Category: The Search for Life Beyond Earth (page 1 of 7)

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

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars — The Third Martian Arrival in a Week

This true-color Mars globe includes Terra Meridiani, the region where NASA’s Opportunity rover explored from 2004 to 2018.  Two more Mars rovers — one from NASA and the other from China — are scheduled to land this week and then later in the year. (NASA/Greg Shirah)

Mars is receiving visitors these days.  Quite a few of them.

The most prominent visitor is NASA’s Perseverance rover,  which made a difficult but smooth precision landing at 3.55 ET  this afternoon.

The rover now sits in Jezero Crater, in an area that clearly once had lots of water flowing.   The site was selected, in part, because the Perseverance rover’s official mission includes — for the first time since the mid 1970s — an effort to find signs of long ago life.

Perseverance will join the Curiosity rover on Mars, that pioneering machine that has revolutionized our understanding of the planet since it landed in 2012  The Curiosity and Perseverance rovers are similar in design but carry different instruments with different goals.

A key difference:  Curiosity was tasked with determining whether Mars had once been habitable and found that it definitely had been, with flowing rivers, large lakes and necessary-for-life organic compounds.  Perseverance will take another scientific step forward and search for signs that Mars actually was once inhabited.

Perseverance also joins China’s Tianwen-1 (“heavenly questions”) probe,  which went into orbit around Mars last week.  It is the first Chinese spacecraft to arrive at Mars, and later this spring or summer the Chinese space agency will attempt to land a rover as well on the planet’s northern plains..

And then there’s the Hope spacecraft which entered into Mars orbit last week as well.  Launched by the United Arab Emirates, it was placed in a wide orbit so it could study the planet’s weather and climate systems, which means it also can see the full planet in one view.

These spacecraft will join several others on or orbiting Mars, making this by far the busiest time ever for exploration of Mars — a real milestone.

NASA’s Perseverance rover will land in Jezero Crater. This image was produced using instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which helps identify potential landing sites for future missions. On ancient Mars, water carved channels and transported sediments to form fans and deltas within lake basins, as is clearly visible at here at Jezaro Crater (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

That the Perseverance mission has a formal goal of searching for ancient signs of life is a big deal, and involves a lot of history.… Read more

How Radioactive Elements May Make Planets Suitable or Hostile to Life

An artist’s conception of a super Venus planet on the left and a super Earth on the right.  The question of what makes one planet habitable and one uninhabitable is a focus of many astrobiology researchers.  A new hypothesis looks at the presence of radioactive elements as an important factor in making a solar system habitable. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames)

When describing exoplanets that are potentially promising candidates for life, scientists often use the terminology of the “habitable zone.”  This is a description of planets in orbit where temperatures, as predicted by the distance from the host star,  are not too cold for liquid water to exist on a planetary surface and also not to hot for all the water to burn off.

This planetary sweet spot, which not surprisingly Earth inhabits, is also more casually called the “Goldilocks zone” for exoplanets.

While there is certainly value to the habitable zone concept, there has also been scientific pushback to using the potential presence of liquid water as a primary or singular factor in predicting potential habitability.

There are just too many other factors that can play into habitability, some argue, and a focus on a planet’s distance from its host sun (and thus its temperature regime) is too narrow.  After all, several of the objects that just might support life in our own solar system are icy moons quite far from any solar system habitable zone.

With these concerns in the background, an interdisciplinary team of astrophysicists and planetary scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz has begun to look at a source of heat in addition to suns and tidal forces that might play a role in making a planet habitable.

This source is the heat generated by the decay of long-lived radioactive elements such as uranium, thorium and potassium, which are found in stars and presumably on and in planets throughout the galaxies in greater or lesser amounts.

Using theory and modeling, they have concluded that the abundance of these radioactive elements in a planetary mantle can indeed give important insights into whether life might emerge there.

Supercomputer models of Earth’s magnetic field,  which is kept going thanks in part to the heat and subsequent convection produced by radioactive decay. (NASA)

Uranium is among the most widespread  elements on Earth — 500 times more common than gold It is present on the surface and in the mantle below. (Atomic Heritage Foundation.)

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Strong Doubts Arise About the Reported Phosphine Biosignature in the Atmosphere of Venus

An artist’s depiction of Venus and, in the inset, phosphine molecules.
(© ESO/M. Kornmesser/L. Calçada & NASA/JPL-Caltech,)

What started as a stunning announcement that the chemical phosphine — a known byproduct of life — had been found in the clouds of Venus and could signal the presence of some lifeform has now been strongly critiqued by a number of groups of scientists.   As a result, there is growing doubt that the finding, published in the journal Nature Astronomy in September,  is accurate.

