Category: Astrobiology (page 1 of 17)

How Planetary Orbits, in Our Solar System and Beyond, Can Affect Habitability

Varying degrees of orbital eccentricity around a central star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As scientists work to understand what might make a distant planet habitable, one factor that is getting attention is the shape of the planet’s orbit, how “eccentric” it might be.

It might seem that a perfect circular orbit would be ideal for habitability because it would provide stability, but a new model suggests that it is not necessarily the case.  The planet in question is our own and what the model shows is that if Jupiter’s orbit were to change in certain ways, our planet might become more fertile than it is.

The logic play out as follows:

When a planet has a perfectly circular orbit around its star, the distance between the star and the planet never changes and neither does the in-coming heat. But most planets — including our own — have eccentric orbits around their stars, making the orbits oval-shaped. When the planet gets closer to its star it receives more heat, affecting the climate.

Using multi-factored models based on data from the solar system as it is known today, University of California, Riverside (UCR) researchers created an alternative solar system. In this theoretical system, they found that if Jupiter’s orbit were to become more eccentric, it would in turn produce big changes in the shape of Earth’s orbit.  Potentially for the better.

“If Jupiter’s position remained the same but the shape of its orbit changed, it could actually increase this planet’s habitability,” said Pam Vervoort, UCR Earth and planetary scientist and study lead author.

The paper upends two long-held scientific assumptions about our solar system, she said.

“Many are convinced that Earth is the epitome of a habitable planet and that any change in Jupiter’s orbit, being the massive planet it is, could only be bad for Earth,” Vervoort said in a release. “We show that both assumptions are wrong.”

Size comparison of Jupiter and Earth shows why any changes relating to the giant planet would have ripple effects. (NASA)

 

As she and colleagues report in the Astronomical Journal, if Jupiter pushed Earth’s orbit to become more eccentric based on its new gravitational pull, parts of the Earth would sometimes get closer to the sun.  As a results, parts of the Earth’s surface that are now sub-freezing would get warmer, increasing temperatures in the habitable range.

While the Earth-Jupiter connection is a focus of the paper and forms a relationship that’s not hard to understand, the thrust of the paper is modeling how similar kinds of exoplanet orbits and solar system relationships can affect habitability and the potential for life to emerge and prosper.… Read more

The Virtual Planetary Lab and Its Search for What Makes an Exoplanet Habitable, or Even Inhabited

As presented by the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, exoplanet habitability is a function of the interplay of processes between the planet, the planetary system, and host star.  These interactions govern the planet’s evolutionary trajectory, and have a larger and more diverse impact on a planet’s habitability than its position in a habitable zone. (Meadows and Barnes)

For more than two decades now, the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) at the University of Washington in Seattle has been at the forefront of the crucial and ever-challenging effort to model how scientists can determine whether a particular exoplanet is capable of supporting life or perhaps even had life on it already.

To do this, VPL scientists have developed or combined models from many disciplines that characterize and predict a wide range of planetary, solar system and stellar attributes that could identify habitability, or could pretty conclusively say that a planet is not habitable.

These include the well known questions of whether water might be present and if so whether temperatures would allow it to be sometimes in a liquid state, but on to questions involving whether an atmosphere is present, what elements and compounds might be in the atmospheres, the possible orbital evolution of the planet, the composition of the host star and how it interacts with a particular orbiting planet and much, much more, as shown in the graphic above.

This is work that has played a significant role in advancing astrobiology — the search for life beyond Earth.

More specifically, the VPL approach played a considerable part in building a body of science that ultimately led the Astro2020 Decadal Study of the National Academy of Sciences to recommend last year that the NASA develop its  first Flagship astrobiology project — a mission that will feature a huge space telescope able to study exoplanets for signs of biology in entirely new detail.  That mission, approved but not really defined yet, is not expected to launch until the 2040s.

With that plan actually beginning to move forward, the 132 VPL affiliated researchers at 28 institutions find themselves at another more current-day inflection point:  The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope has begun to collect and send back what will be a massive and unprecedented set of spectra  of chemicals from the atmospheres of distant planets.

