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Yes, exoplanets can have oxygen without alien life

The discovery of life on another world would be a monumental moment in the history of human civilization. The most likely way we will, one day, find alien life will be discovering chemical markers of life in the atmosphere of planets orbiting distant stars.

One of these markers is oxygen, which currently makes up a little over 20 percent of the atmosphere of our own world. However, our own world held onto relatively little oxygen until 2.4 billion years ago, when oxygen-producing cyanobacteria filled the atmosphere with the gas, leading to the first widespread extinction — the Great Oxidation event. Many lifeforms on Earth today, including human beings, are now dependent on this life-giving gas.

“Oxygen is a promising exoplanet biosignature due to the evolutionary advantage conferred by harnessing starlight for photosynthesis, and the apparent low likelihood of maintaining oxygen‐rich atmospheres without life,” researchers explained in an article published in the journal AGU Advances.

Ollie ollie exoplanet!

There are three scenarios through which we might discover life. The first of these, and the least likely, is the arrival on our planet of members of an intelligent civilization in spacecraft. The second means of finding life would be the detection of an intelligent signal from another world, most likely through radio waves. The most-likely scenario would be the discovery of gases, like large quantities of oxygen, methane, or phosphine, in the atmosphere of an alien world.

The James Webb Space Telescope should soon become the latest planet hunter in the search for exoplanets — some of which might be home to life. We talk with Scott Lambros, NASA’s instrument systems manager on this revolutionary observatory in space.

A new study from researchers at UC Santa Cruz highlights the need for an array of next-generation telescopes capable of searching exoplanets for multiple, independent, signs of life.

“This is useful because it shows there are ways to get oxygen in the atmosphere without life, but there are other observations you can make to help distinguish these false positives from the real deal. For each scenario, we try to say what your telescope would need to be able to do to distinguish this from biological oxygen,” Joshua Krissansen-Totton, a Sagan Fellow in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, explains.

Researchers hope that in the next 15 years or so, one or more telescopes in space will be capable of directly imaging exoplanets orbiting other stars, and studying the chemical makeup of their atmospheres. Such study could provide multiple means to detect life on other worlds, providing additional evidence for the discovery.

“There has a been a lot of discussion about whether detection of oxygen is ‘enough’ of a sign of life. This work really argues for needing to know the context of your detection. What other molecules are found in addition to oxygen, or not found, and what does that tell you about the planet’s evolution?” Jonathan Fortney, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC stated.

A look at how young magma planets could evolve into oxygen-rich worlds either with or without life.
Credit: J. Krissansen-Totton
A look at how young magma planets could evolve into oxygen-rich worlds either with or without life.

A series of simulations of theoretical exoplanets showed how exoplanets with oxygen could develop in the absence of life. The chemical makeup of these virtual worlds varied greatly depending on the presence of volatiles — those chemicals that are easily driven off worlds by heat and pressure from a nearby star.

“If you run the model for Earth, with what we think was the initial inventory of volatiles, you reliably get the same outcome every time — without life you don’t get oxygen in the atmosphere. But we also found multiple scenarios where you can get oxygen without life,” Krissansen-Totton said.

Oxygen can build up in planetary atmospheres without life by chemical processes. For instance, water in the upper atmosphere of an exoplanet could interact with ultraviolet light from its sun, splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen would quickly escape into space, leaving oxygen behind.

Turning Up the Heat

Other processes, both chemical and geological, could convert these molecules into other products, reducing quantities of the gas on exoplanets with oxygen.

However, simulations showed Earth-like planets containing more water than our world will develop oceans far more vast than our own. The enormous pressures of these oceans would shut down geological processes, preventing oxygen from being absorbed into the planet, increasing levels of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Exploring extreme exoplanets with Dr. Lauren Weiss from the University of Hawaii.

Oh yeah, I need steam… Feel the steam all around me
Ah you’re turning up the heat… When I start to dream aloud
See you move your hands and feet… Won’t you step into this cloud of steam” — “Steam” Peter Gabriel

The opposite case — exoplanets are lacking in water — can result in conditions where a surface of molten magma quickly freezes, leaving vast amounts of water in the air, in the form of a “steam atmosphere.” Once this water vapor meets with ultraviolet light, and hydrogen escapes to space, atmospheric oxygen would be left behind.

“On Earth, once water condensed on the surface, escape rates were low. But if you retain a steam atmosphere after the molten surface has solidified, there’s a window of about a million years when oxygen can build up because there are high water concentrations in the upper atmosphere and no molten surface to consume the oxygen produced by hydrogen escape,” Krissansen-Totton said.

A third scenario examined planets containing more carbon dioxide than Earth, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect. Temperatures on these worlds would remain too high for water to ever condense out of the atmosphere, driving up oxygen levels on worlds too hot to sustain life.

Examining geological and chemical processes on exoplanets shows how alien worlds could hold on to large quantities of oxygen without life. And, how a new generation of telescopes could discover life on distant exoplanets with oxygen.

This article was originally published on The Cosmic Companion by James Maynard, founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat. You can read this original piece here.

