Are Drylanders The Minority On Habitable Worlds?

Artist's depiction of a waterworld. A new study suggests that Earth is in a minority when it comes to planets, and that most habitable planets may be greater than 90% ocean. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

If we want to send spacecraft to exoplanets to search for life, we better get good at building submarines.

A new study by Dr. Fergus Simpson, of the Institute of Cosmos Sciences at the University of Barcelona, shows that our assumptions about exo-planets may be wrong. We kind of assume that exoplanets will have land masses, even though we don’t know that. Dr. Simpson’s study suggests that we can expect lots of oceans on the habitable worlds that we might discover. In fact, ocean coverage of 90% may be the norm.

At the heart of this study is something called ‘Bayesian Statistics’, or ‘Bayesian Probability.’

Normally, we give something a probability of occurring—in this case a habitable world with land masses—based on our data. And we’re more confident in our prediction if we have more data. So if we find 10 exoplanets, and 7 of them have significant land masses, we think there’s a 70% chance that future exoplanets will have significant land masses. If we find 100 exoplanets, and 70 of them have significant land masses, then we’re even more confident in our 70% prediction.

Is Earth in the range of normal when it comes to habitable planets? Or is it an outlier, with both large land masses, and large oceans? Image: Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA GSFC
Is Earth in the range of normal when it comes to habitable planets? Or is it an outlier, with both large land masses, and large oceans? Image: Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA GSFC

But the problem is, even though we’ve discovered lots of exoplanets, we don’t know if they have land masses or not. We kind of assume they will, even though the masses of those planets is lower than we expect. This is where the Bayesian methods used in this study come in. They replace evidence with logic, sort of.

In Bayesian logic, probability is assigned to something based on the state of our knowledge and on reasonable expectations. In this case, is it reasonable to expect that habitable exoplanets will have significant landmasses in the same way that Earth does? Based on our current knowledge, it isn’t a reasonable expectation.

According to Dr. Simpson, the anthropic principle comes into play here. We just assume that Earth is some kind of standard for habitable worlds. But, as the study shows, that may not be the case.

“Based on the Earth’s ocean coverage of 71%, we find substantial evidence supporting the hypothesis that anthropic selection effects are at work.” – Dr. Fergus Simpson.

In fact, Earth may be a very finely balanced planet, where the amount of water is just right for there to be significant land masses. The size of the oceanic basins is in tune with the amount of water that Earth retains over time, which produces the continents that rise above the seas. Is there any reason to assume that other worlds will be as finely balanced?

Dr. Simpson says no, there isn’t. “A scenario in which the Earth holds less water than most other habitable planets would be consistent with results from simulations, and could help explain why some planets have been found to be a bit less dense than we expected.” says Simpson.

Simpson’s statistical model shows that oceans dominate other habitable worlds, with most of them being 90% water by surface area. In fact, Earth is very close to being a water world. The video shows what would happen to Earth’s continents if the amount of water increased. There is only a very narrow window in which Earth can have both large land masses, and large oceans.

Dr. Simpson suggests that the fine balance between land and water on Earth’s surface could be one reason we evolved here. This is based partly on his model, which shows that land masses will have larger deserts the smaller the oceans are. And deserts are not the most hospitable place for life, and neither are they biodiverse. Also, biodiversity on land is about 25 times greater than biodiversity in oceans, at least on Earth.

Simpson says that the fine balance between land mass and ocean coverage on Earth could be an important reason why we are here, and not somewhere else.

“Our understanding of the development of life may be far from complete, but it is not so dire that we must adhere to the conventional approximation that all habitable planets have an equal chance of hosting intelligent life,” Simpson concludes.

NASA Bombshell: Key Ingredient For Life Discovered On Enceladus


NASA has announced the discovery of hydrogen in the plumes on Enceladus. This is huge news, and Cassini scientists have looked forward to this day. What it means is that there is a potential source of energy for microbes in the oceans of Enceladus, and that energy from the Sun is not required to support life.

We’ve known about the plumes on Enceladus for a while now, and Cassini has even flown through those plumes to determine their content. But hydrogen was never discovered until now. What it means is that there is a geochemical source for hydrogen in Enceladus’ ocean, coming from the interaction between warm water and rocks.

“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment.” – Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA.

This is a capstone finding, according to NASA. As far as we know, life needs three things to exist: water, energy, and the right chemicals. We know it has the necessary chemicals, we know it has water, and we now know it has a source of energy.

On Earth, hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean floor provide the energy for a web of life reliant on those vents. Bacteria live there, forming the base of a food chain that can include tube worms, shrimp, and other life forms. This discovery points to the possibility that similar communities might exist in the sub-surface ocean of Enceladus.

“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington.

Microbes in Enceladus’ ocean could use the hydrogen in a process called methanogenesis. They obtain energy by combining hydrogen with dissolved carbon dioxide in the water. This process produces a methane by-product. Methanogenesis is a bedrock process at the root of life here on Earth.

“Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Hubble Confirms Plumes On Europa

NASA has also announced that the Hubble Space Telescope has confirmed the presence of plumes on another of our Solar System’s icy moons, Europa.

These plumes were first seen by the Hubble in 2014, but were never seen again. Since repeatability is key in science, those findings were put on the back burner. But in 2016, NASA announced today, Hubble spotted them again, in the same place. This is the same spot that the Galileo probe noticed a thermal hot spot.

We don’t know if Europa has hydrogen in its oceans, but it’s easy to see where this is going. NASA’s excitement is palpable.

What’s Next?

NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will visit Europa and determine the thickness of its ice layer, as well as the depth and salinity of its ocean. It will also analyze the atmosphere and the composition of the plumes. Europa Clipper will fill in a lot of gaps in our understanding.

Europa Clipper will be launched around 2022, but a mission to Enceladus will have to wait a little longer. One mission under consideration in NASA’s Discovery program is ELF, Enceladus Life Finder. ELF would fly through Enceladus’ plumes 8 or 10 times, taking more detailed samples of their content.

This enhanced-color Cassini view of southern latitudes on Enceladus features the bluish “tiger stripe” fractures that rip across the south polar region. These tiger stripes form over hydrothermal vents in the ocean, the source of Enceladus’ plumes. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The discovery of hydrogen in the plumes of Enceladus is huge news any way you look at it. But that discovery begs the question: Are we doing it all wrong? Are we looking for life in the wrong places?

