Tag Archives: Bernard Bates

Earthlings on Mars

If scientists eventually discover strange new life forms on Mars, then Bernie Bates is going to be out about $4 to members of the Tacoma Astronomical Society. Bates, professor of astronomy at the University of Puget Sound, made a friendly wager with those who attended his talk at the club’s meeting earlier this month. He has a shiny new dime that says we will find life on Mars and that it will look awfully familiar.

Bates expects we will have a definitive resolution to the wager by around 2026. NASA recently announced a Mars mission for 2020, and the ESA and Russia are working on a slightly earlier mission, both with an eye toward eventually returning samples of Mars rock and soil for analysis.

Bernie Bates

Bernie Bates, astronomy instructor at the University of Puget Sound, spoke about Mars exploration at the August meeting of the Tacoma Astronomical Society.

“They’re going to get samples back, they’re going to find microbes in it, and they’re going to pull the microbes apart,” Bates says. “The microbes are going to have DNA that we recognize, nucleotides that we recognize.”

“Life will be there on Mars,” Bates bets, “and it will be Earth life.”

The reason: Earth and Mars have been exchanging rocks for billions of years. “Mars is so close to us that there’s been cross-contamination between the two planets.”

Bates is confident he won’t have to pay off on the 10-cent wager about this multi-billion dollar question. But he isn’t offering odds or compound interest!

Recent science has been pretty conclusive about the past habitability of Mars, according to Bates, though Mars hasn’t been very Earth-like for the last two or three billion years.

“All of the geology questions in a sense have been answered,” he says. “We’ve got every potential smoking gun you can ask for for life on Mars.”

He expects we will find it.

“If Mars had life on it then it’s still there, someplace, probably underground,” Bates says, noting that microbial life is tough and adaptable. “The planet itself never did anything so hostile so quickly that it could wipe it out.”

Exploration of Mars was bumped up a notch or two with the arrival there of Curiosity a year ago, Bates says. A big reason is its power source, a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that will keep the rover operable for many years.

“They know they have enough time to do the science, they don’t have to rush, they can actually think through what they’re doing,” Bates says.

Time means flexibility. Bates notes that Curiosity spent the better part of its first year on an unplanned detour to explore the geology of an area named Glenelg near its Martian landing site.

“The spacecraft has an almost unlimited lifetime, they trust it, and they can do something like that” without jeopardizing the primary mission, Bates says.

Finding life on another planet, even if it actually originated here on Earth, wouldn’t exactly be ho-hum. Bates believes, though, that the greater discovery will come from a bit further out than Mars.

“If you want to find what the real search is for in the solar system, what they call second genesis, a different type of life, the Jovian people are the people to put your money on,” Bates says.

Money is a key factor. Interplanetary exploration costs a lot, and there’s not much to go around. The bulk of it is being invested in Mars these days, but Bates and many astrobiologists are rooting for more funding for those who want to probe the systems of Jupiter or Saturn. Both gas giant planets have moons that have interesting possibilities for life.

“Europa, Enceladus, that’s where the answers are,” Bates says.


Battling the giggle factor in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Dr. Bernard Bates is fascinated by the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but acknowledges there’s a certain “giggle factor” about the endeavor even as 21st-Century observatories discover planets in orbit around faraway stars on an almost daily basis. Bates, astronomy instructor at the University of Puget Sound, gave an informative and humorous talk this week titled, “The Quiet Sky: Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” The event at the Swiss Pub in Tacoma was part of the Science Café series presented by the Pacific Science Center and KCTS9 television.

SETI is listening

SETI is listening, but is anyone talking?

Surely part of the giggle factor comes from a half century of listening for electromagnetic transmissions from ET without hearing a peep. Bates said as technology improves so does the hunt, and suggests we give it another 40 years or so.

“If Moore’s law [about rapidly doubling computer power at lower cost] continues, if we don’t stumble upon someone by 2050, we’ve done something wrong,” he said.

That something could be in the design of the experiment.

“The worst assumption we made was that somebody is out there transmitting,” Bates said. “Someone would have to come up with funding on another planet to just send out signals for no apparent reason for a long time.”

Perhaps cash-strapped governments in other systems decided it was cheaper to just listen. Earthlings, on the other hand, have been broadcasting for a little over a century, and the original transmissions of Gilligan’s Island are now crackling out near Theta Boötes. Bates said if we were out there we would figure it out.

“We are really good at what we do. With the technology we have right now, we could find ourselves a quarter of the way across the galaxy,” he said.

It has been 50 years since Frank Drake cooked up the equation which now bears his name as a device for thinking about the factors that affect the chances of intelligent, radio-beaming civilizations appearing around the galaxy. In 1961 all we had for the seven variables were wild guesses. But now we have a pretty good idea about the astronomical variables: the rate of star formation, the fraction of stars with planetary systems, and the number of planets in each system that could support life. That part of the Drake equation suggests there should be 10 civilizations in the galaxy that are emitting electromagnetic signals. Bates said we’re still a little fuzzy on the rest of the variables.

“All of those cannot be incredibly small probabilities, because we’re here,” he noted, so the final answer has to be at least one. “But we just don’t know. Each of those variables represents an area of active research in different disciplines.”

Why all the fuss about SETI? Bates said his nine-year-old daughter drove the point home when she observed recently that she never sees two of anything. There is either just one, or there are many. Bates thinks that may go for extraterrestrial life, too.

“If we find a second genesis within the solar system that means there are probably a lot of them,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that there would only be two examples of life originating in the entire galaxy.”

Bates thinks most of the people working in the field believe there is at least simple life out there.

“It’s complex life that is hard,” he said. “Intelligence might be something that is so rare or so hard to come by that it never appeared again. There might be so many little accidents that had to happen in order for intelligent life to appear that we’re just it.”

Bates thinks we should keep at it, even if we don’t have a clear signal from another civilization by 2050.

“In the end, the worst that could happen is that we just give up and say, ‘OK we’re it. There’s no one else out there to talk to.’”

You can view the entire talk by Bates on the KCTS9 website.