You'd think that traveling at warp speed to the planet Nibiru would be the coolest thing in outer space, but for the Hollywood types who made "Star Trek Into Darkness," talking with a real astronaut on the International Space Station was way more awesome.
"I'll just act like this is a perfectly normal thing to be happening," Damon Lindelof, a writer and producer for the just-released movie, told NASA's Chris Cassidy during a Google+ Hangout presented on Thursday by the space agency and Warner Bros. "We are literally tickled pink to be talking to you right now."
The other "Star Trek" actors in on the Hangout — Chris Pine (who plays Captain James Kirk), John Cho (Sulu) and Alice Eve (who gets a healthy dose of screen time as Dr. Carol Marcus) — were just as taken. They laughed and hooted like fanboys when Cassidy let go of his microphone and took an upside-down spin in zero-G.
Pine said he loved the idea of mashing up fictional and real-life spaceflight: "It's great that our worlds can meet at some point in the middle and hopefully inspire people to do good things, and to explore."
If Lindelof has anything to do with it, Fincke won't be the last astronaut to make the crossover to Hollywood. He promised Cassidy that he'd be welcome to a cameo role in a future "Star Trek" movie. "Maybe you could class up the joint a bit," Lindelof said.
Cassidy said the "Star Trek" crew would be welcome aboard the space station as well. He noted that there were currently a couple of vacancies in the U.S. segment of the station — due to the fact that one batch of crew members has just returned to Earth, and their replacements aren't due for launch until May 28. "We got two open beds," Cassidy joked. "The first two here get 'em."
When asked about last week's ammonia coolant leak at the station, Cassidy said he was surprised to see how quickly mission managers were able to plan a spacewalk to fix it. "It's not like you can rescue Spock from a volcano and push a button. It doesn't happen that way up here," he said. Cassidy said the episode illustrated how useful it is to have "garage-tinkerer" types aboard the station.
Cassidy said ammonia contamination was one of the three emergency threats that the space station crew had to be prepared to deal with, along with an onboard fire or rapid decompression. That led Lindelof to warn the astronaut about the latest "Star Trek" super-villain. "You should watch out for Benedict Cumberbatch," he said. "He's very threatening, I understand."
Cassidy said the thing that gets him the most about "Star Trek" and other space movies was the ease with which everyone walked around on spaceships, as if artificial gravity was nothing special. Even though weightlessness has its drawbacks, floating around in zero-G would make the movies much more interesting. "Trust me, it's a pretty cool thing to do this anytime you want," Cassidy said.
The astronauts talked around a question that asked them to name their favorite "Star Trek" captain, but Fincke said his favorite name for a starship would be Enterprise (natch!). Fellow NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren went with the Starship Endurance, which pays tribute to the ship for Ernest Shackleton's famous Antarctic ordeal in 1914.
Life aboard the space station tends to give astronauts the same optimistic view of the future that runs through the "Star Trek" saga, Cassidy said. From space, Earth seems so tranquil and peaceful. "There are no borders down there," Cassidy said. "You can't see a little yellow line painted on the green part."
One of the questions sent in during the Hangout focused on a more mundane aspect of spaceflight: How do spacewalkers handle a sneeze? Cassidy admitted that could be a problem. "Once the helmet goes on, any schmutz that goes on there is just an impediment to seeing clearly," he said. The solution is to incline your head downward before the sneeze, so that the schmutz is directed below the face plate.
Just one day after astronomers asked Internet users to pick from a list of 12 names for Pluto's tiniest moons, they added a 13th name — Vulcan — at the urging of Star Trek icon William Shatner.
"Vulcan is the Roman god of lava and smoke, and the nephew of Pluto. (Any connection to the Star Trek TV series is purely coincidental, although we can be sure that Gene Roddenberry read the classics.) Thanks to William Shatner for the suggestion!" discovery team leader Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute wrote Tuesday in an update to the "Pluto Rocks" blog.
You don't have to be a hard-core Trek fan to know that Vulcan was the fictional home planet of Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared science officer on the original TV series' Starship Enterprise. Roddenberry was the series' creator. And long before he became a Priceline pitchman, Shatner played the Enterprise's skipper, Captain James T. Kirk.
The point of the "Pluto Rocks" balloting, which runs through Feb. 25, is to weigh public sentiment for the naming of Pluto's two most recently discovered moons, now known as P4 and P5. As the moons' discoverers, Showalter and his colleagues have the right to recommend formal names for adoption by the International Astronomical Union. They thought it would be fun to give the general public a non-binding advisory role.
