SETI bioastro: NASA project traces origins of existence

From: Larry Klaes (lklaes@bbn.com)
Date: Thu May 04 2000 - 17:32:18 PDT


Date: Thu, 4 May 2000 13:11:33 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: NASA project traces origins of existence, says speaker at Cal
State-Sacramento

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This Excite News Article (http://news.excite.com/news/uw/000503/tech-169)
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News Article: NASA project traces origins of existence, says speaker at Cal
State-Sacramento

By Rob Gardner
The State Hornet
California State U.-Sacramento

     (U-WIRE) SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- How did planets, galaxies and stars
come to exist, and what possible impact does that have in discovering life
beyond Earth?

     Those were questions posed by astronomer Alan Dressler, Ph.D., in a
speech given at California State-Sacramento on Thursday in conjunction with
the NASA Origins Project.

     Dressler, who works at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in
Pasadena, said that the Origins Project brought together all of the
sciences under a common goal.

     "The idea was to see if we could describe with science the steps that
led to our existence," Dressler said.

     The Origins Project is mainly concerned with tracing galaxies back to
their birth, how planets formed, how stars are born, and the origin and
distribution of life.

     "How we establish the identification of life is a big part of the
program," Dressler said.

     Dressler credits the Hubble Telescope for his increased interest in
the program and showed pictures from the Hubble as part of his presentation.

     Though largely viewed as a failure due to a mechanical defect,
Dressler said that the Hubble accomplished a major goal.

     "The pictures that came back were so captivating just by the sheer
force of their beauty that people got excited," Dressler said.

     What Dressler and his colleagues at the Origins Project were able to
see from the pictures taken by the Hubble was that the earliest galaxies in
the universe were fragments. Dressler said that galaxies play a key role in
determining the beginning of life.

     "It may not seem obvious why galaxies are a crucial step to our being
here. Partly, because it's the way structure forms," Dressler said. "Also,
the universe was incredibly smooth at its beginning, but in the intervening
years, it formed all these dense structures called galaxies which stars
then formed around. So galaxies are the organizational structure of the
universe."

     Dressler said that there is also a new understanding of the role that
stars play, and how stars lead to the birth of planets.

     "Stars are being born in a hostile environment," Dressler said, "and
when they die, they leave discs of gas, dust and ices from which planets
are believed to be born. It's a remarkable confirmation of theoretical
ideas."

     Among the pictures sent back by the Hubble was evidence of a liquid
ocean on Jupiter's moons, and Dressler said that "leads to exciting
prospects for life on other planets." One of the goals of the project is to
search for other planets around stars, but Dressler said that would require
a new, high-tech telescope.

     "Stars are too bright. They're blinding. We need a way to cancel out
the light of the star," Dressler said.

     The idea, according to Dressler, is to "take advantage of the fact
that light acts like a wave" and use two telescopes at the same time which
should dim the light of a star enough to search for and examine other
planets in the universe.

     The expedition to Mars was another significant breakthrough for the
space program, and Dressler said that Mars is a key target of the program.

     "We were able to get our feet wet in how to move around on other
planets," Dressler said, "and the evidence of water is an exciting prospect."

     In addition to its current work, the Origins Project is in the process
of building the successor to the Hubble Telescope, which is called the Next
Generation Space Telescope. It is expected to go further into space than
the Hubble because it will be a "cold" telescope which can withstand the
elements.

     Dressler said he is excited about the prospect, saying he "hopes to
live to see it happen," adding that the possibility of life on other
planets might make us the aliens.

     "If there is life on Mars with the same DNA, then life might be
developing independently and we're the Martians," Dressler quipped. "It
makes you look at a cell with a whole new appreciation."

     (C) 2000 The State Hornet via U-WIRE



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