Defining Life II: Metabolism and Evolution as clues to Extraterrestrial Life

In the movie “Avatar”, we could tell at a glance that the alien moon Pandora was teeming with alien life. Here on Earth though, the most abundant life is not the plants and animals that we are familiar with. The most abundant life is simple and microscopic. There are 50 million bacterial organisms in a single gram of soil, and the world wide bacterial biomass exceeds that of all plants and animals. Microbes can grow in extreme environments of temperature, salinity, acidity, radiation, and pressure. The most likely form in which we will encounter life elsewhere in our solar system is microbial.

Astrobiologists need strategies for inferring the presence of alien microbial life or its fossilized remains. They need strategies for inferring the presence of alien life on the distant planets of other stars, which are too far away to explore with spacecraft in the foreseeable future. To do these things, they long for a definition of life, that would make it possible to reliably distinguish life from non-life.

Unfortunately, as we saw in the first installment of this series, despite enormous growth in our knowledge of living things, philosophers and scientists have been unable to produce such a definition. Astrobiologists get by as best they can with definitions that are partial, and that have exceptions. Their search is geared to the features of life on Earth, the only life we currently know.

In the first installment, we saw how the composition of terrestrial life influences the search for extraterrestrial life. Astrobiologists search for environments that once contained or currently contain liquid water, and that contain complex molecules based on carbon. Many scientists, however, view the essential features of life as having to do with its capacities instead of its composition.

In 1994, a NASA committee adopted a definition of life as a “self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”, based on a suggestion by Carl Sagan. This definition contains two features, metabolism and evolution, that are typically mentioned in definitions of life.

Metabolism is the set of chemical processes by which living things actively use energy to maintain themselves, grow, and develop. According to the second law of thermodynamics, a system that doesn’t interact with its external environment will become more disorganized and uniform with time. Living things build and maintain their improbable, highly organized state because they harness sources of energy in their external environment to power their metabolism.

Plants and some bacteria use the energy of sunlight to manufacture larger organic molecules out of simpler subunits. These molecules store chemical energy that can later be extracted by other chemical reactions to power their metabolism. Animals and some bacteria consume plants or other animals as food. They break down complex organic molecules in their food into simpler ones, to extract their stored chemical energy. Some bacteria can use the energy contained in chemicals derived from non-living sources in the process of chemosynthesis.

In a 2014 article in Astrobiology, Lucas John Mix, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, referred to the metabolic definition of life as Haldane Life after the pioneering physiologist J. B. S. Haldane. The Haldane life definition has its problems. Tornadoes and vorticies like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot use environmental energy to sustain their orderly structure, but aren’t alive. Fire uses energy from its environment to sustain itself and grow, but isn’t alive either.

Despite its shortcomings, astrobiologists have used Haldane definition to devise experiments. The Viking Mars landers made the only attempt so far to directly test for extraterrestrial life, by detecting the supposed metabolic activities of Martian microbes. They assumed that Martian metabolism is chemically similar to its terrestrial counterpart.

One experiment sought to detect the metabolic breakdown of nutrients into simpler molecules to extract their energy. A second aimed to detect oxygen as a waste product of photosynthesis. A third tried to show the manufacture of complex organic molecules out of simpler subunits, which also occurs during photosynthesis. All three experiments seemed to give positive results, but many researchers believe that the detailed findings can be explained without biology, by chemical oxidizing agents in the soil.

Viking Lander
In 1976, two Viking spacecraft landed on Mars. The image is of a model of the Viking lander, along with astronomer and pioneering astrobiologist Carl Sagan. Each lander was equipped with life detection experiments designed to detect life based on its metabolic activities. These activities were assumed to be chemically similar to those of Earthly organisms. The three experiments included: 1) The labeled release experiment, in which radioactively labeled organic nutrients were added to Martian soil. If organisms were present, it was assumed that their metabolism would involve breaking down the nutrients for their energy content and releasing labeled carbon dioxide as a waste product. 2) The gas exchange experiment, in which Martian soil was provided with nutrients and light and monitored for the release of oxygen. On Earth, organisms that capture the energy of sunlight through the process of photosynthesis, like plants and some bacteria, release oxygen as a waste product. 3) The pyrolytic release experiment, in which Martian soil was placed in a chamber with radioactively labeled carbon dioxide. If there were organisms in the soil that photosynthesized like those on Earth, their metabolic processes would take up the gas and use the energy of sunlight to manufacture more complex organic molecules. Radioactive carbon would be given off when those more complex molecules were broken down by heating the sample. All three experiments produced what seemed like positive results. However, most scientists rejected this interpretation because the details of many of the results could be explained by supposing that there were chemical oxidizing agents in the soil instead of life, and because Viking failed to detect organic materials in Martian soil. This interpretation, especially for the labeled release experiment, remains controversial to this day and may need to be revisited based on recent findings.
Credits: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech

Some of the Viking results remain controversial to this day. At the time, many researchers felt that the failure to find organic materials in Martian soil ruled out a biological interpretation of the metabolic results. The more recent finding that Martian soil actually does contain organic molecules that might have been destroyed by perchlorates during the Viking analysis, and that liquid water was once abundant on the surface of Mars lend new plausibility to the claim that Viking may have actually succeeded in detecting life. By themselves, though, the Viking results didn’t prove that life exists on Mars nor rule it out.

