The Life, the Sea and the Space Viking, Searching for Extremophiles

In the coming weeks, the SETI Institute will release some of the short videos and trailers developed in house at the SETI Institute by our Designer of Experiences Nelly Ben Hayoun as part of the project The Life, the Sea and the Space Viking which deals with the contemporary debates on astrobiology and terraforming. Two areas of expertise developed at the SETI Institute by our world class scientists.

Read our previous post on the project here: The Life, the Sea and the Space Viking, trailers released.

THE LIFE, THE SEA AND THE SPACE VIKING // Bill Diamond+ Dr Dale Andersen+ Dr Penny Boston at the SETI Institute, Antarctica and the Crystal Caves of Mexico

In this short clip you meet Bill Diamond, President and CEO at SETI Institute, Dr Dale Andersen, Senior Research Scientist, SETI Institute and Dr Penny Boston, Director for Astrobiology Institute, NASA. Each of them are talking about their unique field of expertise and some of the sublime places in which they work: Antarctica for Dale, the Crystal Caves of Mexico for Penny, and the SETI Institute for Bill.

Bill Diamond, President and CEO at SETI Institute

Bill is the current President and CEO of the SETI Institute; he is a technology executive and Silicon Valley veteran.  He has over 20 years of experience in the photonics and optical communications industry, and a decade in X-ray and semiconductor processing technologies.   His corporate background spans the spectrum from venture-backed start-ups to Fortune 100 multinationals, with responsibilities ranging from engineering and operations to sales, marketing, product management and CEO positions. Most recently, Diamond was Vice President of Sales for Oclaro, Inc. where he led the company’s penetration in optical networking of the rapidly-evolving Web 2.0 Data Center market.

Dr. Dale Andersen, Senior Research Scientist, SETI Institute

Dale has been a Principal Investigator at the SETI Institute’s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe since 1992.  During this time, his research has focused on microbial ecosystems in extreme environments including areas of the Arctic, Antarctic, Atacama Desert, Death Valley and Siberia. Dale’s research interests are with the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe and he has been involved with NASA’s Exobiology and Astrobiology programs since the mid 1980’s.  He is interested in locating, characterizing and understanding environments where physical and chemical conditions approach or exceed the tolerances for life. Dale has participated in field research in Polar Regions for more than 25 years having participated and led 14 expeditions to the Antarctic and over twenty-six expeditions to the Arctic.


Dr Penny Boston, Director for Astrobiology Institute, NASA

Penelope J. Boston is the associate director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and founder and director of the Cave and Karst Studies Program at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. Among her research interests are geomicrobiology of caves and mines, extraterrestrial speleogenesis, and space exploration and astrobiology. In the mid-1980s, Boston (then a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder) was one of the founders of the Mars Underground and helped organise a series of conferences called The Case for Mars. In March 2016 Boston was named the Director for NASA Astrobiology Institute. 

MAKING CONTACT: SETI Artists in Residence Program Inaugural Group Show at NUMU Los Gatos thru March 5th, 2017.

by Martin Wilner

This group exhibition features artists from the SETI Artist in Residence (AIR) program, including Danny Bazo, George Bolster, Charles Lindsay, Marko Peljhan, Rachel Sussman, Martin Wilner and Karl Yerkes. Making Contact marks the first SETI AIR group exhibition.

The SETI Institute and The New Museum Los Gatos (NUMU) present MAKING CONTACT, a group show featuring seven of the SETI Institute’s artists and their work. SETI AIR began in 2010 after a chance meeting between Dr. Jill Tarter and artist Charles Lindsay. Our artists in residence program has now put a dozen artists in close contact with SETI Institute scientists, creating new friendships and first rate contemporary art in the process. Several SETI Institute artists also have work on view at the Massachusettes Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA) in the group show Explode Everyday: an Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder, curated by Denise Markonish.

