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Notes & Queries 6/16/09

Life Beneath the Ice

Three kilometers down in the Greenland ice sheet is what I call an extreme environment. Even so, Penn State researchers have been able to bring a bacterium called Herminiimonas glaciei back to life after a dormancy of 120,000 years in these conditions. The work involved incubating the samples at 2 degrees Celsius for seven months, then at 5 degrees Celsius for a further four and a half, a patient process rewarded by the appearance of the purple-brown bacteria.

Ten to fifty times smaller than E. coli, Herminiimonas glaciei evidently used its size to survive in liquid veins amongst the ice crystals. Jennifer Loveland-Curtze describes the find:

“These extremely cold environments are the best analogues of possible extraterrestrial habitats. The exceptionally low temperatures can preserve cells and nucleic acids for even millions of years. H. glaciei is one of just a handful of officially described ultra-small species and the only one so far from the Greenland ice sheet; studying these bacteria can provide insights into how cells can survive and even grow under extremely harsh conditions, such as temperatures down to -56˚C, little oxygen, low nutrients, high pressure and limited space.”

Europa, anyone? Or how about the polar caps of Mars? We can’t rule out microbes evolved from the icy conditions present in such places. And as to longevity, this new find is out-done by the eight-million year-old bacterium found beneath the surface of a glacier in Antarctica (although questions have been raised about possible contamination in that sample). The paper on the Greenland find is Loveland-Curtze et al., “Herminiimonas glaciei sp. nov., a novel ultramicrobacterium from 3042 m deep Greenland glacial ice,” International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology 59 (2009), pp. 1272-1277 (abstract).

A New Look at Space Elevators


The old saying has it that if you can get to low Earth orbit (LEO), you’re halfway to any destination in the Solar System. That makes my interest in Michel van Pelt’s new book rather keen, because the space elevator described here is just the ticket for getting large payloads into space on a continuing basis, the sort of thing we’ll have to do as we build a true system-wide infrastructure for our species. Space Tethers and Space Elevators (Copernicus, 2009) gathers the thoughts of this European Space Agency analyst on the practicality and promise of a technology that seldom seems to get the press it deserves.

But as the technology evolves, we’ll be experimenting with numerous tether concepts less demanding than the elevator, ranging from generating electricity in a magnetosphere to braking and accelerating spacecraft. So-called ‘momentum exchange’ tethers may have a significant role to play as we consider alternatives to chemical rocketry for exploring near-Earth space all the way to Mars. As far as I know, this book is the first full-length popular treatment of the tether concept. More on tethers and elevators as I get into the book (have to finish Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space first).

A Carnival Look at Betelgeuse

UC-Berkeley astronomers have noticed that Betelgeuse has lost fifteen percent of its diameter within the last fifteen years. And as Ian O’Neill notes on Space Disco, it took all the resources of the Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI) on Mt. Wilson to make such a precise measurement of a star that has undergone no variation in its luminosity. Are we looking at a perfectly normal phenomenon — the star has varied in size in the past — or is the shrinkage itself an illusion, brought about by our observation of a star that is not spherical?

The latter seems reasonable, and O’Neill notes that simulations point to Betelgeuse, which is shrouded by clouds of gas and dust, as a potato-shaped object. But O’Neill’s real point is to attack the ginned up media coverage of the UC-Berkeley news release, which was perhaps triggered by a New Scientist story called Betelgeuse: The incredible shrinking star?, in which UC-Berkeley’s Charles Townes speculated “Maybe there’s some instability in the star and it’s going to collapse or at least go way down in size or blow off some material, but who knows.”

A Fox News story on a potential supernova shot to the front page of Digg. Comments O’Neill: “Everyone loves a supernova. As for the “shrinking star” reports, not so much… This may not have the makings of the next, great doomsday movie plot, but it is an example how definite conclusions (i.e. a supernova) can be made from a fairly benign, yet interesting astronomical ‘mystery.'” O’Neill’s comments are part of the most recent Carnival of Space, now available on the fine Innumerable Worlds site.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bigdan201 June 16, 2009, 13:56

    1. I remember commenting on here previously about extremophiles – life that exists in arctic ice, hot geysers, the ocean floor, and even radioactive waste sites. The existence of life in such extreme conditions lends support to extraterrestrial life, even in other parts of our own solar system.

    2. Ive heard about different methods, including space elevators, for getting into orbit. Its certainly true that much of the energy expended in space missions is spent in escaping earths gravity. but what if, instead of an up-down elevator, we used some sort of inclined rail with magnetism to launch payloads towards orbit? i wonder how feasible that would be compared to other methods.

