Astronomy Cast Ep. 494: Icy Moons Update 2018

Thanks to Cassini and other spacecraft, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the icy worlds in the Solar System, from Jupiter’s Europa to Saturn’s Enceladus, to Pluto’s Charon. Geysers, food for bacteria, potential oceans under the ice and more. What new things have we learned about these places?
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Could There be Alien Life Right Beneath the Surface of Icy Worlds Like Enceladus and Europa?

For decades, scientists have been speculating that life could exist in beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Thanks to more recent missions (like the Cassini spacecraft), other moons and bodies have been added to this list as well – including Titan, Enceladus, Dione, Triton, Ceres and Pluto. In all cases, it is believed that this life would exist in interior oceans, most likely around hydrorthermal vents located at the core-mantle boundary.

One problem with this theory is that in such undersea environments, life might have a hard time getting some of the key ingredients it would need to thrive. However, in a recent study – which was supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) – a team of researchers ventured that in the outer Solar System, the combination of high-radiation environments, interior oceans and hydrothermal activity could be a recipe for life.

The study, titled “The Possible Emergence of Life and Differentiation of a Shallow Biosphere on Irradiated Icy Worlds: The Example of Europa“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Astrobiology. The study was led by Dr. Michael Russell with the support of Alison Murray of the Desert Research Institute and Kevin Hand – also a researcher with NASA JPL.

Vestimentiferan tubeworms (Riftia pachyptila) found near the Galapagos islands. Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Galapagos Rift Expedition 2011.

For the sake of their study, Dr. Russell and his colleagues considered how the interaction between alkaline hydrothermal springs and sea water is often considered to be how the key building blocks for life emerged here on Earth. However, they emphasize that this process was also dependent on energy provided by our Sun. The same process could have happened on moon’s like Europa, but in a different way. As they state in their paper:

“[T]he significance of the proton and electron flux must also be appreciated, since those processes are at the root of life’s role in free energy transfer and transformation. Here, we suggest that life may have emerged on irradiated icy worlds such as Europa, in part as a result of the chemistry available within the ice shell, and that it may be sustained still, immediately beneath that shell.”

In the case of moon’s like Europa, hydrothermal springs would be responsible for churning up all the necessary energy and ingredients for organic chemistry to take place. Ionic gradients, such as oxyhydroxides and sulfides, could drive the key chemical processes – where carbon dioxide and methane are hydrogenated and oxidized, respectively – which could lead to the creation of early microbial life and nutrients.

At the same time, the heat from hydrothermal vents would push these microbes and nutrients upwards towards the icy crust. This crust is regularly bombarded by high-energy electrons created by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, a process which creates oxidants. As scientists have known for some time from surveying Europa’s crust, there is a process of exchange between the moon’s interior ocean and its surface.

Artist’s concept of plume activity on the surface of Europa. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As Dr. Russell and his colleagues indicate, this action would most likely involve the plume activity that has been observed on Europa’s surface, and could lead to a network of ecosystems on the underside of Europa’s icy crust:

“Models for transport of material within Europa’s ocean indicate that hydrothermal plumes could be well constrained within the ocean (primarily by the Coriolis force and thermal gradients), leading to effective delivery through the ocean to the ice-water interface. Organisms fortuitously transported from hydrothermal systems to the ice-water interface along with unspent fuels could potentially access a larger abundance of oxidants directly from the ice. Importantly, oxidants might only be available where the ice surface has been driven to the base of the ice shell.”

As Dr. Russel indicated in an interview with Astrobiology Magazine, microbes on Europa could reach densities similar to what has been observed around hydrothermal vents here on Earth, and may bolster the theory that life on Earth also emerged around such vents. “All the ingredients and free energy required for  life are all focused in one place,” he said. “If we were to find life on Europa, then that would strongly support the submarine alkaline vent theory.”

This study is also significant when it comes to mounting future missions to Europa. If microbial ecosystems exist on the undersides of Europa’s icy crust, then they could be explored by robots that are able to penetrate the surface, ideally by traveling down a plume tunnel. Alternately, a lander could simply position itself near an active plume and search for signs of oxidants and microbes coming up from the interior.

Artist’s impression of a hypothetical ocean cryobot (a robot capable of penetrating water ice) in Europa. Credit: NASA

Similar missions could also be mounted to Enceladus, where the presence of hydrothermal vents has already been confirmed thanks to the extensive plume activity observed around its southern polar region. Here too, a robotic tunneler could enter surface fissures and explore the interior to see if ecosystems exist on the underside of the moon’s icy crust. Or a lander could position itself near the plumes and examine what is being ejected.

Such missions would be simpler and less likely to cause contamination than robotic submarines designed to explore Europa’s deep ocean environment. But regardless of what form a future mission to Europa, Enceladus, or other such bodies takes, it is encouraging to know that any life that may exist there could be accessible. And if these missions can sniff it out, we will finally know that life in the Solar System evolved in places other than Earth!

Further Reading: Astrobiology Magazine, Astrobiology

Scientists Find that Earth Bacteria Could Thrive on Enceladus

For decades, ever since the Pioneer and Voyager missions passed through the outer Solar System, scientists have speculated that life might exist within icy bodies like Jupiter’s moon Europa. However, thanks the Cassini mission, scientists now believe that other moons in the outer Solar System – such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus – could possibly harbor life as well.