The contest caught Shatner's eye, and he made a couple of suggestions in a Twitter update: "So what do you think of the idea of naming the two moons of Pluto Vulcan and Romulus? You have mythology, pos[itive] and neg[ative]."
Any voter can suggest write-in names, as Shatner did, but the names should refer to people, places or things in Greek or Roman mythology that have a connection to the underworld. Right now, the two favored names are Styx (which refers to a major river of the underworld as well as the rock band) and Cerberus or Kerberos (which refers to the underworld's guard dog as well as the modern-day network protocol).
More than 120,000 votes have been cast already, with less than 5,000 of them going to Vulcan — so Shatner would have to get those Vulcan votes multiplying like Tribbles to catch up to Styx and Cerberus. But that's not impossible, especially if he puts the word out to his 1.3 million Twitter followers.
As for Shatner's other suggestion, Romulus certainly has a connection to Roman mythology and Trek lore. In mythology, Romulus was one of the founders of Rome, while in the Star Trek universe, the name refers to the homeworld of a race that rivaled the Vulcans. However, one of the IAU's guidelines is that a proposed name should not be confused with pre-existing names for other celestial bodies. That poses "a bit of a problem," Showalter said.
"Romulus, along with his brother Remus, are the names of the moons of the asteroid 87 Silvia," he wrote. "They were discovered by a team led by my good colleague Franck Marchis, now a senior scientist at the SETI Institute."
Sorry, Captain. Because there's already a Romulus in this sector of the galaxy, scientists can't reuse the name. They just cannae do it.
Can you think of other mythological names with science-fiction connections? If they're not already taken, share your ideas in the comment section below — and send them along to the "Pluto Rocks" folks as well.
Update for 8:45 p.m. ET Feb. 14: Vulcan is now the top pick in the "Pluto Rocks" poll, with more than 60,000 votes out of the 234,720 responses registered. Styx and Cerberus are second and third on the list. Showalter has added eight more names to the ballot, bringing the total list to 21. The eight additions are Elysium, Hecate, Melinoe, Orthrus, Sisyphus, Tantalus, Tartarus and Thanatos. "Pluto needs more moons!" Showalter writes in a Cosmic Diary entry.
When it comes to Trek vs. Trek, it's usually Kirk versus Picard — but a brand-new pair of NASA videos previewing the Mars Curiosity rover's landing offers a different study in constrasts. Kirk versus ... Wesley Crusher?
NASA is following up on the $2.5 billion Mars mission's wildly successful "Seven Minutes of Terror" movie trailer with two versions of a video titled "Grand Entrance": one voiced by William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk with classic swagger on the original "Star Trek" series; and the other by Wil Wheaton, who played kid genius Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: Next Generation" and went on to become a geek icon (for example, as Sheldon Cooper's nemesis on "The Big Bang Theory").
Wil Wheaton, best-known for his roles on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' and 'The Big Bang Theory,' narrates a video about the Curiosity rover's mission to Mars.
Team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory share the challenges of the Curiosity Mars rover's final minutes to landing on the surface of Mars.
The script for both four-minute-plus Mars videos is pretty much the same: They both begin with shots of Curiosity's assembly and move quickly through the Mars Science Laboratory mission's launch last November. They both spend a lot of time on the rover's entry, descent and landing, which is set for 10:31 p.m. PT Sunday night (1:31 a.m. ET Monday). They both marvel at the unprecedented sky-crane operation that will lower Curiosity to the surface from a rocket-powered platform.
Both Shatner and Wheaton end up addressing the main aims of the rover's two-year primary mission: How habitable was Mars in ancient times? What chemical clues remain detectable today? "This nuclear-powered, 1-ton rover will take us ever closer to examining deep layers of history, and perhaps closer to an answer to the ancient question: Was there ever life on Mars?" they say.
NASA says there's room for both videos.
"Shatner and Wheaton are mavericks in inspiring film, TV and social media audiences about space," Bert Ulrich, NASA's multimedia liaison for film and TV collaborations, said in a news release. "NASA is thrilled to have them explain a difficult landing sequence in accessible terms that can be understood by many. Thanks to their generous support, Mars exploration will reach Tweeters, Trekkies and beyond!"
But the dueling videos cry out for a totally unscientific popularity poll: How do you prefer your "Grand Entrance"? A la Kirk, or with a dash of Wesley? Or do you think "Seven Minutes of Terror" beats them both? Feel free to cast your vote in the poll above, and weigh in with your comments below.
