Micrometeorites Churn up the Surface of Europa. If you Want to Find Life, You’ll Need to dig Down a Meter or So

In the coming decade, NASA and the ESA will be sending two dedicated missions that will explore Jupiter’s moon Europa. These missions are known as the Europa Clipper and the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) missions, which will fulfill a dream that has been decades in the making – searching for possible evidence of life inside Europa. Since the 1970s, astronomers have theorized that this satellite contains a warm-water ocean that could support life.

The case for life in Europa has only been bolstered thanks to multiple flybys and observation campaigns that have been mounted since. According to new research led by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the best way to look for potential signs of life (aka. biosignatures) would be to analyze small impact craters on Europa’s surface. These patches of exposed subsurface ice could point the way towards life that might exist deeper in the moon’s interior.

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Cassini Saw Methane in Enceladus’ Plumes. Scientists Don’t Know How it Could be There Without Life

Even though the Cassini mission at Saturn ended nearly four years ago, data from the spacecraft still keeps scientists busy. And the latest research using Cassini’s wealth of data might be the most enticing yet.

Researchers say they’ve detected methane in the plumes of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. The process for how the methane is produced is not known at this time, but the study suggests that the surprisingly large amount of methane found are likely coming from activity at hydrothermal vents present on Enceladus’s interior seafloor. These vents could be very similar those found in Earth’s oceans, where microorganisms live, feed on the energy from the vents and produce methane in a process called methanogenesis.

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To Take the Best Direct Images of Exoplanets With Space Telescopes, we’re Going to Want Starshades

Between 2021 and 2024, the James Webb (JWST) and Nancy Grace Roman (RST) space telescopes will be launched to space. As the successors to multiple observatories (like Hubble, Kepler, Spitzer, and others), these missions will carry out some of the most ambitious astronomical surveys ever mounted. This will range from the discovery and characterization of extrasolar planets to investigating the mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

In addition to advanced imaging capabilities and high sensitivity, both instruments also carry coronagraphs – instruments that suppress obscuring starlight so exoplanets can be detected and observed directly. According to a selection of papers recently published by the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems (JATIS), we’re going to need more of these instruments if we truly want to really study exoplanets in detail.

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Most Exoplanets won’t Receive Enough Radiation to Support an Earth-Like Biosphere

To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,422 extrasolar planets in 3,280 star systems, with an additional 7,445 candidates awaiting confirmation. Of these, only a small fraction (165) have been terrestrial (aka. rocky) in nature and comparable in size to Earth – i.e., not “Super-Earths.” And even less have been found that are orbiting within their parent star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ).

In the coming years, this is likely to change when next-generation instruments (like James Webb) are able to observe smaller planets that orbit closer to their stars (which is where Earth-like planets are more likely to reside). However, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Napoli and the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), Earth-like biospheres may be very rare for exoplanets.

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Astrobiologists Detect a Signature of Life Remotely. Don’t get too Excited, Though, it was With a Helicopter Here on Earth

Chirality is a word normally found in biological textbooks that will occasionally pop up in the astronomy community, usually when discussing potential biosignatures.  Typically the term is explained by analogy with left and right hands – how the molecules are curved in one specific way or another, similarly to how human hands are formed either as left or right.  These two curvatures of the molecules are mirror images of each other, but not exactly the same.  Until recently, detection of chirality has focused on in situ measurements, such as those on Mars where molecules can be sampled directly.  Now, however, a team led by Drs. Lucas Patty and Jonas Kühn at the University of Bern, has managed to detect chirality remotely using some impressive new technology.

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New Technique to Search for Life, Whether or not it’s Similar to Earth Life

In 1960, the first survey dedicated to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was mounted at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. This was Project Ozma, which was the brainchild of famed astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake (for whom the Drake Equation is named). Since then, the collective efforts to find evidence of life beyond Earth have coalesced to create a new field of study known as astrobiology.

The search for extraterrestrial life has been the subject of renewed interest thanks to the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered in recent years. Unfortunately, our efforts are still heavily constrained by our limited frame of reference. However, a new tool developed by a team of researchers from the University of Glasgow and Arizona State University (ASU) could point the way towards life in all of its forms!

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There Might be Volcanoes at the Bottom of Europa’s sub-ice Oceans

In about three years, NASA plans to launch a robotic orbiter that will study Jupiter’s mysterious moon Europa. It’s called the Europa Clipper mission, which will spend four years orbiting Europa to learn more about its ice sheet, interior structure, chemical composition, and plume activity. In the process, NASA hopes to find evidence that will help resolve the ongoing debate as to whether or not Europa harbors life in its interior.

Naturally, scientists are especially curious about what the Clipper mission might find, especially in Europa’s interior. According to new research and modeling supported by NASA, it’s possible that volcanic activity occurred on the seafloor in the recent past – which could be happening still. This research is the most detailed and thorough 3D modeling on how internal heat is produced and transferred and what effect this will have on a moon.

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Researchers Develop a new Framework for Searching for Biosignatures

Planning ahead is something astronomy and space exploration excels at.  Decadal surveys and years of engineering effort for missions give the field a much longer time horizon than many others.  In the near future, scientists know there will be plenty of opportunities to search for biosignatures everywhere from nearby ocean worlds (i.e. Titan) to far away potentially habitable exoplanets.  But it’s not clear what those biosignatures would look like.  After all, currently there is only Earth’s biosphere to study, and it would be unfortunate to miss hints of another just because it didn’t look like those found on Earth.   Now a team led by researchers at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) have come up with a framework that could help scientists look for biosignatures that might be completely different from those found on Earth.

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Mars has the Right Conditions for Life Just Under the Surface

According to the immortal words of Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) “Life..uh…finds a way”.  Back in 2005, an article in Nature used the famous quote from Jurassic Park to describe the possibility of life surviving on Mars.  It encapsulates the hope that life’s adaptability, which it has proved itself so many times over on Earth, could hold true on other planets as well.  Now a new paper in Astrobiology shows that there might very well be a place where life can sustain itself on the red planet – right underneath the surface.

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Perseverance has Started Driving on Mars

On February 18th, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars. Over the next two years of its primary mission, this robotic mission will carry on in the search for past life on Mars, obtaining soil and rock drill samples that will be returned to Earth someday for analysis. And as of March 4th, the rover conducted its first drive, covering 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) across the Martian landscape.

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