The metabolic activities of life may also leave their mark on the composition of planetary atmospheres. In 2003, the European Mars Express spacecraft detected traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere. In December 2014, a team of NASA scientists reported that the Curiosity Mars rover had confirmed this finding by detected atmospheric methane from the Martian surface.

Most of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere is released by living organisms or their remains. Subterranean bacterial ecosystems that use chemosynthesis as a source of energy are common, and they produce methane as a metabolic waste product. Unfortunately, there are also non-biological geochemical processes that can produce methane. So, once more, Martian methane is frustratingly ambiguous as a sign of life.

Extrasolar planets orbiting other stars are far too distant to visit with spacecraft in the foreseeable future. Astrobiologists still hope to use the Haldane definition to search for life on them. With near future space telescopes, astronomers hope to learn the composition of the atmospheres of these planets by analyzing the spectrum of light wavelengths reflected or transmitted by their atmospheres. The James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2018, will be the first to be useful in this project. Astrobiologists want to search for atmospheric biomarkers; gases that are metabolic waste products of living organisms.

Once more, this quest is guided by the only example of a life-bearing planet we currently have; Earth. About 21% of our home planet’s atmosphere is oxygen. This is surprising because oxygen is a highly reactive gas that tends to enter into chemical combinations with other substances. Free oxygen should quickly vanish from our air. It remains present because the loss is constantly being replaced by plants and bacteria that release it as a metabolic waste product of photosynthesis.

Traces of methane are present in Earth’s atmosphere because of chemosynthetic bacteria. Since methane and oxygen react with one another, neither would stay around for long unless living organisms were constantly replenishing the supply. Earth’s atmosphere also contains traces of other gases that are metabolic byproducts.

In general, living things use energy to maintain Earth’s atmosphere in a state far from the thermodynamic equilibrium it would reach without life. Astrobiologists would suspect any planet with an atmosphere in a similar state of harboring life. But, as for the other cases, it would be hard to completely rule out non-biological possibilities.

Besides metabolism, the NASA committee identified evolution as a fundamental ability of living things. For an evolutionary process to occur there must be a group of systems, where each one is capable of reliably reproducing itself. Despite the general reliability of reproduction, there must also be occasional random copying errors in the reproductive process so that the systems come to have differing traits. Finally, the systems must differ in their ability to survive and reproduce based on the benefits or liabilities of their distinctive traits in their environment. When this process is repeated over and over again down the generations, the traits of the systems will become better adapted to their environment. Very complex traits can sometimes evolve in a step-by-step fashion.

Mix named this the Darwin life definition, after the nineteenth century naturalist Charles Darwin, who formulated the theory of evolution. Like the Haldane definition, the Darwin life definition has important shortcomings. It has trouble including everything that we might think of as alive. Mules, for example, can’t reproduce, and so, by this definition, don’t count as being alive.

Despite such shortcomings, the Darwin life definition is critically important, both for scientists studying the origin of life and astrobiologists. The modern version of Darwin’s theory can explain how diverse and complex forms of life can evolve from some initial simple form. A theory of the origin of life is needed to explain how the initial simple form acquired the capacity to evolve in the first place.

The chemical systems or life forms found on other planets or moons in our solar system might be so simple that they are close to the boundary between life and non-life that the Darwin definition establishes. The definition might turn out to be vital to astrobiologists trying to decide whether a chemical system they have found really qualifies as a life form. Biologists still don’t know how life originated. If astrobiologists can find systems near the Darwin boundary, their findings may be pivotally important to understanding the origin of life.

Can astrobiologists use the Darwin definition to find and study extraterrestrial life? It’s unlikely that a visiting spacecraft could detect to process of evolution itself. But, it might be capable of detecting the molecular structures that living organisms need in order to take part in an evolutionary process. Philosopher Mark Bedau has proposed that a minimal system capable of undergoing evolution would need to have three things: 1) a chemical metabolic process, 2) a container, like a cell membrane, to establish the boundaries of the system, and 3) a chemical “program” capable of directing the metabolic activities.

Here on Earth, the chemical program is based on the genetic molecule DNA. Many origin-of-life theorists think that the genetic molecule of the earliest terrestrial life forms may have been the simpler molecule ribonucleic acid (RNA). The genetic program is important to an evolutionary process because it makes the reproductive copying process stable, with only occasional errors.

Both DNA and RNA are biopolymers; long chainlike molecules with many repeating subunits. The specific sequence of nucleotide base subunits in these molecules encodes the genetic information they carry. So that the molecule can encode all possible sequences of genetic information it must be possible for the subunits to occur in any order.

Steven Benner, a computational genomics researcher, believes that we may be able to develop spacecraft experiments to detect alien genetic biopolymers. He notes that DNA and RNA are very unusual biopolymers because changing the sequence in which their subunits occur doesn’t change their chemical properties. It is this unusual property that allows these molecules to be stable carriers of any possible genetic code sequence.

DNA and RNA are both polyelectrolytes; molecules with regularly repeating areas of negative electrical charge. Benner believes that this is what accounts for their remarkable stability. He thinks that any alien genetic biopolymer would also need to be a polyelectrolyte, and that chemical tests could be devised by which a spacecraft might detect such polyelectrolyte molecules. Finding the alien counterpart of DNA is a very exciting prospect, and another piece to the puzzle of identifying alien life.

