The sites of meteorite impacts on Mars are often considered to be good places to look for life. After all, it’s most likely that if any trace of life (past or present) ever took hold on the Red Planet, it would most likely be preserved under the bedrock of Mars’ harsh surface. Should there be a recent impact, could we search the debris to seek-out this recently excavated pristine rock for life?
Alas, in new research, this kind of impact crater search could be a fool’s errand; the energy of the impact likely sterilized any material we’d consider organic and related to life.
Researchers from Imperial College London carried out simulations of meteorite impacts in the lab to see how organic compounds fared when exposed to the kinds of impact pressures they could experience on Mars.
What they found wasn’t very promising if we hope to find evidence of life inside impact craters. For example, organic compounds associated with basic microbial and algal life (known as long chain hydrocarbon-dominated matter) were destroyed by the pressure of impact. On the other hand, other organic compounds associated with plant life (known as aromatic hydrocarbons) were chemically altered, but, according to a press release, “remained relatively resistant to impact pressures.”
Meteorites often contain organic chemicals not related to life that are resistant to the pressures of massive impacts.
So far, there has been little evidence of organics found that would suggest any kind of life has ever existed on Mars, but this new research provides an insight to what could be a previously overlooked complication in that search for life.
“We’ve literally only scratched the surface of Mars in our search for life, but so far the results have been inconclusive,” said Mark Sephton of Imperial College London. “Rocks excavated through meteorite impacts provide scientists with another unique opportunity to explore for signs of life, without having to resort to complicated drilling missions. Our study is showing us is that we may need to be nuanced in our approach to the rocks we choose to analyse.”
Rather than relying on computer simulations of meteorite impacts, the researchers used a piston cylindrical device to recreate the pressures and temperatures associated with a range of impact energies on various materials. They will continue to carry out these lab tests to see what energies give hypothetical Mars life the best chance of leaving their biological signature and which will pulverize their biology into oblivion.
“The study is helping us to see that when organic matter is observed on Mars, no matter where, it must be considered whether the sample could have been affected by the pressures associated with blast impacts,” added Wren Montgomery, also from Imperial. “We still need to do more work to understand what factors may play an important role in protecting organic compounds from these blast impacts. However, we think some of the factors may include the depths at which the rock records are buried and the angles at which meteorites hit the Martian surface.”
As we plan further exploration of the Martian surface, the more we can learn about where potential signs of Mars life could be hiding the better as, for now, we can’t assume that every crater will be a Mars biology goldmine.
Could there be a way to find bacterial structures on another planet? And if so, how important might these bacteria be in making a planet life-friendly? These are some of the questions that could be answered through studies on stromatolites, which are mounds of calcium-carbonate rock that are built up through lime-secreting cyanobacteria (bacteria that use photosynthesis for energy).
The research into the life-giving potential of these “living fossils” is based on small microbes in Australia, but the results could help us identify fossil evidence of life on other planets, in particular Mars, said Erica Suosaari, a science fellow for Bush Heritage Australia, a non-profit conservation and land management organization. Suosaari is based at Hamelin Station Reserve, Western Australia, a 500,000-acre property that borders one of the world’s most diverse and abundant examples of marine stromatolites, the Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve.
“Looking for evidence of life in the rocks is like finding a needle in the haystack,” wrote Suosaari in an e-mail. “If stromatolites have definitive bio-signatures — such as self organized morphologies that are indicative of life processes — then it may be possible to look for that ‘signature’ in rocks on the surface of other planets and significantly reduce the size of that haystack
A paper based on Suosaari’s research at Hamelin Pool entitled “New multi-scale perspectives on the stromatolites of Shark Bay, Western Australia,” was published in the journal Scientific Reports earlier this year.
Funding for the collaborative research was provided by a consortium of oil companies (Chevron, Shell, Repsol and BP) who are interested in modern microbial carbonate environments to develop models for subsurface reservoirs and source rocks. Additional support for genomics analyses was provided by the Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology element of the NASA Astrobiology Program.
Learning more about ancient structures
On Earth, microbial communities responsible for creating stromatolites were essential in making the planet life-friendly. These stromatolite-forming cyanobacteria were the first living organisms to generate energy from the Sun using photosynthesis while creating oxygen as a byproduct. Over billions of years, cyanobacteria have changed Earth’s atmosphere from 1 percent oxygen to more than 20 percent oxygen, a composition that has allowed complex life evolve.
Suosaari’s research zeroes in on the stromatolites of Hamelin Pool, the most abundant and diverse modern assemblage of these microbial structures, which dominate nearly the entire 135 km of the coastline. Previous research into stromatolites identified them by the types of microbial mats colonizing the surface of the structure, a direct response of where the stromatolite resides in the tidal zone. Each lamination recorded in the stromatolite is thereby a record of a former surface mat. Her team instead classified stromatolites by their shape, revealing that certain shapes prefer to cluster in certain areas of the pool. Their investigation also showed that modern stromatolites have more in common with ancient stromatolites than previously thought.
“Modern marine stromatolites are often regarded as poor analogs of ancient stromatolites as a result of their grainy internal textures, which contrast with the fine grained nature of most ancient stromatolites,” Suosaari said.
By contrast, her team found out that in Hamelin Pool, the microbial communities commonly produce a fine-grained limestone known as micrite (microcrystalline calcite) creating stromatolite structures that are similar to the ancient stromatolites seen in the fossil record.
