When it made its historic flyby of Pluto in July of 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft gave scientists and the general public the first clear picture of what this distant dwarf planet looks like. In addition to providing breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, and mountain chains, one of the more interesting features it detected was Pluto’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.
According to data obtained by New Horizons, these features are made almost entirely out of methane ice and resemble giant blades. At the time of their discovery, what caused these features remained unknown. But according to new research by members of the New Horizons team, it is possible that these features are the result of a specific kind of erosion that is related to Pluto’s complex climate and geological history.
Ever since the New Horizons probe provided a detailed look at Pluto’s geological features, the existence of these jagged ridges has been a source of mystery. They are located at the highest altitudes on Pluto’s surface near it’s equator, and can reach several hundred feet in altitude. In that respect, they are similar to penitentes, a type of structure found in high-altitude snowfields along Earth’s equator.
These structures are formed through sublimation, where atmospheric water vapor freezes to form standing, blade-like ice structures. The process is based on sublimation, where rapid changes in temperature cause water to transition from a vapor to a solid (and back again) without changing into a liquid state in between. With this in mind, the research team considered various mechanisms for the formation of these ridges on Pluto.
What they determined was that Pluto’s bladed terrain was the result of atmospheric methane freezing at extreme altitudes on Pluto, which then led to ice structures similar to the ones found on Earth.The team was led by Jeffrey Moore, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who was also a New Horizons’ team member. As he explained in a NASA press statement:
“When we realized that bladed terrain consists of tall deposits of methane ice, we asked ourselves why it forms all of these ridges, as opposed to just being big blobs of ice on the ground. It turns out that Pluto undergoes climate variation and sometimes, when Pluto is a little warmer, the methane ice begins to basically ‘evaporate’ away.”
But unlike on Earth, the erosion of these features are related to changes that take place over the course of eons. This should come as no surprise seeing as how Pluto’s orbital period is 248 years (or 90,560 Earth days), meaning it takes this long to complete a single orbit around the Sun. In addition, the eccentric nature of it orbit means that its distance from the Sun ranges considerably, from 29.658 AU at perihelion to 49.305 AU at aphelion.
When the planet is farthest from the Sun, methane freezes out of the atmosphere at high altitudes. And as it gets closer to the Sun, these ice features melt and turn directly into atmospheric vapor again. As a result of this discovery, we now know that the surface and air of Pluto are apparently far more dynamic than previously thought. Much in the same way that Earth has a water cycle, Pluto may have a methane cycle.
This discovery could also allow scientists to map out locations of Pluto which were not photographed in high-detail. When the New Horizons mission conducted its flyby, it took high-resolution pictures of only one side of Pluto – designated as the “encounter hemisphere”. However, it was only able to observe the other side at lower resolution, which prevented it from being mapped in detail.
But based on this new study, NASA researchers and their collaborators have been able to conclude that these sharp ridges may be a widespread feature on Pluto’s “far side”. The study is also significant in that it advances our understanding of Pluto’s global geography and topography, both past and present. This is due to the fact that it demonstrated a link between atmospheric methane and high-altitude features. As such, researchers can now infer elevations on Pluto by looking for concentrations of methane in its atmosphere.
Not long ago, Pluto was considered one of the least-understood bodies in our Solar System, thanks to its immense distance from the Sun. However, thanks to ongoing studies made possible by the data collected by the New Horizons mission, scientists are becoming increasingly familiar with what its surface looks like, not to mention the types of geological and climatological forces that have shaped it over time.
And be sure to enjoy this video that details the discovery of Pluto’s bladed terrain, courtesy of NASA’s Ames Research Center:
As you probably know, NASA recently announced plans to send a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. If all goes well, the Europa Clipper will blast off for the world in the 2020s, and orbit the icy moon to discover all its secrets.
And that’s great and all, I like Europa just fine. But you know where I’d really like us to go next? Titan.
Titan, as you probably know, is the largest moon orbiting Saturn. In fact, it’s the second largest moon in the Solar System after Jupiter’s Ganymede. It measures 5,190 kilometers across, almost half the diameter of the Earth. This place is big.
It orbits Saturn every 15 hours and 22 days, and like many large moons in the Solar System, it’s tidally locked to its planet, always showing Saturn one side.
Before NASA’s Voyager spacecraft arrived in 1980, astronomers actually thought that Titan was the biggest moon in the Solar System. But Voyager showed that it actually has a thick atmosphere, that extends well into space, making the true size of the moon hard to judge.
This atmosphere is one of the most interesting features of Titan. In fact, it’s the only moon in the entire Solar System with a significant atmosphere. If you could stand on the surface, you would experience about 1.45 times the atmospheric pressure on Earth. In other words, you wouldn’t need a pressure suit to wander around the surface of Titan.
