Tag: Enceladus

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

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

What Scientists Expect to Learn From Cassini’s Upcoming Plunge Into Saturn

Saturn as imaged from above by Cassini last year. Over the next five months, the spacecraft will orbit closer and closer to the planet and will finally plunge into its atmosphere. (NASA)

Seldom has the planned end of a NASA mission brought so much expectation and scientific high drama.

The Cassini mission to Saturn has already been a huge success, sending back iconic images and breakthrough science of the planet and its system.  Included in the haul have been the discovery of plumes of water vapor spurting from the moon Encedalus and the detection of liquid methane seas on Titan.  But as members of the Cassini science team tell it, the end of the 13-year mission at Saturn may well be its most scientifically productive time.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) put it this way: “Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life.”

This news was first announced last week, but I thought it would be useful to go back to the story to learn more about what “extraordinary” science might be coming our way, with the help of Spilker and NASA headquarters Cassini program scientist Curt Niebur.

And the very up close encounters with Saturn’s rings and its upper atmosphere — where Cassini is expected to ultimately lose contact with Earth — certainly do offer a trove of scientific riches about the basic composition and workings of the planet, as well as the long-debated age and origin of the rings.  What’s more, everything we learn about Saturn will have implications for, and offer insights into, the vast menagerie of  gas giant exoplanets out there.

“The science potential here is just huge,” Niebur told me.  “I could easily conceive of a billion dollar mission for the science we’ll get from the grand finale alone.”

 

The Cassini spacecraft will make 22 increasingly tight orbits of Saturn before it disappears into the planet’s atmosphere in mid-September, as shown in this artist rendering.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

 

The 20-year, $3.26 billion Cassini mission, a collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency,  is coming to an end because the spacecraft will soon run out of fuel.  The agency could have just waited for that moment and let the spacecraft drift off into space, but decided instead on the taking the big plunge.

This was considered a better choice not only because of those expected scientific returns, but also because letting the dead spacecraft drift meant that theoretically it could be pulled towards Titan or Enceladus — moons that researchers now believe just might support life.… Read more

Waiting on Enceladus

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

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

Of all the possible life-beyond-Earth questions hanging fire, few are quite so intriguing as those surrounding the now famous plumes of the moon Enceladus:  what telltale molecules are in the constantly escaping jets of water vapor, and what dynamics inside the moon are pushing them out?

Seldom, if ever before, have scientists been given such an opportunity to investigate the insides of a potentially habitable celestial body from the outside.

The Cassini mission to Saturn made its closest to the surface (and last) plume fly-through a year ago, taking measurements that the team initially said they would report on within a few weeks.

That was later updated by NASA to include this guidance:  Given the important astrobiology implications of these observations, the scientists caution that it will be several months before they are ready to present their detailed findings.

The reference to “important astrobiology implications” certainly could cover some incremental advance, but it does seem to at least hint of something more.

I recently contacted the Jet Propulsion Lab for an update on the fly-through results and learned that a paper has been submitted to the journal Nature and that it will hopefully be accepted and made public in the not-too-distant future.

All this sounds most interesting but not because of any secret finding of life — as some might infer from that official language.  Cassini does not have the capacity to make such a detection, and there is no indication at this point that identifiable byproducts of life are present in the plumes.

What is intriguing is that the fly-through was only 30 miles above the moon’s surface — the closest pass through a plume ever by Cassini — and so presumably its instruments produced some new and significant findings.

The scientists writing the paper could not, of course, discuss their findings before publication.  But Jonathan Lunine, a Cornell University planetary scientist and physicist on the Cassini mission with a longtime and deep interest in Enceladus, was comfortable discussing what is known about the moon and what Cassini (and future missions) still have to explain.

And thanks to that briefing, it became apparent that whatever new findings are coming, they will not make or break the case for the moon as a habitable place. Rather, they will essentially add to a strong case that has already been made.… Read more

The Habitable Zone Gets Poked, Tweaked and Stretched to the Limits

To find another planet like Earth, astronomers are focusing on the "Goldilocks" or habitable zone around stars--where it's not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface. (NASA)

To find another planet like Earth, astronomers are focusing on the “Goldilocks” or habitable zone around stars–where it’s not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface. (NASA)

For more than 20 years now — even before the first detection of an extra-solar planet — scientists have posited, defined and then debated the existence and nature of a habitable zone.  It’s without a doubt a central scientific concept, and  the idea has caught on with the public (and the media) too.  The discovery of “habitable zone planets” has become something of a staple of astronomy and astrophysics.

