Nutrient-Poor and Energy-Starved. How Life Might Survive at the Extremes in the Solar System

Our growing understanding of extremophiles here on Earth has opened up new possibilities in astrobiology. Scientists are taking another look at resource-poor worlds that appeared like they could never support life. One team of researchers is studying a nutrient-poor region of Mexico to try to understand how organisms thrive in challenging environments.

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A Microorganism With a Taste for Meteorites Could Help us Understand the Formation of Life on Earth

From the study of meteorite fragments that have fallen to Earth, scientists have confirmed that bacteria can not only survive the harsh conditions of space but can transport biological material between planets. Because of how common meteorite impacts were when life emerged on Earth (ca. 4 billion years ago), scientists have been pondering whether they may have delivered the necessary ingredients for life to thrive.

In a recent study, an international team led by astrobiologist Tetyana Milojevic from the University of Vienna examined a specific type of ancient bacteria that are known to thrive on extraterrestrial meteorites. By examining a meteorite that contained traces of this bacteria, the team determined that these bacteria prefer to feed on meteors – a find which could provide insight into how life emerged on Earth.

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Finally! Scientists Find a Place on Earth with Liquid Water But No Life

In recent years research into extremophiles has captured the interest of astrobiologists. The discovery of lifeforms in some of Earth’s most extreme environments has helped shape our thinking about extraterrestrial life. Life on other worlds may not need the kind of temperate, balanced environment that most life on Earth is adapted to.

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Astronauts Explore Caves on Earth, Learning the Skills They’ll Need for the Moon and Mars

We’re accustomed to astronauts pulling off their missions without a hitch. They head up to the International Space Station for months at a time and do what they do, then come home. But upcoming missions to the surface of the Moon, and maybe Mars, present a whole new set of challenges.

One way astronauts are preparing for those challenges is by exploring the extreme environment inside caves.

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There’s a Surprising Amount of Life Deep Inside the Earth. Hundreds of Times More Mass than All of Humanity

A nematode (eukaryote) in a biofilm of microorganisms. This unidentified nematode (Poikilolaimus sp.) from Kopanang gold mine in South Africa, lives 1.4 km below the surface. Image courtesy of Gaetan Borgonie (Extreme Life Isyensya, Belgium).

Scientists with the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) are transforming our understanding of life deep inside the Earth, and maybe on other worlds. Their discoveries suggest that abundant life could exist in the sub-surface of other planets and moons, even where temperatures are extreme, and energy and nutrients are scarce. They’ve also discovered that all of the life hidden in the deep Earth contains hundreds of times more carbon than all of humanity, and that the deep biosphere is almost twice the volume of all Earth’s oceans.

“Existing models of the carbon cycle … are still a work in progress.” – Dr. Mark Lever, DCO Deep Life Community Steering Committee.”

The DCO is not a facility, but a group of over 1,000 scientist from 52 countries, including geologists, chemists, physicists, and biologists. They’re nearing the end of a 10-year project to investigate how the Deep Carbon Cycle affects Earth. 90 % of Earth’s carbon is inside the planet, and the DCO is our first effort to really understand it.

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Life on Mars can Survive for Millions of Years Even Right Near the Surface

Mars is not exactly a friendly place for life as we know it. While temperatures at the equator can reach as high as a balmy 35 °C (95 °F) in the summer at midday, the average temperature on the surface is -63 °C (-82 °F), and can reach as low as -143 °C (-226 °F) during winter in the polar regions. Its atmospheric pressure is about one-half of one percent of Earth’s, and the surface is exposed to a considerable amount of radiation.

Until now, no one was certain if microorganisms could survive in this extreme environment. But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers from the Lomonosov Moscow State University (LMSU), we may now be able to place constraints on what kinds of conditions microorganisms can withstand. This study could therefore have significant implications in the hunt for life elsewhere in the Solar System, and maybe even beyond!

The study, titled “100 kGy gamma-affected microbial communities within the ancient Arctic permafrost under simulated Martian conditions“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Extremophiles. The research team, which was led by Vladimir S. Cheptsov of LMSU, included members from the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University, the Kurchatov Institute and Ural Federal University.

Image taken by the Viking 1 orbiter in June 1976, showing Mars thin atmosphere and dusty, red surface. Credits: NASA/Viking 1

For the sake of their study, the research team hypothesized that temperature and pressure conditions would not be the mitigating factors, but rather radiation. As such, they conducted tests where microbial communities contained within simulated Martian regolith were then irradiated. The simulated regolith consisted of sedimentary rocks that contained permafrost, which were then subjected to low temperature and low pressure conditions.