For instance, Cassini observed plume activity coming from Enceladus’ southern polar region that indicated the presence of hydrothermal activity inside. What’s more, these plumes contained organic molecules and hydrated minerals, which are potential indications of life. To see if life could thrive inside this moon, a team of scientists conducted a test where strains of Earth bacteria were subjected to conditions similar to what is found inside Enceladus.

The study which details their findings recently appeared in the journal Nature Communications under the title “Biological methane production under putative Enceladus-like conditions“. The study was led by Ruth-Sophie Taubner from the University of Vienna, and included members from the Johannes Kepler University Linz, Ecotechnology Austria, the University of Bremen, and the University of Hamburg.

Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

For the sake of their study, the team chose to work with three strains of methanogenic archaea known as methanothermococcus okinawensis. This type of microorganism thrives in low-oxygen environments and consumes chemical products known to exist on Enceladus – such as methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and molecular hydrogen (H2) – and emit methane as a metabolic byproduct. As they state:

“To investigate growth of methanogens under Enceladus-like conditions, three thermophilic and methanogenic strains, Methanothermococcus okinawensis (65 °C), Methanothermobacter marburgensis (65 °C), and Methanococcus villosus (80 °C), all able to fix carbon and gain energy through the reduction of CO2 with H2 to form CH4, were investigated regarding growth and biological CH4 production under different headspace gas compositions…”

These strains were selected because of their ability to grow in a temperature range that is characteristic of the vicinity around hydrothermal vents, in a chemically defined medium, and at low partial pressures of molecular hydrogen. This is consistent with what has been observed in Enceladus’ plumes and what is believed to exist within the moon’s interior.

These types of archaea can still be found on Earth today, lingering in deep-see fissures and around hydrothermal vents. In particular, the strain of M. okinawensis has been determined to exist in only one location around the deep-sea hydrothermal vent field at Iheya Ridge in the Okinawa Trough near Japan. Since this vent is located at a depth of 972 m (3189 ft) below sea level, this suggests that this strain has a tolerance toward high pressure.

Hydrothermal vents on Earth’s ocean floor. Credit: NOAA

For many years, scientists have suspected that Earth’s hydrothermal vents played a vital role in the emergence of life, and that similar vents could exist within the interior of moons like Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, and other bodies in the outer Solar System. As a result, the research team believed that methanogenic archaea could also exist within these bodies.

After subjecting the strains to Enceladus-like temperature, pressure and chemical conditions in a laboratory environment, they found that one of the three strains was able to flourish and produce methane. The strain even managed to survive after the team introduced harsh chemicals that are present on Enceladus, and which are known to inhibit the growth of microbes. As they conclude in their study:

“In this study, we show that the methanogenic strain M. okinawensis is able to propagate and/or to produce CH4 under putative Enceladus-like conditions. M. okinawensis was cultivated under high-pressure (up to 50 bar) conditions in defined growth medium and gas phase, including several potential inhibitors that were detected in Enceladus’ plume.”

From this, they determined that some of the methane found in Enceladus’ plumes were likely produced by the presence of methanogenic microbes. As Simon Rittmann, a microbiologist at the University of Vienna and lead author of the study, explained in an interview with The Verge. “It’s likely this organism could be living on other planetary bodies,” he said. “And it could be really interesting to investigate in future missions.”

Artist impression of an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface. Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

In the coming decades, NASA and other space agencies plan to send multiple mission to the Jupiter and Saturn systems to investigate their “ocean worlds” for potential signs of life. In the case of Enceladus, this will most likely involve a lander that will set down around the southern polar region and collect samples from the surface to determine the presence of biosignatures.

Alternately, an orbiter mission may be developed that will fly through Enceladus’ plumes and collect bioreadings directly from the moon’s ejecta, thus picking up where Cassini left off. Whatever form the mission takes, the discoveries are expected to be a major breakthrough. At long last, we may finally have proof that Earth is not the only place in the Solar System where live can exist.

Be sure to check out John Michael Godier’s video titled “Encedalus and the Conditions for Life” as well:

Further Reading: The Verge, Nature

This was Exactly Where Cassini Crashed into Saturn

On September 15th, 2017, after nearly 20 years in service, the Cassini spacecraft ended its mission by plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn. During the 13 years it spent in the Saturn system, this probe revealed a great deal about the gas giant, its rings, and its systems of moons. As such, it was a bittersweet moment for the mission team when the probe concluded its Grand Finale and began descending into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Even though the mission has concluded, scientists are still busy poring over the data sent back by the probe. These include a mosaic of the final images snapped by Cassini’s cameras, which show the location of where it would enter Saturn’s atmosphere just hours later. The exact spot (shown above) is indicated by a white oval, which was on Saturn’s night side at the time, but would later come around to be facing the Sun.

From the beginning, the Cassini mission was a game-changer. After reaching the Saturn system on July 1st, 2004, the probe began a series of orbits around Saturn that allowed it conduct close flybys of several of its moons. Foremost among these were Saturn’s largest moon Titan and its icy moon Enceladus, both of which proved to be a treasure trove of scientific data.

Artist’s impression of the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

On Titan, Cassini revealed evidence of methane lakes and seas, the existence of a methanogenic cycle (similar to Earth’s hydrological cycle), and the presence of organic molecules and prebiotic chemistry. On Enceladus, Cassini examined the mysterious plumes emanating from its southern pole, revealing that they extended all the way to the moon’s interior ocean and contained organic molecules and hydrated minerals.