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This is why China and Russia want to build a base on the Moon

The Russian space agency Roscosmos and China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) recently agreed to establish lunar outposts on, and in orbit around, the Moon. This announcement comes as Russia prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of Yuri’s Night — the beginning of human spaceflight.

Roscosmos originated in 1991 from the dissolved soviet space program. The Soviet space agency accomplished a number of firsts, including launching the first satellite, as well as the first man, and woman, into space. In 1971, the USSR launched Salyut 1, the first space station, into orbit around Earth. The Soviet Union also played critical roles in the development of the International Space Station as that outpost morphed from Ronald Reagan’s original vision of an all-American space station Freedom.

Credit: CNSA

On February 10, the Tianwen-1 spacecraft arrived at Mars. Designed by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), this was the first mission to arrive at Mars with an orbiter, lander, and rover (although the lander and rover have not yet touched down on the surface of Mars). In December, a robotic mission from China collected samples from the Moon, returning them to Earth for analysis. This was the first time in 40 years this has been accomplished.

“Within the framework of creation of the ILRS, China and Russia will use their experience in space science, R&D and use of space equipment and technology to jointly formulate a road map for the construction of the ILRS, and carry out the close collaboration on planning, demonstration, design, development, implementation and operation of the ILRS, including the promotion of the project to the international space communities,” the CNSA reports.

The space agencies in each country have issued statements welcoming the development and shared their views on what may be the first massive structure to be constructed in lunar orbit.
Each nation is committed to combining their rich experiences in space science, research, and use of space technology to explore Mars, and develop an international moon-based station for scientific research. Both countries will be involved in the planning, conducting the design, development, and operation of the research station.

“China and Russia use joint experience and scientific technologies to create a roadmap for building an international research station on the Moon,” CNSA said in a statement posted on WeChat.

On April 12, the world will celebrate Yuri’s Night — the 60th anniversary of human spaceflight, as well as the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the Space Shuttle.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, The Russian Federation has lagged behind the US and China in the exploration of the Moon and Mars, and the nation is seeking to retake a leading role in the exploration of space.

Why a Lunar Station?

A lunar station could provide many benefits to the world space agencies and the people of those nations. It would serve as a practical step between our current capabilities and technologies need to, one day, colonize Mars. A permanent lunar outpost could serve as a base for a variety of activities such as the observations of the Sun and other astronomical objects, the study of Earth’s resources and environment, and other bodies in the Cosmos.

Building such an outpost would provide a research and proving ground for a variety of important advanced technologies and capabilities, including robotics, utilization of in-situ resources, resource depots, deep space units’ habitats, in-space propulsion, optical communication, space additive manufacturing (3D printing), and more.

During the “successful failure” of Apollo 13, the crew of this troubled spacecraft took stunning images of the lunar surface as they turned their sights back to Earth. Here are some of the video images they took while rounding the Moon in April 1970. Video by NASA.

The nature of the Moon and its resources, such as large quantities of water preserved in eternally-shaded craters, makes it a perfect base for lunar and subsequent Mars missions and other planetary activities.

The establishment of an International Lunar Station would signal an important breakthrough in transportation, high-value extraterrestrial resources, power and communications, crew habitats, and facilities that would significantly lower technical and financial risks for missions beyond the Moon.

And it would give the space programs of the world a much-needed clear, timely, and logical next step in the human exploration of space.

Still, More than 20 years Late for Space: 1999

The International Space Station has proven that people from all nations can survive — and work — together in space
Credit: NASA
The International Space Station has proven that people from all nations can survive — and work — together in space

The idea behind the construction of the Lunar Station is to put a permanent human facility on the Moon using proven capabilities and the best practices learned from the evolution and operation of the International Space Station.

“The ISS offers an existence proof of the feasibility of sustained human occupation and operations in space over decades. It also demonstrates the ability of many countries to work collaboratively on a very complex and expensive project in space over an extended period of time to achieve a common goal,” NASA writes in a 2014 study of a potential international lunar base.

The International Lunar Research Station would capable of supporting crews of 10-30 people, providing shelter, power, life support, communications, and the ability to exit from the facility and travel across the surface of the Moon. This outpost would be developed primarily through a consortium of public, private, and international contributors, according to the agreement.

It’s not the first time the two countries have collaborated on space missions. Moscow and Beijing are also working together on several other lunar and deep space exploration projects.

Movin’ on Up (384,400 kilometers up)

The community living in the International Lunar Research Station would work together, developing and sharing infrastructure, while also developing their own specific capabilities and talents.
Activities would range from scientific research and technology development, resource mining and processing, to human exploration of the Moon and even tourism. This enterprise would build on lessons learned from the International Space Station (ISS), built and used by sixteen countries.

While considering budgets to build and operate the lunar station, program managers looked, again, at the ISS. The initial effort will, likely, come from a government-funded programs. In order to share costs, it is helpful that two of the leading world economy countries have agreed to pull their resources together to build this international lunar scientific research station.

A look at NASA’s own plans for permanent human habitation of The Moon, narrated by William Shatner.

