Our Ever-Growing Menagerie of Exoplanets

While we have never seen an exoplanet with anything near this kind of detail, scientists and artists now do know enough to represent them with characteristics that are plausible, given what is known about them..  (NASA)

With so many exoplanets already detected, with the pace of discovery continuing to be so fast, and with efforts to find more distant worlds so constant and global,  it’s easy to become somewhat blase´ about new discoveries.  After so many “firsts,” and so many different kinds of planets found in very different ways, it certainly seems that some of the thrill may be gone.

Surely the detection of a clearly “Earth-like planet” would cause new excitement — one that is not only orbiting in the habitable zone of its host star but also has signs of a potentially nurturing atmosphere in a generally supportive cosmic neighborhood.

But while many an exoplanet has been described as somewhat “Earth-like” and potentially habitable, further observation has consistently reduced the possibility of the planets actually hosting some form of biology.  The technology and knowledge base needed to find distant life is surely advancing, but it may well still have a long way to go.

In just the last few days, however, a slew of discoveries have been reported that highlight the allure and science of our new Exoplanet Era.  They may not be blockbusters by themselves, but they are together part of an immense scientific exploration under way, one that is re-shaping our understanding of the cosmos and preparing us for bigger discoveries and insights to come.

 

Already 3,940 exoplanets have been identified (as of April 17) with an additional 3,504 candidates waiting to be confirmed or discarded.  this is but the start since it is widely held now that virtually every star out there has a planet, or planets, orbiting it.   That’s billions of billions of planets.  This image is a collection of NASA exoplanet renderings.

What I have in mind are these discoveries:

  • The first Earth-sized planet detected by NASA’s year-old orbiting telescope TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.)  TESS is designed to find planets orbiting massive stars in our near neighborhood, and it has already made 10 confirmed discoveries.  But finding a small exoplanet — 85 percent the size of Earth — is a promising result for a mission designed to not only locate as many as 20,000 new exoplanets, but to find 500 to 1,000 the rough size of Earth or SuperEarth. 
Read more

The “Twin Study,” and What it Does and Does Not Say About The Health Hazards of Space Travel

Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969, photographed by first-on-the-moon astronaut Neil Armstrong (NASA)

 

When Buzz Aldrin became the second man to ever walk on the moon, his lunar escapades, along with those of Neil Armstrong,  were a cause of national and pretty much global joy, wonder and pride.   That the mission was hazardous was self-evident — from launch to the ad-lib and hair-raising landing on the moon, to return to Earth– but the nation and certainly the astronauts were more than ready to take the risk.

A half century later, Armstrong has passed (at 82 from complication of cardiac surgery)  but Aldrin is still writing books and proposing plans to reach Mars. Their time in space may well have changed their lives and views of the world, but it did not seem to affect their basic health.

But the two were in space for only eight days and so were not exposed to the long-term effects of solar radiation, microgravity and isolation that are now under intense study.  Because the next generation of astronauts who may be going to the moon and beyond will be going for much longer periods of time and so will face a wide range of potential problems that weren’t considered major issues in Apollo or even later days.

Much has been learned since Apollo, however, and some of it raises new risks and new problems.  And that’s why the just-released Twin Study of the health comparison of long-staying International Space Station astronaut Scott Kelly and his ground-based twin brother Mark Kelly has been eagerly awaited.

Now that we know somewhat better what to look for in terms of more subtle damage that can come from long stays in space, what are the dangers and how serious are they?

Identical twins, Scott and Mark Kelly, are the subjects of NASA’s Twins Study. Scott (left) spent a year in space while Mark (right) stayed on Earth as a control subject.  It was Scott Kelly’s idea to have he and his (former astronaut) brother serve as subjects of the extensive research into the effects of space travel on the human body. (NASA)

“Given that the majority of the biological and human health variables remained stable, or returned to baseline, after a 340-dayspace mission, these data suggest that human health can be mostly sustained over this duration of spaceflight,”  the study concludes.

