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

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.

Continue reading “Rocky Planets Might Need to be the Right age to Support Life”

There’s Enough Sunlight Getting Through Venus’ Clouds to Support High-Altitude Life

Carl Sagan once famously, and sarcastically, observed that, since we couldn’t see what was going on on the surface of Venus, there must be dinosaurs living there.  Once humans started landing probes on the planet’s surface, any illusion of a lush tropical world was quickly dispelled.  Venus was a hellscape of extraordinary temperatures and pressures that would make it utterly inhospitable to anything resembling Earth life.  

But more recently, astrobiologists have again turned their attention to the Morning Star.  But this time, instead of looking at the surface, they looked in the clouds.  And now, a new study from researchers at California Polytechnic, Pomona, has calculated that there is likely a layer in the atmosphere where photosynthesis can occur. Meaning there is a zone in Venus’ cloud layer where life could have evolved.

Continue reading “There’s Enough Sunlight Getting Through Venus’ Clouds to Support High-Altitude Life”

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

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.

Continue reading “Ocean Worlds With Hydrogen-Rich Atmospheres Could be the Perfect Spots for Life”

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Most Exoplanets won’t Receive Enough Radiation to Support an Earth-Like Biosphere”

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.

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

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!

Continue reading “New Technique to Search for Life, Whether or not it’s Similar to Earth Life”

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.

Continue reading “There Might be Volcanoes at the Bottom of Europa’s sub-ice Oceans”