The JWST Just Found Carbon on Europa, Boosting the Moon’s Potential Habitability

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

Most planets and moons in the Solar System are clearly dead and totally unsuitable for life. Earth is the only exception. But there are a few worlds where there are intriguing possibilities of life.

Chief among them is Jupiter’s moon Europa, and the JWST just discovered carbon there. That makes the moon and its subsurface ocean an even more desirable target in the search for life.

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Engineers Want to Make Methanol by Pulling Carbon Right Out of the Air

Researchers at Western Virginia University are working on a method of extracting carbon out of exhausted air from office buildings and using it to make methanol. Image Credit: WVU Illustration/Savanna Leech

Methanol is one of our most extensively used raw materials. It’s used as a solvent, a pesticide, and in combination with other chemicals in the manufacture of plastic, clothing, plywood, and in pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.

It’s also used as a fuel.

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Geoengineering is Shockingly Inexpensive

Geoengineering isn't a quick fix for our climate crisis, and it's also expensive. Image Credit: University of Leeds

Despite decades of warnings and international climate agreements, global carbon emissions are still rising. Carbon emissions seem like an unstoppable juggernaut as energy-hungry humans keep breeding and pursuing more affluent lifestyles. Reducing emissions won’t be enough to confront the climate crisis; we need additional solutions.

Geoengineering, also called climate engineering, could be the solution we seek. But is it financially feasible?

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JWST Sees Organic Molecules Ludicrously Far Away

Astronomers using the Webb telescope discovered evidence of complex organic molecules in a galaxy more than 12 billion light-years away. In this false-color Webb image, the foreground galaxy is shown in blue, while the background galaxy is red. The organic molecules are highlighted in orange. Graphic courtesy J. Spilker / S. Doyle, NASA, ESA, CSA

When astronomers used the JWST to look at a galaxy more than 12 billion light years away, they were also looking back in time. And when they found organic molecules in that distant galaxy, they found them in the early Universe.

The organic molecules are usually found where stars are forming, but in this case, they’re not.

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A New Place to Search for Habitable Planets: “The Soot Line.”

Artist impression of a young planet-forming disk illustrating the respective locations of the soot and water-ice lines. Planets born interior to the soot line will be silicate-rich. Planets born interior to the water-ice line, but exterior to the soot line will be silicate and soot-rich (“Sooty Worlds”). Planets born exterior to the water-ice line will be water worlds. Image credit: Ari Gea/SayoStudio.

The habitable zone is the region around a star where planets can maintain liquid water on their surface. It’s axiomatic that planets with liquid water are the best places to look for life, and astronomers focus their search on that zone. As far as we can tell, no water equals no life.

But new research suggests another delineation in solar systems that could influence habitability: The Soot Line.

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Warm Carbon Increased Suddenly in the Early Universe. Made by the First Stars?

While previous studies have suggested a rise in warm carbon, much larger samples – the basis of the new study – were needed to provide statistics to accurately measure the rate of this growth.

According to the most widely-accepted model of cosmology, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. As the Universe cooled, the fundamental laws of physics (the electroweak force, the strong nuclear force, and gravity) and the first hydrogen atoms formed. By 370,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe was permeated by neutral hydrogen and very few photons (the Cosmic Dark Ages). During the “Epoch of Reionization” that followed, the first stars and galaxies formed, reoinizing the neutral hydrogen and causing the Universe to become transparent.

For astronomers, the Epoch of Reionization still holds many mysteries, like when certain heavy elements formed. This includes the element carbon, a key ingredient in the formation of planets, an important element in organic processes, and the basis for life as we know it. According to a new study by the ARC Center of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D), it appears that triply-ionized carbon (C iv) existed far sooner than previously thought. Their findings could have drastic implications for our understanding of cosmic evolution.

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The Raw Materials for Life Form Early on in Stellar Nurseries

This is a two-panel mosaic of part of the Taurus Giant Molecular Cloud, the nearest active star-forming region to Earth. The darkest regions are where stars are being born. Inside these vast clouds, complex chemicals are also forming. Image Credit: Adam Block /Steward Observatory/University of Arizona

Life doesn’t appear from nothing. Its origins are wrapped up in the same long, arduous process that creates the elements, then stars, then planets. Then, if everything lines up just right, after billions of years, a simple, single-celled organism can appear, maybe in a puddle of water on a hospitable planet somewhere.

It takes time for the building blocks of stars and planets to assemble in space, and the building blocks of life are along for the ride. But there are significant gaps in our understanding of how all that works. A new study is filling in one of those gaps.

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The Most Devastating Solar Storms in History are Scoured Into Tree Rings

Scientists study tree rings because they retain a record of climatic events and changes. They also record the Sun's activity. Image Credit: Rbreidbrown/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Trees are like sentinels that preserve a record of shifting climates. Their growth rings hold that history and dendrochronology studies those rings. Scientists can determine the exact ages of trees and correlate their growth with climatic and environmental changes.

But they also record the effects of more distant changes, including the Sun’s activity.

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One of Life’s Building Blocks can Form in Space

A new kind of chemical reaction can explain how peptides can form on the icy layers of cosmic dust grains. Those peptides could have been transported to the early Earth by meteorites, asteroids or comets. Image Credit: © S. Krasnokutski / MPIA Graphics Department

Peptides are one of the smallest biomolecules and are one of life’s critical building blocks. New research shows that they could form on the surfaces of icy grains in space. This discovery lends credence to the idea that meteoroids, asteroids, or comets could have given life on Earth a kick start by crashing into the planet and delivering biological building blocks.

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Curiosity Sees a Strong Carbon Signature in a Bed of Rocks

This is the Stimson sandstone formation in Gale Crater on Mars. This is where the Curiosity Rover drilled the Edinburgh hole and found enriched Carbon 12. Image Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL/MSSS

Carbon is critical to life, as far as we know. So anytime we detect a strong carbon signature somewhere like Mars, it could indicate biological activity.

Does a strong carbon signal in Martian rocks indicate biological processes of some type?

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