonson, H.A. Zebker, P. Paillou, J. Radebaugh, J.I. Lunine, M.A. Janssen, S.D. Wall, R.M. Lopes, B. Stiles, S. Ostro, G. Mitri, and E.R. Stofan (2008) Titan’s inventory of organic surface materials Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L02206, doi:10.1029/2007GL032118. McKay, C.P., Smith, H.D. (2005) Possibilities for methanogenic life in liquid methane on the surface of Titan. Icarus, 178, 274-276.
+ Niemann H. B., Atreya S. K., Bauer S. J., Carignan G. R., Demick J.E., Frost R. L., Gautier D., Haberman J. A., Harpold D. N., Hunten D. M., Israel G., Lunine J. I., Kasprzak W. T., Owen T.C., Paulkovich M., Raulin F., Raaen E., and Way S. H. (2005) The abundances of constituents of Titan’s atmosphere from the GCMS instrument on the Huygens probe. Nature 438, 779-784.
+ Schulze-Makuch, D., and D.H. Grinspoon (2005) Biologically enhanced energy and carbon cycling on Titan? Astrobiology 5, 560-564.
+ Strobel, D.F. (2010) Molecular hydrogen in Titan’s atmosphere: Implications of the measured tropospheric and thermospheric mole fractions. Icarus, in press.

Mars Underground: The Harsh Reality of Life Below
by Robert Roy Britt / 08 March 2004

If there is life on Mars, it certainly hasn’t jumped out and mugged for the Mars rovers’ cameras like many people had hoped. And most scientists agree it probably won’t. In fact, any critters that lurk on the red planet today would almost certainly be part of an underground organization that has defied long odds and the harsh realities of a very unfriendly world.

So why all the excitement last week over once soggy rocks at Meridiani Planum? After all, scientists already knew Mars once held a lot of water. The evidence is written all over the planet as scars of river erosion. All that’s really new is scientists now know of a specific location where water was abundant. Yet for some biologists, it isn’t just the signature of ancient water at Opportunity’s landing site that is exciting. It’s also the salt that was left behind. Water and salt — specifically lots of what scientists call sulfates — together can make brine. And brine is great stuff if you are a certain type of microbe. While neither water nor brine actually imply life, fresh shafts of optimism now shine on the possibility that an ancient soup of organic materials might have allowed the genesis of microscopic organisms, which could still dwell in the belly of the red planet.

Pass the salt, please
Road crews lay down salt because it lowers the freezing temperature of water. The same is true of brine. And that’s handy on a planet where the average global temperature is minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit (-53 C). Briney underground reservoirs might have existed for long periods of time, according to computer models. Significant pockets might remain today. Importantly, there are organisms on Earth that thrive in environments so salty they’d make a McDonald’s French fry cringe. They’re called halophiles (pronounced halo-files). Rocco Mancinelli of the SETI Institute studies these salt-resistant organisms. They are hardy, and hardly rare.

In a telephone interview last week, Mancinelli explained that halophiles are represented in all three primary domains of life — Bacteria, Eukarya and Archaea, but that each has developed different ways of dealing with high-salt environments. That suggests the trait “probably arose more than once,” he says, and so it is likely something that originates and develops easily. “Such a trait could easily have evolved in a Martian organism as well,” Mancinelli said. That is, he quickly added, assuming there ever were any Martian organisms. Halophiles are interesting to Mancinelli in part because if life ever did begin on Mars, an evolving ability to endure higher and higher concentrations of salt might have been needed to allow organisms to survive to the present.

Here’s why: Early in its history, Mars almost certainly had more water at or near the surface. There might have been lakes or seas, and probably rivers — at least in brief episodes. If there was no standing surface water, then at least there was more underground water than today, as last week’s rover discovery shows. Where there is water, minerals dissolve in it. When the water on Mars evaporated into outer space or retreated underground — nobody is sure where it all went — what remained would gradually have developed a higher concentration of dissolved salts, Mancinelli explains. “When the concentration gets high enough, most organisms would die,” he said. Halophiles, in this scenario, would get the planet to themselves. In one terrestrial example of this, scientists recently found a previously unknown form of life thriving in California’s Mono Lake, which has been slowly receding for decades, leaving a high concentration of minerals and salt that other organisms can’t take.

The element of time
Mancinelli thinks brine pockets probably remain deep beneath the surface of Mars today. Some might have lasted for hundreds of millions of years. “These brine pockets may be moving around. They may merge and separate.” But their suspected endurance is important, as would have been the duration of any surface seas. Like water, time may be a crucial aspect to life. Nobody knows exactly when or how life on Earth began, but the oldest record of it dates back roughly 3.5 billion years on a planet that’s been around for 4.5 billion years. Mars was born about the same time, just after the Sun formed. For how much of that time on early Earth were the ingredients of life present, and how long did it take Nature to make the jump from chemicals and minerals to living cells? Likewise, how long might it have taken for life on Mars to develop, if it ever did? “I don’t know,” Mancinelli said, “because we really don’t know how long it takes for life to originate and evolve.”

There are suggestions, however. In 1953, Stanley Miller conducted a landmark experiment in biology. Wondering what might have been the original spark for life, he combined methane, hydrogen and ammonia — substances then thought to dominate the young planet — with water, and sent flashes of electricity through it all. Overnight, things changed. In a series of experiments, Miller eventually cooked up 13 of the 31 amino acids needed for life. Neither Miller nor anyone else has figured out what actually triggered life, but the experiments suggested that with certain ingredients and perhaps a little lightning, some pretty magical stuff can happen.

The window for life
Miller believed that once the right raw materials were gathered, life might develop rather quickly. A century would be perhaps unreasonably brief, in his view, but if it didn’t happen in a million years, he reasoned it probably never would. Knowledge of the ingredients of Earth’s early atmosphere has since changed, but still today, Harvard paleontologist Andrew Knoll takes a similar view of time frame for things to get going. “I’d guess that the 10,000 to 1-million-year window is reasonable,” Knoll, a member the Mars rover science team, told SPACE.com. “The other question, of course, is what it takes for life to persist on a planet. If water is present only intermittently, then any life that originates has little chance of surviving in the long run.”

Other research has suggested that water might have flooded the surface of Mars in hellish bursts. Nobody can say if that was the case, or if so then how many centuries or millennia the bursts might have lasted. And so far, Opportunity has not determined how long its Meridiani Planum landing site was wet, nor when in the past the rocks were drenched. Further observations from the twin rover mission could provide some clues to this crucial puzzle, however. “If water is present on the Martian surface for 100 years every 10 million years, that’s not very interesting for biology,” Knoll has said in the past. “If it’s present for 10 million years, that’s very interesting.”

Life underground
Even if biology got a foothold on ancient Mars, it is not clear if anything could have persevered long underground, with or without salty survival skills. On Earth, organisms do thrive deep underground — hundreds of feet below — without a single ray of sunshine. They live off chemical energy instead, like methane or hydrogen produced in chemical interactions between water and rock. Being a halophile, it should be noted, is not a condition for being an underground extremophile, as ultra-hardy microbes are collectively known. In fact one organism that might have done well on ancient Mars is desulfotomaculum, which uses sulfur as its energy source, said Benton Clark III, chief scientist of space exploration at Lockheed Martin and a member of the rover team. “It can form spores as well, so it can hibernate over these interim times on Mars between the warmer spells,” Clark said last week in discussing Opportunity’s discovery.

Ultimately desulfotomaculum could not have endured the high salt concentrations that Mancinelli describes. Yet on ancient Mars, the door of life might have been open to creatures of various eating habits and with differing survival schemes. One thing most researchers agree on: the Sun was probably not a prime energy source. Bruce Jakosky is a geologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder and director of its NASA-sponsored Center for Astrobiology. He helped pick the rover landing sites but has not been directly involved in the rover science explorations. Jakosky says it might have made little difference to the question of biology whether the Opportunity landing site was once a sea or just a location of copious ground water. He says the type of organism one might imagine finding at Mars would likely use geochemical sources of energy, rather than sunlight. “On Earth, we think that chemical sources of energy came first, followed by photosynthesis, which is a more complicated process,” Jakosky said. “Chemical energy is available from day one.”

What are the odds?
There could be a huge hitch in all this thinking. Scientists are currently debating whether underground terrestrial life is truly independent of sunlight, or if the chemistry of the surface — including photosynthesis and its products and byproducts — must filter down to make life possible below. “Do those things that [an organism is] surviving on have to be coupled to the surface?” Mancinelli wonders. “The jury is still out.” Knoll, the paleontologist, says many underground bacteria “actually eat buried organic matter and so are inexorably tied to surface photosynthesis, even if indirectly.” He also cautions that life in a subsurface realm might need to routinely get from one oasis to another as a planet changes over time. “You only have to break this chain once for the experiment to end,” Knoll says.

Terrestrial life has proven itself to be ubiquitous and resilient, able to essentially eat rocks if need be, or to eke out an existence under Arctic ice with only intermittently present films of liquid water. It can lay dormant for many thousands of years, awaiting the right environment to allow it to repair its cells and divide into new ones. But could the long-sought little green microbes have endured eons inside Mars? “Underground life is a possibility for Mars’ past and, with much longer odds, perhaps even its present,” Knoll figures. “But in the absence of abundant surface life, I would assign a fairly low probability for the present day persistence of such ecosystems.”

Frozen sea on Mars linked to elevated methane
by Kelly Young and Jenny Hogan / 23 February 2005

The discovery of a frozen sea on Mars has ignited a new debate on whether life existed on the Red Planet. Most intriguing is the claim that the atmosphere above the frozen ocean in the Elysium Planitia region may have elevated concentrations of methane. If true, it could suggest that primitive micro-organisms might even survive on Mars today, according to Jan-Peter Muller, at University College London, UK, and one of the team that found the frozen sea. The team, which was led by John Murray at the Open University, UK, analysed images taken by Europe’s Mars Express spacecraft. “If the ice is still there, then Elysium is the most likely place to find past or present life on Mars,” says Murray. He presented the findings at the 1st Mars Express Science Conference in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, on Monday. Immediately after his talk, Vittorio Formisano, chief scientist for Mars Express’s Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) which measures the composition of gases in the planet’s atmosphere, commented: “Elysium Planitia is indeed the region where we have seen the maximum of methane coming out of the surface.” On Earth, most of the methane in the atmosphere is produced by microbes living in the soil. Formisano thinks that life is the most likely explanation for methane in the Martian atmosphere, too.

No consensus
NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay, who was not part of the research group, agrees that the site is an important one in the search for life. “If these are really locations where there was an ice-covered ocean, I think this would be a very interesting place to drill for evidence of past life.” But McKay warns that scientists have yet to reach a consensus about the presence of a high level of methane on Mars. Estimates of the expected lifetime of the gas in the atmosphere are uncertain, and may be off by a factor of 10,000. It is also possible that what scientists think is methane may be something else entirely, he says. And other scientists note that finding water would not necessarily equate to past or present life. “I think it’s way too early to jump to conclusions,” says Kenneth Nealson, a geobiology professor at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, US. “Water is required for life, but it in no way indicates that there is life.”

Isotopic signature
The observations by Mars Express’s PFS instrument indicate concentrations of about 10.5 parts per billion in the Elysium Planitia region. Even if it is more concentrated in that area, it could just as easily be a product of geological activity as microbial life, Nealson adds. Elysium Planitia is one of the major volcanic regions on Mars. “If you had the isotopic signature of the methane, you might be on firmer ground,” he says, as this could indicate if the methane was formed biologically. Formisano has also reported, in September 2004, that concentrations of water vapour near the Martian surface are two to three times higher along three regions near the equator, including Elysium Planitia, than at higher altitudes. Those concentrations also correspond to results from NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which sniffed out hydrogen in the uppermost metre of Martian soil and rock.


A microorganism that produces methane as a byproduct of its metabolism. All known methanogens are both archaeans and obligate anaerobes, that is, they cannot live in the presence of oxygen. They are commonly found in wetlands, where they generate methane in the form of marsh gas, and in the guts of animals such as ruminants and humans, where they are responsible for flatulence. Some methanogens, described as hydrotropic, use carbon dioxide as a source of carbon and hydrogen as a source of energy. Some of the carbon dioxide reacts with, and is reduced by, hydrogen to produce methane. The methane is turn gives rise to a proton motive force across a membrane, which is used to generate ATP – a key source of cellular energy. Other methanogens, called acetotrophic, use acetate (CH3COO-) as a source of both carbon and energy. Still other methanogens exploit methylated compounds such as methylamines, methanol, and methanethiol as well. More than 50 species of methanogens have been identified, including a number that are extremophiles. Live methanogens were recovered from a core sample taken from 3 kilometers under Greenland by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley. Another study discovered methanogens in soil and vapor samples from the vicinity of the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. These findings add weigh to speculation by some scientists that methanogens may be responsible for the methane that has been in detected in the atmosphere of Mars.

Methane rivers and rain shape Titan’s surface
by Stephen Battersby / 21 January 2005

Hills made of ice and rivers carved by liquid methane mark the surface of Saturn’s giant moon, reveal data from the Huygens probe. Scientists are now beginning to get a coherent picture of Titan after the probe landed there on 14 January. The coldest world that humanity has ever explored bears a strange resemblance to Earth, boasting hills, river systems, and mud flats. The probe survived an unexpectedly bumpy ride through the atmosphere of Titan but enjoyed a soft landing, settling several centimetres into the surface, Huygens’ scientists revealed at the European Space Agency’s headquarters in Paris on Friday.

They have now analysed many of the images returned by Huygens’ cameras. In one small region just 1 kilometre across, the camera team have combined images to get a 3D view of Titan’s ice hills. “We see a ridge system with a peak 100 metres tall,” says Marty Tomasko of the University of Arizona, US, and head of the Huygens imaging team. There is even a hint of how the hills are built: “In another region we see a white streaky pattern, evidence of water ice being extruded by the surface.” Dark channels cutting across this area are now clearly revealed as drainage systems. “We see a river system that flows down into a delta. There are also short, stubby channels indicative of springs flowing out of the hillsides,” says Tomasko.

Flammable world
Scientists speculated long ago that some kind of hydrocarbon liquids might flow on Titan. “We’ve learned that our speculation was really pretty good,” says Toby Owen, of the University of Hawaii, an expert on Titan’s atmosphere. They now know that the fluid that carved the moon’s rivers and channels is methane. Huygens’ chemical analyser saw that methane gas becomes more concentrated lower in Titan’s atmosphere, just like water vapour on Earth. After landing, Huygens’ gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer instrument saw methane concentrations jump by 30%. The gas was probably evaporated from the muddy soil by heat from the European Space Agency’s probe. “It means there’s methane near the surface,” says Owen, “Titan is a flammable world.” But all the oxygen is trapped in ice. “That’s a good thing, or Titan would have exploded a long time ago.” While there are many signs of liquid on Titan, there is none currently visible to Huygens. “Titan may be typical of arid regions of Earth like Arizona, where riverbeds are dry most of the time,” says Tomasko. “Perhaps there’s a wet season once a year. We just don’t know.”

Exotic materials
The mud may be a mixture of ice, sand, methane and complex organic molecules that form in the upper atmosphere. “This smog falls out of the atmosphere and settles on everything. Then methane rain comes, washes it off the ice ridges and into rivers, then out into a broad plain where the rain settles into the ground and dries up. We are seeing evidence of Earth-like processes but with very exotic materials,” says Tomasko. There are plenty of mysteries still to unravel. Methane is constantly being destroyed and turned into a complex chemical smog, so there must be some methane source inside Titan to replenish the atmosphere. And certain gases, including argon, are inexplicably absent from Titan’s atmosphere, which may be a clue to how the moon formed. However, Huygens has seen only one small patch of the surface – which might turn out to be unusual – it might even have come down in a desert. “This is one single place on an interesting and varied world,” says Owen. Jean-Pierre Lebreton, the Huygens mission manager hopes that the probe will inspire a new mission to Titan: “The next capability to bring to Titan is mobility. We can now seriously dream of sending rovers to its surface. Or flying machines, or balloons to float around the moon. We just need the money.”

Life on Titan ?

Over the past few years, the scientific community has realized that numerous forms of life evolve in extreme conditions on Earth.For instance, we found out bacteria being able to support temperatures up to 113°c and living in boiling water of thermal sources. We also found fishes living in the abyss of oceans and supporting pressures 500 times higher than the atmospheric pressure.Another example: the well known Yellowstone National Park ( USA ) is filled with billions of bacteria living in water whose temperature is around 70°c.

The intensive exploration of the most inhospitable places on Earth has shown that what we call now the extremophiles are capable of living without sunlight or oxygen.Where there is not much oxygen and no sunlight, one can encounter blind spiders or other insects with no pigment and being able to draw their energy from the mixture of hydrogen and sulfur released by volcanic chimneys.All those observations push us into thinking that any exotic life is a possibility in other hostile worlds like Europa,Titan or even Jupiter.

Titan seems to be a very hostile sphere, notably in terms of temperature.Our temperature model derived from the Stefan’s law shows that the surface temperature is expected to be around -114°c ( 159K or -173°F) on the basis of an atmospheric pressure of 1.5 bars.Hence, the atmosphere is likely to generate a greenhouse effect that increases the environmental temperature by about 74°c.It’s unsufficient to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface.Now, liquid water appears to be the essential solvent from which life has emerged.But, on Titan, contrary to the other bodies in the Solar System, a liquid of hydrocarbon ( ethane, methane…) or ammonia might be present at the surface, perhaps allowing the development of organic molecules, amino acids,proteins or DNA.It is often said that Titan puts together the ingredients of the primitive soup, the chemistry that led to life on Earth. A famous laboratory experiment was carried out in the 1950’s by Stanley Miller to try to figure out the secrets of the origin of life. He submitted a mixture of methane ( CH4), hydrogen ( H2), ammonia (NH3) and water vapour ( H2O) to electric sparks for many days in a closed system. The sparks were supposed to represent lightning in the early stages of our planet and the previous molecules were believed to represent the major components of the early Earth’s atmosphere.After several days of electric sparks, he obtained organic compounds ( HCN, HCHO…) and amino acids which are used to make proteins.Did this process occured on Titan? It’s hard to say but one thing is striking : the resemblance between Titan’s atmosphere and Earth’s atmosphere.The atmosphere of those two bodies is mostly composed of nitrogen ( 78% for Earth and around 90% for Titan ) contrary to Venus and Mars which are mostly composed of carbon dioxide.Nevertheless, Titan is very poor in oxygen meaning that there is no life breathing oxygen or using oxygen in the feeding process.

A form of life on Titan?
If there is life on Titan, what might it look like? An answer implies that we analyse the basis and the environment of life on Earth and that we try to imagine the elements of the Titan crust. On Earth, water acts not only as a solvent for the living creatures to combine, it is also the major compound of life herself.For instance, plants and jelly fishes have an abundance of water higher than 90% of their weight. Human beings are also mostly composed of water in a proportion of around 65%.To sum up, it is hard to conceive that life can be envisaged without the water molecule. Likewise, it is also hard to admit that we can encounter a form of life which is not based on the carbon element since it is present in large amounts in every species on Earth. Carbon is the second major constituent of life: it represents around 30% of the human weight and calcium, magnesium and other oligo elements are in a very small proportion. Another particularity of life is that it is always based on DNA ( Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid ) except that one knows one exception.The fact that water is the most common molecule on Earth leads us to say that life has emerged by using what was the most common molecule. However, carbon is relatively rare in our environment while it is abundant in every living creature. Carbon has chemical and physical properties that enable it to combine very well with oxygen, hydrogen or water which is less the case for Silicon. That is the reason why an element so rare in the crust of our planet has contributed to build the most complex molecular structures in nature.