The search for life elsewhere in the Universe, so far, has mostly revolved around exoplanets. And then refining that search to identify exoplanets that are in the habitable zones of their stars. We’re searching for other Earths, basically.

But maybe we should be changing our focus. Maybe it’s the ice worlds, including icy exomoons, that are the most likely targets for our search. This new evidence from NASA’s Cassini mission, and from the Hubble Space Telescope, suggests that in our Solar System at least, they are the best place to search.

One Final Ingredient Needed?

There’s a fourth ingredient needed for life. Once there is water, energy, and the necessary chemicals, life needs time to get going. How much time, we’re not exactly certain. But this is where Enceladus and Europa are different.

Europa is about 4 billion years old, or so we think. That’s only half a billion years younger than Earth, and we think life started on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago. This hints that, if conditions on Europa are favorable, life has had a long time to get going. Of course, that doesn’t mean it has.

On the other hand, Enceladus is probably much younger. A study of the orbits of Saturn’s moons suggests that Enceladus may only be 100 million years old. If that’s true, it’s not very much time for life to get going.

The hydrogen discovery is huge news. There are still a lot of questions, of course, and lots to be debated. But confirming a source of energy on Enceladus builds the case for the same type of hydrothermal vent life that we see on Earth.

Now all we need is a mission to Enceladus.

How Will NASA Find Life On Other Worlds?

Is Earth in the range of normal when it comes to habitable planets? Or is it an outlier, with both large land masses, and large oceans? Image: Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA GSFC

For a long time, the idea of finding life on other worlds was just a science fiction dream. But in our modern times, the search for life is rapidly becoming a practical endeavour. Now, some minds at NASA are looking ahead to the search for life on other worlds, and figuring out how to search more effectively and efficiently. Their approach is centered around two things: nano-satellites and microfluidics.

Life is obvious on Earth. But it’s a different story for the other worlds in our Solar System. Mars is our main target right now, with the work that MSL Curiosity is doing. But Curiosity is investigating Mars to find out if conditions on that planet were ever favorable for life. A more exciting possibility is finding extant life on another world: that is, life that exists right now.

MSL Curiosity is busy investigating the surface of Mars, to see if that planet could have harbored life. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech
MSL Curiosity is busy investigating the surface of Mars, to see if that planet could have harbored life. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech

At the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop, experts in Planetary Science and related disciplines gathered to present ideas about the next 50 years of exploration in the Solar System. A team led by Richard Quinn at the NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) presented their ideas on the search for extant life in the next few decades.

Their work is based on the decadal survey “Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022.” That source confirms what most of us are already aware of: that our search for life should be focussed on Mars and the so-called “Ocean Worlds” of our Solar System like Enceladus and Europa. The question is, what will that search look like?

The North Polar Region of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Could there be an ocean world full of life under its frozen surface? Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Quinn and his team outlined two technologies that we could center our search around.

Nanosatellites

A nanosatellite is classified as something with a mass between 1-10 kg. They offer several advantages over larger designs.

Firstly, their small mass keeps the cost of launching them very low. In many cases, nanosatellites can be piggy-backed onto the launch of a larger payload, just to use up any excess capacity. Nanosatellites can be made cheaply, and multiples of them can be designed and built the same. This would allow a fleet of nanosatellites to be sent to the same destination.

Most of the discussion around the search for life centers around large craft or landers that land in one location, and have limited mobility. The Mars rovers are doing great work, but they can only investigate very specific locations. In a way, this creates kind of a sampling error. It’s difficult to generalize about the conditions for life on other worlds when we’ve only sampled a small handful of locations.

In 2010, NASA successfully deployed the nanosatellite NANO-Sail D from a larger, microsatellite. Image: NASA

On Earth, life is everywhere. But Earth is also the home to extremophiles, organisms that exist only in extreme, hard-to-reach locations. Think of thermal vents on the ocean floor, or deep dark caves. If that is the kind of life that exists on the target worlds in our Solar System, then there’s a strong possibility that we’ll need to sample many locations before we find them. That is something that is beyond the capabilities of our rovers. Nanosatellites could be part of the solution. A fleet of them investigating a world like Enceladus or Europa could speed up our search for extant life.

NASA has designed and built nanosatellites to perform a variety of tasks, like performing biology experiments, and testing advanced propulsion and communications technologies. In 2010 they successfully deployed a nanosatellite from a larger, microsatellite. If you expand on that idea, you can see how a small fleet of nanosatellites could be deployed at another world, after arriving there on another larger craft.

Microfluidics

Microfluidics deals with systems that manipulate very small amounts of fluid, usually on the sub-millimeter scale. The idea is to build microchips which handle very small sample sizes, and test them in-situ. NASA has done work with microfluidics to try to develop ways of monitoring astronauts’ health on long space voyages, where there is no access to a lab. Microfluidic chips can be manufactured which have only one or two functions, and produce only one or two results.

In terms of the search for extant life in our Solar System, microfluidics is a natural fit with nanosatellites. Replace the medical diagnostic capabilities of a microfluidic chip with a biomarker diagnostic, and you have a tiny device that can be mounted on a tiny satellite. Since functioning microfluidic chips can be as small as microprocessors, multiples of them could be mounted.

” Technical constraints will inevitably limit robotic missions that search for evidence of life to a few selected experiments.” – Richard.C.Quinn, et. al.

When combined with nanosatellites, microfluidics offers the possibility of the same few tests for life being repeated over and over in multiple locations. This is obviously very attractive when it comes to the search for life. The team behind the idea stresses that their approach would involve the search for simple building blocks, the complex biomolecules involved in basic biochemistry, and also the structures that cellular life requires in order to exist. Performing these tests in multiple locations would be a boon in the search.

Some of the technologies for the microfluidic search for life have already been developed. The team points out that several of them have already had successful demonstrations in micro-gravity missions like the GeneSat, the PharmaSat, and the SporeSat.