ASA is planning to return humans to the Moon with the Artemis program, a mission currently scheduled for 2024. When the Apollo missions placed 12 people on the Moon, only the United States and the Soviet Union had the technology capable of carrying out such a mission. In the coming years, several nations, including China, as well as some private companies, are likely to have the technology to place human beings on the surface of the Moon.

Currently the United States spends just one-half of one percent of the Federal budget on science. The 2020 budget for NASA was just $22.6 billion, while the current annual budget for the ISS runs about $3 billion per year. Roscosmos is funded annually to the tune of around $2.8 billion.

China and Russia estimate a lunar base would cost approximately $2 billion per year to maintain. Of that cost, roughly half would be transportation costs, with the remainder funding payloads and operations. Once the initial station is underway, additional funding from international and private partners is anticipated.

One essential technology still needed for building and operating a lunar station is inexpensive, reliable transportation to the orbit of our planetary companion — and, potentially, our new home.

This article was originally published on The Cosmic Companion by Chukwuemeka Aloysius Anigbogu, and James Maynard, founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat. You can read this original piece here.

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Could NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Telescope find 100,000 planets?

Due for launch in the mid-2020s, the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope is destined to become one of the great planet-hunting telescopes. Although the main mirror at the heart of the Roman Telescope is no larger than the one in the Hubble Space Telescope, the Roman mirror is just 25 percent as massive as its predecessor. With a wider field of view greater than Hubble, this next-generation telescope, formerly known as WFIRST, may discover 100,000 worlds orbiting other stars.

The Roman Telescope will study the sky in infrared wavelengths utilizing two methods to detect exoplanets. The first of these techniques, the transit method, measures dips of light seen from a star as a planet passes “in front of” its stellar parent as seen from Earth. The second method, gravitational microlensing, notes slight increases in light caused by the presence of an exoplanet.

Keep squinting, you’ll see it…

Hit the play button above for a look at how exoplanets are found using the transit method, in this video provided by NASA.

Most exoplanets discovered so far were found using the transit method. Regular, periodic dimming of a star is the easiest way to find planets, but it only works for systems where an exoplanet passes between the star and Earth.

Astronomers currently know of nearly 4,400 planets orbiting other stars. Of these, about 2,800 were discovered using the transit method by the Kepler spacecraft (which ended its mission in 2018).

The same technique is currently being utilized by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

Hit the play button above for a look at how gravitational microlensing can reveal the presence of distant exoplanets, in this video by NASA.

Gravitational microlensing, a brightening of light from a star, results when light from the star bends due to the gravitational forces of an exoplanet, in much the same way as light bends while passing through a convex lens in a telescope. This phenomenon was first predicted by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity.

“Microlensing events are rare and occur quickly, so you need to look at a lot of stars repeatedly and precisely measure brightness changes to detect them. Those are exactly the same things you need to do to find transiting planets, so by creating a robust microlensing survey, Roman will produce a nice transit survey as well,” said astrophysicist Benjamin Montet of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Nancy Grace Roman, for whom this telescope is named, was the first Chief of Astronomy in the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters and the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA. Seen here in 1962, she oversaw the development of both the Hubble and Cosmic Background Explorer programs.
Credit: NASA
Nancy Grace Roman, for whom this telescope is named, was the first Chief of Astronomy in the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters and the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA. Seen here in 1962, she oversaw the development of both the Hubble and Cosmic Background Explorer programs.

While the transit method works best for systems where the exoplanet orbits to its parent star (creating a larger “silhouette”), gravitational microlensing is most useful in systems where the planet orbits far from its star. Tomes of this data are already recorded, some of it hinting at unknown exoplanets, awaiting confirmation by researchers.

“The fact that we’ll be able to detect thousands of transiting planets just by looking at microlensing data that’s already been taken is exciting. It’s free science,” said Jennifer Yee, astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics, stated.

Both of these techniques are able to compliment one another, providing astronomers a means to verify data about exoplanets recorded from around alien stars.

Going rogue

The Nancy Grace Roman Telescope is likely to find rogue planets — worlds traveling through space, untethered to any star. These orphan planets are thought to range in size from small, rocky worlds smaller than Mars, up to gas giants similar to Jupiter and Saturn. Some of these may be accompanied by moons.

“Because of Hubble and other telescopes, we’ve now discovered that there are probably planets around every star, or virtually every star. There are solar systems around most stars. And the fact that we’re here on a planet, Earth, means that it’s likely there’s lots of other Earths out there” — John Grunsfeld, astronaut

Collisions and close encounters between planets in unstable solar systems might throw exoplanets free of the gravitational grip of their parent star. Others might form in interstellar space, never knowing the warm embrace of a stellar parent.

Even rouge planets, like those that might be found using the Roman Telescope, might be accompanied by moons, like this icy satellite pictured here, orbiting a planet larger than Neptune.
Credit: The Cosmic Companion / Created in Universe Sandbox
Even rouge planets, like those that might be found using the Roman Telescope, might be accompanied by moons, like this icy satellite pictured here, orbiting a planet larger than Neptune.

“The microlensing signal from a rogue planet only lasts between a few hours and a couple of days and then is gone forever. This makes them difficult to observe from Earth, even with multiple telescopes. Roman is a game-changer for rogue planet searches,” Matthew Penny, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, stated.

