04/05/2005. Contributed by Jessica Martin
Hot on the heels of the highly anticipated premiere of the sixth and final Star Wars movie, the National Geographic Channel presents an array of new and bizarre planetary creatures - but these are scientifically based visions of life as predicted by some of the world's leading scientists.
"Extraterrestrial," premiering in the USA Monday, May 30th 2005 from 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT (encore Thursday, June 2 from 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT), is a new show that creates two worlds which scientists believe could exist in our own Milky Way galaxy, putting evolution into motion to investigate what life forms could survive there. Utilizing a combination of computer generated imaging and 3-D effects, "Extraterrestrial" takes viewers on a galactic journey to come face-to-face with alien life forms.
"Extraterrestrial" reflects the contributions of scientists from NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), universities and organizations like the Ecospheres Project and the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The experts anticipate discoveries to be made in the near future, when super-powerful new telescopes will begin watching the fringes of the Milky Way for signs of life.
"The idea that there might be life out there has been around for a long time. What has changed is the realization that we have the technology now to answer the question," explained astrobiologist Dr. Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA's Mars Program. One of the world's most eminent evolutionary biologists, professor Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University says, "This is the century for the discovery of extraterrestrial life ... It's an incredibly exciting time." Dr. Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer with the SETI Institute, believes it is a statistical certainty that there is life elsewhere in our galaxy: "It is a very real possibility that we will find evidence of extraterrestrial life by the year 2025."
Using super computers powerful enough to make predictions about the Earth's climate, "Extraterrestrial's" scientists modeled the weather and climate for a planet that would orbit a red dwarf star, one of the most common stars in our galaxy. To their astonishment, the resulting profile indicated that the planet would be capable of supporting life. Based on the latest scientific results and deep space observations, two planets are identified to represent statistically likely celestial bodies and are subsequently named Aurelia and Blue Moon. "Extraterrestrial" then brings the science team's extraordinary visions of their respective inhabitants to the screen through sophisticated CGI modeling and animation.
Aurelia, which circles a red dwarf star, is representative of one of the most habitable types of planets. "We will almost certainly find something very similar to Aurelia. It's very much in the cards," says Conway Morris.
A place of extremes, one side of Aurelia is permanently exposed to starlight, the other in eternal freezing darkness. There are no seasons, days or nights. Cloud and lightning storms cover the center of the light side, while a giant ice cap smothers much of the dark side. As viewers descend into the light side, violent storm clouds give way to a landscape of immense rivers and vast flood plains, several times bigger than the Amazon.
Evolutionary biologists and biomechanists then conceived of life forms they believe could survive on Aurelia -- nicknaming them Stinger Fans, Gulphogs and Hysteria among others.
Stinger Fans on Aurelia resemble tall plants with giant fans at the top, but they are flesh-and-blood animals that feed on the sun's energy. Large slithery tentacles constantly move them slowly across the mud, jostling for the best place to capture the sun's precious rays.
The Gulphog is the largest predator in the Stinger Fan forest, standing nearly 15 feet high, massive as a buffalo, but with a giraffe-like neck and prominent central teeth. Although it looks ungainly, scientists' calculations show that the Gulphog can run as fast as a racehorse. Its long legs often help it outrun an indigenous predator, dubbed the deadly Hysteria.
Hysteria look like tadpoles, peacefully eating tiny creatures that live in Aurelia's lagoons. But the Hysteria can undergo a terrifying transformation when they come together as one undulating creature, rising from the water to bore into land-based victims and releasing a flesh dissolving toxin.
Aurelia's keystone species is the homely Mudpod. Resembling the awkward mating of an armadillo and a frog, Mudpods create the vast network of lagoons that make up the Stinger Fan forest. Sure-footed and equipped with a strong shovelhead, they are perpetual dam builders and the planet's chief architects.
Blue Moon is a moon with a 240 hour day that orbits a planet in a twin star solar system. Its atmosphere is three times denser than Earth's and behaves like a suspended ocean, supporting life that floats and glides through the sky. It has carbon dioxide levels 30 times those of Earth's, which fuels rampant plant growth, and oxygen levels over four times higher which supercharges animal life with more than twice the muscular strength. Dr. Martin Heath, a geoscientist with the Ecospheres Project, says, "I think that one day we may indeed find something rather like the Blue Moon ... this is no longer the stuff of science fiction."
On Blue Moon, clouds of tiny floating plants give a greenish haze to many parts of the sky. The ground is a vast forest of giant Pagoda Trees, with bowl-like depressions at the top of each plant that collect large ponds of water, making it possible for them to grow more than half a mile high. In order to support the weight of the water, the Pagodas are interconnected to form a superstructure which sustains an entire ecosystem down below.
Fishing the ponds are giant Kites, a carnivorous life form that resembles a giant airplane wing, with tentacles it uses like fishing lines. Draping the halls of the forest below with a sticky veil of tentacles are the Death Traps, with the ability to dissolve creatures in a bath of acid.
Giant Skywhales resemble Earth's whales, but with a noticeable difference -- they have wings that span nearly 33 feet. They gently glide on Blue Moon's powerful thermal drafts thousands of feet into the sky, feasting on clouds of floating plants, while remaining vigilant. If they fly too low, they provoke an attack by hornet-like Caped Stalkers, flying creatures the size of eagles, with three eyes for 360-degree vision, and deadly razor-sharp beaks that easily tear a Skywhale's flesh.
Despite a cast of creatures that seems extreme, Dr. Shostak admits that reality could prove to be even more surprising than "Extraterrestrial" has predicted. "It could be that life can take forms we haven't even thought of yet."
"Extraterrestrial" is produced by Big Wave Productions, Ltd. for National Geographic Channel. Series producer is Sarah Cunliffe; producer/director is Nick Stringer. For NGC, Colette Beaudry is supervising producer; Michael Cascio is executive producer, John Ford is executive vice president, programming.
Check them out at these coordinates: http://www.nationalgeographic.com
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