Can the Gaia Hypothesis Be Tested in the Lab?

A new paper proposes an experimental setup that could test the classic Daisyworld model — a hypothesis of a self-regulating planetary ecosystem — in the lab via two synthetic bacterial strains. Credit: Victor Maull/Image Designer

During the 1970s, inventor/environmentalist James Lovelock and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis. This theory posits that Earth is a single, self-regulating system where the atmosphere, hydrosphere, all life, and their inorganic surroundings work together to maintain the conditions for life on the planet. This theory was largely inspired by Lovelock’s work with NASA during the 1960s, where the skilled inventor designed instruments for modeling the climate of Mars and other planets in the Solar System.

According to this theory, planets like Earth would slowly grow warmer and their oceans more acidic without a biosphere that regulates temperature and ensures climate stability. While the theory was readily accepted among environmentalists and climatologists, many in the scientific community have remained skeptical since it was proposed. Until now, it has been impossible to test this theory because it involves forces that work on a planetary scale. But in a recent paper, a team of Spanish scientists proposed an experimental system incorporating synthetic biology that could test the theory on a small scale.

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NASA Launches a New Mission to Study the Effects of Climate Change

NASA's PACE mission launches from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 9th, 2024. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Climate, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite successfully launched and reached on Thursday, February 10th. The mission took off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, at 1:33 am EST 10:33 pm (PST) atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. About five minutes after launch, NASA confirmed that ground stations on Earth had acquired a signal from the satellite and were receiving data on its operational status and capabilities post-launch. For the next three years, the mission will monitor Earth’s ocean and atmosphere and study the effects of climate change.

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Since Interstellar Objects Crashed Into Earth in the Past, Could They Have Brought Life?

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

On October 19th, 2017, astronomers with the Pan-STARRS survey detected an interstellar object (ISO) passing through our Solar System for the first time. The object, known as 1I/2017 U1 Oumuamua, stimulated significant scientific debate and is still controversial today. One thing that all could agree on was that the detection of this object indicated that ISOs regularly enter our Solar System. What’s more, subsequent research has revealed that, on occasion, some of these objects come to Earth as meteorites and impact the surface.

This raises a very important question: if ISOs have been coming to Earth for billions of years, could it be that they brought the ingredients for life with them? In a recent paper, a team of researchers considered the implications of ISOs being responsible for panspermia – the theory that the seeds of life exist throughout the Universe and are distributed by asteroids, comets, and other celestial objects. According to their results, ISOs can potentially seed hundreds of thousands (or possibly billions) of Earth-like planets throughout the Milky Way.

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We Just had the Strongest Solar Flare in the Current Solar Cycle

A solar flare erupts on the Sun. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO
A solar flare erupts on the Sun. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

On December 14th, at 12:02 PM Eastern (09:02 AM Pacific), the Sun unleashed a massive solar flare. According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this was the strongest flare of Solar Cycle 25, which began in 2019 and will continue until 2030. What’s more, scientists at the SWPC estimate that this may be one of the most powerful solar flares recorded since 1755 when extensive recording of solar sunspot activity began.

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It Doesn't Take Much to Get a Runaway Greenhouse Effect

Image credit: NASA
Image credit: NASA

During the 1960s, the first robotic explorers began making flybys of Venus, including the Soviet Venera 1 and the Mariner 2 probes. These missions dispelled the popular myth that Venus was shrouded by dense rain clouds and had a tropical environment. Instead, these and subsequent missions revealed an extremely dense atmosphere predominantly composed of carbon dioxide. The few Venera landers that made it to the surface also confirmed that Venus is the hottest planet in the Solar System, with average temperatures of 464 °C (867 °F).

These findings drew attention to anthropogenic climate change and the possibility that something similar could happen on Earth. In a recent study, a team of astronomers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) created the world’s first simulation of the entire greenhouse process that can turn a temperate planet suitable for Life into a hellish, hostile one. Their findings revealed that on Earth, a global average temperature rise of just a few tens of degrees (coupled with a slight rise in the Sun’s luminosity) would be sufficient to initiate this phenomenon and render our planet uninhabitable.

