Category: The Search for Life Beyond Earth (page 1 of 8)

NASA Should Build a Grand Observatory Designed to Search For Life Beyond Earth, Top Panel Concludes

The National Academy of Sciences has released it’s “Decadal Survey,” with guidance and recommendations for the fields of astronomy, astrobiology and astrophysics.(NASA)

NASA should begin developing a mission that can tell us whether life in the near galaxy is abundant, rare or essentially absent, The National Academy of Sciences recommended yesterday.

The call for a next Grand Observatory telescope with this ambitious goal represents the first time that the Academy, in its Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics, has given top priority to the science of  exoplanets and the search for life far beyond Earth.

The long-awaited NAS survey did not select a single mission concept, although several NASA-commissioned studies were extensively researched and assembled for the Decadal over the past four years.

Rather, they set the science goal of giving an answer – as complete as possible – to the eternally-asked question of whether life exists solely on Earth or can be found on the billions of other planets we now know orbit their own suns.

Decadal steering committee co-chair Robert Kennicutt Jr., a professor at University of Arizona and Texas A & M University, said that a flood of discoveries and astronomical and technological advances in recent decades made clear that the time for such a mission had come.

“We’re laying down a marker here,” Kennicutt said  in a press conference.  “We think that progress in this field has taken us to the point that within the planning horizon of this survey, we can really contemplate imaging  Earth-like planets in their habitable zones around other stars and spectroscopically studying them for atmospheric composition, perhaps including biomarkers. with the ultimate goal of answering one of the most profound questions:  Are we alone in the universe?”

The proposed mission, he said, would as a result have the transformative scientific power of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch next month.  It would change the way that scientists and citizens see the world.

The telescope envisioned by Decadal Survey would search for small rocky planets in the habitable zone of heir sun — where the temperatures would allow for liquid water to exist rather than just water vapor or ice.  This artist’s concept ia of Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world found in the habitable zone of a distant sun-like star. ( NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.)

But the road to an actual mission will be long and definitely uphill.… Read more

Many Planets Form in a Soup of Life-Friendly Organic Compounds

Artist’s depiction of a protoplanetary disk with young planets forming around a star. The right-side panel zooms in to show various organic molecules that are accreting onto a planet. (M.Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian)

One of the more persuasive arguments in favor of the potential existence of life beyond Earth is that the well-known chemical building blocks of that life are found throughout the galaxy.  These chemical components aren’t all present in all examined solar systems and planets, but they are common and behave in ways familiar to scientists here.

And when it comes elements and compounds found on distant planets but not found here, there just aren’t many. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist — some unstable compounds in interstellar space, for instance — but rather that the cosmos holds many surprises but none have involved extraterrestrial elements or compounds near planets or stars.

This is in large part the result of how elements are formed in the universe.  Other than hydrogen and helium, all other elements are forged in the thermonuclear explosion of stars that have exhausted their supply of fuel.  These massive explosions (supernovae) then shoot the newly-formed elements out into space where they can and do collect in gas and dust clouds that will form other new stars.  They are spread throughout the disks that form around new stars and over time they become components of new planets in formation.

This galactic evolution includes the bonding together of carbon-based organic compounds — the building blocks of life as we know it.  They are an essential component to any theory of a planet’s habitability and,  while their presence in space and star nurseries has been known for some time,  they have remained a subject of great interest but limited detailed knowledge.

That is why an international team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. set out to intensively study five disks forming around young stars to determine more precisely what organic compounds were present and available for objects developing into planets.

And the results are striking:  The abundance of organic material detected was 10 to 100 times more than expected.

“These planet-forming disks are teeming with organic molecules, some of which are implicated in the origins of life here on Earth,” said team leader Karin Öberg. “This is really exciting; the chemicals in each disk will ultimately affect the type of planets that form and determine whether or not the planets can host life.”… Read more

Frigid Europa Holds a Huge and Maybe Habitable Ocean Beneath Its Thick Ice Covering. How is That Possible?

Europa has one of the smoothest surface of any body in the solar system.  A moon as old as Europa that did not have an ice cover — and a likely ocean inside — would be pocked with asteroid craters.  On Europa, these craters appear to be absorbed into the icy surface via geologic and thermal processes.  Giant lakes trapped in Europa’s crust also bust up the icy surface. (NASA)

Jupiter’s moon Europa is almost five times as far away from the sun as Earth is, with surface temperatures that don’t rise above minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit.  It’s slightly smaller than our moon and orbits but 400,000 miles from the solar system’s largest planet, which it takes but 3.5 Earth days to orbit.  As a result it is tidally locked, always showing the same face to Jupiter.

