There are plenty of places for life to hide. Even on our blue planet, where we know there is abundant life, it is sometimes difficult to predict all the different environments it might crop up in. Exploring worlds other than our own for life would make it exponentially more difficult to detect it because, realistically, we don’t really know what we’re looking for. But life will probably present itself with some sort of pattern. And there is one new technology that is exceptional at detecting patterns: machine learning. Researchers at the SETI Institute have started working on a machine-learning-based AI system that will do just that.Continue reading “Finding Life in the Solar System Means Crunching a Lot of Data. The Perfect Job for Machine Learning”
JWST Sees Frozen Water, Ammonia, Methane and Other Ices in a Protostellar Nebula
Want to build a habitable planet? Then you’ll need various and sundry ingredients such as carbon, hydrogen oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. The James Webb Space Telescope has found the building blocks for these key ingredients in the colds depths of a distant protostellar nebula called the Chameleon I molecular cloud. Scientists say the discovery of these proto-ingredients allows astronomers to examine the simple icy molecules that one day will be incorporated into future exoplanets.Continue reading “JWST Sees Frozen Water, Ammonia, Methane and Other Ices in a Protostellar Nebula”
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How Could We Detect Life Inside Enceladus?
For astrobiologists, the scientists dedicated to the search for life beyond Earth, the moons of Saturn are a virtual treasure trove of possibilities. Enceladus is especially compelling because of the active plumes of water emanating from its southern polar region. Not only are these vents thought to be connected directly to an ocean beneath the moon’s icy surface, but the Cassini mission detected traces of organic molecules and other chemicals associated with biological processes. Like Europa, Ganymede, and other “Ocean Worlds,” astrobiologists think this could indicate hydrothermal activity at the core-mantle boundary.
Both NASA and the ESA are hoping to send missions to Enceladus that could study its plumes in more detail. These include the Enceladus Orbitlander recommended in the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032 and the ESA’s Enceladus Moonraker, which could depart Earth in the next decade, taking advantage of a favorable alignment between the planets. In anticipation of what these missions could find, an international team of researchers used data from the Cassini mission to establish how samples of plume material could constrain how much biomass Enceladus has within it.Continue reading “How Could We Detect Life Inside Enceladus?”
Here are Four Ways JWST Could Detect Alien Life
Less than a year after it went to space, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has already demonstrated its worth many times over. The images it has acquired of distant galaxies, nebulae, exoplanet atmospheres, and deep fields are the most detailed and sensitive ever taken. And yet, one of the most exciting aspects of its mission is just getting started: the search for evidence of life beyond Earth. This will consist of Webb using its powerful infrared instruments to look for chemical signatures associated with life and biological processes (aka. biosignatures).
The chemical signatures vary, each representing a different pathway toward the potential discovery of life. According to The Conversation’s Joanna Barstow, a planetary scientist and an Ernest Rutherford Fellow at The Open University specializing in the study of exoplanet atmospheres, there are four ways that Webb could do this. These include looking for chemicals that lifeforms depend on, chemical byproducts produced by living organisms, chemicals essential to maintaining a stable climate, and chemicals that shouldn’t coexist.Continue reading “Here are Four Ways JWST Could Detect Alien Life”
Mars Could Have Been Warm and wet, While Earth was Still a Glowing Ball of Molten Rock
Since the 1970s, the ongoing exploration of Mars has revealed that the planet has had a most interesting history. While conditions there are not hospitable to life today, scientists know Mars was once a much warmer, wetter place, with flowing water on its surface. According to new research led by the University of Arizona (UoA), Mars may have been a “pale blue dot” covered with oceans while Earth was still a ball of slowly-cooling molten rock. This discovery could allow for new research into a previously-overlooked period in Mars’ geological history and the formation and evolution of the Solar System.Continue reading “Mars Could Have Been Warm and wet, While Earth was Still a Glowing Ball of Molten Rock”
NASA has Built a Collection of Instruments That Will Search for Life Inside Europa and Enceladus
One of the most exciting aspects of space exploration today is how the field of astrobiology – the search for life in our Universe – has become so prominent. In the coming years, many robotic and even crewed missions will be bound for Mars that will aid in the ongoing search for life there. Beyond Mars, missions are planned for the outer Solar System that will explore satellites and bodies with icy exteriors and interior oceans – otherwise known as “Ocean Worlds.” These include the Jovian satellites Europa and Ganymede and Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus.
