Toxic Perchlorate on Mars Could Make Life More Interesting

Credit: Joseph Heili, Tanner Hoog, and Aaron Engelhart

The search for life in the Universe has fascinated humans for centuries. Mars has of course been high on the list of potential habitats for alien existence but since the numerous spacecraft images that have come back showing a barren landscape, it seems Mars may not be so habitable after all. That is, until recently. The Martian regolith, the top layer of dust upon the surface has been found to be full of perchlorate salts.  These chemicals are poisonous to most life on Earth but a new study suggests that some extremophile protein enzymes and RNA may just be able to survive!

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Testing a Probe that Could Drill into an Ice World

SLUSH prototype probe set up over an ice tower. Bottom left: Top view of 1.4 m borehole created by the SLUSH prototype probe. Middle: Dolphin Probe being tested inside an ice tower. Right: Salmon Probe being tested on top of Devon Island Ice Cap.

I remember reading about an audacious mission to endeavour to drill through the surface ice of Europa, drop in a submersible and explore the depths below. Now that concept may be taking a step closer to reality with researchers working on technology to do just that. Worlds like Europa are high on the list for exploration due to their potential to harbour life. If technology like the SLUSH probe (Search for Life Using Submersible Head) work then we are well on the way to realising that dream. 

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The SETI Ellipse Tells Us Where to Search for Extraterrestrial Civilizations

The SETI Ellipsoid (Image credit: Zayna Sheikh)

Of all the questions that remain unanswered, the question of life in the Universe is surely the one that captures our attention the most. In a Universe whose observable edge is 46 billion light years away, is it even conceivable that we are alone, the sole planet among the millions and perhaps billions that are out there, where life has evolved, an oasis of life in the cosmic ocean. In the search for alien civilisations, researchers have proposed that it may be possible to use bright galactic events like supernovae to act as a focal point for civilisations to announce their presence! 

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Want to Find Life? Compare a Planet to its Neighbors

Earth compared to the exoplanet Kepler-186f. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

With thousands of known exoplanets and tens of thousands likely to be discovered in the coming decades, it could be only a matter of time before we discover a planet with life. The trick is proving it. So far the focus has been on observing the atmospheric composition of exoplanets, looking for molecular biosignatures that would indicate the presence of life. But this can be difficult since many of the molecules produced by life on Earth could also be produced by geologic processes. A new study argues that a better approach would be to compare the atmospheric composition of a potentially habitable world with those of other planets in the star system.

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JWST Might Have Imaged a Hycean World for the First Time, With a Hydrogen-Rich Atmosphere and a Deep Planet-Wide Water Ocean

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

Despite its great oceans, Earth is not really an ocean world. It has less water than icy moons such as Europa and Enceladus, a relatively thin nitrogen-rich atmosphere, and vast continents that rise above sea level. A true ocean world would have no continents, a warm sea hundreds of kilometers deep, and a thick hydrogen and water-rich atmosphere. They are known as hydrogen-ocean planets or hycean worlds. While we’ve long thought they exist, the James Webb Space Telescope may now have found one.

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NASA is Getting Serious About the Search for Life in the Universe

Frameworks are a valuable tool in science.  They give context to sometimes abstract concepts such as “how powerful can an alien civilization be” (Kardashev scale) or “how developed is this technology?” (Technology Readiness Levels).  Now, NASA has developed a new scale to help give context to what some consider one of the agency’s most critical missions – the search for extraterrestrial life.

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How Much Life Would Be Required to Create the Phosphine Signal on Venus?

How can astronomers tell exo-Earths and exo-Venuses apart? Polarimetry might be the key. Image Credits: NASA

A Biosignature

Last week, an incredible announcement was made about the search for extraterrestrial life: Phosphine gas detected in the clouds of Venus – a potential indicator of life or “biosignature.” Now some gases might be a false positive for biosignatures because they can be created by other chemical processes on a planet like photochemical processes in the atmosphere or geological processes beneath the surface that create a given gas. For example, methane can also be a biosignature, and we’ve been hunting it down on Mars, but we know that methane can also be created geologically. Finding phosphine in Venusian clouds is truly remarkable because we don’t presently know of any way to create phosphine abiotically or without life being a part of the equation. Question is – how much life??