When it comes to potentially habitable objects in our solar system, Europa would not seem to be a terribly likely possibility.

But, of course, it is.  And in three years NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will launch to explore what would appear to be one of the most unlikely yet possible places in our solar system to find potential signs of life.

The reason why is that scientists are almost certain that under Europa ‘s 10-to 15 mile ice covering is a deep, global ocean of salty water.

The size of the ocean has not been well determined yet, with estimates of between 40 and 100 miles of depth.  But a  consensus has been reached that the ocean is likely to be global, and contains two to three times as much liquid water as found on Earth.

This then raises a question with great significance for Europa, other moons in the solar system and quite likely planets and moons well beyond us:  How can there be so much liquid water inside such frigid places?

The spot toward the lower left is one Europa, against the backdrop of Jupiter.  Images from Voyager in 1979 bolster the modern hypothesis that Europa has an underground ocean and is therefore a good place to look for extraterrestrial life. The dark spot on the upper right is a shadow of another of Jupiter’s large moons. Sixteen frames from Voyager 1’s 1979 Jupiter flyby were recently reprocessed and merged to create this image.  (NASA, Voyager 1, JPL, Caltech; Processing & License: Alexis Tranchandon / Solaris)

There are numerous possible answers to that question, and it’s likely that all or most played some role.… Read more

Sample Return from Mars Begins in Earnest

This image taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover on Sept. 7, 2021 shows two holes where the rover’s drill obtained chalk-size samples from a rock nicknamed “Rochette.” They are the first physical manifestations of the NASA’s long-planned Mars Sample Return Mission. (NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

For the first time ever, a sample of pulverized rock from another planet has been drilled, collected and stored for eventual delivery to the highest-tech labs on Earth.

Yes, a storehouse of rocks were collected on the moon by Apollo astronauts and delivered to Houston, and some small samples of two asteroids and one comet were snatched by three spacecraft (two Japanese and one American) and their contents were brought here for study.

But never before has the surface of another planet been the source of precious extraterrestrial material that some day, if all goes well, will be received on Earth for intensive analysis.

The feat was accomplished by the team that operates the Perseverance rover on Mars.  After an unsuccessful effort to drill what turned out to be a very soft rock in August , the rover drill succeeded in digging into a briefcase-sized hard volcanic rock twice this month and pulling out samples to be tubed and stored for later pick-up by a different mission.

That next step isn’t scheduled for another half decade and the samples would not arrived on Earth until well after that.  But a long-dreamed and highly-ambitious effort to bring some of Mars to Earth (called Mars Sample Return) has now formally begun.

“This is a truly historic achievement, the very first rock cores collected on another terrestrial planet — it’s amazing,” Meenakshi Wadhwa, Mars sample return principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during a news conference held Friday

“In our science community, we’ve talked about Mars sample return for decades,” Wadhwa said. “And now it’s actually starting to feel real.”

Perseverance’s first cored-rock sample of Mars is seen inside its titanium container tube in this image taken by the rover’s Sampling and Caching System Camera, known as CacheCam. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The press conference was a victory lap of sorts for leaders of a team with many members who have worked eight to ten years for this moment.  Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of the Planetary Science Division, also called it an historic achievement –the culmination of advances pioneered by many other NASA missions to Mars and elsewhere and a milestone for NASA’s Mars program.… Read more

Introducing Hycean Planets

A so-called Hycean planet is one featuring large oceans and a hydrogen atmosphere. A new report from the University of Cambridge suggests this kind of planet, sized between a super-Earth and a mini-Neptunes, could potentially support life. The image features a red dwarf star as the planet’s host star. (Artist rendering by Amanda Smith, University of Cambridge)

Planets beyond our solar system, we now know, come in all shapes, sizes and consistencies.  There are rocky planets, water worlds, gaseous planets, super-Earths, hot Jupiters, tidally locked planets, planets in orbital resonance with each other,  and so much more.

A group of exoplanet researchers at the University of Cambridge have recently proposed a new category of planet, one that has seldom been considered even potentially habitable.  They call them Hycean planets due to the presence of substantial hydrogen in the atmospheres and large oceans (hydrogen and ocean = Hycean) on their surfaces.

And in an article in The Astrophysical Journal, they make the case that under certain conditions, some Hycean planets could, indeed, be habitable.

“Hycean planets open a whole new avenue in our search for life elsewhere,” said Nikku Madhusudhan from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who led the research.

Many of the prime Hycean candidates identified by the researchers are bigger and hotter than Earth, but the researchers argue that they still have the characteristics to host large oceans that could support microbial life similar to that found in some of Earth’s most extreme watery environments.

