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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Bacteria. They’re so resilient that they can survive just about anywhere on Earth, even in spots of extreme hot or cold. As the sun warms up in the next few billion years, it’s likely that bacteria will be the only living creatures left on the planet, according to new research.
The study not only has implications for human survival — hopefully, our descendants will have left by then — but also our search for life on other planets. By predicting the signature these bacteria leave behind on the atmosphere, we can better hone our search for new planets, the study states.
Earth’s history shows that a species, just like an individual, can expect a lifetime that only lasts for so long. Sometimes a catastrophic event will wipe out a species, like what likely happened to the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago when a huge asteroid hit the Earth. Other times, it’s a slow process that is infinitesimal in an individual’s lifetime, but will eventually lead to changes that are unfriendly for life.
A computer model by Ph.D. astrobiologist Jack O’Malley James, who is at the University of St Andrews, suggests the first changes will take place in only a billion years. He will present his research at the ongoing Royal Astronomical Society national meeting at St. Andrews, Scotland, which is taking place this week.
“Increased evaporation rates and chemical reactions with rainwater will draw more and more carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere,” the Royal Astronomical Society stated. “The falling levels of CO2 [carbon dioxide] will lead to the disappearance of plants and animals and our home planet will become a world of microbes.”
Earth will then run out of oxygen and begin to dry out as temperatures rise and the oceans evaporate. Around two billion years in the future, there will be no oceans left.
“The far-future Earth will be very hostile to life by this point,” O’Malley James stated. “All living things require liquid water, so any remaining life will be restricted to pockets of liquid water, perhaps at cooler, higher altitudes or in caves or underground.”
Life would disappear almost altogether in about 2.8 billion years.
Thankfully, humans plenty of time to figure out how to get around this problem. In the meantime, we can use the knowledge when seeking life beyond Earth.
Searches these days often focus on finding life like our own, which would leave “fingerprints” behind like oxygen and ozone.
“Life in the Earth’s far future will be very different to this, which means, to detect life like this on other planets we need to search for a whole new set of clues,” O’Malley James stated. “By the point at which all life disappears from the planet [surface], we’re left with a nitrogen:carbon-dioxide atmosphere, with methane being the only sign of active life”.
Lake Vida lies within one of Antarctica’s cold, arid McMurdo Dry Valleys (Photo: Desert Research Institute)
Even inside an almost completely frozen lake within Antarctica’s inland dry valleys, in dark, salt-laden and sub-freezing water full of nitrous oxide, life thrives… offering a clue at what might one day be found in similar environments elsewhere in the Solar System.
Researchers from NASA, the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, the University of Illinois at Chicago and nine other institutions have discovered colonies of bacteria living in one of the most isolated places on Earth: Antarctica’s Lake Vida, located in Victoria Valley — one of the southern continent’s incredibly arid McMurdo Dry Valleys.
These organisms seem to be thriving despite the harsh conditions. Covered by 20 meters (65 feet) of ice, the water in Lake Vida is six times saltier than seawater and contains the highest levels of nitrous oxide ever found in a natural body of water. Sunlight doesn’t penetrate very far below the frozen surface, and due to the hypersaline conditions and pressure of the ice water temperatures can plunge to a frigid -13.5 ºC (8 ºF).
Yet even within such a seemingly inhospitable environment Lake Vida is host to a “surprisingly diverse and abundant assemblage of bacteria” existing within water channels branching through the ice, separated from the sun’s energy and isolated from exterior influences for an estimated 3,000 years.
Originally thought to be frozen solid, ground penetrating radar surveys in 1995 revealed a very salty liquid layer (a brine) underlying the lake’s year-round 20-meter-thick ice cover.
“This study provides a window into one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth,” said Dr. Alison Murray, one of the lead authors of the team’s paper, a molecular microbial ecologist and polar researcher and a member of 14 expeditions to the Southern Ocean and Antarctic continent. “Our knowledge of geochemical and microbial processes in lightless icy environments, especially at subzero temperatures, has been mostly unknown up until now. This work expands our understanding of the types of life that can survive in these isolated, cryoecosystems and how different strategies may be used to exist in such challenging environments.”