About three-quarters of the planets found by the Roman Telescope are likely to be gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, or ice giants similar to Uranus and Neptune.

A majority of smaller worlds are likely to be mini-Neptunes, possessing between four and eight times as much mass as Earth. Planets like this are known to be common in other planetary families, although none exist in our own solar system.

A fraction of worlds seen by Roman are likely to be found within the habitable, or Goldilocks, zone around their parent star, where temperatures are neither too hot, nor too cold, for water to pool on their surface. Gas giants could be the centers of their own systems of water-rich moons, like Europa and Enceladus, warmed by tidal forces and geochemical processes.

Your Father was a Roman?

One advantage of the Roman telescope is its wide field-of-view. Much like the way binoculars see more of the sky at one time than a telescope, this instrument is designed to see large swatches of sky with each observation.

The Nancy Grace Roman Telescope will be capable of taking image at a resolution equal to Hubble, but with a field-of-view 100 times greater than that instrument. Every day, it will gather 500 times more data than its counterpart.

Hit the play button above for a look at how the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope will compare to Hubble in clarity and field-of-view, in this video by L. Hustak (STScI) / Goddard Media Studios.

One challenge with the Roman Telescope is that this is such a revolutionary instrument, follow-up observations are exceptionally difficult — there is no other instrument capable of doing what the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope will do.

“The potential of [The Roman Telescope] to detect large numbers of transiting planets is complicated by the difficulty of directly confirming those planets by traditional methods. In general, because the host stars of [Roman]-detected transiting planets will be so faint, it will not be possible to conduct followup RV observations to confirm their masses and rule out false positives,” Yee and her team wrote in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 2017.

Located a million miles away from Earth, the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope will see far deeper into the Milky Way than previous missions, although just over a small patch of sky. This instrument will spend months staring at a single point in the sky, allowing it to find hundreds of unknown worlds using microlensing.

“The universe could be teeming with rogue planets and we wouldn’t even know it. We would never find out without undertaking a thorough, space-based microlensing survey like Roman is going to do,” explains Scott Gaudi, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University.

Stellar systems explored by Kepler averaged a distance of just 2,000 light years from Earth, seen within a square totaling 115 degrees square. The TESS Telescope observes nearly the entire sky, but only examines systems within 150 light years from Earth. The Roman Telescope will be capable of finding exoplanets as far as 26,000 light years from our home world.

Future astronomers will spend years or decades poring through data collected by The Nancy Grace Roman Telescope, in the search for worlds beyond our solar system.

This article was originally published on The Cosmic Companion by James Maynard, founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat. You can read this original piece here.

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X-rays out of Uranus make the ice planet look like an ’80s album cover

Far from the Sun, near the outer limits of our solar system, the ice giant Uranus slowly orbits its distant parent star. For the first time, astronomers have seen X-rays emanating from this distant world.

The Chandra X-ray observatory, launched in 1999, examines the Universe in X-rays, highly-energetic wavelengths of electromagnetic energy most commonly associated with diagnosing broken bones.

“NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is a telescope specially designed to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and matter around black holes. Because X-rays are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, Chandra must orbit above it, up to an altitude of 139,000 km (86,500 mi) in space,” NASA describes.

A new study of observations shows this world — literally — in a new light.

Seeing through the X-ray mystery

X-rays have been seen before, radiating from the gas giants of the solar system, Jupiter and Saturn. On those worlds, most X-ray emissions are the result of scattering of X-ray radiation from the Sun, while a percentage are generated in aurorae — similar to northern and southern lights.

A composite image of Uranus showing X-ray emissions
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXO/University College London/W. Dunn et al; Optical: W.M. Keck Observatory
A composite image of Uranus showing X-ray emissions

“Measuring the energy of the X-rays can tell us the elemental composition of Mercury’s surface. Jupiter’s and Saturn’s atmospheres scatter and reflect X-rays released by the Sun. Saturn’s rings also fluoresce and this is actually the brightest part of the planet when seen in X-rays. X-ray auroras have so far only been detected at Jupiter and the Earth,” Affelia Wibisono of University College London states.

Researchers studying data collected by the Chandra spacecraft in 2002 and 2017 found X-ray emissions centered on the ice planet Uranus. Analysis of the data suggests this display may result from the same conditions that drive displays on Jupiter and Saturn.

However — an intriguing possibility exists that a portion of this display has another cause.

Uranus is bathed in electrons and protons, filling space around the icy planet. One idea holds these charged particles might interact with material in the rings of Uranus, producing X-rays. A similar process is known to take place in the rings of Saturn.

Another possibility is that X-rays are produced in aurora at the poles of Uranus. These displays, the result of charged particles interacting with an atmosphere, are known to produce other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. On Earth, X-rays are produced in aurorae as charged particles, drawn to Earth by our planet’s magnetic field, are slowed as they pass through our atmosphere.

If either of these ideas are confirmed, the discovery of the nature of X-rays from Uranus could alter our understanding of this icy world.

Whose side are you on?

