Category: The Search for Life Beyond Earth (page 2 of 4)

The Just-Approved European ARIEL Mission Will Be First Dedicated to Probing Exoplanet Atmospheres


This column was written by my colleague Elizabeth Tasker, now at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS).  Trained as an astrophysicist, she researches planet and galaxy formation and also writes on space science topics.  Her book, “The Planet Factory,” came out last year.


The Ariel space telescope will explore the atmospheres of exoplanets. (Artist impression, ESA)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved the ARIEL space mission—the world’s first dedicated exoplanet atmosphere sniffer— to fly in 2028.

ARIEL stands for the “Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-Survey mission.” It is a space telescope that can detect which atoms and molecules are present in the atmosphere of an exoplanet.

The mission was selected as a medium class mission in the ESA Cosmic Vision program; the agency’s decadal plan for space missions that spans 2015 – 2025.

One of the central themes for Cosmic Vision is uncovering the conditions for planet formation and the origins of life. This has resulted in three dedicated exoplanet missions within the same decadal plan. ARIEL will join CHEOPS (in the small class mission category) and PLATO (another medium class mission) in studying worlds beyond our own sun.

Yet ARIEL is a different type of telescope from the other exoplanet-focused missions. To understand why, we need to examine what properties we can observe of these distance exo-worlds.

Exoplanet missions can be broadly divided into two types. The first type are the exoplanet hunter missions that search the skies for new worlds.

These are spacecraft and instruments such as the NASA Kepler Space Telescope. Since it launched in 2009, Kepler has been an incredibly prolific planet hunter. The telescope has found thousands of planets, modeled their orbits and told us about the distribution of their sizes.

From Kepler, we have learnt that planet formation is common, that it can occur around stars far different from our own sun, and that these worlds can have a vast range of sizes and myriad of orbits quite unlike our own Solar System.


Current and future (or proposed) space missions with capacities to identify and characterize exoplanets. (NASA,ESA: T. Wynne/JPL, composited by Barbara Aulicino)


However, the information Kepler is able to provide about individual planets is very limited. The telescope monitors stars for the tiny drop in light as the planet crosses (or “transits”) the star’s surface. From this, astronomers can measure the radius of the planet and its orbital period but nothing about the planet’s surface conditions.… Read more

False Positives, False Negatives; The World of Distant Biosignatures Attracts and Confounds

This artist’s illustration shows two Earth-sized planets, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, passing in front of their parent red dwarf star, which is much smaller and cooler than our sun. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope looked for signs of atmospheres around these planets. (NASA/ESA/STScI/J. de Wit, MIT)

What observations, or groups of observations, would tell exoplanet scientists that life might be present on a particular distant planet?

The most often discussed biosignature is oxygen, the product of life on Earth.  But while oxygen remains central to the search for biosignatures afar, there are some serious problems with relying on that molecule.

It can, for one, be produced without biology, although on Earth biology is the major source.  Conditions on other planets, however, might be different, producing lots of oxygen without life.

And then there’s the troubling reality that for most of the time there has been life on Earth, there would not have been enough oxygen produced to register as a biosignature.  So oxygen brings with it the danger of both a false positive and a false negative.

Wading through the long list of potential other biosignatures is rather like walking along a very wet path and having your boots regularly pulled off as they get captured by the mud.  Many possibilities can be put forward, but all seem to contain absolutely confounding problems.

With this reality in mind, a group of several dozen very interdisciplinary scientists came together more than a year ago in an effort to catalogue the many possible biosignatures that have been put forward and then to describe the pros and the cons of each.

“We believe this kind of effort is essential and needs to be done now,” said Edward Schwieterman, an astronomy and astrobiology researcher at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

“Not because we have the technology now to identify these possible biosignatures light years away, but because the space and ground-based telescopes of the future need to be designed so they can identify them. ”

“It’s part of what may turn out to be a very long road to learning whether or not we are alone in the universe”.