On Titan, the most fundamental differences with Earth are the gravity and the distance to the Sun. Most scientists believe that there would be no life on Earth if the sphere were 5% farther from the Sun or 1% closer to the Sun.Too far from the Sun and the planet would be too cold for life to evolve and too close and our planet would resemble Venus. But Titan is so much different that the theories that apply to Earth may not work for Titan.Titan presents a major advantage of being protected from the noxious solar radiations by a very thick atmosphere largely denser than our own atmosphere.On this point, it is a less hostile environment for any living creature to evolve than Mars, for example.Nevertheless, as we’ve said, the temperature on Titan might be below -100°c erasing the probability of discovering liquid water in some place though thermal sources are likely to raise this possibility.With a solvent like ethane or methane, one can imagine a completely different chemistry of life from what we know.The species would not absorb oxygen like human beings or carbon dioxide like plants as carbon dioxide is frozen and oxygen is very rare.According to Marc Lafferre and Guilhem Cournot, one might encounter living creatures absorbing hydrocarbon gas ( methane, ethane…) which are relatively common in the atmosphere ( around 5% of the atmosphere’s composition) and releasing hydrogen which will recombine again with nitrogen or hydrocarbon molecules in the atmosphere to form other hydrocarbon molecules or ammonia under the action of ultraviolet light that splits the molecules.Hence we could see lakes or oceans of hydrocarbon ( ethane, methane…) with glaciers of ammonia rich ice resulting from a snow of ammonia falling from time to time.Living species would consist mostly of hydrocarbon ( methane…).So, the major elements of life would be carbon and hydrogen.The oxygen would be present in a smaller proportion in the structure of life because of the low environmental temperatures that favour combinations with carbon and hydrogen rather than hydrogen with oxygen or carbon with oxygen which are frozen on the surface of Titan ( frozen carbon dioxide and frozen water ).The french chemist André Brack in 1993 pointed out that a form of life based on silicon could be envisaged : the species would be mostly composed of silicon, an element very abundant in the soil ( around 25% of the composition of the crust on Earth ).In other words, the creatures would be made of sand.They would breathe oxygen or hydrogen and would release silicon dioxide ( Si O2 ) or Si H2. Silicon like carbon has the ability to create bonds simultaneously with four other elements and to give birth to multiple molecules. However, the bonds are particularly rigid compared to carbon.As a result, the species would be very limited and their development and adaptation capabilities would be slown down. The main advantage of this form of life would be to resist higher environmental temperatures.On Titan, the low temperatures diminish the probability of encountering this hypothetical form of life.On the other hand, Venus could have harboured that kind of life because of the very hot environmental temperatures.Furthermore, on Titan, a form of life involving the chemistry of nitrogen and ammonia appears less credible since carbon doesn’t play a key role in this configuration.

If the distance plays a crucial role for the appearance of life, the gravity of the saturnian moon plays a key role for the way life will develop and evolve.The low gravity of Titan allows creatures to be thinner with thin bones if they have bones.To sustain their own weight, they don’t need to have powerful legs or paws.The fish moves in a liquid less dense than water.So, he has no interest of being heavy and short according to the Archimedes’ Law. As said Ralph Lorenz, Titan is a heaven for hypothetical birds: they benefit from a low gravity and a thick air.They can be heavier than on Earth and their wings can be shorter which is also better in a cold environment.A denser air enables birds to carry out fewer movements of the wings to advance at the same speed.

It seems, today, that the environmental temperature on Titan is by far too cold to allow the development of an Earth like life, based on water and carbon.But the evolution of the Solar System and the Sun could become more and more favourable for the development of a life on Titan very soon.According to Chris Mc Kay,who studied notably the possibilities of terraforming on Mars,Titan might become warm enough, over the next five billion years, to host life. The Sun is expected to cool down very progressively and in a few billion years, it will become a red giant, a less energetic star, extending far beyond the orbit of our planet.As a result, it will be largely closer to Titan and the amount of energy received by the satellite, though less energetic, will be sufficient to raise the overall temperature so that water appears in its liquid form.Less ultraviolet light will attain the atmosphere of Titan so that the shield of red haze that resulted from the action of those particles and that prevented the light from reaching the soil will disappear and an Earth like meteorology will emerge.The current prebiotic molecules will then be able to combine and evolve towards the development of amino acids, proteins and life.

A model for methane based life
In this model developed by Marc Lafferre and Guilhem Cournot ( 2004 ), the mean temperature at the surface of the satellite is around -114°c ( -173°F or 159K). This temperature is well above the theoritical temperature thanks to a greenhouse effect that raises the temperature by about 73°c (163°F or 346K).This mean temperature is too high to allow the presence of liquid methane despite high pressures that delay the boiling point.On the other hand, seas and lakes of ethane rich hydrocarbon can be observed.Ethane ( C2H6 ) is in its liquid form between -88°c and -183°c.So, the evaporation process is weak. The atmosphere consists mostly of nitrogen and contains a large amount of one of the most powerful greenhouse gases one knows,that is to say methane ( CH4) which represents up to 5% of the atmosphere. The ultraviolet radiations from the Sun engender complex photochemical reactions in the upper atmosphere by breaking the methane molecules ( CH4) into various compounds such as acetylene ( C2H2) or Ethane (C2H6) which combine with other molecules to form tholin,a kind of red sludge.The ethane molecules formed in the upper atmosphere will then fall as rain in small quantities.

Under those circumstances, an ecosystem based on methane has emerged.The solvent that enabled life to develop on Earth, that is water, is replaced here by liquid hydrocarbon. The living creatures have not developed on the basis of water or carbon dioxide since both molecules are frozen at the surface of Titan. In other words, the species are not made up of water ( H2O ) contrary to life on Earth. The key compounds of life on Titan are carbon, hydrogen,methane and ethane.Those elements or molecules are more flexible and more volatile than oxygen and water in the harsh local climate conditions.The creatures absorb the hydrocarbon liquid as we absorb water and most of them, including plants, breathe the methane gas to produce the organic material and expire H2.The birds, for instance, drink “ethane rich hydrocarbon liquid”, breathe H2 released by plants and expire CH4.In a sense, that would be the biological cycle of methane.

As the solar energy reaching the Titan soil is very weak at this distance from the Sun, the forms of life prospering on Titan are less pigmented than on Earth.Obviously, we don’t encounter animals as colourful as the animals we can see in a tropical area on Earth. Finally, animals tend to have white or slightly red colours.They have developed a biological structure that enable them to store and manage the little energy they receive.Furthermore,they benefit from a low gravity: that’s the reason why the skeleton of Titan mammals is generally thinner than that of Earth’s mammals.Titan is a paradise for birds: they benefit not only from a low gravity, seven times smaller than on Earth, but also from a dense air which makes possible a smaller frequency in the movement of wings.Thereby, the bird spends less energy to fly though the air is heavier and more difficult to displace.

Hence, Titan appears to be a major source of speculation and research for exobiologists in their quest for the secrets of the origin of life.No doubt that the exploration of Titan will allow us to better understand the chemistry of every planet in the Solar System and perhaps the chemistry that led to life on Earth.

Electrical Activity On Saturn’s Moon Titan Confirmed By Spanish Scientists / July 29, 2008

Physicists from the University of Granada and University of Valencia have developed a procedure for analysing specific data sent by the Huygens probe from Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, “unequivocally” proving that there is natural electrical activity in its atmosphere. The scientific community believe that the probability of organic molecules, precursors of life, being formed is higher on planets or moons which have an atmosphere with electrical storms. The researcher, Juan Antonio Morente, from the Department of Applied Physics at the University of Granada, indicated to SINC that Titan has been considered a “unique world in the solar system” since 1908 when, the Spanish astronomer, José Comas y Solá, discovered that it had an atmosphere, something non-existent on other moons. “On this moon clouds with convective movements are formed and, therefore, static electrical fields and stormy conditions can be produced”, he explained. “This also considerably increases the possibility of organic and prebiotic molecules being formed, according to the theory of the Russian biochemist Alexander I. Oparín and the experiment of Stanley L. Miller”, which managed to synthesise organic compounds from inorganic compounds through electrical discharges. “That is why Titan has been one of the main objectives of the Cassini-Huygens joint mission of NASA and the European Space Agency”, added the researcher. Morente indicated that in order to detect natural electrical activity on planets such as Earth or moons such as Titan the so-called “Schumann resonances”, a set of spectrum peaks in the extremely low frequency (ELF) portion of the radio spectrum, are measured. These peaks are produced due to the existence between the ionosphere and the surface of a huge resonant cavity in which electromagnetic fields are confined. They present two basic components: a radial electrical field and a tangential magnetic field, accompanied by a weak tangential electrical field (one hundred times smaller than the radial component).

The electrical field was measured by the mutual impedance probe (MIP), one of the instruments transported by the Huygens probe. The MIP consisted of four electrodes, two transmitters and two receptors, with a transmitter-receptor pair on each one of the probe’s folding arms. The MIP was primarily used for measuring the atmosphere’s electrical conductivity, but between each measurement of this physical magnitude it also acted as a dipolar antenna, measuring the natural electrical field in the atmosphere. “In a stable fall, without balancing, the MIP would have measured the electrical field’s weak tangential component”, said Morente, “but fortunately a strong wind balanced the probe and the electrodes measured a superposition of that tangential and radial component”. Despite this, the electrical field spectrums received directly from Huygens did not follow the patterns the scientists expected, as they were relatively flat and no Schumann resonances were observed. However, the team of Spanish researchers did manage to devise a procedure for revealing the hidden Schumann resonances, based on the separation of time signals known as “early” and “late-time”, which made it possible to obtain “irrefutable proof” that natural electrical activity does exist in Titan’s atmosphere. In the work, subsidised by the former Ministry of Education and Science, Government of Andalusia and the European Union, it was also explained that the atmosphere of this one of Saturn’s moon is an electromagnetic medium with high losses, and that its resonant cavity is less ideal than the Earth’s.


In 1954, J. B. S. Haldane, speaking at the Symposium on the Origin of Life, suggested that an alternative biochemistry could be conceived in which water was replaced as a solvent by liquid ammonia.1 Part of his reasoning was based on the observation that water has a number of ammonia analogues. For example, the ammonia analogue of methanol, CH3OH, is methylamine, CH3NH2. Haldane theorized that it might be possible to build up the ammonia-based counterparts of complex substances, such as proteins and nucleic acids, and then make use of the fact that an entire class of organic compounds, the peptides, could exist without change in the ammonia system. The amide molecules, which substitute for the normal amino acids, could then undergo condensation to form polypeptides which would be almost identical in form to those found in terrestrial life-forms. This hypothesis, which was developed further by the British astronomer V. Axel Firsoff,2, 3 is of particular interest when considering the possibility of biological evolution on ammonia-rich worlds such as gas giants and their moons.

On the plus side, liquid ammonia does have some striking chemical similarities with water. There is a whole system of organic and inorganic chemistry that takes place in ammono, instead of aqueous, solution.4, 5 Ammonia has the further advantage of dissolving most organics as well as or better than water,6 and it has the unprecedented ability to dissolve many elemental metals, including sodium, magnesium, and aluminum, directly into solution; moreover, several other elements, such as iodine, sulfur, selenium, and phosphorus are also somewhat soluble in ammonia with minimal reaction. Each of these elements is important to life chemistry and the pathways of prebiotic synthesis. The objection is often raised that the liquidity range of liquid ammonia – 44°C at 1 atm pressure – is rather low for biology. But, as with water, raising the planetary surface pressure broadens the liquidity range. At 60 atm, for example, which is below the pressures available on Jupiter or Venus, ammonia boils at 98°C instead of -33°C, giving a liquidity range of 175°C. Ammonia-based life need not necessarily be low-temperature life!

Ammonia has a dielectric constant about ¼ that of water, making it a much poorer insulator. On the other hand, ammonia’s heat of fusion is higher, so it is relatively harder to freeze at the melting point. The specific heat of ammonia is slightly greater than that of water, and it is far less viscous (it is freer-flowing). The acid-base chemistry of liquid ammonia has been studied extensively, and it has proven to be almost as rich in detail as that of the water system. In many ways, as a solvent for life, ammonia is hardly inferior to water. Compelling analogues to the macromolecules of Earthly life may be designed in the ammonia system. However, an ammonia-based biochemistry might well develop along wholly different lines. There are probably as many different possibilities in carbon-ammonia as in carbon-water systems.7 The vital solvent of a living organism should be capable of dissociating into anions (negative ions) and cations (positive ions), which permits acid-base reactions to occur. In the ammonia solvent system, acids and bases are different than in the water system (acidity and basicity are defined relative to the medium in which they are dissolved). In the ammonia system, water, which reacts with liquid ammonia to yield the NH+ ion, would appear to be a strong acid – quite hostile to life. Ammono-life astronomers, eyeing our planet, would doubtless view Earth’s oceans as little more than vats of hot acid. Water and ammonia are not chemically identical: they are simply analogous. There will necessarily be many differences in the biochemical particulars. Molton suggested, for example, that ammonia-based life forms may use cesium and rubidium chlorides to regulate the electrical potential of cell membranes. These salts are more soluble in liquid ammonia than the potassium or sodium salts used by terrestrial life.8

On the down side, there are problems with the notion of ammonia as a basis for life. These center principally upon the fact that the heat of vaporization of ammonia is only half that of water and its surface tension only one third as much. Consequently, the hydrogen bonds that exist between ammonia molecule are much weaker than those in water so that ammonia would be less able to concentrate non-polar molecules through a hydrophobic effect. Lacking this ability, questions hang over how well ammonia could hold prebiotic molecules together sufficiently well to allow the formation of a self-reproducing system.9

1. Haldane, J. B. S. “The Origins of Life,” New Biology, 16, 12-27 (1954).
2. Firsoff, V. A. Life Beyond the Earth: A Study in Exobiology. New York: Basic Books (1963).
3. V. Axel Firsoff, “An Ammonia-Based Life,” Discovery 23, 36-42 (January, 1962).
4. Gerhart Jander, Hans Spandau, C. C. Addison; eds. Chemistry in Nonaqueous Ionizing Solvents. New York: John Wiley, Interscience (1966).
5. Smith, Herchel. Organic Reactions in Liquid Ammonia. New York: John Wiley, Interscience (1950).
6. Franklin, E. C., “The Ammonia System of Acids, Bases, and Salts,” American Chemical Journal, 47, 285 (1912).
7. Firsoff, V. A., “Possible Alternative Chemistries of Life,” Spaceflight, 7, 132-136, (July, 1965).
8. Molton, P. M., “Terrestrial Biochemistry in Perspective: Some Other Possibilities,” Spaceflight, 15, 134-144 (April 1073).
9. Feinberg, Gerald, and Shapiro, Robert. Life Beyond Earth: The Intelligent Earthling’s Guide to Life in the Universe. New York: William Morrow (1980).



All known life on Earth is built upon carbon and carbon-based compounds. Yet the possibility has been discussed that life elsewhere may have a different chemical foundation – one based on the element silicon.

Early speculation
In 1891, the German astrophysicist Julius Scheiner became perhaps the first person to speculate on the suitability of silicon as a basis for life. This idea was taken up by the British chemist James Emerson Reynolds who, in 1893, in his opening address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science,1 pointed out that the heat stability of silicon compounds might allow life to exist at very high temperatures (see thermophiles). In an 1894 article,2 drawing on Reynolds’s ideas and also those of Robert Ball,3 H. G. Wells wrote:

One is startled towards fantastic imaginings by such a suggestion: visions of silicon-aluminium organisms – why not silicon-aluminium men at once? – wandering through an atmosphere of gaseous sulphur, let us say, by the shores of a sea of liquid iron some thousand degrees or so above the temperature of a blast furnace.

Thirty years later, J. B. S. Haldane suggested that life might be found deep inside a planet based on partly molten silicates, the oxidation of iron perhaps providing it with energy.

Silicon biochemistry?
At first sight, silicon does look like a promising organic alternative to carbon. It is common in the universe and is also a p-block element of group IV, lying directly below carbon in the periodic table of elements, so that much of its basic chemistry is similar. For instance, just as carbon combines with four hydrogen atoms to form methane, CH4, silicon yields silane, SiH4. Silicates are analogs of carbonates, silicon chloroform of chloroform, and so on. Both elements form long chains, or polymers, in which they alternate with oxygen. In the simplest case, carbon-oxygen chains yield polyacetal, a plastic used in synthetic fibers, while from a backbone of alternating atoms of silicon and oxygen come polymeric silicones.

Conceivably, some strange life-forms might be built from silicone-like substances were it not for an apparently fatal flaw in silicon’s biological credentials. This is its powerful affinity for oxygen. When carbon is oxidized during the respiratory process of a terrestrial organism (see respiration), it becomes the gas carbon dioxide – a waste material that is easy for a creature to remove from its body. The oxidation of silicon, however, yields a solid because, immediately upon formation, silicon dioxide organizes itself into a lattice in which each silicon atom is surrounded by four oxygens. Disposing of such a substance would pose a major respiratory challenge.

Life-forms must also be able to collect, store, and utilize energy from their environment. In carbon-based biota, the basic energy storage compounds are carbohydrates in which the carbon atoms are linked by single bonds into a chain. A carbohydrate is oxidized to release energy (and the waste products water and carbon dioxide) in a series of controlled steps using enzymes. These enzymes are large, complex molecules (see proteins) which catalyze specific reactions because of their shape and “handedness.” A feature of carbon chemistry is that many of its compounds can take right and left forms, and it is this handedness, or chirality, that gives enzymes their ability to recognize and regulate a huge variety of processes in the body. Silicon’s failure to give rise to many compounds that display handedness makes it hard to see how it could serve as the basis for the many interconnected chains of reactions needed to support life.

The absence of silicon-based biology, or even silicon-based prebiotic chemicals, is also suggested by astronomical evidence. Wherever astronomers have looked – in meteorites, in comets, in the atmospheres of the giant planets, in the interstellar medium, and in the outer layers of cool stars – they have found molecules of oxidized silicon (silicon dioxide and silicates) but no substances such as silanes or silicones which might be the precursors of a silicon biochemistry.

Even so, it has been pointed out, silicon may have had a part to play in the origin of life on Earth. A curious fact is that terrestrial life-forms utilize exclusively right-handed carbohydrates and left-handed amino acids. One theory to account for this is that the first prebiotic carbon compounds formed in a pool of “primordial soup” on a silica surface having a certain handedness. This handedness of the silicon compound determined the preferred handedness of the carbon compounds now found in terrestrial life. An entirely different possibility is that of artificial life or intelligence with a significant silicon content.

Notwithstanding the gloomy prognosis from chemists, silicon-based life has flourished in the imaginary worlds of science fiction. In one of its earliest outings, Stanley Weisbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, the creature in question is half a million years old and moves once every ten minutes to deposit a brick – Weisbaum’s answer to one of the major problems facing siliceous life. As one of the watching scientists observes

Those bricks were its waste matter… We’re carbon, and our waste is carbon dioxide, and this thing is silicon, and its waste is silicon dioxide-silica. But silica is a solid, hence the bricks. And it builds itself in, and when it is covered, it moves over to a fresh place to start over.