Please join us at NUMU on November 5th at 3 pm for a panel with the artists and scientists including Charles Lindsay, Jill Tarter, Martin Wilner, Oana Marco, Danny Bazo, Karl Yerkes, Marco Peljhan, Friedemann Freund, Rachel Sussman, Jon Jenkins, Mark Showalter and George Bolster. Event information can be found at

by Charles Lindsay

SETI AIR Exhibited Works

The artist team of Danny Bazo, Marko Peljhan and Karl Yerkes has created Somnium which examines both the micro and macro when considering planetary potential within a swath of the universe captured by the Kepler telescope. George Bolster’s film, The Moon, McMoons, and The Moon Museum illuminates our human endeavors to preserve culture relating to our fascination with the Moon. Charles Lindsay’s inter-active sculptural works re-purpose technology and original Apollo era photographs to create devices and documents suggestive of alternate futures. In exploring the origins of our universe, Rachel Sussman integrates intention into the quest to understand the nature of the cosmos and our role as its inhabitants. Artist and psychiatrist Martin Wilner renders his series of monthly conversations with SETI scientists using a calendar format, creating spectacular illustrated diaries of correspondence with his subjects.

Making Contact is generously supported by The Robert Lehman Foundation, The Applied Materials Foundation, The SETI Institute, Montalvo Arts Center and The Lucas Artists Residency Program. NUMU gratefully acknowledges support from the Town of Los Gatos and its many donors and members. Additional funding provided by UBS.

by Rachel Sussman

Please also join Charles Lindsay, Jill Tarter, Franck Marchis and Cynthia Phillips at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on January 9th for this far reaching discussion:

Read More: 

The Life, the Sea and the Space Viking, trailers released

In the coming weeks, the SETI Institute will release some of the short videos and trailers developed in house at the SETI Institute by our Designer of Experiences Nelly Ben Hayoun as part of the project The Life, the Sea and the Space Viking which deals with the contemporary debates on astrobiology and terraforming. Two areas of expertise developed at the SETI Institute by our world class scientists.

Currently finishing its development phase, “The Life, the Sea and the Space Viking” is Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios and Dartmouth Films latest production. A Space Odyssey and Viking Saga 11km under the sea, documenting a submersible expedition and an encounter with our biological archeology. Merging the fields of astrobiology, terraforming and the research of extremophiles, the project is set for release in 2017. An expedition of uncharted territories, encompassing all scales of science, but also inspiring questions of humanity’s place in the universe, the project explores the science of space colonisation. The project features leading scientists at NASA and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and documents a submersible expedition - as we learn from life on Earth, how to create life on another planet. You can see more updates and  trailers on the website

With contributions from:

Bill Diamond, President and CEO at SETI Institute
Dr Dale Andersen, Senior Research Scientist, SETI Institute
Dr Penny Boston, Director for Astrobiology Institute, NASA
Dr Nathalie Cabrol, Senior Research Scientist & Director of the Carl Sagan Center
Dr Chris MacKay, Planetary Scientist, NASA Ames Research Center
Liz Taylor, President DOER Marine
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Marine Biologist and Explorer
Dr Jill Tarter, Astronomer & Former Director of the Center for SETI Research
Sigur Ros (Jónsi, Orri Páll Dýrason, Georg Hólm)
Dr. Kári Stefánsson, deCODE



THE LIFE, THE SEA AND THE SPACE VIKING// What is your vision on outer space colonisation?


Did Early Earth Spin On Its Side?

MOUNTAIN VIEW – New theoretical modeling of the ancient history of the Earth and the Moon suggests that the giant collision that spawned our natural satellite may have left Earth spinning very fast, and with its spin axis highly tilted.

Computer simulations of what followed the collision, sometimes referred to as the “big whack,” show that, following this event, and as the young Moon’s orbit was getting bigger, the Earth lost much of its spin as well gained a nearly upright orientation with respect to the ecliptic.  The simulations give new insight into the question of whether planets with big moons are more likely to have moderate climates and life. 

“Despite smart people working on this problem for fifty years, we’re still discovering surprisingly basic things about the earliest history of our world,” says Matija Cuk a scientist at the SETI Institute and lead researcher for the simulations.  “It’s quite humbling.”