Artistic representations of some of the exoplanets detected so far with the greatest potential to support liquid surface water, based on their size and orbit.  All of them are larger than Earth and their composition and habitability remains unclear. They are ranked here from closest to farthest from Earth. 

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Putting Together a Community Strategy To Search for Extraterrestrial Life

I regret that the formatting of this column was askew earlier; I hope it didn’t make reading too difficult.  But now those problems are fixed.

The scientific search underway for life beyond Earth requires input from many disciplines and fields. Strategies forward have to hear and take in what scientists in those many fields have to say. (NASA)

Behind the front page space science discoveries that tell us about the intricacies and wonders of our world are generally years of technical and intellectual development, years of planning and refining, years of problem-defining and problem-solving.  And before all this, there also years of brainstorming, analysis and strategizing about which science goals should have the highest priorities and which might be most attainable.

That latter process is underway now in regarding the search for life in the solar system and beyond, with numerous teams of scientists tackling specific areas of interest and concern and turning their group discussions into white papers.  In this case, the white papers will then go on to the National Academy of Sciences for a blue-ribbon panel review and ultimately recommendations on which subjects are exciting and mature enough for inclusion in a decadal survey and possible funding.

This is a generally little-known part of the process that results in discoveries, but scientists certainly understand how they are essential.  That’s why hundreds of scientists contribute their ideas and time — often unpaid — to help put together these foundational documents.

With its call for extraterrestrial habitability white papers, the NAS got more than 20 diverse and often deeply thought out offerings.  The papers will be studied now by an ad hoc, blue ribbon committee of scientists selected by the NAS, which will have the first of two public meetings in Irvine, Calif. on Jan. 16-18.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a leader of many NASA study projects and a astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Fight Center. (NASA)

Then their recommendations go up further to the decadal survey teams that will set formal NASA priorities for the field of astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science.  This community-based process that has worked well for many scientific disciplines since they began in the late 1950s.

I’m particularly familiar with two of these white paper processes — one produced at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo and the other with NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS.)  What they have to say is most interesting.Read more

A New Way to Find Signals of Habitable Exoplanets?

Scientists propose a new and more indirect way of determining whether an exoplanet has a good, bad or unknowable chance of being habitable.  (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk)

The search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets is extremely difficult and time-consuming work.  The telescopes that can potentially take the measurements required are few and more will come only slowly.  And for the current and next generation of observatories, staring at a single exoplanet long enough to get a measurement of the compounds in its atmosphere will be a time-consuming and expensive process — and thus a relatively infrequent one.

As a way to potentially improve the chances of finding habitable conditions on those exoplanets that are observed, a new approach has been proposed by a group of NASA scientists.

The novel technique takes advantage of the frequent stellar storms emanating from cool, young dwarf stars. These storms throw huge clouds of stellar material and radiation into space – traveling near the speed of light — and the high energy particles then interact with exoplanet atmospheres and produce chemical biosignatures that can be detected.

The study, titled “Atmospheric Beacons of Life from Exoplanets Around G and K Stars“, recently appeared in Nature Scientific Reports

“We’re in search of molecules formed from fundamental prerequisites to life — specifically molecular nitrogen, which is 78 percent of our atmosphere,” said Airapetian, who is a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and at American University in Washington, D.C. “These are basic molecules that are biologically friendly and have strong infrared emitting power, increasing our chance of detecting them.”

The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

So this technique, called a search for  “Beacons of Life,” would not detect signs of life per se, but would detect secondary or tertiary signals that would, in effect, tell observers to “look here.”

The scientific logic is as follows:

When high-energy particles from a stellar storm reach an exoplanet, they break the nitrogen, oxygen and water molecules that may be in the atmosphere into their individual components.

Water molecules become hydroxyl — one atom each of oxygen and hydrogen, bound together. This sparks a cascade of chemical reactions that ultimately produce what the scientists call the atmospheric beacons of hydroxyl, more molecular oxygen, and nitric oxide.… Read more

In Search of Panspermia (and Life on Icy Moons)


Sometimes personal affairs intervene for all of us, and they have now for your Many Worlds writer and his elderly father.  But rather than remain off the radar screen, I wanted to repost this column which has a new import. 