The Virtual Planetary Laboratory has modeled the workings of exoplanets since 2001, looking for ways to predict planetary conditions based on a broad range of measurable factors.

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A Detailed New Mapping of Where Mars Once Had Plentiful Water

Measurements from the OMEGA instrument of European Space Agency’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s CRISM spectrometer were used to map where formed-in-water minerals can found across Mars. This is an especially concentrated spot at Jezero Crater, where the Perseverance rover is located. (ESA)

NASA’s long-time motto for exploring Mars has been “Follow the water.”  That has changed some in recent years, as the presence of long-ago H2O has been confirmed in many locales around the planet.   Moving on, the motto today is more “Follow the organics” — the carbon-based building blocks of life — in the search for habitable environments and maybe signs of ancient life.

But water remains crucial to any discussion of habitability on Mars, and so a new set of global water maps from the European Space Agency, ten years in the making, is both useful and intriguing.

Specifically, the map shows the locations and abundances of these aqueous minerals — rocks that have been chemically altered by the action of water in the past, and have typically been transformed into clays and salts.

And the message that the maps deliver, said planetary scientist John Carter, is that these hydrated minerals are common across many parts of the planet.

Ten years ago, planetary scientists knew of around 1, 000 water-altered outcrops on Mars, he said.  This made them interesting as geological oddities.

But the new map has reversed the situation, revealing hundreds of thousands of such areas in the oldest parts of the planet.

“This work has now established that when you are studying the ancient terrains in detail, not seeing these minerals is actually the oddity,” says Carter, an assistant professor at the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS) in  France.

Global map of hydrated minerals on Mars. (ESA)

Now, Carter said in a release, the big question is whether the water was persistent or confined to shorter, more intense episodes. While not yet providing a definitive answer, the new results certainly give researchers a better tool for pursuing the answer.

“I think we have collectively oversimplified Mars,” says Carter, who was lead author in a paper published in the journal Icarus. 

He explained that planetary scientists have tended to think that only a few types of clay minerals on Mars were created during its wet period — roughly 3.5 billion to 4 billion years ago — then as the water gradually dried up salts were produced across the planet.

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The James Webb Space Telescope Begins Looking at Exoplanets

 

Artist rendering of Gliese (GJ) 436 b  is a Neptune-sized planet that orbits a red dwarf  star.  Red dwarfs are cooler, smaller, and less luminous than the Sun. The planet completes one full orbit around its parent star in just a little over 2 days. It is made, scientists say, of extremely hot ice.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCF)

The James Webb Space Telescope has begun the part of its mission to study the atmospheres of 70 exoplanets in ways, and at a depth, well beyond anything done so far.

The telescope is not likely to answer questions like whether there is life on distant planet — its infrared wavelengths will tell us about the presence of many chemicals in exoplanet atmospheres but little about the presence of the element most important to life on Earth, oxygen.

But it is nonetheless undertaking a broad study of many well-known exoplanets and is likely to produce many tantalizing results and suggest answers to central questions about exoplanets and their solar systems.

Many Worlds has earlier looked at the JWST “early release” program, under which groups are allocated user time on the telescope under the condition that they make their data public quickly.  That way other teams can understand better how JWST works and what might be possible.

Another program gives time to scientists who worked on the JWST mission and on its many instruments.  They are given guaranteed time as part of their work making JWST as innovative and capable as it is.

One of the scientist in this “guaranteed time observations program” is Thomas Greene, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center.  The groups he leads have been given 215 hours of observing time for this first year (or more) of Cycle 1 of JWST due to his many contributions to the JWST mission as well as his history of accomplishments.

In a conversation with Greene, I got a good sense of what he hopes to find and his delight at the opportunity.  After all, he said, he has worked on the JWST idea and then mission since 1997.

“We will be observing a diverse sample of exoplanets to understand more about them and their characteristics,” Greene said.  “Our goal is to get a better understanding of how exoplanets are similar to and different from those in our solar system.”

