New Answers for Mars’ Methane Mystery

There's methane on Mars, but only in Gale Crater, and only sporadically. Image Credit:

Planetary scientists perk up whenever methane is mentioned. Methane is produced by living things on Earth, so it’s considered to be a potential biosignature elsewhere. In recent years, MSL Curiosity detected methane coming from the surface of Gale Crater on Mars. So far, nobody’s successfully explained where it’s coming from.

NASA scientists have some new ideas.

Continue reading “New Answers for Mars’ Methane Mystery”

What Can Early Earth Teach Us About the Search for Life?

This view of Earth from space is a fusion of science and art, drawing on data from multiple satellite missions and the talents of NASA scientists and graphic artists. This image originally appeared in the NASA Earth Observatory story Twin Blue Marbles. Image Credits: NASA images by Reto Stöckli, based on data from NASA and NOAA.

Earth is the only life-supporting planet we know of, so it’s tempting to use it as a standard in the search for life elsewhere. But the modern Earth can’t serve as a basis for evaluating exoplanets and their potential to support life. Earth’s atmosphere has changed radically over its 4.5 billion years.

A better way is to determine what biomarkers were present in Earth’s atmosphere at different stages in its evolution and judge other planets on that basis.

Continue reading “What Can Early Earth Teach Us About the Search for Life?”

Is the JWST Now an Interplanetary Meteorologist?

This artist’s concept shows what the hot gas-giant exoplanet WASP-43 b could look like. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

The JWST keeps one-upping itself. In the telescope’s latest act of outdoing itself, it examined a distant exoplanet to map its weather. The forecast?

An unending, blistering inferno driven by ceaseless supersonic winds.

Continue reading “Is the JWST Now an Interplanetary Meteorologist?”

A Cold Brown Dwarf is Belching Methane Into Space

This artist concept portrays the brown dwarf W1935. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

Brown dwarfs span the line between planets and stars. By definition, a star must be massive enough for hydrogen fusion to occur within its core. This puts the minimum mass of a star around 80 Jupiters. Planets, even large gas giants like Jupiter, only produce heat through gravitational collapse or radioactive decay, which is true for worlds up to about 13 Jovian masses. Above that, deuterium can undergo fusion. Brown dwarfs lay between these two extremes. The smallest brown dwarfs resemble gas planets with surface temperatures similar to Jupiter. The largest brown dwarfs have surface temperatures around 3,000 K and look essentially like stars.

Continue reading “A Cold Brown Dwarf is Belching Methane Into Space”

The LIFE Telescope Passed its First Test: It Detected Biosignatures on Earth.

LIFE will have five separate space telescopes that fly in formation and work together to detect biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres. Image Credit: LIFE, ETH Zurich

We know that there are thousands of exoplanets out there, with many millions more waiting to be discovered. But the vast majority of exoplanets are simply uninhabitable. For the few that may be habitable, we can only determine if they are by examining their atmospheres. LIFE, the Large Interferometer for Exoplanets, can help.

Continue reading “The LIFE Telescope Passed its First Test: It Detected Biosignatures on Earth.”

Another Explanation for K2-18b? A Gas-Rich Mini-Neptune with No Habitable Surface

Artist depiction of the mini-Neptune K2-18 b. Credit: NASA, CSA, ESA, J. Olmstead (STScI), N. Madhusudhan (Cambridge University)

Exoplanet K2-18b is garnering a lot of attention. James Webb Space Telescope spectroscopy shows it has carbon and methane in its atmosphere. Those results, along with other observations, suggest the planet could be a long-hypothesized ‘Hycean World.’ But new research counters that.

Instead, the planet could be a gaseous mini-Neptune.

Continue reading “Another Explanation for K2-18b? A Gas-Rich Mini-Neptune with No Habitable Surface”

Could Life Exist in Molecular Clouds?

This image from the APEX telescope, of part of the Taurus Molecular Cloud, shows a sinuous filament of cosmic dust more than ten light-years long. Could life exist in molecular clouds like this one? Credit: ESO/APEX (MPIfR/ESO/OSO)/A. Hacar et al./Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin.

Our search for life beyond Earth is still in its infancy. We’re focused on Mars and, to a lesser extent, ocean moons like Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus. Should we extend our search to cover more unlikely places like molecular clouds?

Continue reading “Could Life Exist in Molecular Clouds?”

Wow. JWST Just Found Methane in an Exoplanet Atmosphere

This artist’s rendering shows the warm exoplanet WASP-80 b. When viewed with human eyes, the colour may appear bluish due to the lack of high-altitude clouds and the presence of atmospheric methane identified by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. That makes it similar to the planets Uranus and Neptune in our own solar system. Image credit: NASA.

If there’s one chemical that causes excitement in the search for biosignatures on other worlds, it’s methane. It’s not a slam dunk because it has both biotic and abiotic sources. But finding it in an exoplanet’s atmosphere means that planet deserves a closer look.

Continue reading “Wow. JWST Just Found Methane in an Exoplanet Atmosphere”

It’s Not Conclusive, But Methane is Probably the Best Sign of Life on Exoplanets

Illustration of Kepler-186f, a recently-discovered, possibly Earthlike exoplanet that could be a host to life. Scientists could use this one or one like it to measure planetary entropy production as a prelude to exploration. (NASA Ames, SETI Institute, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle)
Illustration of Kepler-186f, a recently-discovered, possibly Earthlike exoplanet that could be a host to life. Scientists could use this one or one like it to measure planetary entropy production as a prelude to exploration. (NASA Ames, SETI Institute, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle)

When the James Webb Space Telescope aims at exoplanet atmospheres, it’ll use spectroscopy to identify chemical elements. One of the things it’s looking for is methane, a chemical compound that can indicate the presence of life.

Methane is a compelling biosignature. Finding a large amount of methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere might be our most reliable indication that life’s at work there. There are abiotic sources of methane, but for the most part, methane comes from life.

But to understand methane as a potential biosignature, we need to understand it in a planetary context. A new research letter aims to do that.

Continue reading “It’s Not Conclusive, But Methane is Probably the Best Sign of Life on Exoplanets”

Satellites can now see Exactly Where Methane is Being Dumped Into the Atmosphere

Methane is one of the most important greenhouse gases, despite the overwhelming interest in carbon dioxide emissions as the primary source of climate change.  It is hard to track, though, as its sources can range from leaking chemical and gas pipelines to literal farm fields.  Now an energy analytics company has a system they believe can track otherwise undocumented methane emissions in a way that could prove helpful in eliminating them altogether.

Continue reading “Satellites can now see Exactly Where Methane is Being Dumped Into the Atmosphere”