These findings have inspired a number of proposals for future robotic missions to explore Titan and Enceladus more closely. So far, proposals range from exploring Titan’s surface and atmosphere using lightweight aerial platforms, balloons and landers, or a dual quadcopter. Other proposals include exploring its seas using a paddleboat or a even a submarine. And alongside Europa, there are scientists clamoring for a mission to Enceladus and other “Ocean Worlds” to explore its plumes and maybe even its interior ocean.

Beyond that, Cassini also revealed a great deal about Saturn’s atmosphere, which included the persistent hexagonal storm that exists around the planet’s north pole. During its Grand Finale, where it made 22 orbits between Saturn and its rings, the probe also revealed a great deal about the three-dimensional structure and dynamic behavior of the planet’s famous system of rings.

This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

It is only fitting then that the Cassini probe would also capture images of the very spot where its mission would end. The images were taken by Cassini’s wide-angle camera on Sept. 14th, 2017, when the probe was at a distance of about 634,000 km (394,000 mi) from Saturn. They were taken using red, green and blue spectral filters, which were then combined to show the scene in near-natural color.

The resulting image is not dissimilar from another mosaic that was released on September 15th, 2017, to mark the end of the Cassini mission. This mosaic was created using data obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, which also showed the exact location where the spacecraft would enter the atmosphere – 9.4 degrees north latitude by 53 degrees west longitude.

The main difference, of course, is that this latest mosaic benefits from the addition of color, which provides a better sense of orientation. And for those who are missing the Cassini mission and its regular flow of scientific discoveries, its much more emotionally fitting! While we may never be able to find the wreckage buried inside Saturn’s atmosphere, it is good to know where its last known location was.

Further Reading: NASA

Icy Worlds Like Europa and Enceladus Might Actually be too Soft to Land On

Some truly interesting and ambitious missions have been proposed by NASA and other space agencies for the coming decades. Of these, perhaps the most ambitious include missions to explore the “Ocean Worlds” of the Solar System. Within these bodies, which include Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, scientists have theorized that life could exist in warm-water interior oceans.

By the 2020s and 2030s, robotic missions are expected to reach these worlds and set down on them, sampling ice and exploring their plumes for signs of biomarkers. But according to a new study by an international team of scientists, the surfaces of these moons may have extremely low-density surfaces. In other words, the surface ice of Europa and Enceladus could be too soft to land on.

The study, titled “Laboratory simulations of planetary surfaces: Understanding regolith physical properties from remote photopolarimetric observations“, was recently published in the scientific journal Icarus. The study was led by Robert M.Nelson, the Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) and included members from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California Polytechnic State University at Pomona, and multiple universities.

Artist’s rendering of a possible Europa Lander mission, which would explore the surface of the icy moon in the coming decades. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the sake of their study, the team sought to explain the unusual negative polarization behavior at low phase angles that has been observed for decades when studying atmosphereless bodies. This  polarization behavior is thought to be the result of extremely fine-grained bright particles. To simulate these surfaces, the team used thirteen samples of aluminum oxide powder (Al²O³).

Aluminum oxide is considered to be an excellent analog for regolith found on high aldebo Airless Solar System Bodies (ASSB), which include Europa and Encedalus as well as eucritic asteroids like 44 Nysa and 64 Angelina.  The team then subjected these samples to photopolarimetric examinations using the goniometric photopolarimeter at Mt. San Antonio College.

What they found was that the bright grains that make up the surfaces of Europa and Enceladus would measure about a fraction of a micron and have a void space of about 95%. This corresponds to material that is less dense than freshly-fallen snow, which would seem to indicate that these moon’s have very soft surfaces.  Naturally, this does not bode well for any missions that would attempt to set down on Europa or Enceladus’ surface.

But as Nelson explained in PSI press release, this is not necessarily bad news, and such fears have been raised before:

“Of course, before the landing of the Luna 2 robotic spacecraft in 1959, there was concern that the Moon might be covered in low density dust into which any future astronauts might sink. However, we must keep in mind that remote visible-wavelength observations of objects like Europa are only probing the outermost microns of the surface.”

Enceladus in all its glory. NASA has announced that Enceladus, Saturn’s icy moon, has hydrogen in its oceans. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

So while Europa and Enceladus may have surfaces with a layer of low-density ice particles, it does not rule out that their outer shells are solid. In the end, landers may be forced to contend with nothing more than a thin sheet of snow when setting down on these worlds. What’s more, if these particles are the result of plume activity or action between the interior and the surface, they could hold the very biomarkers the probes are looking for.

Of course, further studies are needed before any robotic landers are sent to bodies like Europa and Enceladus. In the coming years, the James Webb Space Telescope will be conducting studies of these and other moons during its first five months in service. This will include producing maps of the Galilean Moons, revealing things about their thermal and atmospheric structure, and searching their surfaces for signs of plumes.

The data the JWST obtains with its advanced suite of spectroscopic and near-infrared instruments will also provide additional constraints on their surface conditions. And with other missions like the ESA’s proposed Europa Clipper conducting flybys of these moons, there’s no shortage to what we can learn from them.

Beyond being significant to any future missions to ASSBs, the results of this study are also likely to be of value when it comes to the field of terrestrial geo-engineering. Essentially, scientists have suggested that anthropogenic climate change could be mitigated by introducing aluminum oxide into the atmosphere, thus offsetting the radiation absorbed by greenhouse gas emissions in the upper atmosphere. By examining the properties of these grains, this study could help inform future attempts to mitigate climate change.