It turns out that versions of the instrument described below — a miniature gene sequencing device produced by Oxford Nanopore — have been put forward as the kind of technology that could detect life in the plume of Enceladus, or perhaps on Europa or Titan. 

Major figures in the astrobiology field, including Steve Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME) and Chris McKay of NASA Ames Research Center see this kind of detection of the basic polymer backbone of RNA or DNA life as a potentially significant way forward.  Three different “Icy Moon” teams are vying for a NASA New Frontiers mission to Enceladus and Titan, and this kind of technology plays a role in at least one of the proposed missions.


Early Earth, like early Mars and no doubt many other planets, was bombarded by meteorites and comets. Could they have arrived "living" microbes inside them?

Early Earth, like early Mars and no doubt many other planets, was bombarded by meteorites and comets. Could they have arrived “living” microbes inside them?

When scientists approach the question of how life began on Earth, or elsewhere, their efforts generally involve attempts to understand how non-biological molecules bonded, became increasingly complex, and eventually reached the point where they could replicate or could use sources of energy to make things happen.  Ultimately, of course, life needed both.

Researchers have been working for some time to understand this very long and winding process, and some have sought to make synthetic life out of selected components and energy.  Some startling progress has been made in both of these endeavors, but many unexplained mysteries remain at the heart of the processes.  And nobody is expecting the origin of life on Earth (or elsewhere) to be fully understood anytime soon.

To further complicate the picture, the history of early Earth is one of extreme heat caused by meteorite bombardment and, most important, the enormous impact some 4.5 billion years of the Mars-sized planet that became our moon.  As a result, many early Earth researchers think the planet was uninhabitable until about 4 billion years ago.

Yet some argue that signs of Earth life 3.8 billion years ago have been detected in the rock record, and lifeforms were certainly present 3.5 billion years ago.  Considering the painfully slow pace of early evolution — the planet, after all, supported only single-cell life for several billion years before multicellular life emerged — some

dna animation. the big 300

A DNA helix animation.

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What Astrochemistry is Telling Us

This image shows the Rho Ophiuchi region of star formation where methyl isocyanate was detected.  The insert shows the molecular structure of this chemical, an important precursor for life’s chemical building blocks. ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/L. Calçada

Sometimes lost in the discussion of exoplanets and habitability is where the potential building blocks of life might come from and how they got there.

Yes, hydrogen and water and methane and carbon and nitrogen have been found in abundance around the cosmos, but how about the larger and more esoteric compounds needed for life to emerge?  The precursor compounds to amino acids and nucleobases, for instance. Are they formed in space, too.

Some have indeed been identified around young stars or in star-formation regions, but much of what we know about complex molecules in space comes via meteorites and comets.

The Philae lander, for instance, identified 16 organic compounds on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet in 2015, including four never-before detected on comets. Some of these compounds play a key role in the prebiotic synthesis of amino acids, sugars and nucleobases — the ingredients for life.

Now an additional and significant precursor compound has been detected around sun-like stars in the very early stage of their formation.  The chemical is methyl isocyanate, and it is an important building block of life.

The detection was made by two teams at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope, high in the Chilean desert.  The researchers described their detection as the first one of this prebiotic molecule around a solar-type protostar, the type from which our solar system evolved.

“We are particularly excited about the result because these protostars are very similar to the Sun at the beginning of its lifetime, with the sort of conditions that are well suited for Earth-sized planets to form,” said Rafael Martín-Doménech of the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid and Víctor M. Rivilla of the Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri in Florence. They were lead authors of one of the two papers published on the subject by the Royal Astronomical Society.

“By finding prebiotic molecules in this study, we may now have another piece of the puzzle in understanding how life came about on our planet.”

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is a partnership between nations in Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is the largest ground-based astronomical observatory in existence, and it is located on one of the driest spots on Earth.