1. Reynolds, J. E. Nature, 48, 477 (1893).
2. Wells, H. G. “Another Basis for Life,” Saturday Review, p. 676 (December 22, 1894).
3. Ball, R. S. W. “The Possibility of Life in Other Worlds,” Fortnightly Review, 62 (NS 56), 718 (1894).
4. Alison, A. “Possible Forms of Life,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 21, 48 (1968)

EXOPOLITICS (n. art or science of government as concerned with creating/influencing policy toward extraterrestrial beings)

Russian president asked to investigate alien claims
by Richard Galpin / 5 May 2010

A Russian MP has asked President Dmitry Medvedev to investigate claims by a regional president that he has met aliens on board a spaceship. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the leader of the southern region of Kalmykia, made his claim in a television interview. MP Andre Lebedev is not just asking whether Mr Ilyumzhinov is fit to govern. He is also concerned that, if he was abducted, he may have revealed details about his job and state secrets. The MP has written a letter to Mr Medvedev raising a list of his concerns. In his letter he says that – assuming the whole thing was not just a bad joke – it was an historic event and should have been reported to the Kremlin. He also asks if there are official guidelines for what government officials should do if contacted by aliens, especially if those officials have access to state secrets. Mr Ilyumzhinov said in an interview on primetime television that he had been taken on board an alien spaceship which had come to planet Earth to take samples – and claims to have several witnesses. He has been president of Kalmykia, a small Buddhist region of Russia which lies on the shores of the Caspian Sea, for 17 years. The millionaire former businessman has a reputation as an eccentric character. As president of the World Chess Federation, he has spent tens of millions of dollars turning the impoverished republic into a mecca for chess players – building an entire village to host international tournaments.

Kalmyk governor leaks classified information to ‘humanoid’ aliens?
by Julia Ioffe / May. 5 2010

Andrey Lebedev, a Duma deputy for the right-wing nationalistic LDPR party, is pissed: there is a traitor in Russia’s house, and he’s a traitor of the very worst order. Lebedev’s allegation, which he addressed yesterday to President Dmitry Medvedev, is serious. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the autocratic, chess-playing, Buddhist billionaire ruler of the Semiautonomous Russian Republic of Kalmykia on the shores of the Caspian, has been feeding highly classified state secrets to aliens, Lebedev alleges.

According to Lebedev, extraterrestrial “humanoids” are now in possession of some of Russia’s most secret secrets. Here’s what happened. Lebedev realized something was very extremely horribly wrong as he watched Ilyumzhinov’s interview with Vladimir Pozner, the Russian Larry King. During the interview, Ilyumzhinov openly discussed his 1997 encounter with benevolent aliens. According to Ilyumzhinov, it all happened on a Saturday night. He came home to his Moscow apartment, watched some TV, read a bit, and drifted off to sleep. Mid-drift, he heard the balcony door open. Then someone called to him. Ilyumzhinov went to check it out, only to discover a hovering transparent tube, which he, naturally, entered. Inside, humanoids in yellow spacesuits awaited him. They had a pleasant talk, which occurred on the level of mindwaves because, Ilyumzhinov said, “there wasn’t quite enough oxygen.” The humanoids, who were friendly, told Ilyumzhinov that they were not yet ready for direct contact with human humans. Instead, they gave him a tour of the ship and sent him on his way. Sounds fine, but what, Lebedev wonders, really happened aboard that ship?

Did Ilyumzhinov talk to the aliens about his official duties? “Did the representatives of these extraterrestrial civilizations ask Ilyumzhinov about the nuances of his professional duties, and, if they did, what ‘evidence’ did he give?” Moreover, Lebedev wants to know, did Ilyumzhinov let the President know about his contacts with such beings? And, while we’re at it, “who else among the governors of the Russian Federations, members of the government, and other federal civil servants is communicating with aliens? Dmitry Anatolyevich,” Lebedev wrote, addressing the Medvedev by his patronymic, “you will agree that, unless Ilyumzhinov is bluffing, then this information is historically significant. If possible, I ask you to brief the deputies of the Federal Duma about your conclusions.” Medvedev has yet to respond.


Lt. Colonel Dwynne Arneson: US Air Force (retired): “I was the top-secret control officer at Malmstom AFB for the 20th Air Division. I happened to see a message that came through my communications center. It said…that ‘A UFO was seen near missile silos’…and it was hovering. It said that the crew going on duty and the crew coming off duty all saw the UFO just hovering in mid-air. It was a metallic circular object and from what I understand, the missiles were all shut down. What I mean by ‘missiles going down’ is that they went dead. And something turned those missiles off, so they couldn’t be put back in a mode for launching.”


Don’t talk to aliens, warns Stephen Hawking
by Jonathan Leake / April 25, 2010

The aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist — but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact. The suggestions come in a new documentary series in which Hawking, one of the world’s leading scientists, will set out his latest thinking on some of the universe’s greatest mysteries. Alien life, he will suggest, is almost certain to exist in many other parts of the universe: not just in planets, but perhaps in the centre of stars or even floating in interplanetary space. Hawking’s logic on aliens is, for him, unusually simple. The universe, he points out, has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. In such a big place, Earth is unlikely to be the only planet where life has evolved. “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” he said. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.” The answer, he suggests, is that most of it will be the equivalent of microbes or simple animals — the sort of life that has dominated Earth for most of its history.

One scene in his documentary for the Discovery Channel shows herds of two-legged herbivores browsing on an alien cliff-face where they are picked off by flying, yellow lizard-like predators. Another shows glowing fluorescent aquatic animals forming vast shoals in the oceans thought to underlie the thick ice coating Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. Such scenes are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that a few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity. He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.” He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

The completion of the documentary marks a triumph for Hawking, now 68, who is paralysed by motor neurone disease and has very limited powers of communication. The project took him and his producers three years, during which he insisted on rewriting large chunks of the script and checking the filming. John Smithson, executive producer for Discovery, said: “He wanted to make a programme that was entertaining for a general audience as well as scientific and that’s a tough job, given the complexity of the ideas involved.” Hawking has suggested the possibility of alien life before but his views have been clarified by a series of scientific breakthroughs, such as the discovery, since 1995, of more than 450 planets orbiting distant stars, showing that planets are a common phenomenon. So far, all the new planets found have been far larger than Earth, but only because the telescopes used to detect them are not sensitive enough to detect Earth-sized bodies at such distances. Another breakthrough is the discovery that life on Earth has proven able to colonise its most extreme environments. If life can survive and evolve there, scientists reason, then perhaps nowhere is out of bounds.

Hawking’s belief in aliens places him in good scientific company. In his recent Wonders of the Solar System BBC series, Professor Brian Cox backed the idea, too, suggesting Mars, Europa and Titan, a moon of Saturn, as likely places to look. Similarly, Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, warned in a lecture earlier this year that aliens might prove to be beyond human understanding. “I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive,” he said. “Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains.”

The Politics of Extraterrestrials
by David Moye / April 28, 2010

Famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking isn’t the only man concerned about the potential ramifications of an extraterrestrial presence on Earth. Turns out, a growing number of people are becoming involved in “exopolitics,” the study of the political ramifications of alien visitors — whether they be friend or foe — and how humans should prepare for either scenario. Take Michael Salla, an international politics scholar who in 2001 started dedicating his time to exopolitics. Since then, Salla, an expert in conflict resolution, has been lobbying for extra transparency from the government regarding extraterrestrials. He says that it’s imperative for the planet to have a plan just in case an E.T. decides to make Earth his new home. “It’s not necessary to assume E.T.s are real, just possible,” Salla said. “Then you prepare for it and think through all the issues.”

According to Salla, those issues include deciding how the alien presence will be announced (he advocates announcing the presence of microbes and working up to more sentient beings), and who will be in control — a secret committee or a corporate entity. Even more important: If the E.T.s have superior technology, should they be forced to share it? Of course, another big issue is determining the protocol for contact between humans and aliens, lest either side be exposed to strange viruses, a Romeo and Juliet situation between Martians and Earthlings — or worse. “A big question is how will humans interact with aliens,” Salla said. “If someone is threatened by one, will they take a shot at them while driving by? And, if so, will this be as illegal as shooting a human?”

Luckily, for Salla and the others in this pioneering form of paranormal political science, they aren’t the only ones asking these questions. “In the last six months, both the Vatican and the Royal Society of London have held astrobiological conferences studying the implications of life found on other worlds,” he said. Exopolitician Alfred Webre is confident that an alien discovery would have a major earthly impact. He believes that the politician or head of state who announces an encounter with an E.T. will have an incredible amount of political capital internationally. No wonder, he says, that many UFOlogists believe that JFK planned to make such an announcement before his 1963 assassination.

However, Webre also admits that if, say, President Barack Obama were to make such an announcement, it could likely fall prey to the partisan battles that have plagued other big issues such as the economy, immigration reform and health care. “There have been rumors that Obama might make such an announcement, but there have been so many immediate crises that what might be a political slam dunk hasn’t taken place,” said Webre, who recently shocked the world by claiming that both the U.S. and Russia have developed electromagnetic weapons that can trigger earthquakes. Webre concedes that while being the person who announces the real presence of alien life will make history, it’s possible that E.T.s might not want to put their eggs in one basket, politically speaking, since they wouldn’t want to give the appearance of favoring one nation over another. If and when aliens “do surface, the thought is that they’d do it through a neutral party such as the United Nations,” Webre said.

Other exopoliticians, like political activist Stephen Bassett, believe that the governments of the world — especially the United States — don’t want to give such a momentous announcement to the U.N. Bassett, a registered lobbyist who wants Congress to release information about the presence of aliens, says any announcement made about E.T.s — at least in the U.S. — is only likely to happen with the express cooperation of U.S. military intelligence. “Barack Obama won’t say he wants to reveal the truth; the military will come to him and say, ‘You’re the guy,'” Bassett said. “Then there would be a substantial press conference with all the evidence anyone could want that proves the presence is real.” And he says that announcement would come quickly. “You can’t have a leak 20 days in advance,” Bassett said. “You don’t float trial balloons. You make the decision and you move quickly.”

Bassett, who is organizing the X-Conference 2010, an exopolitical gathering May 7 to 9 in Washington, D.C., says that after a nation makes the initial announcement, others would promptly follow. But he admits, “This is a transcendent issue. Whatever country makes the announcement will get most of the historical attention.” Although Bassett believes any such announcement would be made by one nation, Webre says he and other exopoliticians have been talking with members of the U.N. General Assembly regarding U.N. Resolution 33/426, which is a proposal to set up a Department of Extraterrestrials Affairs. He is more confident of this happening than Salla. “There has been a 60-year period where any information that the governments of the world may have has not been shared with the public,” he said. “Whatever is decided, it needs to be done with transparency and accountability. It’s important to share such information with U.N. and U.S. office holders.” Of course, a lot has changed in that 60-year period. Webre says that in 1961, studies indicated that a sudden announcement of an alien presence would scare people and cause psychological distress and panics, like the one that surrounded Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” hoax. “A more recent study showed that 85 percent view an announcement about aliens on Earth as something positive,” he said.

However, Webre may get some argument from Hawking, who is still pessimistic about trying to make friends with an alien species. “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans,” he said while promoting his new Discovery Channel series “Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking.” But Salla says the extreme divide between cynics like Hawking and optimists like the Vatican, which has declared that God may have created theologically minded beings on other planets besides Earth, is OK, just as long as the debate is happening. “While one can heartily disagree with Hawking’s public policy recommendation of ignoring intelligent alien life, he is to be congratulated for elevating exopolitical study as a ‘perfectly rational’ discussion,” Salla said.


the Wilton Windmill crop circle which appeared on Friday 21st May

Crop circle season arrives with a mathematical message
by Matilda Battersby / 26 May 2010

It is perhaps little known that the beautiful county of Wiltshire, famed for Stonehenge and the white horses carved into its hills, is the most active area for crop circles in the world, with nearly 70 appearing in its fields in 2009. It is unsurprising then, that the appearance of a phenomenally complex 300ft design carved into an expanse of rape seed on a Wiltshire hillside has caused excitement. But it’s not just the eye-pleasing shape which has drawn attention to it. The intersected concentric pattern has been decoded by experts as a “tantalising approximation” of a mathematical formula called Euler’s Identity (e ^ ( i * Pi ) + 1 = 0), widely thought be the most beautiful and profound mathematical equation in the world.

The design above appeared beside Wilton Windmill late on Friday night. Lucy Pringle, a founder of the Centre for Crop Circle Studies, was one of the first on the scene. She says: “What has happened in this particular crop circle is that there are 12 segments and within each segment there are 8 partly concentric rings. Each of these segments indicates a binary code based on 0 and 1. If you use an Ascii Table [computer calculation system], the pattern transposes itself into a tantalising approximation of Euler’s equation.”

The average person finds such complex mathematical talk utterly confounding, so The Independent Online asked Dr John Talbot, a maths research fellow at University College London, for his take on the matter. He said: “Looking at the crop circle, the link with Euler’s most famous identity seems to make perfect sense. However, the way the formula has been executed is partially incorrect. One of the discrepancies is that one part of the formula translates as ‘hi’ rather than ‘i’, which could be somebody’s idea of a joke.” The Wilton Windmill circle is not the first to have provoked mathematical exposition. In July 2008 a photograph of a crop circle near Barbary Castle (also in Wiltshire) caught the attention of retired American astrophysicist Mike Reed when he saw it in a national newspaper. He was struck by its shape and eventually concluded that it was a coded image representing the first ten digits of Pi (3.141592654), a conclusion declared to be a “seminal event” by Pringle at the time.

Sceptics dismiss crop circles as utter rubbish, but despite decades of research nobody knows conclusively how they’re made. As Francine Blake of the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group, explains: “The difficulty is that we don’t know the answer. It’s something that needs to be treated with great respect, but is too often talked about flippantly in the media which, I think, closes the subject rather than opens it.” There has been extensive scientific exploration into the affect the circles have on nearby wildlife. Flowers and soils inside crop circles are dramatically altered, Blake explains. Pringle observed in a 2003 experiment that seed samples taken from inside a crop circle had 40 per cent higher protein levels than those taken from outside it.

Another interesting element is the nature of the soil on which the circles appear. Pringle says that 93.8 per cent of crop circles are made on chalk, “a worldwide phenomenon” recorded in 54 different countries. She says the significance may be connected to underground springs called aquifers commonly found in chalk: “It is thought that the originating force probably originates in the ionosphere (an area of atmospheric electricity). The force then spirals to earth in the form of a vortical plasma and hits the ground with some 100 of 1000’s of volts per metre for just a nano second only, else the crop would be burnt. Occasionally we do see evidence of scorched flattened crop inside certain circles. The electromagnetic fields of both the underground springs and the descending force work in harmony or conjunction with each other.”

Blake also remarks on the significance of the chalk, which she says the ancients often built their monuments on – an observation which the existence of Neolithic sites like Stonehenge and Avebury attest. She says the ancients also built their temples on “energy lines” and has observed that “crop circles always appear on or near these lines.” Blake was impressed with the Barbary Castle circle and its derivations because the shape itself was “like a Labyrinth,” which “gives it a spiritual as well as a mathematical tradition.”

Nobody knows for sure how crop circles are made. Reports of strange mists creating the complicated patterns in a matter of minutes, their connotations with little green men and Midwich Cuckoos and elaborate hoaxes have fostered a widespread unwillingness to take the idea seriously. This approach both feeds the mystery around the concept and prevents further exploration of it, as it is an area of research that is unlikely to be awarded large research grants or space on university courses. But, as Blake remarks: “There’s neither rhyme nor reason, they just keep coming.” And with crops nearly at their full height, the UK’s crop circle season is upon us. If you want to see for yourself Wiltshire is your best bet.



The Interplanetary Phenomenon Unit (or IPU) was a United States Army staff section established by at least 1947 and dissolved by the late 1950s. Officials have confirmed that the IPU existed, but little else is known about it. It seems to have been an unidentified flying object-related undertaking. Some ufologists have suggested that the very name “Interplanetary Phenomenon Unit” is an indication that the IPU was convinced that the extraterrestrial hypothesis was a viable explanation for UFOs. There has been speculation that the IPU was another name for the Majestic 12 or MJ-12, an unconfirmed (and controversial) U.S. UFO research group said to have been founded in 1947 to handle UFO investigations in the aftermath of the so-called Roswell UFO incident.

Another contention is that the IPU was a separate unit, also founded in 1947 following Roswell, under the direction of Army Counterintelligence, but ultimately at the disposal of MJ-12. Researchers William Steinman and Wendelle Stevens contended the IPU unit was directly involved in the crash-recovery of another UFO at Aztec, New Mexico in March 1948, being ordered there by MJ-12. However, another MJ-12 related document of questionable authenticity, indicated the unit was supposedly established early in 1942 by General George Marshall following a well-publicized UFO incident, the so-called “West coast air raid” or “Battle of Los Angeles” in which an unidentified object or objects over Los Angeles resulted in a massive anti-aircraft barrage.

General Douglas MacArthur has also been rumored as involved in the formation of the IPU, during or towards the end of World War II, because of the many UFO incidents occurring under his command in the Pacific. Allegedly MacArthur reported directly to General Marshall. Maybe supporting MacArthur’s involvement is the fact that he did make public statements on at least three occasions that Earth might have to unite to fight a future war against an alien menace. Two such quotes were in the New York Times, October 8, 1955, and July 5, 1961. Another was a famous speech at West Point, May 12, 1962, in which he said, “We speak in strange terms: of harnessing the cosmic energy …of ultimate conflict between a united human race and the sinister forces of some other planetary galaxy; of such dreams and fantasies as to make life the most exciting of all time.” Wiki source The same quote also appeared in a July 4th speech MacArthur delivered in Manila in 1961.

In May 1984, William Steinman first wrote the Army Directorate of Counterintelligence, since, according to Steinman’s information, the IPU was run out of the Scientific and Technical Branch of the Directorate. Steinman received the following reply from a Lieutenant Colonel Lance R. Cornine. Cornine claimed that the IPU had only an unofficial existence and refused to definitely acknowledge the existence of any unit records: “As you note in your letter, the so-called Interplanetary Phenomenon Unit (IPU) was disestablished and, as far as we are aware, all records, if any, were transferred to the Air Force in the late 1950’s. The ‘unit’ was formed as an in-house project purely as an interest item for the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence. It was never a ‘unit’ in the military sense, nor was it ever formally organized or reportable, it had no investigative function, mission or authority, and may not even have had any formal records at all. It is only through institutional memory that any recollection exists of this unit. We are therefore unable to answer your questions as to the exact purpose of the unit, exactly when it was disestablished, or who was in command. This last would not apply in any case, as no one was in ‘command’. We have no records or documentation of any kind on this unit.”

In March 1987, British UFO researcher Timothy Good also wrote the Army Directorate of Counterintelligence and again received a letter confirming the existence of the IPU from a Colonel William Guild. Guild was more definitive about the existence of IPU records and that they had been turned over to the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), the USAF counterintelligence unit, and the Air Force’s Project Blue Book: “…the aforementioned Army unit was disestablished during the late 1950’s and never reactivated. All records pertaining to this unit were surrendered to the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations in conjunction with operation BLUEBOOK.” Good also stated that the IPU reported directly to General Marshall. Documents from AFOSI about the IPU, if they exist, have never been released.

