Monday, February 06, 2006

NASA looks for life among the stars

I wanted to spend a few minutes imagining this, so I am sharing it with you!

Picture this: On Aurelia, an Earth-sized planet half shrouded in perpetual darkness, vast floodplains give way to groves of treelike stinger fans that use ambulatory roots to creep across the muddy surface. On Blue Moon, a lunar orb in an adjacent solar system light-years from Aurelia, winged skywhales gulp aerial plankton suspended in the dense atmosphere, while balloon plants float beneath the canopies of massive pagoda tree forests, buoyed by hydrogen gas-filled membranes like miniature Hindenburgs.

Wired says, "Sounds like a pair of scenes ripped from your standard off-world fantasy novel, except the science behind these alien planets isn't fiction. Aurelia and Blue Moon are based on computer models created by NASA and SETI Project researchers to help identify which stars among the universe's 70 sextillion are most likely to support life.

Oxygen levels on Blue Moon are four times higher than on Earth; carbon dioxide levels are 30 times higher. As a result, animals with supercharged muscular strength rule the skies, and plant growth is rampant. Frequent electrical storms ignite fires in the dense, interconnected pagoda tree forests, and massive winged creatures glide through the thick atmosphere on oceanlike currents.

Aurelia is a hypothetical planet that orbits a red dwarf star. Its orbit is gravitationally locked to the star, like the moon's is to Earth. The result is a day side of endless sunlight and verdant forests, and a night side of darkness and packed ice. On the day side, a constant stream of light feeds hearty palm-like flora, while solar flares of intense ultraviolet radiation send fauna scrambling for cover.