This study was made possible thanks in part to a contract provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the PSI. This contract was issued in support of the NASA Cassini Saturn Orbiter Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer instrument team.

Further Reading: Planetary Science Institute, Icarus

Researchers Develop a New Low Cost/Low Weight Method of Searching for Life on Mars

Study co-author I. Altshuler sampling permafrost terrain near the McGill Arctic research station, Canadian high Arctic. Image: Dr. Jacqueline Goordial

Researchers at Canada’s McGill University have shown for the first time how existing technology could be used to directly detect life on Mars and other planets. The team conducted tests in Canada’s high arctic, which is a close analog to Martian conditions. They showed how low-weight, low-cost, low-energy instruments could detect and sequence alien micro-organisms. They presented their results in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

Getting samples back to a lab to test is a time consuming process here on Earth. Add in the difficulty of returning samples from Mars, or from Ganymede or other worlds in our Solar System, and the search for life looks like a daunting task. But the search for life elsewhere in our Solar System is a major goal of today’s space science. The team at McGill wanted to show that, conceptually at least, samples could be tested, sequenced, and grown in-situ at Mars or other locations. And it looks like they’ve succeeded.

Recent and current missions to Mars have studied the suitability of Mars for life. But they don’t have the ability to look for life itself. The last time a Mars mission was designed to directly search for life was in the 1970’s, when NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 missions landed on the surface. No life was detected, but decades later people still debate the results of those missions.

The Viking 2 lander captured this image of itself on the Martian surface. The Viking Landers were the last missions to directly look for life on Mars. By NASA - NASA website; description,[1] high resolution image.[2], Public Domain,
The Viking 2 lander captured this image of itself on the Martian surface. The Viking Landers were the last missions to directly look for life on Mars. By NASA – NASA website; description,[1] high resolution image.[2], Public Domain,

But Mars is heating up, figuratively speaking, and the sophistication of missions to Mars keeps growing. With crewed missions to Mars a likely reality in the not-too-distant future, the team at McGill is looking ahead to develop tools to search for life there. And they focused on miniature, economical, low-energy technology. Much of the current technology is too large or demanding to be useful on missions to Mars, or to places like Enceladus or Europa, both future destinations in the Search for Life.

“To date, these instruments remain high mass, large in size, and have high energy requirements. Such instruments are entirely unsuited for missions to locations such as Europa or Enceladus for which lander packages are likely to be tightly constrained.”

The team of researchers from McGill, which includes Professor Lyle Whyte and Dr. Jacqueline Goordial, have developed what they are calling the ‘Life Detection Platform (LDP).’ The platform is modular, so that different instruments can be swapped out depending on mission requirements, or as better instruments are developed. As it stands, the Life Detection Platform can culture microorganisms from soil samples, assess microbial activity, and sequence DNA and RNA.

There are already instruments available that can do what the LDP can do, but they’re bulky and require more energy to operate. They aren’t suitable for missions to far-flung destinations like Enceladus or Europa, where sub-surface oceans might harbour life. As the authors say in their study, “To date, these instruments remain high mass, large in size, and have high energy requirements. Such instruments are entirely unsuited for missions to locations such as Europa or Enceladus for which lander packages are likely to be tightly constrained.”

A key part of the system is a miniaturized, portable DNA sequencer called the Oxford Nanopore MiniON. The team of researchers behind this study were able to show for the first time that the MiniON can examine samples in extreme and remote environments. They also showed that when combined with other instruments it can detect active microbial life. The researches succeeded in isolatinh microbial extremophiles, detecting microbial activity, and sequencing the DNA. Very impressive indeed.

This image shows the instruments tested in the Life Detection Platform. Image: J. Goordial et. al.
This image shows the instruments tested in the Life Detection Platform. Image: J. Goordial et. al.

These are early days for the Life Detection Platform. The system required hands-on operation in these tests. But it does show proof of concept, an important stage in any technological development. “Humans were required to carry out much of the experimentation in this study, while life detection missions on other planets will need to be robotic,” says Dr Goordial.

“Humans were required to carry out much of the experimentation in this study, while life detection missions on other planets will need to be robotic.” – Dr. J. Goordial

The system as it stands now is useful here on Earth. The same things that allow it to search for and sequence microorganisms on other worlds make it suitable for the same task here on Earth. “The types of analyses performed by our platform are typically carried out in the laboratory, after shipping samples back from the field,” says Dr. Goordial. This makes the system desirable for studying epidemics in remote areas, or in rapidly changing conditions where transporting samples to distant labs can be problematic.

These are very exciting times in the Search for Life in our Solar System. If, or when, we discover microbial life on Mars, Europa, Enceladus, or some other world, it will likely be done robotically, using equipment similar to the LDP.

There Could be Hundreds More Icy Worlds with Life Than on Rocky Planets Out There in the Galaxy

In the hunt for extra-terrestrial life, scientists tend to take what is known as the “low-hanging fruit approach”. This consists of looking for conditions similar to what we experience here on Earth, which include at oxygen, organic molecules, and plenty of liquid water. Interestingly enough, some of the places where these ingredients are present in abundance include the interiors of icy moons like Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus and Titan.

Whereas there is only one terrestrial planet in our Solar System that is capable of supporting life (Earth), there are multiple “Ocean Worlds” like these moons. Taking this a step further, a team of researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) conducted a study that showed how potentially-habitable icy moons with interior oceans are far more likely than terrestrial planets in the Universe.

