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.

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Juno Measures How Much Oxygen is Being Produced by Europa

This view of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa was captured by the JunoCam imager aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft during the mission’s close flyby on Sept. 29, 2022. Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing: Kevin M. Gill CC BY 3.0

If the periodic table listed the elements in order of their importance to life, then oxygen might bully its way to the top. Without oxygen, Earth’s complex life likely would not exist. So when scientists detect oxygen on another world, they turn their attention to it.

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Is K2-18b Covered in Oceans of Water or Oceans of Lava?

This illustration shows what exoplanet K2-18 b could look like based on science data. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope examined the exoplanet and revealed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules. The abundance of methane and carbon dioxide, and shortage of ammonia, support the hypothesis that there may be a water ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere in K2-18 b. But more extensive observations with the JWST are needed to understand its atmosphere with greater confidence. Image Credit: By Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)Science: Nikku Madhusudhan (IoA)

In the search for potentially life-supporting exoplanets, liquid water is the key indicator. Life on Earth requires liquid water, and scientists strongly believe the same is true elsewhere. But from a great distance, it’s difficult to tell what worlds have oceans of water. Some of them can have lava oceans instead, and getting the two confused is a barrier to understanding exoplanets, water, and habitability more clearly.

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Webb Finds Icy Complex Organic Molecules Around Protostars: Ethanol, Methane, Formaldehyde, Formic Acid and Much More

Astronomers have used JWST to study the environments around 30 young protostars and found a vast collection of icy organic molecules. A recent survey identified methane, sulfur dioxide, ethanol, formaldehyde, formic acid, and many more. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

In the quest to understand how and where life might arise in the galaxy, astronomers search for its building blocks. Complex Organic Molecules (COMs) are some of those blocks, and they include things like formaldehyde and acetic acid, among many others. The JWST has found some of these COMs around young protostars. What does this tell astronomers?

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Astronomers Have Been Watching a Supernova’s Debris Cloud Expand for Decades with Hubble

This is a Hubble image of a very small region of the Cygnus Loop, a supernova remnant. The image shows a small part of the leading edge of the expanding bubble. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Ravi Sankrit (STScI)

Twenty thousand years ago, a star in the constellation Cygnus went supernova. Like all supernovae, the explosion released a staggering amount of energy. The explosion sent a powerful shockwave into the surrounding space at half a million miles per hour, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

For twenty years, the Hubble Space Telescope has been watching some of the action.

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How Do Lava Worlds Become Earth-Like, Living Planets?

This is an artist's illustration of Kepler-10 b, a suspected magma ocean planet about 560 light years away. Image Credit: NASA/Kepler Mission/Dana Berry

Earth was once entirely molten. Planetary scientists call this phase in a planet’s evolution a magma ocean, and Earth may have had more than one magma ocean phase. Earth cooled and, over 4.5 billion years, became the vibrant, life-supporting world it is today.

Can the same thing happen to exo-lava worlds? Can studying them shed light on Earth’s transition?

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Airbus Developed a System To Extract Oxygen and Metal From Lunar Regolith

An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018
An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

New technologies utilizing material found in space are constantly popping up, sometimes from smaller companies and sometimes from larger ones. Back in 2020, one of the largest companies of them all announced a technology that could have significant implications for the future lunar exploration missions planned over the next ten years. The European aerospace giant Airbus developed the Regolith to OXYgen and Metals Conversion (ROXY) system. 

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Scientists Discover a New Way Exoplanets Could Make Oxygen; Unfortunately, it Doesn’t Require Life

Oxygen is a valuable biosignature because Earth is oxygen-rich, and because life made all that oxygen. But if we find oxygen in an exoplanet atmosphere does that mean life made it? Or is there an abiotic source of oxygen? Image Credit: NASA

Finding oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere is a clue that life may be at work. On Earth, photosynthetic organisms absorb carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water and produce sugars and starches for energy. Oxygen is the byproduct of that process, so if we can detect oxygen elsewhere, it’ll generate excitement. But researchers have also put pressure on the idea that oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere indicates life. It’s only evidence of life if we can rule out other pathways that created the oxygen.

But scientists can’t rule them out.

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Europa Could be Pulling Oxygen Down Below the Ice to Feed Life

An artist’s interpretation of liquid water on the surface of the Europa pooling beneath chaos terrain. Credit: : NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jupiter’s moon Europa is a prime candidate in the search for life. The frozen moon has a subsurface ocean, and evidence indicates it’s warm, salty, and rich in life-enabling chemistry.

New research shows that the moon is pulling oxygen down below its icy shell, where it could be feeding simple life.

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Future Mars Explorers Could be Farming Oxygen From Landscapes Like This

Viking’s biochemistry experiments have been among the most hotly debated scientific results of all time.  The lander famously collected samples from the Red Planet in 1976, in an experiment called “Label Release.”  Scientists watched with bated breath as oxygen was released from the sample after it was subjected to a liquid slurry.  They were then left scratching their heads as that oxygen production continued after the sample was sterilized via 160 degree C heat.  Scientists now really agree that the oxygen production that Viking noticed was an abiotic process.  But that also leads to a potential opportunity as some scientists think we can make oxygen farms out of a system similar to that used on Viking itself.

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