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It Doesn’t Take Much to Get Tilted Planets

Earth's axial tilt (or obliquity) and its relation to the rotation axis and plane of orbit. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Chinese and Indian astronomers were the first to measure Earth’s axial tilt accurately, and they did it about 3,000 years ago. Their measurements were remarkably accurate: in 1120 BC, Chinese astronomers pegged the Earth’s axial tilt at 24 degrees. Now we know that all of the planets in the Solar System, with the exception of Mercury, have some tilt.

While astronomers have puzzled over why our Solar System’s planets are tilted, it turns out it’s rather normal.

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The Combination of Oxygen and Methane Could Reveal the Presence of Life on Another World

This artist’s impression shows a Super-Earth orbiting a Sun-like star. HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is one of sixteen super-Earths discovered by the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth lis at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid water, and perhaps even life, could potentially exist. Credit: ESO

In searching for life in the Universe, a field known as astrobiology, scientists rely on Earth as a template for biological and evolutionary processes. This includes searching for Earth analogs, rocky planets that orbit within their parent star’s habitable zone (HZ) and have atmospheres composed of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. However, Earth’s atmosphere has evolved considerably over time from a toxic plume of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and traces of volcanic gas. Over time, the emergence of photosynthetic organisms caused a transition, leading to the atmosphere we see today.

The last 500 million years, known as the Phanerozoic Eon, have been particularly significant for the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere and terrestrial species. This period saw a significant rise in oxygen content and the emergence of animals, dinosaurs, and embryophyta (land plants). Unfortunately, the resulting transmission spectra are missing in our search for signs of life in exoplanet atmospheres. To address this gap, a team of Cornell researchers created a simulation of the atmosphere during the Phanerozoic Eon, which could have significant implications in the search for life on extrasolar planets.

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OSIRIS-REx Returned Carbon and Water from Asteroid Bennu

This is the outside of the OSIRIS-REx sample collector. Sample material from asteroid Bennu is on the middle right. There's evidence of carbon and water in the initial analysis of Bennu's regolith. Most of the sample is sealed inside the capsule. Photo: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

Carbon and water are so common on Earth that they’re barely worth mentioning. But not if you’re a scientist. They know that carbon and water are life-enabling chemicals and are also links to the larger cosmos.

Initial results from OSIRIS-REx’s Bennu samples show the presence of both in the asteroid’s regolith. Now, eager scientists will begin to piece together how Bennu’s carbon, water, and other molecules fit into the puzzle of the Earth, the Sun, and even the entire Solar System and beyond.

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If Earth is Average, We Should Find Extraterrestrial Life Within 60 Light-Years

Illustration: Assortment of exoplanets
Astronomers have detected thousands of planets, including dozens that are potentially habitable. (NASA Illustration)

In 1960, while preparing for the first meeting on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), legendary astronomer and SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake unveiled his probabilistic equation for estimating the number of possible civilizations in our galaxy – aka. The Drake Equation. A key parameter in this equation was ne, the number of planets in our galaxy capable of supporting life – aka. “habitable.” At the time, astronomers were not yet certain other stars had systems of planets. But thanks to missions like Kepler, 5523 exoplanets have been confirmed, and another 9,867 await confirmation!

Based on this data, astronomers have produced various estimates for the number of habitable planets in our galaxy – at least 100 billion, according to one estimate! In a recent study, Professor Piero Madau introduced a mathematical framework for calculating the population of habitable planets within 100 parsecs (326 light-years) of our Sun. Assuming Earth and the Solar System are representative of the norm, Madau calculated that this volume of space could contain as much as 11,000 Earth-sized terrestrial (aka. rocky) exoplanets that orbit within their stars’ habitable zones (HZs).

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NASA Confirms That 2023 was the Hottest Summer on Record

This map depicts global temperature anomalies for meteorological summer in 2023 (June, July, and August). It shows how much warmer or cooler different regions of Earth were compared to the baseline average from 1951 to 1980. Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory/Lauren Dauphin

Yesterday, NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) announced that the summer of 2003 was the hottest on record. This year saw a massive heat wave that swept across much of the world and was felt in South America, Japan, Europe, and the U.S. This exacerbated deadly wildfires in Canada and Hawaii (predominantly on the island of Maui) and are likely to have contributed to severe rainfall in Italy, Greece, and Central Europe. This is the latest in a string of record-setting summers that are the direct result of anthropogenic climate change.

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