Category: The Search for Life Beyond Earth (page 1 of 4)

Our Ever-Growing Menagerie of Exoplanets

While we have never seen an exoplanet with anything near this kind of detail, scientists and artists now do know enough to represent them with characteristics that are plausible, given what is known about them..  (NASA)

With so many exoplanets already detected, with the pace of discovery continuing to be so fast, and with efforts to find more distant worlds so constant and global,  it’s easy to become somewhat blase´ about new discoveries.  After so many “firsts,” and so many different kinds of planets found in very different ways, it certainly seems that some of the thrill may be gone.

Surely the detection of a clearly “Earth-like planet” would cause new excitement — one that is not only orbiting in the habitable zone of its host star but also has signs of a potentially nurturing atmosphere in a generally supportive cosmic neighborhood.

But while many an exoplanet has been described as somewhat “Earth-like” and potentially habitable, further observation has consistently reduced the possibility of the planets actually hosting some form of biology.  The technology and knowledge base needed to find distant life is surely advancing, but it may well still have a long way to go.

In just the last few days, however, a slew of discoveries have been reported that highlight the allure and science of our new Exoplanet Era.  They may not be blockbusters by themselves, but they are together part of an immense scientific exploration under way, one that is re-shaping our understanding of the cosmos and preparing us for bigger discoveries and insights to come.


Already 3,940 exoplanets have been identified (as of April 17) with an additional 3,504 candidates waiting to be confirmed or discarded.  this is but the start since it is widely held now that virtually every star out there has a planet, or planets, orbiting it.   That’s billions of billions of planets.  This image is a collection of NASA exoplanet renderings.

What I have in mind are these discoveries:

  • The first Earth-sized planet detected by NASA’s year-old orbiting telescope TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.)  TESS is designed to find planets orbiting massive stars in our near neighborhood, and it has already made 10 confirmed discoveries.  But finding a small exoplanet — 85 percent the size of Earth — is a promising result for a mission designed to not only locate as many as 20,000 new exoplanets, but to find 500 to 1,000 the rough size of Earth or SuperEarth. 
Read more

A Significant Advance: Primitive Earth Life Survives an 18-Month Exposure to Mars-Like Conditions in Space

The European Space Agency’s BIOMEX array, outside the Russian Zvezda module of the ISS. (ESA)

The question of whether simple life can survive in space is hardly new, but it has lately taken on a new urgency.

It is not only a pressing scientific question — might life from Mars or another body have seeded life on Earth?  Might organisms similar to extreme Earth life survive Mars-like conditions? — but it is also has some very practical implications.  If humans are going to some day land and live on the moon or on Mars, they will need to grow food to survive.

So the question is pretty basic:  can Earth seeds or dormant life survive a long journey to deep space and can they then  grow in the protected but still extreme radiation, temperature, and vacuum  of deep space?

It was with these questions in mind that the European Space Agency funded a proposal from the German Institute of Planetary Research to send samples of a broad range of simple to more complex life to the International Space Station in 2014, and to expose the samples to extreme conditions outside the station.

Some of the findings have been reported earlier,  but last month the full results of the Biomex tests (Biology on Mars Experiment) were unveiled in the journal Astrobiology.

And the answer is that many, though certainly not all, of the the samples of snow and permafrost algae, cyanobacteria, archaea, fungi, biofilms, moss and lichens in the  did survive their 533 days of living dangerous in their dormant states.  When brought back to Earth and returned to normal conditions, they returned to active life.

“For the majority of the chosen organisms, it was the first and the longest time they ever were exposed to space and Mars-like conditions,” Jean-Pierre Paul de Vera, principal investigator of the effort, wrote to me.  And the results were promising.


For the BIOMEX experiment, on 18 August 2014, Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev placed several hundred samples in an experiment container on the exterior of the Zvezda’Russian ISS module. The containers, open to the surrounding space environment, held primitive terrestrial organisms such as mosses, lichens, fungi, bacteria, archaea and algae, as well as cell membranes and pigments.