Published in Science, the intensive study was led by Francine E.… Read more

A Significant Advance: Primitive Earth Life Survives an 18-Month Exposure to Mars-Like Conditions in Space

The European Space Agency’s BIOMEX array, outside the Russian Zvezda module of the ISS. (ESA)

The question of whether simple life can survive in space is hardly new, but it has lately taken on a new urgency.

It is not only a pressing scientific question — might life from Mars or another body have seeded life on Earth?  Might organisms similar to extreme Earth life survive Mars-like conditions? — but it is also has some very practical implications.  If humans are going to some day land and live on the moon or on Mars, they will need to grow food to survive.

So the question is pretty basic:  can Earth seeds or dormant life survive a long journey to deep space and can they then  grow in the protected but still extreme radiation, temperature, and vacuum  of deep space?

It was with these questions in mind that the European Space Agency funded a proposal from the German Institute of Planetary Research to send samples of a broad range of simple to more complex life to the International Space Station in 2014, and to expose the samples to extreme conditions outside the station.

Some of the findings have been reported earlier,  but last month the full results of the Biomex tests (Biology on Mars Experiment) were unveiled in the journal Astrobiology.

And the answer is that many, though certainly not all, of the the samples of snow and permafrost algae, cyanobacteria, archaea, fungi, biofilms, moss and lichens in the  did survive their 533 days of living dangerous in their dormant states.  When brought back to Earth and returned to normal conditions, they returned to active life.

“For the majority of the chosen organisms, it was the first and the longest time they ever were exposed to space and Mars-like conditions,” Jean-Pierre Paul de Vera, principal investigator of the effort, wrote to me.  And the results were promising.

 

For the BIOMEX experiment, on 18 August 2014, Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev placed several hundred samples in an experiment container on the exterior of the Zvezda’Russian ISS module. The containers, open to the surrounding space environment, held primitive terrestrial organisms such as mosses, lichens, fungi, bacteria, archaea and algae, as well as cell membranes and pigments.

 

A microbiologist and planetary researcher at the German Space Agency’s Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, de Vera and his team went from Antarctica to the parched Atacama desert in Chile, from the high Alps to the steppe highlands of central Spain to find terrestrial life surviving in extreme conditions (extremophiles.)

The samples were then placed in regolith (soil, dust and other rocky materials) simulated to be as close as possible to what is found on Mars.Read more

Ancient Mars Water. Ever More of It, and Flowing Ever Longer on the Surface

A photo of a preserved river channel on Mars with color overlaid to show different elevations (blue is low, yellow is high).
(Courtesy of NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Chicago)

 

Rather like a swollen river overflowing its banks, the story of water on Mars keeps on rising and spreading in quite unpredictable ways.

While the planet is now inarguable parched — though with lots of polar and subsurface ice and, perhaps, some seasonal surface trickles — data from the Curiosity rover, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other missions have proven quite reliably that the planet was once much wetter and warmer.  But how much wetter, and for how long,  remains of subject of hot debate.

On one side, Mars climate modelers have struggled to find mechanisms to keep the planet wetter and warmer for more than it’s earliest period — perhaps 500 million years.  Their projections flow from the seemingly established conclusion that Mars lost much of its atmosphere by 3.5 billion years ago, and without that protection warmer and wetter appear to be impossible.

But the morphology of the planet, the gorges, the fossil lakes, the riverbeds and deltas that are visible  because of 21st century technology and missions,  appears to tell a different and more wide-ranging story of Mars water.

 

Mudstone at the “Kimberley” formation on Mars taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating the ancient depression that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed.
Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

And now, in one of the most expansive interpretations of the Martian water story, University of Chicago planetary scientist and Mars expert Edwin Kite and colleagues report in a Science Advances paper that the planet not only once had many, many lakes and rivers, but that they were filled as part of a water cycle involving precipitation, rather than primarily through the sporadic melting of primordial ice as a result of incoming meteorites or other astrophysical events.

What’s more, they write, the rivers continued to sporadically flow well past the time when the Martian surface has been assumed to be dead dry.