The study, titled “Subsurface Exolife“, was performed by Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb of the Harvard Smithsonain Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) at Harvard University. For the sake of their study, the authors consider all that what defines a circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone“) and likelihood of there being life inside moons with interior oceans.

Cutaway showing the interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Credit: ESA

To begin, Lingam and Loeb address the tendency to confuse habitable zones (HZs) with habitability, or to treat the two concepts as interchangeable. For instance, planets that are located within an HZ are not necessarily capable of supporting life – in this respect, Mars and Venus are perfect examples. Whereas Mars is too cold and it’s atmosphere too thin to support life, Venus suffered a runaway greenhouse effect that caused it to become a hot, hellish place.

On the other hand, bodies that are located beyond HZs have been found to be capable of having liquid water and the necessary ingredients to give rise to life. In this case, the moons of Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Dione, Titan, and several others serve as perfect examples. Thanks to the prevalence of water and geothermal heating caused by tidal forces, these moons all have interior oceans that could very well support life.

As Lingam, a post-doctoral researcher at the ITC and CfA and the lead author on the study, told Universe Today via email:

“The conventional notion of planetary habitability is the habitable zone (HZ), namely the concept that the “planet” must be situated at the right distance from the star such that it may be capable of having liquid water on its surface. However, this definition assumes that life is: (a) surface-based, (b) on a planet orbiting a star, and (c) based on liquid water (as the solvent) and carbon compounds. In contrast, our work relaxes assumptions (a) and (b), although we still retain (c).”

As such, Lingam and Loeb widen their consideration of habitability to include worlds that could have subsurface biospheres. Such environments go beyond icy moons such as Europa and Enceladus and could include many other types deep subterranean environments. On top of that, it has also been speculated that life could exist in Titan’s methane lakes (i.e. methanogenic organisms). However, Lingam and Loeb chose to focus on icy moons instead.

A “true color” image of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

“Even though we consider life in subsurface oceans under ice/rock envelopes, life could also exist in hydrated rocks (i.e. with water) beneath the surface; the latter is sometimes referred to as subterranean life,” said Lingam. “We did not delve into the second possibility since many of the conclusions (but not all of them) for subsurface oceans are also applicable to these worlds. Similarly, as noted above, we do not consider lifeforms based on exotic chemistries and solvents, since it is not easy to predict their properties.”

Ultimately, Lingam and Loeb chose to focus on worlds that would orbit stars and likely contain subsurface life humanity would be capable of recognizing. They then went about assessing the likelihood that such bodies are habitable, what advantages and challenges life will have to deal with in these environments, and the likelihood of such worlds existing beyond our Solar System (compared to potentially-habitable terrestrial planets).

For starters, “Ocean Worlds” have several advantages when it comes to supporting life. Within the Jovian system (Jupiter and its moons) radiation is a major problem, which is the result of charged particles becoming trapped in the gas giants powerful magnetic field. Between that and the moon’s tenuous atmospheres, life would have a very hard time surviving on the surface, but life dwelling beneath the ice would fare far better.

“One major advantage that icy worlds have is that the subsurface oceans are mostly sealed off from the surface,” said Lingam. “Hence, UV radiation and cosmic rays (energetic particles), which are typically detrimental to surface-based life in high doses, are unlikely to affect putative life in these subsurface oceans.”

Artist rendering showing an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface. Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

“On the negative side,’ he continued, “the absence of sunlight as a plentiful energy source could lead to a biosphere that has far less organisms (per unit volume) than Earth. In addition, most organisms in these biospheres are likely to be microbial, and the probability of complex life evolving may be low compared to Earth. Another issue is the potential availability of nutrients (e.g. phosphorus) necessary for life; we suggest that these nutrients might be available only in lower concentrations than Earth on these worlds.”

In the end, Lingam and Loeb determined that a wide range of worlds with ice shells of moderate thickness may exist in a wide range of habitats throughout the cosmos. Based on how statistically likely such worlds are, they concluded that “Ocean Worlds” like Europa, Enceladus, and others like them are about 1000 times more common than rocky planets that exist within the HZs of stars.

These findings have some drastic implications for the search for extra-terrestrial and extra-solar life. It also has significant implications for how life may be distributed through the Universe. As Lingam summarized:

“We conclude that life on these worlds will undoubtedly face noteworthy challenges. However, on the other hand, there is no definitive factor that prevents life (especially microbial life) from evolving on these planets and moons. In terms of panspermia, we considered the possibility that a free-floating planet containing subsurface exolife could be temporarily “captured” by a star, and that it may perhaps seed other planets (orbiting that star) with life. As there are many variables involved, not all of them can be quantified accurately.”

A new instrument called the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (STEG)
is being developed to find evidence of life on other worlds. Credit: NASA/Jenny Mottor

Professor Leob – the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, the director of the ITC, and the study’s co-author – added that finding examples of this life presents its own share of challenges. As he told Universe Today via email:

“It is very difficult to detect sub-surface life remotely (from a large distance) using telescopes. One could search for excess heat but that can result from natural sources, such as volcanos. The most reliable way to find sub-surface life is to land on such a planet or moon and drill through the surface ice sheet. This is the approach contemplated for a future NASA mission to Europa in the solar system.”