Clouds of Venus as seen from Mariner 10’s flyby – NASA
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Galaxies Like the Milky Way are the Best for Life

The core of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

Scientists have speculated that given the sheer number of galaxies in our Universe – modern estimates are as high as 2 trillion – that there must be infinite opportunities for life to emerge. It has also been theorized that galaxies (like stars) have habitable zones, where star systems located too close to the core or too far out in the spiral arms will be exposed to too much radiation for life to emerge.

But are certain types of galaxies more likely to produce intelligent life? Not that long ago, scientists believed that giant elliptical galaxies – which are substantially larger than spiral galaxies (like the Milky Way) – are a far more likely place to find advanced civilizations. But according to new research from the University of Arkansas, these galaxies may not be the cradles of civilization they were previously thought to be.

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What About a Mission to Titan?

What About a Mission to Titan?
What About a Mission to Titan?

As you probably know, NASA recently announced plans to send a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. If all goes well, the Europa Clipper will blast off for the world in the 2020s, and orbit the icy moon to discover all its secrets.

And that’s great and all, I like Europa just fine. But you know where I’d really like us to go next? Titan.

Titan, as you probably know, is the largest moon orbiting Saturn. In fact, it’s the second largest moon in the Solar System after Jupiter’s Ganymede. It measures 5,190 kilometers across, almost half the diameter of the Earth. This place is big.

It orbits Saturn every 15 hours and 22 days, and like many large moons in the Solar System, it’s tidally locked to its planet, always showing Saturn one side.

Titan image taken by Cassini on Oct. 7, 2013 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Before NASA’s Voyager spacecraft arrived in 1980, astronomers actually thought that Titan was the biggest moon in the Solar System. But Voyager showed that it actually has a thick atmosphere, that extends well into space, making the true size of the moon hard to judge.

This atmosphere is one of the most interesting features of Titan. In fact, it’s the only moon in the entire Solar System with a significant atmosphere. If you could stand on the surface, you would experience about 1.45 times the atmospheric pressure on Earth. In other words, you wouldn’t need a pressure suit to wander around the surface of Titan.

You would, however, need a coat. Titan is incredibly cold, with an average temperature of almost -180 Celsius. For you Fahrenheit people that’s -292 F. The coldest ground temperature ever measured on Earth is almost -90 C, so way way colder.

You would also need some way to breathe, since Titan’s atmosphere is almost entirely nitrogen, with trace amounts of methane and hydrogen. It’s thick and poisonous, but not murderous, like Venus.

Titan has only been explored a couple of times, and we’ve actually only landed on it once.

The first spacecraft to visit Titan was NASA’s Pioneer 11, which flew past Saturn and its moons in 1979. This flyby was followed by NASA’s Voyager 1 in 1980 and then Voyager 2 in 1981. Voyager 1 was given a special trajectory that would take it as close as possible to Titan to give us a close up view of the world.

Saturn’s moon Titan lies under a thick blanket of orange haze in this Voyager 1 picture. Credit: NASA

Voyager was able to measure its atmosphere, and helped scientists calculate Titan’s size and mass. It also got a hint of darker regions which would later turn out to be oceans of liquid hydrocarbons.

The true age of Titan exploration began with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn on July 4, 2004. Cassini made its first flyby of Titan on October 26, 2004, getting to within 1,200 kilometers or 750 miles of the planet. But this was just the beginning. By the end of its mission later this year, Cassini will have made 125 flybys of Titan, mapping the world in incredible detail.

Cassini saw that Titan actually has a very complicated hydrological system, but instead of liquid water, it has weather of hydrocarbons. The skies are dotted with methane clouds, which can rain and fill oceans of nearly pure methane.

And we know all about this because of Cassini’s Huygen’s lander, which detached from the spacecraft and landed on the surface of Titan on January 14, 2005. Here’s an amazing timelapse that shows the view from Huygens as it passed down through the atmosphere of Titan, and landed on its surface.

Huygens landed on a flat plain, surrounded by “rocks”, frozen globules of water ice. This was lucky, but the probe was also built to float if it happened to land on liquid instead.