So far, just one spacecraft — Voyager 2 — has visited this distant icy world. Astronomers, therefore, rely on observatories (such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra) on and near the Earth to study this planetary target.

Unlike the other planets in our solar system, Uranus rotates on its side, although why it does so remains a mystery. This planet, like the Sun, is composed mainly of hydrogen and helium.

The magnetic fields of Uranus are tilted in relation to the axis on which the planet rotates, and this field is centered away from the middle of this icy globe. These conditions could create intricate displays of auroras at the poles of Uranus.

Analysis of the study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.

By learning more about the processes driving X-rays from Uranus, researchers hope to learn more about other X-ray sources including black holes and neutron stars.

This article was originally published on The Cosmic Companion by James Maynard, founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat. You can read this original piece here.

Read next: This Python and Django training can turn you into an in-demand developer for under $30

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Why haven’t we found extraterrestrial life? Maybe it’s hiding under layers of rock and ice

Water worlds are found in our own solar system, and life may hide among their layers of rock and ice, new studies suggest. Life may, one day, be found on worlds including Europa, Enceladus, Titan, Mars, and possibly even (Pluto).

Interior water ocean worlds (IWOWs) are common in our solar system, and similar planets and moons are likely to exist in other planetary systems, greatly expanding the possibility of alien life.

“As we now know, in our solar system, Earth is an uncommon type of water ocean world because its oceans are on its exterior. In contrast, an increasing number of worlds in our solar system have… shown… they likely contain interior water oceans. As a result, water ocean worlds are now thought to be common in our solar system… IWOWs appear to be particularly conducive to, and perhaps at an advantage for the development and maintenance of life,” Dr. Alan Stern, planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) writes in a letter from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2021.

Shields to Maximum!

The oceans of Titan, normally hidden an an eternal cloud layer, can be seen in this infrared composite image, seen by the Cassini spacecraft.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic/University of Nantes/Virginia Pasek/University of Arizona
The oceans of Titan, normally hidden an an eternal cloud layer, can be seen in this infrared composite image, seen by the Cassini spacecraft.

The search for extraterrestrial life is often confined to planets within the habitable zone surrounding stars — where temperatures are neither too hot, nor too cold for life to develop. However, water-rich moons like Jupiter’s moon Europa could greatly expand the number of worlds on which life might develop.

“Earth isn’t the only ocean world in our solar system. Water on other worlds exists in diverse forms on moons, dwarf planets, and even comets. Ice, water vapor in the atmosphere, and oceans on other worlds offer clues in the quest to discover life beyond our home planet,” NASA describes.

Each of the most intriguing targets in the search for life in the solar system offers unique challenges and resources for life to take hold.

Mars, the planet most-often associated with alien life, does not have large amounts of liquid water on the surface, although briny deposits can be found in small thimble-sized packets underground.

A look at how the same protective layer that might encourage life on ocean worlds could also make life there more difficult to detect.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute
A look at how the same protective layer that might encourage life on ocean worlds could also make life there more difficult to detect.

Europa is cold, but this massive moon of Jupiter is heated by tidal forces as it orbits its mighty parent. Titan has oceans of ethane and methane, and the thickest atmosphere, by far, of any moon in the solar system. What that could mean for the development of life there remains a mystery. On Earth, the ocean floor itself has recently been found to drive chemical reactions in primitive lifeforms.

Earth (deemed a EWOW, or external water ocean world) and the other terrestrial planets in our solar system have been the targets of bombardment from asteroids and comets, as well as harsh radiation which may have led to extinctions on Earth. However, water worlds could be shielded from these threats by thick encasements of ice and water.

“Interior water ocean worlds are better suited to provide many kinds of environmental stability, and are less likely to suffer threats to life from their own atmosphere, their star, their solar system, and the galaxy, than are worlds like Earth, which have their oceans on the outside,” Stern explains.

Olly Olly Planet Free!

One challenge in finding such life is that the same oceans and ice that protects life may also make it difficult for us to detect life. If life forms predominantly in the icy oceans of these worlds, Stern explains, it could help explain why we have not seen life yet on other worlds.
Given the laws of chemistry and physics, life should be common throughout the galaxy. This might help answer the Fermi paradox, which asks the question — if life is common, why have we not yet found lifeforms on other worlds? Stern believes the very water and ice that protects life on these worlds might prevent us from seeing evidence of its existence.

“All these worlds are yours, except Europa. Attempt no landings there. Use them together. Use them in peace.” — Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two

Hit the play button above to watch The Cosmic Companion’s interview with science writer David Brown, talking about the Europa Clipper mission.

The Ocean Worlds Exploration Program being developed by NASA aims to explore ocean worlds in our Solar System. This program seeks to explore and understand places like Europa and Titan, where mighty oceans might be teeming with life.

“Europa’s tidal energy may also allow the ocean to interact with rocks on Europa’s sea floor. Chemical reactions between water and rock could help provide not just the building blocks for life, but also the energy for life,” NASA writes on the Europa Clipper website.

The Europa Clipper aims to launch to Jupiter’s water moon in October 2024. If test flights of the Ingenuity rover on Mars are successful, the next interplanetary helicopter will (hopefully) fly on Saturn’s mighty moon, Titan.