Would a President be Briefed on a UFO Special Access Program?

In 1976 presidential candidate Jimmie Carter promised the American people that he would open any government UFO files that might exist. Recall that while governor of Georgia, Carter had a UFO sighting and actually filed a report. After winning election to President, Carter met with CIA Director George H. W. Bush seeking a briefing on the topic. Bush turned him down, claiming that neither as President nor as Commander-in-Chief did he have a “need to know.” Once in office Carter turned to NASA for information, directing presidential science advisor Frank Press to ask NASA administrator Robert Frosch to “form a small panel of inquiry” to investigate the UFO situation. This letter and other correspondence may be found in “UFOs and NASA” (Journal of Scientific Exploration, pp. 93–142, 1988). Nothing at all came of this as recounted by Richard C. Henry — then a young astrophysicist (now a prominent Johns Hopkins professor) working as a deputy to the director of what was the Astrophysics Division at NASA headquarters — on whose desk this “hot potato” request landed. For five months NASA went through some amusing twists and turns, recounted by Henry, before politely declining.

Discounting the NASA farce, and assuming that any possible UFO program would exist as a Special Access Program in the Department of Defense, on what legal basis would the President and Commander-in-Chief be denied access? It is likely that the UFO topic is actually classified by one or more laws duly enacted by Congress in the late 1940s concerning national security — but without any overt reference to UFOs of course — and signed by President Truman. Only a handful of members of Congress, if any at all, would have known that more than Cold War issues were involved in this far-reaching national security legislation enacted at a time of near panic over a Soviet nuclear threat. There are at least two bins into which the UFO topic could have been placed such that a future President could not unilaterally release it (legally) or, in fact, maybe even know about it. One bin is the category of Restricted Data (RD) established by the Atomic Energy Act in 1946 and pertains to Special Nuclear Material (SNM); another bin would be what has since evolved into the Waived Special Access Program system set up under the authority of the National Security Council which traces back to the National Security Act signed by Truman in 1947 (interestingly only a couple of weeks after the Roswell episode).

That means that even if an incoming President asked someone who knew about the existence of such a program, that individual would be required by law to not only not tell the President, but also to actively mislead him, if necessary. (Such a policy is actually spelled out in controversial documents that researchers Ryan and Robert Wood obtained and traced back to CIA Director Allen Dulles in the 1950s. The source of these documents is unclear.) If a president today tried the same thing without the appropriate clearances (which he could not give to himself) he would likewise be told (legitimately) that there was nothing disclosable. If this hypothesis is correct, then UFO information would be “Born Secret” by the Atomic Energy Act, and not releasable to anyone without at least an AEC “Q” clearance (and likely higher, R or above), plus a legitimate need to use it in his/her job. By law, all RD is “owned” by the AEC Commissioner at its inception. The AEC clearance standards are somewhat different than executive branch standards. In order to grant a Q or higher clearance, the Commissioner must find that the applicant is of “good moral character,” among other things. Thus, if the Commissioner didn’t like Richard Nixon’s burglary at the Watergate Hotel, or Bill Clinton’s dalliances, the Commissioner could withhold access to RD even on those grounds.

A new President who wants to know what the government knows about UFOs would have to be persistent, clever, and informed before beginning the quest, as Clinton’s failed attempt via Associate Attorney General Webster Hubble attests. Simply issuing a presidential executive order declassifying the topic might yield the mistaken conclusion that there is no such material. The first step would be to determine under exactly what legal jurisdiction the matter is classified. This could best be accomplished by a small dedicated research team reporting directly and personally to the President with at least high enough clearances to be able to read all classified Presidential Decision Memoranda and the classified appendices to the Atomic Energy Act and the National Security Act.

On Black Special Access Programs

The three-tier standard government security clearance levels are well known: confidential, secret and top secret. However just having a clearance at one of these levels does not automatically give access to any information at that level. There has to be a demonstrable “need to know” in order to be briefed or read in on a given project, program, facility or intelligence product. But this system is merely the “white” side of the security system. There is a massive secret “black” system as well, the existence of which is known while the details (naturally) are deeply hidden. (For a publicly available overview see the Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy: 1997, chaired by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Senate Document 105-2. See also the report In Search of the Pentagon’s billion dollar hidden budgets by Bill Sweetman, North American editor for the British publication Jane’s Defence Weekly, from which much of the following material has been condensed.) This structure has been described as a “shadow military” existing in parallel with open or overtly classified programs. It is for programs considered to be too sensitive for normal classification measures: these are called Special Access Programs (SAPs). They are protected by a security system of great complexity. Many of the SAPs are located within industry funded through special contracts. Under arrangements called “carve-outs” such programs and funds become removed from the usual security and contract-oversight organizations. In 1997 there were at least 150 SAPs.

There are also levels of SAP, the first being a division into acknowledged and unacknowledged SAPs. Black Program is slang for an unacknowledged SAP. An unacknowledged SAP is so sensitive that its very existence is a “core secret.” Indeed, some unacknowledged SAPs are sensitive to the extent that they are “waived” (a technical term) from the normal management and oversight protocols. Even members of Congress on appropriations committees (the Senate and House committees that allocate budgets) and intelligence committees are not allowed to know anything about these programs. In the case of a waived SAP, only eight members of Congress (the chairs and ranking minority members of the four defense committees) are even notified that a given program has been waived (without being told anything about the nature of the program). Such a program is certainly deep black (though I am not sure if that designation is actually used in the business).

The number of people with access to multiple SAPs is deliberately very limited. This virtually assures that hardly anyone knows what is going on in another program. Black programs are often covered by white (normal classification system) or unclassified programs. The U2 spyplane was covered by a weather-research aircraft program. Such covering allows technology to be relatively openly developed until such time as it is ready for application to a black program. The overt cover program is then usually cancelled, having accomplished its purpose. This happened to the X-30 National Aerospaceplane project in 1994. It appeared to be an unrealistically ambitious program that was eventually cancelled, but was in reality a cover for what is almost certainly a black-world hypersonic aircraft according to defense analyst Sweetman. (This may be the source of the phantom sonic boom phenomenon reported since the early 1990s.)

Someone read in on an unacknowledged SAP would be required to deny even its existence, i.e. even a “no comment” would be a serious breach of security. It can also happen that someone, such as a general or admiral, ostensibly responsible for certain types of programs or areas of technology would not be briefed on the existence of a program that should be within his jurisdiction. (If your name is not on the so-called “bigot list” for a program you will not be briefed, no matter what your rank or responsibility. Even the director of the CIA or the DIA would not ex officio and automatically be on all such lists.) The wall of denial in the deep black world can thus be maintained by both deception and deliberately designed lack of cognizance leading to apparently honest denial. In addition to passive security, active measures can also be deemed necessary: disinformation. Again according to the report by Sweetman, two high level commissions have concluded that, among other things, black programs include “systematic efforts to confuse and disinform the public.” One disinformation ploy is to divulge both real and fabricated information of equal apparent credibility mixed together to someone or some group. The fabricated information can then be used to discredit claims, individuals or organizations. This is a highly effective way to keep a major secret: let the secret be revealed but mixed with sufficient disinformation to assure that the secret will not be believed by anyone who actually matters, for example the national media. The cost of such intense levels of security can be quite steep. It has been estimated that an intensively sensitive program may consume half or even more of its secret budget in security.

The products of the intelligence community are termed Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). It is easier to keep a program hidden in a contractor facility than in a government facility. Deeply buried programs in contractor facilities are called “carve outs” (referring to the budget). A crash retrieval or some classified continuation of Project Blue Book would likely exist as a deep black industrially-based SAP. A program involving hardware would be considered technology rather than intelligence and most likely fall under the office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. Ironically for such a program even someone having an intelligence “ticket” at the highest level would not be considered to have a need to know. All of this results in very effective isolation and virtually no one in a position of open civilian governmental authority being cognizant of this after a time, even though, at least in principle, the Special Access Program Oversight Commitee, SAPOC, should be cognizant of such a program. I do not know of any fundamentally limiting factors in the potential longevity of a program. The extreme compartmentalization and limited oversight would tend to keep a program in existence, perhaps indefinitely. Political leaders come and go, pandering to the masses for votes in the eyes of many within the military and intelligence communities, and as a result have varying degrees of respect and trust in that world. Deep black programs can become quite independent of any given administration, and it would certainly be unrealistic to assume that a given president has been briefed on every SAP. A president does not automatically have a need to know. Moreover Freedom of Information Act requests cannot penetrate unacknowledged special access programs.

Practical Problems and Roadblocks On the Path Toward Official UFO Acknowledgment
by Peter Robbins / 31 August 2009


“We seek a free flow of information… we are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” — President John F. Kennedy

“I have discussed this matter with the affected agencies of the government, and they are of the opinion that it is unwise to publicize the matter at this time.” — Senator Richard B. Russell, former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Russell personally sighted a UFO over Russia in 1955, an event which was classified SECRET by our government

Curiosity seems to be an integral component of human nature, for most of us in any case. Anyone who has ever gazed up and observed something unusual traversing the sky overhead has likely wondered what it is and what its origins were, especially if its flight characteristics and appearance suggested it might be under intelligent control. This longing to understand has not been confined to modern times. Generals and foot soldiers serving under Alexander the Great almost certainly wondered the same thing as “flying shields” hung over their field of battle the night before an engagement, as did the residents of sixteenth century Nuremberg, Germany, as cylinder-shaped UFOs released innumerable spherical and disc-shaped objects into the morning sky. Uncounted people from every era and corner of the Earth have shared a similar sense of wonder, awe, fear, and curiosity, but it was not until history ushered in the modern era of UFO sightings that some began to assume – correctly as it turned out – that our governments might actually have known more about this illusive phenomenon than they chose to let on.

The passage of years has brought with it a growing number of voices both here and abroad who are calling on the American Government to declassify and disseminate classified files relating to UFOs, and that this process be undertaken in a timely manner. France, Denmark, Belgium, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Sweden and Uruguay have done so with the United Kingdom currently in the process of making thousands of pages formerly classified UFO documents and information available to the public on official web sites. Even so, its fair to assume that the most highly classified information in possession of least some of these countries remains well secured. Since its inception under the Carter Administration, our Freedom of Information Act has been an effective instrument of release for thousands of pages of official UFO documentation, but no British-style declassification initiative has ever been enacted here.

There is good cause for the frustration driving this movement. For the past sixty-two years, requests that the subject be taken seriously and accorded some measure of official, public respect have fallen on deaf ears and repeatedly been met with evasion, confabulation, silence or outright lies. Decades of dedicated study and evaluation have made many of us confident we can face this truth, whatever implications are suggested by the other-worldly presence lurking behind it. As for the readiness of our fellow citizens and the eight-plus billion others who populate this planet and may not be of similar mind, well, they’ll just have to get used to living in a world transformed.

But what really are the implications of stepping through such a cosmic doorway, and what, if any responsibility do we owe the people and institutions who remain woefully unprepared for such an Earth-shaking transition? It’s imperative that we come to appreciate the reasons for proceeding with caution and respect for the unconsidered possibilities which the wholesale release of compelling UFO information may unleash upon us, and upon those who are generally oblivious to the weighty issues involved. I for one would like to know what our government knows about UFOs, but am deeply concerned about the impact which public airing of such data may have on ‘the uninitiated,’ for it will be their dreams, beliefs and hopes that stand to be most effected.

UFOs and the Politics of Politics

“I think it’s time to open the books on questions that have remained in the dark; on the question of government investigations of UFOs. It’s time to find out what the truth really is that’s out there. We ought to do it because it’s right; we ought to do it because the American people quite frankly can handle the truth; and we ought to do it because it’s the law.” — John Podesta, now Presidential Advisor Podesta

“I’ve never met Dennis Kucinich and I don’t know Governor Richardson. No, I don’t think there are UFOs. No, I don’t think the government… What the hell are we talking about? This has gone downhill real quick…” — Joseph Biden, now Vice President Biden

“You know, I don’t know, and I don’t presume to know. What I do know is that there is life here on Earth, and that we’re not attending to life here on Earth.” — Barack Obama, now President Obama

It’s something of a given in American politics: being perceived as someone who takes the subject of UFOs seriously is tantamount to political suicide, doubly so if you’ve been reckless enough to go on record as maintaining that some UFOs may represent advanced technology under the control of other intelligences from parts unknown. An initiative aimed at making such information public would spin this given around on its head, but when it comes to this particular issue, winning the hearts and minds of the powerful, influential, and significant public figures, remains extremely challenging.

Of course there have been exceptions to this rule and they should be acknowledged as such. A small but courageous contingent of astronauts have put their careers and reputations at considerable risk by saying they are now convinced – through either informed opinion or experience – that UFOs are real. The late Steven Schiff, a progressive Democrat and Congressional Representative from New Mexico, and the late Barry Goldwater, a conservative Republican and senior Senator from Arizona, were shining examples of this contrarian position and neither ever backed down from his outspoken beliefs. President Reagan, who had a stunner of a UFO sighting when he was Governor of California, also took the subject seriously and referred to matters extraterrestrial on a number of occasions during his time as President. In 1987 he made this statement during a speech before the 42nd General Assembly of the United Nations: “In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspirations of our peoples than war and the threat of war?”

Even with such an allegorical tagline, General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not find such statements uplifting or entertaining, and on such occasions was known to make less than pleased remarks about the President’s “LGMs,” as in little green men. The anti-UFO secrecy position held by Presidential Adviser John Podesta is another exception to the rule, but then he is an appointed rather than an elected official and most Americans remain oblivious to his outsider opinions on the issue.

Despite similar convictions which may be held by government officials, few have had the courage to follow in Goldwater’s or Schiff’s steps, or even Reagan’s, and with good cause. Since the summer of 1947, our media, our military and numerous other branches and offices of our government have done a superb job of embracing – at least in public – the false notion that a serious belief in the reality of UFOs is functionally identical to delusional thinking, mental illness, or something very much akin to it. Some past Presidents and Presidential candidates have had an obvious sympathy for UFO openness, only to recant later, then retreat into silence or into the mob of naysayers. Whatever the motivating factors behind their actions or reactions, understanding the dynamics that create such back-peddling may ultimately help us to change the climate that fostered it.

Michigan Republican Gerald Ford took a courageous stand for UFO openness during his days in the House of Representatives. A spate of unexplained sightings inundated his district during the mid-sixties and a number of the witnesses were people Ford had known for years. He took their accounts seriously and acted decisively in recommending that a committee be created to investigate the phenomena: “I think we owe it to the people to establish credibility regarding UFOs and to produce the greatest possible enlightenment on this subject.” Such a committee was established in 1968 only to wither and die because of a lack of any serious implementation. Ford’s UFO activism vaporized once he assumed the Presidency, as did any public comments on the matter.

Jimmy Carter’s UFO sighting occurred in January 1969 during his run for the Georgia governorship. He remembered it as “the darndest thing I’ve ever seen. It was big, it was very bright, it changed colors and it was about the size of the moon. We watched it for ten minutes, but none of us could figure out what it was. One thing’s for sure, I’ll never make fun of people who say they’ve seen unidentified flying objects in the sky.” His completed MUFON sighting report is one of Ufology’s most interesting artifacts. Now convinced that UFOs, whatever they might be, were real, Carter went on record during his 1976 Presidential campaign that if elected he would release then-classified UFO information – with one possible factor acting as a deterrent: “I don’t see any reason to keep information like that secret, but there may be some aspects of the UFO information which I am not familiar with that might be related to some secret experiments that we were doing that involve national security or new weapons systems. I certainly wouldn’t release that.” “Defense implications” were indeed cited as the reason he did not make good on his pledge.

We now know that Carter wanted to transfer responsibility for UFO affairs to NASA, only to have its highly respected director threaten to resign if he did so. The Director’s stated reason was that saddling the already financially overburdened space agency with responsibility for this routinely mocked subject would only result in popular as well as official ridicule that would jeopardize much needed funding. The President considered his options – then backed down, never to raise the issue again during his time in office. In later years Mr. Carter kept his distance from the subject, possibly because he’d grown tired of being asked about his sighting and earlier outspoken views. In 2007 he was quoted as saying, “I think it is impossible in my opinion – some people disagree – to have space people from other planets or other stars to come here. I do not believe that is possible.” Then again, that same year he allegedly confided to Shirley Maclane, “that basically the President or the Executive Branch is not on a ‘need to know basis.’” Whatever opinions you may hold on Ms. Maclane or her views, the statement she relates is an extremely important one.

I am far from alone in having come to the conclusion that the President is not in fact on a need to know basis, and that occupants of the office from Eisenhower on have been briefed in accordance with their loyalty, pre-existing knowledge of the situation, and level of popularity among those who actually hold power over this information. And who are the individuals charged with control over such secrets? We’re not actually sure anymore. In 1947 it was certainly a highly cleared core of military and intelligence personnel, aided by key scientists and a small cadre of distinguished insiders who had the trust and confidence of President Truman. But the balance of true power has shifted markedly since then leaving us to ponder the degree of influence which leading defense contractors, multinationals and financiers exert over our government’s secret keeping apparatus – another dark dividend of this country’s not having heeded President Eisenhower’s parting warning on the dangers posed by a military industrial complex allowed to proliferate veritably unchecked.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico would like to know some of these secrets; in particular, those pertaining to what actually happened in his state in early July of 1947. In 2004 he went on record as such, but don’t expect him to publicly acknowledge it now. It was that year he wrote, “It would help everyone if the U.S. government disclosed everything it knows. With full disclosure and our best scientific investigation, we should be able to find out what happened on that fateful day in July of 1947. The American people can handle the truth no matter how bizarre or mundane, and contrary to what you see in the movies.”

The reason for the Governor’s seeming change of heart was simple. The autumn of 2007 saw Richardson’s contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Dennis Kucinich, outed by the late television commentator Tim Russert as having actually observed a UFO of some sort – this in the company of his wife and their friend Shirley MacLaine. For weeks to follow, Kucinich was unable to make an appearance without being questioned about the sighting. He soon tired of defending his perceptions and began responding to such questions with some humor, as in this interview with a Michigan radio station: “I later learned after this story surfaced that 40 million Americans have seen things in the sky that they thought they couldn’t identify. I also learned that President Reagan and President Carter at one time or another saw UFOs. So it may just be that seeing a UFO is a prerequisite to becoming President.”

But once the pundits and talking heads grew tired of working over Kucinich, they turned on Bill Richardson. Their reason being, that he was Governor of New Mexico, and attacking the credibility of the Roswell incident has remained fair game for the uninformed. Richardson is a political realist, and as a viable contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, acted quickly to control political fallout, within days disavowing any public pretense of taking the subject seriously, but not in a mean-spirited or undiplomatic manner: “…I promote Roswell as a tourism issue, but there is no credible evidence… I’ve never seen one. I doubt their existence, but I admit, I’m the governor of the state and I push the tourism promotion side…” Put yourself in the Governor’s place for a moment and you’ll begin to appreciate why such a response was, regrettably, both rational and appropriate.

