From The Director

by Rex Parker, PhD  director@princetonastronomy.org

Finding Evidence of Life beyond Earth, Part 2 of AAAP Discussion.  NASA first developed a major program to search for life on other planets and moons in the mid-1990’s.  In 1996, NASA chief Dan Goldin expanded on the intense public interest stirred by the report of putative fossil microbes in a Martian meteorite and the recent discovery of exoplanets.  The subsequent advances made by NASA planetary probes defined the most likely places in the solar system to harbor life.  Today, with mounting exoplanet discoveries from the Kepler and TESS orbiting telescopes and advances in Mars rover exploration, it’s beginning to seem less like sci-fi and more like impending reality for the prospects of finding evidence of extraterrestrial life.  For a case in point see the astro-image of NGC 6559 at the end of this section.

Key scientific leaders are now calling for a framework for reporting evidence for life beyond Earth.  An article in the current issue of Nature takes on this difficult challenge (Green et al., Nature vol 598, p 575, Oct 28 2021).  It’s reasonable to think that this paper was spurred on by the wake of the interstellar “asteroid” Oumuamua which recently sailed through our solar system and generated provocative publications, including the Amazon best-selling book, Extraterrestrial by Harvard professor and Astronomy Department Chair Avi Loeb.  Members will recall our recent discussions on this topic at recent AAAP meetings.  The lead author of the new Nature paper is James Green, NASA Chief Scientist and former Director of the Planetary Sciences Division. Here we have another AAAP connection, as some members will remember his amazing presentation to our club at a standing room-only Peyton Hall a few years ago (one of Ira’s best leads as Program Chair!). 

In the Nature article, Dr Green describes how “Our generation could realistically be the one to discover evidence of life beyond Earth.”  He cautions that with this privilege comes responsibility, because of the deep significance of the question and the impact that such a discovery would have on the world of humanity.  Results may be taken to imply more than observations support or observers intend.  There are challenges of perception and communication, and evidence likely would be revealed in stages, for example from one NASA mission to the next.  Our society has a tendency to turn these efforts into binary, all-or-nothing propositions, placing unrealistic expectations on initial stages. The paper lays out a conceptual framework for how to proceed with a dialogue among scientists, technologists, and the media to agree on objective standards of evidence for life and best practices for communicating it. If indeed we are on the verge of making the most significant scientific and philosophical discovery in human history, the framework they propose is an essential step to prepare society to accept a profound fundamental discovery.

Be Part of the Unjournal Club.  Doing astronomy as a club is a little different when we cannot meet in person for regular meetings.  So for now, the best way to keep the communication channels active is to use our monthly Zoom meetings to highlight club activities and facilitate member conversations.  This takes place during the second hour after the main speaker has finished.  This is why we have evolved the informal “Journal Club” presentation by a member each month to help break the boundaries set by Zooming.  Here I am asking you to step up to volunteer to give an “unjournal” club session!  “Unjournal” because these typically short 10 minute talks do not need to be about scholarly, journal-like topics at all, just need to engage other members with what you care about in astronomy.  It works great with Zoom screen sharing where you can use PowerPoint slides, JPEG pictures, etc. from your home computer or mobile device.  To get on the schedule for an upcoming meeting, please contact me at director@princetonastronomy.org or program chair Victor Davis at program@princetonastronomy.org.

Vacancy – Secretary, AAAP.  Due to unforeseen circumstances, our secretary John Miller is stepping down from the post.  On behalf of all members and the Board, we thank John with deep gratitude for his commitment, service, and leadership in the club for many years.  We are now seeking a member to become the new secretary.  Along with the post comes a voting seat on the Board of Trustees with the responsibility of helping guide the future direction of the club.  One key role of the secretary is to actively maintain the membership roster and work with the treasurer to ensure accuracy.  The bylaws define the role as: “The Secretary shall maintain minutes of all meetings of the Board of Trustees and of the general membership, shall keep a record of the membership, and shall notify members of meeting dates. The Secretary may delegate such of these duties as may be appropriate, in consultation with the Director.”

If you are interested in this key role, please contact me at director@princetonastronomy.org .

Fall Observatory Season Extended.  In view of the generally warmer trends in fall weather and the desire to meet as club members, we are extending the observing season at the AAAP Washington Crossing Observatory.

  • Public Friday Nights this fall are extended through the end of November. 
  • Member nights will be held on the Fridays throughout December. 
  • Keyholder participation for the above is optional;  sessions will be coordinated by the Observatory Chair.
  • As usual, all the above is weather permitting.

NGC 6559, Emission Nebula in the Constellation Sagittarius.  The immensity of the vast region of star formation and interstellar gas and dust in NGC 6559, located about 5000 light years away, is a case in point for thinking about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  The vast number of stars forming in regions of high element diversity in the clouds of gas and particles suggest the potential for abundant rocky planet formation around some of the stars in the nebula.  There are hundreds or more nebulae of this type visible from earth-based telescopes.  Image by Rex Parker from Planewave-24” telescope at El Sauce Observatory in the Chilean Atacama high plateau.  Total CCD camera exposure time (LRGB) ~20 hours.

This entry was posted in November 2021, Sidereal Times and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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