A microbiologist and planetary researcher at the German Space Agency’s Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, de Vera and his team went from Antarctica to the parched Atacama desert in Chile, from the high Alps to the steppe highlands of central Spain to find terrestrial life surviving in extreme conditions (extremophiles.)

The samples were then placed in regolith (soil, dust and other rocky materials) simulated to be as close as possible to what is found on Mars.Read more

How Creatures End Up Miles Below the Surface of Earth, and Maybe Mars Too

Poikilolaimus oxycercus is a microscopic nematode, or roundworm, found alive and well more than a mile below the surface in South Africa, where its ancestors had lived for hundreds or thousands of years. (Gaetan Borgonie)


When scientists speculate about possible life on Mars, they generally speak of microbial or other simple creatures living deep below the irradiated and desiccated surface.  While Mars long ago had a substantial period that was wetter and warmer when it also had a far more protective atmosphere,  the surface now is considered to be lethal.

But the suggestion that some potential early Martian life could have migrated into the more protected depths is often discussed as a plausible, if at this point untestable possibility.  In this scenario, some of that primitive subsurface life might even have survived the eons in their buried, and protected, environments.

This thinking has gotten some support in the past decade with the discovery of bacteria and nematodes (roundworms) found as far down as three miles below the surface of South Africa, in water dated as being many thousands or millions years old.  The lifeforms have been discovered by a team that has regularly gone down into the nation’s super-hot gold and platinum mines to search for life coming out of boreholes in the rock face of deep mine tunnels.


Borgonie setting up a water collector for a borehole at the Driefontein mine in the Witwatersrand Basin  of South Africa.  He said he stopped counting his journeys into the deep mines at 50, but that the number now is much higher. (Courtesy of Borgonie)

Now a  new paper describes not only the discovery of additional deep subsurface life, but also tries to explain how the distant ancestors of the worms and bacteria and algae might have gotten there. 

Their conclusion:  many were pulled down when fractures opened in the aftermath of earthquakes and other seismic events.  While many lifeforms were swept down, only a small percentage were able to adapt, evolve and thus survive.

The is how Gaetan Borgonie, lead author of the paper in Scientific Reports, explained it to me via email:

“After the discovery of multicellular animals in the deep subsurface up to 3.8 km (2.5 miles) in South Africa everyone was baffled and asked the question how did they get that deep? This question more or less haunted us for more than a decade as we were unable to get our head around it.Read more

Artifacts In Space

Voyager 2 entered interstellar space last month, becoming a space “artifact” of our civilization. (NASA)


All of a sudden, we have spacecraft and objects both coming into our solar system and leaving for interstellar space. This is highly unusual, and very intriguing.

The departing spacecraft is Voyager 2, which launched in 1977 and has traveled spaceward some 11 billion miles.  It has now officially left the heliosphere, the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the sun.  In this it follows Voyager I – which left our solar system in 2012 — and managers of the two craft have reason to think they can travel until they cross the half-century mark.

This is taking place the same time that scientists are puzzling over the nature of a cigar-shaped object that flew into the solar system from interstellar space last year.

Nobody knows what the object – called Oumuamua, Hawaiian for “first messenger,” or “scout” – really is. The more likely possibilities of it being a comet or an solar system asteroid have been found to be inconsistent with some observed properties of the visitor, and this has led some senior scientists to even hypothesize that it just might be an alien probe.

The likelihood may be small, but it was substantial enough for Harvard University Astronomy Department Chairman Avi Loeb to co-author a paper presenting the possibility.  In the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Loeb and postdoc Shmuel Bialy wrote that the object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

They also say the object has some characteristics of a “lightsail of artificial origins,” rather like the one that Loeb is working on as chairman of the Breakthrough Starshot advisory committee.  The well-funded private effort is hoping to develop ways to send a fleet of tiny lightsail probes to the star system nearest to us, Alpha Centauri.


