Category: Astrobiology (page 1 of 9)

The Interiors of Exoplanets May Well Hold the Key to Their Habitability

Scientists have had a working — and evolving — understanding of the interior of the Earth for only a century or so.  But determining whether a distant planet is truly habitable may require an understanding of its inner dynamics — which will for sure be a challenge to achieve. (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

The quest to find habitable — and perhaps inhabited — planets and moons beyond Earth focuses largely on their location in a solar system and the nature of its host star,  the eccentricity of its orbit, its size and rockiness, and the chemical composition of its atmosphere, assuming that it has one.

Astronomy, astrophysics, cosmochemistry and many other disciplines have made significant progress in characterizing at least some of the billions of exoplanets out there, although measuring the chemical makeup of atmospheres remains a immature field.

But what if these basic characteristics aren’t sufficient to answer necessary questions about whether a planet is habitable?  What if more information — and even more difficult to collect information — is needed?

That’s the position of many planetary scientists who argue that the dynamics of a planet’s interior are essential to understand its habitability.

With our existing capabilities, observing an exoplanet’s atmospheric composition will clearly be the first way to search for signatures of life elsewhere.   But four scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science — Anat Shahar, Peter Driscoll, Alycia Weinberger, and George Cody — argued in a recent perspective article in Science that a true picture of planetary habitability must consider how a planet’s atmosphere is linked to and shaped by what’s happening in its interior.

They argue that on Earth, for instance, plate tectonics are crucial for maintaining a surface climate where life can fill every niche. And without the cycling of material between the planet’s surface and interior, the convection that drives the Earth’s magnetic field would not be possible and without a magnetic field, we would be bombarded by cosmic radiation.

What makes a planet potentially habitable and what are signs that it is not. This graphic from the Carnegie paper illustrates the differences (Shahar et al.)

 

“We need a better understanding of how a planet’s composition and interior influence its habitability, starting with Earth,” said lead author Shahar, who is trained in geological sciences.

“This can be used to guide the search for exoplanets and star systems where life could thrive, signatures of which could be detected by telescopes.”

It all starts with the formation process.

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Exoplanets With Complex Life May Be Very Rare, Even in Their “Habitable Zones”

The term “habitable zone” can be a misleading one, since it describes a limited number of conditions on a planet to make it hospitable to life. (NASA)

 

For years now, finding planets in the habitable zones of their host stars has been a global astrophysical quest and something of a holy grail.  That distance from a star where temperatures could allow H20 to remain liquid some of the time has been deemed the “Goldilocks” zone where life could potentially emerge and survive.

The term is valuable for sure, but many in the field worry that it can be as misleading or confusing as it is helpful.

Because while the habitable zone is a function of the physics and architecture of a solar system, so much more is needed to make a planet actually potentially habitable.  Does it have an atmosphere?  Does it have a magnetic field. Does it orbit on an elliptical path that takes it too far (and too close) to the sun?  Was it sterilized during the birth of the host star and orbiting planets?  What kind of star does it orbit, and how old and luminous is that star?

And then there’s the sometimes confused understanding that many habitable zones may well support complex, even technologically-advanced life.  They are, after all, habitable.

But as a new paper in the Astrophysical Journal makes clear, the likelihood of a habitable zone planet being able to support complex life — anything beyond a microbe — is significantly limited by the amount of toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide and excesses of carbon dioxide.

Eddie Schwieterman, a NASA postdoc at the University of California, Riverside and lead author of the article, told me that the odds for complex life on most exoplanets in their habitable zones weren’t great.

“A rough estimate is between 10-20% of habitable zone planets are truly suitable for analogs to humans and animals.” he said. “Of course, being located in this part of the habitable zone isn’t enough by itself – you still need the build-up of oxygen via the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis and certain planetary biogeochemical cycles.”

 

A rendering of the exoplanet Kepler 442 b, compared in size to  Earth.  Kepler 442 b was detected using the Kepler Space Telescope and is 0ne of a handful of planets found so far deemed to be most likely to be habitable. But it’s 1200 light-years away, so learning its secrets will be challenging.

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The Message of Really, Really Extreme Life

Hydrothermal system at Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, where uniquely extreme life has been found in salt chimneys and surrounding water. The yellow deposits are a variety of sulphates and the red areas are deposits of iron oxides. Copper salts color the water green. (Felipe Gomez/Europlanet 2020 RI)

Ethiopia’s Dallol volcano and hot springs have created an environment about as hostile to life as can be imagined.

Temperatures in the supersaturated water reach more than 200 degrees F (94 C) and are reported to approach pure acidity, with an extraordinarily low pH of  0.25.  The environment is also highly salty, with salt chimneys common.

Yet researchers have just reported finding ultra-small bacteria living in one of the acidic, super-hot salt chimneys.  The bacteria are tiny — up to 20 times smaller than the average bacteria — but they are alive and in their own way thriving.

