The crater that contains those puzzlingly bright spots on Ceres may harbor an equally puzzling haze. Or not. The hints of haze on the dwarf planet, seen in some of the images coming from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, add another intriguing twist to Ceres’ mysteries.
The hubbub over haze arose this week during the Exploration Science Forum at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. For months, Dawn’s scientists have been observing – and trying to make sense out of – unusually reflective spots within Ceres’ craters that show up when the asteroid turns into the sunlight. The team has speculated that they could be frozen pools of water ice, or patches of light-colored, salt-rich material.
The brightest spots are known collectively as Spot 5, and sit inside Occator Crater on Ceres. Dawn’s principal investigator, Chris Russell of the University of California at Los Angeles, told the forum that some type of haze could be seen inside the crater at certain times of Ceres’ day, according to reports from Nature and the Planetary Society. Nature quoted Russell as saying the bright spots “could be providing some atmosphere in this particular region of Ceres.”
Last year, scientists with the European Space Agency’s Herschel mission reported detecting signs of water vapor rising from Ceres’ surface, and it would be tempting to suggest that the water vapor is emanating from bright icy spots and creating the haze. That would strengthen Ceres’ status as the only asteroid with a significant atmosphere and a subsurface reservoir of water, and stoke speculation about life on Ceres.
However, Russell told Universe Today that it’s way too early to give in to temptation.
“I was speaking from less than a handful of images, and the interpretation of the images is disputed by some team members,” Russell said in an email. “I would like the debate to go on internally before we make a pronouncement one way or the other. I of course have my personal opinion, but I am not always right.”
Russell said the ice-vs.-salt debate is continuing. “I originally was an advocate of ice, because of how bright the spots seemed to be,” he said. However, the bright material’s albedo, or reflectivity factor, is about 50 percent – which is less than Russell originally thought. “This could be salt and is unlikely to be ice. I think the team opinion is now more in line with salt,” he said.
Either way, Russell doesn’t see any way for the spots to form without internal activity on Ceres. “Thus, the very existence of the spots tells us that there is some active process going on,” he told Universe Today.
Will we ever know if the haze is for real? Or what the spots are made of? As the Magic 8-Ball might say, “Ask again later.” The Dawn spacecraft recently recovered from a mechanical glitch and is gradually descending to a closer mapping orbit, around an altitude of 900 miles (1,500 kilometers). That will provide a much better look at Occator Crater and what lies within.
“Eventually I am expecting the spectral data will unambiguously tell us what has happened to the surface,” Russell said, “but it is a little too soon to be sure.”
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.
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.
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.