A recent study accepted to The Planetary Science Journal investigates how the organic hazes that existed on Earth between the planet’s initial formation and 500 million years afterwards, also known as Hadean geologic eon, could have contained the necessary building blocks for life, including nucleobases and amino acids. This study holds the potential to not only help scientists better understand the conditions on an early Earth, but also if these same conditions on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, could produce the building blocks of life, as well.Continue reading “How Did Life Get Started on Earth? Atmospheric Haze Might Have Been the Key”
Universe Today has proudly examined the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, and exoplanets, and what they can teach scientists and the public about finding life beyond Earth. Impact craters both shape these planetary surfaces and hold the power to create or destroy life, and we learned how exoplanets are changing our views of planetary formation and evolution, including how and where we might find life in the cosmos. Here, we will discuss how these disciplines contribute to the field responsible for finding life beyond Earth, known as astrobiology. We will discuss why scientists study astrobiology, also known as astrobiologists, challenges of studying astrobiology, and how students can pursue studying astrobiology, as well. So, why is it so important to study astrobiology?Continue reading “Astrobiology: Why study it? How to study it? What are the challenges?”
The day when human beings finally set foot on Mars is rapidly approaching. Right now, NASA, the China National Space Agency (CNSA), and SpaceX have all announced plans to send astronauts to the Red Planet “by 2040”, “in 2033”, and “before 2030”, respectively. These missions will lead to the creation of long-term habitats that will enable return missions and scientific research that will investigate everything from the geological evolution of Mars to the possible existence of past (or even present) life. The opportunities this will create are mirrored only by the challenges they will entail.
One of the greatest challenges is ensuring that crews have access to water, which means that any habitats must be established near an underground source. Similarly, scientists anticipate that if there is still life on Mars today, it will likely exist in “briny patches” beneath the surface. A possible solution is to incorporate a system for large-scale water mining operations on Mars that could screen for lifeforms. The proposal, known as an Agnostic Life Finding (ALF) system, was one of thirteen concepts selected by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program this year for Phase I development.Continue reading “NASA Selects New Technology to Help Search for Life on Mars”
Since 1979, when the Voyager probes flew past Jupiter and its system of moons, scientists have speculated about the possibility of life within Europa. Based on planetary modeling, Europa is believed to be differentiated between a rocky and metallic core, an icy crust and mantle, and a liquid-water ocean that could be 100 to 200 km (62 to 124 mi) deep. Scientists theorize that this ocean is maintained by tidal flexing, where interaction with Jupiter’s powerful gravitational field leads to geological activity in Europa’s core and hydrothermal vents at the core-mantle boundary.
Investigating the potential habitability of Europa is the main purpose of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which will launch on October 10th, 2024, and arrive around Jupiter in April 2030. However, this presents a challenge for astrobiologists since the habitability of Europa is dependent on many interrelated parameters that require collaborative investigation. In a recent paper, a team of NASA-led researchers reviewed the objectives of the Europa Clipper mission and anticipated what it could reveal regarding the moon’s interior, composition, and geology.Continue reading “Europa Clipper Could Help Discover if Jupiter's Moon is Habitable”
In 1960, while preparing for the first meeting on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), legendary astronomer and SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake unveiled his probabilistic equation for estimating the number of possible civilizations in our galaxy – aka. The Drake Equation. A key parameter in this equation was ne, the number of planets in our galaxy capable of supporting life – aka. “habitable.” At the time, astronomers were not yet certain other stars had systems of planets. But thanks to missions like Kepler, 5523 exoplanets have been confirmed, and another 9,867 await confirmation!
Based on this data, astronomers have produced various estimates for the number of habitable planets in our galaxy – at least 100 billion, according to one estimate! In a recent study, Professor Piero Madau introduced a mathematical framework for calculating the population of habitable planets within 100 parsecs (326 light-years) of our Sun. Assuming Earth and the Solar System are representative of the norm, Madau calculated that this volume of space could contain as much as 11,000 Earth-sized terrestrial (aka. rocky) exoplanets that orbit within their stars’ habitable zones (HZs).Continue reading “If Earth is Average, We Should Find Extraterrestrial Life Within 60 Light-Years”
In the past two and a half years, two next-generation telescopes have been sent to space: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the ESA’s Euclid Observatory. Before the decade is over, they will be joined by NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST), Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx), and the ESA’s PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) and ARIEL telescopes. These observatories will rely on advanced optics and instruments to aid in the search and characterization of exoplanets with the ultimate goal of finding habitable planets.