You would, however, need a coat. Titan is incredibly cold, with an average temperature of almost -180 Celsius. For you Fahrenheit people that’s -292 F. The coldest ground temperature ever measured on Earth is almost -90 C, so way way colder.
You would also need some way to breathe, since Titan’s atmosphere is almost entirely nitrogen, with trace amounts of methane and hydrogen. It’s thick and poisonous, but not murderous, like Venus.
Titan has only been explored a couple of times, and we’ve actually only landed on it once.
The first spacecraft to visit Titan was NASA’s Pioneer 11, which flew past Saturn and its moons in 1979. This flyby was followed by NASA’s Voyager 1 in 1980 and then Voyager 2 in 1981. Voyager 1 was given a special trajectory that would take it as close as possible to Titan to give us a close up view of the world.
Voyager was able to measure its atmosphere, and helped scientists calculate Titan’s size and mass. It also got a hint of darker regions which would later turn out to be oceans of liquid hydrocarbons.
The true age of Titan exploration began with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn on July 4, 2004. Cassini made its first flyby of Titan on October 26, 2004, getting to within 1,200 kilometers or 750 miles of the planet. But this was just the beginning. By the end of its mission later this year, Cassini will have made 125 flybys of Titan, mapping the world in incredible detail.
Cassini saw that Titan actually has a very complicated hydrological system, but instead of liquid water, it has weather of hydrocarbons. The skies are dotted with methane clouds, which can rain and fill oceans of nearly pure methane.
And we know all about this because of Cassini’s Huygen’s lander, which detached from the spacecraft and landed on the surface of Titan on January 14, 2005. Here’s an amazing timelapse that shows the view from Huygens as it passed down through the atmosphere of Titan, and landed on its surface.
Huygens landed on a flat plain, surrounded by “rocks”, frozen globules of water ice. This was lucky, but the probe was also built to float if it happened to land on liquid instead.
It lasted for about 90 minutes on the surface of Titan, sending data back to Earth before it went dark, wrapping up the most distant landing humanity has ever accomplished in the Solar System.
Although we know quite a bit about Titan, there are still so many mysteries. The first big one is the cycle of liquid. Across Titan there are these vast oceans of liquid methane, which evaporate to create methane clouds. These rain, creating mists and even rivers.
Is it volcanic? There are regions of Titan that definitely look like there have been volcanoes recently. Maybe they’re cryovolcanoes, where the tidal interactions with Saturn cause water to well up from beneath crust and erupt onto the surface.
Is there life there? This is perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all. The methane rich system has the precursor chemicals that life on Earth probably used to get started billions of years ago. There’s probably heated regions beneath the surface and liquid water which could sustain life. But there could also be life as we don’t understand it, using methane and ammonia as a solvent instead of water.
To get a better answer to these questions, we’ve got to return to Titan. We’ve got to land, rove around, sail the oceans and swim beneath their waves.
Now you know all about this history of the exploration of Titan. It’s time to look at serious ideas for returning to Titan and exploring it again, especially its oceans.
Planetary scientists have been excited about the exploration of Titan for a while now, and a few preliminary proposals have been suggested, to study the moon from the air, the land, and the seas.
First up, there’s the Titan Saturn System Mission, a mission proposed in 2009, for a late 2020s arrival at Titan. This spacecraft would consist of a lander and a balloon that would float about in the atmosphere, and study the world from above. Over the course of its mission, the balloon would circumnavigate Titan once from an altitude of 10km, taking incredibly high resolution images. The lander would touch down in one of Titan’s oceans and float about on top of the liquid methane, sampling its chemicals.
As we stand right now, this mission is in the preliminary stages, and may never launch.
In 2012, Dr. Jason Barnes and his team from the University of Idaho proposed sending a robotic aircraft to Titan, which would fly around in the atmosphere photographing its surface. Titan is actually one of the best places in the entire Solar System to fly an airplane. It has a thicker atmosphere and lower gravity, and unlike the balloon concept, an airplane is free to go wherever it needs powered by a radioactive thermal generator.
Although the mission would only cost about $750 million or so, NASA hasn’t pushed it beyond the conceptual stage yet.
An even cooler plan would put a boat down in one of Titan’s oceans. In 2012, a team of Spanish engineers presented their idea for how a Titan boat would work, using propellers to put-put about across Titan’s seas. They called their mission the Titan Lake In-Situ Sampling Propelled Explorer, or TALISE.