It lasted for about 90 minutes on the surface of Titan, sending data back to Earth before it went dark, wrapping up the most distant landing humanity has ever accomplished in the Solar System.

Although we know quite a bit about Titan, there are still so many mysteries. The first big one is the cycle of liquid. Across Titan there are these vast oceans of liquid methane, which evaporate to create methane clouds. These rain, creating mists and even rivers.

This false-color mosaic of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows what scientists interpret as an icy volcano. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Is it volcanic? There are regions of Titan that definitely look like there have been volcanoes recently. Maybe they’re cryovolcanoes, where the tidal interactions with Saturn cause water to well up from beneath crust and erupt onto the surface.

Is there life there? This is perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all. The methane rich system has the precursor chemicals that life on Earth probably used to get started billions of years ago. There’s probably heated regions beneath the surface and liquid water which could sustain life. But there could also be life as we don’t understand it, using methane and ammonia as a solvent instead of water.

To get a better answer to these questions, we’ve got to return to Titan. We’ve got to land, rove around, sail the oceans and swim beneath their waves.

Now you know all about this history of the exploration of Titan. It’s time to look at serious ideas for returning to Titan and exploring it again, especially its oceans.

Planetary scientists have been excited about the exploration of Titan for a while now, and a few preliminary proposals have been suggested, to study the moon from the air, the land, and the seas.

The spacecraft, balloon, and lander of the Titan Saturn System Mission. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

First up, there’s the Titan Saturn System Mission, a mission proposed in 2009, for a late 2020s arrival at Titan. This spacecraft would consist of a lander and a balloon that would float about in the atmosphere, and study the world from above. Over the course of its mission, the balloon would circumnavigate Titan once from an altitude of 10km, taking incredibly high resolution images. The lander would touch down in one of Titan’s oceans and float about on top of the liquid methane, sampling its chemicals.

As we stand right now, this mission is in the preliminary stages, and may never launch.

The Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance (AVIATR) concept for an aerial explorer for Titan. Credit: Mike Malaska

In 2012, Dr. Jason Barnes and his team from the University of Idaho proposed sending a robotic aircraft to Titan, which would fly around in the atmosphere photographing its surface. Titan is actually one of the best places in the entire Solar System to fly an airplane. It has a thicker atmosphere and lower gravity, and unlike the balloon concept, an airplane is free to go wherever it needs powered by a radioactive thermal generator.

Although the mission would only cost about $750 million or so, NASA hasn’t pushed it beyond the conceptual stage yet.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it’s own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit:

An even cooler plan would put a boat down in one of Titan’s oceans. In 2012, a team of Spanish engineers presented their idea for how a Titan boat would work, using propellers to put-put about across Titan’s seas. They called their mission the Titan Lake In-Situ Sampling Propelled Explorer, or TALISE.

Propellers are fine, but it turns out you could even have a sailboat on Titan. The methane seas have much less density and viscosity than water, which means that you’d only experience about 26% the friction of Earth. Cassini measured windspeeds of about 3.3 m/s across Titan, which half the average windspeed of Earth. But this would be plenty of wind to power a sail when you consider Titan’s thicker atmosphere.

And here’s my favorite idea. A submarine. This 6-meter vessel would float on Titan’s Kraken Mare sea, studying the chemistry of the oceans, measuring currents and tides, and mapping out the sea floor.

It would be capable of diving down beneath the waves for periods, studying interesting regions up close, and then returning to the surface to communicate its findings back to Earth. This mission is in the conceptual stage right now, but it was recently chosen by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Group for further study. If all goes well, the submarine would travel to Titan by 2038 when there’s a good planetary alignment.

Okay? Are you convinced? Let’s go back to Titan. Let’s explore it from the air, crawl around on the surface and dive beneath its waves. It’s one of the most interesting places in the entire Solar System, and we’ve only scratched the surface.

If I’ve done my job right, you’re as excited about a mission to Titan as I am. Let’s go back, let’s sail and submarine around that place. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

What Did Cassini Teach Us?

What Did Cassini Teach Us?
What Did Cassini Teach Us?

Ask me my favorite object in the Solar System, especially to see through a telescope, and my answer is always the same: Saturn.