This artist’s impression of the first detected interstellar visitor: Oumuamua. This object was discovered in October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. Subsequent observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and other observatories around the world show that it was traveling through space for millions of years before its seemingly chance encounter with our star system.  But some scientists wonder:  might it be instead a probe sent into the cosmos by intelligent creatures?(NASA)


Put the two phenomenon together — the coming into our solar system and the going out — and you have a pathway into the world of alien “artifacts,” products of civilizations near and far. … Read more

Does Proxima Centauri Create an Environment Too Horrifying for Life?

Artist’s impression of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)


In 2016, the La Silla Observatory in Chile spotted evidence of possibly the most eagerly anticipated exoplanet in the Galaxy. It was a world orbiting the nearest star to the sun, Proxima Centauri, making this our closest possible exoplanet neighbour. Moreover, the planet might even be rocky and temperate.

Proxima Centauri b had been discovered by discerning a periodic wobble in the motion of the star. This revealed a planet with a minimum mass 30% larger than the Earth and an orbital period of 11.2 days. Around our sun, this would be a baking hot world.

But Proxima Centauri is a dim red dwarf star and bathes its closely orbiting planet in a level of radiation similar to that received by the Earth. If the true mass of the planet was close to the measured minimum mass, this meant Proxima Centauri b would likely be a rocky world orbiting within the habitable zone.


Comparison of the orbit of Proxima Centauri  b with the same region of the solar system. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result it lies well within the habitable zone. (ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman.)

Sitting 4.2 light years from our sun, a journey to Proxima Centauri b is still prohibitively long.

But as our nearest neighbor, the exoplanet is a prime target for the upcoming generation of telescopes that will attempt to directly image small worlds. Its existence was also inspiration for privately funded projects to develop faster space travel for interstellar distances.

Yet observations taken around the same time as the La Silla Observatory discovery were painting a very different picture of Proxima Centauri. It was a star with issues.

This set of observations were taken with Evryscope; an array of small telescopes that was watching stars in the southern hemisphere. What Evryscope spotted was a flare from Proxima Centauri that was so bright that the dim red dwarf star became briefly visible to the naked eye.

Flares are the sudden brightening in the atmosphere of a star that release a strong burst of energy. They are often accompanied by a large expulsion of plasma from the star known as a “coronal mass ejection”. Flares from the sun are typically between 1027 – 1032 erg of energy, released in a few tens of minutes.… Read more

Technosignatures and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

A rendering of a potential Dyson sphere, named after Freeman A. Dyson. As proposed by the physicist and astronomer decades ago, they would collect solar energy on a solar system wide scale for highly advanced civilizations. (

The word “SETI” pretty much brings to mind the search for radio signals come from distant planets, the movie “Contact,” Jill Tarter, Frank Drake and perhaps the SETI Institute, where the effort lives and breathes.

But there was a time when SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — was a significantly broader concept, that brought in other ways to look for intelligent life beyond Earth.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s — a time of great interest in UFOs, flying saucers and the like — scientists not only came up with the idea of searching for distant intelligent life via unnatural radio signals, but also by looking for signs of unexpectedly elevated heat signatures and for optical anomalies in the night sky.

The history of this search has seen many sharp turns, with radio SETI at one time embraced by NASA, subsequently de-funded because of congressional opposition, and then developed into a privately and philanthropically funded project of rigor and breadth at the SETI Institute.  The other modes of SETI went pretty much underground and SETI became synonymous with radio searches for ET life.

But this history may be about to take another sharp turn as some in Congress and NASA have become increasingly interested in what are now called “technosignatures,” potentially detectable signatures and signals of the presence of distant advanced civilizations.  Technosignatures are a subset of the larger and far more mature search for biosignatures — evidence of microbial or other primitive life that might exist on some of the billions of exoplanets we now know exist.

And as a sign of this renewed interest, a technosignatures conference was scheduled by NASA at the request of Congress (and especially retiring Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas.)  The conference took place in Houston late last month, and it was most interesting in terms of the new and increasingly sophisticated ideas being explored by scientists involved with broad-based SETI.

“There has been no SETI conference this big and this good in a very long time,” said Jason Wright, an astrophysicist and professor at Pennsylvania State University and chair of the conference’s science organizing committee.  “We’re trying to rebuild the larger SETI community, and this was a good start.”