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Getting Real About the Oxygen Biosignature

Oxygen, which makes up about 21 percent of the Earth atmosphere, has been embraced as the best biosignature for life on faraway exoplanets. New research shows that detecting distant life via the oxygen biosignature is not so straight-forward, though it probably remains the best show we have. (NASA)


I remember the first time I heard about the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and how could and would let us know whether life was present below.

The key was oxygen or its light-modified form, ozone.  Because both oxygen and ozone molecules bond so quickly with other molecules — think rust or iron oxide on Mars, silicon dioxide in the Earth’s crust — it was said that oxygen could only be present in large and detectable quantities if there was a steady and massive source of free oxygen on the planet.

On Earth, this of course is the work of photosynthesizers such as planets, algae and cyanobacteria, which produce oxygen as a byproduct.  No other abiotic, or non-biological, ways were known at the time to produce substantial amounts of atmospheric oxygen, so it seemed that an oxygen signal from afar would be a pretty sure sign of life.

But with the fast growth of the field of exoplanet atmospheres and the very real possibility of having technology available in the years ahead that could measure the components of those atmospheres, scientists have been busy modelling exoplanet formations, chemistry and their atmospheres.

One important goal has been to search for non-biological ways to produce large enough amounts of atmospheric oxygen that might fool us into thinking that life has been found below.

And in recent years, scientists have succeeded in poking holes in the atmospheric oxygen-means-life scenario.

Oxygen bonds quickly with many other molecules. That means has to be resupplied regularly to be present as O2 in an atmosphere . On Earth, O is mostly a product of biology, but elsewhere it might be result of non-biological processes. Here is an image of oxygen bubbles in water.

Especially researchers at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) have come up with numerous ways that exoplanets atmospheres can be filled (and constantly refilled) with oxygen that was never part of plant or algal or bacteria photo-chemistry.

In other words, they found potential false positives for atmospheric oxygen as a biosignature, to the dismay of many exoplanet scientists.

In part because she and her own team were involved in some of these oxygen false-positive papers, VPL director Victoria Meadows set out to review, analyze and come to some conclusions about what had become the oxygen-biosignature problem.… Read more

Ocean Worlds: Enceladus Looks Increasingly Habitable, and Europa’s Ocean Under the Ice More Accessible to Sample

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft completed its deepest-ever dive through the icy plume of Enceladus on Oct. 28, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It wasn’t that long ago that Enceladus, one of 53 moons of Saturn, was viewed as a kind of ho-hum object of no great importance.  It was clearly frozen and situated in a magnetic field maelstrom caused by the giant planet nearby and those saturnine rings.

That view was significantly modified in 2005 when scientists first detected signs of the icy plumes coming out of the bottom of the planet.  What followed was the discovery of warm fractures (the tiger stripes) near the moon’s south pole, numerous flybys and fly-throughs with the spacecraft Cassini, and by 2015 the announcement that the moon had a global ocean under its ice.

Now the Enceladus story has taken another decisive turn with the announcement that measurements taken during Cassini’s final fly-through captured the presence of molecular hydrogen.

To planetary and Earth scientists, that particular hydrogen presence quite clearly means that the water shooting out from Enceladus is coming from an interaction between water and warmed rock minerals at the bottom of the moon’s ocean– and possibly from within hydrothermal vents.

These chimney-like hydrothermal vents at the bottom of our oceans — coupled with a chemical mixture of elements and compounds similar to what has been detected in the plumes — are known on Earth as prime breeding grounds for life.  One important reason why is that the hydrogen and hydrogen compounds produced in these settings are a source of energy, or food, for microbes.

A logical conclusion of these findings:  the odds that Enceladus harbors forms of simple life have increased significantly.

To be clear, this is no discovery of extraterrestrial life. But it is an important step in the astrobiological quest to find life beyond Earth.

“The key here is that Enceladus can produce fuel that could be used by biology,” said Mary Voytek, NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology, referring to the detection of hydrogen.


