Space on Earth: Saving Our World by Seeking Others

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Many environmentalists think going into space detracts from solving problems here on Earth. Many astrophysicists feel environmentalism hampers their exploration and settlement of space. Actually environmentalism and space exploration have one and the same objective, argues leading astro-biologist Professor Charles Cockell: to ensure humanity has a home.

Cockell calls for a fusion of the two movements as the only way forward. The technologies we develop to live sustainably on Earth, such as wind and solar power, will also establish humanity in space. The exploration of space will provide new resources and skills for the protection of the Earth's environment. For example, studying extreme environments on Earth is helping us to look for life on Mars and satellites orbiting Earth are helping track hurricanes and protect people from natural disasters.

There are many books on environmentalism and many on space faring. Space On Earth is the first to provide a new vision of humanity's future bringing these two goals together.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Cockell's fascinating, impassioned book could convert even the most skeptical —infectious." —Publishers Weekly"Compelling and well-written - easily accessible to the layman and the expert. If there is to be a bright future ahead of us, the goals set down by Cockell will surely be at the heart of it." —Astronomy Now"An extensive, masterful case that environmental science and space science are powerful partners in leading us to understanding other worlds, and, more importantly, the future of our own."—Frank Drake, Director, SETI Institute, California

"In this lucid and upbeat book, Cockell debunks the false choice between environmentalism and space exploration. He lays out clearly the challenge before us: to seek the stars in full reverence of our home world."—Don White, President, Earthtrust, Hawaii

"a nice topic and timely — it is important to consider how humans should go about exploring the solar system. Some very good writing and very informative (especially about the science - geology, analog sites, remote sensing)"—Joanne Baker, Oxford University

"Charles Cockell is right to think that we can better understand the earth by visiting the other planets." —James Lovelock, author of The Revenge of Gaia

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780230007529
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Publication date: 11/28/2006
  • Series: MacSci Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles S. Cockell is Professor and Chair of Microbiology at the Open University. He is the author of Impossible Extinction and lives in the United Kingdom.

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Read an Excerpt

Space on Earth

Saving Our World by Seeking Others

By Charles S. Cockell


Copyright © 2007 Charles S. Cockell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-55232-6


new worlds

Environmentalists are leading the way in the exploration and settlement of new worlds

It is difficult to believe that there are places on Earth that could resemble the hellish radiation-seared surface of the Moon, or the dust-ridden surface of Mars. But across our planet are locations that in one way or another do resemble the surfaces of other worlds. From hot springs to icy wastes, there are many environments on Earth that can tell us about conditions on other planets and moons. It is in these strange environments that we are preparing ourselves for the exploration and settlement of space.

No environment on Earth is completely similar to that on other planets. We have an atmosphere that protects us from some of the Sun's ultraviolet radiation and provides us with the oxygen that we need to breathe. Mars has no significant amount of oxygen and the Moon has an atmosphere that is so thin it is virtually unmeasurable. In fact, no planet in our Solar System, other than the Earth, has an atmosphere that can sustain humans. But there is much more to living in space than the need for an atmosphere, and if you are willing to put some obvious differences aside, you can find places even on our relatively benign planet that tell you something about Mars, for example.

The average temperature on Mars is a chilly –60 °C – temperatures often dip this low during the Antarctic winter. Temperatures come close in the Arctic too, particularly during the permanent darkness of the winter months; in the Canadian high Arctic, temperatures drop to below –40 °C during February. Hot deserts share other similarities with the Martian surface. The Sahara in Africa and the Atacama in Chile are extremely arid (the Atacama gets less than one centimetre of rain a year), making their surfaces desiccated and inhospitable to life. Mars too is a desiccated desert planet. By studying the Earth's deserts, their geology and how life survives in their dry and cold conditions, we can learn something about the geology of Mars and, if we are lucky, maybe about life as well.

