Some Thoughts on Alien Life
This column is going to be more speculative than usual. Rather than discussing The Outpost itself, I’m going to look at some of the places it could investigate and try to imagine what kind of life they could hold.
Considering the recent discoveries in Venus’ atmosphere, we can definitely conclude that “Life as We Know It” may not even be close to as we know it. If, in fact, the discoveries of phosgene gas prove to have a biological origin, it will indicate that life can exist under conditions that we would never have imagined.
Astronomers refer to the distance from the Sun where liquid water can exist as the so-called “Goldilocks zone”. The distance where it is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. However, the more we look, the more we find that the universe is far more complex than we ever imagined. While liquid water may not exist on the surface, many worlds have buried oceans. Who knows what they may hold?
Years ago, the belief was simple. All life needed the sun’s energy to survive, either directly as green plants or indirectly by consuming the plants or consuming the animals that ate the plants. We know now that this is not always the case.
Deep in the ocean are hydrothermal (hot water) vents where boiling hot water laden with minerals comes up from the ocean floor. That discovery startled the scientific world. Even more startling was the fact that despite the extreme conditions, crushing pressure, boiling hot water, and eternal darkness, the vents teemed with life – life where the sun could never reach, life that thrived on the chemical output of the vents.
There are vast oceans on other worlds of our solar system, such as Enceladus, a moon of Saturn’s, and Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. There’s even a buried ocean on the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt. Do they hold life? We will not know for sure until we go there and look, and looking at an ocean protected by a miles-thick shell of ice is no trivial undertaking. It would take a long-term effort. It would take massive support, and to investigate it in detail, it would take the research facilities of The Outpost.
What might they find? Here is where we can let our imaginations run wild. What kind of creature would have evolved in these conditions of eternal darkness, deep below the ice shell?
We can start our journey by looking at evolution in our world. We know life began in the sea. Simple organisms evolved, became more complex, developed shells and spines, developed fins and gills. Life took to the land. Plants grew trunks, leaves, and later flowers. Animals evolved legs and lungs. Eventually, some of them even learned to question where they came from.
Those that lived in the sea evolved, too. Some evolved minds, minds that we still don’t understand. The cetaceans, whales and dolphins, were land animals that returned to the sea, so we will ignore them for this discussion. Let’s focus on trying to determine what kind of creature would evolve without being able to ever see the sun or the land.
Musings About Mollusks
There is another highly intelligent marine creature, the octopus.
This gives us a starting point for our attempt at imagining an intelligent marine being. We will go back to the beginning of life, the early Cambrian period. This was over 500 million years ago, before plants – before any life on land. We will start with the mollusks. In addition to shelled animals like snails and clams, mollusks also include octopi and squids. The phylum also includes nudibranchs and chitons. Those with shells make their shells primarily from calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Some non-mollusk animals like glass sponges and diatoms make their shells from silica (SiO2).
Most mollusks remain mobile, such as snails, octopi and squids, while others anchor themselves in adulthood. There are many shelled creatures that are free-swimming as juveniles but sessile (fixed) in adulthood.
Let’s look at some modifications that have evolved on Earth.
Mollusks are one of the earliest manifestations of life on our planet. There is documentation for their appearance in the early Cambrian and possibly before. They’re one of the most successful classes of animals, appearing in every environment from the tropics to the Arctic, on land and in the sea. Many varieties of mollusks have been found in the hostile conditions of the so-called black smokers in the abyssal depths.
It seems a reasonable assumption that if life evolved in an extraterrestrial ocean, some form of mollusk would be present. We don’t know the conditions that would encourage their evolution, but we can make some guesses.
Predation seems to be a constant in nature. The pressure of predation causes the evolution of defenses such as shells or speed. This leads to more advanced predatory behavior, leading to more defensive prey.
Environmental change is another evolutionary pressure. Animals that are specialized die out while the generalist will survive. Disasters such as the meteorite that killed off the dinosaurs, leaving the evolutionary field open to the mammals and leading eventually to us, can dramatically change the course of evolution.
I will assume that these pressures have taken place over millions of years in this hypothetical other world, and speculate about what kind of intelligent creature could evolve from a remote molluscan beginning.
Our intelligent mollusk needs several characteristics. It has to be mobile, able to explore its environment. It has to be a generalist able to exploit multiple food sources. It cannot be the apex predator based on physical attributes alone. It must have to use its intelligence to survive rather than physical prowess. It must be capable of social interaction and communication. It must be capable of manipulating its environment. It must be able to accurately sense its environment and the conditions around itself.
Taken as a group, mollusks have developed all of these attributes across multiple species. There’s no reason to believe that given the right environmental pressures, they couldn’t be combined into one creature.
Speculation: What Would an Extraterrestrial Mollusk Look Like?
