Water Worlds Could Have Plumes of Nutrients Carried up From Down Below

This reprocessed colour view of Jupiter’s moon Europa was made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s.

Earth’s oceans are one huge, uniform electrolyte solution. They contain salt (sodium chloride) and other nutrients like magnesium, sulphate, and calcium. We can’t survive without electrolytes, and life on Earth might look very different without the oceans’ electrolyte content. It might even be non-existent.

On Earth, electrolytes are released into the oceans from rock by different processes like volcanism and hydrothermal activity.

Are these life-enabling nutrients available on water worlds?

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These are the Best Places to Search for Habitable Exomoons

An artist's conception of a habitable exomoon. Credit: NASA

Our Solar System contains eight planets and more than 200 moons. The large majority of those moons have no chance of being habitable, but some of them—Europa and Enceladus, for example—are strong candidates in the search for life.

Is it the same in other solar systems?

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Shallow Pockets of Water Under the ice on Europa Could Bring Life Close to its Surface

This artist’s conception shows how double ridges on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa may form over shallow, refreezing water pockets within the ice shell. This mechanism is based on the study of an analogous double ridge feature found on Earth’s Greenland Ice Sheet. (Image credit: Justice Blaine Wainwright)

Beneath the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, there’s an ocean up to 100 km (62 mi) deep that has two to three times the volume of every ocean on Earth combined. Even more exciting is how this ocean is subject to hydrothermal activity, which means it may have all the necessary ingredients for life. Because of this, Europa is considered one of the most likely places for extraterrestrial life (beyond Mars). Hence, mission planners and astrobiologists are eager to send a mission there to study it closer.

Unfortunately, Europa’s icy surface makes the possibility of sampling this ocean rather difficult. According to the two predominant models for Europa’s structure, the ice sheet could be a few hundred meters to several dozen kilometers thick. Luckily, new research by a team from Stanford University has shown that Europa’s icy shell may have an abundance of water pockets inside, as indicated by features on the surface that look remarkably like icy ridges here on Earth.

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Machine Learning Will be one of the Best Ways to Identify Habitable Exoplanets

Illustration of Kepler-186f, a recently-discovered, possibly Earthlike exoplanet that could be a host to life. (NASA Ames, SETI Institute, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle)

The field of extrasolar planet studies is undergoing a seismic shift. To date, 4,940 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,711 planetary systems, with another 8,709 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many planets available for study and improvements in telescope sensitivity and data analysis, the focus is transitioning from discovery to characterization. Instead of simply looking for more planets, astrobiologists will examine “potentially-habitable” worlds for potential “biosignatures.”

This refers to the chemical signatures associated with life and biological processes, one of the most important of which is water. As the only known solvent that life (as we know it) cannot exist, water is considered the divining rod for finding life. In a recent study, astrophysicists Dang Pham and Lisa Kaltenegger explain how future surveys (when combined with machine learning) could discern the presence of water, snow, and clouds on distant exoplanets.

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It Turns out, We Have a Very Well-Behaved Star

Our Sun is a Population II star about 5 billion years old. It contains elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron, though only in tiny percentags. Image: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Our Sun is a Population II star about 5 billion years old. It contains elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron, though only in tiny percentags. Image: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Should we thank our well-behaved Sun for our comfy home on Earth?

Some stars behave poorly. They’re unruly and emit powerful stellar flares that can devastate life on any planets within range of those flares. New research into stellar flares on other stars makes our Sun seem downright quiescent.

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Eggshell Planets Have a Thin Brittle Crust and No Mountains or Tectonics

'Eggshell planets’ are rocky worlds that have an ultra-thin outer brittle layer and little to no topography. Here, an artist’s rendition of such an exoplanet. (Image: NASA)

Planets without plate tectonics are unlikely to be habitable. But currently, we’ve never seen the surface of an exoplanet to determine if plate tectonics are active. Scientists piece together their likely surface structures from other evidence. Is there a way to determine what exoplanets might be eggshells, and eliminate them as potentially habitable?

The authors of a newly-published paper say there is.

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Rocky Planets Might Need to be the Right age to Support Life

This artist’s impression shows the planet orbiting the Sun-like star HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is one of sixteen super-Earths discovered by the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth lis at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid water, and perhaps even life, could potentially exist. Credit: ESO

Extrasolar planets are being discovered at a rapid rate, with 4,531 planets in 3,363 systems (with another 7,798 candidates awaiting confirmation). Of these, 166 have been identified as rocky planets (aka. “Earth-like”), while another 1,389 have been rocky planets that are several times the size of Earth (“Super-Earths). As more and more discoveries are made, the focus is shifting from the discovery process towards characterization.

In order to place tighter constraints on whether any of these exoplanets are habitable, astronomers and astrobiologists are looking for ways to detect biomarkers and other signs of biological processes. According to a new study, astronomers and astrobiologists should look for indications of a carbon-silicate cycle. On Earth, this cycle ensures that our climate remains stable for eons and could be the key to finding life on other planets.

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A Technique to Find Oceans on Other Worlds

Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

You could say that the study of extrasolar planets is in a phase of transition of late. To date, 4,525 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,357 systems, with another 7,761 candidates awaiting confirmation. As a result, exoplanet studies have been moving away from the discovery process and towards characterization, where follow-up observations of exoplanets are conducted to learn more about their atmospheres and environments.

In the process, exoplanet researchers hope to see if any of these planets possess the necessary ingredients for life as we know it. Recently, a pair of researchers from Northern Arizona University, with support from the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), developed a technique for finding oceans on exoplanets. The ability to find water on other planets, a key ingredient in life on Earth, will go a long way towards finding extraterrestrial life.

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Mars Was Too Small to Ever be Habitable

An artist's rendition of a Mars with Earth-like surface water. Image source: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens; NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service; NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS; Graphic design by Sean Garcia/Washington University)

Mars and water. Those words can trigger an avalanche of speculation, evidence, hypotheses, and theories. Mars has some water now, but it’s frozen, and most of it’s buried. There’s only a tiny bit of water vapour in the atmosphere. Evidence shows that it was much wetter in the past. In its ancient past, the planet may have had a global ocean. But was it habitable at one time?

A new study says it wasn’t. Mars lost most of its water, and it’s all to do with the planet’s size.

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Ocean Worlds With Hydrogen-Rich Atmospheres Could be the Perfect Spots for Life

Artist's impression of the surface of a "Hycean" world. Credit: University of Cambridge

The search for planets beyond our Solar System (extrasolar planets) has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade. A total of 4,514 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,346 planetary systems, with another 7,721 candidates awaiting confirmation. At present, astrobiologists are largely focused on the “low hanging fruit” approach of looking for exoplanets that are similar in size, mass, and atmospheric composition to Earth (aka. “Earth-like.”)

However, astrobiologists are also interested in finding examples of “exotic life,” the kind that emerged under conditions that are not “Earth-like.” For example, a team of astronomers from the University of Cambridge recently conducted a study that showed how life could emerge on ocean-covered planets with hydrogen-rich atmospheres (aka. “Hycean” planets). These findings could have significant implications for exoplanet studies and the field of astrobiology.

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