Furthermore, the stromatolite types in Hamelin Pool are dominated by a coccoid cyanobacterium that traces its lineage back 2 billion years to an ancient form of this cyanobacteria, called Eoentophysalis. This provides yet another similarity back to ancient times, Suosaari said. This means that standing along the shorelines of Hamelin Pool and gazing out onto the stromatolites, we are essentially looking through a window to early Earth at microbes of the same ancient lineage, pumping out oxygen and continuing to undertake processes that have been happening for billenia. There is not another place on the planet where this can be observed at such a scale.
The stromatolites studied were in a small region of Australia, but Suosaari said that as a whole, similar microbial communities could potentially be exported to other places — such as Mars — to make other locations in the Solar System more life-friendly to humans.
Suosaari said she thought of stromatolites when reading about SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s plans to bring life to the planet Mars. She suggested that because these stromatolite-building microbial communities produce oxygen, they could potentially make the Red Planet more life-friendly.
“Obviously with Elon Musk’s plans, we don’t have billions of years to shape the atmosphere if he is planning to move life there in the coming years, and Mars has less than 1 percent of the atmosphere of Earth,” she acknowledged. “But I begin to think about photosynthesizing microbial mats and how they have prevailed for billions of years; it’s a kind of resilience and longevity that our species hasn’t yet achieved. Perhaps we should look to these microbial communities to generate oxygen on the Red Planet at a small scale.”
The space agency announced Friday that plans are moving ahead for the robotic rover to launch in the summer of 2020 and land on Mars in February 2021.
The new rover also is designed to test the planet for usable resources, such as oxygen, that will be needed for future missions to Mars that will include humans.
The Mars Curiosity rover, which has been working on the Red Planet since August 2012, has been searching for evidence that the planet could have ever sustained life – even in microbial form.
The new rover will take the next step, looking for evidence of life.
“The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth,” said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA’s Journey to Mars – to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet.”
The new vehicle, unofficially dubbed the Mars 2020 rover, is expected to explore a region of the planet where NASA scientists expect that the ancient environment had been favorable to support microbial life.
The rover will drill into rocks, collect samples and ready them for a return trip to Earth as part of a future Mars mission.
In an attempt to save money on the project, NASA plans to base the rover’s design on that of its predecessor, Curiosity.
Scientists want to study the samples for evidence of past life but also for materials that could pose a threat to humans on a future Mars mission.
NASA is expected to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.
As NASA’s New Horizons probe speeds toward a possible encounter with an object beyond the orbit of Pluto, the spacecraft has made observations of another icy object located in the same outer region of the solar system.
New Horizons finished its close encounter with Pluto last July and since then has completed two sets of observations on an object in the Kuiper Belt, the band of objects beyond the orbit of Neptune. The icy body is known as 1994 JR1 and orbits about 32 astronomical units away from the sun (an astronomical unit is the distance from the Earth to the sun). New Horizons’ view of the faint, icy body can be seen in this video from Space.com.
The observations put a stop to the hypothesis that JR1 may be a satellite of Pluto, New Horizons science team member Simon Porter said in a statement from NASA.
“Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), far better than any small [Kuiper Belt object],” said Porter, a postdoctoral planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado.
The team also figured out how fast the 90-mile-wide (150 km) object is rotating, using observations taken in April. Changes in light reflected off of JR1’s surface showed that the object rotates once every 5.4 hours, which is considered relatively quick for a KBO.
These observations will serve as practice for the possible 20 other objects New Horizons can see in the Kuiper Belt through its extended mission. If the New Horizons extended mission receives approval from NASA, the probe will do close-up observations of 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019.
New atmospheric insights
Meanwhile, researchers continue to analyze data from last year’s Pluto encounter. Team members now have new insights into the dwarf planet’s tenuous atmosphere after looking at starlight passing through the wispy gas, according to the NASA statement.
Roughly four hours after New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto, on July 14, the spacecraft’s ultraviolet spectrometer instrument looked at two stars moving behind Pluto and its atmosphere (astronomers call this a stellar occultation).
“The light from each star dimmed as it moved through deeper layers of Pluto’s atmosphere, absorbed by various gases and hazes,” NASA wrote in a second press release.
The spectrometer confirmed previous measurements from New Horizons showing that Pluto’s upper atmosphere is up to 25 percent colder (and thus more compact) than what scientists expected before New Horizons flew by. The instrument also confirmed a calculation that nitrogen molecules escape the dwarf planet’s atmosphere at a rate of about 1,000 times lower than expected.
Stellar occultations of 1994 JR1 were also performed using light from the sun. This allowed New Horizons to confirm the atmospheric temperature and structure, measure the escape rate of nitrogen molecules from the atmosphere, and detect the presence of various gases (including nitrogen, methane and acetylene).
Some of Saturn’s icy moons may have been formed after many dinosaurs roamed the Earth. New computer modeling of the Saturnian system suggests the rings and moons may be no more than 100 million years old.
Saturn hosts 62 known moons. All of them are influenced not only by the gravity of the planet, but also by each other’s gravities. A new computer model suggests that the Saturnian moons Tethys, Dione and Rhea haven’t seen the kinds of changes in their orbital tilts that are typical for moons that have lived in the system and interacted with other moons over long periods of time. In other words, these appear to be very young moons.