Structure of DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the genetic material for all known life on Earth. DNA is a biopolymer consisting of a string of subunits. The subunits consist of nucleotide base pairs containing a purine (adenine A, or guanine G) and a pyrimidine (thymine T, or cytosine C). DNA can contain nucleotide base pairs in any order without its chemical properties changing. This property is rare in biopolymers, and makes it possible for DNA to encode genetic information in the sequence of its base pairs. This stability is due to the fact that each base pair contains phosphate groups (consisting of phosphorus and oxygen atoms) on the outside with a net negative charge. These repeated negative charges make DNA a polyelectrolyte. Computational genomics researcher Steven Benner has hypothesized that alien genetic material will also be a polyelectrolyte biopolymer, and that chemical tests could therefore be devised to detect alien genetic molecules.
Credit: Zephyris

In 1996 President Clinton, made a dramatic announcement of the possible discovery of life on Mars. Clinton’s speech was motivated by the findings of David McKay’s team with the Alan Hills meteorite. In fact, the McKay findings turned out to be just one piece to the larger puzzle of possible Martian life. Unless an alien someday ambles past our waiting cameras, the question of whether or not extraterrestrial life exists is unlikely to be settled by a single experiment or a sudden dramatic breakthrough. Philosophers and scientists don’t have a single, sure-fire definition of life. Astrobiologists consequently don’t have a single sure-fire test that will settle the issue. If simple forms of life do exist on Mars, or elsewhere in the solar system, it now seems likely that that fact will emerge gradually, based on many converging lines of evidence. We won’t really know what we’re looking for until we find it.

References and further reading:

P. S. Anderson (2011) Could Curiosity Determine if Viking Found Life on Mars?, Universe Today.

S. K. Atreya, P. R. Mahaffy, A-S. Wong, (2007), Methane and related trace species on Mars: Origin, loss, implications for life, and habitability, Planetary and Space Science, 55:358-369.

M. A. Bedau (2010), An Aristotelian account of minimal chemical life, Astrobiology, 10(10): 1011-1020.

S. A. Benner (2010), Defining life, Astrobiology, 10(10):1021-1030.

E. Machery (2012), Why I stopped worrying about the definition of life…and why you should as well, Synthese, 185:145-164.

G. M. Marion, C. H. Fritsen, H. Eicken, M. C. Payne, (2003) The search for life on Europa: Limiting environmental factors, potential habitats, and Earth analogs. Astrobiology 3(4):785-811.

L. J. Mix (2015), Defending definitions of life, Astrobiology, 15(1) posted on-line in advance of publication.

P. E. Patton (2014) Moons of Confusion: Why Finding Extraterrestrial Life may be Harder than we Thought, Universe Today.

T. Reyes (2014) NASA’s Curiosity Rover detects Methane, Organics on Mars, Universe Today.

S. Seeger, M. Schrenk, and W. Bains (2012), An astrophysical view of Earth-based biosignature gases. Astrobiology, 12(1): 61-82.

S. Tirard, M. Morange, and A. Lazcano, (2010), The definition of life: A brief history of an elusive scientific endeavor, Astrobiology, 10(10):1003-1009.

C. R. Webster, and numerous other members of the MSL Science team, (2014) Mars methane detection and variability at Gale crater, Science, Science express early content.

Did Viking Mars landers find life’s building blocks? Missing piece inspires new look at puzzle. Science Daily Featured Research Sept. 5, 2010

NASA rover finds active and ancient organic chemistry on Mars, Jet Propulsion laboratory, California Institute of Technology, News, Dec. 16, 2014.

Defining Life I: What are Astrobiologists Looking For?

How can astrobiologists find extraterrestrial life? In everyday life, we usually don’t have any problem telling that a dog or a rosebush is a living thing and a rock isn’t. In the climatic scene of the movie ‘Europa Report’ we can tell at a glance that the multi-tentacled creature discovered swimming in the ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa is alive, complicated, and quite possibly intelligent.

But unless something swims, walks, crawls, or slithers past the cameras of a watching spacecraft, astrobiologists face a much tougher job. They need to devise tests that will allow them to infer the presence of alien microbial life from spacecraft data. They need to be able to recognize fossil traces of past alien life. They need to be able to determine whether the atmospheres of distant planets circling other stars contain the tell-tale traces of unfamiliar forms of life. They need ways to infer the presence of life from knowledge of its properties. A definition of life would tell them what those properties are, and how to look for them. This is the first of a two part series exploring how our concept of life influences the search for extraterrestrial life.

What is it that sets living things apart? For centuries, philosophers and scientists have sought an answer. The philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) devoted a great deal of effort to dissecting animals and studying living things. He supposed that they had distinctive special capacities that set them apart from things that aren’t alive. Inspired by the mechanical inventions of his times, the Renaissance philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed that living things were like clockwork machines, their special capacities deriving from the way their parts were organized.

In 1944, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) wrote What is Life? In it, he proposed that the fundamental phenomena of life, including even how parents pass on their traits to their offspring, could be understood by studying the physics and chemistry of living things. Schrödinger’s book was an inspiration to the science of molecular biology.