As Vladimir S. Cheptsov, a post-graduate student at the Lomonosov MSU Department of Soil Biology and a co-author on the paper, explained in a LMSU press statement:

“We have studied the joint impact of a number of physical factors (gamma radiation, low pressure, low temperature) on the microbial communities within ancient Arctic permafrost. We also studied a unique nature-made object—the ancient permafrost that has not melted for about 2 million years. In a nutshell, we have conducted a simulation experiment that covered the conditions of cryo-conservation in Martian regolith. It is also important that in this paper, we studied the effect of high doses (100 kGy) of gamma radiation on prokaryotes’ vitality, while in previous studies no living prokaryotes were ever found after doses higher than 80 kGy.”

To simulate Martian conditions, the team used an original constant climate chamber, which maintained the low temperature and atmospheric pressure. They then exposed the microorganisms to varying levels of gamma radiation. What they found was that the microbial communities showed high resistance to the temperature and pressure conditions in the simulated Martian environment.

Spirit Embedded in Soft Soil on Mars
Image of Martian soils, where the Spirit mission embedded itself. Credit: NASA/JPL

However, after they began irradiating the microbes, they noticed several differences between the irradiated sample and the control sample. Whereas the total count of prokaryotic cells and the number of metabolically active bacterial cells remained consistent with control levels, the number of irradiated bacteria decreased by two orders of magnitude while the number of metabolically active cells of archaea also decreased threefold.

The team also noticed that within the exposed sample of permafrost, there was a high biodiversity of bacteria, and this bacteria underwent a significant structural change after it was irradiated. For instance, populations of actinobacteria like Arthrobacter – a common genus found in soil – were not present in the control samples, but became predominant in the bacterial communities that were exposed.

In short, these results indicated that microorganisms on Mars are more survivable than previously thought. In addition to being able to survive the cold temperatures and low atmospheric pressure, they are also capable of surviving the kinds of radiation conditions that are common on the surface. As Cheptsov explained:

“The results of the study indicate the possibility of prolonged cryo-conservation of viable microorganisms in the Martian regolith. The intensity of ionizing radiation on the surface of Mars is 0.05-0.076 Gy/year and decreases with depth. Taking into account the intensity of radiation in the Mars regolith, the data obtained makes it possible to assume that hypothetical Mars ecosystems could be conserved in an anabiotic state in the surface layer of regolith (protected from UV rays) for at least 1.3 million years, at a depth of two meters for no less than 3.3 million years, and at a depth of five meters for at least 20 million years. The data obtained can also be applied to assess the possibility of detecting viable microorganisms on other objects of the solar system and within small bodies in outer space.”

Future missions could determine the presence of past life on Mars by looking for signs of extreme bacteria. Credit: NASA.

This study was significant for multiple reasons. On the one hand, the authors were able to prove for the first time that prokaryote bacteria can survive radiation does in excess of 80 kGy – something which was previously thought to be impossible. They also demonstrated that despite its tough conditions, microorganisms could still be alive on Mars today, preserved in its permafrost and soil.

The study also demonstrates the importance of considering both extraterrestrial and cosmic factors when considering where and under what conditions living organisms can survive. Last, but not least, this study has done something no previous study has, which is define the limits of radiation resistance for microorganisms on Mars – specifically within regolith and at various depths.

This information will be invaluable for future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System, and perhaps even with the study of exoplanets. Knowing the kind of conditions in which life will thrive will help us to determine where to look for signs of it. And when preparing missions to other words, it will also let scientists know what locations to avoid so that contamination of indigenous ecosystems can be prevented.

Further Reading: Lomonsonov Moscow State University, Extremophiles

How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Saturn’s Moons. Beyond the inner Solar System and the Jovian Moons, Saturn has numerous satellites that could be transformed. But should they be?

Around the distant gas giant Saturn lies a system of rings and moons that is unrivaled in terms of beauty. Within this system, there is also enough resources that if humanity were to harness them – i.e. if the issues of transport and infrastructure could be addressed – we would be living in an age a post-scarcity. But on top of that, many of these moons might even be suited to terraforming, where they would be transformed to accommodate human settlers.

As with the case for terraforming Jupiter’s moons, or the terrestrial planets of Mars and Venus, doing so presents many advantages and challenges. At the same time, it presents many moral and ethical dilemmas. And between all of that, terraforming Saturn’s moons would require a massive commitment in time, energy and resources, not to mention reliance on some advanced technologies (some of which haven’t been invented yet).