“Moons are always changing their orbits. That’s inevitable,” Matija Cuk, principal investigator at the SETI Institute and one of the authors of the new research, said in a statement. “But that fact allows us to use computer simulations to tease out the history of Saturn’s inner moons. Doing so, we find that they were most likely born during the most recent 2 percent of the planet’s history.
The age of Saturn’s rings has come under considerable debate since their discovery in the 1600s. In 2012, however, French astronomers suggested that some of the inner moons and the planet’s well-known rings may have recent origins. The researchers showed that tidal effects — which refer to “the gravitational interaction of the inner moons with fluids deep in Saturn’s interior,” according to the statement — should cause the moons to move to larger orbits in a very short time.
“Saturn has dozens of moons that are slowly increasing their orbital size due to tidal effects. In addition, pairs of moons may occasionally move into orbital resonances. This occurs when one moon’s orbital period becomes a simple fraction of another. For example, one moon could orbit twice as fast as another moon, or three times as fast.
Once an orbital resonance takes place, the moons can affect each other’s gravity, even if they are very small. This will eventually elongate their orbits and tilt them from their original orbital plane.
By looking at computer models that predict how extended a moon’s orbit should become over time, and comparing that with the actual position of the moon today, the researchers found that the orbits of Tethys, Dione and Rhea are “less dramatically altered than previously thought,” the statement said. The moons don’t appear to have moved very far from where they were born.
To get a more specific value for the ages of these moons, Cuk used ice geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The researchers assumed that the energy powering those geysers comes from tidal interactions with Saturn and that the level of geothermal activity on Enceladus has been constant, and from there, inferred the strength of the tidal forces from Saturn.
Using the computer simulations, the researchers concluded that Enceladus would have moved from its original orbital position to its current one in just 100 million years — meaning it likely formed during the Cretaceous period. The larger implication is that the inner moons of Saturn and its gorgeous rings are all relatively young. (The more distant moons Titan and Iapetus would not have been formed at the same time.)
“So the question arises — what caused the recent birth of the inner moons?” Cuk said in the statement. “Our best guess is that Saturn had a similar collection of moons before, but their orbits were disturbed by a special kind of orbital resonance involving Saturn’s motion around the sun. Eventually, the orbits of neighboring moons crossed, and these objects collided. From this rubble, the present set of moons and rings formed.”
The research is being published in the Astrophysical Journal
NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope continues to zero in on the first “alien Earth” despite being hobbled by a malfunction more than two years ago.
Last Thursday (July 23), mission scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-452b, which they and NASA officials described as the most Earth-like exoplanet yet found. Kepler-452b circles a sunlike star at about the same distance Earth orbits the sun, but the alien world is about 60 percent wider than our home planet, so it’s not a true “Earth twin.”
Kepler-452b “is the closest thing that we have to another place that somebody else might call home,” Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, said during a news conference Thursday. [Exoplanet Kepler 452b: Closest Earth Twin in Pictures]
While the discovery of Kepler-452b is new, the observations that led to it are several years old. The planet was dug out of data Kepler gathered during the first four years of its original planet hunt, which came to an end in 2013.
The main goal of the $600 million Kepler mission is to determine how common Earth-like planets are across the Milky Way galaxy.
During its original round of operations, the Kepler spacecraft stared at more than 150,000 stars continuously and simultaneously, watching for tiny brightness dips that could betray the presence of a planet crossing, or “transiting,” its host star’s face. This work required extremely precise pointing, an ability Kepler lost when the second of its four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed in May 2013.
Kepler generally needs to observe multiple transits to detect a planet, so it can take a while for the observatory to spot a potentially habitable world. (Earth, after all, would transit the sun from a hypothetical alien Kepler’s perspective just once a year.) Small, rocky planets also present a signal-to-noise issue that can be mitigated by observing multiple transits.
Kepler team members have therefore long maintained that the most interesting Kepler finds should come at relatively late stages in the mission. So, while Kepler observed beyond the 3.5 years prescribed by the prime mission plan, the failure of the second reaction wheel was initially “crushing,” Jenkins said.
But only initially, for Kepler scientists have gotten better and better at analyzing the observatory’s huge dataset and pulling out intriguing finds from the original planet hunt, team members said.
For example, the discovery of Kepler-452b was announced along with 521 newfound planet “candidates,” bringing Kepler’s total tally of potential planets to 4,696. Just 1,030 of these worlds have been confirmed by follow-up observations or analysis, but about 90 percent of them should end up being the real deal, mission scientists have said. [10 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]
Furthermore, 11 of the newly detected 521 candidates are similar to Kepler-452b: They’re less than twice Earth’s diameter and reside in their host stars’ “habitable zone,” that just-right range of distances in which liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface.
Such detections were made with the aid of new software that automated some parts of the data-analysis process that had previously been done manually, said Kepler research scientist Jeff Coughlin, of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California.
Continued improvements in software and analysis techniques should result in more discoveries down the road, Coughlin added. Indeed, he said, the team plans to release another “catalog” of Kepler finds next year.
“We’re really optimistic that we’re going to continue to discover even more small, habitable-zone planets,” Coughlin said during Thursday’s news conference.