At this point, the search for technosignatures is often likened to that looking for a needle in a haystack.

Read more

Water Worlds, Aquaplanets and Habitability

This artist rendering may show a water world — without any land — or an aquaplanet with lots of more shallow water around a rocky planet. (NASA)


The more exoplanet scientists learn about the billions and billions of celestial bodies out there, the more the question of unusual planets — those with characteristics quite different from those in our solar system — has come into play.

Hot Jupiters, super-Earths, planets orbiting much smaller red dwarf stars — they are all grist for the exoplanet mill, for scientists trying to understand the planetary world that has exploded with possibilities and puzzles over the past two decades.

Another important category of planets unlike those we know are the loosely called “water worlds” (with very deep oceans) and their “aquaplanet” cousins (with a covering of water and continents) but orbiting stars very much unlike our sun.

Two recent papers address the central question of habitability in terms of these kind of planets — one with oceans and ice hundreds of miles deep, and one particular and compelling planet (Proxima Centauri b, the exoplanet closest to us) hypothesized to have water on its surface as it orbits a red dwarf star.

The question the papers address is whether these watery worlds might be habitable.  The conclusions are based on modelling rather than observations, and they are both compelling and surprising.

In both cases — a planet with liquid H20 and ice many miles down, and another that probably faces its red dwarf sun all or most of the time — the answers from modelers is that yes, the planets could be habitable.   That is very different from saying they are or even might be inhabited.  Rather,  the conclusions are based on computer models that take into account myriad conditions and come out with simulations about what kind of planets they might be.

This finding of potential watery-world habitability is no small matter because predictions of how planets form point to an abundance of water and ice in the planetesimals that grow into planets.

As described by Eric Ford, co-author of one of the papers and a professor of astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University, “Many scientists anticipate that planets with oceans much deeper than Earths could be a common outcome of planet formation. Indeed, one of the puzzling properties of Earth is that it has oceans that are just skin deep” compared to the radius of the planet.… Read more

Curiosity Rover Looks Around Full Circle And Sees A Once Habitable World Through The Dust

An annotated 360-degree view from the Curiosity mast camera.  Dust remaining from an enormous recent storm can be seen on the platform and in the sky.  And holes in the tires speak of the rough terrain Curiosity has traveled, but now avoids whenever possible. Make the screen bigger for best results and enjoy the show. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)


When it comes to the search for life beyond Earth, I think it would be hard to point to a body more captivating, and certainly more studied, than Mars.

The Curiosity rover team concluded fairly early in its six-year mission on the planet that “habitable” conditions existed on early Mars.  That finding came from the indisputable presence of substantial amounts of liquid water three-billion-plus years ago, of oxidizing and reducing molecules that could provide energy for simple life, of organic compounds and of an atmosphere that was thick enough to block some of the most harmful incoming cosmic rays.

Last year, Curiosity scientists estimated that the window for a habitable Mars was some 700 million years, from 3.8 to 3.1 billion years ago.  Is it a coincidence that the earliest confirmed life on Earth appeared about 3.8 billion years ago?

Today’s frigid Mars, which has an atmosphere much thinner than in the planet’s early days, hardly looks inviting, although some scientists do see a possibility that primitive life survives below the surface.

But because it doesn’t look inviting now doesn’t mean the signs of a very different planet aren’t visible and detectable through instruments.  The Curiosity mission has proven this once and for all.

The just released and compelling 360-degree look (above) at the area including Vera Rubin Ridge brings the message home.

Those fractured, flat rocks are mudstone, formed when Gale Crater was home to Gale Lake.  Mudstone and other sedimentary formations have been visible (and sometimes drilled) along a fair amount of the 12.26-mile path that Curiosity has traveled since touchdown.


An image of Vera Rubin Ridge in traditional Curiosity color, and the same view below with filters designed to detect hematite, or iron oxide. That compound can only be formed in the presence of water. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)


The area the rover is now exploring contains enough hematite — iron oxide — that its signal was detectable from far above the planet, making this area a prized destination since well before the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity were launched.