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How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present to our guide to terraforming Jupiter’s Moons. Much like terraforming the inner Solar System, it might be feasible someday. But should we?

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.

As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.

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Europa Life: Could ‘Extreme Shrimp’ Point To Microbes On That Moon?

For all of the talk about aliens that we see in science fiction, the reality is in our Solar System, any extraterrestrial life is likely to be microbial. The lucky thing for us is there are an abundance of places that we can search for them — not least Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter believed to harbor a global ocean and that NASA wants to visit fairly soon. What lurks in those waters?

To gain a better understanding of the extremes of life, scientists regularly look at bacteria and other lifeforms here on Earth that can make their living in hazardous spots. One recent line of research involves shrimp that live in almost the same area as bacteria that survive in vents of up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius) — way beyond the boiling point, but still hospitable to life.

Far from sunlight, the bacteria receive their energy from chemical combinations (specifically, hydrogen sulfide). While the shrimp certainly don’t live in these hostile areas, they perch just at the edge — about an inch away. The shrimp feed on the bacteria, which in turn feed on the hydrogen sulfide (which is toxic to larger organisms if there is enough of it.) Oh, and by the way, some of the shrimps are likely cannibals!

One species called Rimicaris hybisae, according to the evidence, likely feeds on each other. This happens in areas where the bacteria are not as abundant and the organisms need to find some food to survive. To be sure, nobody saw the shrimps munching on each other, but scientists did find small crustaceans inside them — and there are few other types of crustaceans in the area.

But how likely, really, are these organisms on Europa? Bacteria might be plausible, but something larger and more complicated? The researchers say this all depends on how much energy the ecosystems have to offer. And in order to see up close, we’d have to get underwater somehow and do some exploring.

In a recent Universe Today interview with Mike Brown, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology, the renowned dwarf-planet hunter talked about how a submarine could do some neat work.

“In the proposed missions that I’ve heard, and in the only one that seems semi-viable, you land on the surface with basically a big nuclear pile, and you melt your way down through the ice and eventually you get down into the water,” he said. “Then you set your robotic submarine free and it goes around and swims with the big Europa whales.” You can see the rest of that interview here.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Did This Martian Volcano Once Host Life?

Extremophiles teach us that life is found in unlikely places, which is why after looking at microbes happily living in hot springs or surviving after 18 months in space, scientists are trying to expand our definition of what a habitable environment is. So perhaps this ancient Martian volcano would be an example.

Meet Arsia Mons. It’s the third-tallest volcano on the Red Planet and one of the largest volcanoes we know of in the solar system.

New research shows that a combination of eruptions and a glacier on its northwest side could have formed something called “englacial lakes”, which is water that is created inside glaciers. (The researchers compare this to “liquid bubbles in a half-frozen ice cube.”) These in sum would have been massive, on the order of hundreds of cubic miles.

“This is interesting because it’s a way to get a lot of liquid water very recently on Mars,” stated Kat Scanlon, a graduate student at Brown who led the research, adding that she is also interested to see if signs of a habitable environment turn up in even older regions, of 2.5 billion years old or more.

“There’s been a lot of work on Earth — though not as much as we would like — on the types of microbes that live in these englacial lakes,” Scanlon added. “They’ve been studied mainly as an analog to [Saturn’s moon] Europa, where you’ve got an entire planet that’s an ice covered lake.”

While the glacial ice idea is not new — it’s been talked about since the 1970s — Scanlon’s team pushed the research forward by bringing in new information from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Artist Illustration of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

“Scanlon found pillow lava formations, similar to those that form on Earth when lava erupts at the bottom of an ocean,” Brown University stated.

“She also found the kinds of ridges and mounds that form on Earth when a lava flow is constrained by glacial ice. The pressure of the ice sheet constrains the lava flow, and glacial meltwater chills the erupting lava into fragments of volcanic glass, forming mounds and ridges with steep sides and flat tops. The analysis also turned up evidence of a river formed in a jökulhlaup, a massive flood that occurs when water trapped in a glacier breaks free.”

Scanlon estimated that two of the “deposits” would have had lakes of 9.6 cubic miles (40 cubic kilometers) each, while a third would have had 4.8 cubic miles (20 cubic kilometers). They could have stayed liquid for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.

That’s a short period in the history of life, but Scanlon’s team says it could have been enough for microbes to colonize the locations, if microbes were on Mars in the first place.

You can read more about the research in the journal Icarus.

Source: Brown University