Kepler’s enormous dataset is publicly archived, so it should give academics and citizen scientists plenty to chew on far into the future, he added.
“I really expect that discoveries will be coming from Kepler for the next several decades,” Coughlin said.
Regardless of what happens in the future, Kepler’s discoveries have already revolutionized exoplanet research. The spacecraft’s finds suggest, among other things, that every Milky Way star hosts at least one planet on average; that rocky planets are extremely common throughout the galaxy; and that about 20 percent of all stars in the Milky Way host a roughly Earth-size planet in their habitable zones.
And while team members pore over data from the original mission, Kepler continues to gather data during a new mission called K2. The observatory’s handlers figured out a way to improve its pointing abilities using sunlight pressure as a sort of ersatz reaction wheel, and Kepler is now studying a variety of cosmic objects and phenomena, from distant supernova explosions to comets and asteroids in our own solar system.
The K2 plan also calls for continued exoplanet hunting, though on a much lesser scale than Kepler used to perform. (NASA announced the new mission’s first alien-planet discovery this past December.)
The failure of the second reaction wheel “is kind of the best worst thing that could’ve ever happened to Kepler,” Jenkins said. “It really broadens the field of exoplanets. It broadens the science that we can do with this phenomenal spacecraft.”
NASA announced that it is collaborating with Microsoft to enable astronauts onboard the orbiting space station to use the company’s virtual reality headset.
Two pairs of Microsoft’s HoloLens computerized eyeglasses are scheduled to be sent to the space station when SpaceX launches its seventh commercial resupply mission on June 28.
“HoloLens and other virtual and mixed reality devices are cutting edge technologies that could help drive future exploration and provide new capabilities to the men and women conducting critical science on the International Space Station,” Sam Scimemi, NASA’s director of the space station program, said in a statement. “This new technology could also empower future explorers requiring greater autonomy on the journey to Mars.”
Microsoft unveiled HoloLens in January at a Windows 10 event where CEO Satya Nadella said the device will be the world’s first holographic computing platform. The device is designed to allow users to see high-definition holograms with surround sound. They’re also built to understand voice commands and hand gestures.
The project that NASA and Microsoft are teaming up on has been dubbed Sidekick and is focused on helping astronauts who need to perform various tasks off-Earth.
By using HoloLens, which look much like a pair of wrap-around sunglasses and are expected to ship on July 29 along with Windows 10, the astronauts should be able to perform some on-station tasks with less training and be more efficient in the work they’re doing.
NASA already has tested the devices on board NASA’s Weightless Wonder C9 jet to make sure they work as expected in gravity-free environment.
Alien worlds with helium skies might be fairly common throughout the universe, researchers say.
One such helium-rich exoplanet might have already been discovered about 33 light-years from Earth, scientists added.
In the past two decades or so, astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 1,800 extrasolar planets. Among these exoplanets are strange worlds called warm Neptunes — planets that, at 10 to 20 times the mass of Earth, are about the mass of “cold Neptunes” such as Uranus and, naturally, Neptune, but are as close, or closer, to their stars than Mercury is to our sun.
These warm Neptunes can reach scorching temperatures of more than 1,340 degrees Fahrenheit (725 degrees Celsius), and complete orbits around their stars in as little as one or two days. [The Strangest Alien Planets (Gallery)]
Astronomers had assumed that Neptune-size exoplanets would possess rocky or liquid cores wrapped in atmospheres dominated by hydrogen and helium, much like the giant planets in our own solar system. However, planetary scientist Renyu Hu at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and his colleagues reasoned that warm Neptunes are so close to their stars that stellar radiation may have dramatically altered their atmospheres.
The researchers discovered that warm Neptunes could often have atmospheres enriched with helium. “They could be fairly common,” Hu told Space.com.
The high levels of extreme ultraviolet radiation that warm Neptunes would receive from their stars would cause their hydrogen to waft away.
“Hydrogen is four times lighter than helium, so it would slowly disappear from the planets’ atmospheres, causing them to become more concentrated with helium over time,” Hu said in a statement.
A warm Neptune with a fairly small atmosphere could become helium-dominated over the course of up to 10 billion years, Hu said. (For comparison, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.)
One way to detect such a planet would be to note the color of its sky. Neptune is a brilliant azure blue because of methane. However, the scarcity of hydrogen on helium-atmosphere worlds would mean that methane, which is composed of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, would be rare, while carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, which are composed of carbon and oxygen, would be far more common. As such, a helium-sky planet would probably appear grey or white, researchers said.
One warm Neptune called GJ 436b that is peculiarly low in methane might be such a helium-rich planet. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope found that GJ 436b, which is located about 33 light-years from Earth, is also rich in carbon monoxide.
A number of other features would also help set helium-sky worlds apart. For instance, an atmosphere rich in helium would be puffier than one made of carbon dioxide or nitrogen because helium is lighter than either of those two gases, “and this feature makes the helium atmosphere more observable,” Hu said.
In addition, because helium is easier to heat than hydrogen, a helium-rich planet is more likely to have a hot spot facing its star than a hydrogen-rich world.
Future research could use NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to look for more warm Neptunes with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in their atmospheres, and NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope might one day directly detect helium in the skies of these planets.
