What Deadly Venus Can Tell Us About Life on Other Worlds

Earth and Venus. Why are they so different and what do the differences tell us about rocky exoplanet habitability? Image Credit: NASA

Even though Venus and Earth are so-called sister planets, they’re as different as heaven and hell. Earth is a natural paradise where life has persevered under its azure skies despite multiple mass extinctions. On the other hand, Venus is a blistering planet with clouds of sulphuric acid and atmospheric pressure strong enough to squash a human being.

But the sister thing won’t go away because both worlds are about the same mass and radius and are rocky planets next to one another in the inner Solar System. Why are they so different? What do the differences tell us about our search for life?

Continue reading “What Deadly Venus Can Tell Us About Life on Other Worlds”

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.

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

The LIFE Telescope Passed its First Test: It Detected Biosignatures on Earth.

LIFE will have five separate space telescopes that fly in formation and work together to detect biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres. Image Credit: LIFE, ETH Zurich

We know that there are thousands of exoplanets out there, with many millions more waiting to be discovered. But the vast majority of exoplanets are simply uninhabitable. For the few that may be habitable, we can only determine if they are by examining their atmospheres. LIFE, the Large Interferometer for Exoplanets, can help.

Continue reading “The LIFE Telescope Passed its First Test: It Detected Biosignatures on Earth.”

Dying Stars Could Have Completely New Habitable Zones

As stars like our Sun age, their habitable zones shift, and they can warm planets that were once frozen. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Aging stars that become red giants increase their luminosity and can wreak havoc on planets that were once in the star’s habitable zones. When the Sun becomes a red giant and expands, its habitable zone will move further outward, meaning Earth will likely lose its atmosphere, its water, and its life. But for planets further out, their time in the habitable zone will just begin.

Is there enough time for life to arise on these newly habitable planets?

Continue reading “Dying Stars Could Have Completely New Habitable Zones”

Is the Habitable Zone Really Habitable?

Solar flares pose a major hazard to electronics and infrastructure in Low Earth Orbit, but they may have played a role in kick-starting life on Earth. Credit: NASA/SDO/J. Major

The water that life knows and needs, the water that makes a world habitable, the water that acts as the universal solvent for all the myriad and fantastically complicated chemical reactions that make us different than the dirt and rocks, can only come in one form: liquid.

Continue reading “Is the Habitable Zone Really Habitable?”

The Galactic Habitable Zone

Artist depiction of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Andrew Z. Colvin

Our planet sits in the Habitable Zone of our Sun, the special place where water can be liquid on the surface of a world. But that’s not the only thing special about us: we also sit in the Galactic Habitable Zone, the region within the Milky Way where the rate of star formation is just right.

Continue reading “The Galactic Habitable Zone”

Astronomers Test an Exoplanet Instrument on Jupiter

NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured this view of Jupiter during the mission’s 40th close pass by the giant planet on Feb. 25, 2022. The large, dark shadow on the left side of the image was cast by Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Thomas Thomopoulos

The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has a high-resolution spectrograph called  ESPRESSO, designed specifically to detecting and characterize exoplanets. Astronomers recently ran a test with the instrument, studying the atmosphere and winds of Jupiter. They used a technique called Doppler velocimetry to measure the reflection of light from the Sun in the planet’s clouds, allowing for instantaneous measurement of the clouds’ wind speeds. The technique has also been used on Venus and will guide the future study of exoplanets.

Continue reading “Astronomers Test an Exoplanet Instrument on Jupiter”

17 Known Exoplanets Could Have Oceans of Liquid Water

Astrobiologists believe that the Solar System's ice worlds are some of the most interesting places to search for life. These are moons or dwarf planets with thick ice shells surrounding oceans of liquid water - the perfect habitats for life. A new NASA study has found 17 exoplanets that have the right size, density and distance from their stars, and are probably similar to Europa or Enceladus and might even have geysers blasting water into space. Image Credit: NASA

The search for life is tied to the search for liquid water. That’s why astronomers are so keen on detecting rocky, Earth-like exoplanets in their stars’ habitable zones. In a habitable zone, a planet receives enough energy from its star to maintain liquid water on its surface, given the right atmospheric conditions.

But in our Solar System, we’ve found worlds with liquid water that are way beyond the habitable zone. Can we do the same in other solar systems?

Continue reading “17 Known Exoplanets Could Have Oceans of Liquid Water”

Earth’s Past and Future Habitability Depends on Our Protection from Space Weather

Sun with a huge coronal mass ejection. Image credit: NASA

A bewildering number of factors and variables led up to the planet we occupy today, where life finds a way to survive and even thrive in the most marginal conditions. The Sun is the catalyst for it all, propelling life on its journey to greater complexity with its steady fusion.

But the Sun is only benign because of Earth’s built-in protection, the magnetosphere. Both the Sun and the magnetosphere have changed over time, with each one’s strength ebbing and flowing. The Sun drives powerful space weather our way, and the magnetosphere shields the Earth.

How have these two phenomena shaped Earth’s habitability?

Continue reading “Earth’s Past and Future Habitability Depends on Our Protection from Space Weather”

Enceladus has All the Raw Materials for Life

Saturn's moon Enceladus isn't just bright and beautiful. It has an ocean under all that ice that could have hydrothermal vents that create organic chemicals. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, JPL, SSI, Cassini Imaging Team

Saturn’s ocean moon, Enceladus, is attracting increasing attention in the search for life in our Solar System. Most of what we know about Enceladus and its ice-covered ocean comes from the Cassini mission. Cassini ended its exploration of the Saturn system in 2017, but scientists are still working through its data.

New research based on Cassini data strengthens the idea that Enceladus has the chemicals necessary for life.

Continue reading “Enceladus has All the Raw Materials for Life”