Tag: Abscicon

Planetary Protection is a "Wicked" Problem

The Viking landers were baked for 30 hours after assembly, a dry heat sterilization that is considered the gold standard for planetary protection.  Before the baking, the landers were given a preliminary cleaning to reduce the number of potential microbial spores.  The levels achieved with that preliminary cleaning are similar to what is now required for a mission to Mars unless the destination is an area known to be suitable for Martian life.  In that case, a sterilizing equivalent to the Viking baking is required.  (NASA)

The only time that a formally designated NASA “life detection” mission was flown to another planet or moon was when the two Viking landers headed to Mars forty years ago.

The odds of finding some kind of Martian life seemed so promising at the time that there was little dispute about how much energy, money and care should be allocated to making sure the capsule would not be carrying any Earth life to the planet.  And so after the two landers had been assembled, they were baked at more than 250 °F for three days to sterilize any parts that would come into contact with Mars.

Although the two landers successfully touched down on the Martian surface and did some impressive science, the life detection portion of the mission was something of a fiasco — with conflict, controversy and ultimately quite a bit of confusion.

Clearly, scientists did not yet know enough about how to search for life beyond Earth and the confounding results pretty much eliminated life-detection from NASA’s missions for decades.

But scientific and technological advances of the last ten years have put life detection squarely back on the agenda — in terms of future searches for fossil biosignatures on Mars and for potential life surviving in the oceans of Europa and Enceladus.  What’s more, both NASA and private space companies talk seriously of sending humans to Mars in the not-too-distant future.

With so many missions being planned, developed and proposed for solar system planets and moons, the issue of planetary protection has also gained a higher profile.  It seems to have become more contentious and to some seems far less straight-forward as it used to be.

A broad consensus appears to remain that bringing Earth life to another planet or moon, especially if it is potentially habitable, is a real possibility that is both scientifically and ethically fraught. But there are rumblings about just how much time, money and attention needs to be brought to satisfying the requirements of “planetary protection.”

In fact, it has become a sufficiently significant question that the first plenary session of the recent Astrobiology Science Conference in Mesa, Arizona was dedicated to it. … Read more

Supernovae Give, And Can Take Away

What is likely the brightest supernova in recorded human history, SN 1006 lit up planet Earth’s sky in the year 1006 AD. The expanding debris cloud from the stellar explosion, still puts on a cosmic light show across the electromagnetic spectrum. The supernova is located about 7,000 light-years from Earth, meaning that its thermonuclear explosion actually happened 7,000 years before the present day.  Shockwaves in the remnant accelerate particles to extreme energies and are thought to be a source of the mysterious cosmic rays. NASA, ESA, Zolt Levay (STScI)

We live in a dangerous universe. We know about meteor and comets, about harmful radiation that could extinguish life without an electromagnetic shield, about major changes in climate that are both natural and man-made.

There’s another risk out there that some scientists assert could cause large-scale extinctions even though it would occur scores of light-years away.  These are supernovae – explosions of massive stars that both create and spread the heavy elements needed for life and send out high energy cosmic rays that can travel far and cause enormous damage.

As with most of these potential threats, they fortunately occur on geological or astronomical time scales rather than human ones. But that doesn’t mean they don’t happen.

At the recent Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) a series of talks focused on that last threat – starting with a talk on “When Stars Attack.”

And together five different presenters made a persuasive case that Earth was on the receiving end of a distant supernova explosion some two to three million years ago, and probably around 7 or 8 million years ago as well. The effects of the cosmic ray bombardment have been debated and disputed, but the evidence for the occurrences is based on the rock record and is now strong.

“The evidence is there on the ocean floor:  in rocky crusts, nodules and sediment,” said Brian Fields, professor of astronomy at University of Illinois.  “We’ve been able to date it and provide some idea of how far away the star blew up.”  The answer is between about 90 and 300 light-years.


Supernova 1994D exploded on the outskirts of disk galaxy, and outshines even the center of the galaxy. Supernovae may expel much, if not all, of the material away from a star,  at velocities up to 30,000 km/s or 10% of the speed of light. This drives an expanding and fast-moving shock wave into the surrounding interstellar medium that, if close to Earth (or any other planet) can have dire consequences. 

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NASA Panel Supports Life-Detecting Lander for Europa; Updated

Artist conception of water vapor plumes coming from beneath the thick ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The plumes have not been definitively detected, but Hubble Space Telescope images make public earlier this month appear to show plume activity in an area where it was detected once before.  How will this finding affect decision-making about a potential NASA Europa lander mission? (NASA)

As I prepare for the Astrobiology Science Conference (Abscicon) next week in Arizona, I’m struck by how many speakers will be discussing Europa missions, Europa science, ocean worlds and habitability under ice.  NASA’s Europa Clipper mission to orbit that moon, scheduled for launch to the Jupiter system in the mid 2020s, explains part of the interest, but so too does the unsettled fate of the Europa lander concept.

The NASA Science Definition Team that studied the Europa lander project will both give a science talk at the conference and hold an afternoon-long science community meeting on their conclusions.  The team argued that landing on Europa holds enormous scientific promise, most especially in the search for life beyond Earth.

But since the Europa lander SDT wrote its report and took its conclusions public early this year, the landscape has changed substantially.  First, in March, the Trump Administration 2018 budget eliminated funding for the lander project.  More than half a billion dollars have been spent on Europa lander research and development, but the full project was considered to be too expensive by the White House.

Administration budget proposals and what ultimately become budget reality can be quite different, and as soon as the Europa lander was cancelled supporters in Congress pushed back.  Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) and chair of the House subcommittee that oversees the NASA budget, replied to the proposed cancellation by saying “NASA is a strategic national asset and I have no doubt NASA will receive sufficient funding to complete the most important missions identified by the science community, including seeking out life in the oceans of Europa.”

More recently, researchers announced additional detections of plumes of water vapor apparently coming out of Europa — plumes in the same location as a previous apparent detection.  The observing team said they were confident the difficult observation was indeed water vapor, but remained less than 100 percent certain.  (Unlike for the detection of a water plume on Saturn’s moon Enceladeus, which the Cassini spacecraft photographed, measured and flew through.)

So while suffering a serious blow in the budgeting process, the case for a Europa lander has gotten considerably stronger from a science and logistics perspective. 

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