For locomotion, let us assume a large muscular foot possessed by such creatures as snails, slugs and chitons. This foot could be adapted for simple manipulation and could have evolved tentacles such as those found in the squid or octopus.
The shell which almost all mollusks possess, some internally, could be vestigial, possibly reduced to a series of bony plates like a chiton. This would provide some protection and more importantly, it would provide an anchor point for some additional musculature allowing the creature to become larger and more mobile.
The eyes and other senses could be well-developed. Communication could be by photophores generating light patterns and some form of pheromone-type chemical signals. They might be able to change their skin color like some octopi can do.
For food consumption, it might have a squid-like beak, possibly with internal radula to grind food.
Fine manipulation could be by tentacles, like those many mollusks possess. The most obvious are the octopus and squid, of course, but many other species have some form of them. For example, a nudibranch has small feeder tentacles near its mouth.
Mollusks are about as alien as any creatures we encounter on Earth can be. It is interesting to observe that they have evolved many similar physical solutions to those evolved by mammals. For example, they have a circulatory system, but their blood is not like ours. We have iron-based hemoglobin as an oxygen carrier. This makes our blood red. Mollusks have hemocyanin, a copper-based oxygen carrier. Their blood is blue.
Eyes have also evolved in mollusks, but somewhat differently from those of the vertebrates. The most advanced molluscan eyes, those of the octopus and squid, rival those of the vertebrates in their resolution and complexity. However, their structures are quite different.
Without a backbone or skeleton, mollusks have evolved their own solution to the problem of manipulating their environment. Most mollusks possess some form of tentacles, an evolutionary adaptation of their muscular foot.
These are all examples of what is called convergent evolution. This means that nature has evolved similar but not necessarily identical solutions to similar problems. A vertebrate example would be the development of wings in both birds and bats.
The depths of an enclosed ocean would be very different from the world we know, but evolutionary pressures will most likely act in similar ways no matter how alien the environment. The results of that evolution may be strange to us, but we can be certain that whatever creatures we encounter will have been shaped, over millions of years, by their environment, and the knowledge we gain from their study will help us to understand our own evolution.
How will we react to contact with alien intelligence? Perhaps we can learn something from our pets. When dogs first meet, there are a few brief sniffs as they get to know each other. Then, the usual reaction is “Let’s play”. Appearance doesn’t matter. A dog won’t say “I’m a cocker spaniel. I don’t associate with Collies!” or “I’m a purebred and you’re just a mutt.” It’s just “Let’s get to know each other. Let’s play.”
As we move outward from planet Earth we will, at some point, encounter alien life, perhaps intelligent life. It may be years from now, or decades, or centuries, or millennia ‒ but the deeper into the universe we explore, the more likely it will become.
It is my hope that when that day comes, we will have grown into wisdom. That we will have been able to divest ourselves of racism and xenophobia and greet any life-form that we meet, no matter how strange or exotic, and say to them “Let’s get to know each other. Let’s play.”
Satellites in our Lives
by Anyi Wen
World Space Week* is coming up on October 4-10, and this year’s theme is “Satellites Improve Life.” In honor of that theme, let’s learn about the different ways that satellites help us in everyday life.
What is a Satellite?
Before we talk about how satellites help us, we need to know what a satellite is! NASA explains that a “satellite is a moon, planet or machine that orbits a planet or star.” To orbit something is to travel around it. For example, the planets in our solar system are natural satellites that orbit the Sun. We will be focusing on artificial, or man-made, satellites, which are “machines [that] are launched into space and orbit Earth or another body in space” (Stillman). Many man-made satellites are used by scientists to learn more about Earth, other planets, and beyond. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, into space over 50 years ago on October 4, 1957. Sputnik 1 was about the size of a basketball — if a basketball weighed 184 pounds (83 kilograms) (Tobin)! You can read more fun facts about the first artificial satellite here.
Satellites in Communication
We have satellites to thank for the phone service, internet, and TV we enjoy today. Before satellites were invented, long-distance calls were expensive and not widely available. TV signals used to be weak, so sometimes people couldn’t watch the channels they wanted to. With satellites, TV and phone signals are able to travel further to different places around the world. This also made live television possible, so we can watch news at the same time it is being recorded (Klein). Without satellites, we wouldn’t be able to easily call our friends and family members who live in other countries! Satellites make certain kinds of internet connections available, such as SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet project being “develop[ed] to provide low-cost internet to remote locations” (Mann). Read about how satellites are being used by astronauts to get online. Our outpost will most likely also use some form of satellite internet, unless other ways to get internet in space are fully developed in the future and proven to work better.
Satellites in Navigation
Have you ever used Google Maps or another app to guide you somewhere? These kinds of apps use GPS (Global Positioning System), which relies on a group of satellites working together with some other tools to tell your device where you are and suggest directions for where you want to go. More than 30 satellites are part of the GPS system! NASA explains more about how GPS works here.