Lessons learned from exploring the water worlds of our solar system — perhaps even finding life itself — will provide us tools and experience needed for the discovery of life around distant stars.

This article was originally published on The Cosmic Companion by James Maynard, founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat. You can read this original piece here.

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Mars missions could leave astronauts with severe psychological damage — new study

Human space missions to Mars are the next great leap in space exploration, with NASA targeting the 2030s as a reasonable time frame for taking the first humans there. But boarding on a journey to Mars is not like catching a flight to New York. Space is an extremely hostile environment for human life – from the lack of gravity and harmful radiation to isolation and the absence of night and day.

Deep space missions to Mars will be much more physically and mentally demanding than the journeys we’ve made so far during 60 years of human space exploration. A flight to Mars and back will last approximately 14 months, while the actual exploration mission will last at least three years. Sustained high levels of cognitive performance and effective teamwork are prerequisites for the safe and successful outcome of these missions.

But a new study, published in Frontiers of Physiology, has discovered that the lack of gravity on such missions could have a negative impact on astronauts’ cognitive skills and emotional understanding.

Since the first space missions, it has been clear that exposure to “microgravity” (weightlessness) leads to dramatic changes in the human body. This includes alterations in the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and neural systems. On Earth, we detect gravity with the help of our vision and various organs, including those inside the inner ear. When our head is upright, small stones in the ears – the vestibular otoliths – are balanced perfectly on a viscous fluid. But when we move the head, gravity makes the fluid move and this triggers a signal to the brain that our head has changed position. In spaceflight, this process no longer works.

Spaceflight can even adversely alter the anatomy of astronauts’ brains. Structural brain changes have been observed in astronauts after returning from the International Space Station (ISS). These include the brain physically moving upwards inside the skull and reduced connectivity between areas on the layer of the brain, the cortex, and those inside.

How these changes affect behavior is not yet fully understood, but scientists are making progress. We know that astronauts can suffer from disorientation, perceptual illusions, balance disorders, and motion sickness. But such findings are often based on small samples.

Simulating microgravity

The new NASA-supported study investigated the effects of microgravity on cognitive performance. But rather than sending their 24 study participants to space, they sent them to bed. That’s because the impact of a certain type of bed rest is analogous to the effects of microgravity – we use it a lot in research. When we are upright, our body and vestibular otoliths are in the same direction as gravity, while when we are lying down they are orthogonal (at right angles).

Image of a participant in the study.
Lying down for two months is harder than it sounds. DLR

The participants in the study, therefore, had to lay on their backs at an inclination of 6° angle, with the head lower than the body, for nearly two months without changing position. They were asked to regularly perform a series of cognitive tasks designed for astronauts and relevant to spaceflight in order to evaluate their spatial orientation, memory, risk-taking behavior, and emotional understanding of others.

Results showed a small but reliable slowing of cognitive speed in tasks involving sensory and motor skills. This seems to be coherent with reported changes in brain tissue density over the “sensorimotor cortices,” the primary sensory and motor areas of the brain which help process sensory inputs and movements, observed after spaceflight. Participants also had difficulty reading emotions when looking at people’s faces.

Adjusting to changes in gravity requires time and effort. While the performance on most cognitive tasks initially declined, after about 60 days they then remained unchanged over the course of the experiment. But the ability to recognize emotions continued to worsen. In fact, participants became biased towards negative emotions – they were more likely to identify other people’s facial expressions as angry and less likely to interpret them as happy or neutral.

This is an important finding. The ability of astronauts to be sharp and quick thinkers is crucial to a space mission. So is the capability to correctly “read” each other’s emotional expressions, given they have to spend a lot of time cooped up together in a small space. Space agencies should therefore consider adequate pre-flight psychological training as well as in-flight psychological support in order to minimize this risk.

Recent advancements and investment in rocket technology are ushering in a new and exciting age of space exploration. Microgravity can be profoundly unsettling and can compromise performance levels in many ways. With an eye towards deep-space human missions to Mars, it is a pressing research goal to get a better insight into how microgravity influences cognitive performance and emotional health, as well as develop appropriate medical and psychological support for spaceflight.The Conversation

This article by Elisa Raffaella Ferrè, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Mars rover captures mysterious ‘scratching noise’ during drive across the red planet

NASA’s Perseverance rover has captured a mysterious high-pitched scratching noise on the surface of Mars.

The sounds were recorded as the rover drove along the Jezero Crater, an area that scientists believe was once flooded with water and home to an ancient river delta.

In the clip, you can also hear a discordant mix of bangs, pings, and rattles, as Perservance’s six wheels roll over the rocky Martian terrain.

“If I heard these sounds driving my car, I’d pull over and call for a tow,” said NASA engineer Dave Gruel. “But if you take a minute to consider what you’re hearing and where it was recorded, it makes perfect sense.”

The cause of the peculiar screech, however, remains unknown.

Perseverance’s engineers suspect it was triggered by electromagnetic interference from the rover’s electronics boxes or interactions between the mobility system and the Martian terrain. The team says they’ll continue investigating the cause.