“The combination of microfluidic systems with chemical and biochemical sensors and sensor arrays offer some of the most promising approaches for extant life detection using small-payload platforms.” – Richard.C.Quinn, et. al.

Putting It All Together

We’re a ways away from a mission to Europa or Enceladus. But this paper was about the future vision of the search for extant life. It’s never too soon to start thinking about that.

There are some obvious obstacles to using nanosatellites to search for life on Enceladus or Europa. Those worlds are frozen, and it’s the oceans under those thick ice caps that we need to investigate. Somehow, our tiny nanosatellites would need to get through that ice.

Also, the nanosatellites we have now are just that: satellites. They are designed to be in orbit around a body. How could they be transformed into tiny, ocean-going submersible explorers?
There’s no doubt that somebody, somewhere at NASA, is already thinking about that.

The over-arching vision of a fleet of small craft, each with the ability to repeat basic experiments searching for life in multiple locations, is a sound one. As for how it actually turns out, we’ll have to wait and see.

Cassini Images Of Enceladus Highlight Possible Cradle For Life

During its long mission to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft has given us image after spectacular image of Saturn, its rings, and Saturn’s moons. The images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus are of particular interest when it comes to the search for life.

At first glance, Enceladus appears similar to other icy moons in our Solar System. But Cassini has shown us that Enceladus could be a cradle for extra-terrestrial life.

Our search for life in the Solar System is centred on the presence of liquid water. Maybe we don’t know for sure if liquid H2O is required for life. But the Solar System is huge, and the effort required to explore it is immense. So starting our search for life with the search for liquid water is wise. And in the search for liquid water, Enceladus is a tantalizing target.

Cassini captured this image of Enceladus with Saturn’s rings. The vapor plumes are slightly visible at the south polar region (bottom of image). Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Though Enceladus looks every bit like a frozen, lifeless world on its surface, it’s what lies beneath its frigid crust that is exciting. Enceladus appears to have a subsurface ocean, at least in it’s south polar region. And that ocean may be up to 10 km. deep.

Before we dive into that, (sorry), here are a few basic facts about Enceladus:

  • Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon
  • Enceladus is about 500 km in diameter (Earth’s Moon is 3,474 km in diameter)
  • Enceladus was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel
  • Enceladus is one of the most reflective objects in our Solar System, due to its icy surface

In 2005, Cassini first spied plumes of frozen water vapor erupting from the southern polar region. Called cryovolcanoes, subsequent study of them determined that they are the likely source of Saturn’s E Ring. The existence of these plumes led scientists to suspect that their source was a sub-surface ocean under Enceladus’ ice crust.

This close up image of Enceladus clearly shows multiple plumes erupting into space. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Finding plumes of water erupting from a moon is one thing, but it’s not just water. It’s salt water. Further study showed that the plumes also contained simple organic compounds. This advanced the idea that Enceladus could harbor life.

This image of Enceladus shows the features known as “Tiger stripes”. They are the source of the vapor plumes that erupt from the surface. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

The geysers aren’t the only evidence for a sub-surface ocean on Enceladus. The southern polar region has a smooth surface, unlike the rest of the moon which is marked with craters. Something must have smoothed that surface, since it is next to impossible that the south polar region would be free from impact craters.

In 2005, Cassini detected a warm region in the south, much warmer than could be caused by solar radiation. The only conclusion is that Enceladus has a source of internal heating. That internal heat would create enough geologic activity to erase impact craters.

So now, two conditions for the existence of life have been met: liquid water, and heat.

In 2005, data from Cassini showed that the so-called “Tiger Stripe” features on Enceladus’ south pole region are warm spots. Image:NASA/JPL/GSFC/SwRI/SSI

The source of the heat on Enceladus was the next question facing scientists. That question is far from settled, and there could be several sources of heat operating together. Among all the possible sources for the heat, two are most intriguing when it comes to the search for life: tidal heating, and radioactive heating.

Tidal heating is a result of rotational and orbital forces. In Enceladus’ case, these forces cause friction which is dissipated as heat. This heat keeps the sub-surface ocean in liquid form, but doesn’t prevent the surface from freezing solid.

Radioactive heating is caused by the decay of radioactive isotopes. If Enceladus started out as a rocky body, and if it contained enough short-lived isotopes, then an enormous amount of heat would be produced for several million years. That action would create a rocky core surrounded by ice.

Then, if enough long-lived radioactive isotopes were present, they would continue producing heat for a much longer period of time. However, radioactive heating isn’t enough on its own. There would have to be tidal heating also.

Gravity measurements by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and Deep Space Network suggest that Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which has jets of water vapor and ice gushing from its south pole, also harbors a large interior ocean beneath an ice shell, as this illustration depicts.
Image Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech

More evidence for a large, sub-surface ocean came in 2014. Cassini and the Deep Space Network provided gravitometric measurements showing that the ocean is there. Those measurements showed that there is likely a regional, if not global, ocean some 10 km thick. Measurements also showed that the ocean is under an ice layer 30 to 40 km thick.

This close up image of Enceladus show the variability of its icy features. The dark spots were originally called “Dalmatian” terrain when first imaged in 2005. There exact nature remained a mystery until ten years later, when Cassini flybys showed that they are actually blocks of bedrock ice scattered along a ridge. The blocks range in size from tens to hundreds of meters. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech.

The discovery of a warm, salty ocean containing organic molecules is very intriguing, and has expanded our idea of what the habitable zone might be in our Solar System, and in others. Enceladus is much too distant from the Sun to rely on solar energy to sustain life. If moons can provide their own heat through tidal heating or radioactive heating, then the habitable zone in any solar system wouldn’t be determined by proximity to the star or stars at the centre.

Cassini’s mission is nearing its end, and it won’t fly by Enceladus again. It’s told us all it can about Enceladus. It’s up to future missions to expand our understanding of Enceladus.

Numerous missions have been talked about, including two that suggest flying through the plumes and sampling them. One proposal has a sample of the plumes being returned to Earth for study. Landing on Enceladus and somehow drilling through the ice remains a far-off idea better left to science fiction, at least for now.

Whether or not Enceladus can or does harbor life is a question that won’t be answered for a long time. In fact, not all scientists agree that there is a liquid ocean there at all. But whether it does or doesn’t harbor life, Cassini has allowed us to enjoy the tantalizing beauty of that distant object.