The latest critique, also submitted to Nature Astronomy but available in brief before publication, is led by NASA’s planetary scientist Geronimo Villaneuva and others at the Goddard Space Flight Center. They reanalyzed the data used to reach the conclusion that phosphine was present and concluded that the signal was misinterpreted as phosphine and most likely came instead from sulphur dioxide, which Venus’s atmosphere is known to contain in large amounts.

The title of their paper is “No phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus.”

Another paper led by Ignas Snellen from the Leiden Observatory came to a similar conclusion, but finding fault elsewhere. She and her team analyzed the data used in the initial research to see if cleaning up the noise with a 12-variable mathematic formula, as was used in the paper, could lead to incorrect results.

According to Snellan, using this formula actually gave the original team —  false results and they found “no statistical evidence for phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus.”

While this critical research does not on its own disprove that phosphine exists in Venus’ atmosphere, it clearly raises doubts about original team’s conclusions.

That original team was lead by Jane S. Greaves, a visiting scientist at the University of Cambridge when when she worked on the phosphine finding.  She herself has also has been unable to replicate the level of phosphine found by her team, and was a co-author on a paper that described that.   It is now almost impossible to collect new data because of the coronavirus pandemic.

 

Venus is roughly the size of Earth but much hotter due to its huge concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  (NASA)

This intense scrutiny continues as staff at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, discovered a separate, unspecified issue in the data that were used to detect the phosphine. “There are some issues with interpretation that we are looking at,” says Dave Clements, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London and co-author of the original study.… Read more

Could Life Exist in the Clouds of Venus?

Nightside of Venus captured with the IR2 (infrared) camera on JAXA’s Akatsuki climate orbiter (JAXA).

On September 14 at 3pm GMT, an embargo lifted on a research paper reporting evidence for biological activity on Venus. Speculation about the discovery had been spreading rapidly through social media for several days, proving that scientists are incapable of keeping secrets.

With a surface temperature sufficient to melt lead, Venus is not the usual candidate for extraterrestrial life. However, the reported signature resides not on the surface of the planet, but in its clouds.

Led by Professor Jane Greaves at Cardiff University, the research team report an observation of phosphine; a molecule consisting of one atom of phosphorous and three atoms of hydrogen (PH3). On Earth, the trace amounts of phosphine in the atmosphere all come from either human or microbial activity. But does that make the presence of phosphine irrefutable evidence of life on Venus?

The case for phosphine as a biosignature

Phosphine has been found in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn. However, this phosphine forms at the high temperatures and pressures existing deep within the giants’ colossal hydrogen-rich atmospheres. This process is not possible on the terrestrial planets, where the atmospheres are vastly thinner and hydrogen poor.

Instead of hydrogen, Venus’s atmosphere consists predominantly of carbon dioxide with clouds of sulfuric acid. While both ingredients sound abysmal for the prospect of life, the molecules consist of carbon and sulfur bounded to oxygen atoms. The prevalence of oxygen atoms should have resulted in any phosphorous present in the atmosphere to chemically react in a similar fashion to form a phosphate molecule (phosphorous and oxygen), rather than the observed phosphine (phosphorus and hydrogen).

Surface photographs from the former Soviet Union’s Venera 13 spacecraft, which touched down in March 1982. Temperatures on the surface are sufficient to melt lead, while the sulfur in the clouds gives the air its yellow/orange colour (NASA).

Despite considering thousands of possible reactions that might occur within Venus’s atmosphere, Greaves and her team failed to simulate the production of phosphine on Venus through abiotic (non-biological) means. Energetic processes such as lightening, volcanic activity or delivery via meteorites were also ruled out as possible sources, as the quantities they produced should be too low to explain the detection.

Estimates for the lifetime of phosphine also remove the chance that the molecules are leftover from an earlier epoch when the young Venus hosted a more clement environment.… Read more

How Many Habitable Zone Planets Can Orbit a Host Star?

This representation of the Trappist-1 system shows which planets could potentially have temperature conditions which would allow for the presence of liquid water, seen generally as essential for life.  The inner three planets are likely too hot, and the outer planet is probably too cold, but the middle three planets might be just right. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Our solar system has but one planet orbiting in what is commonly known as the habitable zone — at a distance from the host star where water could be liquid at times rather than always ice or gas.  That planet, of course, is Earth.

But from a theoretical, dynamical perspective, does this always have to be the case?  The answer to that question is no because a number of stars are known to have more than one habitable zone planet.

Now a team from the University of California, Riverside has produced a study that concludes as many as seven Earth-sized, habitable zone planets could orbit a single star — if there were no large Jupiter-sized planets in the system and if the star was of a particular type.

The article, published in the Astronomical Journal, concluded that seven habitable zone planets was the maximum for a star, but a sun such as ours could potentially support six planets with sometimes liquid water — a condition considered essential for life.

Study leader Stephen Kane, an astrobiologist who focuses on potentially habitable exoplanets, said he had been studying the nearby solar system Trappist-1, which has three Earth-like planets in its habitable zone and seven planets all together.