Exploring the implications for panspermia further, Lingam and Loeb also considered what might happen if a planet like Earth were ever ejected from the Solar System. As they note in their study, previous research has indicated how planets with thick atmospheres or subsurface oceans could still support life while floating in interstellar space. As Loeb explained, they also considered what would happen if this ever happened with Earth someday:

“An interesting question is what would happen to the Earth if it was ejected from the solar system into cold space without being warmed by the Sun. We have found that the oceans would freeze down to a depth of 4.4 kilometers but pockets of liquid water would survive in the deepest regions of the Earth’s ocean, such as the Mariana Trench, and life could survive in these remaining sub-surface lakes. This implies that sub-surface life could be transferred between planetary systems.”

The Drake Equation, a mathematical formula for the probability of finding life or advanced civilizations in the universe. Credit: University of Rochester

This study also serves as a reminder that as humanity explores more of the Solar System (largely for the sake of finding extra-terrestrial life) what we find also has implications in the hunt for life in the rest of the Universe. This is one of the benefits of the “low-hanging fruit” approach. What we don’t know is informed but what we do, and what we find helps inform our expectations of what else we might find.

And of course, it’s a very vast Universe out there. What we may find is likely to go far beyond what we are currently capable of recognizing!

Further Reading: arXiv

New Study Says Enceladus has had an Internal Ocean for Billions of Years

When the Cassini mission arrived in the Saturn system in 2004, it discovered something rather unexpected in Enceladus’ southern hemisphere. From hundreds of fissures located in the polar region, plumes of water and organic molecules were spotted periodically spewing forth. This was the first indication that Saturn’s moon may have an interior ocean caused by hydrothermal activity near the core-mantle boundary.

According to a new study based on Cassini data, which it obtained before diving into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15th, this activity may have been going on for some time. In fact, the study team concluded that if the moon’s core is porous enough, it could have generated enough heat to maintain an interior ocean for billions of years. This study is the most encouraging indication yet that the interior of Enceladus could support life.

The study, titled “Powering prolonged hydrothermal activity inside Enceladus“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. The study was led by Gaël Choblet, a researcher with the Planetary and Geodynamic Laboratory at the University of Nantes, and included members from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Charles University, and the Institute of Earth Sciences and the Geo- and Cosmochemistry Laboratory at the University of Heidelberg.

Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Prior to the Cassini mission’s many flybys of Enceladus, scientists believed this moon’s surface was composed of solid ice. It was only after noticing the plume activity that they came to realize that it had water jets that extended all the way down to a warm-water ocean in its interior. From the data obtained by Cassini, scientists were even able to make educated guesses of where this internal ocean lay.

All told, Enceladus is a relatively small moon, measuring some 500 km (311 mi) in diameter. Based on gravity measurements performed by Cassini, its interior ocean is believed to lie beneath an icy outer surface at depths of 20 to 25 km (12.4 to 15.5 mi). However, this surface ice thins to about 1 to 5 km (0.6 to 3.1 mi) over the southern polar region, where the jets of water and icy particles jet through fissures.

Based on the way Enceladus orbits Saturn with a certain wobble (aka. libration), scientists have been able to make estimates of the ocean’s depth, which they place at 26 to 31 km (16 to 19 mi). All of this surrounds a core which is believed to be composed of silicate minerals and metal, but which is also porous. Despite all these findings, the source of the interior heat has remained something of an open question.

This mechanism would have to be active when the moon formed billions of years ago and is still active today (as evidenced by the current plume activity). As Dr. Choblet explained in an ESA press statement:

“Where Enceladus gets the sustained power to remain active has always been a bit of mystery, but we’ve now considered in greater detail how the structure and composition of the moon’s rocky core could play a key role in generating the necessary energy.”

Gravity measurements by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and Deep Space Network suggest that Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which has jets of water vapor and ice gushing from its south pole, also harbors a large interior ocean beneath an ice shell, as this illustration depicts. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For years, scientists have speculated that tidal forces caused by Saturn’s gravitational influence are responsible for Enceladus’ internal heating. The way Saturn pushes and pulls the moon as it follows an elliptical path around the planet is also believed to be what causes Enceladus’ icy shell to deform, causing the fissures around the southern polar region. These same mechanisms are believed to be what is responsible for Europa’s interior warm-water ocean.

However, the energy produced by tidal friction in the ice is too weak to counterbalance the heat loss seen from the ocean. At the rate Enceladus’ ocean is losing energy to space, the entire moon would freeze solid within 30 million years. Similarly, the natural decay of radioactive elements within the core (which has been suggested for other moons as well) is also about 100 times too weak to explain Enceladus interior and plume activity.

To address this, Dr. Choblet and his team conducted simulations of Enceladus’ core to determine what kind of conditions could allow for tidal heating over billions of years. As they state in their study:

“In absence of direct constraints on the mechanical properties of Enceladus’ core, we consider a wide range of parameters to characterize the rate of tidal friction and the efficiency of water transport by porous flow. The unconsolidated core of Enceladus can be viewed as a highly granular/fragmented material, in which tidal deformation is likely to be associated with intergranular friction during fragment rearrangements.”
Artist rendering showing an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface.Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

What they found was that in order for the Cassini observations to be borne out, Enceladus’ core would need to be made of unconsolidated, easily deformable, porous rock. This core could be easily permeated by liquid water, which would seep into the core and gradually heated through tidal friction between sliding rock fragments. Once this water was sufficiently heated, it would rise upwards because of temperature differences with its surroundings.

