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Episode 55: Interview on Extraterrestrial Life with Dr. Brian Hynek

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Recap: Dr. Brian Hynek (no relation to J. Allen Hynek) is a professor in the geological sciences department at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Over the past decade, he has built a multi-faceted research program to explore different ways of getting at the basic question: Is there life on other planets in our solar system? In this interview, we talk about the different ways to address this question and some of the ways not to address it.

Solution to Episode 54's Puzzler

Jan's idea was to observe the orbit of Mercury because any planet should perturb it. Which, actually, historically was what was thought to be evidence for a planet Vulcan until Einstein came along and explained the tiny perturbations were due to general relativity. Another idea of Jan's was that the sun would also wobble very very slightly, but he's right in that it's probably so minute it would be undetectable. A third method he suggested is that it would likely transit the sun, just like earlier this year we had the Transit of Venus and a few years ago the Transit of Mercury. And, at least since we've been observing the sun for maybe 200 years or so in any detail, we have not seen any transiting planets that we did not know about.

David suggested that objects interior to Mercury could be visible during a total solar eclipse, and that Mariner 10 when it swung by may have been able to see a vulcanoid asteroid. This is less of an ideal solution from Jan's though, because Mariner 10 never did a really thorough survey for volcanoids.

Patrick's ideas were along the same lines, but slightly different. He suggested using a solar observing spacecraft to look for transits but recognized that there would be a lower-limit of detection possibility. Similar to the eclipse idea of David's, he suggested also using an occultation disk to block the sun and search the space nearby, kind of like you see SOHO images of the solar corona or comets crashing into the Sun. He also suggested general surveys from Mercury or Venus, though you'd need a lot of time and many repeat observations to really rule anything out.

Leonard suggested the same basic idea of watching for transits and pointed out that if any population of Vulcanoids existed that were kilometers across, they probably would have been found by now based on all the sun observations we've done over the last two decades with spacecraft.

One thing that no one brought up was a story I read maybe a decade ago about very high-altitude airplane surveys. The researchers would use an infrared telescope because the sun is relatively dark in infrared, fly the plane just at the time the sun sets below the horizon, and scan the sky near the sun for any object once they're above a large chunk of Earth's atmosphere. They turned up nothing.

Puzzler: If we were to design a mission to another planet today, what type of mission (lander or orbiter) and what instruments would be best to make what kinds of measurements to try to detect microorganism life, assuming it's life as we know it? Put another way, you are put in charge of planning a mission to search for life. What kind of mission would it be, what kind of measurements would you need to make, and what kind of instruments would you need?

Q&A: There was no Q&A this episode.

Additional Materials:


Dr. Brian Hynek is a professor in planetary sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder. One of his main research interests is assessing the possibility for life beyond Earth. And somehow that meant that I completed a thesis project with him on craters. As part of Brian's efforts, he spends lots of time gallivanting around exotic locales on our planet, studying extremophiles in active volcanoes.

Since this was an interview, there is no transcript. A rough outline of the questions asked that guided the discussion follows.

Question: Before we get started, your last name is spelled "H-y-n-e-k." There's a famous person in UFOlogy named J. Allen Hynek. Spelled the same way, pronounced differently, and so the question ask to be asked if there's any relation, and if not, have people ever contacted you thinking there was?

Question: What do YOU study in terms of astrobiology?

Question: How do we search for life in the solar system? So much stuff in the popular press releases centers around water, and object-wise on Mars and Europa and now maybe Enceladus and Titan. But in Star Trek, Spock or Data could just use a simple life signs detector to figure out if a planet was dead or not. What's the disconnect here, how do we actually go looking for life?

Question: On bodies like Titan and Europa, you have very low surface temperatures. How much slower will chemical reactions take place, and would this have any effect on life's development and/or metabolism?[Related] Question: Where is Earth most Mars-like? and, Where is Mars most Earth-like?

[Related] Question: How much thicker and warmer is the atmosphere at the bottom of Valles Marineris, and because it is a topographic low and so has more atmosphere, is that a good place to go looking for life?

[Related] Question: While we're still on Mars, there was a very recent announcement, last Friday as we're recording this, about no detection of methane on Mars by the Curiosity rover. There's gong to be a future podcast episode that's all about methane on Mars with Dr. Raina Gough, but could you briefly tell us about the significance of methane and the significance of no significant detection by this significant rover?

Question: Let's talk a bit about some of the suggested previous detections of microbiological life. An early one that caused a lot of excitement at the time was in the 1990s with the meteorite ALH84001. What was all that about?

[Related] Question: Can you tell us about climate models for ancient Mars and the possibilities of any fossilized Martian life? Micro or macroscopic?

Question: In the 1970s, there were the Viking landers and an experiment that, according to most people except the team that built it, did not detect life. But recently, those results have been debated. What's the story there?

Question: Has macroscopic life been ruled out elsewhere in the solar system?

Question: Can you talk at all about the 2010 announcement of bacterium GFAJ-1, the one that supposedly substituted the phosphorus in its DNA with arsenic that almost no one but the original authors believe, and what the relevance of that would be for extraterrestrial life?

Question: What do you know about Planetary Protection at NASA - how it works, what the rules are, and what do you think our actual odds are for contaminating, say, Mars with terrestrial life?

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