“Any planet one can imagine probably exists, out there, somewhere, as long as it fits within the laws of physics and chemistry,” study co-author Sara Seager of MIT said in the same statement. “Planets are so incredibly diverse in their masses, sizes and orbits that we expect this to extend to exoplanet atmospheres.”
Hu, Seager and their colleague Yuk Yung of JPL detailed their findings in a paper that will appear today (June 24) in the Astrophysical Journal.
Where can scientists find clues to help them locate and understand life beyond Earth? According to speakers at the 2015 Astrobiology Science Conference, the hunt begins in many locations, from planets beyond our solar system to the ground beneath our feet.
At a news briefing hosted by NASA, three speakers discussed a wide range of ways that scientists are assisting in the search for life elsewhere in the universe. Those efforts include studies of extreme life-forms on Earth, photographs of the sun glinting off Earth’s ocean, and studies in Antarctica that will assist a mission to one of Jupiter’s icy moons.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for science at NASA, opened the panel discussion with remarks about his own passion and enthusiasm for the search for life, and how it fits into NASA’s overall mission to “innovate, explore, discover and inspire.”
Alexis Templeton, an associate professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder, discussed the NASA-funded “Rock-Powered Life Team,” for which she is principal investigator.
“[We’re] quite interested in the capability of rocks to store energy within them to be used to power biological systems,” Templeton said. “Essentially, there’s a fundamental understanding that rocks have within them, depending on their chemistry, the ability to release electrons or components that can fuel and power different systems essentially much like fuel cells do. And one of the big questions at the moment is how we can couple the energy that’s stored within rocks into biological systems.”
If rocks can serve as an energy source for life, it might opened up new possibilities for where life could thrive in the universe. In particular, it could mean that organisms don’t need direct exposure to sunlight, but could live in subsurface environments.
Templeton said the group is investigating life-forms found in the deserts of Oman, where rocks formed in the Earth’s mantle have come to the surface. Prolonged contact between the rocks and pools of water has “changed the water chemistry progressively,” Templeton said, making it highly alkaline — a “rare type of water to find on Earth.” Life-forms discovered in these pools are not only surviving in the alkali environments, but are optimized for them.
“This is, then, very exciting to start to imagine that there’s biological life-forms that may be well adapted in the subsurface environment to be sustained by the reactions between these rocks and water,” Templeton said.
Britney Schmidt, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, discussed the search for life in sub-surface oceans such as those found on Jupiter’s icy moons and other icy worlds.
“We think a lot about Mars in the search for life in the solar system, but there’s a whole host of ice-rich worlds that harbor subsurface oceans,” Schmidt said. “And these are important places to think about in the search for life, even within our own solar system.”
NASA recently announced a suite of instruments that the agency selected to go aboard a planned satellite mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Scientists say its possible life could exist beneath the icy surface of Europa, in the immense ocean that lies below.
Currently, Schmidt is principal investigator for the NASA-funded project Sub-Ice Marine and Planetary Analog Ecosystems, or SIMPLE, a project that Schmidt says will assist future missions to icy worlds.
“[We] work with a number of different vehicles, a number of different remote sensing and in-situ sensing platforms, to study our ocean the same way we’d want to study the ocean of [Jupiter’s moons] Europa or Enceladus,” Schmidt said.
The project includes a vehicle called “Icefin,” which is exploring the ocean below the Antarctic ice. Another instrument, called “Artemis,” will perform long-range exploration under the ice; another project will conduct ice-penetrating radar studies of the ice shelves of the Antarctic, all of which are “perfect analogs” for the work that is set to be done by radar instruments flying over Europa. [Photos: Europa, Mysterious Icy Moon of Jupiter]
A glimmer of life
Vikki Meadows, a professor of astronomy and principal investigator at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory in Seattle, spoke last about studies that could assist in identifying signs of life through direct observations of exoplanets.
She presented an image taken by the LCROSS satellite (before it crashed into the moon in 2009) of the Earth as a partially illuminated crescent. The curved sliver of light was not uniform — it featured a slightly brighter section right near its midpoint. That, said Meadows, was a glint of sunlight reflecting off the ocean.
Alien Planet Quiz: Are You an Exoplanet Expert?
This “glint effect,” Meadows said, is something that scientists theorized might reveal the presence of an ocean on a distant exoplanet. But the images taken by LCROSS are the first “glint” data ever collected.
“By comparing our models and that data, we were able to confirm that in fact our models are accurate,” Meadows said. “We have more confidence now about predicting the type of signals we might be able to detect from extrasolar planets when we go for the gold and actually try to detect an ocean on another planet.”
Meadows’ team has also done work to help narrow down what kind of elements and molecules in a planet’s atmosphere might indicate the presence of life — in particular, what the presence of oxygen says about the presence or absence of life — and how to spot false positives.
“We now are getting a much more mature view of what we should be looking for and what might fool us,” Meadows said. “We know in particular which targets we should choose preferentially that will help us avoid these false positives for life and also what other things in the planetary spectrum we should look for that might help us figure out what’s going on.”
The panel’s comments reflected just a sampling of the research being presented at the meeting this week, and a small indication of the work that is slowly but steadily moving the scientific community closer to the possibility of identifying life elsewhere in the universe..
“Are we alone? Is there another civilization out there? Is there any other life out there?” Grunsfeld said in his opening remarks. “The fact that we’re here, and the fact that life is so complex on Earth, rocks survive on a tiny bit of chemical energy, to me is convincing that there is a very high probability there’s life elsewhere.”
