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Science & Space

Searching for aliens in all the wrong places

By Miles O'Brien
CNN Space Correspondent

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news.

CNN's crew: Photographer Tim Wall, Audio Tech Kevin Kvicala, Correspondent Miles O'Brien, and Producer Ted Rubenstein.
Scientists searching for life in the universe believe they are on the verge of a major breakthrough. Watch 'Is anybody out there?' Sunday 8 p.m. ET on CNN. 
Behind the Scenes
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration

'OUTER SPACE' -- (CNN) 'Now that would be a dateline to write home about. Or how about: "SEA OF TRANQUILITY" or "PLANUM MERIDIANI"? Those wouldn't be too shabby, either.

What to do if you are a space correspondent looking for signs of alien life in the universe for a CNN documentary? A program to answer "The Question." Are we...were we...have we always been...alone in the universe?"

Well, the newsroom might be a good place to start, but that's no fun. Instead, I put earthbound places like Arecibo, Atacama, and Yellowstone on the itinerary. I didn't find any aliens, but I sure saw some fascinating life forms.

The big dish

Our intrepid crew -- Producer Ted Rubenstein, Photographer Tim Wall, Audio Tech Kevin Kvicala and yours truly touched down at the world's largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

A shoot in sunny, warm Puerto Rico in the middle of February might best be described as good producing but it also happened to coincide with Jill Tarter Director, Center SETI Research annual pilgrimage to the huge ear to the heavens.

Jill is the real world character who inspired Carl Sagan to create Ellie Arroway -- the protagonist of his novel "Contact." Arroway like Jill is obsessed with trying to answer "The Question" by listening for a signal from an alien civilization.

The U.S. Air Force built Arecibo in the early sixties to test some theories about how radio waves bounce off the ionosphere.

In about a year, the military had its answers, got bored and turned the whole thing over to academia. Ever since, Arecibo has been used by scientists to study the planets, looking for quasars and, more to the point for us, to tune into WUFO.

The spherical Arecibo dish is a thousand feet across and would hold 10 billion average bowls of cereal. Clearly someone had some spare time on their hands to come up with that figure.

Naturally, we had to go to the top platform suspended by cables 450 feet or so above the dish. Our guide was SETI staffer Ben Sanchez who led us onto the tiny gondola, shut the door and then confessed he was none to enamored with heights.

He had some company.

We crawled all around the platform and inside the huge "Gregorian Dome" that houses many of the antennas and sensors.

I tried not to look down. But when I did, I wondered what the mandatory hardhat I was wearing would do for me if I fell.

Oh, give me a home...

Park Ranger Karen McEneaney was our guide in the Smokey-Bear hat. She is no Ranger Rick by any stretch. A former schoolteacher, she shadowed us throughout a two-day stint up and down and across Yellowstone National Park. We did need a stern "Miss Brooks" type to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Jill Tarter Director, Center for SETI Research never gets bored in her search for extra terrestrial life.

It wasn't the deer, the antelope, the bison or the wolves that prompted the U.S. government to set aside this heavenly place as the world's first national park.

It was preserved because of its amazing hot springs, fumaroles and geysers. But back in the day, they clearly could not have imagined who would value those features most in the 21st century, and why.

The amazing vivid hues found in these hot, acid and alkaline springs and streams would seem more at home on a golfer's slacks than here in Mother Nature's dominion.

It gives new meaning to the term "earth tones." For years, scientists presumed this rainbow was made by some sort of chemical or spectral process. Turns out, they are simply tiny living things that don't seem to mind living in boiling hot battery acid.

The link between the heavens and these cauldrons is closer than you might think.

If little living things can thrive here in hot acid baths, perhaps the universe offers many more likely suspects for gumshoes working on the case of missing alien life.
At Yellowstone where a rainbow coalition of tiny organisms live happily amid hydrogen, arsenic and methane.

But if you are looking for life out there, you need to know where it cannot take hold as well. Understanding the transition is key.

And that is why a really dead place is very interesting to scientists as well.

No one here but us rocks

The deadest place on earth is not, as some suggest, Washington in August. It is the driest core section of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. In this desert, there simply is no precipitation of any kind.

Trek over the mountains, where fog descends from time to time, and you will find all kinds of microscopic critters clinging to life in the soil.

NASA's Indiana Jones geologist Chris McKay travels all over the world looking for extremely dry places to learn how living things operate in such extremes.

Death Valley, the Dry Valleys of the Antarctic and the core region of the Atacama -- are all in his passport. If you have to pack a slicker, forget it. He would just as soon stay home.

But in all of his travels, he has never found a place quite like the Atacama. Put plainly there is nothing living here at all.

If NASA sent the Viking Landers here, they would beam back a complete flat line. As the natives say, nada.

Accommodations here are a half a click above nada. A couple of shipping containers linked together by some tattered blue tarp, not for the rain, of course, but to shield us from the sun.

"I was able to get a signal back to Atlanta for a few minutes and just as they were about to take me live from the deadest place on earth it all went to hash."

In the course of a day, we saw a temperature swings of more than 60 degrees Ferhinhight. From 90 or so in the afternoon to about 30 overnight.

On the first night, I thought it would be fun to sleep outside under the full moon. It was great, but I could have used another sleeping bag, or an electric blanket, or a Ritz Carlton.

McKay and his team are hoping by digging deep in the soil here, a task he leaves mostly to his grad students I noticed, he will find some sort of subtle "Rosetta Stone" of ancient life, which since this is Earth and all, we know once existed in this spot.

That could help him design the Mars mission he is working on: a robotic drilling platform which could fly in seven years.

But he is among many scientists who say the best way to answer "The Question" -- is to send humans. And he would be first in line, of course.

Maybe you need to send life, to find life.

Now that's the story I want to cover. I have been practicing: Miles O'Brien, CNN, Olympus Mons, Mars. Now that would be a memorable way to end a piece, wouldn't it?

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