NASA released two separate recordings of Perseverance’s 90-foot drive on March 7.

The first version includes over 16 minutes of raw, unfiltered noises, generated by the rover’s wheels and suspension rolling along the surface, as well as the high-pitched scratching.

The second clip is a 90-second compilation of sounds from the journey, which were processed and edited for clarity.

They were recorded by Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) microphone during a 90-foot drive on March 7.

The off-the-shelf mic was added to the rover to let the public hear the sounds of its February 18 touchdown, but it remains operational today.

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A second microphone installed on Perseverance’s SuperCam instrument has also been sending sent sounds back to Earth.

They include recordings of the Martian wind sighing and a rapid ticking noise produced by the Supercam’s laser zapping rocks to understand their structure. Scientists will use the data to search for signs of microscopic life.

Vandi Verma, a NASA engineer and rover driver, said the audio alone offers insights about the red planet:

The variations between Earth and Mars – we have a feeling for that visually. But sound is a whole different dimension: to see the differences between Earth and Mars, and experience that environment more closely.

You can listen to all the recordings here. Let us know if you hear any signs of alien life.

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NASA spotted a snake-like exoplanet that shed and regrew its own atmosphere

The hellish world of GJ 1132 b, discovered in 2015, is only 60% more massive than Earth and is roughly the same age as our home planet. Even the atmospheric pressure at the surface is similar to that here on Earth.

However, this is where the similarities to our life-giving world come to an end. Unlike our own world, GJ 1132 b, found 41 light-years from Earth, is covered in a toxic cauldron of gases. Oddly, this may be the second atmosphere that has encompassed this world.

Utilizing the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers examined the atmosphere of this rocky planet. They found that GJ 1132 b was once, likely, covered in an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium.

“Starting out at several times the diameter of Earth, this so-called “sub-Neptune” is believed to have quickly lost its primordial hydrogen and helium atmosphere due to the intense radiation of the hot, young star it orbits. In a short period of time, such a planet would be stripped down to a bare core about the size of Earth. That’s when things got interesting,” NASA describes.

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An artist’s concept of how the world might look, as seen by the human eye. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Hurt (IPAC/Caltech)

This inhospitable world orbits its parent star, a red dwarf, once every 38 hours, at a distance roughly 70 times closer than the space between the Earth and Sun.

The atmosphere seen on GJ 1132 b today is a noxious blend of hydrogen, hydrogen cyanide, methane, and an aerosol haze similar to smog here on Earth. Hydrogen cyanide, sometimes called prussic acid, smells like bitter almonds and is highly toxic.

Data from Hubble, combined with computer modeling produces a likely history for this unwelcoming world. When the planet still retained its initial atmosphere, vast quantities of hydrogen were stored within the crust of the world. Following the loss of its gaseous cover, these reserves are now being released from underground through volcanic activity.

“Then the star cools down and the planet’s just sitting there. So you’ve got this mechanism where you can cook off the atmosphere in the first 100 million years, and then things settle down. And if you can regenerate the atmosphere, maybe you can keep it,” explains Mark Swain of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

A look at what we know — so far — about the exoplanet GJ 1132 b. (Video credit: NASA Goddard)

This exoplanet is tidally locked to its parent star, meaning one hemisphere of GJ 1132 b is constantly faced toward its sun, in the same side the Moon always faces Earth.

“Artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are supersensitive. They keel over like canaries in coal mines filled with poison gas, long before more robust types realize that any danger is there.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

The orbit GJ 1132 b takes around its star is highly elliptical, with significant differences between their closest and most-distant approaches. Gravitational forces flex the planet, producing heat, driving volcanoes, and the release of hydrogen from beneath the world, research suggests. A similar process is seen in our own solar system, as Jupiter’s moon Io undergoes gravitational interactions with the King of the Planets as well as its neighboring moons.

However, the crust of GJ 1132 b is thought to be extremely thin — only around 100 meters (a few hundred feet) thick. This would not support massive volcanoes as we see on Earth. Instead, magma would flow upward through a crust broken like a cracked hard-boiled egg.

The James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch on Halloween, may be able to spy beneath the clouds of GJ 1132 b, providing astronomers a first-hand look at geology on this hellish planet.

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This rare meteorite found on a driveway might hold the answer to our solar system’s origin

As people in the UK were settling down to watch the late evening news on February 28, a fresh news story, quite literally, appeared in the night sky. A large and very bright fireball was seen over southern England and northern France at 21:54 GMT. It was recorded by many doorbell webcams, so it was a very well-observed fireball. More importantly, it was also captured by the automated cameras of the UK Meteor Observation Network and similar networks.

Working with colleagues in France and Australia, the meteor-watchers worked out the fireball’s trajectory and determined where the meteorite pieces could be located, just north of Cheltenham in the UK. Based on their calculations, Ashley King, a specialist in meteorites at the Natural History Museum in London, made an appeal on local TV and radio stations for information about any unusual black rocks seen to have fallen from the sky.