Scientists using several telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, found evidence that a planet in an ancient cluster of stars on the edge of the Milky Way drifted too close to a white dwarf star and was ripped apart. NASA officials explained the discovery in a video on the planet’s death by white dwarf.
White dwarf stars start out as any normal star about the size of the sun, but eventually swell into red giants while they burn up the hydrogen in their core and fuse it into helium. When all the hydrogen is gone, only the star’s core is left —a dense sphere with a radius about one hundredth the size of the original star, but with almost the same mass.
The dead stars’ density creates a strong gravitational pull, more than 10,000 times stronger than the gravitational force at the surface of the sun, according to NASA officials.
That force, and its associated tides, could have the power to pull apart a planet that passes too close, astronomers said. They estimate the destroyed planet had about a third of the mass of Earth and the white dwarf has approximately 1.4 times the mass of the sun.
Researchers using the European Space Agency’s INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) discovered the possibility that a white dwarf tore a planet apart when they found an unexpected source of X-ray radiation in globular star cluster NGC 6388. They initially thought the radiation was due to hot gas swirling toward an intermediate-mass black hole thought to be at the center of the cluster.
A second look with Chandra X-ray Observatory, however, revealed that the X-rays were actually coming from a point off to the side of the cluster’s possible black hole center. Scientists continued to monitor the radiation for 200 days with the X-ray telescope on board NASA’s Swift gamma-ray burst observatory, an international mission that aims to solve the mystery of what causes brief and intense flashes of gamma-ray radiation in space.
As scientists monitored the X-rays, the radiation dimmed at a rate that agrees with current theories of how a planet ripped apart by the gravitational tidal forces of a white dwarf would react. These theories predict the debris from a planet shredded by a white dwarf would be heated and glow in X-rays as it falls onto the white dwarf.
“While the case for the tidal disruption of a planet is not iron-clad, the argument for it was strengthened when astronomers used data from the multiple telescopes to help eliminate other possible explanations for the detected X-rays,” NASA officials wrote in a statement.
Astronomers have spotted a dead star polluted with heavy elements, suggesting that the star recently chowed down on a water-laced asteroid.
The destructive process hints at how asteroids probably delivered water to Earth billions of years ago. But it also hints at how asteroids likely deliver water to exoplanets in other planetary systems.
“Our research has found that, rather than being unique, water-rich asteroids similar to those found in our solar system appear to be frequent,” lead researcher Roberto Raddi from the University of Warwick, said in a statement. “Accordingly, many planets may have contained a volume of water, comparable to that contained in the Earth.” [Related: In Search for Alien Life, Follow the Water]
Astronomers once thought that white dwarfs — the Earth-size remnants of low-mass stars like our sun — were pristine. Their intense gravity should pull the heaviest elements down into their depths relatively quickly (thousands of years at most). “In old white dwarfs (hundreds of millions of years old), like the one we observed, one would not expect any heavy element to stay in their atmospheres for long,” Raddi told Space.com in an email.
But when the team observed the white dwarf in question (known as SDSS J1242+5226), they saw that it was smothered in oxygen, magnesium, silicon, iron and other heavy elements. Even hydrogen was far more abundant than expected. These elements match what astronomers expect to see in a water-rich asteroid.
It’s likely that the asteroid passed close to the white dwarf, whose intense gravity shredded it into smaller particles. These particles then formed a disk around the dead star, and slowly rained down over time — polluting the star’s surface with its elements. Because those elements are still expected to sink to the center of the star, the destructive event probably happened fairly recently, Raddi said.
The astronomers suspect that the asteroid was initially comparable in size to Ceres, the largest known asteroid in the solar system, Raddi said. And it likely contained enough water to fill 30 percent of the Earth’s oceans.
The result sheds light on how asteroids can deliver water to stars and other orbiting bodies. Geologists don’t think Earth’s water has been here for too long. The moon-forming impact would have melted the Earth’s crust and mantle, vaporizing any water. Instead, asteroids likely delivered water to Earth in the young solar system.
And this research shows that this process was not unique to our solar system. It’s likely occurring throughout planetary systems in the galaxy, scientists said.
“Our work reinforces previous evidence that water-rich asteroids are common in other planetary systems,” Raddi said. “It also confirms that asteroids can deliver their constituents (rocks and ice) onto the surface of planets in the inner parts of the planetary systems orbiting other stars, likely within what is known as the habitable zone.”
The team made their observations on the U.K.-owned William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands, Spain. The study was published today (May 7) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The newfound exoplanets, known as HD 7924c and HD 7924d, are “super Earths” with masses about 7.9 and 6.4 times greater, respectively, than that of our home planet, researchers said. The planets orbit the star HD 7924, which lies just 54 light-years from the sun — a mere stone’s throw considering the size of the Milky Way, which is on the order of 100,000 light-years wide.
The discovery brings the number of known planets in the HD 7924 system to three. (Another super Earth, called HD 7924b, was spotted there in 2009.) HD 7924b, HD 7924c and HD 7924d all lie closer to their host star than Mercury does to the sun. They complete one orbit in five, 15 and 24 days, respectively, researchers said. [The Strangest Alien Planets]
“The three planets are unlike anything in our solar system, with masses seven to eight times the mass of Earth and orbits that take them very close to their host star,” study co-author Lauren Weiss, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement.
