Category: The Origin of Life (page 1 of 4)

The Hows and Whys of Mars Sample Return

Combining two images, this mosaic shows a close-up view of the rock target named “Yeehgo” taken by the SuperCam instrument on NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars. To be compatible with the rover’s software, “Yeehgo” is an alternative spelling of “Yéigo,” the Navajo word for diligent.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/ASU/MSSS)

One of the fondest dreams and top priorities of space science for years has been  to bring a piece of Mars back to Earth to study in the kind of depth possible only in a cutting-edge laboratory.

While the instruments on Mars rovers can tell us a lot,  returning a sample to study here on Earth is seen as the  way to ultimately tease out the deepest secrets of the composition of Mars, its geological and geochemical history and possibly the presence of life, life fossils or of the precursor molecules  of life.

But bringing such a sample to Earth is extraordinarily difficult.  Unlike solar system bodies that have been sampled back on Earth — the moon, a comet and some asteroids — Mars has the remains of an atmosphere.  That means any samples would have to lift off in a rocket brought to Mars and with some significant propulsive power, a task that so far has been a technical bridge too far.

That is changing now and the Mars Sample Return mission has begun.  The landing of the Perseverance rover in Jezero Crater on Mars signaled that commencement and the rover will be used to identify, drill into and collect intriguing bits of Mars.  This is a long-term project, with the best case scenario seeing those Mars samples arriving on Earth in a decade.  So this entirely unprecedented, high-stakes campaign will be playing out for a long time.

“I think that Mars scientists would like to return as much sample as possible,” said Lindsay Hays, NASA Mars Sample Return deputy program scientist.  “Being able to return samples that we collected with purpose is how we take the next step in our exploration of Mars.”

“And it seems that there are still so many unknowns, even in our solar system, even with the planets right next door, that every time we do something new, we answer a couple of questions that we hoped to and but also find a whole bunch of new things that we never expected.”

“I am so excited to see what comes of this adventure.  And I think that is a feeling shared by Mars scientists and planetary scientists broadly.”… Read more

Japan’s Hayabusa2 Mission Returns to Earth

Fireball created by the Hayabusa2 re-entry capsule as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere towards the ground (JAXA).

In the mission control room in Japan, all eyes were fixed on one of the large screens that ran along the far wall. The display showed the night sky, with stars twinkling in the blackness. We were waiting for a delivery from space.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission launched from the Tanegashima Space Center on December 3, 2014. The spacecraft was headed to asteroid Ryugu, with the intention of studying the tiny world and collecting a sample to return to Earth.

The mission would prove to be an incredible success. Not only did the spacecraft gather two samples from the asteroid, but it was the first mission to deploy autonomous rovers to explore an asteroid’s surface, generate an artificial crater in order to study the asteroid’s structure and collect a sample of the interior, and additionally, deploy a lander to make scientific measurements from the surface itself. The mission finale was to return the samples safely back to Earth on December 6, 2020. The grains in that sample container may hold clues as to how the Earth became habitable.

Ryugu is an example of a C-type or “carbonaceous” asteroid. These asteroids have undergone relatively little change since the start of the solar system, and are thought to contain hydrated minerals (minerals containing water in their structure) and possible organics. It is this class of asteroid that may have crashed into the early Earth and delivered the necessary tools for life to begin. Analysis of the Ryugu sample could therefore tell us about our own beginnings and how terrestrial planets develop habitable conditions.

Images before and after the first touchdown of Hayabusa2 on asteroid Ryugu, taken with CAM-H on February 21, 2019 (animation plays at 5x speed) (JAXA).

As the Hayabusa2 spacecraft drew near the Earth, five “trajectory control manoeuvres” (TCMs) were planned. The first four of these were designed to put the spacecraft onto a collision course with the Earth, aimed at the Woomera desert in Australia. The re-entry capsule would then be released, and the spacecraft would make a final manoeuvre to divert onto an orbit that swept past the Earth and back into deep space.