And the JWST spectra will tell them about the chemistry, the composition and the thermal conditions on those exoplanets, leading to insights into how they formed, diversified and evolved into planets often so unlike our own.Read more

Icy Moons, And Exploring The Secrets They Hold

Voyager 2’s flew by the Uranian moon Miranda in 1986 and the spacecraft spent 17 minutes taking  photos to make this high-resolution portrait.  Miranda has three oval and trapezoid coronae, tectonic features whose origins remain debated. (NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk)

When it come to habitable environments in our solar system, there’s Earth, perhaps Mars billions of years ago and then a slew of ice-covered moons that are likely to have global oceans under their crusts.  Many of you are familiar with Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) — which have either been explored by NASA or will be in the years ahead.

But there quite a few others icy moons that scientists find intriguing and just possibly habitable.  There is Ganymede,  the largest moon of Jupiter and larger than Mercury but only 40 percent as dense, strongly suggesting a vast supply of water inside rather than rock.

There’s Saturn’s moon Titan, which is known for its methane lakes and seas on the surface but which has a subterranean ocean as well.  There is Callisto, the second largest moon of Jupiter and an subsurface-ocean candidates and even Pluto and Ceres, now called dwarf planets that show signs of having interior oceans.

And of increasing interest are several of the icy moons of Uranus, particularly Ariel and Miranda.  Each has features consistent with a subsurface ocean and even geological activity.  Although Uranus is a distant planet, well past Jupiter and Saturn and would take more than a decade to just get there, the possibility of a future Uranus mission is becoming increasingly real.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Decadal Survey for planetary science rated a Uranus mission as the highest priority in the field, and just today (Aug. 18) NASA embraced the concept.

At a NASA Planetary Science Division town hall meeting, Director Lori Glaze said the agency was “very excited” about the Uranus mission recommendation from the National Academy and that she hoped and expected some studies could be funded and begun in fiscal 2024.

If a Uranus mission is fully embraced,  it would be the first ever specifically to an ice giant system — exploring the planet and its moons.  This heightened interest reflects the fact that many in the exoplanet field now hold that ice giant systems are the most common in the galaxy and that icy moons may well be common as well.… Read more

Despite Everything, American-Russian Relations on the International Space Station Appear To Be Solid

The International Space Station, which orbits 248 miles above Earth,  in what is called low-Earth orbit. Its long success as an international collaboration has been tested by the Ukraine war. (NASA)

Late last month, it appeared that Russian participation in the International Space Station would end in 2024 — or so seemed to say the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos  Thirty years of unusual and successful cooperation would be coming to a close as the Ukraine war appeared to make longer-term commitments impossible, or undesirable for the Russian side.

But on a day when the Ukraine war raged for its 163rd day, when new Western sanctions were being put into place, when a Russian judge gave WNBA star Brittney Griner a provocative 9-year prison term for carrying small amounts of cannabis oil as she left Moscow, and just a short time after what seemed to be the Russian announcement of that 2024 departure,  NASA officials held a commodious press conference with Roscosmos Executive Director for Human Space Programs Sergei Krikalev and others involved with the ISS.

Together they spoke yesterday (August 4) of expanding American-Russian cooperation on the mission and discounted talk of a 2024 Russian exit.

“We always talk of spaceflight as being team support,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations, which oversees the ISS. “And this news conference will exemplify how it is a team sport.”

She then discussed  how and why a Russian cosmonaut would soon take a SpaceX flight to the ISS as part of a new program under which Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts can fly on each other’s ISS-and-homeward-bound spacecraft.  The flight by veteran cosmonaut Anna Kikina will mark the first time a Russian has flown on an American spacecraft.

In the press conference, Krikalev then insisted that Russia had no intention of leaving the station in 2024 but rather would begin looking at the logistics of departing at that time — with an eye to leaving for their own planned space station in the years ahead.

“As far as the statement for 2024, perhaps something was lost in translation,” he said. “The statement actually said Russia will not pull out until after 2024.  That may be in 2025, 2028 or 2030.”   He said the timetable “will depend on the technical condition of the station.”