They're action figures rather than real actors, and it's the stratosphere rather than outer space — nevertheless, it was a bold stroke to gather funding from Kickstarter contributors to send the captains from the Star Trek saga toward the heavens. The payoff from more than $6,000 in contributions is on view in this video from the Discovery Channel's "Daily Planet" program.
A team of engineering students from the University of Illinois, captained by Logan Kugler and Shannon Downey, pulled off the high-altitude balloon stunt on May 5. More than 150 folks contributed $6,193 through the Kickstarter website. As a result, the "Send Picard to Space" venture sent up an action-figure away team that included not only "Next Generation" Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but Riker and Data plus James T. Kirk and custom-made dolls representing "Star Trek" filmmakers J.J. Abrams and Roberto Orci.
The 90-minute flight brought the balloon-borne spaceships and their crews, as well as six HD video cameras, up to a height of about 100,000 feet before the balloon popped and the apparatus fell back to Earth for recovery. The Discovery Channel spot aired last month, and a follow-up video is being put together by Kugler's team.
In an account written for StarTrek.com, Kugler says he'll soon hand-deliver the balloon-flown action figures to their real-life counterparts in Los Angeles. "Picard and Kirk still have about 20,000 more light-years to go, but this is a start," Kugler wrote.
Balloon-enabled flights to the 100,000-foot region of the stratosphere, known as "near-space," are becoming almost routine. Such flights don't rise anywhere near as high as true spacecraft such as SpaceShipOne or the SpaceX Dragon. The internationally accepted boundary of outer space is more than three times as high: 100 kilometers, or 328,000 feet. But even at the 100,000-foot level, you get an impressive view of the earth below and the black sky of space above. For another example of the genre, check out this "First Tent in Space" video, produced last month to publicize Scotland's Vango AirBeam tents. Then click on the links below.
"Vangonaut" dolls rise to a height of 104,000 feet from the Scottish Highlands near Oban in May as part of a publicity stunt for Vango AirBeam tents.
The medical diagnostic tool envisioned by the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize may well look much like a smartphone running an app with wireless sensing capability, as shown in this artist's concept.
Qualcomm and the X Prize Foundation have laid out a $10 million plan to spur the development of medical diagnosis devices like the ones seen on "Star Trek" science-fiction shows — not by the 23rd century, but by mid-2015.
"There is a generation of exponentially growing technologies ... that are coming together to empower us to make real the 'Star Trek' technology of a medical tricorder," Peter Diamandis, the X Prize Foundation's CEO, told me today.
Tricorders are the hand-held props that have been used by "Star Trek" characters dating back to the 1960s to check a crew member's vital signs — with the aim of keeping Bones from having to tell Captain Kirk, "He's dead, Jim." The old ones looked like cassette recorders with mini-TV screens, while the later models looked like flip phones gone wild.
The tricorder envisioned for the X Prize would be a hand-held wireless device like a smartphone, weighing no more than 5 pounds. It'll have to record health indicators such as blood pressure, respiratory rate, pulse and temperature, and diagnose a set of 15 diseases to be named later. Diamandis said the diseases on the list would probably include respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.
Details still to be determined The X Prize specifications still have to be filled out, along with the scale to be used for judging the various models in the competition, but the foundation says "teams will have to consider tradeoffs amongst weight, functionality, power requirements, battery life, screen resolution, A.I. engine location, diagnosis capability, end consumer cost, and so on."
The schedule calls for the initial draft of the competition guidelines to be made public later this month, and massaged into their final form by September or so. The teams that seek the prize will show off their prototypes during a qualifying round in mid-2014, and the top 10 teams will compete in a final round in mid-2015. That final round will require teams to use their devices to diagnose 15 to 30 consumers over the course of three days. The teams will be judged based on the diagnoses as well an assessment of consumer experience and proof of adequate high-frequency data logging.
A video for the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize lays out the $10 million challenge.
The top team will win $7 million, and there'll also be a $2 million second prize and a $1 million third prize, all put up by the Qualcomm Foundation.
"Health care today certainly falls far short of the vision portrayed in 'Star Trek,'" Paul Jacobs, who is Qualcomm's chairman and CEO as well as chair of the Qualcomm Foundation, said today in a news release. "By sponsoring the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition, the Qualcomm Foundation will stimulate the imaginations of entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists and doctors to create wireless health services and technologies that improve lives, increase consumer access to health care and drive efficiencies in the health care system. This competition will accelerate the development of tools that can empower consumers to take charge of their own bodies and manage their own care."