A few examples of professional politicians whose careers intersected with a subject encumbered by such a virulent ridicule factor that even a passing association with it can mark or damage a career, or leave the individual fighting for their political life. It is not out of the question we may someday find ourselves with a President who, through one channel or another, learns enough, and becomes passionate enough about the subject in the process of learning about it, that they decide to put themselves squarely on the line, then cross it, ‘need to know’ be damned. This of course dependent on the possibility that such an independent, Executive undertaking has ever even has the possibility of succeeding. Short of mass UFO landings, such a Presidential directive would seem to have a significant potential to help shine a light on all of those long buried telex’s, cablegrams, reports, orders, memoranda, and technical analyses. Anyone waiting for assistance from that small army of unnamed, appointed bureaucrats whose security clearances and positions allow them to hold sway over the temporary occupants of the highest offices in the land, may be waiting for a very long time. Had Governor Richardson been nominated and elected in 2008, then given a chance to learn the answers to some of the questions he’d asked in 2004, it might have been President Richardson who finally bucked the system.

But we live in a democracy and the ideal would be for the House and/or Senate to spearhead such an initiative. The key to this possibility is education, but that necessitates a willingness to be educated. My guess is that taking time from their busy schedules to study the evidence supporting UFO reality holds a low priority for the overwhelming majority of current office holders. Short of allowing them to view a recovered extraterrestrial craft and its cryogenically suspended crew, my vote would be to lock them all into Roswell’s International UFO Museum and Research Center for a month and have them begin to work their ways through its world-class library. Regrettably the logistical and legal problems involved preclude this possibility.

Attending UFO conferences is a practical way to gain information on the subject. Again, enticing our dignitaries to register is something else. I remember the surprise I felt when I learned that Claiborne Pell, then the Senior Senator from Rhode Island, was sitting just a few aisles from me during a lecture at MUFON’s 1987 Symposium. This was at American University in Washington, D.C. At the break some of us approached him and asked why he was there. Pell responded with a smile that he was also interested in the subject – in his capacity as a private citizen, of course. Finding a ranking American senator at a UFO conference is, well, extremely rare. There was however a privately funded effort to place quality UFO evidence in the hands of the executive and legislative branches and the driving force behind it was one of the wealthiest men in America.

Laurance Rockefeller’s* name was first publicly linked with the subject in 1995 with the publication of a series of newspaper articles. His interest quickly accelerated into activism, the end result of which was the Unidentified Flying Objects Briefing Document: the Best Available Evidence. This was accomplished with the aid of two old friends who shared his passionate interest; Sandra Wright and Marie Galbraith – wife of our then-Ambassador to France and daughter-in-law of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. They were assisted in their efforts by members of The Fund For UFO Research. The document’s actual writers were the Fund’s Don Berliner, Galbraith, and veteran Ufologist Antonio Huneeus.

In December 1995, copies of the handsomely bound 170 page report were delivered to every congressman and house member, and as I understood it, the President, Vice President, cabinet level officials and other Washington movers and shakers. But its impact was considerably less than Laurence and his colleagues had hoped for. Whatever disappointment they may have felt was compounded by the outing which he and Galbraith received on the front page of The New York Observer. On April 8, 1996 the weekly published an extremely mocking article entitled “Rockefeller Greets Aliens! A Rich Guy’s UFO Dream.” It was accompanied by a huge cartoon of Laurence and Marie running through Washington shielding themselves from a sky filled with flying saucers and aliens. Even billionaires are subject to embarrassment and Mr. Rockefeller was no exception. Both he and Galbraith withdrew from any publicly expressed interest in the subject and returned to their private lives. The Best Available Evidence was later published as a mass market paperback, but in the end the results of the efforts expended by this dedicated group were next to nil. The ridicule factor has spared few who sought the public airing of UFO related information. Rich man, Presidential candidates, Presidents, it doesn’t matter.

The declassification of compelling UFO documents would go a long way in allowing elected officials to once and for all break through the ridicule barrier and take the subject seriously in public discourse. Yet the chances for declassification and dissemination are limited at best if politicians and influential public figures remain fearful of taking an open and courageous stand. The essence of this problem was summed up by the late Dr. James E. McDonald, University of Arizona atmospheric physicist and pioneering Ufologist: “The scientific community as a whole does not take the U.F.O. problem seriously because it lacks experimental data, but it lacks experimental data because it does not take the problem seriously. It is like the youth of 20 who cannot find a job because he lacks experience and lacks experience because he cannot find a job.” But an even greater obstacle to resolving this conundrum is the often invoked term, ‘National Security,’ or perhaps more accurate to this discussion, national insecurity. As such, it’s imperative we take this phrase and its interpretations to task.

* Personal note: Laurance (correct spelling, he was named after his mother, Laura) Rockefeller spent much of his adult life as a philanthropist, donating hundreds of millions of dollars to the establishment and upkeep of wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, wetlands and other environmental causes. In the early nineteen eighties he became interested in the work of a small but dedicated non-profit repertory theater company which I house managed. For the next five or six years Rockefeller quietly underwrote the production of about a dozen of the Off Broadway plays we produced, and in the process helped to keep dozens of our actors, technical and support personnel employed, something for which I will always be grateful to him. During that period I saw him several times a season during which we’d usually find a few minutes to chat, mostly about the current production.

Some years later, in late 1994 or early 1995 as best I remember, I received a call from someone particularly close to Rockefeller who also happened to be a good friend of mine. After securing my absolute discretion in the matter, they told me that over the preceding months Laurance had quite simply become obsessed with the subject of UFOs and the government’s seeming cover-up of information relating to them. This was informing more and more of their conversations and the friend had grown concerned that if this preoccupation continued to grow, Laurance might begin to seek information or advice from people who would either take advantage of his position and standing, or supply him with specious data. Could I put together a reading list of what I felt were the best UFO books available and assemble a collection of declassified documents and reports which would serve as a proper introduction to the subject? The friend would be glad to pay my copying costs. I agreed of course and set to work.

A week or so later I informed them that the material was ready, along with a cover letter noting my willingness to meet or speak with the recipient and do my best to answer any questions the papers might generate. The friend asked me to deliver the material at a specified date and time. True to form Mr. Rockefeller maintained an office on the top floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and a security officer at the information desk directed me to a special elevator. Once it reached the top floor the door opened directly into an exterior office where another security officer stood waiting for me. “Mr. Robbins?” he asked, eyeing the parcel I held. “Yes.” I answered. “I’ll take that” he responded. I handed it to him, he thanked me, and that was that.

I received a final call from the friend soon after, thanking me on behalf of Laurance and saying he appreciated the material and the time I’d taken to organize and copy it. Not long after this Rockefeller began to establish his own contacts within the UFO research community, becoming friends with Budd Hopkins and John Mack, among others, and going on to spearhead the funding, publication and distribution of The Unidentified Flying Objects Briefing Document.

The Question of National Security

“It is my view that this situation has possible implications for our national security which transcend the interests of a single service.” — General William Bedell Smith, Director of the CIA from 1950-53

“It is time for the truth to be brought out in open Congressional hearings. Behind the scenes high ranking Air Force officers are soberly concerned about the UFOs. But through official secrecy and ridicule, many citizens are led to believe the unknown flying objects are nonsense.” — Admiral Roscoe Hillenkotter, Director of the CIA from 1947-50

Like beauty, national security seems to exist in the eye of the beholder. What currently classified UFO related information constitutes a threat to legitimate and rational national security concerns? The dictionary defines the word “security” in part as, “The state of being secure; freedom from danger.” Will widespread knowledge of the truth about UFOs, the intelligences behind them, and the implications of both tend to increase or decrease the potential for danger to our citizenry? Opinions on this vary.

One faction maintains the status quo should be upheld and the secret keeping continue until such a time when the government decides on its own to reverse their standing policy. Another supports full and complete declassification and dissemination and nothing less. A third advocates release and publication with some specific reservations. The rest of us remain conflicted and likely a little overwhelmed by the ramifications of any of these decisions. Which national security concerns should help guide our thinking here? It appears that striking a balance between society’s and the individual’s right to know while simultaneously protecting the legitimate concerns of National Security is a problem of the first order.

Nuclear physicist Stanton T. Friedman remains one of the UFO field’s ranking figures and is one of only a small handful of Ufologists to have actually held security clearances. In Friedman’s case, during his fourteen years of work on the development of a wide variety of advanced classified nuclear and space systems for such companies as GE, GM, Westinghouse, McDonnell Douglas and Aerojet General Nucleonics. Though an advocate of releasing UFO related information, he remains opposed to doing so without reservation and maintains: “There is a real need for recognition of the security aspects and that one can’t tell one’s friends without telling one’s enemies… Instead I believe that any such announcement should be on an international basis along with an announcement that international conferences will be held to deal with the religious, economic and political aspects of the new world situation that would occur once disclosure has been made. Planning will be required.”

Friedman’s co-author of Captured: The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience, Kathleen Marden, is also a proponent of limited declassification and release, and has had decades to consider the question from a particularly unique point of view. She is the niece of Betty Hill, one of the world’s best-known UFO abductees, has served on the MUFON Board of Directors as their Director of Field Investigator Training, and has a background in both social work and education. Marden’s training and education has left her concerned about “social unrest, depending on what’s released.” Her main concern is “the uncertainly regarding the sociological, religious and economic impact of full disclosure,” and she does not mince her words in articulating them:

“We currently have a situation where an alien civilization can visit us at will, abduct and experiment upon us and harvest our natural resources. We are completely helpless to protect ourselves politically and militarily. My primary questions are as follows: How would we proceed after disclosure? Would we normalize relations with them, or do they feel so technologically, intellectually and emotionally superior to us that they think of us as primitives, unworthy of standing on equal ground? Would they then land at will in full public view? Would they openly abduct us? Would full disclosure lead to a chaotic society and the degradation of cultural values? Would it lead to a rise in alcoholism and drug abuse? Full disclosure does not necessarily imply the sharing of technology and it could have a disastrous impact upon our civilization.”

Ms. Marden’s concerns fall squarely within the realm of national security and the questions she poses are not new ones. Early support for caution is reflected in the conclusions of the Brookings Institution’s 1960 report, “Proposed Study on the Implications for Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs.” This paper, prepared at the request of NASA, supported the idea of an extraterrestrial presence and warned that actual contact might result in a certain amount of social chaos, a shaken faith in our scientific establishment, and a crisis of faith for religious fundamentalists.

The state of being secure. Freedom from danger. Is it possible for the truth about UFOs and their implications to coexist with a true state of national security? Our system of government grants us the option to set limits on openness, just as long as the public has the final say in determining whether ‘the truth shall set them free’ or ‘ignorance is bliss.’ It’s difficult to know how to resolve this contradiction. Consider the following.

It is now sometime in the future and our government is in the process of methodically revealing information about UFOs and the intelligences behind them. The truth about alien abductions has caused a certain amount of shock across the nation and around the world, and in-depth stories on abduction are now regularly featured in magazines, newspapers, TV shows and of course on the Internet. The time has now come to tell the public about human-alien hybrids. Even for someone like me, a research specialist who spent years working directly with this subject’s seminal investigator, Budd Hopkins, this remains extremely disturbing territory. But the public is told, in as reassuring a manner as possible, that, among other things, these half-human half-other beings are the result of an ongoing alien effort involving human females to create a hybrid species. Then the public learns that some hybrids are so human looking in appearance they are able to pass among us without being noticed. Aliens among us? Aliens who look like people? Possibly living in the apartment across the hall or the house around the corner? Not on my planet. How long will be before the nightly news reports that a person now in police custody took a shot at someone with wispy blonde hair they were sure was staring at them across a restaurant, or winged that geeky guy who speaks in a monotone and is known to have an interest in UFOs? Any positive benefits of declassification and release would have been far outweighed by the negative impact on their security, national or otherwise.

Admittedly, this is an extreme example and a worst case scenario, but I don’t think an unfair one to cite. Its been said that the most dangerous drug in the world is testosterone. Add to that an overload of extremely frightening information and a firearm and you have an equation none of us want to see factored into the declassification process. What then is the balancing point between truth and security? I wish I knew.

Organized Religion and the Impact of Declassification

“We are not authorized to exclude that on another star beings do exist, even if they are completely different from us.” — Cardinal Nicolò Cusano, philosopher and scientist, 1401-1464

“It is absurd to claim that the worlds surrounding us are large, uninhabited deserts and that the meaning of the universe lies just in our small, inhabited planet.” — The Jesuit Father and astronomer Fr. Angelo Secchi, 1818-1876

“It seems to be in accordance with the aim of the world that inhabitable celestial bodies are settled by creatures that recognize the glory of God in the physical beauties of their worlds, in the same way man does with his smaller world.” — Joseph Pohle, German theologian 1904

Some months back my friend Bridget and I were discussing the potential impact which official confirmation of UFO reality might have on the country’s religious communities. Her take on the subject was of particular interest to me as she is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Bridget followed up with an email, part of which underscored a particularly serious thought, but had me laughing just the same: “The other day Jonathan and I were watching that funny and annoyingly disturbing cartoon, “Family Guy” and Peter Griffin (do you ever watch this program?) is afraid to go to the store Bed, Bath and Beyond because even though he’s okay with going into the Bed and Bath part of the store, he’s afraid of going into the Beyond section! They show him entering through a door where he is immediately sucked into the world of weird equations and other oddities floating all around him. … I wanted to use it as part of a sermon illustration but didn’t want to admit that I watch “Family Guy”!”

Bridget’s observation is at once wise, funny and poignant. Most people seem far more comfortable in Bed and Bath than they do in Beyond. Religion offers us the potential for protection of a higher power as well as a set of beliefs that we can hold fast to and draw comfort from when the ‘Beyond,’ or unknown comes calling. The dictionary defines “faith” as “unflagging trust; belief without firm proof; belief in a supreme being; a religion.” None of us can say with any certainty how followers of the world’s religions will take to the idea that they share the universe with other intelligent beings, or with an assortment of them for that matter, something which, in the interpretations of many, is not referred to or discussed in their holy texts. Surmounting the problems associated with this perceived lapse will be easier for people of faith to overcome if their traditions allow for some latitude in the interpretation of their religious teachings, less so for those who hold that their beliefs and holy texts are sacrosanct and not open to interpretation.

We can assume that the relevant surveys and polls taken over the past few decades which indicate a majority of Americans feel there is intelligent life in space include a good percentage of individuals who, if asked, would identify themselves as people of faith. I’ve taken my own informal poll of Christian and Jewish friends, and listened to the views of Muslim and Hindu ones on the subject. To a person, all were in agreement that if our government ever confirmed the reality of UFOs, and stated that some were likely extraterrestrial in origin, their faith God and in their religions would remain unshaken. While entirely unscientific in its approach, the results of my inquiry tend to refute those of the Brookings Institution’s study, in relation to all but the beliefs of religious fundamentalists. Thankfully there is no need to lean on my data.

The September, 2008, issue of the MUFON UFO Journal featured the results of a survey conducted by Rev. Ted Peters and his associate Julie Froehlig. It was published under the title, “Is Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life a Threat to Religion?,” and is very much worth reading. The goal of “The Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey” was to test whether or not contact between Earth and an extraterrestrial civilization would result in a crisis (or even collapse) of belief among the religious traditions of Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Jews, and Buddhists. The survey found that for the most part religious persons do not fear contact.” Somewhat surprisingly, a secondary finding was that a majority of non-religious respondents were the ones most concerned about such a crisis occurring.

How should theologians react to the religious implications of the ‘official’ discovery or acknowledgment of extraterrestrial (or other unearthly) life? What models should be considered in counseling their flocks, especially the more skittish among them?

In 1937 the Jesuit theologian Herbert Thurston wrote, “From a logical point of view, Christians that accept miracles and other episodes related on the Gospel “… cannot reject in a obstinate way the reiterated testimonies of modern and reliable witnesses that relate what their eyes have seen.” There are a number of other religious arguments that can be made in favor of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, some of which are reflected in the quotations preceding this section. The late Monsignor Corrado Balducci was a Vatican theologian and insider best known for his public pronouncements on the UFO phenomenon. He maintained that extraterrestrial contact is a real phenomenon and “not due to psychological impairment,” nor did he see this belief “in conflict with the Christian religion.” On October 8, 1995, he caused a major stir among Ufologists , and I daresay a good number of Roman Catholics, when he appeared on Italian National Television and stated, that “Extraterrestrials do exist,” and “… if 99 out of 100 {UFO reports} were false and that one was true, it’s that one that says some phenomenon exist.” It’s worth noting that some years earlier, Stanton Friedman said, “The question is not whether all UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin, but are any? The evidence indicates some are.”

It was the Monsignor’s contention that after excluding such conventional anomalies as “light effects,” atmospheric phenomena, clouds, ball lightning, etc, and factoring in some common sense, human rationalism and the testimony of hundreds of thousands of reliable eyewitness accounts worldwide, “it seems impossible to deny at a rational level that something real does exist!” It was also his belief there may be other inhabited planets, and noted that “In the Bible there are not specific allusions to other living beings, but neither is it excluded {in} this hypothesis.” A review of the Monsignor’s arguments can be found in his paper, “Ufology and Theological Clarifications.”

There is no way that a Prelate of Balducci’s stature would have been allowed to express the public views he did without the expressed permission of the Vatican. Whatever the Church’s innermost reasons for embarking on such a program, it represents a truly revolutionary approach to an extraordinarily complex problem: how to make the faithful aware of this presence in an officially sanctioned manner, and in the process, prepare them for at least some of the information which declassification and release would reveal. Other religious leaders who appreciate the seriousness of this situation might do well to consider applying a similar strategy tailored to the needs of their followers. I would recommend they begin by reading any of the following books: UFO and the Bible by M.K. Jessup, The Bible and Flying Saucers by Rev. Barry Downing, The Spaceships of Ezekel by Joseph F. Blumrich, and The 12th Planet by Zecharia Sitchin.

Fundamentalism and UFOs

“…no reasonable mind can assume that heavenly bodies which may be far more magnificent than ours would not bear upon them creatures similar or even superior to those upon our human Earth.” — Giordano Bruno, Italian scientist-philosopher, arrested in 1592 and burned to death as a heretic in 1600

“I believe in G-O-D, not U-F-O.” — Mike Huckabee, evangelical Christian minister, former Governor of Arkansas, and former candidate for President

The results of The Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey do not take into account the UFO related beliefs of religious fundamentalists, Christian or otherwise, and we should strive to understand what they are. If we fail to do so our ignorance may result in some very rough going. Reverend Bridget offered me a good starting point, “… the interesting part about the religious beliefs and the skepticism about UFO reality, is that religious fundamentalists are willing to literally believe in angels and miracles as recorded in the Bible because the Bible is their authority, but dismiss other concepts that could explain the same sort of phenomena. I also think the fascination and fear of the unknown is in many ways why religion, especially the fundamentalist, black and white brand, thrives and mainline gray area faiths are struggling.”

I first became interested in the UFO related beliefs of fundamentalists a dozen years ago, and not for the best of reasons. It followed my learning of a broadcast of the popular evangelical television show, “The 700 Club.” The program aired on July 8, 1997 and featured an exchange about the then current Mars Pathfinder Mission. The discussion soon shifted to the possibility of aliens from space and UFOs. It was then that host Pat Robertson stated it was his firm belief that, even if they were real, such ‘aliens’ were really demons whose intention was to lead people away from Christ. His opinion allowed for no possibility that an actual space alien had ever made its way to Earth, even for a brief visit. In fact the situation was so grave, maintained Robertson, that those who actually believe that space aliens were real should be put to death by stoning.

