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

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

Exploring Our Sun Will Help Us Understand Habitability

The surface of the sun, with each “kernel” or “cell” roughly the size of Texas. The movie is made up of images produced by the Daniel Inouye SolarTelescope in Hawaii.  Novel and even revolutionary data and images are also expected from the Parker Solar Probe (which will travel into the sun’s atmosphere, or corona) and the just launched Solar Orbiter, which will study (among many other things) the sun’s polar regions. (NSO/NSF/AURA)

 

Scientists have been  studying our sun for centuries, and at this point know an awful lot about it — the millions of degrees Fahrenheit heat that it radiates out from the corona, the tangled and essential magnetic fields that it creates, the million-miles-per-hour solar wind and the charged high-energy solar particles that can be so damaging to anything alive.

But we have now entered a time when solar science is taking a major leap forward with the deployment of three pioneering instruments that will explore the sun and its surroundings as never before.  One is a space telescopes that will get closer to the sun (by far) than any probe before, another is a probe that will make the first observations of the sun’s poles, and the third is a ground-based solar telescope that can resolve the sun in radically new ways — as seen in the image above, released last month.

Together, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, the joint European Space Agency-NASA Solar Orbiter mission and the National Science Foundation’s Inouye Solar Telescope on Hawai’i will provide pathways to understand some of the mysteries of the sun.  They include resolving practical issues involving the dynamics  of “space weather” that can harm astronauts and telecommunications systems, and larger theoretical unknowns related to all the material that stars scatter into space and onto planets.

Some of those unresolved questions include determining how and why heat and energy flow from the sun’s inner core to the outer corona and make it so much hotter, determining the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind, the make-up and effects of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, and how and why the sun is able to create and control the heliosphere — the vast bubble of charged particles blown by the solar wind into interstellar space.

 

An illustration of Kepler2-33b, , one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date using NASA Kepler Space Telescope.

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Big News for SETI Enthusiasts

The CHIME telescope has detected a mysterious repeating radio signal far away in the cosmos – only the second ever identified of its kind.  CHIME is the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) is an interferometric radio telescope at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, (Danielle Futselaar)

It has been almost 60 years now that scientists — a first a few intrepid souls and now many more — have been searching the skies for radio signals that just might be coming from other advanced, technological civilizations.  There have been some intriguing anomalies that created great interest, but nothing has to date survived further study.

But two recent developments in the this Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) make clear that the lack of alien signals so far has not diminished interest in the field and in the science and technology behind it.  Rather, SETI is alive and doing quite well.

A first sign is scientific and involves what are called “fast radio blasts” or FRBs — high energy pulses that are extremely short lived and, until recently, determined to be sporadic and random.  But a paper last week from a Canadian team reported a series fast radio blast from a galaxy a 500 million light-years away that appeared to be repeating about every 16 days.

The authors put forward a number of astrophysical explanations for this most unusual pattern and shied away from any kind of SETI hypothesis.  More on this later.

But the detection is the kind of radio signal anomaly that SETI scientists and enthusiasts are looking for.  And now they will also have the opportunity to search a vast new trove of data provided by Breakthrough Listen, part of the privately-funded Breakthrough Initiatives.

A sequence of 14 of the 15 fast radio bursts from FRB 121102, the first repeating fast radio burst to be identified, in 2018. The streaks across the colored energy plot are the bursts appearing at different times and different energies because of dispersion caused by 3 billion years of travel through intergalactic space. The bursts were captured in a broad bandwidth via the Breakthrough Listen backend instrument at the Green Bank Telescope. It does not repeat in patterns like the one just discovered by the Canadian team. (Berkeley News.)