Living organisms are made of large complicated molecules with backbones of linked carbon atoms. Molecular biologists were able to explain many of the functions of life in terms of these organic molecules and the chemical reactions they undergo when dissolved in liquid water. In 1955 James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and showed how it could be the storehouse of hereditary information passed from parent to offspring.

While all this research and theorizing has vastly increased our understanding of life, it hasn’t produced a satisfactory definition of life; a definition that would allow us to reliably distinguish things that are alive from things that aren’t. In 2012 the philosopher Edouard Mahery argued that coming up with a single definition of life was both impossible and pointless. Astrobiologists get by as best they can with definitions that are partial, and that have exceptions. Their search is conditioned by our knowledge of the specific features of life on Earth; the only life we currently know.

Here on Earth, living things are distinctive in their chemical composition. Besides carbon, the elements hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur are particularly important to the large organic molecules that make up terrestrial life. Water is a necessary solvent. Since we don’t know for sure what else might be possible, the search for extraterrestrial life typically assumes its chemical composition will be similar to that of life on Earth.

Making use of that assumption, astrobiologists assign a high priority to the search for water on other celestial bodies. Spacecraft evidence has proven that Mars once had bodies of liquid water on its surface. Determining the history and extent of this water is a central goal of Mars exploration. Astrobiologists are excited by evidence of subsurface oceans of water on Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and perhaps on other moons or dwarf planets. But while the presence of liquid water implies conditions appropriate for Earth-like life, it doesn’t prove that such life exists or has ever existed.

Europa
Jupiter’s icy moon Europa appears to host liquid water, an essential condition for life as we know it on Earth. Its surface is covered with a crust of water ice. The Voyager and Galileo spacecraft have provided evidence that under this icy crust, there is an ocean of saltwater, containing more liquid water than all the oceans of Earth. Europa’s interior is heated by gravitational tidal forces exerted by giant Jupiter. This heat energy may drive volcanism, hydrothermal vents, and the production of chemical energy sources that living things could make use of. Interaction between materials from Europa’s surface and the ocean environment beneath could make available carbon and other chemical elements essential for Earth-like life.
Credits: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, SETI Institute

Organic chemicals are necessary for Earth-like life, but, as for water, their presence doesn’t prove that life exists, because organic materials can also be formed by non-biological processes. In 1976, NASA’s two Viking landers were the first spacecraft to make fully successful landings on Mars. They carried an instrument; called the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, that tested the soil for organic molecules.

Even without life, scientists expected to find some organic materials in the Martian soil. Organic materials formed by non-biological processes are found in carbonaceous meteorites, and some of these meteorites should have fallen on Mars. They were surprised to find nothing at all. At the time, the failure to find organic molecules was considered a major blow to the possibility of life on Mars.

In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix lander discovered an explanation of why Viking didn’t detect organic molecules. If found that the Martian soil contains perchlorates. Containing oxygen and chlorine, perchlorates are oxidizing agents that can break down organic material. While perchlorates and organic molecules could coexist in Martian soil, scientists determined that heating the soil for the Viking analysis would have caused the perchlorates to destroy any organic material it contained. Martian soil might contain organic materials, after all.

At a news briefing in December 2014, NASA announced that an instrument carried on board the Curiosity Mars rover had succeeded in detected simple organic molecules on Mars for the first time. Researchers believe it is possible that the molecules detected may be breakdown products of more complex organic molecules that were broken down by perchlorates during the process of analysis.

electron micrograph of Mars meteorite
In 1996 a team of scientists lead by Dr. David McKay of NASA’s Johnson Space Center announced possible evidence of life on Mars. The evidence came from their studies of a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica, called Alan Hills 84001. The researchers found chemical and physical traces of possible life including carbonate globules that resemble terrestrial nanobacteria (electron micrograph shown) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In terrestrial rock, the chemical traces would be considered breakdown products of bacterial life. The findings became the subject of controversy as non-biological explanations for the findings were found. Today, they are no longer regarded as definitive evidence of Martian life.
Credits: NASA Johnson Space Center

The chemical make-up of terrestrial life has also guided the search for traces of life in Martian meteorites. In 1996 a team of investigators lead by David McKay of the Johnson Space Center in Houston reported evidence that a Martian meteorite found at Alan Hills in Antarctica in 1984 contained chemical and physical evidence of past Martian life.

There have since been similar claims about other Martian meteorites. But, non-biological explanations for many of the findings have been proposed, and the whole subject has remained embroiled in controversy. Meteorites have not so far yielded the kind of evidence needed to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life beyond reasonable doubt.

Following Aristotle, most scientists prefer to define life in terms of its capacities rather than its composition. In the second installment, we will explore how our understanding of life’s capacities has influenced the search for extraterrestrial life.

References and further reading:

N. Atkinson (2009) Perchlorates and Water Make for Potential Habitable Environment on Mars, Universe Today.

S. A. Benner (2010), Defining life, Astrobiology, 10(10):1021-1030.

E. Machery (2012), Why I stopped worrying about the definition of life…and why you should as well, Synthese, 185:145-164.

L. J. Mix (2015), Defending definitions of life, Astrobiology, 15(1) posted on-line in advance of publication.

T. Reyes (2014) NASA’s Curiosity Rover detects Methane, Organics on Mars, Universe Today.

S. Tirard, M. Morange, and A. Lazcano, (2010), The definition of life: A brief history of an elusive scientific endeavor, Astrobiology, 10(10):1003-1009.