The competition's formal kickoff came today during Jacobs' keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It follows up on last May's announcement that Qualcomm, a global company focusing on wireless network technology, would sponsor the competition.
Tricorders galore Whether or not you call it a tricorder, the hand-held medical diagnostic device definitely seems to be an idea whose time has come. Just last month, the Canadian government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $38.5 million initiative to further the development of such devices, as well as the medical tests and protocols that would run on them. Also last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave its approval to the first hand-held device to detect brain bleeding.
Like other X Prizes, the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize is intended to provide an extra incentive for innovators rather than a profitable venture in itself. The Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight serves as an example: Software billionaire Paul Allen spent upwards of $25 million to win the $10 milllion prize in 2004. But that venture opened the way for what could be more profitable space ventures to come, including Virgin Galactic and Stratolaunch.
Diamandis said the Tricorder X Prize competition was open to ventures that were already involved in the medical-device market, although he emphasized that the eligibility rules had not yet been put in their final form. He also emphasized that the winning device won't be the final word in the future history of the "Star Trek" tricorder.
"The target here is Tricorder 1.0," he told me. "It's about demonstrating the diversity of different diseases or conditions that can be diagnosed with a mobile, user-friendly, hand-held device."
Does it sound as if we're at a turning point for medical technology, or will this turn out to be just one more chapter in a science-fiction novel about more affordable health care? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
The development of a "Star Trek" tricorder-style medical device, similar to this NASA mockup, may be worth a $10 million prize.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
A real-life diagnostic device that does something akin to what the tricorder did on "Star Trek" just might earn its developers $10 million prize. And yes, the proposed competition is actually being called the Tricorder X Prize. It's just one more example of life imitating "Trek." In the words of Mr. Spock: Fascinating!
The objective of the project, currently being explored by the X Prize Foundation and Qualcomm, is not just to create one more cool gadget for "Trek" fans ... although the idea of a hand-held, automated medical diagnostic device is pretty cool. The objective is to extend the reach of health information and services to billions more people in the world.
"We believe this is a fundamental step in helping people become true 'health consumers' who can have as much say in assessing and accessing health care as they would any other service or product," Don Jones, vice president of wireless health strategy and market development at Qualcomm Labs, said in this week's announcement about the project. "Qualcomm believes the value of this X Prize is also in changing the cost structure and focus of health care. By having consumers take the initial actions to obtain health assessment data, the use and the quality of physicians' time is improved."
"The goal obviously is to drive a lot of innovation toward this narrow goal of easy-to-use, low-cost, minimally invasive, rapid, portable and scalable diagnosis," Jones told me during a follow-up interview.
Over the next few months, Qualcomm and the X Prize Foundation will be working together to flesh out the rules and requirements for the Tricorder X Prize. Jones emphasized that this is just the "design phase" for the venture. Qualcomm isn't yet committed to putting up any prize money, but it does have "the option of funding part or all of the prize," he said.
If the design phase is successful, the competition would begin in early 2012.
So what's in it for Qualcomm, a company that focuses on wireless network technology? "Qualcomm has a wireless health effort, we've had it for some time, and we believe there is a real interest to tie together the world of sensors and the world of informatics," Jones told me. "We're very interested in connecting more items to the cellular-powered Internet, and this is a category of items. Perhaps many categories of items will come out of this."
There are already a goodly number of mobile medical devices out there, including some pretty fancy hand-held ultrasound imagers. Three years ago, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated a portable medical scanner that could be hooked up to a mobile phone to create a tricorder-like diagnostic system. But Jones said he thought the device that won the Tricorder X Prize would have to hit a higher level of sophistication — in effect, telling users on the spot whether they should go see a professional.
The tricorder might have to check not only ultrasound readings, but heart rate, respiration, perspiration, salivation and other health indicators. "It's fairly clear that a prizewinner is going to have to figure out how to integrate multiple sensing technologies, using multiple databases," Jones said.
Can one device do it all ... and make those cool "Star Trek" noises as well? Share your thoughts in the comment section below, and stay tuned for future episodes.
NASA's secret is finally out: Researchers say they've forced microbes from a gnarly California lake to become arsenic-gobbling aliens. It may not be as thrilling as discovering life on Titan, but the claim is so radical that some chemists aren't yet ready to believe it.
