Exomoons: Why study them? What can they teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Artist's depiction of an exomoon orbiting a gas giant within the star's habitable zone. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Universe Today has had the recent privilege of investigating a multitude of scientific disciplines, including impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, astrobiology, solar physics, comets, planetary atmospheres, planetary geophysics, cosmochemistry, meteorites, radio astronomy, extremophiles, organic chemistry, black holes, cryovolcanism, planetary protection, dark matter, supernovae, and neutron stars, and how they both individually and collectively contribute to our greater understanding of our place in the universe.

Here, Universe Today discusses the growing field of exomoons with Dr. David Kipping, who is an assistant professor in the Astronomy Department at Columbia University, along with his PhD students, Benjamin Cassese and Daniel Yahalomi, regarding the importance of studying exomoons, the benefits and challenges, potential exomoon candidates, how exomoons can teach us about finding life beyond Earth, and advice for upcoming students who wish to pursue studying exomoons. Therefore, what is the importance of studying exomoons?

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Did Earth’s Multicellular Life Depend on Plate Tectonics?

Graphic depicting the last 1.6 billion years of Earth’s tectonic history. (Credit: Figure 2 from Stern & Gerya (2024))

How did complex life emerge and evolve on the Earth and what does this mean for finding life beyond Earth? This is what a recent study published in Nature hopes to address as a pair of researchers investigated how plate tectonics, oceans, and continents are responsible for the emergence and evolution of complex life across our planet and how this could address the Fermi Paradox while attempting to improve the Drake Equation regarding why we haven’t found life in the universe and the parameters for finding life, respectively. This study holds the potential to help researchers better understand the criterion for finding life beyond Earth, specifically pertaining to the geological processes exhibited on Earth.

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Astrobiology: Why study it? How to study it? What are the challenges?

Credit: NASA

Universe Today has proudly examined the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, and exoplanets, and what they can teach scientists and the public about finding life beyond Earth. Impact craters both shape these planetary surfaces and hold the power to create or destroy life, and we learned how exoplanets are changing our views of planetary formation and evolution, including how and where we might find life in the cosmos. Here, we will discuss how these disciplines contribute to the field responsible for finding life beyond Earth, known as astrobiology. We will discuss why scientists study astrobiology, also known as astrobiologists, challenges of studying astrobiology, and how students can pursue studying astrobiology, as well. So, why is it so important to study astrobiology?

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Venus’ Clouds Contain Sulfuric Acid. That’s Not a Problem for Life.

Photo of Venus (Credit: Akatsuki)

A recent study published in Astrobiology investigates the potential habitability in the clouds of Venus, specifically how amino acids, which are the building blocks of life, could survive in the sulfuric acid-rich upper atmosphere of Venus. This comes as the potential for life in Venus’ clouds has become a focal point of contention within the astrobiology community in the last few years. On Earth, concentrated sulfuric acid is known for its corrosivity towards metals and rocks and for absorbing water vapor. In Venus’ upper atmosphere, it forms from solar radiation interacting with sulfur dioxide, water vapor, and carbon dioxide.

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Do Advanced Civilizations Know We're Here?

Antennas of the Very Large Array against the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF/Jeff Hellerman

Adrift in a great sea of stars, we must surely not be alone.

It’s hard not to look at the night sky and think about the possibility of other civilizations out there. From the philosophical speculations of Giordano Bruno to the statistical estimations of Frank Drake, the more we’ve learned about the universe, the more likely alien life seems to be. And yet, in our search for this life, we have heard nothing but silence.

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How Will We the Find First Signs of Alien Life — and When?

Illustration: Assortment of exoplanets
Astronomers have detected thousands of planets, including dozens that are potentially habitable. (NASA Illustration)

When will we find evidence for life beyond Earth? And where will that evidence be found? University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey, the author of a book called “Worlds Without End,” is betting that the first evidence will come to light within the next decade or so.

But don’t expect to see little green men or pointy-eared Vulcans. And don’t expect to get radio signals from a far-off planetary system, as depicted in the 1992 movie “Contact.”

Instead, Impey expects that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope — or one of the giant Earth-based telescopes that’s gearing up for observations — will detect the spectroscopic signature of biological activity in the atmosphere of a planet that’s light-years away from us.

“Spectroscopic data is not as appealing to the general public,” Impey admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “People like pictures, and so spectroscopy never gets its fair due in the general talk about astronomy or science, because it’s slightly more esoteric. But it is the tool of choice here.”

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Liquid Water on Rocky Planets Could be 100 Times More Likely

Artist’s impression, frozen world with sub-surface ocean. Credit: Bryce Troncone

It’s easy to think of Earth as a water world, with its vast oceans and beautiful lakes, but compared to many worlds, Earth is particularly wet. Even the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn have far more liquid water than Earth. Earth is unusual not because it has liquid water, but because it has liquid water in the warm habitable zone of the Sun. And as a new study in Nature Communications shows, Earth could be even more unusual than we thought.

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We've Got to Go Back to Enceladus. Here's a Mission That Could Get the Science

Four key objectives of the proposed AXE mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In our search for life on other worlds, the one we’ve most explored is Mars. But while Mars has the makings for possible life, it isn’t the best candidate in our solar system. Much better are the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which we know have liquid water. And of those, perhaps the best candidate is Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

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Even if There's Life on TRAPPIST-1, We Probably Can't Detect it

A size comparison of the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credit: NASA/R. Hurt/T. Pyle

If we ever find life on other worlds, it is unlikely to be a powerful message from space. It’s certainly possible that an alien civilization specifically sends us a radio message like a scene out of Contact, but the more likely scenario is that we observe some kind of biological signature in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, such as oxygen or chlorophyll. But as a recent study shows, that could be more difficult than we thought.

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We Could Spread Life to the Milky Way With Comets. But Should We?

Gerald Rhemann captured this incredible image of Comet Leonard when a piece of the comet's tail was disconnected and carried away. Rhemann won Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2022 for the image. Image Credit: Gerald Rhemann

Here’s a thorny problem: What if life doesn’t always appear on planets that can support it? What if we find more and more exoplanets and determine that some of them are habitable? What if we also determine that life hasn’t appeared on them yet?

Could we send life-bringing comets to those planets and seed them with terrestrial life? And if we could do that, should we?

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