The era when Mars has been most often described as going from wet-to-dry is around 3.5 billion years ago, but their interpretation of when precipitation-filled rivers stopped running is about 3 billion years ago.  In other words, Kite’s team now says the rivers ran — often quite actively — for more than one billion years.… Read more

A New and Revelatory Window Into Evolution on Earth

A Leanchoilia fossil from at the Qingjiang site in China. A very early arthropod  found with sharply defined appendages is an arthropod and  one of the prime examples of early Cambrian life (D Fu et al., Science 363:1338 (2019)

Virtually every definition of the word “life” includes the capability to undergo Darwinian evolution as a necessary characteristic.  This is true of life on Earth and of thinking about what would constitute life beyond Earth.  If it can’t change, the thinking goes, then it cannot be truly alive.

In addition, evolutionary selection and change occurs within the context of broad planetary systems — the chemical makeup of the atmosphere, the climactic conditions, the geochemistry and more.  If an environment is changing, then the lifeforms that can best adapt to the new conditions are the ones that will survive and prosper.

So evolution is very much part of the landscape that Many Worlds explores — the search for life beyond Earth and effort to understand how life emerged on Earth.  Evolution happens in the context of broad conditions on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere), and finding potential life elsewhere involves understanding the conditions on distant planets and determining if they are compatible with life.

This all came to mind as I read about the discovery of a remarkable collection of fossils alongside a river in China, fossils of soft-bodied creatures that lived a half billion years ago in the later phase of what is termed the the Cambrian explosion.  They are of being compared already with the iconic “Burgess Shale” fossil find in Canada of decades ago, and may well shed equally revelatory light on a crucial time in the evolution of life on Earth.

Artist rendering of Qingjiang life showing characteristics of different early Cambrian taxonomical groups.  More than 50 percent had never been identified before. (ZH Yao and DJ Fu)

The new discovery is reported in the journal Science in a paper authored by Dongjing Fu and a team largely from the Northwest University in Xi’an.  The paper reports on a zoo of Cambrian-era creatures, with more than half of them never identified before in the rock record.

The animals are soft-bodied — making it all the more remarkable that they were preserved — and some bear little resemblance to anything that followed.   Like the Burgess Shale fossils, the Qingjiang discovery is of an entire ecosystem that largely disappeared as more fit (and predatory) animals emerged.… Read more

Japan’s Hayabusa2 Asteroid Mission Reveals a Remarkable New World

The Hayabusa2 touchdown movie, taken on February 22, 2019 (JST) when Hayabusa2 first touched down on asteroid Ryugu to collect a sample from the surface. It was captured using the onboard small monitor camera (CAM-H). The video playback speed is five times faster than actual time (JAXA).

On March 5 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) released the extraordinary video shown above. The sequence of 233 images shows a spacecraft descending to collect material from the surface of an asteroid, before rising amidst fragments of ejected debris. It is an event that has never been captured on camera before.

The images were taken by a camera onboard the Hayabusa2 spacecraft, a mission to explore a C-type asteroid known as “Ryugu” and bring a sample back to Earth.

C-type asteroids are a class of space rock that is thought to contain carbonaceous material and undergone little evolution since the early days of the Solar System. These asteroids may have rained down on the early Earth and delivered our oceans and possibly our first organics. Examination of the structure of Ryugu and its composition compared to Earth will help us understand how planets can become habitable.

Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km
Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km. Image was captured with the Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T) on July 20, 2018 at around 16:00 JST. (JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST.)

Hayabusa2 arrived at asteroid Ryugu on June 27, 2018. The spacecraft spent the summer examining the asteroid with a suite of onboard instruments. Despite being a tiny world at only 1km across, Hayabusa2 spotted different seasons on Ryugu. Like the Earth, the asteroid’s rotation axis is inclined so that different levels of sunlight reach the northern and southern hemispheres.

It also rotated upside down, spinning in the opposite sense to the Earth and its own path around the Sun. This is likely indicative of a violent past, a view supported by the heavily bouldered and cratered surface. This rugged terrain presented the Hayabusa2 team with a problem: where could they land?