Despite the smooth progress so far, there were concerns. The capsule release mechanism had not been tested since launch six years previously and it was always possible that separation would fail.… Read more

Surprising Insights Into the Asteroid Bennu’s Past, as OSIRIS-REx Prepares For a Sample-Collecting “Tag”

Artist rendering of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft as it will approach the asteroid Bennu to collect a sample of ancient, pristine solar system material. The  pick-up”tag” is scheduled for Oct. 20. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Arizona)

Long before there was an Earth, asteroids large and small were orbiting our young sun.  Among them was one far enough out from the sun to contain water ice, as well as organic compounds with lots of carbon.  In its five billion years or so as an object,  the asteroid was hit and broken apart by other larger asteroids, probably grew some more as smaller asteroids hit it,  and then was smashed to bits again many millions of years ago.  Some of it might have even landed on Earth.

The product of this tumultuous early history is the asteroid now called Bennu, and the destination for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) mission.  On October 20, the spacecraft will make its dramatic final descent, will touch the ground long enough to collect some samples of the surface, and then will in the months ahead return home with its prized catch.

The sample will consist of grains of a surface that have experienced none of the ever-active geology on Earth,  no modifications caused by life,  and little of the erosion and weathering.  In other words, it will be a sample of the very early solar system from which our planet arose.

“This will be our first chance to look at an ancient, carbon-rich environment – the most pristine example of the chemistry of the very early solar system,” said Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Space Flight Center and a co-investigator of the OSIRIS-REx team.  “Anything as ancient on early Earth would have been modified many times over.”

“But at Bennu we’ll see the solar system, and the Earth,  as it was chemically before all those changes took place.  This will be the kind of pristine pre-biotic chemistry that life emerged from.”

This image of Bennu was taken by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a distance of around 50 miles (80 km).
(NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

Bennu is an unusual asteroid.  It orbits relatively close to Earth — rather than in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — and that’s one of several main reasons why it was selected for a visit.  It is also an asteroid with significant amounts of primeval carbon and organics, which is gold for scientists eager to understand the early solar system, planet formation and the origin of life on Earth.… Read more

Thinking About Life (or Lyfe) Through The Prism of “Star Trek”

This column was written for Many Worlds by Michael L. Wong and Stuart Bartlett.  Wong is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington’s Astronomy and Astrobiology program and is a member of  NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) initiative as part of the university’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory team.  Bartlett is a postdoctoral scholar in Geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology and has been a fellow at the Earth-Live Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo.

 

Spock communicates with a Horta,  a fictional silicon-based life form composed of molten rock and acid.  (Star Trek; CBS Studios)

By Michael L. Wong and Stuart Bartlett

 

The search for extraterrestrial life is in its early phase still  and, the truth is, we don’t yet know if life exists beyond our pale blue dot.  Or, if it does, whether it will be easily recognizable or truly bizarre.

Predicting what might be out there, and how to find it, is a hypothesis-driven area of research at present — one that has given rise to hundreds of possible definitions for the “life” we are looking for.

But after grounding ourselves in scientific principles, it may be that our greatest tool is to let our imaginations fly. Science fiction often helps us embrace our ignorance of what might be out there.

In the Star Trek universe, our galaxy is teeming with life—both astonishingly familiar and incredibly different.

The familiar variety includes Mr. Spock, the U.S.S. Enterprise’s half-human, half-Vulcan science officer. He is the product of an extraordinary cosmic coincidence: the emergence of nearly identical biochemical machinery on two completely separate worlds. Vulcans—despite their pointy ears, upswept eyebrows, and a nearly religious devotion to bowl cuts—are incredibly similar to humans on the cellular, genetic, and metabolic level.

We can share meals, share air, and, yes, share intimacy. Even their green, copper-based blood is not as alien as it might seem; this trait is typical of most mollusks and crustaceans on Earth.

 

The Crystalline entity was a powerful, spaceborne creature characterized by a crystalline structure that resembled a large snowflake. (Star Trek;  CBS Studios)

But Star Trek also depicts life forms that are incredibly dissimilar from you, me, or Mr. Spock.

Take the Horta, for example. This lumpy mass, like a misshapen meatball crossed with a child’s volcano science experiment, is a silicon-based life form composed of molten rock and acid.

