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NASA Scientists Studying Mysterious Lights on Distant Planet that Could Signal Sign of Life

Tuesday, 03 March 2015 10:52 AM

A NASA spacecraft has detected strange bright spots on the surface of Ceres, the dwarf planet it is expected to begin orbiting on Friday.

The early images are just a frustrating teaser. Scientists won’t know more about the mysterious light until NASA’s Dawn spacecraft starts taking pictures from closer to the orb’s surface in April. Dawn is currently about 25,000 miles away from Ceres, and nearing the end of an eight-year journey to the asteroid belt of 260 million miles, or about three times as far from the sun as Earth is. 

Researchers, some of whom have worked on the $473 million Dawn mission for more than a decade, say they’re surprised by the strange brightness from Ceres’s otherwise highly cratered, "dark surface of fairly primitive composition," according to Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator of the Dawn mission. It's probably unique in the solar system.

“The mystery will be solved,” she said on Monday, “but it is one that really got us on the edge of our seats.”

NASA’s hope in dispatching Dawn to Ceres — and to the asteroid Vesta, which it visited previously — is to gain insight into the origin of the solar system. The collision and combination of objects like Ceres and Vesta may be how Earth came together. But that didn't happen out there in the asteroid belt, where Jupiter’s gravity prevented all those rocks from melting into a planet. "These two bodies are like fossils from the dawn of the solar system, and they shed light on its origins," Raymond said.

This artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft heading toward the dwarf planet Ceres.


For the moment, there’s the question of the light, inside a 57-mile-wide crater. Without sufficient evidence to constrain the imagination, let’s take on the obvious. That it’s extraterrestrial life. 

An anomalous signal from a dead planet doesn’t just sound like the beginning of a science fiction movie. It is the beginning of one of the most celebrated films in history. The premise of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is that a superintelligent galactic civilization left a marker on the moon and programmed it to dispatch a signal home as soon as humans found it. 

Seth Shostak said the lights of Ceres reminded him of something perhaps only incrementally more probable. He’s senior astronomer and director of the Center for SETI Research, a part of the 30-year-old SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which studies how life came about — or comes about — in the universe.

Shostak said the bright spots on Ceres remind him of an idea put forward by Freeman Dyson, the eclectic physicist whose provocative thought experiments have captured the fancy of scientists and non-scientists alike for several decades. Dyson imagined how distant and barren rocks might come to harbor life.

Dyson took the example of the Jupiter moon Europa, a popular target of sci-fi fantasies (see 2013’s Europa Report) because it may have liquid oceans beneath the ice on its surface. If the oceans exist, and if life emerged from them, then any organisms that evolved to live at the surface “would have to have either lenses or mirrors to concentrate sunlight, so they could keep themselves warm,” Dyson said in a 2003 talk. These mirrors, or reflectors, would have to be bigger the farther they were from the sun, Dyson supposed. (Case in point: Dawn needs so many solar panels to keep it running that, end to end, it's 65 feet long.)

So, to find extraterrestrial life, we should just look out toward the asteroids and see if any of them have bright spots. 

Dyson likened such a hunt for alien life to “pit-lamping,” the practice by which hunters strap lights to their heads and shoot animals when the beam reflects off their eyes.

He affectionately called this asteroid vegetation he’d like to go hunting for “sunflowers.” “They have to be all the time pointing toward the Sun, and they will be able to spread out in space, because gravity on these objects is weak,” he said. “So they can collect sunlight from a big area. So they will, in fact, be quite easy for us to detect. So, I hope in the next 10 years, we'll find these creatures, and then, of course, our whole view of life in the universe will change."

Maybe the bright spots on Ceres are some form of native plant life, which needs massive solar absorbers to draw in enough sunlight, SETI's Shostak mused, recalling Dyson. And Dawn is our pit-lamper.

Even if it is, Dyson’s sunflowers didn’t come up at the NASA briefing Monday about Dawn’s imminent rendezvous with Ceres. In fact, if Dawn proves Dyson right, I’ll personally buy everyone who reads this article a package of astronaut freeze- dried ice cream. 

Here's the buzzkill. The scientists’ going hypotheses for the bright spots are more mundane. It could be light reflecting off of water vapor emissions, which a European spacecraft may have spotted coming from Ceres last year. It might be reflective salt or a patch of ice.

The search for extraterrestrial life has produced false leads for decades, and it continues with greater intensity than ever. Astronomers have identified more than 1,800 planets outside the solar system in recent years, and an estimate published in November 2013 suggests that some 5.7 percent of them might offer hospitable Earth-like conditions with orbits between 200 and 400 days long. So the odds that life can exist elsewhere turn out to be increasingly good. 

If there's a planet out there still teeming with it, just as we're looking for one, it hasn't turned on its lights yet.

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A NASA spacecraft has detected strange bright spots on the surface of Ceres, the dwarf planet it is expected to begin orbiting on Friday.The early images are just a frustrating teaser. Scientists won't know more about the mysterious light until NASA's Dawn spacecraft starts...
ceres, nasa, mysterious, light, intelligent, life
Tuesday, 03 March 2015 10:52 AM
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