In the good-natured spirit of the press conference, Krikalev said that he was “happy to see so many faces I’ve known for many years.” 

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Reports From Inside the Sun’s Corona

This movie is built from images taken over 10 days during the full perihelion encounter when the spacecraft was nearing the Sun’s corona. The perihelion is a brief moment during the encounter time, when the spacecraft is at its closest point to the Sun. The movie is from orbit 10 and dates and distances are on the frames, and changing locations of planets are in red.  (AHL/JHU; NASA)

To borrow from singer Paul Simon, these are definitely days of miracles and wonders — at least when it comes to exploring and understanding our Sun.

The Parker Solar Probe has been swinging further and further into the Sun’s corona, having just finished its 12th of 24 descents into a world of super-heated matter (plasma) where no human creation has ever gone.

The probe has dipped as close as 5.3 million miles from the surface of the sun — Mercury is 32 million miles from that solar surface — and is flying through the solar wind, through streamers (rays of magnetized solar material)  and even at times through coronal mass ejections, those huge eruptions of magnetized plasma flying at speeds up to nearly 2,000 miles per second.

This is all a goldmine for solar scientists, an opportunity to study our star — and by extension all stars — up close and to learn much more about how it works.

At a four-day conference at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab late last month, scores of scientists described the results of their early observations and analyses of the measurements and images coming from the Parker Probe via its The Wide-Field Imager (WISPR) and instruments that measure energy and magnetic flows.  The results have often surprising and, as some scientists said, “thrilling.”

“Parker Solar Probe was developed to answer some of the biggest puzzles, biggest questions about our Sun,” said Nour Raouafi, project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe.

“We have learned so much that we believe we are getting close to finding some important answers.  And we think the answers will be quite big for our field, and for science.”

The Parker Solar Probe had observed many switchbacks in the corona— traveling disturbances in the solar wind that cause the magnetic field to bend back on itself.  They are an as-yet unexplained phenomenon that might help scientists uncover more information about how the solar wind is accelerated from the Sun. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez)

Among the many unexpected solar features and forces detected by the Parker Probe is the widespread presence of switchbacks, rapid flips of the Sun’s magnetic field moving away from the Sun. … Read more

Mars Was Once Wetter and Warmer And It Had Life-Essential Organic Carbon. Was There Enough for Life to Emerge?

Yellowknife Bay in Gale Crater, Mars, was extensively studied by the Curiousity rover in 2011-12 and was declared to have been “habitable” long ago.  But the amount of life-essential organic carbon at the site appeared to be low, and now has been measured in detail. (NASA)

In the early days of the Curiosity mission on Mars, scientists were excited by what they found in what was once a mud-flat they called Yellowknife Bay.  After months of drilling and testing, the mission team concluded that the site once had the roughly neutral water, an array of chemicals that could support metabolism and the organic carbon compounds needed for life.  So Yellowknife Bay and the surrounding Gale Crater were deemed to have once been “habitable.”

The finding of organic carbon was a major step forward because it is essential as a building block for the emergence of life as we know it.  The readings were clear that the organic carbon was present, but it has taken a decade to produce the first measurement of how much of the precious organic carbon was present.

The results, published late last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show higher organic carbon levels than in some “low-life” environments on Earth.  But those levels are still quite reduced and point to an unwelcoming Mars even in an area declared to be habitable billions of years ago when Mars was wetter and warmer.

“Total organic carbon is one of several measurements that help us understand how much material is available as feedstock for prebiotic chemistry and potentially biology,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“We found at least 200 to 273 parts per million of organic carbon. This is comparable to or even more than the amount found in rocks in very low-life places on Earth, such as parts of the Atacama Desert in South America, and more than has been detected in Mars meteorites.”

The Atacama is one of the driest places on Earth, but it does support some life — bacteria under the surface of the desert and even some desert flowers in areas that experience fog.  Not surprisingly, NASA and other scientists often use the Atacama when they study conditions on ancient Mars.

The Atacama desert in Chile is one of the driest places on Earth and is often studied as a Mars analog. (Shudderstock)

This carbon data has been a long time coming.