Then there’s Q, a non-corporeal being that possesses god-like powers which, it seems, are directed solely upon harassing Captain Jean-Luc Picard.… Read more

Viruses, the Virosphere and Astrovirology

An electron microscopic image of the 2019 novel coronavirus grown in cells at The University of Hong Kong.  Thin-section electron micrographs of the novel coronavirus show part of an infected cell, grown in a culture, with virus particles being released from the cell’s surface. (The University of Hong Kong)

 

When the word “virus” first came into use, it was as a “poison” and “a very small disease-causing agent.”  While the presence of viruses was theorized earlier, they were not fully identified until the 1890s.

So from their earliest discovery, viruses were synonymous with disease and generally of the ghastly epidemic type of disease we now see with coronavirus.  Few words carry such a negative punch.

Without in any way  minimizing the toll of viruses on humans (and apparently all other living things,) men and women who study viruses know that this association with disease is far too restrictive and misses much of what viruses do.  It’s perhaps not something to argue while a viral pandemic is raging, but that’s when the focus on viruses is most intense.

Here, then, is a broader look at what viruses do and have done — how they inflict pandemics but also have introduced genes that have led to crucial evolutionary advances, that have increased the once-essential ability of cyanobacteria in early Earth oceans to photosynthesize and produce oxygen, and that have greatly enhanced the immunity systems of everything they touch.  They — and the virosphere they inhabit — have been an essential agent of change.

Viruses are also thought to be old enough to have played a role — maybe a crucial role — in the origin of life, when RNA-like replicators outside cells may have been common and not just the domain of viruses.  This is why there is a school of thought that the study of viruses is an essential part of astrobiology and the search for the origins of life.  The field is called astrovirology.

Viruses are ubiquitous — infecting every living thing on Earth.

Virologists like to give this eye-popping sense of scale:  based on measurements of viruses in a liter of sea water, they calculate the number of viruses in the oceans of Earth to be 10 31.  That is 10 with 31 zeros after it.  If those viruses could be lined up, the scientists have calculated, they would stretch across the Milky Way 100 times.

“The vast majority of viruses don’t care about humans and have nothing to do with them,” said Rika Anderson,  who studies viruses around hydrothermal vents and teaches at Carleton College in Minnesota. … Read more

Theorized Northern Ocean of Mars; now long gone.  (NASA)

Change is the one constant in our world– moving in ways tiny and enormous,  constructive and destructive.

We’re living now in a time when a rampaging pandemic circles the globe and when the climate is changing in so many worrisome and potentially devastating ways.

With these ominous  changes as a backdrop, it is perhaps useful to spend a moment with change as it happens in a natural world without humans.  And just how complete that change can be:

For years now, planetary scientists have debated whether Mars once had a large ocean across its northern hemisphere.

There certainly isn’t one now — the north of Mars is parched, frigid and largely featureless.  The hemisphere was largely covered over in a later epoch by a deep bed of lava, hiding signs of its past.

The northern lowlands of Mars, as photographed by the Viking 2 lander. The spacecraft landed in the Utopia Planitia section of northern Mars in 1976. (NASA/JPL)

Because our sun sent out significantly less warmth at the time of early Mars (4.2-3.5  billion years ago,) climate modelers have long struggled to come up with an explanation for how the planet — on average, 137 million miles further out than Earth — could have been anything but profoundly colder than today. And if that world was so unrelentingly frigid, how could there be a surface ocean of liquid water?

But discoveries in the 21st century have strongly supported the long-ago presence of water on a Mars in the form of river valleys, lakes and a water cycle to feed them.  The work done by the Curiosity rover and Mars-orbiting satellites has made this abundantly clear.

An ocean in the northern lowlands is one proposal made to explain how the water cycle was fed.

And now, In a new paper in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets,  scientists from Japan and the United States have presented modelling and analysis describing how and why Mars had to have a large ocean early in its history to produce the geological landscape that is being found.