Saturn is this crazy, ringed world, different than any other place we’ve ever seen. And in a small telescope, you can really see the ball of the planet, you can see its rings. It’s one thing to see a world like this from afar, a tiny jumping image in a telescope. To really appreciate and understand a place like Saturn, you’ve got to visit.

And thanks to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, that’s just what we’ve been doing for the last 13 years. Take a good close look at this amazing ringed planet and its moons, and studying it from every angle.

Space Probes
Cassini orbiting Saturn. Credit: NASA

Throughout this article, I’m going to regale you with the amazing discoveries made by Cassini at Saturn. What it taught us, and what new mysteries it uncovered.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was launched from Earth on October 15, 1997. Instead of taking the direct route, it made multiple flybys of Venus, a flyby of Earth and a flyby of Jupiter. Each one of these close encounters boosted Cassini’s velocity, allowing it to make the journey with less escape velocity from Earth.

It arrived at Saturn on July 1st, 2004 and began its science operations shortly after that. The primary mission lasted 4 years, and then NASA extended its mission two more times. The first ending in 2010, and the second due to end in 2017. But more on that later.

Before Cassini, we only had flybys of Saturn. NASA’s Pioneer 11, and Voyagers 1 and 2 both zipped past the planet and its moons, snapping pictures as they went.

But Cassini was here to stay. To orbit around and around the planet, taking photos, measuring magnetic fields, and studying chemicals.

For Saturn itself, Cassini was able to make regular observations of the planet as it passed through entire seasons. This allowed it to watch how the weather and atmospheric patterns changed over time. The spacecraft watched lightning storms dance through the cloudtops at night.

This series of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows the development of the largest storm seen on the planet since 1990. These true-color and composite near-true-color views chronicle the storm from its start in late 2010 through mid-2011, showing how the distinct head of the storm quickly grew large but eventually became engulfed by the storm’s tail. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Two highlights. In 2010, Cassini watched a huge storm erupt in the planet’s northern hemisphere. This storm dug deep into Saturn’s lower atmosphere, dredging up ice from a layer 160 kilometers below and mixing it onto the surface. This was the first time that astronomers were able to directly study this water ice on Saturn, which is normally in a layer hidden from view.

Natural color images taken by NASA’s Cassini wide-angle camera, showing the changing appearance of Saturn’s north polar region between 2012 and 2016.. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Hampton University

The second highlight, of course, is the massive hexagonal storm churning away in Saturn’s northern pole. This storm was originally seen by Voyager, but Cassini brought its infrared and visible wavelength instruments to bear.

Why a hexagon? That’s still a little unclear, but it seems like when you rotate fluids of different speeds, you get multi-sided structures like this.

Cassini showed how the hexagonal storm has changed in color as Saturn moved through its seasons.

This is one of my favorite images sent back by Cassini. It’s the polar vortex at the heart of the hexagon. Just look at those swirling clouds.

The polar vortex, in all its glory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Now, images of Saturn itself are great and all, but there was so much else for Cassini to discover in the region.

Cassini studied Saturn’s rings in great detail, confirming that they’re made up of ice particles, ranging in size as small a piece of dust to as large as a mountain. But the rings themselves are actually quite thin. Just 10 meters thick in some places. Not 10 kilometers, not 10 million kilometers, 10 meters, 30 feet.

The spacecraft helped scientists uncover the source of Saturn’s E-ring, which is made up of fresh icy particles blasting out of its moon Enceladus. More on that in a second too.

Vertical structures, among the tallest seen in Saturn’s main rings, rise abruptly from the edge of Saturn’s B ring to cast long shadows on the ring in this image taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft two weeks before the planet’s August 2009 equinox. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Here’s another one of my favorite images of the mission. You’re looking at strange structures in Saturn’s B-ring. Towering pillars of ring material that rise 3.5 kilometers above the surrounding area and cast long shadows. What is going on here?

They’re waves, generated in the rings and enhanced by nearby moons. They move and change over time in ways we’ve never been able to study anywhere else in the Solar System.

Daphnis, one of Saturn’s ring-embedded moons, is featured in this view, kicking up waves as it orbits within the Keeler gap. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Cassini has showed us that Saturn’s rings are a much more dynamic place than we ever thought. Some moons are creating rings, other moons are absorbing or distorting them. The rings generate bizarre spoke patterns larger than Earth that come and go because of electrostatic charges.