Work carried out in these diverse places on Earth leads the way in the exploration and settlement of new worlds. Drawing attention to the value of these pristine environments has given us good reason to care for them, and space is becoming a new reason to protect some of the most extreme places on Earth from environmental impoverishment.

From the earliest days of space exploration, the freezing polar regions have attracted particular interest. The Viking landers, sent to Mars to seek life in the 1970s, had their hardware and life detection equipment tested in Antarctica. The results they sent back from Mars were controversial, and many debate even to this day whether they found life or not, but the polar regions were quickly understood by NASA to host some of the closest environments we could get to places on Mars that would help calibrate attempts to find life elsewhere.

In the frozen valleys that lie on the edges of Antarctica, near the American McMurdo Station on Ross Island, scientists discovered lakes that were covered in ice all year round. Beneath theirpermanently frozen surfaces there is plenty of liquid water. Situated in the 'Dry Valleys', so called because they receive no precipitation, these lakes get their water from melted snow that percolates into the valleys when the snow cover and ice melt during spring and summer. Within the lake water, microscopic life thrives.

Antarctica contains 70% of the world's freshwater, almost all of it locked up in ice and snow. Liquid water is essential to life – it is used as a solvent for biochemical reactions. As far as we know, there are no life forms that can directly use snow or ice as a source of this most vital substance. It simply is not energetically favourable to transform ice into a liquid state. Even the colourful snow algae that sometimes cause red and green blotches in the snow where they grow depend on melting for their metabolism to function.

So, surprisingly, desiccation is a major problem for life in Antarctica because of the rarity of liquid water. Any life that can get a foothold on that continent is not helped along by the extremely cold temperatures. These slow metabolic processes to a snail's pace, and if ice crystals form within cells they can cause irreversible damage. Temperatures can be remarkably low – Russia's Vostok Station in the Antarctic interior holds the lowest temperature record for the Earth. At -89 °C, the record is about 30 degrees colder than even the Martian North Pole in summer.

During the 1980s, NASA scientists began to explore the Dry Valley lakes of Antarctica. They found an astonishing menagerie of microscopic life. On the bottom of the lakes are carpets of cyanobacteria – single-celled photosynthetic organisms that harvest energy from sunlight. Beneath the ice, just enough light penetrates for photosynthesis, and the ice cover gives them protection from harmful ultraviolet radiation. With water, nutrients and light, the bacteria can grow and cover the bottom of the lake, surrounded by an environment that is otherwise completely hostile to life. These carpets of microbes produce so much oxygen gas that the mats become buoyant and begin to lift off the bottom of the lake and ascend to the ice above, like microbial balloons, earning them the nickname 'lift-off' mats from microbe aficionados. Some of these mats form conical shapes, some look like brown doormats and some form a scummy type of green mass. Within them are many species, like a microscopic zoo bound together by the thin filaments of cyanobacteria.

The mats are often layered from the many generations of microbes laid down, one on top of the other, forming what looks like a tiny layered cake. Within this layered environment many different chemical reactions occur over distances of just millimetres. The products of one microbe may be the food for those living underneath, and so a complex cycle of elements and compounds is established within the micro-environment. Some of these microbes, like the cyanobacteria, use photosynthesis, while others do not rely on the sunlight at all. Instead, they use chemical compounds as a source of energy and can dwell under the surface of the mat, where sunlight may be completely extinguished by the communities living above them.

The cyanobacteria are believed to be an old group of microbes, possibly dating back to the earliest periods of Earth's history, some three and a half billion years ago, after life first arose on our planet. They are not unique to this environment. Cyanobacteria also turn up in volcanic hot springs, on the walls of buildings, and in the oceans. They are, in other words, generalists. Not being too fussy about their environment, they are skilled at getting by in hostile conditions. This versatility makes them suited to surviving in conditions that other bacteria might find too harsh. For example, the cyanobacteria that grow in the Arctic are actually better adapted to warmer temperatures. But because there are not many other microbes to compete with them, growing fast isn't really necessary to get by; hence there is no selection pressure to grow optimally at the ambient temperatures around them.

