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Four Astronomy Stories

on June 12, 2010

Astronomy stories, times four

a. BBC News: “Huge Seas ‘Once Existed on Mars’

In what seems like routine news, astronomers have found more evidence that water once flowed on Mars.

“Huge seas” is the latest speculation, based on evidence of geologic mapping of the Hellas Planitia region of Mars. According to the scientists, the data indicate a lake in the basin of Mars’s largest impact crater around four billion years ago.

Unsurprisingly, what has the researchers excited is evidence that the conditions on Mars were “more favourable for the evolution of life at this time than they were on Earth,” BBC News reports. Of course, the presupposition is that in “favorable” conditions the probability of life evolving is greater than zero.

"The Lost Hammer spring is the most extreme subzero and salty environment we’ve found.”

b. ScienceDaily: “Could Life Survive on Mars? Yes, Expert Says

Looking for an exotic vacation destination? If you’re an anaerobic organism, Mars may be just the right place.

Canadian scientists have discovered a thought-provoking ecological system on Axel Heiberg Island, in the far north of the country. Known as the Lost Hammer spring, the site hosts a variety of bacteria that live off methane in an environment thought to be similar to some on Mars.

According to the scientists, the water doesn’t freeze despite the cold due to its salt content; the water contains methane and sulfate, which are thought to sustain the organisms. For the researchers, the obvious question was whether the same scenario might exist on Mars.

“If you have a situation where you have very cold salty water, it could potentially support a microbial community, even in that extreme harsh environment,” explains McGill University microbiologist Lyle Whyte. “There are places on Mars where the temperature reaches relatively warm -10 to 0 degrees and perhaps even above 0º C, and on Axel Heiberg [Island] it gets down to -50, easy. The Lost Hammer spring is the most extreme subzero and salty environment we’ve found.”

The team’s discovery is thrilling insofar as we continue to learn about the incredible hardiness and diversity of the life-forms God created. And it may well be that such organisms could survive in the right Martian environment. But there’s nonetheless an implicit logical jump that Whyte and his team make: assuming that life could exist on Mars (or anywhere, for that matter) without God placing it there.

c. ScienceDaily: “Life on Titan? New Clues to What’s Consuming Hydrogen, Acetylene on Saturn’s Moon

Titan, one of Saturn’s most famous moons, has long been a target of speculation for the existence of life off Earth—speculation that continues to grow.

Researchers propose that the disappearance of hydrogen molecules on Titan’s surface may be evidence of methane-based life, i.e., based on methane rather than water. “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, explained NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay. “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.”

"It is more likely that a chemical process ... can explain these results."

The NASA press release includes buried tidbits that indicate a more cautious perspective, however: “non-biological chemistry offers one possible explanation . . . methane-based life forms are only hypothetical [and s]cientists have not yet detected this form of life anywhere . . . [w]ater is frozen solid on Titan’s surface and much too cold to support life as we know it.” Thus, it seems like a humorous understatement when the release quotes Johns Hopkins University’s Darrell Strobel, who notes that the findings “do not definitively prove” (our emphasis) the existence of life on Titan.

More circumspect is NASA’s Mark Allen, who wisely said, “Scientific conservatism suggests that a biological explanation should be the last choice after all non-biological explanations are addressed. 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.”

d. BBC News: “Telescope ‘to Find’ Space Origin

Where did it all begin? The European Low Frequency Array telescope aims to find out.

The telescope will collect radio waves from sites in England and elsewhere across Europe, then send the data to a supercomputer in the Netherlands that will process the information. Among other things, scientists hope to learn when the first stars were formed.

“The . . . telescope will produce an enormous volume of data which will enable a significant amount of science, [including] potentially searching for alien intelligence,” said University of Portsmouth cosmologist Bob Nichol. “Maybe we can answer the age-old question ‘Are we alone?’”

We certainly hope the telescope array is a success and look forward to learning about the good, observational science accomplished thanks to the technology. But as with any science, astronomy is built on presuppositions—and most modern astronomy is built on evolution-friendly presuppositions. So it’s no surprise that the researchers behind the new telescope array speak as if life were an accident and our origins shrouded in mystery.

Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, the New York Times, or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us.

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