Lead author Ramses Ramirez, a planetary scientist with the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo, said it was not possible to determine how long the ocean persisted, but their team concluded that it had to be present  in that early period around 4 billion to 3.5 billion years ago.  That is roughly when what are now known to be river valleys were cut in the planet’s southern highlands.… Read more

On The Rugged Frontier Of The Hunt For Signs Of Life On Early Earth And Ancient Mars

The vigorously debated finding from the Isua greenstone or supercrustal belt, a 1,200-square-mile area of ancient rocks in Greenland.  Proponents say the rises, from .4 to 1.6 inches tall, are  biosignatures of bacteria and sediment mounds that made up stromatolites almost 3.8 billion years ago.  Critics say additional testing has shown they are the result of non-biological forces.  (Nature and Nutman et al.)

Seldom does one rock outcrop get so many visitors in a day, especially when that outcrop is located in rugged, frigid terrain abutting the Greenland Ice Sheet and can be reached only by helicopter.

But this has been a specimen of great importance and notoriety since it appeared from beneath the snow pack some eight years ago. That’s when it was first identified by two startled geologists as something very different from what they had seen in four decades of scouring the geologically revelatory region – the gnarled Isua supercrustal belt – for fossil signs of very early life.

Since that discovery the rock outcrop has been featured in a top journal and later throughout the world as potentially containing the earliest signature of life on Earth – the outlines of half inch to almost two inch-high stromatolite structures between 3.7 and 3.8 billion years old.

The Isua greenstone, or supracrustal belt contains some of the oldest known rocks and outcrops in the world, and is about 100 miles northeast of the capital, Nuuk.

If Earth could support the life needed to form primitive but hardly uncomplicated stromatolites that close to the initial cooling of the planet, then the emergence of life might not be so excruciatingly complex after all. Maybe if the conditions are at all conducive for life on a planet (early Mars comes quickly to mind) then life will probably appear.

Extraordinary claims in science, however, require extraordinary proof, and inevitably other scientists will want to test the claims.

Within two years of that initial ancient stromatolite splash in a Nature paper (led by veteran geologist Allen Nutman of the University of Wollongong in Australia), the same journal published a study that disputed many of the key observations and conclusions of the once-hailed ancient stromatolite discovery.  The paper concluded the outcrop had no signs of early life at all.

Debates and disputes are common in geology as the samples get older,  and especially in high profile science with important implications.  In this case, the implications of what is in the rocks reach into the solar system and the cosmos. … Read more

Exploring Early Earth by Using DNA As A Fossil

Betül Kaçar is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, and a pioneer in the field of paleogenomics — using genetic material to dive back deep into the ancestry of important compounds. (University of Arizona)

Paleontology has for centuries worked to understand the distant past by digging up fossilized remains and analyzing how and why they fit into the evolutionary picture.  The results have been impressive.

But they have been limited.  The evolutionary picture painted relies largely on the discovery of once hard-bodied organisms, with a smattering of iconic finds of soft-bodied creatures.

In recent years, however, a new approach to understanding the biological evolution of life has evolved under the umbrella discipline of paleogenomics.  The emerging field explores ancient life and ancient Earth by focusing on genetic material from ancient organisms preserved in today’s organisms.

These genes can be studied on their own or can be synthetically placed into today’s living organisms to see if, and how, they change behavior.

The goals are ambitious:  To help understand both the early evolution and even the origins of life, as well as to provide a base of knowledge about likely characteristics of potential life on other planets or moons.

“What we do is treat DNA as a fossil, a vehicle to travel back in time,” said Betül Kaçar, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona with more than a decade of experience in the field, often sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Program and the John Templeton Foundation.  “We build on modern biology, the existing genes, and use what we know from them to construct a molecular tree of life and come up with the ancestral genes of currently existing proteins.”

And then they ask the question of whether and how the expression of those genes — all important biomolecules generally involved in allowing a cell to operate smoothly — has changed over the eons.  It’s a variation on one the basic questions of evolution:  If the film of life were replayed from very early days, would it come out the same?

Cyanobacteria, which was responsible for the build-up of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and the subsequent Great Oxidation Event about 2.5 billion years ago.  Kaçar studies and replaces key enzymes in the cyanobacteria in her effort to learn how those ancestral proteins may have behaved when compared to the same molecules today.