Speaking of moons, I’m getting to the best part. What did Cassini find at Saturn’s moons?

Let’s start with Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Before Cassini, we only had a few low resolution images of this fascinating world. We knew Titan had a dense atmosphere, filled with nitrogen, but little else.

Cassini was carrying a special payload to assist with its exploration of Titan: the Huygens lander. This tiny probe detached from Cassini just before its arrival at Saturn, and parachuted through the cloudtops on January 14, 2005, analyzing all the way. Huygens returned images of its descent through the atmosphere, and even images of the freezing surface of Titan.

Huygen’s view of Titan. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

But Cassini’s own observations of Titan took the story even further. Instead of a cold, dead world, Cassini showed that it has active weather, as well as lakes, oceans and rivers of hydrocarbons. It has shifting dunes of pulverized rock hard water ice.

If there’s one place that needs exploring even further, it’s Titan. We should return with sailboats, submarines and rovers to better explore this amazing place.

A view of Mimas from the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

We learned, without a shadow of a doubt, that Mimas absolutely looks like the Death Star. No question. But instead of a megalaser, this moon has a crater a third of its own size.

Saturn’s moon Iapetus. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Cassini helped scientists understand why Saturn’s moon Iapetus has one light side and one dark side. The moon is tidally locked to Saturn, its dark side always leading the moon in orbit. It’s collecting debris from another Saturnian moon, Phoebe, like bugs hitting the windshield of a car.

Perhaps the most exciting discovery that Cassini made during its mission is the strange behavior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The spacecraft discovered that there are jets of water ice blasting out of the moon’s southern pole. An ocean of liquid water, heated up by tidal interactions with Saturn, is spewing out into space.

And as you know, wherever we find water on Earth, we find life. We thought that water in the icy outer Solar System would be hard to reach, but here it is, right at the surface, venting into space, and waiting for us to come back and investigate it further.

Icy water vapor geysers erupting from fissures on Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

On September 15, 2017, the Cassini mission will end. How do we know it’s going to happen on this exact date? Because NASA is going to crash the spacecraft into Saturn, killing it dead.

That seems a little harsh, doesn’t it, especially for a spacecraft which has delivered so many amazing images to us over nearly two decades of space exploration? And as we’ve seen from NASA’s Opportunity rover, still going, 13 years longer than anticipated. Or the Voyagers, out in the depths of the void, helping us explore the boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space. These things are built to last.

The problem is that the Saturnian system contains some of the best environments for life in the Solar System. Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example, has geysers of water blasting out into space.

Cassini spacecraft is covered in Earth-based bacteria and other microscopic organisms that hitched a ride to Saturn, and would be glad to take a nice hot Enceladian bath. All they need is liquid water and a few organic chemicals to get going, and Enceladus seems to have both.

NASA feels that it’s safer to end Cassini now, when they can still control it, than to wait until they lose communication or run out of propellant in the future. The chances that Cassini will actually crash into an icy moon and infect it with our Earth life are remote, but why take the risk?
For the last few months, Cassini has been taking a series of orbits to prepare itself for its final mission. Starting in April, it’ll actually cross inside the orbit of the rings, getting closer and closer to Saturn. And on September 15th, it’ll briefly become a meteor, flashing through the upper atmosphere of Saturn, gone forever.

This graphic illustrates the Cassini spacecraft’s trajectory, or flight path, during the final two phases of its mission. The view is toward Saturn as seen from Earth. The 20 ring-grazing orbits are shown in gray; the 22 grand finale orbits are shown in blue. The final partial orbit is colored orange. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Even in its final moments, Cassini is going to be sciencing as hard as it can. We’ll learn more about the density of consistency of the rings close to the planet. We’ll learn more about the planet’s upper atmosphere, storms and clouds with the closest possible photographs you can take.

And then it’ll all be over. The perfect finale to one of the most successful space missions in human history. A mission that revealed as many new mysteries about Saturn as it helped us answer. A mission that showed us not only a distant alien world, but our own planet in perspective in this vast Solar System. I can’t wait to go back.

How have the photos from Cassini impacted your love of astronomy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.