Since the nineteenth century, scientists have known that the Moon is gradually moving away from Earth and that or planet’s spin is simultaneously slowing down. The cause is the ocean tides raised by the Moon which slowly dissipate energy as they move across the ocean basins. This energy has to come from somewhere, resulting in a slowing down of Earth’s rotation, with our days very slowly getting longer. 

Previous calculations done over many decades always concluded that the Moon formed close to Earth, which at the time had a rotation period of five hours. This calculation later became the basis of the giant impact theory, in which the Moon formed from debris generated in a collision between proto-Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet.

However, these calculations may have been missing some important physics.  Four years ago, a paper in the journal Science by Cuk and Sarah Stewart (now at the University at California, Davis) suggested that post-impact Earth had a much faster spin, closer to 2 hours. A complex orbital interaction between the Moon and the Sun could have drained spin from the Earth-Moon system, causing an underestimate of Earth’s rotation.  Note that a very fast early spin would eject more material from Earth into orbit during and just after the giant impact, producing a Moon that is similar in make-up to Earth’s mantle, as found by lab studies of lunar rocks.

Since then, the plot has thickened as it was realized that tides within the Moon significantly affected its orbit during one part of its tidal migration. Today, the path of the Moon is tilted from Earths orbital plane by five degrees. Multiple theories have been offered to explain this tilt, but it was never considered significant enough to seriously challenge the idea that the Moon formed in a flat disk around the Earth. However, Erinna Chen and Francis Nimmo at the University of California, Santa Cruz reported in 2013 that internal friction due to tidal tugs by Earth should have greatly decreased the Moon’s orbital tilt over billions of years.  Cuk and Stewart quickly realized a clear implication that the orbit of the Moon once had a large tilt to Earth’s orbit, changing the story of its history completely. 

“We’ve been calculating the past orbit of the Moon wrong for over fifty years now,” notes Cuk citing the work of then-doctoral student Chen. “We ignored the fact that tidal flexing within the Moon can decrease lunar orbital inclination.”

In the paper just published in Nature, Cuk and Stewart, together with Douglas Hamilton of the University of Maryland and Simon Lock of Harvard, propose a new solution to the mystery of the lunar orbital tilt, one that also explains the Moon’s Earth-like make-up. They find that, if Earth originally spun on its side with the young Moon orbiting around its equator, solar gravitational forces could both take spin away from the system and tilt the Moon’s orbit.

Planets bulge at their equator due to their spin, and for every planet there exists a special distance at which an orbiting satellite would feel roughly equal torque from the planet’s equatorial bulge and the distant Sun. But if the planet has an axial tilt over 70 degrees, the satellite’s orbit will suffer from a kind of orbital confusion.

When the planet’s equator and its orbit are nearly perpendicular, the satellite becomes confused about which way is “up”, and its orbit becomes elongated due to Sun’s meddling. In the case of our Moon, the varying distance from Earth on its eccentric orbit then triggered strong tidal flexing within the Moon which fought back against the efforts of Earth’s tides to push it outward, resulting in a stalemate. Such a stalemate can last for millions of years, during which Earth kept losing its spin while the Moon did not go into a wider orbit.  Instead, its orbit became more tilted.

Once the Earth had lost enough of its original spin, the Moon broke out of this stalled state and continued its outward journey. But as the Moon left this special distance, its torque on Earth’s spin axis righted the previously highly-tilted Earth. Finally, as the Moon continued its orbital migration outward, tidal flexing within the Moon shrank its orbital inclination, bringing the lunar orbit closer to the plane of the planets. 

Despite the complexity of this story, computer calculations suggest that it is the only complete explanation so far for the current orbital and compositional properties of the Moon. 

“This work shows that there are multiple ways a planet could get a small axial tilt, making moderate seasons possible. We thought Earth was this way because of the direction of the giant impact 4.5 billion years ago, but it looks like Earth achieved this state later through a complex interaction with the Moon and the Sun,” Cuk says.

“I wonder how many habitable Earth-like extrasolar planets also have a large Moon,” he asks.

The article is here:


Subscribe to SETI Institute RSS