The possibility of such research — of taking what is existing today and reconstructing ancient sequences from it — was first proposed by Emile Zuckerkandl, a biologist known for his work in the 1960s with Linus Pauling on the hypothesis of the “molecular clock.”… Read more

“Agnostic Biosignatures,” And The Path To Life As We Don’t Know It

Most research into signs of life in our solar system or on distant planets uses life on Earth as a starting point. But now scientists  has begun a major project to explore the potential signs of life very different from what we have on Earth.  For example, groups of molecules, like those above, can be analyzed for complexity — an attribute associated with life — regardless of their specific chemical constituents.  (Brittany Klein/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Biosignatures — evidence that says or suggests that life has once been present — are often very hard to find and interpret.

Scientists examining fossilized life on Earth can generally reach some sort of agreement about what is before them, but what about the soft-bodied or even single-celled organisms that were the sum total of life on Earth for much of the planet’s history as a living domain? Scientific disagreements abound.

Now think of trying to determine whether a particular outline on an ancient Martian rock, or a geochemical or surface anomaly on that rock, is a sign of life. Or perhaps an unexpected abundance of a particular compound in one of the water vapor plumes coming out of the moons Europa or Enceladus. Or a peculiar chemical imbalance in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet as measured in the spectral signature collected via telescope.

These are long-standing issues and challenges, but they have taken on a greater urgency of late as NASA missions  (and those of other space agencies around the world) are being designed to actively look for signs of extraterrestrial life — most likely very simple life — past or present.

And that combination of increased urgency and great difficulty has given rise to at least one new way of thinking about those potential signs of life. Scientists call them “agnostic biosignatures” and they do not presuppose any particular biochemistry.

“The more we explore the solar system and distant exoplanets, the more we find worlds that are really foreign,”  said Sarah Stewart Johnson, at an assistant professor at Georgetown University and principal investigator of the newly-formed Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures (LAB).  The LAB team won a five-year, $7 million grant last year from NASA’s Astrobiology Program.

“So our goal is to go beyond our current understandings and find ways to explore the world of life as we don’t know it,” she told me.  “That might mean thinking about a spectrum of how ‘alive’ something might be… And we’re embracing uncertainty, looking as much for biohints as biosignatures.”… Read more

Hayabusa2 Snatches Second Asteroid Sample

Artist impression of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft touching down on asteroid Ryugu (JAXA / Akihiro Ikeshita)

“1… 2… 3… 4…”

The counting in the Hayabusa2 control room at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (JAXA, ISAS) took on a rhythmic beat as everyone in the room took up the chant, their eyes fixed on the large display mounted on one wall.

“10… 11… 12… 13…”

The display showed the line-of-sight velocity (speed away from or towards the Earth) of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft. The spacecraft was about 240,000,000 km from the Earth where it was studying a near-Earth asteroid known as Ryugu. At this moment, the spacecraft was dropping to the asteroid surface to collect a sample of the rocky body.

“20… 21… 22… 23…”

Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km. Image was captured with the Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T) on July 20, 2018 ( JAXA, University of Tokyo & collaborators)

Asteroid Ryugu is a carbonaceous or “C-type” asteroid; a class of small celestial bodies thought to contain organic material and undergone relatively little alteration since the beginning of the Solar System. Rocks similar to Ryugu would have pelted the early Earth, possibly delivering both water and the first ingredients for life to our young planet. Where and when these asteroids formed and how they moved through the Solar System is therefore a question of paramount importance to understanding how terrestrial planets like the Earth became habitable. It is a question not only tied to our own existence, but also to assessing the prospect of life elsewhere in the Universe.

The Hayabusa2 mission arrived at asteroid Ryugu just over one year ago at the end of June 2018. The spacecraft remotely analyzed the asteroid and deployed two rovers and a lander to explore the surface. Then in February of this year, the spacecraft performed its own descent to touchdown and collect a sample. The material gathered will be analyzed back on Earth when the spacecraft returns home at the end of 2020.

Touchdown is one of the most dangerous operation in the mission. The distances involved mean that it took about 19 minutes to communicate with the spacecraft during the first touchdown and 13 minutes during the second touchdown, when the asteroid had moved slightly closer to Earth. Both these durations are too long to manually guide the spacecraft to the asteroid surface.… Read more

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