“This made me wonder about the maximum number of habitable planets it’s possible for a star to have, and why our star only has one,” Kane said.

With the discovery of an eighth planet, the Kepler-90 system is the first to tie with our solar system in number of planets. Artist’s concept. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Wendy Stenzel

His conclusion:

“Even though (our solar system) only has one planet in the habitable zone, it’s not necessarily the typical situation. A far more typical scenario may be to have many planets in the habitable zone, depending on the presence of a giant planet.”

More later about the destabilizing effects of giant planet, but the Kane (and others) say that looking for solar systems without Jupiter-size planets has become increasingly important because of this effect on other terrestrial planets.

To determine how many habitable zone planets might be possible in a solar system, his team created a model system in which they simulated planets of various sizes orbiting their stars.

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For First Time, Tiny CubeSat Locates a Distant Exoplanet

 

The image above, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, shows the CubeSat ASTERIA as it was being launched from the International Space Station in 2017.

The size of a briefcase, ASTERIA is part of a growing armada of tiny spacecraft being launched around the world and adding an increasingly important (and inexpensive) set of new tools for conducting Earth, space and exoplanet science.

ASTERIA, for instance, was designed to perform some of the complex tasks much larger space observatories use to study distant exoplanets outside our solar system.   And a new paper soon to be published in the Astronomical Journal describes how ASTERIA (short for Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics) didn’t just demonstrate it could perform those tasks but went above and beyond, detecting the known exoplanet 55 Cancri e.

While it was not the first detection of that exoplanet — which orbits close to its host star 41 light years away — it was the first time that a CubeSat had measured the presence of an exoplanet, something done so far only by much more sophisticated space and ground telescopes.

“Detecting this exoplanet is exciting because it shows how these new technologies come together in a real application,” said Vanessa Bailey, who led the ASTERIA  exoplanet science team at JPL.  The project was a collaboration between JPL and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We went after a hard target with a small telescope that was not even optimized to make science detections – and we got it, even if just barely,” said Mary Knapp, the ASTERIA project scientist at MIT’s Haystack Observatory and lead author of the study. “I think this paper validates the concept that motivated the ASTERIA mission: that small spacecraft can contribute something to astrophysics and astronomy.”  Both made their comments in a JPL release.

 

Artist rendering of planet Cancri 55 e. (NASA; JPL/Caltech)

 

ASTERIA was originally designed to spend 90 days in space.  But it received three mission extensions before the team lost contact with the satellite in late 2019.

The mission was not even designed to look for exoplanets.  It was, rather, a technology demonstration, with the mission’s goal to develop new capabilities for future missions. The team’s technological leap was to build a small spacecraft that could conduct fine pointing control — essentially the ability to stay focused very steadily on a distant star for long periods.… 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

Planetary Protection and the Moons of Mars

Mars with its two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Phobos orbits a mere 3,700 mile3s (6,000 km) above the surface, while Deimos is almost 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) away from the planet. In comparison, there is an almost 384,000 kilometers mean distance between the surface of the Earth and our elliptically orbiting moon. With the moons so close to Mars, debris from meteorite impacts on the planet can easily land on the moons. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Sometime in the early to mid-2020s, the capsule of the Japanese Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission is scheduled to arrive at the moons of Mars – Phobos and Deimos.

These are small and desolate places, but one goal of the mission is large: to collect samples from the moons and bring them back to Earth.

If it succeeds, the return would likely be the first ever from Mars or its moons — since planned sample return efforts from the planet itself will be considerably more challenging and so will take longer to plan and carry out.

The Mars moon mission has the potential to bring back significant information about their host planet, the early days of our solar system, and the origins and make-up of the moons themselves.

It also has the potential, theoretically at least, to bring back Martian life, or signatures of past Martian microbial life. And similarly, it has the potential to bring Earth life to one of the moons.

Hidenori Genda, an ELSI planetary scientist with a long-lasting interest in the effects of giant planetary impacts, such as the one that formed our moon. His work has also focused on atmospheres, oceans, and life beyond Earth. (Nerissa Escanlar)

Under the general protocols of what is called “planetary protection,” this is a paramount issue and is why the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was obliged to assess the likelihood of any such biological transfers with MMX.

To make that assessment, the agency turned to a panel of experts that included planetary scientist, principal investigator, and associate professor Hidenori Genda of Tokyo’s Earth-Life Science Institute.

The panel’s report to JAXA and the journal Life Sciences in Space Research concluded that microbial biology (if it ever existed) on early Mars could have been kicked up by incoming meteorites, and subsequently traveled the relatively short distance through space to land on Phobos and Deimos.

However, the panel’s conclusions were unambiguous: the severe radiation these microbes would encounter on the way would make sure anything once living was now dead.… Read more

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