Propellers are fine, but it turns out you could even have a sailboat on Titan. The methane seas have much less density and viscosity than water, which means that you’d only experience about 26% the friction of Earth. Cassini measured windspeeds of about 3.3 m/s across Titan, which half the average windspeed of Earth. But this would be plenty of wind to power a sail when you consider Titan’s thicker atmosphere.
And here’s my favorite idea. A submarine. This 6-meter vessel would float on Titan’s Kraken Mare sea, studying the chemistry of the oceans, measuring currents and tides, and mapping out the sea floor.
It would be capable of diving down beneath the waves for periods, studying interesting regions up close, and then returning to the surface to communicate its findings back to Earth. This mission is in the conceptual stage right now, but it was recently chosen by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Group for further study. If all goes well, the submarine would travel to Titan by 2038 when there’s a good planetary alignment.
Okay? Are you convinced? Let’s go back to Titan. Let’s explore it from the air, crawl around on the surface and dive beneath its waves. It’s one of the most interesting places in the entire Solar System, and we’ve only scratched the surface.
If I’ve done my job right, you’re as excited about a mission to Titan as I am. Let’s go back, let’s sail and submarine around that place. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Water. It’s always about the water when it comes to sizing up a planet’s potential to support life. Mars may possess some liquid water in the form of occasional salty flows down crater walls, but most appears to be locked up in polar ice or hidden deep underground. Set a cup of the stuff out on a sunny Martian day today and depending on conditions, it could quickly freeze or simply bubble away to vapor in the planet’s ultra-thin atmosphere.
Evidence of abundant liquid water in former flooded plains and sinuous river beds can be found nearly everywhere on Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover has found mineral deposits that only form in liquid water and pebbles rounded by an ancient stream that once burbled across the floor of Gale Crater. And therein lies the paradox. Water appears to have gushed willy-nilly across the Red Planet 3 to 4 billion years ago, so what’s up today?
Blame Mars’ wimpy atmosphere. Thicker, juicier air and the increase in atmospheric pressure that comes with it would keep the water in that cup stable. A thicker atmosphere would also seal in the heat, helping to keep the planet warm enough for liquid water to pool and flow.
Different ideas have been proposed to explain the putative thinning of the air including the loss of the planet’s magnetic field, which serves as a defense against the solar wind.
Convection currents within its molten nickel-iron core likely generated Mars’ original magnetic defenses. But sometime early in the planet’s history the currents stopped either because the core cooled or was disrupted by asteroid impacts. Without a churning core, the magnetic field withered, allowing the solar wind to strip away the atmosphere, molecule by molecule.
Solar wind eats away the Martian atmosphere
Measurements from NASA’s current MAVEN mission indicate that the solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second. “Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator.
The team first considered the effects of CO2, an obvious choice since it comprises 95% of Mars’ present day atmosphere and famously traps heat. But when you take into account that the Sun shone 30% fainter 4 billion years ago compared to today, CO2 alone couldn’t cut it.
“You can do climate calculations where you add CO2 and build up to hundreds of times the present day atmospheric pressure on Mars, and you still never get to temperatures that are even close to the melting point,” said Robin Wordsworth, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at SEAS, and first author of the paper.
Carbon dioxide isn’t the only gas capable of preventing heat from escaping into space. Methane or CH4 will do the job, too. Billions of years ago, when the planet was more geologically active, volcanoes could have tapped into deep sources of methane and released bursts of the gas into the Martian atmosphere. Similar to what happens on Saturn’s moon Titan, solar ultraviolet light would snap the molecule in two, liberating hydrogen gas in the process.
When Wordsworth and his team looked at what happens when methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide collide and then interact with sunlight, they discovered that the combination strongly absorbed heat.
Carl Sagan,American astronomer and astronomy popularizer, first speculated that hydrogen warming could have been important on early Mars back in 1977, but this is the first time scientists have been able to calculate its greenhouse effect accurately. It is also the first time that methane has been shown to be an effective greenhouse gas on early Mars.
When you take methane into consideration, Mars may have had episodes of warmth based on geological activity associated with earthquakes and volcanoes. There have been at least three volcanic epochs during the planet’s history — 3.5 billion years ago (evidenced by lunar mare-like plains), 3 billion years ago (smaller shield volcanoes) and 1 to 2 billion years ago, when giant shield volcanoes such as Olympus Monswere active. So we have three potential methane bursts that could rejigger the atmosphere to allow for a mellower Mars.
The sheer size of Olympus Mons practically shouts massive eruptions over a long period of time. During the in-between times, hydrogen, a lightweight gas, would have continued to escape into space until replenished by the next geological upheaval.
“This research shows that the warming effects of both methane and hydrogen have been underestimated by a significant amount,” said Wordsworth. “We discovered that methane and hydrogen, and their interaction with carbon dioxide, were much better at warming early Mars than had previously been believed.”