If the claim holds up, it would lend weight to the idea that life as we know it isn't the only way life could develop. Organisms with truly alien biochemistry could conceivably arise on a faraway exoplanet, or on the Saturnian moon Titan, or even here on Earth.
"Our findings are a reminder that life as we know it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine," Felisa Wolfe-Simon, an astrobiology researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a statement from Arizona State University announcing the results. Wolfe-Simon is the lead author of a paper reporting the findings, which was published online today by the journal Science.
Four years ago, while studying at ASU, Wolfe-Simon proposed that some organisms in extreme environments might be adapted to use arsenic in place of phosphorus. Phosphorus is one of the elements essential to life's chemistry -- in addition to carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Arsenic, which is just below phosphorus on the periodic table, is poisonous precisely because it can take phosphorus' place in biomolecules.
"It gets in there and sort of gums up the works of our biochemical machinery," ASU's Ariel Anbar, a co-author of the Science paper, explained.
In search of arsenophiles Wolfe-Simon theorized that some organisms could have evolved in ancient times to make use of arsenic-based compounds known as arsenates, in place of the phosphates used by virtually all the organisms we know today. Such arsenophiles might even persist in environments with elevated levels of arsenic -- environments such as the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, or Mono Lake in California.
It turns out that that eerie-looking tourist destination, 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park, contains arsenic as well as the usual phosphorus. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues designed an experiment to take a particular type of salt-loving bacteria called GFAJ-1 from Mono Lake's mud sediments, wean it off phosphorus, and see if it could switch its diet to arsenic.
David Mcnew / Getty Images file
Limestone formations rise from California's salty, arsenic-laden Mono Lake. Researchers say they coaxed bacteria taken from the lake to use arsenic in place of phosphorus - and suggest that alien life forms could use a similar arsenic-based biochemistry.
In the paper published today, the researchers report that some of the bacteria could survive on arsenic and incorporate it into their cellular biochemistry. Instead of the usual phosphate-rich DNA, they observed arsenate-rich DNA. Heightened levels of arsenic also showed up in the cell's proteins and fats. The scientists used mass spectroscopy, radioactive labeling and X-ray fluorescence to confirm that the arsenic was really being used in the biomolecules rather than merely contaminating the cells.
If that could happen in the laboratory, why couldn't it happen naturally? ASU astrobiologist Paul Davies, another one of the paper's co-authors, has long held that "weird life" -- based on chemical building blocks unlike our own -- could exist right under our noses on Earth, or in extraterrestrial environments.
"This organism has dual capability," Davies said in today's announcement. "It can grow with either phosphorus or arsenic. That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly 'alien' life belonging to a different tree of life with a separate origin. However, GFAJ-1 may be a pointer to even weirder organisms. The holy grail would be a microbe that contained no phosphorus at all."
Davies said GFAJ-1 was "surely the tip of a big iceberg" -- and Wolfe-Simon agreed.
"If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?" she asked. "Now is the time to find out."
Some bet that it's wrong Some scientists said they were impressed by the measures that Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues took to verify their findings. "The organization of the experiments presents convincing and exhaustive results," Milva Pepi, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Siena, was quoted as saying in a Science news report.
But Steven Benner, an astrobiologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, told me he was unconvinced. He was invited to Washington today to lay out the skeptical view during a much-hyped news conference at NASA Headquarters. "I'm the guy they bring in to throw the wet blanket over all the enthusiasm," he joked.
He was impressed by the finding that bacteria could get by with so little phosphorus and so much arsenic, but he questioned the conclusion that the arsenic was truly taking the place of phosphorus. Benner explained that chemists have long been familiar with the properties of arsenate compounds. "We know, for example, that they fall apart in water quickly," he said. "Those structures are not going to survive in water."
Felisa Wolfe-Simon takes samples from a sediment core she pulled up from the remote shores of 10 Mile Beach at California's Mono Lake. She uses these samples as starters for cultures to select for microbes that can survive and flourish with high arsenic and no added phosphorus.
In their paper, Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues say that the GFAJ-1 bacteria can apparently cope with that instability, perhaps because of intracellular mechanisms that keep water out. Benner, however, said that other scientists would have to first confirm that the arsenic is really being taken up the way the paper describes, and then figure out how the process squares with what's already known about biochemistry.
"If this result is true, we've got to go back and rewrite a lot of chemistry," Benner said.
Benner is willing to put his money where his mouth is: "I've wagered Felisa $100 that that's not arseno-DNA," he told me.