Hycean planets, Madhusudhan said in a release, offer a new paradigm for the search for life beyond Earth.

“Essentially, when we’ve been looking for these various molecular signatures, we have been focusing on planets similar to Earth, which is a reasonable place to start,”  he said. “But we think Hycean planets offer a better chance of finding several trace biosignatures.”

Co-author Anjali Piette, also from Cambridge, added: “It’s exciting that habitable conditions could exist on planets so different from Earth.”

An artist rendering of what a possible Hycean planet would look like.  This image is of K2-18b, which has a radius twice that of Earth and is more than eight times as massive as our planet.  The heavy hydrogen atmosphere is present, as is the red dwarf star that it orbits. (Alex Boersma)

There are no planets of this size and type in our solar system, but planets in the Hycean range are quite common in the galaxy.… Read more

Will The Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx) — Or Something Like It — Emerge As NASA’s Next Great Observatory?

Artist impression of HabEx spacecraft and a deployed starshade 47,000 miles away, with an exoplanet made visible by the starshade’s blocking of stellar light. (NASA)

Some time later this summer, it is predicted, the National Academy of Sciences will release its long-awaited Decadal Survey for astrophysics, which is expected to recommend the science and architecture that NASA should embrace for its next “Great Observatory.”

Many Worlds earlier featured one of the four concepts in the running — LUVOIR or the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor.  With a segmented mirror potentially as wide as 50 feet in diameter, it would revolutionize the search for habitable exoplanets and potentially could detect one (or many) distant planets likely to support life.

Proposed as a “Great Observatory” for the 2030s in the tradition of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled to launch later this year), LUVOIR would allow for transformative science of not only exoplanets but many other fields of astronomy as well.

Also under serious consideration is the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory, HabEx, which would also bring unprecedented capabilities to the search for life beyond Earth.  Its mirror would be considerably smaller than that proposed for LUVOIR and it would have fewer chances to find an inhabited world.

But it is nonetheless revolutionary in terms of what it potentially can do for exoplanet science and it could come with a second spacecraft that seems to be out of science fiction,  designed to block out starlight so exoplanets nearby can be observed. That 52-meter (or 170-foot) petal-rimmed, light-blocking disc is called a starshade or an occulter, and it would fly 76,600 kilometers (or 47,000 miles) away from the HabEx spacecraft and would work in tandem with the telescope to make those close-in exoplanet observations possible.

While the capabilities of HabEx are fewer compared to LUVOIR and the potential harvest of habitable or inhabited planets is less, HabEx nonetheless would be cutting edge and significantly more capable than the Hubble Space Telescope in nearly every way, while also being less expensive than LUVOIR and requiring less of a technology reach.

Scott Gaudi, an Ohio State University astronomer, was co-chair of the NASA-created team that spent three years studying, engineering and then proposing the HabEx concept. He put the potential choice between HabEx and LUVOIR this way:  “Do you want to take a first step or a first leap?  HabEx is a major step; LUVOIR is a huge leap.”… Read more

Sure UFOs Exist. But There’s No Reason To Conclude That Aliens Are Flying Them

An apparently unidentified object detected on a Navy plane’s infrared camera. (U.S. Department of Defense/Navy Times)

It seems to happen with some regularity.  Claims that Unidentified Flying Objects are visiting us have captured the public imagination once more and a big reveal is expected soon.

That will come, oddly, from a government report required to be released by the end of June that will supposedly detail the many sightings made by high-flying military pilots and unexplained detections by satellites.  The requirement was added to the Covid relief package that was passed by Congress in December and orders the Department of Defense and the Office of the DIrector of National Intelligence to release their unclassified findings on the subject, information that has been apparently collected for decades.

In terms of national defense, these reports could indeed be meaningful.  If other nations are sending

This well known poster was first introduced during an episode of the 1990s television show, “The X Files.” and featured in a subsequent movie.

drones or satellites of some sort (true UFOs) to get close to and study American assets, then that’s important news.

But, of course, the UFO drama is overwhelmingly about something else:  The claimed presence of intelligent aliens that are scoping out Earth for reasons ranging from awe-inspiring or extremely worrisome.

The report — which sources say concludes that there is insufficient evidence to confirm or conclusively rule out extraterrestrial UFO sightings —  will no doubt be widely consumed by a population with many “UFO believers.”  After all, a 2019 Gallup poll found that 33 percent of American adults said that alien spacecraft from distant planets and galaxies have been visiting us.

I find all this to be not only unfortunate but also misguided and potentially damaging.  The moment will pass with no intelligent aliens identified, and then will return again some time in the future for another round.