I’m tickled that Carl Sagan walked this road 40 years ago. He always held out hope for life on Mars. Several months before he died in 1996, he recorded this:
” … maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process, we come after all, from hunter gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And, the next place to wander to, is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”
Watch how Schiaparelli will land on Mars. Touchdown will occur at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT) Wednesday Oct. 19.
Cross your fingers for good weather on the Red Planet on October 19. That’s the day the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander pops open its parachute, fires nine, liquid-fueled thrusters and descends to the surface of Mars. Assuming fair weather, the lander should settle down safely on the wide-open plains of Meridiani Planum near the Martian equator northwest of NASA’s Opportunity rover. The region is rich in hematite, an iron-rich mineral associated with hot springs here on Earth.
The 8-foot-wide probe will be released three days earlier from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and coast toward Mars before entering its atmosphere at 13,000 mph (21,000 km/hr). During the 6-minute-long descent, Schiaparelli will decelerate gradually using the atmosphere to brake its speed, a technique called aerobraking. Not only is Meridiani Planum flat, it’s low, which means the atmosphere is thick enough to allow Schiaparelli’s heat shield to reduce its speed sufficiently so the chute can be safely deployed. The final firing of its thrusters will ensure a soft and controlled landing.
The lander is one-half of the ExoMars 2016 mission, a joint venture between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will fire its thrusters to place itself in orbit about the Red Planet the same day Schiparelli lands. Its job is to inventory the atmosphere in search of organic molecules, methane in particular. Plumes of methane, which may be biological or geological (or both) in origin, have recently been detected at several locations on Mars including Syrtis Major, the planet’s most prominent dark marking. The orbiter will hopefully pinpoint the source(s) as well as study seasonal changes in locations and concentrations.
Methane (CH4) has long been associated with life here on Earth. More than 90% of the colorless, odorless gas is produced by living organisms, primarily bacteria. Sunlight breaks methane down into other gases over a span of about 300 years. Because the gas relatively short-lived, seeing it on Mars implies an active, current source. There may be several:
Long-extinct bacteria that released methane that became trapped in ice or minerals in the upper crust. Changing temperature and pressure could stress the ice and release that ancient gas into today’s atmosphere.
Bacteria that are actively producing methane to this day.
Abiological sources. Iron can combine with oxygen in terrestrial hot springs and volcanoes to create methane. This gas can also become trapped in solid forms of water or ‘cages’ called clathrate hydrates that can preserve it for a long time. Olivine, a common mineral on Earth and Mars, can react with water under the right conditions to form another mineral called serpentine. When altered by heat, water and pressure, such in environments such as hydrothermal springs, serpentine can produce methane.
Will it turn out to be burping bacteria or mineral processes? Let’s hope TGO can point the way.
The Trace Gas Orbiter will also use the Martian atmosphere to slow its speed and trim its orbital loop into a 248-mile-high (400 km) circle suitable for science observations. But don’t expect much in the way of scientific results right away; aerobraking maneuvers will take about a year, so TGO’s job of teasing out atmospheric ingredients won’t begin until December 2017. The study runs for 5 years.
The orbiter will also examine Martian water vapor, nitrogen oxides and other organics with far greater accuracy than any previous probe as well as monitor seasonal changes in the atmosphere’s composition and temperature. And get this — its instruments can map subsurface hydrogen, a key ingredient in both water and methane, down to a depth of a meter (39.4 inches) with greater resolution compared to previous studies. Who knows? We may discover hidden ice deposits or methane sinks that could influence where future rovers will land. Additional missions to Mars are already on the docket, including ExoMars 2020. More about that in a minute.
While TGO’s mission will require years, the lander is expected to survive for only four Martian days (called ‘sols’) by using the excess energy capacity of its batteries. A set of scientific sensors will measure wind speed and direction, humidity, pressure and electric fields on the surface. A descent camera will take pictures of the landing site on the way down; we’ll should see those photos the very next day. Data and imagery from the lander will be transmitted to ESA’s Mars Express and a NASA Relay Orbiter, then relayed to Earth.
This animation shows the paths of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander on Oct. 19 when they arrive at Mars.
If you’re wondering why the lander’s mission is so brief, it’s because Schiaparelli is essentially a test vehicle. Its primary purpose is to test technologies for landing on Mars including the special materials used for protection against the heat of entry, a parachute system, a Doppler radar device for measuring altitude and liquid-fueled braking thrusters.
Martian dust storms can be cause for concern during any landing attempt. Since it’s now autumn in the planet’s northern hemisphere, a time when storms are common, there’s been some finger-nail biting of late. The good news is that storms of recent weeks have calmed and Mars has entered a welcome quiet spell.
