A Single Grain of Ice Could Hold Evidence of Life on Europa and Enceladus

The Cassini spacecraft captured this image of cryovolcanic plumes erupting from Enceladus' ice-capped ocean. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/CalTech

The Solar System’s icy ocean moons are primary targets in our search for life. Missions to Europa and Enceladus will explore these moons from orbit, improving our understanding of them and their potential to support life. Both worlds emit plumes of water from their internal oceans, and the spacecraft sent to both worlds will examine those plumes and even sample them.

New research suggests that evidence of life in the moons’ oceans could be present in just a single grain of ice, and our spacecraft can detect it.

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Earth’s Long-Term Habitability Relies on Chemical Cycles. How Can We Better Understand Them?

Biogeochemical cycles move matter around Earth between the atmosphere, the oceans, the lithosphere, and living things. Image Credit: By Alexander Davronov - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106124364

We, and all other complex life, require stability to evolve. Planetary conditions needed to be benign and long-lived for creatures like us and our multicellular brethren to appear and to persist. On Earth, chemical cycling provides much of the needed stability.

Chemical cycling between the land, atmosphere, lifeforms, and oceans is enormously complex and difficult to study. Typically, researchers try to isolate one cycle and study it. However, new research is examining Earth’s chemical cycling more holistically to try to understand how the planet has stayed in the ‘sweet spot’ for so long.

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Juno Measures How Much Oxygen is Being Produced by Europa

This view of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa was captured by the JunoCam imager aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft during the mission’s close flyby on Sept. 29, 2022. Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing: Kevin M. Gill CC BY 3.0

If the periodic table listed the elements in order of their importance to life, then oxygen might bully its way to the top. Without oxygen, Earth’s complex life likely would not exist. So when scientists detect oxygen on another world, they turn their attention to it.

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Another Explanation for K2-18b? A Gas-Rich Mini-Neptune with No Habitable Surface

Artist depiction of the mini-Neptune K2-18 b. Credit: NASA, CSA, ESA, J. Olmstead (STScI), N. Madhusudhan (Cambridge University)

Exoplanet K2-18b is garnering a lot of attention. James Webb Space Telescope spectroscopy shows it has carbon and methane in its atmosphere. Those results, along with other observations, suggest the planet could be a long-hypothesized ‘Hycean World.’ But new research counters that.

Instead, the planet could be a gaseous mini-Neptune.

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There are Mysteries at Venus. It’s Time for an Astrobiology Mission

NASA's Magellan spacecraft captured this image of Venusian craters. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

When scientists detected phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere in 2020, it triggered renewed, animated discussions about Venus and its potential habitability. It would be weird if the detection didn’t generate interest since phosphine is a potential biomarker. So people were understandably curious. Unfortunately, further study couldn’t confirm its presence.

But even without phosphine, Venus’ atmosphere is full of chemical intrigue that hints at biological processes. Is it time to send an astrobiology mission to our hellish sister planet?

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Toxic Gas is Leaking out of Enceladus. It’s also a Building Block of Life.

The Cassini spacecraft captured this image of cryovolcanic plumes erupting from Enceladus' ice-capped ocean. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/CalTech

Enceladus’ status as a target in the search for life keeps rising. We’ve known for years that plumes erupting from the ocean under the moon’s icy shell contain important organic compounds related to life. Now, researchers have found another chemical in the plumes which is not only highly toxic but also critical in the appearance of life.

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Webb Finds Icy Complex Organic Molecules Around Protostars: Ethanol, Methane, Formaldehyde, Formic Acid and Much More

Astronomers have used JWST to study the environments around 30 young protostars and found a vast collection of icy organic molecules. A recent survey identified methane, sulfur dioxide, ethanol, formaldehyde, formic acid, and many more. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

In the quest to understand how and where life might arise in the galaxy, astronomers search for its building blocks. Complex Organic Molecules (COMs) are some of those blocks, and they include things like formaldehyde and acetic acid, among many others. The JWST has found some of these COMs around young protostars. What does this tell astronomers?

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Could Life Exist in Molecular Clouds?

This image from the APEX telescope, of part of the Taurus Molecular Cloud, shows a sinuous filament of cosmic dust more than ten light-years long. Could life exist in molecular clouds like this one? Credit: ESO/APEX (MPIfR/ESO/OSO)/A. Hacar et al./Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin.

Our search for life beyond Earth is still in its infancy. We’re focused on Mars and, to a lesser extent, ocean moons like Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus. Should we extend our search to cover more unlikely places like molecular clouds?

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Adolescent Galaxies are Incandescent and Contain Unexpected Elements

Light from 23 distant galaxies, identified with red rectangles in the Hubble Space Telescope image at the top, were combined to capture incredibly faint emission from eight different elements, which are labelled in the JWST spectrum at the bottom. Although scientists regularly find these elements on Earth, astronomers rarely, if ever, observe many of them in distant galaxies, especially nickel. Image Credit: Aaron M. Geller, Northwestern, CIERA + IT-RCDS

If the Universe has adolescent galaxies, they’re the ones that formed about 2 to 3 billion years after the Big Bang. New research based on the James Webb Space Telescope shows that these teenage galaxies are unusually hot. Not only that, but they contain some unexpected chemical elements. The most surprising element found in these galaxies is nickel.

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Wow. JWST Just Found Methane in an Exoplanet Atmosphere

This artist’s rendering shows the warm exoplanet WASP-80 b. When viewed with human eyes, the colour may appear bluish due to the lack of high-altitude clouds and the presence of atmospheric methane identified by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. That makes it similar to the planets Uranus and Neptune in our own solar system. Image credit: NASA.

If there’s one chemical that causes excitement in the search for biosignatures on other worlds, it’s methane. It’s not a slam dunk because it has both biotic and abiotic sources. But finding it in an exoplanet’s atmosphere means that planet deserves a closer look.

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