That being said, Benner acknowledged that arsenic could conceivably play a role in sustaining truly alien life. "If I'm going to go to Mars, where the temperature is lower, and water is scarcer, and arsenate esters are more stable, this is something I might look for," he observed.
Hype vs. reality The paper published today could be regarded as the latest chapter in a discussion that's been going on for years among astrobiologists. Wolfe-Simon, Davies and Anbar telegraphed their hypothesis almost two years ago in a paper titled "Did Nature Also Choose Arsenic?" In another paper, Wolfe-Simon speculated that arsenic-based life could exist on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. And in June, a different group of researchers reported results hinting at the possibility of an alternate biochemistry on Titan, one of Saturn's moons.
So when NASA announced that Wolfe-Simon and other astrobiologists were gathering in Washington today to discuss results that could "impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life," speculation ran rampant. Some journalists, including yours truly, could deduce what the news conference was about and read the study in advance -- but only on the condition that nothing referencing the research would be published until Science lifted its embargo. Othersfiguredout that the revelations had to do with arsenic and Mono Lake, even without getting an advance peek at the paper.
Still others took wild guesses about the subject of the news conference. Had NASA detected arsenic on Titan? Was there evidence of extraterrestrial biology at work?
"Some of the coverage has been almost comically erroneous," Ginger Pinholster, director of public programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told Space.com. The AAAS is the publisher of the journal Science, and Pinholster is in charge of the operation that distributes the journal's papers in advance.
Here's a video about the research that was done up by the AAAS:
The whole idea behind the embargo system is that journalists have a chance to digest publications, ask questions and put the research in perspective before they publish their articles. The system isn't perfect -- as NASA and Science found out in August when embargoed research about a bizarre planetary system was outed on Twitter an hour before the scheduled release. And some make the argument that the system is too elitist for the Internet age.
I'm in favor of embargoes -- in part because it helps avoid precisely the kind of hype that was engendered by NASA's public announcement about the news conference. In fact, I'd argue that such announcements should be governed by the same embargo, to head off the cycle of hype and disappointment that some of you may be going through this week. There's also the advantage that you can almost immediately check the original research paper if you so choose.
The scientific search for evidence of life beyond Earth isn't as fast-paced as a science-fiction plotline -- and maybe that part of the story is as important as the news about arsenic in the old lake. But what do you think? Are you disappointed? Intrigued? Bugged by the hype, or bugged by the current system for publishing scientific research? Feel free to chime in with your comments below.
Update for 5:35 p.m. ET: This afternoon's NASA news conference served to lay out the case for (and against) arsenic-based life, and one of the high points came when Wolfe-Simon and Benner sparred over how much arsenic might have been incorporated into the bacteria's biological machinery. Here are other highlights:
Wolfe-Simon gave a tour de force explanation of her results, including a jazzy computer-generated video showing arsenic atoms replacing phosphorus atoms in a DNA chain. We're offering the video just above. Give it a click.
Benner brought a couple of lengths of heavy chain links to represent molecular chains, as well as a twisted-up ring of aluminum foil to represent the arsenic. The message underlying the props was that arsenic compounds would be too weak to bind molecular chains together for a long time before breaking.
Pamela Conrad, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who specializes in Martian astrobiology, said the Science result was "delightful because it makes me have to expand my notion of what environmental constitutents might enable habitability." If high levels of arsenic as well as organic molecules were found by future Mars probes -- for example, NASA's Curiosity rover, which is due for launch next year -- "you could begin to put a picture together about what the environmental chemistry might portend," Conrad said.
The biggest OMG moment came when Mary Voytek, head of NASA's Astrobiology Program, referred to a classic "Star Trek" episode in which the Enterprise crew confronted a seemingly menacing creature called a Horta. "This is, in our mind, the equivalent of finding that Horta, which was silicon-based life, substituting carbon -- which is what we think all life forms are made of -- with silicon. Now we're talking about an organism that we think ... is replacing phosphorus with arsenic," she said. "This is a huge deal."
In addition to Wolfe-Simon, Davies and Anbar, authors include Jodi Switzer Blum, Thomas R. Kulp, Gwyneth W. Gordon, Shelley E. Hoeft, Jennifer Pett-Ridge, John F. Stoltz, Samuel M. Webb, Peter K. Weber and Ronald S. Oremland. The study was funded in part by NASA's Astrobiology Program. Wolfe-Simon, Anbar, Davies and Oremland are members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute "Follow the Elements" team at Arizona State University.