Similar to how missions to Mars have analyzed soil and rock samples for evidence of past life, the proposed missions will analyze liquid samples for the chemical signatures that we associate with life and biological processes (aka. “biosignatures”). To aid in this search, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have designed the Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor (OWLS), a suite of eight scientific instruments designed to sniff out biosignatures. In the coming decades, this suite could be used by robotic probes bound for “Ocean Worlds” all across the Solar System to search for signs of life.Continue reading “NASA has Built a Collection of Instruments That Will Search for Life Inside Europa and Enceladus”
Mars Might Have Been Covered in Lakes in the Ancient Past
Ever since robotic explorers began visiting the Red Planet during the 1960s and 70s, scientists have puzzled over Mars’ surface features. These included flow channels, valleys, lakebeds, and deltas that appear to have formed in the presence of water. Since then, dozens of missions have been sent to Mars to explore its atmosphere, surface, and climate to learn more about its warmer, wetter past. In particular, scientists want to know how long water flowed on the surface of Mars and whether it was persistent or periodic in nature.
The ultimate purpose here is to determine whether rivers, streams, and standing bodies of water existed long enough for life to emerge. So far, missions like Curiosity and Perseverance have gathered volumes of evidence that show how hundreds of large lakebeds once dotted the Martian landscape. But according to a new study by an international team of researchers, our current estimates of Mars’ surface water may be a dramatic understatement. Based on a meta-analysis of years’ worth of satellite data, the team argues that ancient lakes may have once been a very common feature on Mars.Continue reading “Mars Might Have Been Covered in Lakes in the Ancient Past”
Perseverance Has Collected Samples from One of the Best Places to Search for Ancient Life on Mars
Scientists with NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover said today that the rover has collected several “tantalizing” organic rock samples from an ancient river delta on the Red Planet. These samples have now been stowed for a planned future mission that hopes to retrieve the specimens and bring them back to Earth for the first-ever sample return from Mars.Continue reading “Perseverance Has Collected Samples from One of the Best Places to Search for Ancient Life on Mars”
Alien Artifacts Could Be Hidden Across the Solar System. Here’s how we Could Search for Them.
Do aliens exist? Almost certainly. The universe is vast and ancient, and our corner of it is not particularly special. If life emerged here, it probably did elsewhere. Keep in mind this is a super broad assumption. A single instance of fossilized archaebacteria-like organisms five superclusters away would be all it takes to say, “Yes, there are aliens!” …if we could find them somehow.Continue reading “Alien Artifacts Could Be Hidden Across the Solar System. Here’s how we Could Search for Them.”
Tidal Heating Could Make Exomoons Much More Habitable (and Detectable)
Within the Solar System, most of our astrobiological research is aimed at Mars, which is considered to be the next-most habitable body beyond Earth. However, future efforts are aimed at exploring icy satellites in the outer Solar System that could also be habitable (like Europa, Enceladus, Titan, and more). This dichotomy between terrestrial (rocky) planets that orbit within their a system’s Habitable Zones (HZ) and icy moons that orbit farther from their parent stars is expected to inform future extrasolar planet surveys and astrobiology research.
In fact, some believe that exomoons may play a vital role in the habitability of exoplanets and could also be a good place to look for life beyond the Solar System. In a new study, a team of researchers investigated how the orbit of exomoons around their parent bodies could lead to (and place limits on) tidal heating – where gravitational interaction leads to geological activity and heating in the interior. This, in turn, could help exoplanet-hunters and astrobiologists determine which exomoons are more likely to be habitable.Continue reading “Tidal Heating Could Make Exomoons Much More Habitable (and Detectable)”