The research team discovered HD 7924c and HD 7924d using three different ground-based facilities — the Automated Planet Finder (APF) Telescope at Lick Observatory in California, the Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Automatic Photometric Telescope (APT) at Fairborn Observatory in Arizona. (Keck also found HD 7924b in 2009.)
The research team, which was led by University of Hawaii (UH) graduate student BJ Fulton, used the combined observations of the three telescopes to detect tiny wobbles in the star HD 7924 caused by the gravitational pull of the two newfound planets, and then to verify the worlds’ existence.
Starspots, like sunspots on the sun, can momentarily mimic the signatures of small planets,” said co-author Evan Sinukoff, also a UH graduate student. “Repeated observations over many years allowed us to separate the starspot signals from the signatures of these new planets.”
The APF Telescope was recently revamped to make it fully robotic, and it now searches the skies for exoplanets without human oversight — a key milestone in the ongoing exoplanet hunt, researchers said.
“This level of automation is a game-changer in astronomy,” said co-author Andrew Howard, an astronomer at UH. “It’s a bit like owning a driverless car that goes planet shopping.”
Astronomers first found planets orbiting another star in 1992, and the exoplanet tally has now risen to nearly 2,000. More than half of these alien worlds have been discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which launched in March 2009.
Water is a polar molecule and a solvent, two properties that are important for certain chemical reactions critical to life, said NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan.
“We think water is key to life as we know it,” Stofan said Tuesday (April 28) during the Asimov Memorial Debate, an annual event at New York’s American Museum of Natural History that was moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium.
And Earth is certainly not the only world with ample stores of the stuff. Jupiter’s moon Europa is covered with a sheet of ice that very likely sits on top of a global ocean, and Saturn’s moon Enceladus shows evidence of subsurface water as well. Mars, meanwhile, was once a relatively warm and wet world that apparently harbored large amounts of liquid water in the ancient past for a long period of time — perhaps up to a billion years, Stofan said.
Astrobiologists regard Europa and Enceladus as viable candidates to host alien life today. While researchers might not find life on Mars now, it might have existed there once, Stofan said.
“Many of us in the scientific community have a pretty strong belief, based on science, that at some point life was likely to have evolved on the surface of Mars,” Stofan said. “The hard part is going to be finding it.”
Any Martian life that is found is likely to be microbes, not “little green men,” she added.
Participating along with Stofan and Tyson in Tuesday night’s event — which was called, appropriately enough, “Water, Water” — were Kathryn Sullivan, Administrator at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); retired US Air Force Gen. Charles Wald; hydrologist Tess Russo; and astronomer Heidi Hammel, an expert on comets and other water-bearing bodies in the solar system.
The discussion did not focus solely on the search for alien life. In fact, much of it was about a looming set of crises that fresh water supplies are facing on Earth, and the connection with NASA and space science. Sullivan noted that NOAA and NASA work closely together; NOAA operates a satellite fleet that monitors weather, climate and land use.
Russo said satellite-based studies of water use can and do help farmers understand how to use water more efficiently. Some 2.4 percent of all the water on Earth is fresh water, and humans can use only a fraction of that, about 0.4 percent of the total. Of that, about 70-90 percent is used for agriculture.
Tyson posited that the plans to settle humans on Mars can be connected with how we use water on Earth, and that technologies for recycling might have Earthbound applications. [The Boldest Mars Missions in History]
Stofan agreed that recycling water is key. On the International Space Station, some 85 percent of the water is recycled. To get to Mars, that percentage will have to be even higher. And water, she added, isn’t just for drinking, but for rocket fuel as well.
There isn’t any liquid water on Mars’ surface, and getting at the stuff might not be easy. “Mars is not a ‘live off the land’ kind of place,” Stofan said. The likely route will be to pre-position some kind of water extraction apparatus on Mars before sending humans.
On other worlds, though, water is even harder to access. On the moon, much of it is locked in clathrates, said Hammel. Clathrates are compounds in which water molecules are trapped inside molecular lattices. Getting the water out is not easy. “You have to go through a lot of material,” she said.
As to water crises on Earth, technology – even from NASA — might not be enough to solve them. “One of the difficulties is taking a NASA thing and scaling it up,” Hammel said.
As it is, humans use a lot of water, and not always sensibly.
“In Las Vegas, per capita water use is twice as much as in New York,” Sullivan said. “But it rains 10 times as much here [in New York].” On top of that, 90 percent of the water in Nevada is used for agriculture. Such imbalances are common. It takes three times more water to produce a plastic water bottle than the bottle contains, she added.
Russo said humanity is draining aquifers much faster than they recharge. “We are pumping water that recharged in a previous ice age,” she said. “The time it takes water to go back to the aquifer is much longer than it takes to pump it. “
From a national security perspective, depleting water has serious implications, Wald said. “In Gaza, water is of the essence. They are using so much that in two years they won’t have any more.” Meanwhile the Ethiopian government has plans for a huge dam on the Nile, which will impact the countries downstream. “Water wars will be exacerbated.”
Even within the United States, water conflicts are becoming more serious, as states fight via the courts over water resources. States such as California grow a large portion of the nation’s food. “The California water problem is all of our problem. We’re in a crisis right now,” Stofan said.