In other regions of the Antarctic, particularly around the edges of the continent, where rocks are exposed, cyanobacteria colonize rivers, where they form layers of red, orange, brown and black mats. Their orange and brown pigments protect them from the bright light and the radiation damage from sitting under the Sun's ultraviolet rays. Some of these pigments, called carotenoids, are the same as you find in carrots, and cause their characteristic orange colour. During the winter, the microbes freeze completely and are ready to grow again when they thaw the following spring.

In the Dry Valley lakes the water under the ice never completely freezes, retaining just enough warmth to get through the winter in a liquid state; thus the mats could in theory grow all year round. However, the Antarctic winter brings 24 hours of complete darkness, during which microbes cannot photosynthesize. So the mats go into a type of dormancy at the bottom of the lake, from which they emerge when the Sun returns at the beginning of spring. However, even during this darkness, many of the microbes that can gather their energy from chemical compounds rather than sunlight remain active.

On the surface of Mars there are valley networks and channels carved by ancient waterways that attest to a time in the distant past when water washed in abundance across the surface of this now desert world. The ancient waterways of Mars have been seen by many satellites. The Viking orbiters first gave us pictures of these features in the 1970s. Dried deltas, flood plains and rivers all bear the unmistakable signs of flowing water, and as the resolution of the cameras on our orbiting spacecraft has improved, so the images have become more and more persuasive. Indeed, few people would now doubt that Mars passed through a phase when liquid water was in much greater abundance than it is now. Today, dust devils streak across the surface, leaving characteristic trails in the fine material that covers the ground. Each year, seasonal temperature changes on the planet initiate dust storms that rage across the surface. In some years, the storms become so intense that they enshroud the entire surface of the planet, sometimes for as long as 200 days, denying Earth-bound astronomers, and even spacecraft, a glimpse of the surface.

The nature of these ancient water features is still somewhat in debate. Did they form on a warm, wet planet three and a half billion years ago, or did they form under ice sheets on a planet that was, for the most part, frozen, like Earth's polar regions today? The environmental conditions that prevailed on Mars billions of years ago are a matter of great controversy, but the presence of liquid water during that past is not. Even today, gullies around the edges of craters suggest that under the surface there may be liquid water.

The presence of liquid water on Mars in the distant past has fuelled the debate about life on the planet. We know that the Earth and Mars exchange pieces of rock in the form of meteorites. Thrown up in asteroid and comet impacts, these lumps of rock rain down on our planet from Mars each year, and conversely there are pieces of Earth landing on Mars. It is estimated that about 400 kilograms of Mars lands on the Earth each year. Most people are staggered by this high number, but of course most of this material lands in the sea because our planet is just over 70% ocean. Most of the rest lands in unpopulated areas. Only a very few of the Martian rocks land in deserts or on ice sheets where they can be found by scientists. Researchers know that the rocks are from Mars, because trapped within them are pockets of gas that match exactly the composition of the Martian atmosphere determined by the Viking landers that sampled the Martian air directly in the mid-1970s. The meteoritic composition matches that of the Martian rocks, which has also been measured by the various landers and rovers that have visited the planet.

Scientists also know that three and a half billion years ago, when Mars had more liquid water on its surface than today, microbial life had already evolved on Earth. This is apparent from the fossil record, although there is dispute about whether some of the earliest fossil evidence might be artefacts caused by non-biological processes. In the ancient rocks of Earth are the tell-tale signatures of chemical compounds altered by early life, and there are even fossils you can see with the naked eye. These 'stromatolites' are much like the mats in the Antarctic Dry Valley lakes; layer upon layer of minerals and microbes formed characteristic cake patterns that can be found in the ancient rocks.

So even if life did not evolve on Mars independently of Earth, could it have been transferred on rocks from Earth to the surface of this once water-rich planet? It's speculation, but it is a tantalizing possibility. It drives the quest to find environments on Earth that might resemble the early environments of Mars. And this is where we return to the lakes of the Antarctic.

