What Can Early Earth Teach Us About the Search for Life?

This view of Earth from space is a fusion of science and art, drawing on data from multiple satellite missions and the talents of NASA scientists and graphic artists. This image originally appeared in the NASA Earth Observatory story Twin Blue Marbles. Image Credits: NASA images by Reto Stöckli, based on data from NASA and NOAA.

Earth is the only life-supporting planet we know of, so it’s tempting to use it as a standard in the search for life elsewhere. But the modern Earth can’t serve as a basis for evaluating exoplanets and their potential to support life. Earth’s atmosphere has changed radically over its 4.5 billion years.

A better way is to determine what biomarkers were present in Earth’s atmosphere at different stages in its evolution and judge other planets on that basis.

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If Europa has Geysers, They’re Very Faint

Jupiter's second Galilean moon, Europa. Its smooth surface has fewer craters than other moons, but they help us understand its icy shell. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Galileo spacecraft)
The Hubble spotted evidence of geysers coming from Jupiter's moon Europa, but nobody's been able to find them again. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Galileo spacecraft)

In 2013, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted water vapour on Jupiter’s moon Europa. The vapour was evidence of plumes similar to the ones on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. That, and other compelling evidence, showed that the moon has an ocean. That led to speculation that the ocean could harbour life.

But the ocean is obscured under a thick, global layer of ice, making the plumes our only way of examining the ocean. The plumes are so difficult to detect they haven’t been confirmed.

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Webb Finds Deep Space Alcohol and Chemicals in Newly Forming Planetary 

This image was taken by Webb’s Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) of a region parallel to the massive protostar known as IRAS23385.  IRAS 2A and IRAS23385 (not visible in this image) were targets for a recent research effort by an international team of astronomers that used Webb to discover that the key ingredients for making potentially habitable worlds are present in early-stage protostars, where planets have not yet formed. With MIRI’s unprecedented spectral resolution and sensitivity, the JOYS+ (James Webb Observations of Young ProtoStars) programme individually identified organic molecules that have been confirmed to be present in interstellar ices. This includes the robust detection of acetaldehyde, ethanol, methyl formate, and likely acetic acid, in the solid phase. [Image description: A region of a molecular cloud. The cloud is dense and bright close to the top of the image, like rolling clouds, and grows darker and more wispy towards the bottom and in the top corner. One bright star, and several dimmer stars, are visible as light spots among the clouds. The image is a single exposure which has been assigned an orange colour for visibility.]

Since its launch in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has made some amazing discoveries. Recent observations have found a number of key ingredients required for life in young proto-stars where planetary formation is imminent. Chemicals like methane, acetic acid and ethanol have been detected in interstellar ice. Previous telescopic observations have only hinted at their presence as a warm gas. Not only have they been detected but a team of scientists have synthesised some of them in a lab.

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Europe Has Big Plans for Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

A false-colour image of the plumes erupting from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/ESA
A false-colour image of the plumes erupting from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/ESA

Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, is a gleaming beacon that captivates our intellectual curiosity. Its clean, icy surface makes it one of the most reflective objects in the entire Solar System. But it’s what’s below that ice that really gets scientists excited.

Under its icy shell is an ocean of warm, salty water, and the ESA says investigating the moon should be a top priority.

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Another Hycean Planet Found? TOI-270 d

Artist's impression of the surface of a hycean world. Hycean worlds are still hypothetical, and have large oceans and thick hydrogen-rich atmospheres that trap heat. They could be habitable even if they're outside the traditional habitable zone. Credit: University of Cambridge

Hycean planets may be able to host life even though they’re outside what scientists consider the regular habitable zone. Their thick atmospheres can trap enough heat to keep the oceans warm even though they’re not close to their stars.

Astronomers have found another one of these potential hycean worlds named TOI-270 d.

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The LIFE Telescope Passed its First Test: It Detected Biosignatures on Earth.

LIFE will have five separate space telescopes that fly in formation and work together to detect biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres. Image Credit: LIFE, ETH Zurich

We know that there are thousands of exoplanets out there, with many millions more waiting to be discovered. But the vast majority of exoplanets are simply uninhabitable. For the few that may be habitable, we can only determine if they are by examining their atmospheres. LIFE, the Large Interferometer for Exoplanets, can help.

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If Exoplanets Have Lightning, it’ll Complicate the Search for Life

Lightning on exoplanets could mask some biosignatures and amplify others. Image Credit: NASA/T.Pyle

Discovering exoplanets is almost routine now. We’ve found over 5,500 exoplanets, and the next step is to study their atmospheres and look for biosignatures. The James Webb Space Telescope is leading the way in that effort. But in some exoplanet atmospheres, lightning could make the JWST’s job more difficult by obscuring some potential biosignatures while amplifying others.

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Astrobiology: Why study it? How to study it? What are the challenges?

Credit: NASA

Universe Today has proudly examined the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, and exoplanets, and what they can teach scientists and the public about finding life beyond Earth. Impact craters both shape these planetary surfaces and hold the power to create or destroy life, and we learned how exoplanets are changing our views of planetary formation and evolution, including how and where we might find life in the cosmos. Here, we will discuss how these disciplines contribute to the field responsible for finding life beyond Earth, known as astrobiology. We will discuss why scientists study astrobiology, also known as astrobiologists, challenges of studying astrobiology, and how students can pursue studying astrobiology, as well. So, why is it so important to study astrobiology?

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There are Mysteries at Venus. It’s Time for an Astrobiology Mission

NASA's Magellan spacecraft captured this image of Venusian craters. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

When scientists detected phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere in 2020, it triggered renewed, animated discussions about Venus and its potential habitability. It would be weird if the detection didn’t generate interest since phosphine is a potential biomarker. So people were understandably curious. Unfortunately, further study couldn’t confirm its presence.

But even without phosphine, Venus’ atmosphere is full of chemical intrigue that hints at biological processes. Is it time to send an astrobiology mission to our hellish sister planet?

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Webb Finds Icy Complex Organic Molecules Around Protostars: Ethanol, Methane, Formaldehyde, Formic Acid and Much More

Astronomers have used JWST to study the environments around 30 young protostars and found a vast collection of icy organic molecules. A recent survey identified methane, sulfur dioxide, ethanol, formaldehyde, formic acid, and many more. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

In the quest to understand how and where life might arise in the galaxy, astronomers search for its building blocks. Complex Organic Molecules (COMs) are some of those blocks, and they include things like formaldehyde and acetic acid, among many others. The JWST has found some of these COMs around young protostars. What does this tell astronomers?

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