Along with still operational missions, these observatories will gather massive volumes of high-resolution spectroscopic data. Sorting through this data will require cutting-edge machine-learning techniques to look for indications of life and biological processes (aka. biosignatures). In a recent paper, a team of scientists from the Institute for Fundamental Theory at the University of Florida (UF-IFL) recommended that future surveys use machine learning to look for anomalies in the spectra, which could reveal unusual chemical signatures and unknown biosignatures.Continue reading “The Most Compelling Places to Search for Life Will Look Like “Anomalies””
From June 18th to 22nd, the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center (PSETI) held the second annual Penn State SETI Symposium. The event saw experts from many fields and backgrounds gathering to discuss the enduring questions about SETI, the technical challenges of looking for technosignatures, its ethical and moral dimensions, and what some of the latest experiments have revealed. Some very interesting presentations examined what will be possible in the near future and the likelihood that we will find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Among them, there were some very interesting presentations by Adam Frank, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Rochester; Ph.D. student Matias Suazo, an astrophysicist and member of Project Haephestos at the University of Uppsala; and Nicholas Siegler, the Chief Technologist of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP). These presentations addressed ongoing issues in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), technosignatures, the role of oxygen in the evolution of complex life, and what motivations extraterrestrial civilizations (ETC) might have for creating noticeable signatures.Continue reading “The 2nd Annual Penn State SETI Symposium and the Search for Technosignatures!”
When will we find evidence for life beyond Earth? And where will that evidence be found? University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey, the author of a book called “Worlds Without End,” is betting that the first evidence will come to light within the next decade or so.
Instead, Impey expects that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope — or one of the giant Earth-based telescopes that’s gearing up for observations — will detect the spectroscopic signature of biological activity in the atmosphere of a planet that’s light-years away from us.
“Spectroscopic data is not as appealing to the general public,” Impey admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “People like pictures, and so spectroscopy never gets its fair due in the general talk about astronomy or science, because it’s slightly more esoteric. But it is the tool of choice here.”Continue reading “How Will We the Find First Signs of Alien Life — and When?”
Olympus Mons, located at the northwest edge of the Tharsis Montes region on Mars, was appropriately named. Based on readings obtained by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), an instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), this mountain is the tallest in the Solar System, standing 21.9 km (13.6 mi) tall – about two and a half times the height of Mount Everest (8.85 km; 5.5 mi). According to current estimates, this extinct shield volcano formed during Mars’ Hesperian Period (ca. 3.7 to 3 billion years ago), which was characterized by widespread volcanic activity and catastrophic flooding.
This coincides with a period when Mars had a denser atmosphere, a warmer environment, and flowing water on its surface. This included a global ocean that spanned much of the northern hemisphere, known today as the Northern Lowlands, encompassing Olympus Mons. According to a recent study led by researchers from the Centre National de Recherches Scientifique (CNRS), features found on the slopes of Olympus Mons indicate that it could have been a massive volcanic island where volcanic eruptions flowed into the ocean, similar to ones found on Earth.Continue reading “Olympus Could Have Been a Giant Volcanic Island in an Ancient Martian Ocean”
Since the Viking 1 and 2 missions visited Mars in 1976, scientists have been confronted with mounting evidence that Mars once had flowing water on its surface. The images collected by the twin Viking landers and orbiters showed clear signs of ancient flow channels, alluvial deposits, and weathered rocks. Thanks to the dozens of additional orbiters, landers, and rovers sent that have been sent there since scientists have been getting a clearer picture of what Mars once looked like. At the end of this journey, they hope to find evidence (if there’s any to be found) that Mars once supported life and still does today.
The latest evidence of Mars’ warmer watery past comes to us courtesy of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which continues to explore the Jezero Crater and obtain samples for the first Mars sample-return mission. On Friday, June 23rd, the rover obtained its 20th sample, which was drilled from a rocky outcropping known as “Emerald Lake.” Named “Otis Peak,” this sample is part of an outcropping formed by mineral deposits transported by an ancient river and could contain invaluable geological information about the many places these minerals came from.Continue reading “This Mess of Boulders Was Deposited by an Ancient River on Mars”