Scientists such as Christopher McKay of NASA Ames Research Center in California have suggested that as Mars began to dry up, losing its water to the frozen ground and to space, freezing ice-covered lakes would have been the last refuge for life. The lakes of the Dry Valleys are similar to what might have persisted on early Mars – lakes surrounded by freezing dry desert, slowly losing their water, squeezing life into ever smaller pockets of existence, until the only refuge was deep below the ground. That the lakes of the Dry Valleys can sustain such an abundance of life has awed microbiologists, because it shows that on a dying planet, where pockets of liquid water are freezing and disappearing, an extraordinary abundance and diversity of life could still be maintained.

Might explorers one day drill into the ancient sediments of lakes on Mars and find the microscopic fossils and remains of life similar to the microbes that live in the Antarctic today? By studying the microbes of the Antarctic lakes, scientists have at least learned where and how to look for fossil life on Mars. Mars is about half the size of the Earth, but it is still a vast planet on which to search for life. One might get lucky randomly turning over rocks and looking for signs of life, but it would most likely take an extraordinarily long time to find anything with such a haphazard approach.

The uniqueness of the life in the Dry Valley lakes has led to greater efforts to preserve it. It is now forbidden to swim in the lakes, apart from scientific diving. Strict protocols for field parties keep the place clean, and the use of vehicles is tightly controlled. Human impact is reduced by removing all the waste from expeditions. Although there are other reasons for wanting to look after the Dry Valleys, here is an example of an unusual and special place on Earth that has helped us prepare for the exploration of other worlds – environmentalism at the forefront of space settlement. We protect this region of our world precisely because it can help us to understand others that we might one day visit.

It would be easy for us to spoil the Dry Valleys. The lakes are beautiful, the valleys austere. The ferocious winds that scour this landscape fashion boulders with strange shapes. Some boulders look like dogs, some like cats and some like people. The fertile imagination sees all sorts of strangely familiar shapes. It would be potentially a wonderful tourist location. Novelty dives could be organized into the lakes to view the microbes that survive in this extreme environment – many would appreciate this unusual experience. Imagine a two-day stay at the Hotel Antarctica, where your room view looks over the Dry Valleys, across the lakes and the white wasteland beyond.

The poles are vital to space explorers for the very obvious reason that they are cold. Apart from the boiling planets, Mercury and Venus, almost all the places in the Solar System that are of interest as sites for future robotic and human exploration, from Mars to the outer planets, are perishingly cold.

Many warmer spots are also showing us the way into space. Although the average temperatures experienced in the polar regions are similar to those on Mars, the average temperature on a planet is no indication of what local temperatures might be like – just as a cold day in winter can be very unpleasant outside, but quite warm within your house. Similarly, that the temperature across most of the surface of Mars is well below freezing, and may have been for many millions or even billions of years, does not exclude the possibility of local patches of warmth. Volcanoes, for instance, are much warmer than the average temperature of a planet because they provide a source of local heat from the molten lava beneath. So now our quest takes us to the splendour of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA.

Yellowstone National Park is pocked with mud pots, geysers and springs spewing boiling water. These hotspots, heated by the magma that lies just beneath the park, are a riot of colour thanks to the microbes that live within. In some springs, splashes of bright orange and green mats grow across the ground. In others, pink tendril-like filaments twist and turn in the boiling waters, hanging on for dear life in case they should accidentally detach and be washed into the colder world further downstream. Most of these microbes not only like to grow in searing temperatures – up to 98 °C – they actually need to.


Excerpted from Space on Earth by Charles S. Cockell. Copyright © 2007 Charles S. Cockell. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


chapter 1 new worlds,
chapter 2 the human adventure,
chapter 3 rich bounty and new crises,
chapter 4 new views on an old world,
chapter 5 green living,
chapter 6 greening the universe,
chapter 7 earth and space,
chapter 8 new alliances,
chapter 9 a habitable world –" summary,
bibliography and further reading,

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