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

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.

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

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.)

Read more

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

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