Enceladus. Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Mars Has Features That Look Very Similar To Life Bearing Hot Springs On Earth

A type of rock formation found on Mars may be some of the best evidence yet for life on that planet, according to a new study at Nature.com. The formations in question are in the Gusev Crater. When Spirit examined the spectra of the formations, scientists found that they closely match those of formations at El Tatio in Northern Chile.

The significance of that match? The El Tatio formations were produced by a combination of living and non-living processes.

The Gusev Crater geo-located on a map of Mars. Image: Wikimedia Labs
The Gusev Crater geo-located on a map of Mars. Image: Wikimedia Labs

The Gusev Crater is a large crater that formed 3 to 4 billion years ago. It’s an old crater lake bed, with sediments up to 3,000 feet thick. Gusev also has exposed rock formations which show evidence of layering. A system of water channels called Ma’adim Vallis flows into Gusev, which could account for the deep sediments.

When it comes to evidence for the existence of life on Mars, and on early Earth, researchers often focus on hydrothermal spring deposits. These deposits can capture and preserve the biosignatures of early life. You can’t find evidence of ancient life just anywhere because geologic processes erase it. This is why El Tatio has received so much attention.

It’s also why formations at Gusev have received attention. They appear to have a hydrothermal origin as well. Their relation to the rocks around them support their hydrothermal origin.

El Tatio in Chile is a hard-to-find combination of extremely high UV, low rainfall, high annual evaporation rate, and high elevation. This makes it an excellent analog for Mars.

The Mars-like conditions at El Tatio make it rather unique on Earth, and that uniqueness is reflected in the rock deposits and structures that it produces. The most unique ones may be the biomediated silica structures that resemble the structures in Gusev. This resemblance suggest that they have the same causes: hydrothermal vents and biofilms.

Silica structures at the Gusev Crater (left) closely resemble the silica structures at El Tatio (right.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer
Silica structures at the Gusev Crater (left) closely resemble the silica structures at El Tatio (right.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer

Biomediated Structures?

The rock structures at El Tatio are typically covered with very shallow water that supports bio-films and mats comprised of different diatoms and cyanobacteria. The size and shape of the structures varies, probably according to the variable depth, flow velocity, and flow direction of the water. The same variations are present at Gusev on Mars. This begs the question, “Could the structures at Gusev also have a biological cause?”

Microscopic images of structures at El Tatio. B, in the upper right, shows the biofilm community partly responsible for the formation of the structures. The surface biofilm community includes silica-encrusted microbial filaments and sheaths, and spindle-shaped diatoms (white arrows.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer.
Microscopic images of structures at El Tatio. B, in the upper right, shows the biofilm community partly responsible for the formation of the structures. The surface biofilm community includes silica-encrusted microbial filaments and sheaths, and spindle-shaped diatoms (white arrows.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer.

Luckily, we have a rover on Mars that can probe the Gusev formations more deeply. Spirit used its Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) to obtain spectra of the Gusev formations. These spectra confirmed the similarity to the terrestrial formations at El Tatio.

Spirit was helpful in other ways. The rover has one inoperable wheel, which drags across the Martian surface, disrupting and overturning rock structures. Spirit was intentionally driven across the Gusev formations, in order to overturn and expose fragments. Then, Spirit’s Microscopic Imager was trained on those fragments.

(A) shows the wheel marks left by Spirit. The darker ones on the right are from the inoperable wheel. (B) is a closeup of the box in (A). (C) shows some of the rover tracks and features in Gusev. (D) shows two whitish rocks, intentionally overturned by Spirit's busted wheel. Image: NASA/JPL/Spirit PanCam.
(A) shows the wheel marks left by Spirit. The darker ones on the right are from the inoperable wheel. (B) is a closeup of the box in (A). (C) shows some of the rover tracks and features in Gusev. (D) shows two whitish rocks, intentionally overturned by Spirit’s busted wheel. Image: NASA/JPL/Spirit PanCam.
MM scale close-up images of the Martian rocks, on the left, show many similarities with the El Tatio rocks, right. Images: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer, NASA/JPL.
MM scale close-up images of the Martian rocks, on the left, show many similarities with the El Tatio rocks, right. Images: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer, NASA/JPL.

Unfortunately, Spirit lacks the instrumentation to look deeply into the internal microscale features of the Martian rocks. If Spirit could do that, we would be much more certain that the Martian rocks were partly biogenic in origin. All of the surrounding factors suggest that they do, but that’s not enough to come to that conclusion.

This study presents more compelling evidence that there was indeed life on Mars at some point. But it’s not conclusive.

Opportunity Blazes Through 4500 Sunsets on Mars and Gullies are Yet to Come!

NASA’s Opportunity explores Spirit Mound after descending down Marathon Valley and looks out across the floor of vast Endeavour crater.  This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4505 (25 Sept 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity explores Spirit Mound after descending down Marathon Valley and looks out across the floor of vast Endeavour crater. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4505 (25 Sept 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

The longest living Martian rover ever – Opportunity – has just surpassed another unfathomable milestone – 4500 Sols (or days) exploring the Red Planet !! That’s 50 times beyond her “warrantied” life expectancy of merely 90 Sols.

And as we are fond of reporting – the best is yet to come. After experiencing 4500 Martian sunsets, Opportunity has been granted another mission extension and she is being targeted to drive to an ancient gully where life giving liquid water almost certainly once flowed on our solar systems most Earth-like planet.

See Opportunity’s current location around ‘Spirit Mound” – illustrated in our new photo mosaic panoramas above and below.

NASA’s Opportunity rover scans ahead to Spirit Mound and vast Endeavour crater as she celebrates 4500 sols on the Red Planet after descending down Marathon Valley. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4500 (20 Sept 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover scans ahead to Spirit Mound and vast Endeavour crater as she celebrates 4500 sols on the Red Planet after descending down Marathon Valley. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4500 (20 Sept 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

After a scorching ‘6 minutes of Terror’ plummet through the thin Martian atmosphere, Opportunity bounced to an airbag cushioned landing on the plains of Meridiani Planum on January 24, 2004 – nearly 13 years ago!