Did Viking Mars landers find life’s building blocks? Missing piece inspires new look at puzzle. Science Daily Featured Research Sept. 5, 2010

NASA rover finds active and ancient organic chemistry on Mars, Jet Propulsion laboratory, California Institute of Technology, News, Dec. 16, 2014.

Europa: Ingredients for Life?, National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Moons of Confusion: Why Finding Extraterrestrial Life may be Harder than we Thought

Astronomers and planetary scientists thought they knew how to find evidence of life on planets beyond our Solar System. But, a new study indicates that the moons of extrasolar planets may produce “false positives” adding an inconvenient element of uncertainty to the search.

More than 1,800 exoplanets have been confirmed to exist so far, with the count rising rapidly. About 20 of these are deemed potentially habitable. This is because they are only somewhat more massive than Earth, and orbit their parent stars at distances that might allow liquid water to exist.

Astronomers soon hope to be able to determine the composition of the atmospheres of such promising alien worlds. They can do this by analyzing the spectrum of light absorbed by them. For Earth-like worlds circling small stars, this challenging feat can be accomplished using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018.

They thought they knew how to look for the signature of life. There are certain gases which shouldn’t exist together in an atmosphere that is in chemical equilibrium. Earth’s atmosphere contains lots of oxygen and trace amounts of methane. Oxygen shouldn’t exist in a stable atmosphere. As anyone with rust spots on their car knows, it has a strong tendency to combine chemically with many other substances. Methane shouldn’t exist in the presence of oxygen. When mixed, the two gases quickly react to form carbon dioxide and water. Without some process to replace it, methane would be gone from our air in a decade.

On Earth, both oxygen and methane remain present together because the supply is constantly replenished by living things. Bacteria and plants harvest the energy of sunlight in the process of photosynthesis. As part of this process water molecules are broken into hydrogen and oxygen, releasing free oxygen as a waste product. About half of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere comes from bacteria. The rest is from human activities, including the growing of rice, the burning of biomass, and the flatulence produced by the vast herds of cows and other ruminants maintained by our species.

By itself, finding methane in a planet’s atmosphere isn’t surprising. Many purely chemical processes can make it, and it is abundant in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and on Saturn’s large moon Titan. Although oxygen alone is sometimes touted as a possible biomarker; its presence, by itself, isn’t rock solid evidence of life either. There are purely chemical processes that might make it on an alien planet, and we don’t yet know how to rule them out. Finding these two gases together, though, seems as close as one could get to “smoking gun” evidence for the activities of life.

A monkey wrench was thrown into this whole argument by an international team of investigators led by Dr. Hanno Rein of the Department of Environmental and Physical Sciences at the University of Toronto in Canada. Their results were published in the May, 2014 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Suppose, they posited, that oxygen is present in the atmosphere of a planet, and methane is present separately in the atmosphere of a moon orbiting the planet. The team used a mathematical model to predict the light spectrum that might be measured by a space telescope near Earth for plausible planet-moon pairs. They found that the resulting spectra closely mimicked that of a single object whose atmosphere contained both gasses.

Unless the planet orbits one of the very nearest stars, they showed it wasn’t possible to distinguish a planet-moon pair from a single object using technology that will be available anytime soon. The team termed their results “inconvenient, but unavoidable…It will be possible to obtain suggestive clues indicative of possible inhabitation, but ruling out alternative explanations of these clues will probably be impossible for the foreseeable future.”

References and further reading:

The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo

Kaltenegger L., Selsis F., Fridlund M. et al. (2010) Deciphering spectral fingerprints of habitable exoplanets. Astrobiology, 10(1) p. 89-102.

Major J. (2013) Earthlike exoplanets are all around us. Universe Today

Rein H., Fujii Y., and Spiegel D. S. (2014) Some inconvenient truths about biosignatures involving two chemical species on Earth-like exoplanets. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(19) p. 6871-6875.

Sagan C., Thompson W. R., Carlson R., Gurnett, D., Hord, C. (1993) A search for life on Earth from the Galileo spacecraft. Nature, 365 p. 715-721.

A New Mantra: Follow the Methane — May Advance Search for Extraterrestrial Life

The search for life is largely limited to the search for water. We look for exoplanets at the correct distances from their stars for water to flow freely on their surfaces, and even scan radiofrequencies in the “water hole” between the 1,420 MHz emission line of neutral hydrogen and the 1,666 MHz hydroxyl line.

When it comes to extraterrestrial life, our mantra has always been to “follow the water.” But now, it seems, astronomers are turning their eyes away from water and toward methane — the simplest organic molecule, also widely accepted to be a sign of potential life.

Astronomers at the University College London (UCL) and the University of New South Wales have created a powerful new methane-based tool to detect extraterrestrial life, more accurately than ever before.

In recent years, more consideration has been given to the possibility that life could develop in other mediums besides water. One of the most interesting possibilities is liquid methane, inspired by the icy moon Titan, where water is as solid as rock and liquid methane runs through the river valleys and into the polar lakes. Titan even has a methane cycle.

