May 14, 2005

A Virtual Mission In Search of Alien Life

Two-Hour Computer-Animated Special Features Top Scientists Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku and J. Craig Venter, Plus "Star Wars" Filmmaker George Lucas, Discussing Life Outside Our Solar System Mankind's greatest adventure is only decades away: In our century, unmanned space probes equipped with artificial intelligence will be sent to search for life on planets beyond our solar system. But what will happen when we find it?

ALIEN PLANET takes viewers on a dramatic virtual mission of the future "“ a trip to a fictional planet known as Darwin 4 "” in a new Discovery Channel world premiere Saturday, May 14, 8-10 PM (ET/PT). Rooted in the latest scientific research from the NASA Origins Program, NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Planet-Finder Mission and European Space Agency's Darwin Project, this special two hour computer-animated program features some of the world's most renowned scientists, including Stephen W. Hawking, Michio Kaku and J. Craig Venter, plus Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas, who discuss the possibilities of life outside our solar system and deconstruct the animals on Darwin 4, based on the laws of evolution and physics. The premiere of ALIEN PLANET kicks off Discovery Channel's "Space Week," May 14-21.

"The life we have on Earth must have spontaneously generated itself," says Stephen W. Hawking, physicist and author of A Brief History of Time. "It must therefore be possible for life to be generated spontaneously, elsewhere in the universe." And, as the story unfolds, that would be Darwin 4, located 6.5 light years from Earth, with two suns and 60 percent of Earth's gravity. Having identified Darwin 4 as an environment that could support life, Earth sends an unmanned pilot mission consisting of a "mother ship," dubbed Von Braun, and three probes: Balboa, da Vinci and Newton. Their goal: find and assess any life forms on Darwin 4.

"We will be the bystanders much more so than we are today with our robotic emissaries," notes Dr. James Garvin, Chief Scientist, NASA. "But that's okay "¦ they'll act more like us in the sense that they'll observe, mine the data, understand the anomalies and find the sweet spots."

Darwin 4 is experienced through the "eyes" of the probes Newton (also known as Ike) and da Vinci (nicknamed Leo), whose data are relayed back to Von Braun and then communicated back to Earth. The biological and atmospheric data from the probes and mother ship are relayed through computer voice simulation and on-screen readouts.

Initially, the expectation is to find microscopic life, but the probes soon find themselves in the middle of a developed ecosystem teeming with diversity of life of all sizes "“ just like Earth. "If you look at the diversity of what species look like on this planet, nature has come up with better things than our best science fiction," comments J. Craig Venter, of the J. Craig Venter Institute, who successfully mapped the human genome.

The life that Darwin 4 supports tests the limits of technology and the intellects of the greatest minds of our generation. It appears that life on the planet is bigger, faster "“ and more dangerous "“ than we ever imagined. As Michio Kaku, one of the founders of string theory, and professor at City University of New York, notes, "Chances are, when we meet intelligent life forms in outer space, they're going to be descended from predators."

Visually based on author/artist Wayne Barlowe's book Expedition, and rooted in real-life exploratory endeavors scientists have designed the planet of Darwin 4 (which lies in a known star system), the probes and the spacecraft, as well as the various life forms found there. The mission is brought to vivid life via state-of-the-art computer animation and visual effects by Meteor Studios, the creative team behind the Emmy ï Award-nominated When Dinosaurs Roamed America.

Among the scientists and others who comment on the mission to Darwin 4 are Hawking; Venter; Kaku; Jack Horner, paleontologist, Montana State University; and Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas. The scientists and evolutionary biologists who developed the mission and its possible results include Garvin; Victoria Meadows, research scientist, NASA/JPL Virtual Planet Laboratory; Randy Pollock, space instrumentation system architect, Hamilton Sundstrand; Joan Horvath, executive director, Global Space League; James Kirkland, state paleontologist, Utah Geological Survey; David Moriarty, professor, Biological Sciences Department, California State Polytechnic University; and Curtis Clark, professor, Biological Sciences Department, California State Polytechnic University.

ALIEN PLANET will also be simulcast in high definition on Discovery HD Theatre, the first-ever Discovery Channel/Discovery HD Theatre simulcast.

The producer of ALIEN PLANET is John Copeland ( Babylon 5). Executive Producer for Discovery Channel is Tomi Landis. Executive producers for Evergreen Films are Pierre de Lespinois and Frances LoCascio. Animation and visual effects by Meteor Studios. The writers are Peter Crabbe and Steve Eder. The program is an Evergreen Films/Discovery Channel coproduction.

Discovery Channel is the United States' largest cable television network, serving 89.8 million households across the nation with the finest in informative entertainment. Discovery Networks, U.S., a unit of Discovery Communications, Inc., operates and manages Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel, Discovery HD Theater, Discovery Kids Channel, Discovery Times Channel, The Science Channel, Discovery Home Channel, Military Channel, Discovery en Español and FitTV. The unit also distributes BBC AMERICA.


"We think other worlds, perhaps other earths, if you will, exist. We know of hundreds of other planetary systems right now, and that may be the tip of the iceberg."
-- Jim Garvin, Chief Scientist, NASA

"It isn't conceivable, really, that there would not be life. Is it intelligent? I don't know. That's a whole other issue..."
-- George Lucas, Filmmaker

"We have to mentally prepare ourselves for this big shock -- perhaps even being dethroned from the center of the universe, the biological universe -- when we discover evidence of life in outer space. At that point, there'll be another Copernican revolution, a biological Copernican revolution when we realize that we're not the only game in town."
-- Michio Kaku

"Finding life beyond earth -- it really is just going to be a matter of persistence. We'll probably have to send a lot of probes."
-- Jack Horner, Paleontologist, Montana State University

"One piece of evidence that suggests the probability of primitive forms of life appearing may be reasonably high, is that life seems to have appeared on Earth shortly after the Earth cooled sufficiently for life to be possible. If life was very improbable, one might have expected life not to have appeared until late in the ten billion or so years that the Earth has to live."
-- Stephen W. Hawking, Physicist and Author

"If we realize that there is other life at a higher order of multi-cellular organization of even adaptation of environment, I think that would profoundly rock our boat."
-- Jim Garvin

"I think discovering life on another planet might be one of the most fantastic things for humans."
-- J. Craig Venter, President, J. Craig Venter Institute

"If we want to find advanced intelligent life, our best bet is to listen to radio signals, like the SETI project. Interstellar distances are too large for us to travel to more than the closest stars.

If we want to explore the galaxy, we'd better send robots, but we won't live long enough to hear back from them."
-- Stephen W. Hawking

"According to Einstein, there's an ultimate speed limit in the universe. Mother Nature is like a cop, a cop that says you cannot break the light barrier."
-- Michio Kaku, Professor, CUNY



On the Net:

Alien Planet on Discovery