To watch events unfold in real time, check out ESA’s live stream channel,Facebook pageand Twitter updates. The announcement of the separation of the lander from the orbiter will be made around 11 a.m. Eastern Time (15:00 GMT) Sunday October 16. Live coverage of the Trace Gas Orbiter arrival and Schiaparelli landing on Mars runs from 9-11:15 a.m. Eastern (13:00-15:15 GMT) on Wednesday October 19.Photos taken by Schiaparelli’s descent camera will be available starting at 4 a.m. Eastern (8:00 GMT) on October 20. More details here.We’ll also keep you updated on Universe Today.
Everything we learn during the current mission will be applied to planning and executing the next — ExoMars 2020, slated to launch in 2020. That venture will send a rover to the surface to search and chemically test for signs of life, present or past. It will collect samples with a drill at various depths and analyze the fines for bio-molecules. Getting down deep is important because the planet’s thin atmosphere lets through harsh UV light from the sun, sterilizing the surface.
Are you ready for adventure? See you on Mars (vicariously)!
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).
On March 14, the ExoMars mission successfully lifted off on a 7-month journey to the planet Mars but not without a little surprise. The Breeze-M upper booster stage, designed to give the craft its final kick toward Mars, exploded shortly after parting from the probe. Thankfully, it wasn’t close enough to damage the spacecraft.
Michel Denis, ExoMars flight director at the European Space Operations, Center in Darmstadt, Germany, said that the two craft were many kilometers apart at the time of the breakup, so the explosion wouldn’t have posed a risk. Still, the mission team won’t be 100% certain until all the science instruments are completely checked over in the coming weeks.
All went well during the takeoff and final separation of the probe, but then something odd happened. Breeze-M was supposed to separate cleanly into two pieces — the main body and a detachable fuel tank — and maneuver itself to a graveyard or “junk” orbit, where rockets and spacecraft are placed at the end of their useful lives, so they don’t cause trouble with operational satellites.
But instead of two pieces, tracking photos taken at the OASI Observatory in Brazil not long after the stage and probe separated show a cloud of debris, suggesting an explosion occurred that shattered the booster to pieces. There’s more to consider. Space probes intended to either land or be crashed into planets have to pass through strict sterilization procedures that rocket boosters aren’t subject to. Assuming the Breeze-M shrapnel didn’t make it to its graveyard orbit, there exists the possibility some of it might be heading for Mars. If any earthly bugs inhabit the remains, it could potentially lead to unwanted consequences on Mars.
And this isn’t the first time a Russian Breeze-M has blown up.
According to Russian space observer Anatoly Zak in a recent article in Popular Mechanics, a Breeze-M that delivered a Russian spy satellite into orbit last December exploded on January 16. Propellant in one of its fuel tanks may not have been properly vented into space; heated by the sun, the tank’s contents likely combusted and ripped the stage apart. A similar incident occurred in October 2012.
For now, we’ll embrace the good news that the spacecraft, which houses the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, are underway to Mars and in good health.
ExoMars is a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency(Roscosmos). One of the mission’s key goals is to follow up on the methane detection made by ESA’s Mars Express probe in 2004 to understand where the gas comes from. Mars’ atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide with the remaining 5% divided among nitrogen, argon, oxygen and others including small amounts of methane, a gas that on Earth is produced largely by living creatures.
Scientists want to know how martian methane got into the atmosphere. Was it produced by biology or geology? Methane, unless it is continuously produced by a source, only survives in the Martian atmosphere for a few hundreds of years because it quickly breaks down to form water and carbon dioxide. Something is refilling the atmosphere with methane but what?
TGO will also look at potential sources of other trace gases such as volcanoes and map the planet’s surface. It can also detect buried water-ice deposits, which, along with locations identified as sources of the trace gases, could influence the choice of landing sites of future missions.
The orbiter will also act as a data relay for the second ExoMars mission — a rover and stationary surface science platform scheduled for launch in May 2018 and arriving in early 2019.
On October 16, when the spacecraft is still 559,000 miles (900,000 kilometers) from the Red Planet, the Schiaparelli lander will separate from the orbiter and three days later parachute down to the Martian surface. The orbiter will take measurements of the planet’s atmosphere (including methane) as well as any atmospheric electrical fields.
Mars is a popular place. There are currently five active orbiters there: two European (Mars Express and Mars Odyssey), two American (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN), one Indian (Mars Orbiter Mission) and two rovers (Opportunity and Curiosity) with another lander and orbiter en route!