Astronomers can detect methane on distant exoplanets by looking at their so-called transmission spectrum. When a planet transits, the star’s light passes through a thin layer of the planet’s atmosphere, which absorbs certain wavelengths of the light. Once the starlight reaches Earth it will be imprinted with the chemical fingerprints of the atmosphere’s composition.

But there’s always been one problem. Astronomers have to match transmission spectra to spectra collected in the laboratory or determined on a supercomputer. And “current models of methane are incomplete, leading to a severe underestimation of methane levels on planets,” said co-author Jonathan Tennyson from UCL in a press release.

So Sergei Yurchenko, Tennyson and colleagues set out to develop a new spectrum for methane. They used supercomputers to calculate about 10 billion lines — 2,000 times bigger than any previous study. And they probed much higher temperatures. The new model may be used to detect the molecule at temperatures above that of Earth, up to 1,500 K.

“We are thrilled to have used this technology to significantly advance beyond previous models available for researchers studying potential life on astronomical objects, and we are eager to see what our new spectrum helps them discover,” said Yurchenko.

The tool has already successfully reproduced the way in which methane absorbs light in brown dwarfs, and helped correct our previous measurements of exoplanets. For example, Yurchenko and colleagues found that the hot Jupiter, HD 189733b, a well-studied exoplanet 63 light-years from Earth, might have 20 times more methane than previously thought.

The paper has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and may be viewed here.

Lone Signal: First Continous Message Beacon to Find and Say Hello to an Extraterrestrial Civilization

Although scientists have been listening for years to search for indications of other sentient life in the Universe, just a few efforts have been made by humans to purposefully send out messages to the cosmos. Called METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) or Active SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), these messages have so far been just one-time bursts of info – or “pulses in time” said Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra.

Haqq-Misra is leading a team of scientists and entrepreneurs who are launching a new initiative called “Lone Signal” which will send the first continuous mass “hailing messages” out into space, starting later this month. They’ll be specifically targeting one star system, Gliese 526, which has been identified as a potentially habitable solar system.

And yes, the general public can participate.

“From the start we wanted to be an experiment where anyone on Earth could participate,” said Haqq-Misra during a press event on June 11, 2013, announcing the project.

“Our scientific goals are to discover sentient beings outside of our solar system,” said Lone Star co-founder Pierre Fabre, also speaking at the event. “But an important part of this project is to get people to look beyond themselves and their differences by thinking about what they would say to a different civilization. Lone Signal will allow people to do that.”

Lone Signal will be using the recommissioned radio dish at the Jamesburg Earth Station in Carmel, California, one of the dishes used to carry the Apollo Moon landings live to the world.


Timelapse of the Jamesburg Earth Station

Lone Signal will be sending two signals: one is a continuous wave (CW) signal, a hailing message that sends a slow binary broadcast to provide basic information about Earth and our Solar System using an encoding system created by astrophysicist and planetary scientist Michael W. Busch. The binary code is based on mathematical “first principles” which reflect established laws that, theoretically, are relatively constant throughout the universe; things like gravity and the structure of the hydrogen atom, etc.

“This hailing message is a language we think could be used to instigate communication,” said Haqq-Misra, “and is the most advanced binary coding currently in use.”

The second signal, embedded in the first signal, will be messages from the people of Earth.

Strength of various signals from Earth.  Graph courtesy of Dr. Haqq-Misra.
Strength of various signals from Earth. Graph courtesy of Dr. Haqq-Misra.

Since Gliese 526 is 17.6 light years from Earth, the messages will be beamed to the coordinates of where the star will be in 17.6 years from now. Even though no planets have been found yet in this system, the Lone Signal team said they are confident planets exist there since missions like Kepler and Corot have found that most stars host multiple planets.

The Lone Signal team is allowing anyone with access to the internet to send the equivalent of one free text message or Twitter message — a 144-character text-based message — into space. The team said they want to have messages sent from people all around the world to provide messages that are “representative of humanity.”

Anything additional, like more messages, images, etc., will cost money, but those funds will help support the project.

“In effect we are doing our own Kickstarter and doing the crowdfunding on our own,” said Lone Signal CEO Jamie King. “Long Signal would not be possible without crowd sourcing support, which will be used for maintaining the millions of dollars in equipment, powering the dish, running the web portal and other critical tech that makes the project possible.”

If you want to be part of the project and be a “beamer” you can currently sign up at the Lone Signal website –which currently doesn’t have much information. But on June 18th their public site will go live and ‘beamers will be able to submit messages as well as:

• Share Beams / Track Beams – Once signed in, users can see how far their beam has traveled from Earth as well as share it with the beaming community.

• Dedicate Beams – Parents, friends and loved ones can dedicate a beam to others.

• Explore – The Explore section gives beamers current data on the Lone Signal beam, who is sending messages, from where on Earth, overall stats, etc.

• Blog / Twitter – Via their blog and Twitter, the Lone Signal science team and other contributors will be posting opinion articles on associated topics of interest as well as sharing the latest science news and updates.

One you submit your “beam” you’ll be able to “echo” it on your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

After a user sends their initial free message, Lone Signal will be offering paid credit packages for purchase that allow users to transmit and share longer messages as well as images using credits in the following USD price structure:
• $0.99 buys 4 credits.
• $4.99 buys 40 credits.
• $19.99 buys 400 credits.
• $99.99 buys 4000 credits.