In the world of extremophiles, these nanohaloarchaeles order bacteria are certainly on the very edge of comprehension.  But much the same can be said of organisms that can withstand massive doses of radiation, that survive deep below the Earth’s surface with no hint of life support from the sun and its creations, that keep alive deep in glacier ice and even floating high in the atmosphere.  And as we know, spacecraft have to be well sterilized because bacteria (in hibernation) aboard can survive the trip to the moon or Mars.

Not life it is generally understood.  But the myriad extremophiles found around the globe in recent decades have brought home the reality that we really don’t know where and how life can survive;  indeed, these extremophiles often need their conditions to be super-severe to succeed.

And that’s what makes them so important for the search for life beyond Earth.  They are proof of concept that some life may well need planetary and atmospheric conditions that would have been considered utterly uninhabitable not long ago.

 

Montage from the Dallol site: (A) the sampling site, (B) the small chimneys (temperature of water 90 ºC. (C) D9 sample from a small chimney in (A). (D-L) Scanning Electron Microscope and (M-O) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope images of sample D9 showing the morphologies of ultra-small microorganisms entombed in the mineral layers. (Gomez et al/Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure)

The unusual and extreme life and geochemistry of Dallol has been studied by a team led by Felipe Gómez from Astrobiology Center in Spain.… Read more

Starting Life on Another Planet

Inside the planet simulator at McMaster University
A look inside the planet simulator in the Origins of Life laboratory at McMaster University. Within this chamber, the origins of life can be explored on different worlds (McMaster University).

Have you ever wondered if you could kick-start life on another planet? In the Origins of Life laboratory at McMaster University in Canada, there is a machine that allows you to try this very task.

Exactly how life began on the Earth remains heavily debated, but one of the most famous ideas was proposed by Charles Darwin in a letter to a friend in 1871:

“But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts…” Darwin began.

In contrast to the vast ocean, a pond would allow simple organic molecules to be concentrated and increase the probability of reactions that would form chains of longer molecules such as RNA; a single-stranded version of DNA that is thought to have been used for genetic information by the earliest forms of life.

warm little pond
Did life begin in warm little ponds such as these? (Katharine Sutliff / Science).

It is highly likely that such warm little ponds would have the necessary ingredients to build such complex molecules. Experiments performed by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey in the 1950s demonstrated that water containing just the basic molecules of methane, ammonia and hydrogen would react to form a wide range of simple organics. Meteorites have also been found to contain similar molecules, proposing an alternative way of populating pools of water on the early Earth.

These ponds should therefore contain plenty of simple organics such as nucleotides, which stack together to form RNA. However, this stacking step turns out to be tricky.

“Anywhere where you have stagnant water and take sample, you will find organic molecules,” explains Maikel Rheinstädter, associate director of McMaster’s Origins Institute. “But you only find the building blocks, not the longer chains. Obviously, something is missing.”

In pond water, molecules are free to move around and potentially meet to initiate a reaction. The problem is that nucleotides carry a negative charge which repels the molecules from one another. While their motion is unconstrained, the nucleotides will therefore not approach close enough to react and form a longer molecule.

The solution is to dry out the pond.

As winter turned to summer on our young planet, shallow pools would have evaporated to leave the molecules suspended in the water lying on the muddy clay bottom.… Read more

NExSS 2.0

Finding new worlds can be an individual effort, a team effort, an institutional effort. The same can be said for characterizing exoplanets and understanding how they are affected by their suns and other planets in their solar systems. When it comes to the search for possible life on exoplanets, the questions and challenges are too great for anything but a community. NASA’s NExSS initiative has been an effort to help organize, cross-fertilize and promote that community. This artist’s concept Kepler-47, the first two-star systems with multiple planets orbiting the two suns, suggests just how difficult the road ahead will be. ( NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

 

The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or “NExSS,”  began four years ago as a NASA initiative to bring together a wide range of scientists involved generally in the search for life on planets outside our solar system.

With teams from seventeen academic and NASA centers, NExSS was founded on the conviction that this search needed scientists from a range of disciplines working in collaboration to address the basic questions of the fast-growing field.

Among the key goals:  to investigate just how different, or how similar, different exoplanets are from each other; to determine what components are present on particular exoplanets and especially in their atmospheres (if they have one);  to learn how the stars and neighboring exoplanets interact to support (or not support) the potential of life;  to better understand how the initial formation of planets affects habitability, and what role climate plays as well.

Then there’s the  question that all the others feed in to:  what might scientists look for in terms of signatures of life on distant planets?

Not questions that can be answered alone by the often “stove-piped” science disciplines — where a scientist knows his or her astrophysics or geology or geochemistry very well, but is uncomfortable and unschooled in how other disciplines might be essential to understanding the big questions of exoplanets.

 

The original NExSS team was selected from groups that had won NASA grants and might want to collaborate with other scientists with overlapping interests and goals  but often from different disciplines. (NASA)

The original idea for this kind of interdisciplinary group came out of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, and especially from NASA astrobiology director Mary Voytek and colleague Shawn Domogal-Goldman of the Goddard Space Flight Center, as well as Doug Hudgins of NASA Astrophysics.  It was something of a gamble, since scientists who joined would essentially volunteer their time and work and would be asked to collaborate with other scientists in often new ways.… Read more

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

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

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