Sullivan noted that a lot of water that could be used for drinking is simply wasted watering lawns — and it ends up being drained right to the ocean from treatment plants. On top of that, water is cheap, so there’s not much incentive to cut back use. And more efficient usage might be the only option. Desalination is energy intensive and generates waste.
“When you suck salt out of seawater, what you have left is thick brine,” Sullivan said. “That’s your waste product.”
The panelists generally were not optimistic that anything but a major crisis would change American habits. At the same time, they had hope that future engineers and scientists could help solve some of the problems. And space science, Hammel said, might be key to that.
“We once polled a bunch of engineers,” Hammel said. “They didn’t talk about desalination; they said what inspired them was space… Somewhere there’s a little girl who is interested in science and went to her local library. She didn’t get a book on desalination, she took out a book on black holes.”
Astronomers have detected an exoplanet’s visible-light spectrum directly for the first time ever, a milestone that could help bring many other alien worlds into clearer focus down the road.
The scientists used the HARPS instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile to study the spectrum of visible light reflected off the exoplanet 51 Pegasi b, which lies about 50 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. You can see a new video of 51 Pegasi b and its environs here on Space.com.
51 Pegasi b, a “hot Jupiter” gas giant that orbits close to its parent star, was spotted in 1995, when it became the first alien world ever discovered around a sunlike star.
Researchers most often study exoplanet atmospheres by analyzing the starlight that passes through them when worlds cross their stars’ faces from Earth’s perspective. This method, known as transit spectroscopy, is restricted to use on systems in which the stars and planets align.
The new strategy used with 51 Pegasi b, on the other hand, does not depend on planetary transits and could thus find broader applicability, researchers said.
The technique offers other scientific advantages as well.
“This type of detection technique is of great scientific importance, as it allows us to measure the planet’s real mass and orbital inclination, which is essential to more fully understand the system,” study lead author Jorge Martins, of the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA) and the Universidade do Porto in Portugal, said in a statement.
“It also allows us to estimate the planet’s reflectivity, or albedo, which can be used to infer the composition of both the planet’s surface and atmosphere,” Martins added.
The new data suggest that 51 Pegasi b is highly reflective, a bit larger in diameter than Jupiter and about half as massive as our solar system’s biggest planet, researchers said.
The new observations by HARPS (which is short for High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) provide a vital proof of concept for the new technique, which could really come into its own when employed with instruments on bigger telescopes, such as the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), researchers said.
“We are now eagerly awaiting first light of the ESPRESSO spectrograph on the VLT so that we can do more detailed studies of this and other planetary systems,” said co-author Nuno Santos, also of the IA and Universidade do Porto.
The new study was published today (April 22) in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
This finding could help explain how Earth’s magnetic field has lasted for billions of years, researchers added.
Scientists think Earth formed at about the same time as the sun and the rest of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago from a giant, rotating cloud of gas and dust. Earth and the other rocky planets coalesced from smaller asteroid-sized bodies that accreted or stuck together to form ever-larger chunks of rock.
The meteorites that crash into Earth are usually thought to represent the building blocks that the planet grew from. However, Earth’s crust and mantle puzzlingly have a higher proportion of the element samarium to the element neodymium than seen in most meteorites.
New experiments now suggest that the addition of a sulfur-rich Mercury-like body to the early Earth could explain this anomaly. This research could also help solve another mystery — how the Earth’s magnetic field has lasted for billions of years.
“A Mercury-like body added to Earth during accretion would solve two important problems — that is, kill two birds with one stone,” study co-author Bernard Wood, a geochemist at the University of Oxford in England, told Space.com.
Cooking up the Earth’s core
The researchers performed experiments with samples of material under conditions mimicking those at which Earth formed — temperatures between 2,550 and 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 and 1,640 degrees Celsius) and pressures of 1.5 gigapascals. For comparison, 1 gigapascal is nearly 10 times greater than the pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.
The samples of material the scientists tested contained traces of elements such as samarium, neodymium, and uranium. These elements are normally chemically attracted to silicate rock, which makes up most of the Earth’s crust and mantle. They do not usually dissolve in iron sulfide, which makes up a significant fraction of Earth’s outer core.
The scientists found that if the early Earth incorporated a rocky body like Mercury, which is high in sulfur, this could make samarium and neodymium dissolve better in iron sulfide. This in turn would make samarium and neodymium more likely to sink down toward Earth’s core.
However, samarium is more attracted to silicate rock than neodymium is. This would have made samarium a bit less likely to sink downward, which could explain why there is a greater proportion of samarium to neodymium in Earth’s crust and mantle.
These experiments could also help solve a mystery concerning Earth’s magnetic field.
Prior research suggests that Earth has possessed a magnetic field for at least 3.5 billion years. Earth’s magnetic field results from churning metal in the planet’s outer core, but it was uncertain how Earth’s core could have remained molten for so long.
The new experiments revealed that if the early Earth engulfed a sulfur-rich Mercury-like body, uranium could have dissolved better in iron sulfide. This in turn would help uranium sink toward Earth’s core. Uranium is a radioactive element that generates heat, which could have kept Earth’s core molten.
Wood and study lead author Anke Wohlers at the University of Oxford detailed their findings in the April 15 edition of the journal Nature.