Among the photographs he received, there was one that caught his attention: a small mound of dust and pebbles on a driveway in the small village of Winchcombe. King asked Open University researcher Richard Greenwood (who lived closest) to check out the sample. Greenwood was overwhelmed to find that not only was it a meteorite, but it was also a very rare species. The UK had got lucky – we had a new member to add to our meteorite collection.

Image of the main mass of the meteorite on the driveway where it fell.
The main mass of the meteorite on the driveway where it fell. Owner of the driveway, Author provided

Over the following four days, specialist researchers from several UK institutions formed teams to systematically search the countryside surrounding Winchcombe. The results of their labors are several stones weighing around 500g, plus a lot of dust and fragments. The specimens are now at the Natural History Museum.

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Precious rocks

Why is this such a big deal? Meteorites are divided into two main groups: primitive and processed. The primitive ones come from the solar nebula that gave birth to the Solar System, preserving the composition of this original material. In contrast, processed samples have been altered by heat. They are from larger bodies and contain information about planetary surfaces and interiors.

Image of a meteorite piece weighing about 4g.
Meteorite piece weighing about 4g. Natural History Museum, Author provided

The stones that fell over Winchcombe are from the former group – and not only that, they are of a sub-category, known as carbonaceous chondrites – the most pristine (or unchanged) of all meteorites, carrying records of the earliest stages of Solar System history. They are rich in organic compounds: the molecules that form the building blocks of life. They also contain tiny specs of dust from stars that have died and are older than the Sun.

Some newfound rocks are almost completely black and featureless, while others are dark gray with irregular, pale patches. Clearly, it is a complex meteorite, possibly one that has come from the surface of an asteroid where several different bits of asteroid have got mixed up during collisions.

And here is where things become a little ironic: scientists are currently collecting samples from two asteroids in space. About five grams of material collected by the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission from asteroid Ryugu arrived safely in December 2020. Nasa’s Osiris-Rex mission is on its return trip from asteroid Bennu carrying around 200g of material that will arrive in September 2023. These missions cost a lot of money, but could help unveil the secrets of the origins of life and the Solar System. And then just out of nowhere, almost 500g of rock from an asteroid, that is possibly very similar to Ryugu and Bennu, falls over part of England.

Next steps

Meteoriticists in the UK will now analyze the material, practically on a grain-by-grain basis. Things must happen in a sequence – there are time-sensitive measurements that have to be carried out within the first month or so of a fresh fall. Meteorites are not radioactive – they don’t emit harmful radiation – but they do contain elements that are unstable and fall apart. And if we can measure the amounts of the elements that decay very quickly, then we can get valuable information.

We must also take a good look at the organic compounds in the meteorite – there is always in danger of contamination from Earth. So the quicker we can analyze its organics, the better. The more we can understand about these materials in meteorites, the more we can piece together the chemistry that led to life on Earth. This can give an idea of how widespread that chemistry might be (or have been) in the Solar System – and even the universe.

Searching for a meteorite in a small village and its surrounding fields is not usually hazardous and requires little in the way of risk assessment: ask permission of the owners to access their land, observe the country code, remember to close gates, and don’t tread in anything soft. But in the time of a pandemic, everything changes.

The UK government currently forbids citizens from traveling far from home, unless the travel is essential. Was it essential for a group of meteoriticists to travel to Winchcombe? Yes, it was. Each had completed fieldwork risk assessments and received permission to travel from their institutions. They were scrupulous about wearing masks and keeping a 2m distance when talking to locals.

Image of one of the larger stones, about 5cm long.
One of the larger stones, about 5cm long. Its crust is the remainder of the surface that got heated as the meteorite came through the atmosphere. Richard Greenwood, The Open University, Author provided

I would have loved to have been involved in the search – although my colleague Sara Russell told me that cleaning the owner’s driveway with a toothbrush palled after the first hour. My arthritic knees would not have coped with that. But I was back at base, doing something just as important: putting machinery in motion to get the risk-assessment paperwork for Greenwood sorted. And, as a reward, I got to see the first close-up photographs of our new family member, dubbed “Winchcombe.” It may look a bit like a broken barbecue briquette, but to me, it is absolutely beautiful.The Conversation

This article by Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences, The Open University is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Star wars: France conducts first military drills in space

France today began the first-ever military training drills conducted in space. Begun, the star wars era has.

Working with US Space Force and German space command, the French training drills were designed in response to the shifting global attitude towards space.

According to French news outlet AFP, via Phys.Org, France’s Space Command was announced in 2019. Defense minister Florence Parly told reporters at the time that France needed to act because its “allies and adversaries” were “militarizing space.”

Background: The creation of the US’ Space Force amped up world tension – or, more aptly, it amped up off-world tensions. But it’s likely that alleged attempts by Russian agents to engage in satellite-vs-satellite espionage played a large role as well.

As for the current training program, details are scarce but reports indicate the intent of the drills will be to simulate a crisis situation involving French satellites and ensure Space Command is ready to respond.

While it’s unclear, we’re going to go ahead and assume there won’t be any French soldiers floating above the Earth with space rifles. That might make this a bit anticlimactic for science fiction fans, but the reality is that humanity’s penchant for warfare is no longer constrained to the rock from which we spawned.

Here’s hoping the rest of the universe is ready for us.

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