Satellites in Weather Forecasts
Have you ever checked the weather forecast before leaving your house? It’s useful to know what the weather will be like while you’re outside, so you can be prepared with an umbrella or extra layers of clothes if necessary. Meteorologists, scientists who study the weather, use many tools when predicting the weather. They use satellites to observe, or closely look at, cloud patterns. If you studied clouds in school, you may remember that you can see different kinds of clouds depending on the weather. So, meteorologists can use information they get from satellites to help them make more accurate predictions, or guesses, about the weather.
Who Knew Satellites Were So Important?
Satellites are responsible for making a lot of our modern-day conveniences work! Which ones of these are you most grateful for? Do you know any other ways that satellites make our lives better? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!
*High Frontier Outpost is excited to participate in World Space Week for the first time, and we look forward to continuing to do so in years to come. It is a week people from all over the world come together to celebrate space and its wonders. Looking for other ways to join in the fun? Check out other interesting and educational events at this list, which includes in-person events as well as virtual events: https://www.worldspaceweek.org/events/event-list/
For More Information
Cloud Types (n.d.). National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Highlights of World Space Week 2020 (n.d.) World Space Week.
How Does GPS Work? (2019, June 27). NASA Space Place.
Gunther, T. (n.d.). Triangulation. National Geographic.
Klein, S. (2012, July 23). The Birth of Satellite TV, 50 Years Ago. History.
Kuksov, I. (2019, September 13). Internet in space: Is there Net on Mars? Kaspersky Daily.
Mann, A. (2020, January 17). Starlink: SpaceX’s satellite internet project. Space.com.
Stillman, D. (2014, February 8). What Is a Satellite? (Grades K-4) NASA.
Stillman, D. (2014, February 12). What Is a Satellite? (Grades 5-8) NASA.
Tobin, Declan. (n.d.). Fun Sputnik 1 Facts For Kids. Easy Science for Kids.
Warrilow, C. (2012, February 15). Students Ask: How Do Meteorologists Predict The Weather? Georgia Public Broadcasting.
The Outpost Docking System
A habitat the size of the High Frontier Outpost will, of necessity, have considerable incoming and outgoing traffic. This will be true even in the outskirts of the solar system. There will be research vessels coming and going, supply craft bringing in materials gathered from moons and asteroids, even tourists from Earth or other colonies. How will the Outpost handle all this traffic?
While the rotation of The Outpost is a stately 2 minutes per revolution, due to its huge diameter the tangential velocity (the surface speed measured from a stationary point outside The Outpost) is several hundred miles per hour. Trying to land on a surface that is moving under you at that speed would be virtually impossible.
While landing on the exterior shell of The Outpost would not be practical, there is a workable solution. The docking assembly would be built along an extension of the longitudinal axis of The Outpost. Because the radius from the axis will be much shorter there, the tangential velocity is much less.
The docking column would have a series of rotatable docking collars. When a ship approaches the collar, it will be rotated anti-spinward so as to appear stationary to the approaching craft. The ship will dock with a collar and be locked on to it. The joined craft and collar would then slowly rotate in the spinward direction until the rotational velocity matches that of The Outpost. Passengers and cargo would then be offloaded into the collar, which would connect with a series of maglev (magnetic levitation) transports in the central column. The far end of the column would contain a large docking hub that could be used for massive or bulk cargo.
Naturally, there would be communication between the arriving craft and The Outpost. In addition, there would be landing lights to provide visual cues. Because of the rotation of The Outpost, a simple line of lights would not suffice. It would have to be a series of circumferential rings of lights, each lighting in sequence, to indicate the proper approach path.
The Outpost end terminus of the docking column would be an internal transportation hub linking the various transport systems within The Outpost.
From the time that the ship docks to The Outpost, the ship, its cargo, and the passengers will be in a microgravity environment. Because gravity on The Outpost is simulated by its rotation and not actual gravity caused by mass, the g-force will increase as you move outward radially from the center until it reaches 1G at the shell.
The microgravity along the longitudinal axis will facilitate transport of massive cargo within The Outpost.
After the ship docks with a collar, the collar would rotate to one of two transportation docks, one for passengers or one for cargo. The cargo transport system would extend to the far end of the column where the asteroid mining ships would discharge bulk materials.
The docking column would have airlocks at both the ship and the column positions. Likewise, there would be a series of airtight doors in the column that would automatically open and close after the carrier passes.
Because of the vast scale of The Outpost, the docking column must be designed to contend with a large amount of traffic. There will be numerous corporate, scientific, and educational craft, not to mention maintenance and passenger ships. Ideally, the design of The Outpost would take this need into consideration and also leave room for future expansion.
Around the Cosmos
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