After a summer of observations, Hayabusa2 had been planning three different operations on the asteroid surface. The first was the deployment of two little rovers known as the MINERVA-II1. The second was the release of a shoebox-sized laboratory known as MASCOT, designed by the German and French space agencies.… Read more

How Creatures End Up Miles Below the Surface of Earth, and Maybe Mars Too

Poikilolaimus oxycercus is a microscopic nematode, or roundworm, found alive and well more than a mile below the surface in South Africa, where its ancestors had lived for hundreds or thousands of years. (Gaetan Borgonie)

 

When scientists speculate about possible life on Mars, they generally speak of microbial or other simple creatures living deep below the irradiated and desiccated surface.  While Mars long ago had a substantial period that was wetter and warmer when it also had a far more protective atmosphere,  the surface now is considered to be lethal.

But the suggestion that some potential early Martian life could have migrated into the more protected depths is often discussed as a plausible, if at this point untestable possibility.  In this scenario, some of that primitive subsurface life might even have survived the eons in their buried, and protected, environments.

This thinking has gotten some support in the past decade with the discovery of bacteria and nematodes (roundworms) found as far down as three miles below the surface of South Africa, in water dated as being many thousands or millions years old.  The lifeforms have been discovered by a team that has regularly gone down into the nation’s super-hot gold and platinum mines to search for life coming out of boreholes in the rock face of deep mine tunnels.

 

Borgonie setting up a water collector for a borehole at the Driefontein mine in the Witwatersrand Basin  of South Africa.  He said he stopped counting his journeys into the deep mines at 50, but that the number now is much higher. (Courtesy of Borgonie)

Now a  new paper describes not only the discovery of additional deep subsurface life, but also tries to explain how the distant ancestors of the worms and bacteria and algae might have gotten there. 

Their conclusion:  many were pulled down when fractures opened in the aftermath of earthquakes and other seismic events.  While many lifeforms were swept down, only a small percentage were able to adapt, evolve and thus survive.

The is how Gaetan Borgonie, lead author of the paper in Scientific Reports, explained it to me via email:

“After the discovery of multicellular animals in the deep subsurface up to 3.8 km (2.5 miles) in South Africa everyone was baffled and asked the question how did they get that deep? This question more or less haunted us for more than a decade as we were unable to get our head around it.Read more

MarCO And The Future of CubeSats

 

MarCO-B, one of the experimental Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats, took this image of Mars from about 4,700 miles away during its flyby last November. MarCO-B had been sent to Mars with its twin, MarCO-A, to serve as communications relays for NASA’s InSight spacecraft as it landed. The image includes a portion of the CubeSat’s high-gain, X-band antenna on the right. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

 

CubeSats are the anti-big ticket space missions.

They come as small as 4 inches squared and in units that size weigh about 3 pounds.  They currently carry cameras, high gain antennas, radios and other scientific equipment, and because of their weight and size they can easily hitch a ride on a rocket sending a traditional large payload into orbit.

More than 900 CubeSats have been launched since they began in being deployed early this century, but only two have left low-Earth orbit. 

Those two went to Mars last year along with the InSight lander (a deep geology mission) and despite some short-term but nerve-racking radio silence just before they were needed, they performed exactly as planned.

In the process they both heightened the profile and the desirability of CubeSats as a growing addition to space science and commerce. 

 

A rendering of MarCO on its way to Mars, with solar panel and flat-panel antenna unfurled.  The core of the nanosatellite is about the size of a briefcase. (NASA-JPL)

 

Called Mars Cube One or MarCO, the two that accompanied InSight were both a technological demonstration and an important operational component — serving as the communication link between the spacecraft and Earth for seven crucial minutes during InSight’s descent.

“We exceeded expectations,” said MarCO chief engineer Andrew Klesh of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, speaking during a NASA Future In-Space Operations (FISO) webinar. 

“Getting into deep space like we did shows that this is only the beginning for CubeSat missions to explore the solar system.   They are a real addition to communications and they provide a new way to conduct science along the way.”

While they were launched on the rocket that sent InSight to Mars, they detached soon after liftoff and flew on their own power to the scheduled meeting place on Mars.