Following the initial free message, each subsequent text-based message costs 1 credit. Image-based messages cost 3 credits.

The team said that each message will be sent as an individual packet of information and won’t be bunched with other messages.

While some scientists have indicated that sending messages out into space might pose a hazard by attracting unwanted attention from potentially aggressive extraterrestrial civilizations, Haqq-Misra thinks the benefits outweigh the potential hazards. In fact, he and his team have written a paper about the concept.

“We want to inspire passion for the space sciences in people young and old, encourage citizens of Earth to think about their role in the Universe, and inspire the next generation of scientists and astronauts,” said Lone Signal chief marketing officer Ernesto Qualizza. “We’re really excited to find out what people will want to say, and the science of METI allows people to do this – to think about more than their own backyard.”

More info: Lone Signal

SETI: The Search Goes On

In this new video, SETI founder Frank Drake and astronomer Jill Tarter about why the search of the cosmos is important and needed. Visit SETI online to learn more about the search for signals of extraterrestrial life using radio telescopes on Earth and how you can help.

“Tidal Venuses” May Have Been Wrung Out To Dry

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Earth-sized exoplanets within a distant star’s habitable zone could still be very much uninhabitable, depending on potential tidal stresses — either past or present — that could have “squeezed out” all the water, leaving behind a bone-dry ball of rock.

New research by an international team of scientists suggests that even a moderately eccentric orbit within a star’s habitable zone could exert tidal stress on an Earth-sized planet, enough that the increased surface heating due to friction would boil off any liquid water via extreme greenhouse effect.

Such planets are dubbed “Tidal Venuses”, due to their resemblance to our own super-heated planetary neighbor. This evolutionary possibility could be a factor in determining the actual habitability of an exoplanet, regardless of how much solar heating (insolation) it receives from its star.

The research, led by Dr. Rory Barnes of the University of Washington in Seattle, states that even an exoplanet currently in a circular, stable orbit could have formed with a much more eccentric orbit, thus subjecting it to tidal forces. Any liquid water present after formation would then have been slowly but steadily evaporated and the necessary hydrogen atoms lost to space.

The risk of such a “desiccating greenhouse” effect would be much greater on exoplanets orbiting lower-luminosity stars, since any potential habitable zone would be closer in to the star and thus prone to stronger tidal forces.

And as far as such an effect working to create habitable zones further out in orbit than otherwise permissible by stellar radiation alone… well, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.

Even if an exoplanetary version of, say, Europa, could be heated through tidal forces to maintain liquid water on or below its surface, a rocky world the size of Earth (or larger) would still likely end up being rather inhospitable.

“One couldn’t do it for an Earthlike planet — the tidal heating of the interior would likely make the surface covered by super-volcanoes,” Dr. Barnes told Universe Today.

So even though the right-sized exoplanets may be found in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” of their star, they may still not be “just right” for life as we know it.

The team’s full paper can be found here.

No Alien Visits or UFO Coverups, White House Says

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The White House has responded to two petitions asking the US government to formally acknowledge that aliens have visited Earth and to disclose to any intentional withholding of government interactions with extraterrestrial beings. “The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race,” said Phil Larson from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, on the WhiteHouse.gov website. “In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public’s eye.”

5,387 people had signed the petition for immediately disclosing the government’s knowledge of and communications with extraterrestrial beings, and 12,078 signed the request for a formal acknowledgement from the White House that extraterrestrials have been engaging the human race.

“Hundreds of military and government agency witnesses have come forward with testimony confirming this extraterrestrial presence,” the second petition states. “Opinion polls now indicate more than 50% of the American people believe there is an extraterrestrial presence and more than 80% believe the government is not telling the truth about this phenomenon. The people have a right to know. The people can handle the truth.”

These petitions come from an Obama Administration initiative called ‘We the People’ which has White House staffers respond and consider taking action on any issue that receives at least 25,000 online signatures. Regarding these two petitions, the White House promised to respond if the petitions got 17,000 or more signatures by Oct. 22.

Larson stressed that the facts show that there is no credible evidence of extraterrestrial presence here on Earth. He pointed out that even though many scientists have come to the conclusion that the odds of life somewhere else in the Universe are fairly high, the chance that any of them are making contact with humans are extremely small, given the distances involved.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t searching, there is just no evidence yet. Larson mentioned SETI (correctly noting that this at first was a NASA effort, but is now funded privately) keeping an “ear” out for signals from any intelligent extraterrestrials, with none found so far. He also added that the Kepler spacecraft is searching for Earth-like planets in the habitable zones around other stars, and that the Curiosity rover will launch to Mars this month to “assess what the Martian environment was like in the past to see if it could have harbored life.”

Regarding any evidence for alien life, all anyone has now is “statistics and speculation,” said Larson. “The fact is we have no credible evidence of extraterrestrial presence here on Earth.”

Whether or not this will appease or satisfy any conspiracy theorists or UFO believers is yet to be seen, but it is gratifying to see the White House respond in such a no-nonsense manner.

UPDATE: The Paradigm Research Group, one of the organizations sponsoring the petitions, has issued a statement saying, “As expected it was written by a low level staffer from the Office of Science and Technology Policy – research assistant Phil Larson. The response was unacceptable.”

See the petitions and the response at the WhiteHouse.gov website.