I had never heard of anyone holding such a draconian view in all the years I’d been involved in UFO studies. Was this an isolated position or one shared by others who adhered to Mr. Robertson’s religious beliefs? My UFO related views and opinions are not faith-based and it was difficult for me to take in how someone could claim to know what I considered the unknowable. In this case, the absence of any possibility the Earth has ever been visited by intelligent beings from another planet, solar system, galaxy, dimension or time. Intolerance should always be taken seriously, and soon afterwards the journal Freedom Writer included a commentary about the show, saying, in part: “As the founder and chairman of the Christian Coalition – a group dedicated to becoming the most powerful political force in America – Mr. Robertson’s extreme ideas need to be taken seriously, for they not only negate pluralism, but condemn to death those who dare to believe differently.”

We Americans have the right to hold whatever religious beliefs we wish, including the right not to believe, just so long as our beliefs do not impinge on the rights of others. My readings on the broadcast included a pair of books on Christian fundamentalist beliefs as they pertained to the UFO phenomenon, UFOs and Their Mission Impossible, and the more luridly titled UFOs: Satanic Terror. Both underscored Mr. Robertson’s basic belief – not that you should stone to death those whose UFO conclusions differed from yours, but that we were misguided souls whose secular, scientific and historic views were only leading us further from Christ’s teachings and any understanding of the revealed word. In the opinion of the authors it came down to this: that as no direct references to extraterrestrials or their applied technology appear in the Old or New Testament, all anomalous UFOs are demonic in origin and among the signs and portents predicted in the Book of Revelations.

In an effort to better understand fundamentalist UFO beliefs, I put a series of questions to three people I know who were qualified to answer them. My good friend Kim, a Christian fundamentalist, and Joseph Jordan and Guy Malone, Christian fundamentalists with an established involvement in UFO studies. All were gracious and forthcoming in responding to my questions, even the most difficult of them.

Malone observed that, “Like most secular people, most Christians have not made this an independent topic of research, and therefore their opinions are largely shaped (like all) through what they see on television and movies, and their own ponderings. Adding any form of religious belief in God to the question of life on other planets, and you typically get the same response from religious adults as you do from a religious 12-year old : “Well I suppose God could have created life on other planets if he wanted to…” (add disclosure event here, and it becomes) “.. and now the government says it’s true so I guess it is.”

All three adhere to a literal interpretation of The New and The Old Testament, and were in agreement that, as neither holy book contained any literal, direct reference to aliens from space, the notion was excluded from their beliefs, an argument, regrettably, which the Roman Catholic Church used in the 1500s to destroy the native populations of the Americas. The “antipods,” as they were called, could be nothing but Satanic because nothing in Scripture even alluded to their presence.

Kim, Joe and Guy share the view that the intelligences behind the UFO phenomenon are not from another star system or planet, but interdimensional entities, demonic in nature, pretending to be aliens. A fallen angel is able to manifest itself in physical form. Satanic craft are able to make it appear they originate from somewhere out it space. Jordan added that the demon hypothesis was rooted in the belief that ‘they’ were preaching a new, and by extension, blasphemous gospel which included a message given to some abductees and contactees that ‘they’ were the true creators of our religions. This is seen as a key deception that can only be attributed to Satan. As to how Christian fundamentalists as a whole may respond to any official pronouncement that UFOs and aliens were real – and that at least some of are extraterrestrial in nature, Malone felt, “..they would react to a government disclosure announcement with disbelief, and possibly conclude that said government is either in collusion with the fallen angels, or deceived by them..”

Strong words. The possibility of citizens convinced the government is in collusion with or deceived by fallen angels. What if the government does implement a declassification process which supports an extraterrestrial explanation? Might not some of the more extremist fundamentalists conclude that elements within the government were now, bluntly put, in league with Satan? And if so, might not acts of domestic terrorism be an appropriate response? I respectfully noted that the self-professed Christian Timothy McVeigh’s justification for bombing the federal offices housed in the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City was to strike back at the government for its botched mishandling of the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, a year to the day prior. McVey’s unconscionable act resulted in the deaths of 168 men, women and children and the complete destruction of the building and remained the greatest single act of domestic terrorism until September 11, 2001. All of my respondents sadly agreed such a possibility would not be out of the question, but that such an action would only be undertaken by a true extremist, an acknowledged reality in all religions. They also agreed that no true believer – meaning someone who has established a personal relationship with Jesus and maintained a ‘heart belief’ as opposed to a ‘mind belief’ in his or her Christianity – would ever take part in such a heinous act, but instead would do everything within their power to preclude it.

Jordan summed up, that as an Evangelical Christian who at one time had been an agnostic, and been involved in metaphysical studies, he supports the release of all pertinent, classified UFO information. He feels this would result in an honest discussion between the citizenry and the government, cause Christians to finally wake up, and act as a call for everyone to make a choice: between an extraterrestrial or other hypothesis, and the UFO beliefs held by Christian fundamentalists.

The UFO beliefs of other faiths religious extremists vary, but I do have a particular concern about the rise to power of the reactionary Taliban, as intolerant and vindictive a fundamentalist religious sect as the world has seen. We do not know what their reaction to an official endorsement of an extraterrestrial reality might be, but I’m convinced it will be seen as a heresy and in some manner interpreted as in direct violation of their interpretation of The Koran. Such a threat to the fundamentalist Muslim way of life will only be compounded if it originates with ‘The Great Satan,’ that is, America. Lets remember that other perceived insults to the faith ranging from infidel troops on the ground in Saudi Arabia to disrespectful political cartoons published in a Danish newspaper, have resulted in the destruction of property, the deaths of many people, and out-and-out Jihad.

Thinking Out Loud

“In the very middle of the Near East crisis, UN Secretary General Thant took time to do a very significant thing. He arranged to have one of the top advocates of the theory that flying saucers – UFOs – are from another planet, speak before the Outer Space Affairs Committee of the UN. Interesting fact is that U Thant has confided to friends that he considers UFOs the most important problem facing the UN.” — Nationally syndicated newspaper columnists Drew Pearson & Jack Anderson, 1967

“… those in government who have knowledge showing UFOs are identifiable feel the subject cannot be discussed by those in the know without serious repercussions. Others are afraid their friends and co-workers will think they are crazy if they even so much as insinuate that UFOs are identifiable as manned craft from outside the Earth. This particularly applies to newspaper editors and publishers, reporters and analysts.” — Sarah McClendon, career journalist and former White House correspondent

“I sincerely hope you are successful in preventing a reopening of UFO investigations.” — USAF Colonel Charles H. Senn, Chief Community Relations Division Office of Information, from a September 1, 1977 letter to NASA

Just how should our government go about initiating the process we contemplate here? I share the conviction that any such announcement and initiative be made on an international basis supported by careful and thoughtful planning. In no way however does this preclude initiating the process of declassifying thousands of lower and mid level UFO related documents and posting them to a Department of Defense website as they become available, much in the manner currently being undertaken by Her Majesty’s Department of Defence. Time and attention should be spent studying the impact which online posting has on the public consciousness and taken into consideration as planning continues.

Should our government choose to proceed beyond such a basic plan, what follow are a series of steps they might wish to consider. This of course precluding the possibilities that, 1. Such an undertaking is even possible, that such actions are not already under consideration, or that they, or one’s similar have already been implemented. The reasons I feel we should not expect to see any such initiatives undertaken at present are purely political in nature.

If you are old enough to have been involved in UFO studies during the Watergate era, you may recall a brief but pervasive rumor that swept through Ufology at the time. It came and went as the revelations of Republican Party corruption mounted and consensus within the then ongoing Senate hearings was tipping more and more toward the possibility of Presidential impeachment. The repeated buzz was that Nixon was seriously considering declassifying and releasing UFO related files in a last ditch effort to redirect public attention from his own spiraling journey down the political drain. Of course this never happened, but it actually would not have been a bad strategy for the increasingly desperate President to take in turning our collective focus toward a far greater issue, and one that just might have resulted in a temporary standing down from Watergate for the sake of stability during a national, and by extension, international crisis.

Support him or revile him, our current President is now responsible for a national economy in full scale crisis, a hot war and a very warm war, an aging infrastructure in grave need of attention, and a nation overdue for revised energy and environmental policies, these for starters. How would news that the President has become interested in UFOs and aliens be greeted? Even in the best of times, its difficult to say, but my personal thoughts are that any interest he might publically exhibit – no matter how seemingly inconsequential – will inevitably be seen by many as a desperate attempt to turn the nation’s eyes from the all-too-Earthy problems and challenges he faces. This could result in an all-out assault and absolute field day for his opponents – and many of his supporters – uniting as nothing else could under a banner of every single flying saucer and little green men insult, slur, aside and putdown. Even so, none of these considerations needs stand in the way of Mr. Obama’s discretely learning more about the subject now. It also seems to me that a web-based airing of at least some currently classified UFO documents could be undertaken and accomplished without directly involving the President, an important plus in helping to deflect or bypass the ridicule, at least initially, which would likely result.

Qualified members of the President’s staff might then begin to quietly select, vet and assemble trusted personnel to form the core of a highly classified working group charged with beginning to draft a workable plan with any eye on implementation when the political and financial climates stabilize to some degree. Through secured channels representatives of the working group could then begin to make contact with some of the officials who were involved in declassifying and posting UFO information in their own countries in order to take advantage of their experience and lessons they may have learned in the process of doing so. A liaison between the working group and appropriate personnel within Her Majesty’s Ministry of Defence would be of particular value, given the long and close relationship existing between our governments. Subject to the approval of the President, our Ambassador to the United Nations should also receive a limited briefing on this undertaking in preparation for a time when he or she may be called upon to network with their colleagues in the international community. And if they have not already begun to do so, the United States should encourage other world leaders to initiate the establishment of similar working groups within their own governments. An individual of the President’s choosing should then be appointed chairperson. They in turn should begin to seek out those best qualified to become members of a larger international committee, one charged with creating a workable worldwide strategy appropriate to such a far-reaching undertaking.

One of the working group’s first jobs should be to vet, or to re-vet the relatively small group of bureaucrats cleared to review and declassify the veritable warehouse of waiting documents. I say ‘re-vet’ in that there may be personnel among those charged with this exclusive responsibility who might base their decisions to declassify or not on reasons of conscience or religious opposition, much as a pharmacist might refuse to sell birth control to someone they deemed inappropriate on moral or religious grounds. But all candidates under consideration for the national working group and committee into which it will evolve will need to be screened and cleared to ensure they have both the emotional stability and intellectual capacity to deal with the increasingly stressful realizations they will face during the course of their work. To reiterate: whether religious or agnostic, technically-minded or artistic in background, all possible should be done to ensure that the men and women involved are open-minded, well-rounded and be able to ‘take it’ when it comes to introducing issues such as alien-human breeding, missing pregnancies, human-hybrids, and the possibilities their presences imply. In the words of Karl Abraham, former science writer for The Philadelphia Enquirer, “If the enquiring scientist can’t stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen.”

Who should be considered for membership in such a committee? Without question, leading members of our scientific community and qualified individuals in such diverse fields the military, intelligence, economics, physics, anthropology, law, communications, crisis intervention, medicine, mental health, defense industry, journalism, publishing, print and broadcast media, education, diplomacy, political science, theology, philosophy, sociology, social work and the film industry, along with representative members of the House and Senate. For good measure I would include balanced representation from the President’s Board of Religious advisors, a political scientist, cultural, folk, and military historians, a child behaviorist, several respected writers and artists, an astronaut or two, and, yes, a select number of Ufologists. Frankly, I would rather be subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques than cite my preferred choices here, but they should certainly include experienced, leading figures in their specialty areas of study. It would be their job initially to help establish a ‘curriculum’ that the others could follow in commencing their Ufological education. Once such this was established and underway, these Ufologists would remain available to advise and consent with the diverse mix of committee members.

Needless to say, committee members would have to be sworn to the strictest confidence, at least during the initial phases of their work, both to allow for the freest flow of information between them, and to better assure that participants were confident that their involvement would not become the subject of irresponsible media leaks. I cannot prove this, but I strongly suspect that back in the forties, key members of the Truman Administration were called upon to brief a select number of America’s most powerful publishers and broadcast magnates on the seriousness of the UFO problem and, citing national security concerns with an additional appeal to their patriotism, were able to enroll such business leaders in helping to keep the secret through a program of stilted reportage. Likely professional peer pressure played more of a part in this than direct orders from any editor, publisher or reporter, but however this pattern was set in motion, it was extremely effective and thrives to this day. It’s worth noting however that the great majority of local newspapers around the nation remained – and continue to remain – immune to this trend, but then their honest and sometimes laudatory coverage has rarely been featured in the nationals. At some point in the committee’s work, this process should be repeated, but in reverse, allowing for an appropriate shift in UFO news coverage and reporting that encourages editors, publishers, and network executives to give their reporters and producers the consent and encouragement they will need to retool their historic treatment of this subject. It would be ideal for this to coincide with limited, online declassification of UFO documents on a dedicated DoD website.

By this stage, governments are hopefully falling into line behind each other and progressing along the same general course. Meetings and conferences would now be regularly scheduled in more and more countries, each attended by representatives of their and other county’s committees, all doing their best to share new developments on their growing findings and learning all they are able from their growing pool of knowledge. Some of the actions contemplated or generated at such gatherings may lean toward the incalculable. A subject that is sure to arise is, should governments begin to institute guidelines for the training of a new breed of diplomat? Should the members of such a new diplomatic corps lean toward representing their own governments or only work in concert?

Many will disagree, but I question the potential effectiveness of such a diplomatic undertaking. The documented behavior of many of these intelligences indicates, to some of us at least, that, not only can they read our minds, but that they have the power to cloud them, creating scenarios in which we perceive something to be other than what it actually is. Certainly history may prove me wrong, but I think such an effort will turn out to be more symbolic than practical. On a decidedly human note, would such go-betweens – especially those representing the more powerful and influential governments – attempt to cut separate deals calculated to (hopefully) secure better terms or treatment for their citizenry? Then again, perhaps just for their elite, say anyone with the right connections or earning in excess of, oh, twenty million dollars a year? The possibilities spiral beyond imagination.

Shared knowledge and careful study may result in our confirming that some of the ‘thems’ are generally passive and more intent on observing our species than interacting with it. There may be others who seem benevolent and demonstrate the potential of becoming allies against more predatory species. Then again, deception seems to underscore so much of the behavior I’ve learned to attribute to these other intelligences, why should we take even our own best conclusions at face value? It may also emerge that others are more aggressive in nature and that we would be wise to consider new means of defense and defense strategies – if this is even a possibility. At some point, even if just for some fictional perspective, representatives may want to call for a screening of the classic “Twilight Zone” episode, “To Serve Man,” with its wonderful ‘cookbook’ ending. And so these international dialogues will continue to develop and refine themselves.

Overall, the public airing of some of the information culled from such ongoing activities may prove to yield a social and political climate increasingly free of the ridicule factor, one that would allow for a heretofore unknown exchange of honest and genuine UFO related concerns and considerations at every level of society. A secondary, but crucially important result would be that for the first time, elected officials, scientists, and other public figures would finally feel safe enough to openly go on record with their opinions, beliefs, suggestions and even fears on the matter. As each new finding, fact, and opinion are assimilated by an increasingly aware public, the next wave of releases may be a bit easier to grasp, accept and incorporate into our newly evolving understanding of ourselves, and of our place in the greater scheme of things. I’d like to think an additional byproduct of this process will be a kind of de-facto reconciliation with our government over their historic compulsion to cover-up and hoard the unnerving information they’ve been collecting and classifying for decades.

A final benefit, or danger, depending on your point of view, is that many of us may actually begin to think of ourselves as human beings first, and as Americans, Christians, Jews, Hindus, black, white or brown second. While warm and New-Agey in concept, such a reapportionment of humanity’s priorities may bring with it a very real potential for conflict between those who grow to embrace this view, and those who do not. Member of the ‘humans first’ contingent will be more difficult for government and organized religion to control or manipulate, and drive many who already fear government intervention, the evils of FEMA, creeping socialism and the eroding of what they consider their God-given rights to begin to behave in increasingly reactionary ways. The knowledge we acquire may bring with it a whole new set of fears of the unknown to replace our preexisting ones, no matter how farsighted and thoughtful the planning we institute proves to be.

With so much uncertainty playing across the horizon, my thoughts return to President Reagan’s carefully crafted statement, “In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” Will the ‘threat’ he referred to turn out to be another fear of the unknown, or a viable, definable, real world threat, like getting hit in the head by some cosmic baseball bat? Will declassification and the revelations it is sure to bring with it assist us in addressing the threat he refers to, or will it make us more vulnerable to it? Some believe they have the answer to this question but I am not one of them. The only thing I know for sure is that if the government of the United States and that of its sister governments, acting on behalf of a representative number of “we the people,” resolve to open this Pandora’s box, we had better be prepared to take full responsibility for whatever follows in its wake. For once opened, the concept of ‘limited’ declassification and publication may prove as difficult to control as spilled mercury.

I have a quotation posted over my desk that’s been with me for years. It’s from Mark Twain, one of my favorite writers, and it says: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Let us hope that if and when it comes to reaching a final decision about this, our President – or whoever proves to be responsible for such a decision – will weigh all of the options fully and thoughtfully, surround him or herself with the very best people possible, and implement the right plan, and not the almost right plan. It may prove to be the most far-reaching decision any President, or anyone else for that matter, will ever make.