This process ultimately transfers heat to the interior ocean in narrow plumes which rise to the meet Enceladus’ icy shell. Once there, it causes the surface ice to melt and forming fissures through which jets reach  into space, spewing water, ice particles and hydrated minerals that replenish Saturn’s E-Ring. All of this is consistent with the observations made by Cassini, and is sustainable from a geophysical point of view.

In other words, this study is able to show that action in Enceladus’ core could produce the necessary heating to maintain a global ocean and produce plume activity. Since this action is a result of the core’s structure and tidal interaction with Saturn, it is perfectly logical that it has been taking place for billions of years. So beyond providing the first coherent explanation for Enceladus’ plume activity, this study is also a strong indication of habitability.

As scientists have come to understand, life takes a long time to get going. On Earth, it is estimated that the first microorganisms arose after 500 million years, and hydrothermal vents are believed to have played a key role in that process. It took another 2.5 billion years for the first multi-cellular life to evolve, and land-based plants and animals have only been around for the past 500 million years.

Knowing that moons like Enceladus – which has the necessary chemistry to support for life – has also had the necessary energy for billions of years is therefore very encouraging. One can only imagine what we will find once future missions begin inspecting its plumes more closely!

Further Reading: ESA, Nature Astronomy

You Can Now Use Google Maps to Explore the Solar System

Chances are, at one time or another, we’ve all used Google Maps to find the shortest route from point A to point B. But if you are like some people, you’ve used this mapping tool to have a look at geographical features or places you hope to visit someday. In an age where digital technology is allowing for telecommuting and even telepresence, it’s nice to take virtual tours of the places we may never get to see in person.

But now, Google Maps is using its technology to enable the virtual exploration of something far grander: the Solar System! Thanks to images provided by the Cassini orbiter of the planets and moons it studied during its 20 year mission, Google is now allowing users to explore places like Venus, Mercury, Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and other far-off destinations that are impossible for us to visit right now.

Similar to how Google Earth uses satellite imagery to create 3D representations of our planet, this new Google Maps tool relies on the more than 500,000 images taken by Cassini as it made its way across the Solar System. This probe recently concluded its 20 year mission, 13 of which were spent orbiting Saturn and studying its system of moons, by crashing into the atmosphere of Saturn.

Artist rendition of the Cassini spacecraft over Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Kevin M. Gill.

After launching from Earth on October 15th, 1997, Cassini conducted a flyby of Venus in order to pick up a gravity-assist. It then flew by Earth, obtaining a second gravity-assist, while making its way towards the Asteroid Belt. Before reaching the Saturn System, where it would begin studying the gas giant and its moons, Cassini also conducted a flyby of Jupiter – snapping pictures of its moons, rings, and Great Red Spot.

When it reached Saturn in July of 2004, Cassini went to work studying the planet and its larger moons – particularly Titan and Enceladus. During the next 13 years and 76 days, the probe would provide breathtaking images and sensor data on Saturn’s rings, atmosphere and polar storms and reveal things about Titan’s surface that were never before seen (such as its methane lakes, hydrological cycle, and surface features).

It’s flybys of Enceladus also revealed some startling things about this icy moon. Aside from detecting a tenuous atmosphere of ionized water vapor and Enceladus’ mysterious “Tiger Stripes“, the probe also detected jets of water and organic molecules erupting from the moon’s southern polar region. These jets, it was later determined, were indicative of a warm water ocean deep in the moon’s interior, and possibly even life!

Interestingly enough, the original Cassini mission was only planned to last for four years once it reached Saturn – from June 2004 to May 2008. But by the end of this run, the mission was extended with the Cassini Equinox Mission, which was intended to run until September of 2010. It was extended a second time with the Cassini Solstice Mission, which lasted until September 15th, 2017, when the probe was crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Artist’s impression of the Cassini orbiter entering Saturn’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL

Thanks to all the images taken by this long-lived mission, Google Maps is now able to offer exploratory tours of 16 celestial bodies in the Solar System – 12 of which are new to the site. These include Earth, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Pluto, Ceres, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Mimas, Enceladus, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Iapetus and (available as of July 2017) the International Space Station.

This latest development also builds on several extensions Google has released over the years. These include Google Moon, which was released on July 20th, 2005, to coincide with the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Then there was Google Sky (introduced in 2007), which used photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope to create a virtual map of the visible universe.

Then there was Google Mars, the result of a collaborative effort between Google and NASA scientists at the Mars Space Flight Facility released in 2011, one year before the Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet. This tool relied on data collected by the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Odyssey missions to create high-resolution 3D terrain maps that included elevations.

In an age of high-speed internet and telecommunications, using the internet to virtually explore the many planets and bodies of the Solar System just makes sense. Especially when you consider that even the most ambitious plans to conduct tourism to Mars or the Moon (looking at you, Elon Musk and Richard Branson!) are not likely to bear fruit for many years, and cost an arm and a leg to boot!

In the future, similar technology could lead to all kinds of virtual exploration. This concept, which is often referred to as “telexploration”, would involve robotic missions traveling to other planets and even star systems. The information they gather would then be sent back to Earth to create virtual experiences, which would allow scientists and space-exploration enthusiasts to feel like they were seeing it firsthand.