I think we were all blown away when the New Horizons spacecraft looked back at Pluto’s dark side and returned the first photos of a surprisingly complex, layered atmosphere. Colorless nitrogen along with a small percentage of methane make up Pluto’s air. Layers of haze are likely created when the two gases react in sunlight to form tiny, soot-like particles called tholins. These can ultimately grow large enough to settle toward the surface and coat and color Pluto’s icy exterior.
Now it seems Pluto’s atmosphere is capable of doing even more — making clouds! In an e-mail exchange with New Scientist, Lowell Observatory astronomer Will Grundy discusses the possibility that streaks and small condensations within the hazes might be individual clouds. Grundy also tracked a feature as it passed over different parts of the Plutonian landscape below, strongly suggesting a cloud. If confirmed, they’d be the first-ever clouds seen on the dwarf planet, and a sign this small 1,473-mile-wide (2,370 km) orb possesses an even more complex atmosphere than imagined.
Given the onion-like layers of haze and potential clouds, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprise that it snows on Pluto. The New Horizons team announced the discovery this week of a chain of exotic snowcapped mountains stretching across the dark expanse of the informally named Cthulhu Regio. Cthulhu, pronounced kuh-THU-lu and named for a character in American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s books, stretches nearly halfway around Pluto’s equator, starting from the west of the vast nitrogen ice plain, Sputnik Planum. At 1,850 miles (3,000 km) long and 450 miles (750 km) wide, Cthulhu is a bit larger than the state of Alaska. But ever so much colder!
Cthulhu’s red color probably comes from a covering of dark tholins formed when methane interacts with sunlight. But new close-up images reveal that the region’s highest mountains appear coated with a much brighter material. Scientists think it’s methane, condensed as ice onto the peaks from Pluto’s atmosphere.
“That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth’s atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,” said John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member.
Compositional data from the New Horizon’s Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), shown in the right panel in the image above, shows that the location of the bright ice on the mountain peaks correlates almost exactly with the distribution of methane ice, shown in false color as purple.
New Horizons still has plenty of images stored on its hard drive, so we’re likely to see more clouds, frosty peaks and gosh-knows-what-else as the probe speeds ever deeper into space while returning daily postcards from its historic encounter.
Could there be life on Saturn’s large moon Titan? Asking the question forces astrobiologists and chemists to think carefully and creatively about the chemistry of life, and how it might be different on other worlds than it is on Earth. In February, a team of researchers from Cornell University, including chemical engineering graduate student James Stevenson, planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine, and chemical engineer Paulette Clancy, published a pioneering study arguing that cell membranes could form under the exotic chemical conditions present on this remarkable moon.
In many ways, Titan is Earth’s twin. It’s the second largest moon in the solar system and bigger than the planet Mercury. Like Earth, it has a substantial atmosphere, with a surface atmospheric pressure a bit higher than Earth’s. Besides Earth, Titan is the only object in our solar system known to have accumulations of liquid on its surface. NASA’s Cassini space probe discovered abundant lakes and even rivers in Titan’s polar regions. The largest lake, or sea, called Kraken Mare, is larger than Earth’s Caspian Sea. Researchers know from both spacecraft observations and laboratory experiments that Titan’s atmosphere is rich in complex organic molecules, which are the building blocks of life.
All these features might make it seem as though Titan is tantalizingly suitable for life. The name ‘Kraken’, which refers to a legendary sea monster, fancifully reflects the eager hopes of astrobiologists. But, Titan is Earth’s alien twin. Being almost ten times further from the sun than Earth is, its surface temperature is a frigid -180 degrees Celsius. Liquid water is vital to life as we know it, but on Titan’s surface all water is frozen solid. Water ice takes on the role that silicon-containing rock does on Earth, making up the outer layers of the crust.
The liquid that fills Titan’s lakes and rivers is not water, but liquid methane, probably mixed with other substances like liquid ethane, all of which are gases here on Earth. If there is life in Titan’s seas, it is not life as we know it. It must be an alien form of life, with organic molecules dissolved in liquid methane instead of liquid water. Is such a thing even possible?
The Cornell team took up one key part of this challenging question by investigating whether cell membranes can exist in liquid methane. Every living cell is, essentially, a self-sustaining network of chemical reactions, contained within bounding membranes. Scientists think that cell membranes emerged very early in the history of life on Earth, and their formation might even have been the first step in the origin of life.
Here on Earth, cell membranes are as familiar as high school biology class. They are made of large molecules called phospholipids. Each phospholipid molecule has a ‘head’ and a ‘tail’. The head contains a phosphate group, with a phosphorus atom linked to several oxygen atoms. The tail consists of one or more strings of carbon atoms, typically 15 to 20 atoms long, with hydrogen atoms linked on each side. The head, due to the negative charge of its phosphate group, has an unequal distribution of electrical charge, and we say that it is polar. The tail, on the other hand, is electrically neutral.