Opportunity was launched on a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 7, 2003.

“We have now exceeded the prime-mission duration by a factor of 50,” noted Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

“Milestones like this are reminders of the historic achievements made possible by the dedicated people entrusted to build and operate this national asset for exploring Mars.”

The newest 2 year extended mission phase just began on Oct. 1 as the rover was stationed at the western rim of Endeavour crater at the bottom of Marathon Valley at a spot called “Bitterroot Valley.”

And at this moment, as Opportunity reached and surpassed the 4500 Sol milestone, she is investing an majestic spot dubbed “Spirit Mound” – and named after her twin sister “Spirit” – who landed 3 weeks earlier!

This scene from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows "Spirit Mound" overlooking the floor of Endeavour Crater. The mound stands near the eastern end of "Bitterroot Valley" on the western rim of the crater, and this view faces eastward. The component images for this mosaic were taken on Sept. 21, 2016, during the 4,501st Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity's work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.
This scene from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows “Spirit Mound” overlooking the floor of Endeavour Crater. The mound stands near the eastern end of “Bitterroot Valley” on the western rim of the crater, and this view faces eastward. The component images for this mosaic were taken on Sept. 21, 2016, during the 4,501st Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity’s work on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011.

Endeavour crater was formed when it was carved out of the Red Planet by a huge meteor impact billions of years ago.

But now for the first time she will explore the craters interior, after spending 5 years investigating the exterior and climbing to a summit on the rim and spending several year exploring the top before finally descending down the Marathon Valley feature to investigate clay minerals formed in water.

“The longest-active rover on Mars also will, for the first time, visit the interior of the crater it has worked beside for the last five years,” said NASA officials.

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity drove downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim. See our route map below showing the context of the rovers over dozen year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

Opportunity is now being targeted to explore a gully carved out by water.

“We are confident this is a fluid-carved gully, and that water was involved,” said Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

“Fluid-carved gullies on Mars have been seen from orbit since the 1970s, but none had been examined up close on the surface before. One of the three main objectives of our new mission extension is to investigate this gully. We hope to learn whether the fluid was a debris flow, with lots of rubble lubricated by water, or a flow with mostly water and less other material.”

Furthermore, in what’s a very exciting announcement the team “intends to drive Opportunity down the full length of the gully, onto the crater floor” – if the rover continues to function well during the two year extended mission which will have to include enduring her 8th frigid Martian winter in 2017.

And as is always the case, scientists will compare these interior crater rocks to those on the exterior for clues into the evolution, environmental and climatic history of Mars over billions of years.

“We may find that the sulfate-rich rocks we’ve seen outside the crater are not the same inside,” Squyres said. “We believe these sulfate-rich rocks formed from a water-related process, and water flows downhill. The watery environment deep inside the crater may have been different from outside on the plain — maybe different timing, maybe different chemistry.”

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As of today, Sol 4522, Oct 12, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 214,400 images and traversed over 26.99 miles (43.44 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

The power output from solar array energy production is currently 472 watt-hours, before heading into another southern hemisphere Martian winter in 2017.

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the basal layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during more than 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance for over 4514 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 - to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater after descending down Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and searched for more at Marathon Valley and is now at Spirit Mound on the way to a Martian gully.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven on the Red Planet during more than 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance for over 4515 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater after descending down Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and searched for more at Marathon Valley and is now at Spirit Mound on the way to a Martian gully. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Hubble’s Surprising Find On Europa To Be Announced By NASA Monday

Europa as imaged by the Galileo spacecraft. Europa is a prime target in the search for life because of its sub-surface ocean. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

NASA will make a “surprising” announcement about Jupiter’s moon Europa on Monday, Sept. 26th, at 2:00 PM EDT. They haven’t said much, other than there is “surprising evidence of activity that may be related to the presence of a subsurface ocean on Europa.” Europa is a prime target for the search for life because of its subsurface ocean.

The new evidence is from a “unique Europa observing campaign” aimed at the icy moon. The Hubble Space Telescope captured the images in these new findings, so maybe we’ll be treated to some more of the beautiful images that we’re accustomed to seeing from the Hubble.

Images from NASA's Galileo spacecraft show the intricate detail of Europa's icy surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SETI Institute
Images from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft show the intricate detail of Europa’s icy surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SETI Institute

We always welcome beautiful images, of course. But the real interest in Europa lies in its suitability for harboring life. Europa has a frozen surface, but underneath that ice there is probably an ocean. The frozen surface is thought to be about 10 – 30 km thick, and the ocean may be about 100 km (62 miles) thick. That’s a lot of water, perhaps double what Earth has, and that water is probably salty.

Back in 2012, the Hubble captured evidence of plumes of water vapor escaping from Europa’s south pole. Hubble didn’t directly image the water vapor, but it “spectroscopically detected auroral emissions from oxygen and hydrogen” according to a NASA news release at the time.

This artist's illustration shows what plumes of water vapour might look like being ejected from Europa's south pole. Image: NASA, ESA, L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute, USA/University of Cologne, Germany) and M. Kornmesser.
This artist’s illustration shows what plumes of water vapour might look like being ejected from Europa’s south pole. Image: NASA, ESA, L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute, USA/University of Cologne, Germany) and M. Kornmesser.

There are other lines of evidence that support the existence of a sub-surface ocean on Europa. But there are a lot of questions. Will the frozen top layer be several tens of kilometres thick, or only a few hundred meters thick? Will the sub-surface ocean be warm, liquid water? Or will it be frozen too, but warmer than the surface ice and still convective?

Two models of the interior of Europa. Image: NASA/JPL.
Two models of the interior of Europa. Image: NASA/JPL.

Hopefully, new evidence from the Hubble will answer these questions definitively. Stay tuned to Monday’s teleconference to find out what NASA has to tell us.

These are the scientists who will be involved in the teleconference:

  • Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • William Sparks, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore
  • Britney Schmidt, assistant professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta
  • Jennifer Wiseman, senior Hubble project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

The NASA website will stream audio from the teleconference.