In truth, this mapping tool is just the latest gift to be bestowed by the late Cassini mission. NASA scientists expect to be sifting through the volumes of data collected by the orbiter for years to come. Thanks to improvements made in software applications and the realms of virtual and augmented reality, this data (and that of present and future missions) is likely to be put to good use, enabling breathtaking and educational tours of our Universe!

Further Reading: Make Use Of

Ancient Hydrothermal Vents Found on Mars, Could Have Been a Cradle for Life

It is now a well-understood fact that Mars once had quite a bit of liquid water on its surface. In fact, according to a recent estimate, a large sea in Mars’ southern hemisphere once held almost 10 times as much water as all of North America’s Great Lakes combined. This sea existed roughly 3.7 billion years ago, and was located in the region known today as the Eridania basin.

However, a new study based on data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) detected vast mineral deposits at the bottom of this basin, which could be seen as evidence of ancient hot springs. Since this type of hydrothermal activity is believed to be responsible for the emergence of life on Earth, these results could indicate that this basin once hosted life as well.

The study, titled “Ancient Hydrothermal Seafloor Deposits in Eridania Basin on Mars“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature Communications. The study was led by Joseph Michalski of the Department of Earth Sciences and Laboratory for Space Research at the University of Hong Kong, along with researchers from the Planetary Science Institute, the Natural History Museum in London, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center.


The Eridania basin of southern Mars is believed to have held a sea about 3.7 billion years ago, with seafloor deposits likely resulting from underwater hydrothermal activity. Credit: NASA

Together, this international team used data obtained by the MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM). Since the MRO reached Mars in 2006, this instrument has been used extensively to search for evidence of mineral residues that form in the presence of water. In this respect, CRISM was essential for documenting how lakes, ponds and rivers once existed on the surface of Mars.

In this case, it identified massive mineral deposits within Mars’ Eridania basin, which lies in a region that has some of the Red Planet’s most ancient exposed crust. The discovery is expected to be a major focal point for scientists seeking to characterize Mars’ once-warm and wet environment. As Paul Niles of NASA’s Johnson Space Center said in a recent NASA press statement:

“Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth. Volcanic activity combined with standing water provided conditions that were likely similar to conditions that existed on Earth at about the same time — when early life was evolving here.”

Today, Mars is a cold, dry place that experiences no volcanic activity. But roughly 3.7 billion years ago, the situation was vastly different. At that time, Mars boasted both flowing and standing bodies of water, which are evidenced by vast fluvial deposits and sedimentary basins. The Gale Crater is a perfect example of this since it was once a major lake bed, which is why it was selected as the landing sight for the Curiosity rover in 2012.

Illustrates showing the origin of some deposits in the Eridania basin of southern Mars resulting from seafloor hydrothermal activity more than 3 billion years ago. Credit: NASA

Since Mars had both surface water and volcanic activity during this time, it would have also experienced hydrothermal activity. This occurs when volcanic vents open into standing bodies of water, filling them with hydrated minerals and heat. On Earth, which still has an active crust, evidence of past hydrothermal activity cannot be preserved. But on Mars, where the crust is solid and erosion is minimal, the evidence has been preserved.

“This site gives us a compelling story for a deep, long-lived sea and a deep-sea hydrothermal environment,” Niles said. “It is evocative of the deep-sea hydrothermal environments on Earth, similar to environments where life might be found on other worlds — life that doesn’t need a nice atmosphere or temperate surface, but just rocks, heat and water.”

Based on their study, the researchers estimate that the Eridania basin once held about 210,000 cubic km (50,000 cubic mi) of water. Not only is this nine times more water than all of the Great Lakes combined, it is as much as all the other lakes and seas on ancient Mars combined. In addition, the region also experienced lava flows that existed  after the sea is believed to have disappeared.

From the CRISM’s spectrometer data, the team identified deposits of serpentine, talc and carbonate. Combined with the shape and texture of the bedrock layers, they concluded that the sea floor was open to volcanic fissures. Beyond indicating that this region could have once hosted life, this study also adds to the diversity of the wet environments which are once believed to have existed on Mars.

A scale model compares the volume of water contained in lakes and seas on the Earth and Mars to the estimated volume of water contained in an ancient Eridania sea. Credit: JJoseph R. Michalski (et al.)/Nature Communications

Between evidence of ancient lakes, rivers, groundwater, deltas, seas, and volcanic eruptions beneath ice, scientists now have evidence of volcanic activity that occurred beneath a standing body of water (aka. hot springs) on Mars. This also represents a new category for astrobiological research, and a possible destination for future missions to the Martian surface.

The study of hydrothermal activity is also significant as far as finding sources of extra-terrestrial, like on the moons of Europa, Enceladus, Titan, and elsewhere. In the future, robotic missions are expected to travel to these worlds in order to peak beneath their icy surfaces, investigate their plumes, or venture into their seas (in Titan’s case) to look for the telltale traces of basic life forms.

The study also has significance beyond Mars and could aid in the study of how life began here on Earth. At present, the earliest evidence of terrestrial life comes from seafloor deposits that are similar in origin and age to those found in the Eridania basin. But since the geological record of this period on Earth is poorly preserved, it has been impossible to determine exactly what conditions were like at this time.

Given Mars’ similarities with Earth, and the fact that its geological record has been well-preserved over the past 3 billion years, scientists can look to mineral deposits and other evidence to gauge how natural processes here on Earth allowed for life to form and evolve over time. It could also advance our understanding of how all the terrestrial planets of the Solar System evolved over billions of years.

Further Reading: NASA