    3. There are some that theorize that Betelguese may be near a supernova, or that its already exploded.. and were just waiting for the light to get here. Ive heard that if it did go supernova, it would light up the night sky. Apparently, due to its rotational axis, it would not hit us with a dangerous amount of gamma rays, which is fortunate. A supernova of Betelguese would be an unprecedented astronomical event in recent history, and would generate alot of interest in the goings-on of space. It would not be unprecedented in all of recorded history however: see SN 185, SN 1006, SN 1054, SN 1572, SN 1604.. among others.

  • andy June 16, 2009, 15:59

    My main objection to Betelgeuse going supernova is that it would ruin the aesthetics of the Orion constellation. It would thus be in supremely poor taste for the star to explode.

  • Ronald June 16, 2009, 16:55

    The very small size of Herminiimonas glaciei made me wonder whether there could be any relationship with the alleged nano-bacteria of the much-discussed Mars meteorite ALH84001.

  • Colin June 17, 2009, 2:09

    An interesting point… In the unlikely event that Betelgeuse did vanish from terrestial skies, rather ruining his sword-arm into the bargain it would be a notable comma in the story of human civilization. Under different names, Orion has been identified as a distinct constellation since at least the Late Bronze Age, and his unfortunate maiming would as far as I know be the first example of a ‘classical’ constellation changing in such a fundamental fashion in recorded history.

  • Adam June 17, 2009, 5:55

    Hi Ron

    Not quite small enough. It’s close to being at the smallest that a bacterium can be – when there’s insufficient room for ribosomes to function. But the structures observed in the ALH84001 meteorite were smaller – too small to be ribosome-using lifeforms. Whether such micro-structures were a new kind of life is beyond answering as the electron microscopy used destroyed them.

  • Athena Andreadis June 17, 2009, 11:07

    Actually, I think that you may need a heat source to start developing complex life. Surviving extreme cold is a subsequent adaptation. On the other hand, I don’t know if the silicon template hypothesis requires a heat source for initiation. No matter what, the findings in Greenland and Antarctica showcase the resilience of bacteria. This improves the possibilities for Mars life persisting, but doesn’t substantially change the probabilities for a Europan genesis.

  • Bob Steinke June 17, 2009, 14:07

    If Betelgeuse’s shrinking is due to us seeing the narrow end of an oblong shape, wouldn’t the luminosity go down because we’re seeing less of its surface area? The story says the luminosity is staying the same.

  • ljk June 17, 2009, 14:09

    Tens of thousands of years from now, a flit of the eyelash in cosmic terms, the
    constellations we see from Earth today will be virtually unrecognizable, so
    don’t worry about the aesthetics of Orion.

    Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series had a film about how constellations will look over
    the next one million years, including Orion, which will have many stars winking
    in and out over the ages, to say nothing of moving about.

    And here is a cute little GIF of the Big Dipper from 90,000 BCE to 100,000 CE:


  • andy June 17, 2009, 15:15

    Yeah but I don’t particularly care about how Orion looks in 10,000 years’ time, I’m not exactly going to be around then :-p

  • Athena Andreadis June 17, 2009, 16:29

    Adrienne Rich wrote a haunting poem about Orion. Here is a representative part. You can read the entire poem at http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/adrienne_rich/3838.

    “Years later now you’re young

    my fierce half-brother, staring
    down from that simplified west
    your breast open, your belt dragged down
    by an old-fashioned thing, a sword
    the last bravado you won’t give over
    though it weighs you sown as you stride

    and the stars in it are dim
    and maybe have stopped burning.”

    • Administrator June 18, 2009, 16:26

      Thanks for the Adrienne Rich poem, Athena. I wasn’t familiar with it. Lovely work!

  • James M. Essig June 17, 2009, 20:33

    I like the space elevators idea.

    Talk about bean stalks!

    I wonder if there is any literature that discusses the possibility of elevators throughout the solar system, not in an all encompassing solar Dyson Sphere type of manner, but rather from the standpoint of systems with conduits that are on the rough order of cross section size as a space elevator conduit to Earth orbit.

    I can imagine that such a planetary system based elevator complex could recycle its energy by magnetic linear induction breaking systems where mass driver like conduits are used. My guess is that such a system would need to be constructed out of the strongest forms of carbon nanotube or perhaps the proposed even stronger carbon Hexane material.