More About Europa:

Europa Clipper Team Braces For Bad News

An artist's concept of the Europa mission. The multi-year mission would conduct fly-bys of Europa designed to protect it from the extreme environment there. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jupiter’s moon Europa is a juicy target for exploration. Beneath its surface of ice there’s a warm salty, ocean. Or potentially, at least. And if Earth is our guide, wherever you find a warm, salty, ocean, you find life. But finding it requires a dedicated, and unique, mission.

If each of the bodies in our Solar System weren’t so different from each other, we could just have one or two types of missions. Things would be much easier, but also much more boring. But Europa isn’t boring, and it won’t be easy to explore. Exploring it will require a complex, custom mission. That means expensive.

NASA’s proposed mission to Europa is called the Europa Clipper. It’s been in the works for a few years now. But as the mission takes shape, and as the science gets worked out, a parallel process of budget wrangling is also ongoing. And as reported by SpaceNews.com there could be bad news incoming for the first-ever mission to Europa.

Images from NASA's Galileo spacecraft show the intricate detail of Europa's icy surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SETI Institute
Images from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft show the intricate detail of Europa’s icy surface. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ SETI Institute

At issue is next year’s funding for the Europa Clipper. Officials with NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group are looking for ways to economize and cut costs for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, while still staying on track for a mission launch in 2022.

According to Bob Pappalardo, Europa Clipper’s project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, funding will be squeezed in 2017. “There is this squeeze in FY17 that we have,” said Pappalardo. “We’re asking the instrument teams and various other aspects of the project, given that squeeze, what will it take in the out years to maintain that ’22 launch.”

As for the actual dollar amounts, there are different numbers floating around, and they don’t all jive with each other. In 2016, the Europa Mission received $175 million from Congress, but in the administration’s budget proposal for 2017, they only requested $49.6 million.

There’s clearly some uncertainty in these numbers, and that uncertainty is reflected in Congress, too. An FY 2017 House bill earmarks $260 million for the Europa mission. And the Senate has crafted a bill in support of the mission, but doesn’t allocate any funding for it. Neither the Senate nor the Congress has passed their bills.

This is not the first time that a mis-alignment has appeared between NASA and the different levels of government when it comes to funding. It’s pretty common. It’s also pretty common for the higher level of funding to prevail. But it’s odd that NASA’s requested amount is so low. NASA’s own low figure of $49.6 million is fuelling the perception that they themselves are losing interest in the Europa Clipper.

But SpaceNews.com is reporting that that is not the case. According to Curt Niebur, NASA’s program scientist for the Europa mission, “Everyone is aware of how supportive and generous Congress has been of this mission, and I’m happy to say that that support and encouragement is now shared by the administration, and by NASA as well. Everybody is on board the Europa Clipper and getting this mission to the launch pad as soon as our technical challenges and our budget will allow.”

What all this seems to mean is that the initial science and instrumentation for the mission will be maintained, but no additional capacity will be added. NASA is no longer considering things like free-flying probes to measure the plumes of water ice coming off the moon. According to Niebur, “The additional science value provided by these additions was not commensurate with the associated impact to resources, to accommodation, to cost. There just wasn’t enough science there to balance that out.”

The Europa Clipper will be a direct shot to Europa, without any gravity assist on the way. It will likely be powered by the Space Launch System. The main goal of the mission is to learn more about the icy moon’s potential habitability. There are tantalizing clues that it has an ocean about 100 km thick, kept warm by the gravity-tidal interactions with Jupiter, and possibly by radioactive decay in the rocky mantle. There’s also some evidence that the composition of the sub-surface ocean is similar to Earth’s.

Mars is a fascinating target, no doubt about it. But as far as harbouring life, Europa might be a better bet. Europa’s warm, salty ocean versus Mar’s dry, cold surface? A lot of resources have been spent studying Mars, and the Europa mission represents a shift in resources in that regard.

It’s unfortunate that a few tens of million dollars here or there can hamper our search for life beyond Earth. But the USA is a democracy, so that’s the way it is. These discrepancies and possible disputes between NASA and the different levels of government may seem disconcerting, but that’s the way these things get done.

At least we hope it is.

Sources: SpaceNews.com

Europa on Universe Today:

SpaceNews.com

Curiosity Finds Ancient Mars Likely Had More Oxygen and Was More Hospitable to Life

This scene shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a location called "Windjana," where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This scene shows NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at a location called “Windjana,” where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

New chemical science findings from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity indicate that ancient Mars likely had a higher abundance of molecular oxygen in its atmosphere compared to the present day and was thus more hospitable to life forms, if they ever existed.

Thus the Red Planet was much more Earth-like and potentially habitable billions of years ago compared to the cold, barren place we see today.

Curiosity discovered high levels of manganese oxide minerals in rocks investigated at a location called “Windjana” during the spring of 2014.

Manganese-oxide minerals require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form.

“Researchers found high levels of manganese oxides by using a laser-firing instrument on the rover. This hint of more oxygen in Mars’ early atmosphere adds to other Curiosity findings — such as evidence about ancient lakes — revealing how Earth-like our neighboring planet once was,” NASA reported.

The newly announced results stem from results obtained from the rovers mast mounted ChemCam or Chemistry and Camera laser firing instrument. ChemCam operates by firing laser pulses and then observes the spectrum of resulting flashes of plasma to assess targets’ chemical makeup.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in a statement.

“Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

The discovery is being published in a new paper in the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters. Lanza is the lead author.

The manganese oxides were found by ChemCam in mineral veins investigated at “Windjana” and are part of geologic timeline being assembled from Curiosity’s research expedition across of the floor of the Gale Crater landing site.

Scientists have been able to link the new finding of a higher oxygen level to a time when groundwater was present inside Gale Crater.

“These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions,” says Lanza.

“Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

The high-manganese materials were found in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in the “Kimberley” region of the crater.

Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo.  Featured on APOD - Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 7, 2014
Curiosity’s Panoramic view of Mount Remarkable at ‘The Kimberley Waypoint’ where rover conducted 3rd drilling campaign inside Gale Crater on Mars. The navcam raw images were taken on Sol 603, April 17, 2014, stitched and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo. Featured on APOD – Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 7, 2014

High concentrations of manganese oxide minerals in Earth’s ancient past correspond to a major shift in our atmosphere’s composition from low to high oxygen atmospheric concentrations. Thus its reasonable to suggest the same thing happened on ancient Mars.