1. 12th Planet, The; Sitchin, Zecharia, Bear & Company, Santa Fe, NM, this ed 1991 (general reference)
2. Abovetopsecert.com interview with Shirley MacLaine, November 2007
3. Aliens From Space; Keyhoe, Maj. Donald, Doubleday & Co., NY, 1973, p.p. 89-90
4. A Survey of Press Coverage of Unidentified Flying Objects, 1947 – 1966; Strentz, Herbert J., Dissertation submitted to the Graduate School of the Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Doctorate of Philosophy, June 1970, p.p. 242
5. Beyond Top Secret; Good, Timothy, Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1996, p.p. 259, 539
6. Bible & Flying Saucers, The; Downing, Rev. Barry H., Avon, NY, 1968 (general ref.)
7. From features@seacoastonline.com, “Call for Obama to open UFO files” by Dean Merchant, January 18, 2009
8. Cameron, Grant website; Jimmy Carter quote and Joseph Biden quote, this in response to the question, Do you believe in UFOs? http://www.presidentialufo.com/
9. “Carter Sighting, The, The A.P.R.O. Bulletin; November 1976, p.p. 1, 4-5
10. “Church and Spiritualism, The;” Thurston, Herbert, Milan, 1937; p.p.179
11. Die Sternewelt undihre Bewohner (translation: The Stars of the Universe and Its Inhabitants); Pohle, Joseph, Köln, Germany, 1904, p.p. 457
12. Flying Saucer Review, Vol. 5, No. 6, 1959 – pp. 28; Senator Richard B. Russell quote.
13. Flying Saucers, 101; Burt, Harold E., UFO Magazine Books, 2000, p.p. 96, 100
14. Freedom Writer, July/August 1997; “Pat Robertson advocates death by stoning for UFO enthusiasts”
15. “Proposed Study of the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs,” The Brookings Institution, released December 14, 1960
16. “In Defense of Secrecy,” New York Times Magazine; Feldman, Noah, p.p. 11-12
17. McClendon News Service News Release, March 30, 1998 press release, McClendon, Sarah, White House Correspondent
18. NBC News, October 30, 2007, from Barak Obama’s statement in reply to a question from Tim Russert: “Do you believe there is life beyond earth?
19. “Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey, The;” Peters, Dr. Ted, and Froehlig, Julie, MUFON UFO Journal, September 2008, No. 485, p.p 7-9
20. Reagan, Ronald; a note on the extraterrestrial quotation. My colleague Ron Regehr learned through Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson that the extraterrestrial references included in a number of President Reagan’s speeches were personally inserted by him and not the product of his speechwriters. They are penciled in in the President’s handwriting and archived at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
21. Robertson, Pat, comments from July 8, 1997 broadcast of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s, The 700 Club, and excerpts from their response to Peter Robbins’ letter of August 30, 1997
22. Roswell Dig Diaries, The; Doleman, William H., Carey, Thomas J., Schmitt , Donald R., Richardson, Bill and McAvennie, Mike, SCI FI Channel Books, NY, 2004, from the forward
23. Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects; Condon, Dr. Edward U., Bantam Books, New York, 1968, p.p.1
24. SCI FI Channel News Conference October 22, 2004, quoting John Podesta
25. Spaceships of Ezekiel, The; Blumrich, Josef F., Bantam Books, 1974 (general reference)
26. Thant, U, UN Secretary General reference. This statement appeared in the nationally syndicated newspaper column by Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson on June 27, 1967
27. Traitè de Mètapsychique; Richet, Charles, published in Paris 1922, p.p. 787-788
28. “Unholy Communion: The Unwanted Piece of the Puzzle;” Jordan, Joseph and Ruffino, David, DVD of lecture, CE4 Research Conference, Roswell NM, July 6, 2008
29. UFO and the Bible; Jessup, M.J., Citadel Press, NY, 1956 (general ref)
30. UFOcity.com Report, “UFOs and Intolerance;” Robbins, Peter, parts 1,2, & 3, September, October, November 1999
31. UFO Encyclopedia, The; 2nd Edition, Clark, Jerome, Omnigraphics, Inc., Detroit. Volume 1, p.p.174; Volume 2, p.p. 830-831
32. UFO Encyclopedia, The; Sachs, Margaret, Perigree Books, NYC, 1980, p.p. 225
33. “Ufology and Theological Clarifications;” Balducci, Monsignor Corrado, published Pescara, Italy, 2001 (deceased Sept. 20, 2008)
34. “UFO Research and Christian Faith,” Balthaser, Dennis G, independent investigative writer and columnist, June, 2004
35. UFOs and Extraterrestrials in History; Naud, Yves, Ferni Publishers, Geneva, 1978, volume 4 preface, unnumbered page
36. UFOs and Their Mission Impossible; Wilson, Dr. Clifford, Word of Truth Productions, NY, 1974
37. UFOs and the National Security State; Dolan, Richard M., Hampton Roads Publishing, VA, 2002, p.p. 245
38. UFOs and the National Security State: The Cover-Up Exposed, 1973-1991; Dolan, Richard M., Keyhole Publishing Co., Rochester, NY, 2009, Introduction, p.p. 5, 6
39. UFOs: Satanic Terror; Tyson, Basil, Horizon Books, Alberta, Canada, 1977 (general ref)
40. Unidentified Flying Objects Briefing Document: The Best Available Evidence; Berliner, Don, Galbraith, Marie, and Huneeus, Antonio, UFO Research Coalition, 1995, p.p. 21, 122, 123, 144, 147
41. “Will Obama Discuss UFO X-Files on Canada Trip;” Lowe, Larry, Phoenix UFO Examiner, February 16, 2009

UN report on UFOs 14-July 1978; Gordon Cooper, Jacques Vallee, Claude Poher, Allen Hynek, Sir Eric M. Gairy with UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim

by Dennis Stacy / 1985

For over two decades, from 1948 to 1969, Dr. J. Allen Hynek was a consultant in astronomy to the United States Air Force. The subject of his advice, however, was not the fledgling space program or even the moon and stars above, but Unidentified Flying Objects. In 1973 he founded the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) and had serves as Director and editor of its journal, “International UFO Reporter.”

STACY: Dr. Hynek, as a scientist, you go back as far with UFO phenomenon as probably anyone alive today. Exactly how did that relationship begin?
HYNEK: That’s an easy story to tell. In the spring of 1948, I was teaching astronomy at Ohio State University, in Columbus. One day thee men, and they weren’t dressed in black, came over to see me from Wright Patterson Air Force Base in nearby Dayton. They started out by talking about the weather, as I remember, and this and that, and then finally one of them asked me what I thought about flying saucers. I told them I thought they were a lot of junk and nonsense and that seemed to please them, so they got down to business. They said they needed some astronomical consultation because it was their job to find out what these flying saucer stories were all about. Some were meteors, they thought, others stars and so on, so they could use an astronomer. What the hell, I said, it sounded like fun and besides, I would be getting a top secret security clearance out of it, too. At that time, it was called Project Sign, and some of the personnel at least were taking the problem quite seriously. At the same time a big split was occurring in the Air Force between two schools of thought. The serious school prepared an estimation of the situation which they sent to General Vandenburg, but the other side eventually won out and the serious ones were shipped off to other places. The negatives won the day, in other words. My own investigations for Project Sign added to that, too, I think, because I was quite negative in most of my evaluations. I stretched far to give something a natural explanation, sometimes when it may not have really had it. I remember one case from Snake River Canyon, I think it was, where a man and his two sons saw a metallic object come swirling down the canyon which caused the top of the trees to sway. In my attempt to find a natural explanation for it, I said that it was some sort of atmospheric eddy. Of course, I had never seen an eddy like that and had no real reason to believe that one even existed. But I was so anxious to find a natural explanation because I was convinced that it had to have one that, naturally, I did in fact, it wasn’t until quite some time had passed that I began to change my mind.

STACY:Was there ever any direct pressure applied by the Air Force itself for you to come up with a conventional explanation to these phenomena?
HYNEK:There was an implied pressure, yes, very definitely.

STACY:In other words, you found yourself caught, like most of us, in a situation of trying to please your boss?
HYNEK:Yes, you might as well put it that way, although at the same time I wasn’t going against my scientific precepts. As an astronomer and physicist, I simply felt a priori that everything had to have a natural explanation in this world. There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. The ones I couldn’t solve, I thought if we just tried harder, had a really proper investigation, that we probably would find as answer for. My batting average was about 80 percent and I figured that anytime you were hitting that high, you were doing pretty good. That left about 20 percent unsolved for me, but only about three or four percent for the Air Force, because they used statistics in a way I would never have allowed for myself. For example, cases labeled as insufficient information they would consider solved! They also had some other little tricks. If a light were seen, they would say, “aircraft have lights, therefore, probable aircraft.” Then, at the end of the year, when the statistics were made up, they would drop the “possible” or “probable” and simply call it aircraft.

STACY:What began to change your own perception of the phenomenon?
HYNEK:Two things, really. One was the completely negative and unyielding attitude of the Air Force. They wouldn’t give UFOs the chance of existing, even if they were flying up and down the street in broad daylight. Everything had to have as explanation. I began to resent that, even though I basically felt the same way, because I still thought they weren’t going about it in the right way. You can’t assume that everything is black no matter what. Secondly, the caliber of the witnesses began to trouble me. Quite a few instances were reported by military pilots, for example, and I knew them to be fairly well-trained, so this is when I first began to think that, well, maybe there something to all this. The famous “swamp gas” case which came later on finally pushed me over the edge. From that point on, I began to look at reports from a different angle, which was to say that some of them could be true UFOs.

STACY:As your own attitude changed, did the Air Force’s attitude toward you change, too?
HYNEK:It certainly did, quite a bit, as a matter of fact. By way of background, I might add that the late Dr. James E. McDonald, a good friend of mine who was then an atmospheric meteorologist at the University of Arizona, and I had some fairly sharp words about it. He used to accuse me very much, saying you’re the scientific consultant to the Air Force, you should be pounding on generals’ doors and insisting on getting a better job done. I said, Jim, I was there, you weren’t you don’t know the mindset. They were under instruction from the Pentagon, following the Robertson Panel of 1953, that the whole subject had to be debunked, period, no question about it. That was the prevailing attitude. The panel was convened by the CIA, and I sat in on it, but I was not asked to sign the resolution. Had I been asked, I would not have signed it, because they took a completely negative attitude about everything. So when Jim McDonald used to accuse me of a sort of miscarriage of scientific justice, I had to tell him that had I done what he wanted, the generals would not have listened to me. They were already listening to Dr. Donald Menzel and the other boys over at the Harvard Astronomy Department as it was.

STACY:Did you think you would have been shown the front door and asked not to come back?
HYNEK:Inside of two weeks I imagine. You’re familiar with the case of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler from the history of astronomy? Brahe had the observations and didn’t know what to do with them, and Kepler,who was nearsighted and couldn’t make the observations, did. So essentially, I played Kepler to the Air Force’s Tycho Brahe. I knew the Air Force was getting the data and I wanted a look at it, so I made very full use of the copying machines at Wright-Patterson. I kept practically a duplicate set of records because I knew that someday that data would be worth something. Toward the end, however, I was barely speaking with Major Quintanilla who was in charge. We had started as really good friends and then things got very bad because he had one lieutenant who was such a nincompoop, it seemed to me. Everything had to be “Jupiter or Venus” or this or that. You have no idea what a closed mind, what a closed attitude it was. I kept doggedly on, but I can safely say that the whole time I was with the Air Force we never had anything that resembled a really good scientific dialogue on the subject.

STACY:They weren’t really interested in an actual investigation of the subject then?
HYNEK:They said they were, of course, but they would turn handsprings to keep a good case from getting to the “attention of the media”. Any case they solved, they had no trouble talking to the media about. It was really very sad…. I think their greatest mistake in the early days, however, was not turning it over to the universities or some academic group. They regarded it as an intelligence matter and it became increasingly more and more embarrassing to them. After all, we paid good tax dollars to have the Air Force guard our skies and it would have been bad public relations for them to say, yes there’s something up there, but we’re helpless. They just couldn’t do that, so they took the very human action of protecting their own interests. What they said was that we solved 96 per cent of the cases and that we could have solved the other four per cent if we had just tried harder.

STACY:Was it the famous Michigan sightings of 1966, explained away as “swamp gas” that finally did lead the Air Force to bring in a reputable university?
HYNEK:Yes, that, as you know, became something of a national joke and Michigan was soon being known as the “Swamp Gas State.” Eventually, it resulted in a Congressional Hearing called for by then state Congressman, Gerald Ford, who of course later went on to become President. The investigation was turned over to the Brian O’Brien Committee who did a very good job. Had their recommendations been carried out, things might have turned out much better than they did. The recommended that UFOs be taken away from the Air Force and given to a group of universities, to study the thing in a as wide a way as possible. Well, they didn’t go to a group, they went to a university and a man they were certain would be very hard-nosed about it, namely, Dr. Edward Condon at the University of Colorado. That was how the Condon Committee and eventually the Report came to be.

STACY:Were you ever called on to testify before, or advise the Committee?
HYNEK:In the early days they called on me to talk to them, to brief them, but that was the extent of it. They certainly didn’t take any of my advice.

STACY:By 1968, the generally negative Condon Report was made public and the Air Force used its conclusions to get out of the UFO business. Were you still an official advisor or consultant at that time?
HYNEK:Oh, yes, I was with the Air Force right up until the very end, but it was just on paper. No one had cut the chicken’s head off yet, but the chicken was dead. The last days at Blue Book were just a perfunctory shuffling of papers.

STACY:In terms of the UFO phenomenon itself, what was going on about this time?
HYNEK:Well, as you know, the Condon Report said that a group of scientists had looked at UFOs and that the subject was dead. The UFOs, of course, didn’t bother to read the report and during the Flap of 1973, they came back in force.

The CIA’s UFO History
by Mark Rodeghier

After the Cold War ended, the culture of secrecy and the operational style of the CIA began to change. Its director appeared on a radio talk show, and it became possible for citizens to pressure the CIA in ways unheard of during that earlier era. Ufology has been a beneficiary of these changes.

In late 1993, inquiries from several UFO researchers led CIA Director R. James Woolsey to order a review of all CIA files on UFOs. This agency-wide search occurred in 1994 and centralized the CIA’s UFO files. Taking advantage of this opportunity, government historian Gerald K. Haines reviewed the documents, conducted interviews, and wrote a study examining the CIA’s interest and involvement in UFO investigation and government UFO policy from 1947 until 1990. Haines’s study was published in Studies in Intelligence, a classified journal published quarterly for the intelligence community. The article, “CIA’s Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947–90,” appeared in the first semiannual unclassified edition for 1997, on pages 67–84. It can be found at http://www.odci.gov/csi/studies/97unclas/ufo.html [dead link]

This is a rather important document because it is the first time that a government agency has written a review of its involvement with UFOs. Although the study had been available at least since June when I downloaded it from the CIA Web site, it did not receive widespread publicity until early August. But when the press learned about the Haines study, the attention was dramatic. The story was carried in most large newspapers, on the NBC Nightly News, and many other media outlets. A typical headline from the Chicago Sun-Times reads, “CIA feared UFO hysteria.” Several columnists used the CIA history as an opportunity to bash the CIA and secrecy in government, as exemplified by the column by David Wise (author of The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power) in the New York Times “Big Lies and Little Green Men.”

The media generally focused on two aspects of the Haines article. In a brief section entitled “CIA’s U–2 and OXCART as UFOs,” Haines claims that many UFO sightings in the late 1950s and 1960s were actually misidentified secret American spy planes. Moreover, he alleges that the Air Force’s Project Blue Book was in on this cover-up, purposely misled the public, and falsified (Haines didn’t use that word but that is plainly what the Air Force would be doing) UFO explanations. This is important news if true, and the media rightly played up this angle. Note that the CIA is not accused of deception by Haines; rather, it is the Air Force that willingly concocted the bogus explanations. Reporters asked the Air Force for comment, and on August 4, Brigadier General Ronald Sconyers told the press, “I cannot confirm or deny that we lied. The Air Force is committed to providing accurate and timely information within the confines of national security.”

General Sconyers sounds a bit like a weasel-worded politician, and his statement hardly serves to reduce the controversy.he second topic seized upon by the press and played up as news was the CIA-sponsored Robertson Panel from 1953. Yes, that is correct, the Robertson Panel, whose report has been well-known to anyone interested in UFOs for over 30 years now. That the press could consider the recommendations of the panel to be news at this late date speaks volumes for the intelligence, reporting skills, and historical knowledge of the Fifth Estate. (The Washington Post, in full damage-control mode, said in an editorial that the study was “not an exposé full of new revelations,” but the paper had already published an article claiming the opposite.)

Press coverage focused on the panel’s recommendations that UFO reports be debunked (a policy Blue Book followed assiduously after 1953), that UFO groups be watched, and that there was a danger the Soviets might use UFOs to clog the channels of communication and then launch a nuclear attack. The deception about our spy planes was just a small part of this strategy. Although the press was only late by about 40 years, their coverage of this aspect of the report is a positive note for ufology. What is clear from the tone of most articles is that the CIA’s (and Air Force’s) lies about UFOs are just further examples of all the many lies the American public had been told during the Cold War. And for once, ufologists are being viewed in a sympathetic light by the media as direct victims of government deception.

Coming on the heels of the Air Force’s second report on Roswell, the tide has begun to turn against the government in the UFO debate. More and more, it is becoming apparent the government has lied about UFOs for years, and that it still may be lying today. Although the press gave so much coverage to the Haines article, it missed part of the story, failed to do any independent investigation, and generally swallowed the report as written. As Paul Harvey says, now for the rest of the story.

The CIA’s excessive secrecy
The report by Haines is remarkably brief, given the CIA’s complex UFO involvement. In its Internet version the full article is 21 pages in length, with eight pages of that for footnotes (with several interesting tidbits buried there). Whole swaths of history, such as the early 1970s, are compressed into a few paragraphs or sentences. Certainly a more complete study could be done, and perhaps the classified version is a bit longer.

Nevertheless, to this credit, Haines several times makes it clear that the CIA bungled the handling of UFOs because of its policies of excessive secrecy, in effect fueling the idea of a massive UFO cover-up (for which, not surprisingly, Haines finds no evidence). For example, in 1957 Leon Davidson, a UFO investigator who worked at getting the Robrtson Panel report released and was a believer in a government cover–up, was working on a UFO case involving a strange tape recording made by the Maier sisters of Chicago. This tape had actually been analyzed by the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) and found to be “nothing more than Morse code from a US radio station.”

When Davidson wrote to Dewelt Walker, the CIA officer who had contacted the Maier sisters, Walker obfuscated and refused to provide a straight answer about his role. When Davidson persisted, the CIA had the Air Force contact Davidson saying that Walker “was and is an Air Force Officer.” Then to further screw things up, the CIA had one of its officers dress in an Air Force uniform and contact Davidson, claiming to speak on behalf of the Air Force. One cannot blame Davidson for believing there was a cover-up because, obviously, there was. As Haines writes, “Thus, a minor, rather bizarre incident, handled poorly by both the CIA and the Air Force, turned into a major flap that added fuel to the growing mystery surrounding UFOs and CIA’s role in their investigation.”

In another incident, officers from the Contact Division (CD) of the CIA obtained a UFO photograph from Ralph Mayher in November 1957. After the photos were returned (with no comment or analysis for Mayher), he contacted the CD for the CIA’s evaluation because he wanted to mention it on a television program on which he was going to appear. The CIA declined. Major Donald Keyhoe, head of NICAP, heard about these events and contacted the CIA to confirm the story. But the CIA refused, referring the matter to the Air Force, even though, as Haines writes, “CD field representatives were normally overt and carried credentials identifying their Agency association.” No wonder, again, that ufologists would conclude the government was lying about its UFO activities.

Monitoring of UFO investigators
Although the CIA clearly lied to Davidson and Keyhoe, the actual UFO events at the heart of each story were mundane and not of particular importance. More sinister is the suggestion that the CIA (or FBI at the CIA’s direction) has monitored UFO groups and investigators. Haines has no direct evidence for this, but it is unclear where such records would be kept or whether they would even be at the CIA (rather than the FBI). Certainly, the FBI has files on various ufologists, including Richard Hall, head of the Fund for UFO Research and long-time staffer at NICAP.

A complete history of the CIA’s involvement in UFOs should have discussed this critical issue in depth; after all, the Robertson Panel recommended that UFO groups be monitored for subversive activities. That Haines did not fully discuss this subject can probably be attributed to his ignorance of UFO history, to the lack of documentation about this subject in CIA records, and perhaps, to the scope of his article which is more concerned with the investigation of UFOs rather than the investigation of ufologists.

The one bit of evidence Haines does include involves Leon Davidson again. In 1958, worried about future inquiries about government UFO investigation, the CIA met with the Air Force to discuss what to do with such requests. CIA officer Frank Chapin “hinted that Davidson might have ulterior motives” and he suggested having the FBI investigate Davidson. Haines says the record is unclear as to whether the FBI ever acted on this suggestion, but it is not clear how deeply Haines investigated this possibility. Although the evidence is circumstantial, there are other hints that the government was monitoring UFO groups long before these discussions. In their book UFOs Over the Americas, Jim and Coral Lorenzen detail several rather bizarre incidents of what would seem to be rather clumsy attempts to learn the Lorenzens’ motives for their UFO investigations and the work of APRO, the organization they founded. These occurred in several states over at least a dozen years, and the Lorenzens sound more amused by the experience than upset.