But beneath the surface of this success is a seemingly growing discomfort about how the term is used. Not only do scientists and the general public have dissimilar understandings of what a habitable zone entails, but scientists have increasingly divergent views among themselves as well.

And all this is coming to the fore at a time when a working definition of the habitable zone is absolutely essential to planning for what scientists and enthusiasts hope will be a long-awaited major space telescope focused first and foremost on exoplanets.  If selected by NASA as a flagship mission for the 2030s, how such a telescope is designed and built will be guided by where scientists determine they have the best chance of finding signs of extraterrestrial life — a task that has ironically grown increasingly difficult as more is learned about those distant solar systems and planets.

Most broadly, the habitable zone is the area around a star where orbiting planets could have conditions conducive to life.  Traditionally, that has mean most importantly orbiting far enough from a star that it doesn’t become a desiccated wasteland and close enough that it is not forever frozen.  In this broad definition, the sometimes presence of liquid water on the surface of a planet is the paramount issue in terms of possible extraterrestrial life.

 The estimated habitable zones of A stars, G stars and M stars are compared in this diagram. More refinement is needed to better understand the size of these zones. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.


The estimated habitable zones of A stars, G stars and M stars are compared in this diagram. More refinement is needed to better understand the size of these zones. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

It was James Kasting of Penn State University, Daniel Whitmire, then of Louisiana State University, and Ray Reynolds of NASA’s Ames Research Center who defined the modern outlines of a habitable zone, though others had weighed in earlier.  But Kasting and the others wrote with greater detail and proposed a model that took into account not only distance from the host star, but also the presence of planetary systems that could maintain relatively stable climates by cycling essential compounds.… Read more

Enceladus and Water Worlds

Glittering geysers of water ice erupt from Saturn's enigmatic moon Enceladus as seen during a previous flyby. The plumes are backlit by the sun, which is almost directly behind the moon. The moon's dark side that we see here is illuminated by reflected Saturn-shine. Today, the Cassini spacecraft flew right through the plumes in order to let its instruments 'taste' them. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI/Ugarkovich

Glittering geysers of water ice erupt from Saturn’s enigmatic moon Enceladus as seen during a previous flyby. The plumes are back lit by the sun, which is almost directly behind the moon. The moon’s dark side that we see here is illuminated by reflected Saturn-shine.  (NASA/JPL/SSI/Ugarkovich)

As if the prospect of billions of potentially habitable exoplanets wasn’t enough to get people excited, what about all those watery exo-moons too?

The question arises as the Cassini mission makes its final pass near the now famous geysers at the south pole of the moon Enceladus.  The plumes are currently in darkness and so it’s a perfect time to tease out a particularly compelling aspect of the Enceladus story:  how hot is the inside of the mini-moon.  Earlier measurements of the water ice spray took place when the sun was on that southern pole, so this will be the first time Cassini can measure precisely how much of the already detected heat comes from the moon’s interior.

The expectation is that much of the heat does indeed come from inside, warmed substantially by tidal forces and perhaps hydrothermal vents that together serve to keep liquid a subsurface ocean all around the moon.  As a result, the evolving scientific view is that tiny Enceladus, one of 63 moons of Saturn, just may have the ingredients and characteristics that put it into an improbable habitable zone.

“Step by step, we’re learning about an environment that seemed impossible not long ago,” said Cassini Mission Scientist Linda Spilker.  “We know that Enceladus has some rocky core, and that it touches the liquid water.  We also know that some of the compounds identified in the geysers can only be formed when rock is in contact with hot water, and that must be happening at the bottom of the moon’s ocean.  All the pieces are coming together to tell us that the moon has an ocean that might be able to support life.”

 

NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured this view as it neared icy Enceladus for its closest-ever dive past the moon's active south polar region. The view shows heavily cratered northern latitudes at top, transitioning to fractured, wrinkled terrain in the middle and southern latitudes. The wavy boundary of the moon's active south polar region -- Cassini's destination for this flyby -- is visible at bottom, where it disappears into wintry darkness. This view looks towards the Saturn-facing side of Enceladus. North on Enceladus is up and rotated 23 degrees to the right. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Oct. 28, 2015. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers) from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 45 degrees. Image scale is 1,896 feet (578 meters) per pixel.

The Cassini spacecraft, sponsored by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian space Agency,  captured this view on Oct. 28 as it neared Enceladus. The wavy boundary of the moon’s active south polar region — Cassini’s destination for this flyby — is visible at bottom. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera from approximately 60,000 miles away. (Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

 

That a moon might have habitable conditions is not a new idea:  science fiction great Arthur C.… Read more

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