As part of the investigation, Curiosity also conducted a drill campaign at Windjana, her 3rd of the mission.

Composite photo mosaic shows deployment of NASA Curiosity rovers robotic arm and two holes after drilling into ‘Windjana’ sandstone rock on May 5, 2014, Sol 621, at Mount Remarkable as missions third drill target for sample analysis by rover’s chemistry labs.  The navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 621, May 5, 2014 and colorized.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite photo mosaic shows deployment of NASA Curiosity rovers robotic arm and two holes after drilling into ‘Windjana’ sandstone rock on May 5, 2014, Sol 621, at Mount Remarkable as missions third drill target for sample analysis by rover’s chemistry labs. The navcam raw images were stitched together from several Martian days up to Sol 621, May 5, 2014 and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

How much manganese oxide was detected and what is the meaning?

“The Curiosity rover observed high-Mn abundances (>25 wt% MnO) in fracture-filling materials that crosscut sandstones in the Kimberley region of Gale crater, Mars,” according to the AGU paper.

“On Earth, environments that concentrate Mn and deposit Mn minerals require water and highly oxidizing conditions, hence these findings suggest that similar processes occurred on Mars.”

“Based on the strong association between Mn-oxide deposition and evolving atmospheric dioxygen levels on Earth, the presence of these Mn-phases on Mars suggests that there was more abundant molecular oxygen within the atmosphere and some groundwaters of ancient Mars than in the present day.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Alien Minds Part II: Do Aliens Think Big Brains are Sexy Too?

peahen and peacock

“Nothing in biology makes sense”, wrote the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, “except in the light of evolution”. If we want to assess whether it is likely that technological civilizations have evolved on alien planets or moons, and what they might be like, the theory of evolution is our best guide. On May 18, 2016 the newly founded METI (Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) International hosted a workshop entitled ‘The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence’. The workshop was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico on the first day of the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference. It included nine talks by scientists and scholars in evolutionary biology, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics.

METI International
METI International

In the first instalment of this series, we saw that intelligence, of various sorts, is widespread across the animal kingdom. Workshop presenter Anna Dornhaus, who studies collective decision-making in insects as an associate professor at the University of Arizona, showed that even insects, with their diminutive brains, exhibit a surprising cognitive sophistication. Intelligence, of various sorts, is a likely and probable evolutionary product.

Animals evolve the cognitive abilities that they need to meet the demands of their own particular environments and lifestyles. Sophisticated brains and cognition have evolved many times on Earth, in many separate evolutionary lineages. But, of the millions of evolutionary lineages that have arisen on Earth in the 600 million years since complex life appeared, only one, that which led to human beings, produced the peculiar combination of cognitive traits that led to a technological civilization. What this tells us is that technological civilization is not the inevitable product of a long term evolutionary trend, it is rather the quirky and contingent product of particular circumstances. But what might those circumstances have been, and just how special and improbable were they?

Geoffrey Miller
Dr. Geoffery Miller is an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, and is the author of a 2001 book, The Mating Mind, where he explains his theory that human intelligence evolved by sexual selection to a general audience. He presented at the METI Institute conference in Puerto Rico, in May 2016. Picture used with permission.

Workshop presenter Geoffrey Miller is an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. Miller thinks he has an answer to the question of what the special circumstances that produced human evolution were. Our protohuman ancestors inhabited the African savanna. But so do many other mammals that don’t need enormous brains to survive there. The evolutionary forces driving the production of our large brains, Miller surmises, can’t be due to the challenges of survival. He thinks instead that human evolution was guided by an intelligence. But Miller is no creationist, nor does he have the alien monolith from the 1960’s science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey in mind. Miller’s guiding intelligence is the intelligence that our ancestors themselves used when they selected their mates.

Miller’s theory harkens back to the ideas of the founder of modern evolutionary theory, the nineteenth century British naturalist Charles Darwin. Darwin proposed that evolution works through a process of natural selection. Animal offspring vary one from another, and are produced in too great of numbers for all of them to survive. Some starve, some are eaten by predators, others fall prey to the numerous other hazards of the natural world. A few survive to produce offspring, thereby passing on the traits that allowed them to survive. Down the generations, traits that aided survival become more elaborate and useful and traits that did not, vanished.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, in his book, The Origin of Species, in 1859. The theory was inspired, in part, by observations he made during his five year voyage as a naturalist on board the HMS Beagle and has become the central principle of much of modern biology. Picture by George Richmond (1830’s) public domain.

But Darwin was troubled by a serious problem with his theory. He knew that many animals have prominent traits that don’t seem to contribute to their survival, and are even counterproductive to it. The bright colors of many insects, the colors, elaborate plumage, and songs of birds, the huge antlers of elk, were all prominent and costly traits that couldn’t be explained by his theory of natural selection. Peacocks, with their elaborate tail feathers were everywhere in English gardens, and came to torment him.

At last, Darwin found the solution. To produce offspring, an animal must do more than just survive, it must find a partner to mate with. All the traits which worried Darwin could be explained if they served to make their bearers sexier and more beautiful to prospective mates than other competing members of their own gender. If peahens like elaborate plumage, then in each generation, they will choose to mate with the males with the most elaborate tail feathers, and reject the rest. Through the competition for mates, peacock tails will become more and more elaborate down the generations. Darwin called his new theory sexual selection.

Many subsequent evolutionary biologists regarded sexual selection as of limited importance, and lumped it in with natural selection, which was said to favor traits conducive to survival and reproductive success. However, in recent decades evolutionary biologists have come to view sexual selection in a much more favorable light. Geoffrey Miller proposed that the human brain evolved through sexual selection. Human beings, he supposes, are sapiosexual; that is, they are sexually attracted by intelligence and its products. The preference for selecting intelligent mates produced greater intelligence, which in turn allowed our ancestors to become more discerning in selecting more intelligent mates, producing a kind of amplifying feedback loop, and an explosion of intelligence.