This graphic illustrates how scientists on NASA’s Cassini mission think water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas (H2). It remains unclear whether the interactions are taking place in hydrothermal vents or more diffusely across the ocean. (NASA)

“So now on this moon we have many of the components associated with life — water, a source of energy and many of the important chemical building blocks. … Read more

A Vision That Could Supercharge NASA

An artist rendering of an approximately 16-meter telescope in space.  This image was created for an earlier large space telescope feasibility project called ATLAST, but it is similar to what is being discussed inside and outside of NASA as a possible great observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.  Advocates say such a large space telescope would revolutionize the search for life on exoplanets, as well as providing the greatest observing ever for general astrophysics. (NASA)

Let your mind wander for a moment and let it land on the most exciting and meaningful NASA mission that you can imagine.  An undertaking, perhaps, that would send astronauts into deep space, that would require enormous technological innovation, and that would have ever-lasting science returns.

Many will no doubt think of Mars and the dream of sending astronauts there to explore.  Others might imagine setting up a colony on that planet, or perhaps in the nearer term establishing a human colony on the moon.  And now that we know there’s a rocky exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri — the star closest to our sun — it’s tempting to wish for a major robotic or, someday, human mission headed there to search for life.

All are dream-worthy space projects for sure.  But some visionary scientists (and most especially one well-known former astronaut) have been working for some time on another potential grand endeavor — one that you probably have not heard or thought about, yet might be the most compelling and achievable of them all.

It would return astronauts to deep space and it would have them doing the kind of very difficult but essential work needed for space exploration in the far future. It would use the very costly and very powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule being built now by NASA and Lockheed Martin respectively.  Most important, it would almost certainly revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos near and far.

At a recent meeting of the House Science Committee, chairman Lamar Smith, said of the hearing’s purpose that, “Presidential transitions offer the opportunities to reinvigorate national goals. They bring fresh perspectives and new ideas that energize our efforts.”

That said, here’s the seemingly feasible project that fires my imagination the most.

It has been quietly but with persistence promoted most visibly by John Grunsfeld, the former astronaut who flew to the Hubble Space Telescope three times to fix and upgrade it, who has spent 58 hours on spacewalks outside the Shuttle, and towards the end of his 40 years with the agency ultimately became an associate administrator and head of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.… Read more

A Solar System Found Crowded With Seven Earth-Sized Exoplanets

Seven Earth-sized rocked planets have been detected around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. The system is 40 light years away, but is considered to be an easy system to study — as explanet research goes. (NASA)

Seven planets orbiting one star.  All of them roughly the size of Earth.  A record three in what is considered the habitable zone, the distance from the host star where liquid water could exist on the surface.  The system a mere 40 light-years away.

The latest impressive additions to the world of exoplanets orbit the dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1, named after a European Southern Observatory telescope in Chile.

Previously a team of astronomers based in Belgium discovered three  planets around this dim star, but now that number has increased to include the largest number of Earth-sized planets found to date, as well as the largest number in one solar system in the habitable zone.

This is a very different kind of sun-and-exoplanet system than has generally been studied.  The broad quest for an Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone has focused on stars of the size and power of our sun.  But this one is 8 percent the mass of our sun —  not that much larger than Jupiter — and with a luminosity (or energy) but 0.05 percent of that put out by our sun.

The TRAPPIST-1 findings underscore one of the recurring and intriguing aspects of the exoplanet discoveries of the past two decades — the solar systems out there are a menagerie of very different shapes and sizes, with exoplanets of a wild range of sizes orbiting an equally wide range of types and sizes of stars.

Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium, and lead author of the discovery reported in the journal Nature, put it this way: “This is an amazing planetary system — not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth.”

At a NASA press conference, he also said that “small stars like this are much more frequent than stars like ours.  Now we have seven Earth-sized planets to study, three in the habitable or ‘Goldilocks’ zone, and that’s quite promising for search for life beyond Earth.”

He said that the planets are so close to each other than if a person was on the surface of one, the others would provide a wonderful close-up view, rather like our view of the moon.… Read more

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