The potential damage is to the very real, very challenging, very cutting-edge science being conducted around the world that seeks to identify actual signs of actual extraterrestrial life in the cosmos, or at least to know what to look for when we have space telescopes and instruments with the necessary power.

And I’m concerned that a focus on UFOs imagined to be carrying intelligent alien life takes away from the hard-won seriousness of their enormous and so compelling scientific effort.  This is especially true now that the scientific search for extraterrestrial life is on the front burner for the National Academy of Sciences, which will soon make recommendations about a next grand observatory for the 2030s.… Read more

Breakthrough Listen Searches The Crowded Center of the Milky Way for Possible Signals From Intelligent Beings

The Galactic Center from radio to X-ray frequencies.  ( X-Ray: NASA, CXC, UMass, D. Wang et al.; Radio: NRF, SARAO, MeerKAT)

Searching for technologically advanced civilizations inhabiting distant exoplanets is the astrobiological equivalent of swinging for the fences.

While much of the search of extraterrestrial life is now focused on microbes and chemical biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres that would likely be byproducts of life, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or SETI) takes a very different approach.

SETI practitioners scan the skies for radio signals, and now laser signals, that are irregular and different from what is naturally produced.  Were such a signal to be detected, then it would be studied as the potential work of extraterrestrial life that is highly advanced — perhaps far more so than we Earthlings.

This search has been going on since Cornell University astronomer Frank Drake began it 1960 and has advanced (in steps large and small) ever since.  The biggest financial boost to the search took place five years ago when techno-billionaire Yuri Milner, in partnership with Stephen Hawking and other prominent scientists,  set up the Breakthrough Listen project with $100 million to buy telescope time and to greatly expand the SETI search.

And as part of that expanded search, radio telescopes focused on the crowded galactic center of the Milky Way for 600 observing hours.  The thinking was that stars and likely exoplanets are most plentiful in that central region — some 60 million  stars in the line of sight into the galactic center at low astronomical frequencies; 500,000 at higher frequencies  — and so the chances of finding a signal were perhaps higher.

Some preliminary and partial results of that effort were recently released and, unfortunately, no signals were found.  That has been the fate of all SETI searches so far.

But as SETI scientists explain, the night sky is huge and the percentage of stars (and their exoplanets) that have been sampled remains quite small.

The Green Bank Radio Observatory in West Virginia is one of the two main sites for the Breakthrough Listen galactic center campaign.  The other is the Parkes Telescope in Australia . (NRAO)

This latest effort was unique in that it was the “most sensitive and deepest targeted SETI” survey ever done of the galactic center, as the SETI scientists write in a study set to be published in the Astronomical Journal (a preprint is currently available on the arXiv).… Read more

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

The Space Telescope That Could Find a Second Earth

This rare picture of an exoplanet (called 2M1207B) shows a red world several times Jupiter’s size orbiting a brown dwarf much smaller and dimmer than our sun. LUVOIR is after more elusive targets: small, rocky planets around bright stars. (ESO)

What will it take to capture images and spectra of a distant world capable of harboring life?
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For all the excitement surrounding the search for distant exoplanets in recent years, the 4,000-plus planets confirmed so far have been unseen actors on the cosmic stage. Except for a handful of very large bodies imaged by ground-based telescopes, virtually all exoplanets have been detected only when they briefly dim the light coming from their host stars or when their gravity causes the star to wobble in a distinctive way. Observing these patterns and using a few other methods, scientists can determine an exoplanet’s orbit, radius, mass, and sometimes density—but not much else. The planets remain, in the words of one researcher in the field, “small black shadows.”

Scientists want much more. They’d like to know in detail the chemical makeup of the planets’ atmospheres, whether liquid water might be present on their surfaces, and, ultimately, whether these worlds might be hospitable to life.

Answering those questions will require space telescopes that don’t yet exist. To determine what kinds of telescopes, NASA commissioned two major studies that have taken large teams of (mostly volunteer) scientists and engineers four years to complete. The results are now under review by the National Academy of Sciences, as part of its Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics that will recommend government funding priorities for the 2030s. Past and current NASA mega-projects, from the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch this year, have all gone through this same vetting process. Sometime this spring, the Decadal Survey is expected to wrap up its deliberations and make recommendations.

That puts four proposals in the running to become NASA’s next “Great Observatory” in space: an X-ray telescope called Lynx; the Origins Space Telescope for studying the early universe; and two telescopes devoted mostly, but not exclusively, to exoplanets. One is called HabEx, for Habitable Exoplanet Observatory. The other—the most ambitious, most complex, most expensive, and most revolutionary of all these concepts—is called LUVOIR, for Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor.… Read more

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