On this account, language, music, dancing, humor, art, literature, and perhaps even morality and ethics exist because those who were good at them were deemed sexier, or more trustworthy and reliable, and were thus more successful in securing mates than those who weren’t. The elaborate human brain is like the elaborate peacock’s tail. It exists for wooing mates and not for survival. There are some important ways in which protohumans were different from peafowl. Both males and females are choosy and both have large brains. Protohumans, unlike peafowl, probably formed monogamous pair bonds. Miller’s theory has complexities that space won’t permit us to explore here. To show that his theory can work, Miller needed to develop a computer model.

Human evolution
The evolution of protohuman intelligence through geography and time. Homo egaster lived in the early Pleistocene between 1.9 and 1.4 million years ago and had a brain about half the size of modern Homo sapiens. It developed advanced stone tools, and may have domesticated fire. It was closely related to Homo erectus. Homo antecessor lived from 1.2 million to 800,000 years ago and spread from Africa into Europe. It’s brain was also about half as large as that of ours. Homo rhodesiensis lived about 120,000 to 300,000 years ago. Our species, Homo sapiens, arose in Africa about 200,000 years ago and spread throughout much of the world. Homo neanderthalensis had a brain capacity somewhat larger than that of modern humans, and its larger eye sockets suggest keener vision. They disappeared about 30,000 years ago, and may have died out, in part, through competition with Homo sapiens and cooling of the climate. Public Library of Science 2003.

If Miller is right, then just how probable is the evolution of a technological civilization, and how likely is it that we will find them elsewhere in the galaxy? Miller thinks that if complex life exists on other planets or moons, it is likely to evolve reproduction through sex, just as has happened here on Earth. For complex organisms that depend on a large and complicated body of genetic information, most mutations will be neutral or harmful. In sexual reproduction half the genes of one’s offspring come from each parent. Without this mixing of genes from other individuals, asexual lineages are likely to falter and go extinct due to an accumulation of harmful mutations. Unless sexually reproducing creatures choose their mates purely at random, sexual selection is an inevitability. So, the basic conditions for runaway sexual selection to produce a brain suited to language and technology probably exists on other worlds with complex life.

One problem, though, that Anna Dornhaus pointed out, is that in sexual selection, the trait that gets exaggerated is essentially arbitrary. There are many bird species with elaborate plumage, but none exactly like the peacock. There are many species where brains and cognitive traits matter for mating success, like the singing ability of nightingales and many other birds, or gibbons, or whales. Male bower birds build complicated structures, called bowers, out of found items, like sticks and leaves and stones and shells, to attract a female. Chimpanzees engage in complex power struggles that involve negotiation, grooming, and fighting their way to the top.

But despite the selective success of cognition and braininess in many species, our specific human sort of intelligence, with language and technology, has happened only once on Earth, and therefore might be rare in the universe. If our ancestors had found big noses rather than big brains sexy, then we might now have enormous noses rather than enormous radio telescopes capable of signaling to other worlds.

Miller is more optimistic. “It’s a rare accident” he writes, in the sense that mate preferences only rarely turn ‘sapiosexual’, focused so heavily on conspicuous displays of general intelligence… On the other hand, I think it’s likely that in any biosphere, sexual selection would eventually stumble into sapiosexual mate preferences, and then you’d get human-level intelligence and language of some sort. It might only arise in 1 out of every 100 million species though,…I suspect that in any biosphere with sexually reproducing complex organisms and a wide variety of species, you’d quite likely get at least one lineage stumbling into the sapiosexual niche within a billion years”.

A planet or moon is currently deemed potentially habitable if it orbits its parent star within the right distance range for liquid water to exist on its surface. This distance range is called the habitable zone. Since stars evolve with time, the duration of habitability is limited. Such matters can be explored through climate modeling, informed by what we know of the climates of Earth and other worlds within our solar system, and about the evolution of stars.

Current thinking is that Earth’s total duration of habitability is 6.3 to 7.8 billion years, and that our world may remain habitable for another 1.75 billion years. Since complex life has already existed on Earth for 600 million years, this seems a generous amount of time for complex life on a similar planet to stumble upon Miller’s sapiosexual niche. Stars of smaller mass than the sun are stable on longer timescales, some perhaps capable of sustaining worlds with liquid water for a hundred billion years. If Miller’s estimates are reasonable, then there may be worlds enough and time for an abundance of sapiosexual alien civilizations in our galaxy.

A central message of the METI Institute workshop is that, animals evolve whatever sort of intelligence is necessary for them to survive and reproduce under the circumstances in which they find themselves. Human-style intelligence, with language and technology, is a peculiar quirk of particular and improbable evolutionary circumstances. But we don’t know just how improbable. Given the vastness of time and number of worlds potentially available for the roll of the evolutionary dice, alien civilizations might be reasonably abundant, or they might be once-in-a-billion galaxies rare. We just don’t know. Better knowledge of the evolution of life and intelligence here on Earth might allow us to improve our estimates.

If alien civilizations do exist, what can life on Earth tell us about what their minds and senses are likely to be like? Are they, like us, visually oriented creatures, or might they rely on other senses? Can we expect that their minds might be similar enough to ours to make meaningful communication possible? These intriguing questions will be the subject of the third and final installment of this series.

For further reading:

Hooper, P. L. (2008) Mutual mate choice can drive costly signalling even under perfect monogamy. Adaptive Behavior, 16: p. 53-70.

Marris, E. (2013) Earth’s days are numbered. Nature News.

Miller, G. F. (2000) The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. Random House, New York.

Miller, G. F. (2007) Sexual selection for moral virtues, The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(2): p. 97-125.

Patton, P. E. (2016) Alien Minds I: Are Extraterrestrial Civilizations Likely to Evolve? Universe Today.

P. Patton (2014) Communicating across the cosmos, Part 1: Shouting into the darkness, Part 2: Petabytes from the Stars, Part 3: Bridging the Vast Gulf, Part 4: Quest for a Rosetta Stone, Universe Today.

Rushby, A. J., Claire, M. W., Osborn, H., Watson, A. J. (2013) Habitable zone lifetimes of exoplanets around main sequence stars. Astrobiology, 13(9), p. 833-849.

Yirka, B. (2016) Yeast study offers evidence of the superiority of sexual reproduction versus cloning in speed of adaptation. Phys.org.