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Evolving Views of Our Heliosphere Home

Does this model show of the actual shape of the heliosphere, with lines of magnetic fields around it? New research suggests so. The size and shape of the magnetic “force field” that protects our solar system from deadly cosmic rays has long been debated by astrophysicists. (Merav Opher, et. al)

We can’t see the heliosphere.  We know where it starts but not really where it ends.  And we are pretty certain that most stars, and therefore most planetary systems, are bounded by heliospheres, or “astropheres,” as well.

It has a measurable physical presence, but it is always changing.  And although it is hardly well known, it plays a substantial role in the dynamics of our solar system and our lives.

As it is studied further and deeper, it has become apparent that the heliosphere might be important — maybe even essential – for the existence of life on Earth and anywhere else it may exist.  Often likened to an enormous bubble or cocoon, it is the protected space in which our solar system and more exists.

Despite the fact that it is the largest physical system in the entire solar system, the heliosphere was only discovered at the dawn of the space age in the late 1950’s, when it was theorized by University of Chicago physicist Eugene Parker as being the result of what he termed the solar wind.

It took another decade for satellite measurements to confirm its existence and to determine some of its properties — that it is made up of an endless supply of charged particles that are shot off the sun — too hot to form into atoms. Together these particles,  which are superimposed with the interplanetary magnetic field, constitute the ingredients of he heliosphere.

Just as the Earth’s magnetic fields protect us from some of the effects of the Sun’s hazardous emanations, the heliosphere protects everything inside its bubble from many, though not all, of the incoming and more hazardous high-energy cosmic rays headed our way.

As measurable proof that the heliosphere does offer significant protection, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft left the heliosphere in 2012 and entered the intersellar medium, instruments onboard detected a tripling of amount of cosmic radiation suddenly hitting the spacecraft.

A comet-shaped traditional view of the structure of the heliosphere, with the sun in the middle of the circle, planets orbiting around and the solar wind trailing as the Sun orbits the Milky Way.  

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NASA’s Perseverance Rover on Mars; an Update

 

The composite images of “Delta Scarp” in Jezero Crater reveal that billions of years ago, when Mars had an atmosphere thick enough to support water flowing across its surface, Jezero’s fan-shaped river delta apparently experienced a late-stage flooding events that carried rocks and debris into it from the highlands well outside the crater. (RMI: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/ASU/MSSS).

NASA’s Perseverance rover has been on Mars for fifteen months now and is about to begin its trek into the fossil delta of Jezero Crater.  It’s a big deal for the mission, because the delta is where water once flowed long enough and strongly enough to smooth, round and move large rocks.

Since proof of the long-ago presence of water means the area was potentially habitable — especially a delta that spreads out into what were once calm rivulets — this is where the astrobiology goals of the mission come to the fore.

Or so the Perseverance team thought it would play out.

But the big surprise of the mission so far has been that the rover landed on igneous rock, formed in the Martian interior, spewed out and crystalized and solidified on the surface.

That Perseverance would land on igneous rock was always seen as a possibility, but a more likely outcome was landing on sedimentary rock as in  Gale Crater, where the Curiosity rover continues its decade-long explore. Sedimentary rock is laid down in layers in the presence of water.

Perseverance takes a selfie in Jezero. The rover is a twin of the Curiosity rover, but with some upgrades and new instruments (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

As explained last week at the Ab-Sci-Con 2022 conference in Atlanta, the deputy program scientist for the mission — Katie Stack Morgan of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab — from the mission’s perspective the presence of both igneous and nearby sedimentary rock offers the best of both worlds.

While sedimentary rock is traditionally where scientists look for signs of ancient life, igneous rock can date the site more exactly and it can potentially better preserve any signs of early microbial life.

And in the context of Perseverance, the presence of accessible and compelling igneous formations provides for the diversity of rock samples called for in the Mars Sample Return effort — another central part of the rover’s mission.

“We did a lot of work with our different instruments to come to the conclusion that we landed on  igneous rock,” Stack Morgan later said in an interview. … Read more

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