These electrical properties determine how phospholipid molecules will behave when they are dissolved in water. Electrically speaking, water is a polar molecule. The electrons in the water molecule are more strongly attracted to its oxygen atom than to its two hydrogen atoms. So, the side of the molecule where the two hydrogen atoms are has a slight positive charge, and the oxygen side has a small negative charge. These polar properties of water cause it to attract the polar head of the phospholipid molecule, which is said to be hydrophilic, and repel its nonpolar tail, which is said to be hydrophobic.
When phospholipid molecules are dissolved in water, the electrical properties of the two substances work together to cause the phospholipid molecules to organize themselves into a membrane. The membrane closes onto itself into a little sphere called a liposome. The phospholipid molecules form a bilayer two molecules thick. The polar hydrophilic heads face outward towards the water on both the inner and outer surface of the membrane. The hydrophobic tails are sandwiched between, facing each other. While the phospholipid molecules remain fixed in their layer, with their heads facing out and their tails facing in, they can still move around with respect to each other, giving the membrane the fluid flexibility needed for life.
Phospholipid bilayer membranes are the basis of all terrestrial cell membranes. Even on its own, a liposome can grow, reproduce and aid certain chemical reactions important to life, which is why some biochemists think that the formation of liposomes might have been the first step towards life. At any rate, the formation of cell membranes must surely been an early step in life’s emergence on Earth.
If some form of life exists on Titan, whether sea monster or (more likely) microbe, it would almost certainly need to have a cell membrane, just like every living thing on Earth does. Could phospholipid bilayer membranes form in liquid methane on Titan? The answer is no. Unlike water, the methane molecule has an even distribution of electrical charges. It lacks water’s polar qualities, and so couldn’t attract the polar heads of phospholipid molecule. This attraction is needed for the phospholipids to form an Earth-style cell membrane.
Experiments have been conducted where phospholipids are dissolved in non-polar liquids at Earthly room temperature. Under these conditions, the phospholipids form an ‘inside-out’ two layer membrane. The polar heads of the phospholipid molecules are at the center, attracted to one another by their electrical charges. The non-polar tails face outward on each side of the inside-out membrane, facing the non-polar solvent.
Could Titanian life have an inside out phospholipid membrane? The Cornell team concluded that this wouldn’t work, for two reasons. The first is that at the cryogenic temperatures of liquid methane, the tails of phospholipids become rigid, depriving any inside-out membrane that might form of the fluid flexibility needed for life. The second is that two key ingredients of phospholipids; phosphorus and oxygen, are probably unavailable in the methane lakes of Titan. In their search for Titanian cell membranes, the Cornell team needed to probe beyond the familiar realm of high school biology.
Although not composed of phospholipids, the scientists reasoned that any Titanian cell membrane would nevertheless be like the inside-out phospholipid membranes created in the lab. It would consist of polar molecules clinging together electrically in a solution of non-polar liquid methane. What molecules might those be? For answers the researchers looked to data from the Cassini spacecraft and from laboratory experiments that reproduced the chemistry of Titan’s atmosphere.
Titan’s atmosphere is known to have a very complex chemistry. It is made mostly of nitrogen and methane gas. When the Cassini spacecraft analyzed its composition using spectroscopy it found traces of a variety of compounds of carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen, called nitriles and amines. Researchers have simulated the chemistry of Titan’s atmosphere in the lab by exposing mixtures of nitrogen and methane to sources of energy simulating sunlight on Titan. A stew of organic molecules called ‘tholins’ is formed. It consists of compounds of hydrogen and carbon, called hydrocarbons, as well as nitriles and amines.
The Cornell investigators saw nitriles and amines as potential candidates for their Titanian cell membranes. Both are polar molecules that might stick together to form a membrane in non-polar liquid methane due to the polarity of nitrogen containing groups found in both of them. They reasoned that candidate molecules must be much smaller than phospholipids, so that they could form fluid membranes at liquid methane temperatures. They considered nitriles and amines containing strings of between three and six carbon atoms. Nitrogen containing groups are called ‘azoto’ –groups, so the team named their hypothetical Titanian counterpart to the liposome the ‘azotosome’.
Synthesizing azotosomes for experimental study would have been difficult and expensive, because the experiments would need to be conducted at the cryogenic temperatures of liquid methane. But since the candidate molecules have been studied extensively for other reasons, the Cornell researchers felt justified in turning to the tools of computational chemistry to determine whether their candidate molecules could cohere as a flexible membrane in liquid methane. Computational models have been used successfully to study conventional phospholipid cell membranes.