    The cool thing about space elevator research to geosynchronous orbit and perhaps throughout our planetary solar system is that such endeavers can push the theoretical and practical limits of materials mechanical strength properties which can only benefit long term prospects for manned interstellar travel.

  • ljk June 18, 2009, 15:33

    andy said:

    “Yeah but I don’t particularly care about how Orion looks in 10,000 years’ time, I’m not exactly going to be around then :-p”

    How sadly chronocentric of you.

  • ljk June 19, 2009, 9:39

    Regarding Orion and other star patterns as they appeared in ancient times,
    check out today’s APOD:


  • ljk July 13, 2009, 14:06

    The close circumstellar environment of Betelgeuse – Adaptive optics spectro-imaging in the near-IR with VLT/NACO

    Authors: Pierre Kervella (LESIA), Tijl Verhoelst, Stephen T. Ridgway (NOAO), Guy Perrin (LESIA), Sylvestre Lacour (LESIA), Jan Cami, Xavier Haubois (LESIA)

    (Submitted on 10 Jul 2009)


    Context: Betelgeuse is one the largest stars in the sky in terms of angular diameter. Structures on the stellar photosphere have been detected in the visible and near-infrared as well as a compact molecular environment called the MOLsphere. Mid-infrared observations have revealed the nature of some of the molecules in the MOLsphere, some being the precursor of dust.

    Aims: Betelgeuse is an excellent candidate to understand the process of mass loss in red supergiants. Using diffraction-limited adaptive optics (AO) in the near-infrared, we probe the photosphere and close environment of Betelgeuse to study the wavelength dependence of its extension, and to search for asymmetries.

    Methods: We obtained AO images with the VLT/NACO instrument, taking advantage of the “cube” mode of the CONICA camera to record separately a large number of short-exposure frames. This allowed us to adopt a “lucky imaging” approach for the data reduction, and obtain diffraction-limited images over the spectral range 1.04-2.17 $\mu$m in 10 narrow-band filters.

    Results: In all filters, the photosphere of Betelgeuse appears partly resolved. We identify an asymmetric envelope around the star, with in particular a relatively bright “plume” extending in the southwestern quadrant up to a radius of approximately six times the photosphere. The CN molecule provides an excellent match to the 1.09 mic bandhead in absorption in front of the stellar photosphere, but the emission spectrum of the plume is more difficult to interpret.

    Conclusions: Our AO images show that the envelope surrounding Betelgeuse has a complex and irregular structure. We propose that the southwestern plume is linked either to the presence of a convective hot spot on the photosphere, or to the rotation of the star.

    Comments: 12 pages. Astronomy and Astrophysics (2009) in press

    Subjects: Solar and Stellar Astrophysics (astro-ph.SR)

    Cite as: arXiv:0907.1843v1 [astro-ph.SR]

    Submission history

    From: Pierre Kervella [view email] [via CCSD proxy]

    [v1] Fri, 10 Jul 2009 15:20:31 GMT (3979kb)


  • ljk August 3, 2009, 15:00

    Review: Space Tethers and Space Elevators

    Despite limited progress, there continues to be strong interest by some in the space elevator concept. Jeff Foust review a book that provides an overview of both space elevators as well as shorter, but still challenging, space tethers.

    Monday, August 3, 2009


  • ljk September 24, 2011, 21:17

    How Much Does Betelgeuse Weigh?

    Astronomers have put a new technique for measuring stellar mass through its paces by studying Orion’s red supergiant

    kfc 09/23/2011


  • ljk January 1, 2012, 22:47

    The partial asteroidal occultation of Betelgeuse on Jan 2, 2012

    Costantino Sigismondi

    (Submitted on 29 Dec 2011)

    The asteroid (147857) 2005 UW381 will pass over the supergiant star Betelgeuse on January 2nd 2012. The event is visible on a limited geographical region, and the magnitude drop is only 0.01 magnitudes for a maximum duration of 3.6 seconds. The opportunity to measure this phenomenon can be interesting for dealing with extrasolar planetary transits.


    5 pages, 8 figures, to appear in the Journal of Occultation Astronomy (ISSN 0737-6766) January-March 2012


    Solar and Stellar Astrophysics (astro-ph.SR); Cosmology and Extragalactic Astrophysics (astro-ph.CO)

    Cite as:

    arXiv:1112.6398v1 [astro-ph.SR]

    Submission history

    From: Costantino Sigismondi [view email]

    [v1] Thu, 29 Dec 2011 19:49:53 GMT (691kb)