Like Martian clays and sulfates that have been identified and explored, the hematite is of great interest because of its origins in water. … Read more

Piecing Together The Narrative of Evolution

A reconstruction of the frond-like sea creature Stromatoveris psygmoglena, which lived during the Cambrian explosion of life forms on Earth.  Newfound fossils of Stromatoveris were compared with Ediacaran fossils, and researchers concluded they were all very early animals and that this animal group survived the mass extinction event that occurred between the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods. (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill.)

An essential characteristic of life is that it evolves. Whether on Earth or potentially Mars, Europa or distant exoplanets, we can assume that whatever life might be present has the capacity and the need to change.

Evolution is intimately tied to the origin-of-life question, which this column often explores.  Having more answers regarding how life might have started on Earth can no doubt help the search for life elsewhere, just as finding life elsewhere could help understand how it started here.

The connection between evolution and exoplanets has an added and essential dimension when it comes to hunting for signatures of distant extraterrestrial life.

Searching for a planet with lots of oxygen and other atmospheric compound in disequilibrium (as on Earth) is certainly a way forward. But it is sobering to realize that those biosignatures would not have been detectable on Earth for most of the time that life has been present.  That’s because large concentrations of oxygen are a relative newcomer to our planet,  product of biological evolution.

With all this in mind, it seems both interesting and useful to look at the work of a researcher studying the fossil record to better understand a particular transition on Earth — the one from simpler organisms to multicellular creatures that can be considered animals.

The surprising, large transitional life of the Ediacaran period, which just preceded the Cambrian explosion of complex life. This grouping is termed the Ediacara assemblage, and existed late in the period.  (John Sibbick)

The researcher is Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill of the University of Cambridge, who I first met at the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo, a unique place where scientists research the origin of Earth and of life on Earth.

She had been included in a group of twelve two-year fellows recruited from around the world who specialized in fields ranging from the microbiology of extreme environments to the current and past dynamics of the deep Earth and the digital world of chemo informatics.  And then there was Hoyal Cuthill, whose field is paleobiology, with a heavy emphasis on evolution.… Read more

Large Reservoir of Liquid Water Found Deep Below the Surface of Mars

Artist impression of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars, superimposed on a radar cross section of the southern polar layered deposits. The leftmost white line is the radar echo from the Martian surface, while the light blue spots are highlighted radar echoes along the bottom of the ice.  Those highlighted areas measure very high reflectivity, interpreted as being caused by the presence of water. (ESA, INAF. Graphic rendering by Davide Coero Borga )

Far beneath the frigid surface of the South Pole of Mars is probably the last place where you might expect the first large body of Martian liquid water would be found.  It’s -170 F on the surface, there are no known geothermal sources that could warm the subterranean ice to make a meltwater lake, and the liquid water is calculated to be more than a mile below the surface.

Yet signs of that liquid water are what a team of Italian scientists detected — a finding that they say strongly suggests that there are other underground lakes and streams below the surface of Mars.  In a Science journal article released today, the scientists described the subterranean lake they found as being about 20 kilometers in diameter.

The detection adds significantly to the long-studied and long-debated question of how much surface water was once on Mars, a subject that has major implications for the question of whether life ever existed on the planet.

Finding the subterranean lake points to not only a wetter early Mars, said co-author Enrico Flamini of the Italian space agency, but also to a Mars that had a water cycle that collected and delivered the liquid water.  That would mean the presence of clouds, rain, evaporation, rivers, lakes and water to seep through surface cracks and pool underground.

Scientists have found many fossil waterways on Mars, minerals that can only be formed in the presence of water, and what might be the site of an ancient ocean.

But in terms of liquid water now on the planet, the record is thin.  Drops of water collected on the leg of NASA’s Phoenix Lander after it touched down in 2008, and what some have described as briny water appears to be flowing down some steep slopes in summertime.  Called recurrent slope lineae or RSLs, they appear at numerous locations when the temperatures rise and disappear when they drop.

This lake is different, however, and its detection is a major step forward in understanding the history of Mars.… Read more

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