The MarCO CubeSats maintained contact with Earth for almost all of the 6 month journey to Mars and then performed as planned during the InSight descent and landing,  they lost touch with Earth only weeks after. Read more

All About Emergence

A swarm of birds act as an emergent whole as opposed to a collection of individual birds. The workings of swarms have been fruitfully studied by artificial life scientists, who look for abstracted insights into life via computers and other techniques. (Walerian Walawski)

 

If there was a simple meaning of the often-used scientific term “emergence,” then 100-plus scientists wouldn’t have spent four days presenting, debating and not infrequently disagreeing about what it was.

But as last month’s organizers of the Earth-Life Science Institute’s “Comparative Emergence” symposium in Tokyo frequently reminded the participants, those debates and disputes are perfectly fine and to be expected given the very long history and fungibility of the concept.

At the same time, ELSI leaders also clearly thought that the term can have resonance and importance in many domains of science, and that’s why they wanted practitioners to be exposed more deeply to its meanings and powers.

Emergence is a concept commonly used in origins of life research, in complexity and artificial life science; less commonly in chemistry, biology, social and planetary sciences; and — originally – in philosophy. And in the 21st century, it is making a significant comeback as a way to think about many phenomena and processes in the world.

So what is “emergence?” Most simply, it describes the ubiquitous and hugely varied mechanisms by which simple components in nature (or in the virtual or philosophical world) achieve more complexity, and in the process become greater than the sum of all those original parts.

The result is generally novel, often surprising, and sometimes most puzzling – especially since emergent phenomena involve self-organization by the more complex whole.

Think of a collection of ants or bees and how they join leaderless by the many thousands to make something – a beehive, an ant colony – that is entirely different from the individual creatures.

 

The Eagle nebula is an intense region of star formation, an emergent phenomenon
that clearly creates something novel out of simpler parts. (European Space Observatory.)

Think of the combination of hydrogen and oxygen gases which make liquid water. Think of the folding of proteins that makes genetic information transfer possible. Think of the processes by which bits of cosmic dust clump and clump and clump millions of times over and in time become a planetesimal or perhaps a planet. Think of how the firing of the billions of neurons in your brain results in consciousness.Read more

The Gale Winds of Venus Suggest How Locked Exoplanets Could Escape a Fate of Extreme Heat and Brutal Cold

Two images of the nightside of Venus captured by the IR2 camera on the Akatsuki orbiter in September 2016 (JAXA).

 

More than two decades before the first exoplanet was discovered, an experiment was performed using a moving flame and liquid mercury that could hold the key to habitability on tidally locked worlds.

The paper was published in a 1969 edition of the international journal, Science, by researchers Schubert and Whitehead. The pair reported that when a Bunsen flame was rotated beneath a cylindrical container of mercury, the liquid began to flow around the container in the opposite direction at speeds up to four times greater than the rotation of the flame. The scientists speculated that such a phenomenon might explain the rapid winds on Venus.

On the Earth, the warm equator and cool poles set up a pressure difference that creates our global winds. These winds are deflected westward by the rotation of the planet (the so-called Coriolis force) promoting a zonal (east-west) air flow around the globe. But what would happen if our planet’s rotation slowed? Would our winds just cycle north and south between the equator and poles?

The Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, so only one hemisphere is visible from our planet (Smurrayinchester / wikipedia commons).

Such a slow-rotating scenario may be the lot of almost all rocky exoplanets discovered to date. Planets such as the TRAPPIST-1 system and Proxima Centauri-b all orbit much closer to their star than Mercury, making their faint presence easier to detect but likely resulting in tidal lock. Like the moon orbiting the Earth, planets in tidal lock have one side permanently facing the star, creating a day that is equal to the planet’s year.

The dim stars orbited by these planets can mean they receive a similar level of radiation as the Earth, placing them within the so-called “habitable zone.” However, tidal lock comes with the risk of horrific atmospheric collapse. On the planet side perpetually facing away from the star, temperatures can drop low enough to freeze an Earth-like atmosphere. The air from the dayside would then rush around the planet to fill the void, freezing in turn and causing the planet to lose its atmosphere even within the habitable zone.

The only way this could be prevented is if winds circulating around the planet could redistribute the heat sufficiently to prevent freeze-out. But without a strong Coriolis force from the planet’s rotation, can such winds exist?… Read more

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