At the close of a meeting of the American Association for the Advance of Science (AAAS) on Friday, the Breakthrough team announced the release nearly 2 petabytes (2 million gigabytes) of data, the second massive data dump from the four-year old Breakthrough Listen search for extraterrestrial intelligence

The data, most of it fresh from the telescope prior to detailed study by astronomers, comes from a survey of the radio spectrum between 1 and 12 gigahertz (GHz).… Read more

Using Climate Science on Earth to Understand Planets Beyond Earth

Climate expert Tony Del Genio has just retired after 41 years-plus at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) in New York City. Here Del Genio is attending a Cubs game at Wrigley Field with (from the lower right) Dawn Gelino, Shawn Domogal-Goldman, Aaron Gronstal and Mary Voytek. All are part of the NASA NExSS initiative. (Dawn Gelino)

Anthony Del Genio started out his career expecting to become first an engineer and then a geophysicist.  He was in graduate school at UCLA and had been prepared by previous mentors to enter the geophysics field.  But a 1973 department-wide test focused on seismology, rather than fields that he understood better, and his days as a geophysicist were suddenly over.  Fortunately,  one of his professors saw that he had done very well in the planetary atmospheres and geophysical fluid dynamics sections of the exams, and suggested a change in focus.

That turned out to be a good thing for Del Genio, for the field of climate modeling, and for NASA. Because for the next four decades-plus, Del Genio has been an important figure in the field of climate science — first modeling cloud behavior and climate dynamics on Earth with ever more sophisticated atmospheric general circulation models (GCMs), and then beginning to do the same on planets beyond Earth.

His entry into the world of Venus, Saturn, Titan and distant exoplanets beyond is how I met Tony in 2015. At the same time that Many Worlds began as a column, Del Genio was named one of the founding leaders of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) — the pioneering, interdisciplinary NASA initiative to bring together scientists working in the field of planetary habitability.  (NExSS also supports this column.)

Del Genio is a hard-driving scientist, but also has a self-deprecating and big-picture, poetic side.  This came across at our first diner breakfast together on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (where GISS is located), and was highlighted in a piece that Del Genio just wrote for a new series initiated by the American Geophysical Union (AGU),  Perspectives of Earth and Space Scientists.   In that series, scientists are asked to look back on their careers and write about their science and journeys.  Del Genio’s perspective is the first in this series, and I will reprint most of its bottom half because I found it so informative and interesting.

But first, a quote from Del Genio’s piece that sets the stage:  “The beauty of science, if we are patient, is that nature reveals its secrets little by little, slowly enough to keep us pressing forward for more but fast enough for us not to despair.”… Read more

How Long Were the Wet Periods on Early Mars, and Was That Water Chemically Suitable For Life?

 

An artist rendering, based on scientific findings, of Gale Crater in Mars during one of its ancient, wet periods. (NASA)

There is no doubt that early Mars had long period of warmer and much wetter climates before its atmosphere thinned too much to retain that liquid H20 on the surface.

As we know from the Curiosity mission to Gale Crater and other orbital findings, regions of that warmer and wetter Mars had flowing water and lakes periodically over hundreds of millions of years.  That’s one of the great findings of planetary science of our times.

But before approaching the question of whether that water could have supported life, a lot more needs to be known than that water was present.  We need answers to questions like how acidic or basic that water likely was?  Was it very salty? Did it have mineral and elemental contents that could provide energy to support any potential life?

And most especially, how long did those wet periods last, and the dry periods as well?

In a recent paper for Nature Communications, some more precise answers are put forward based on data collected at Gale Crater and interpreted based on geochemical modeling and Earth-based environmental science.

The water, say geochemist Yasuhito Sekine of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo and colleagues from the U.S. and Japan, had many important characteristics supportive of life.  It was only mildly salty, it had a near-neutral pH, it contained essential minerals and elements in state of disequilibrium — meaning that they could give and receive the electrons needed to provide life-supporting energy.   The  area was hardly lush — more like the semi-arid regions of Central Asia and Utah’s Great Salt Lake — but it contained water that was plausibly life supporting.

Based on an analysis of the patterns and quantities of salt remains, they estimate the water was present numerous times for between 10,000 to one million years each period.

Were those warm eras long enough for life to emerge, and the dry period short enough for it to survive?

“We don’t have a clear answer,” Sekine said. “But it is now more clear that the key question is which is more important:  the chemistry of the water or the duration of its presence?”

And the way to address the question, he said, is through a mix of planetary science and environmental science.

“This is a first step in the application of environmental chemistry to Mars,” Sekine said.… Read more

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