The group’s computational simulations showed that some candidate substances could be ruled out because they would not cohere as a membrane, would be too rigid, or would form a solid. Nevertheless, the simulations also showed that a number of substances would form membranes with suitable properties. One suitable substance is acrylonitrile, which Cassini showed is present in Titan’s atmosphere at 10 parts per million concentration. Despite the huge difference in temperature between cryogenic azotozomes and room temperature liposomes, the simulations showed them to exhibit strikingly similar properties of stability and response to mechanical stress. Cell membranes, then, are possible for life in liquid methane.
The scientists from Cornell view their findings as nothing more than a first step towards showing that life in liquid methane is possible, and towards developing the methods that future spacecraft will need to search for it on Titan. If life is possible in liquid methane, the implications ultimately extend far beyond Titan.
When seeking conditions suitable for life in the galaxy, astronomers typically search for exoplanets within a star’s habitable zone, defined as the narrow range of distances over which a planet with an Earth-like atmosphere would have a surface temperature suitable for liquid water. If methane life is possible, then stars would also have a methane habitable zone, a region where methane could exist as a liquid on a planet or moon, making methane life possible. The number of habitable worlds in the galaxy would be greatly increased. Perhaps, on some worlds, methane life evolves into complex forms that we can scarcely imagine. Maybe some of them are even a bit like sea monsters.
If we really want to find life on other worlds, why do we keep looking for life based on carbon and water? Why don’t we look for the stuff that’s really different?
In the immortal words of Arthur C. Clarke, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
I’m seeking venture capital for a Universal buffet chain, and I wondering if I need to include whatever the tentacle equivalent of forks is on my operating budget. If there isn’t any life, I’m going to need to stop watching so much science fiction and get on with helping humanity colonize space.
Currently, astrobiologists are hard at work searching for life, trying to answer this question. The SETI Institute is scanning radio signals from space, hoping to catch a message. Since humans use radio waves, maybe aliens will too. NASA is using the Curiosity Rover to search for evidence that liquid water existed on the surface of Mars long enough for life to get going. The general rule is if we find liquid water on Earth, we find life. Astronomers are preparing to study the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, looking for gasses that match what we have here on Earth.
Isn’t this just intellectually lazy? Do our scientists lack imagination? Aren’t they all supposed to watch Star Trek How do we know that life is going to look anything like the life we have on Earth? Oh, the hubris!
Who’s to say aliens will bother to communicate with radio waves, and will transcend this quaint transmission system and use beams of neutrinos instead. Or physics we haven’t even discovered yet? Perhaps they talk using microwaves and you can tell what the aliens are saying by how your face gets warmed up. And how do we know that life needs to depend on water and carbon? Why not silicon-based lifeforms, or beings which are pure energy? What about aliens that breathe pure molten boron and excrete seahorse dreams? Why don’t these scientists expand their search to include life as we don’t know it? Why are they so closed-minded?
The reality is they’re just being careful. A question this important requires good evidence. Consider the search for life on Mars. Back in the 1970s, the Viking Lander carried an experiment that would expose Martian soil to water and nutrients, and then try to detect out-gassing from microbes. The result of the experiment was inconclusive, and scientists still argue over the results today. If you’re going to answer a question like this, you want to be conclusive. Also, getting to Mars is pretty challenging to begin with. You probably don’t want to “half-axe” your science.
The current search for life is incremental and exhaustive. NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity searched for evidence that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars. They found evidence of ancient water many times, in different locations. The fact that water once existed on the surface of Mars is established. Curiosity has extended this line of research, looking for evidence that water existed on the surface of Mars for long periods of time. Long enough that life could have thrived. Once again, the rover has turned up the evidence that scientists were hoping to see. Mars was once hospitable for life, for long periods of time. The next batch of missions will actually search for life, both on the surface of Mars and bringing back samples to Earth so we can study them here.
The search for life is slow and laborious because that’s how science works. You start with the assumption that since water is necessary for life on Earth, it makes sense to just check other water in the Solar System. It’s the low hanging fruit, then once you’ve exhausted all the easy options, you get really creative.
Scientists have gotten really creative about how and where they could search for life. Astrobiologists have considered other liquids that could be conducive for life. Instead of water, it’s possible that alternative forms of life could use liquid methane or ammonia as a solvent for its biological processes. In fact, this environment exists on the surface of Titan. But even if we did send a rover to Titan, how would we even know what to look for?
We understand how life works here, so we know what kinds of evidence to pursue. But kind of what evidence would be required to convince you there’s life as you don’t understand it? Really compelling evidence.
Go ahead and propose some alternative forms of life and how you think we’d go searching for it in the comments.
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