Sterile environments had to be set up within tents on Lake Vida’s surface so the researchers could be sure that the core samples they were drilling were pristine, and weren’t being contaminated with any introduced organisms.
According to a NASA press release, “geochemical analyses suggest chemical reactions between the brine and the underlying iron-rich sediments generate nitrous oxide and molecular hydrogen. The latter, in part, may provide the energy needed to support the brine’s diverse microbial life.”
“This system is probably the best analog we have for possible ecosystems in the subsurface waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.”
– Chris McKay, co-author, NASA’s Ames Research Center
What’s particularly exciting is the similarity between conditions found in ice-covered Antarctic lakes and those that could be found on other worlds in our Solar System. If life could survive in Lake Vida, as harsh and isolated as it is, could it also be found beneath the icy surface of Europa, or within the (hypothesized) subsurface oceans of Enceladus? And what about the ice caps of Mars? Might there be similar channels of super-salty liquid water running through Mars’ ice, with microbes eking out an existence on iron sediments?
“It’s plausible that a life-supporting energy source exists solely from the chemical reaction between anoxic salt water and the rock,” explained Dr. Christian Fritsen, a systems microbial ecologist and Research Professor in DRI’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and co-author of the study.
“If that’s the case,” Murray added, “this gives us an entirely new framework for thinking of how life can be supported in cryoecosystems on earth and in other icy worlds of the universe.”
More research is planned to study the chemical interactions between the sediment and the brine as well as the genetic makeup of the microbial communities themselves.
The research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). Read more on the DRI press release here, and watch a video below showing highlights from the field research.
Funding for the research was supported jointly by NSF and NASA. Images courtesy the Desert Research Institute. Dry valley image credit: NASA/Landsat. Europa image: NASA/Ted Stryk.)
White sand, blue water, sunny skies, pina coladas. When you think of “extreme environments” I doubt the Caribbean is high on your list. But a team of scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic institute and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, exploring the 68-mile-long Mid-Cayman rise deep beneath the surface of the Caribbean, have discovered the deepest known hydrothermal vent in the world, along with two other distinct types of vents.
The mid-Cayman rise is a much smaller version of the mid-ocean ridge system, a chain of submarine mountains that encircles the globe. These ridges form in locations where tectonic plates are pulling apart, allowing mantle rocks to melt and emerge at the surface as lava. Seawater, percolating through the hot rocks at these spreading centers, is superheated and emerges at vents, bearing a rich bounty of dissolved nutrients to support thriving ecosystems that can live without any sunlight.
“This was probably the highest-risk expedition I have ever undertaken,” said chief scientist Chris German, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution geochemist who has pioneered the use of autonomous underwater vehicles to search for hydrothermal vent sites. “We know hydrothermal vents appear along ridges approximately every 100 kilometers [62 miles]. But this ridge crest is only 100 kilometers long, so we should only have expected to find evidence for one site at most. So finding evidence for three sites was quite unexpected – but then finding out that our data indicated that each site represents a different style of venting – one of every kind known, all in pretty much the same place – was extraordinarily cool.”
In addition to the deepest hydrothermal vent yet discovered, at a depth of 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), the team also found a shallower low-temperature vent. Only one other vent of this type has been discovered: the famous “Lost City” vent in the Atlantic.
“We were particularly excited to find compelling evidence for high-temperature venting at almost 5,000 meters depth,” said Julie Huber, a scientist in the Josephine Bay Paul Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. “We have absolutely zero microbial data from high-temperature vents at this depth.”
The ecosystems encrusting the deep sea vents on the mid-Cayman rise provide valuable clues to how life could arise and thrive elsewhere in the solar system. “Most life on Earth is sustained by food chains that begin with sunlight as their energy source. That’s not an option for possible life deep in the ocean of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa,” said JPL co-author Max Coleman.
With an airless sky, intense radiation, icy crust, and no pina coladas, the surface of Europa is about as different from the Caribbean as you can get. But deep on the sea floor, they may be remarkably similar.
“Organisms around the deep vents get energy from the chemicals in hydrothermal fluid, a scenario we think is similar to the seafloor of Europa,” Coleman said. “This work will help us understand what we might find when we search for life there.”
An artist's depiction of a future Europa mission. Image credit: NASA