Hat Tip: NASA Watch

Calm Down: NASA Hasn’t Found any Aliens

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You may have heard in your wanderings through the blogosphere and in the internet today that NASA will be holding a press conference on December 2nd in which they will make an announcement regarding information the search for extraterrestrial life. And that this announcement involves astrobiology, the study of life outside what we know about here on Earth. While true, it is nothing to get worked up about.

Speculation abounds that this is, “the big one,” and that an announcement will be made that extraterrestrial life has been discovered. You can find this speculation at Kottke.org, io9, Gawker, and a lot of other places.

To be clear, there is almost no chance that the press release will be announcing little green men or little brown bacteria anywhere. Follow along for the long explanation below the fold.

Here’s what the press release is titled: “NASA Sets News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery: Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 2 p.m. EST On Dec. 2”. All this means is that Science Journal will be publishing some results related to astrobiology that are under embargo until that time. The embargo system is a basically a way of allowing journalists to see scientific results and get interviews and do research on an article before it’s published, but only if they promise to publish their information after the original publication does so. It makes sense, and it works most of the time to the benefit of almost everyone.

NASA regularly – like every day – announces upcoming press conferences and releases, and embargoed press releases float around to science writers like those of us here at Universe Today. This in itself is nothing out of the ordinary, and anyone with an email address can sign up to have these announcements delivered to their inbox or view them on NASA’s website. These emails are meant mainly to notify members of the press that there is something coming up worthy of being a phone-in listener of, the details of which require you to have press credentials.

The press release goes on to say,

“NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website at http://www.nasa.gov.
Participants are:
– Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
– Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
– Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
– Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
– James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe”

And that’s about it. My first reaction to this was that they had potentially made the discovery of exotic, new organic molecules in an exoplanetary atmosphere, or that some chemical conducive to the existence of life as we know it was possibly found on some body in the Solar System. Announcements like this come out of NASA all of the time.

Just because some of the participants do work in fields that are related to oceanography or ecology or biology, does not mean that their services are required here to help make an announcement that life other than that on Earth has been discovered, as other speculative bloggers might think.

As Nancy wrote in a post earlier today, extraterrestrial life is very much of interest to Universe Today readers. Which is why she’ll be listening in on that news conference Thursday, and reporting what findings are released.

Extraterrestrial life is very much of interest to probably most of the population of our planet, too, and the fact that we have the tools necessary to potentially make this discovery within the next few hundred years (or sooner), is really, really exciting.

But just because it’s exciting doesn’t mean we have to jump all over a NASA press release that includes the words “extraterrestrial life” or “precursor to life on Mars” and make wild speculations. When that announcement is made (or if, depending on how you choose to solve the Drake Equation), you can be sure that it will be very closely guarded until being made public, and after that the President will likely have some things to say.

For some more level-headed analysis, Keith Cowing at Nasa Watch has some much more reasonable speculation that the announcement involves arsenic biochemistry. The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, also has a good debunking of the rampant speculation, and makes some good points about how NASA can create press releases in the future that have better-worded announcements.

So calm down – but don’t stop looking up! Keep being excited about all of the genuinely cool and exciting developments we’re currently making with regards to space.

Source: NASA press release

[email protected] Needs You!

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If your New Year’s resolutions include trying something new, expanding your horizons, or doing something to benefit humanity, this is for you: [email protected] needs more volunteers to help crunch data in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). And the easy part is that your desktop computer does all the work.

SETI uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow band-width radio signals from space. Since these signals don’t occur naturally, a detection of such a signal would indicate technology from an extraterrestrial source.

The SETI project at the University of California-Berkley gets data from world’s largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, which has recently been updated with seven new and more sensitive receivers. The improved frequency coverage for the telescope is now generating 500 times more data for the SETI project than before, and more volunteers are needed to handle the increase in data.

According to project scientist Eric Korpela, the new data amounts to 300 gigabytes per day, or 100 terabytes (100,000 gigabytes) per year, about the amount of data stored in the U.S. Library of Congress. “That’s why we need all the volunteers,” he said. “Everyone has a chance to be part of the largest public participation science project in history.”

The [email protected] premise is simple but brilliant: Instead of using a monstrously huge and expensive supercomputer to analyze all the data, it uses lots of small computers, all working simultaneously on different parts of the analysis. Participants download a special screensaver for their home computers, and when the computer is idle, the screensaver kicks in to grab data from UC Berkley, analyze the data and send back a report. [email protected] was launched in May of 1999.

The [email protected] software has now been upgraded to deal with all the new data generated by the updated Arecibo telescope. The telescope can now record radio signals from seven regions of the sky simultaneously instead of just one. It also has greater sensitivity and 40 times more frequency coverage.

So, if the phrase “to search out new life and new civilizations” inspires you, her’s your chance to be part of the largest community of dedicated users of any internet computing project. Currently [email protected] has 170,000 individuals donating time on 320,000 computers.

“Earthlings are just getting started looking at the frequencies in the sky; we’re looking only at the cosmically brightest sources, hoping we are scanning the right radio channels,” said project chief scientist Dan Werthimer. “The good news is, we’re entering an era when we will be able to scan billions of channels. Arecibo is now optimized for this kind of search, so if there are signals out there, we or our volunteers will find them.”

Check out [email protected] here.
Original News Source: UC Berkley Press Release