In point of fact, just about any ufologist would have been pleased to have the Air Force or CIA approach them and ask for advice about UFO investigations or what types of cases the investigator was receiving. The problem faced by these agencies, as Haines outlines, is that an excessive policy of secrecy kept them from openly contacting UFO investigators who most likely would have cooperated with government requests for information. As evidence, in early 1965 CIA agents finally did meet openly with Richard Hall at NICAP offices, who glady gave them copies of UFO reports for the CIA’s own review of the UFO situation.

The Robertson Panel
There is no more pivotal event in the CIA’s involvement with UFOs, perhaps in the U.S. government’s interest in UFOs, than the Robertson Panel of January 1953. Haines devotes just over a page to this critical study, which provides him no room for nuance or much more than a bare reciting of the facts. In his review of CIA documents he demonstrates the very high-level CIA interest in UFOs engendered by the UFO flap in the summer of 1952 and, especially, the sightings over Washington, D.C. A special study group was formed within OSI to review the UFO situation. Director Walter Bedell Smith “wanted to know whether or not the Air Force investigation of flying saucers was sufficiently objective,” and he wondered “what use could be made of the UFO phenomenon in connection with US psychological warfare efforts.”

Memos and meetings were frequent in late 1952 as the CIA considered what should be done about the UFO problem. Haines’s research shows that the Robertson Panel’s concerns about the clogging of communication channels and the use of UFOs to disrupt U.S. air defenses were taken straight from CIA concerns expressed in internal memos during the summer of 1952. In other words, the Robertson Panel, despite the eminence of the scientists involved, appears to have been carefully orchestrated by the CIA to come to the conclusions it did, which included debunking UFOs with the help of the Air Force Project Blue Book. Haines does not comment on this element of the CIA’s role in determining government policy.

Spy planes and UFOs
I turn now to the issue that so dominated press coverage of Haines’s article, the claim that many UFO reports were caused by secret aircraft flights. Given the nature of many UFO reports of objects seen at close range low to the ground, ufologists have uniformly found this claim preposterous. I have over the years personally reviewed the majority of Blue Book reports and know that that they were not caused by misidentifications of spy planes. But because this is such an important claim, here is the full discussion of this issue by Haines.

In November 1954, CIA had entered into the world of high technology with its U-2 overhead reconnaissance project. Working with Lockheed’s Advanced Development facility in Burbank, California, known as the Skunk Works, and Kelly Johnson, an eminent aeronautical engineer, the Agency by August 1955 was testing a high-altitude experimental aircraft—the U-2. It could fly at 60,000 feet; in the mid-1950s, most commercial airliners flew between 10,000 feet and 20,000 feet. Consequently, once the U-2 started test flights, commercial pilots and air traffic controllers began reporting a large increase in UFO sightings.

The early U-2s were silver (they were later painted black) and reflected the rays from the sun, especially at sunrise and sunset. They often appeared as fiery objects to observers below. Air Force BLUE BOOK investigators aware of the secret U-2 flights tried to explain away such sightings by linking them to natural phenomena such as ice crystals and temperature inversions. By checking with the Agency’s U-2 Project Staff in Washington, BLUE BOOK investigators were able to attribute many UFO sightings to U-2 flights. They were careful, however, not to reveal the true cause of the sighting to the public.

According to later estimates from CIA officials who worked on the U–2 project and the OXCART (SR-71, or Blackbird) project, over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950s through the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2) over the United States. This led the Air Force to make misleading and deceptive statements to the public in order to allay public fears and to protect an extraordinarily sensitive national security project. While perhaps justified, this deception added fuel to the later conspiracy theories and the cover-up controversy of the 1970s. The percentage of what the Air Force considered unexplained UFO sightings fell to 5.9 percent in 1955 and to 4 percent in 1956.

What exactly is the evidence for the claim that “over half of all UFO reports . . . were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights”? In one footnote, Haines mentions the monograph The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954–1974, by Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welzenbach (1992). A colleague at CUFOS tried to obtain a copy of this reference, which was published by the CIA History Staff, but has been told the monograph is classified. That makes it impossible to verify its accuracy. In a second footnote, Haines mentions a telephone interview with a John Parongosky, who “oversaw the day-to-day affairs of the OXCART program.” I would like to call Mr. Parongosky myself, but have been unable to find any listing or address for him. In any case, there is a very straightforward step which could verify this claim about spy planes, one I am surprised was not taken by at least one reporter. If the Air Force was lying about the cause of UFO sightings to protect the secrecy of our spy planes, then obviously the heads of Blue Book would hve been central to the deception. Yet no one seems to have contacted any of these officers, most of whom are still living, for a comment.

I had previously spoken to Lt. Col. (Ret.) Robert Friend, head of Blue Book from about 1958 to early 1963, on a matter of UFO history, so I called him again recently to discuss this subject. Friend had not heard about the CIA report (he doesn’t watch much television and doesn’t follow UFO news closely these days), but he was very interested to learn about its existence. He asked me for a copy plus any news stories I had on the report. I read to him the discussion by Haines reproduced above and then asked for his comment. Almost the first words he said were that it is “absolutely not true” that he or his Blue Book team were covering up spy flights as alleged by Haines. He found the whole idea laughable, and he knew Blue Book did not receive more reports from pilots and air traffic controllers after the U-2 began flying.

I asked him if he had ever concealed classified activities that were reported as UFOs. Friend indicated that, indeed, this had occurred on a few occasions, but it was not a regular occurrence. I inquired as to whether he had regular contact with the CIA at Blue Book. He said that he did because the CIA overlooked no potential source of information and wanted to keep tabs on all government intelligence activities. In addition, the Air Force had utilized the services of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, the CIA’s photo analysis office, to analyze UFO photos. However, in none of his contacts with the CIA or U-2 project staff was Friend ever told to conceal sightings of the U-2 by the CIA.

To be absolutely sure before I ended the conversation, I asked Friend whether the project had ever received a sighting which he recognized as caused by a U-2 (or other secret aircraft). He said, to his recollection, no. Once again, he chuckled about the idea of half of all UFO reports being caused by manned reconnaissance flights. I then read him the statement by Sconyers quoted earlier, in which the general cannot “confirm or deny that we lied.” This brought a guffaw from Friend, who wondered why Sconyers, or anyone currently in the Pentagon, should know what happened 30 years ago. We both marveled at how the press and the military (and Haines) had failed to contact the obvious central figures in this alleged cover-up.

In summary, then, the claim that motivated the press coverage of Haines’s report is inaccurate and is not evidence for a CIA and Air Force cover-up of UFO sightings and lies to the American public. Yet the CIA and Air Force did knowingly debunk UFO sightings, and Blue Book personnel often came up with any old explanation so that the yearly summary sheets would have only a small percentage of unidentified sightings. So I’m not too unhappy that the CIA and Air Force were taken to task for something they didn’t do, but it is important to set the record straight.

Forcing disclosure of CIA records
Beginning in the mid-1970s, UFO researchers began using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request government, including CIA, documents on UFOs. Once again, the CIA mishandled the requests. After William Spaulding, head of Ground Saucer Watch, wrote in 1975 requesting UFO records, the CIA Information and Privacy Coordinator Gene Wilson wrote to Spaulding that the Robertson Panel was “the summation of the Agency interest and involvement in UFOs.” As Haines states, “Wilson was ill-informed.”

Not believing Wilson’s statements, ufologists sued the CIA for records and won the release of about 800 pages in December of 1978. Since the CIA had, unwisely, been denying its inolvement in UFO matters, the media was surprised to learn how many documents were held by the agency. The New York Times claimed as a result that the CIA was probably secretly involved in the study of UFOs. CIA Director Stansfield Turner was so upset by this that he asked his senior officers “Are we in UFOs?” He received a negative answer from his deputy and so moved to quash a new lawsuit asking for the withheld documents from the first release.Notwithstanding the reply Turner got, Haines found that the CIA continued a few activities during the 1980s. As he writes:

During the late 1970s and 1980s, the Agency continued its low-key interest in UFOs and UFO sightings. While most scientists now dismissed flying saucers [sic] reports as a quaint part of the 1950s and 1960s, some in the Agency and in the Intelligence Community shifted their interest to studying parapsychology and psychic phenomena associated with UFO sightings. CIA officials also looked at the UFO problem to determine what UFO sightings might tell them about Soviet progress in rockets and missiles and reviewed its counterintelligence aspects. Agency analysts from the Life Science Division of OSI and OSWR officially devoted a small amount of their time to issues relating to UFOs. These included counterintelligence concerns that the Soviets and the KGB were using US citizens and UFO groups to obtain information on sensitive US weapons development programs (such as the Stealth aircraft), the vulnerability of the US air-defense network to penetration by foreign missiles mimicking UFOs, and evidence of Soviet advanced technology associated with UFO sightings.

If I hadn’t checked the calendar after reading this, I would have sworn this was 1952 and I was reading of CIA concerns about how UFOs could be used by the Soviets against the United States, as eventually expressed in the recommendations of the Roberson Panel report. Some things never change, at least during the Cold War. Haines notes that during this period, “Agency officials purposely kept files on UFOs to a minimum to avoid creating records that might mislead the public if released,” and Haines says he found almost no documentation on CIA involvement with UFOs in the 1980s. This certainly is an effective method to circumvent FOIA, but it hardly leads to further confidence in the CIA. Finally, in an intriguing footnote, Haines says that the “CIA reportedly is also a member of an Incident Response Team to investigate UFO landings, if one should occur. This team has never met.” Say what? He offers no evidence for this statement, which, if true, belies the notion that the government completely ignores UFO reports.

After decades of denying the facility’s existence, five former insiders speak out
by Annie Jacobsen / April 05, 2009

Area 51. It’s the most famous military institution in the world that doesn’t officially exist. If it did, it would be found about 100 miles outside Las Vegas in Nevada’s high desert, tucked between an Air Force base and an abandoned nuclear testing ground. Then again, maybe not– the U.S. government refuses to say. You can’t drive anywhere close to it, and until recently, the airspace overhead was restricted–all the way to outer space. Any mention of Area 51 gets redacted from official documents, even those that have been declassified for decades.

It has become the holy grail for conspiracy theorists, with UFOlogists positing that the Pentagon reverse engineers flying saucers and keeps extraterrestrial beings stored in freezers. Urban legend has it that Area 51 is connected by underground tunnels and trains to other secret facilities around the country. In 2001, Katie Couric told Today Show audiences that 7 percent of Americans doubt the moon landing happened–that it was staged in the Nevada desert. Millions of X-Files fans believe the truth may be “out there,” but more likely it’s concealed inside Area 51’s Strangelove-esque hangars–buildings that, though confirmed by Google Earth, the government refuses to acknowledge.

The problem is the myths of Area 51 are hard to dispute if no one can speak on the record about what actually happened there. Well, now, for the first time, someone is ready to talk–in fact, five men are, and their stories rival the most outrageous of rumors. Colonel Hugh “Slip” Slater, 87, was commander of the Area 51 base in the 1960s. Edward Lovick, 90, featured in “What Plane?” in LA’s March issue, spent three decades radar testing some of the world’s most famous aircraft (including the U-2, the A-12 OXCART and the F-117). Kenneth Collins, 80, a CIA experimental test pilot, was given the silver star. Thornton “T.D.” Barnes, 72, was an Area 51 special-projects engineer. And Harry Martin, 77, was one of the men in charge of the base’s half-million-gallon monthly supply of spy-plane fuels. Here are a few of their best stories–for the record: On May 24, 1963, Collins flew out of Area 51’s restricted airspace in a top-secret spy plane code-named OXCART, built by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. He was flying over Utah when the aircraft pitched, flipped and headed toward a crash. He ejected into a field of weeds.

Almost 46 years later, in late fall of 2008, sitting in a coffee shop in the San Fernando Valley, Collins remembers that day with the kind of clarity the threat of a national security breach evokes: “Three guys came driving toward me in a pickup. I saw they had the aircraft canopy in the back. They offered to take me to my plane.” Until that moment, no civilian without a top-secret security clearance had ever laid eyes on the airplane Collins was flying. “I told them not to go near the aircraft. I said it had a nuclear weapon on-board.” The story fit right into the Cold War backdrop of the day, as many atomic tests took place in Nevada. Spooked, the men drove Collins to the local highway patrol. The CIA disguised the accident as involving a generic Air Force plane, the F-105, which is how the event is still listed in official records.

As for the guys who picked him up, they were tracked down and told to sign national security nondisclosures. As part of Collins’ own debriefing, the CIA asked the decorated pilot to take truth serum. “They wanted to see if there was anything I’d for-gotten about the events leading up to the crash.” The Sodium Pento-thal experience went without a hitch–except for the reaction of his wife, Jane. “Late Sunday, three CIA agents brought me home. One drove my car; the other two carried me inside and laid me down on the couch. I was loopy from the drugs. They handed Jane the car keys and left without saying a word.” The only conclusion she could draw was that her husband had gone out and gotten drunk. “Boy, was she mad,” says Collins with a chuckle.

At the time of Collins’ accident, CIA pilots had been flying spy planes in and out of Area 51 for eight years, with the express mission of providing the intelligence to prevent nuclear war. Aerial reconnaissance was a major part of the CIA’s preemptive efforts, while the rest of America built bomb shelters and hoped for the best. “It wasn’t always called Area 51,” says Lovick, the physicist who developed stealth technology. His boss, legendary aircraft designer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, called the place Paradise Ranch to entice men to leave their families and “rough it” out in the Nevada desert in the name of science and the fight against the evil empire. “Test pilot Tony LeVier found the place by flying over it,” says Lovick. “It was a lake bed called Groom Lake, selected for testing because it was flat and far from anything. It was kept secret because the CIA tested U-2s there.”

When Frances Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1960, the U-2 program lost its cover. But the CIA already had Lovick and some 200 scientists, engineers and pilots working at Area 51 on the A-12 OXCART, which would outfox Soviet radar using height, stealth and speed. Col. Slater was in the outfit of six pilots who flew OXCART missions during the Vietnam War. Over a Cuban meat and cheese sandwich at the Bahama Breeze restaurant off the Las Vegas Strip, he says, “I was recruited for the Area after working with the CIA’s classified Black Cat Squadron, which flew U-2 missions over denied territory in Mainland China. After that, I was told, ‘You should come out to Nevada and work on something interesting we’re doing out there.’ ”

Even though Slater considers himself a fighter pilot at heart–he flew 84 missions in World War II–the opportunity to work at Area 51 was impossible to pass up. “When I learned about this Mach-3 aircraft called OXCART, it was completely intriguing to me–this idea of flying three times the speed of sound! No one knew a thing about the program. I asked my wife, Barbara, if she wanted to move to Las Vegas, and she said yes. And I said, ‘You won’t see me but on the weekends,’ and she said, ‘That’s fine!’ ” At this recollection, Slater laughs heartily. Barbara, dining with us, laughs as well. The two, married for 63 years, are rarely apart today. “We couldn’t have told you any of this a year ago,” Slater says. “Now we can’t tell it to you fast enough.” That is because in 2007, the CIA began declassifying the 50-year-old OXCART program. Today, there’s a scramble for eyewitnesses to fill in the information gaps. Only a few of the original players are left. Two more of them join me and the Slaters for lunch: Barnes, formerly an Area 51 special-projects engineer, with his wife, Doris; and Martin, one of those overseeing the OXCART’s specially mixed jet fuel (regular fuel explodes at extreme height, temperature and speed), with his wife, Mary. Because the men were sworn to secrecy for so many decades, their wives still get a kick out of hearing the secret tales.

Barnes was married at 17 (Doris was 16). To support his wife, he became an electronics wizard, buying broken television sets, fixing them up and reselling them for five times the original price. He went from living in bitter poverty on a Texas Panhandle ranch with no electricity to buying his new bride a dream home before he was old enough to vote. As a soldier in the Korean War, Barnes demonstrated an uncanny aptitude for radar and Nike missile systems, which made him a prime target for recruitment by the CIA–which indeed happened when he was 22. By 30, he was handling nuclear secrets. “The agency located each guy at the top of a certain field and put us together for the programs at Area 51,” says Barnes. As a security precaution, he couldn’t reveal his birth name–he went by the moniker Thunder. Coworkers traveled in separate cars, helicopters and airplanes. Barnes and his group kept to themselves, even in the mess hall. “Our special-projects group was the most classified team since the Manhattan Project,” he says.

Harry Martin’s specialty was fuel. Handpicked by the CIA from the Air Force, he underwent rigorous psychological and physical tests to see if he was up for the job. When he passed, the CIA moved his family to Nevada. Because OXCART had to refuel frequently, the CIA kept supplies at secret facilities around the globe. Martin often traveled to these bases for quality-control checks. He tells of preparing for a top-secret mission from Area 51 to Thule, Greenland. “My wife took one look at me in these arctic boots and this big hooded coat, and she knew not to ask where I was going.”

So, what of those urban legends–the UFOs studied in secret, the underground tunnels connecting clandestine facilities? For decades, the men at Area 51 thought they’d take their secrets to the grave. At the height of the Cold War, they cultivated anonymity while pursuing some of the country’s most covert projects. Conspiracy theories were left to popular imagination. But in talking with Collins, Lovick, Slater, Barnes and Martin, it is clear that much of the folklore was spun from threads of fact.

As for the myths of reverse engineering of flying saucers, Barnes offers some insight: “We did reverse engineer a lot of foreign technology, including the Soviet MiG fighter jet out at the Area”–even though the MiG wasn’t shaped like a flying saucer. As for the underground-tunnel talk, that, too, was born of truth. Barnes worked on a nuclear-rocket program called Project NERVA, inside underground chambers at Jackass Flats, in Area 51’s backyard. “Three test-cell facilities were connected by railroad, but everything else was underground,” he says.

And the quintessential Area 51 conspiracy–that the Pentagon keeps captured alien spacecraft there, which they fly around in restricted airspace? Turns out that one’s pretty easy to debunk. The shape of OXCART was unprece-dented, with its wide, disk-like fuselage designed to carry vast quantities of fuel. Commercial pilots cruising over Nevada at dusk would look up and see the bottom of OXCART whiz by at 2,000-plus mph. The aircraft’s tita-nium body, moving as fast as a bullet, would reflect the sun’s rays in a way that could make anyone think, UFO.

In all, 2,850 OXCART test flights were flown out of Area 51 while Slater was in charge. “That’s a lot of UFO sightings!” Slater adds. Commercial pilots would report them to the FAA, and “when they’d land in California, they’d be met by FBI agents who’d make them sign nondisclosure forms.” But not everyone kept quiet, hence the birth of Area 51’s UFO lore. The sightings incited uproar in Nevada and the surrounding areas and forced the Air Force to open Project BLUE BOOK to log each claim.

Since only a few Air Force officials were cleared for OXCART (even though it was a joint CIA/USAF project), many UFO sightings raised internal military alarms. Some generals believed the Russians might be sending stealth craft over American skies to incite paranoia and create widespread panic of alien invasion. Today, BLUE BOOK findings are housed in 37 cubic feet of case files at the National Archives–74,000 pages of reports. A keyword search brings up no mention of the top-secret OXCART or Area 51. Project BLUE BOOK was shut down in 1969–more than a year after OXCART was retired. But what continues at America’s most clandestine military facility could take another 40 years to disclose.