Category Archives: Astrobiology

Hot ‘super-Earths’ provide clues to water in exoplanet atmospheres

Artist’s conception of super-Earth 55 Cancri e, one of the few exoplanets so far which astronomers are able to study the atmosphere of. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s conception of super-Earth 55 Cancri e, one of the few exoplanets so far which astronomers are able to study the atmosphere of. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some of the most interesting exoplanets discovered so far are the “super-Earths,” rocky worlds which are significantly larger and more massive than Earth but still smaller than the ice giants such as Uranus or Neptune. Since they are not present in our own Solar System, their existence elsewhere can provide valuable information about planetary formation processes around other stars. One of the most significant aspects of this is the detection of water vapor in the atmospheres of these or other exoplanets, as this can help astronomers determine which super-Earths, or other exoplanets, may also have liquid water and be potentially habitable.

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Image Gallery: Europa redux

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Europa. Click for larger version. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

NASA just released this new version of probably the most well-known image of Jupiter’s moon Europa. First taken in the late 1990s by the Galileo spacecraft, this version has been enhanced by more current imaging techniques, with more accurate colours. The cracked icy surface hides a deep global ocean of water, making Europa a prime target in the search for life elsewhere.

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Plate tectonics may increase chances for life on Europa

Europa, with its subsurface ocean, and now evidence for plate tectonics, is a primary goal of exploration in the search for alien life. Processed image copyright: Ted Stryk. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ted Stryk

Europa, with its subsurface ocean, and now evidence for plate tectonics, is a primary goal of exploration in the search for alien life. Processed image copyright: Ted Stryk. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ted Stryk

Jupiter’s moon Europa is a fascinating little world, but particularly so for one reason: water. It’s deep alien ocean underneath the surface ice is reminiscent of our own planet, and since our oceans and seas are teeming with life, even beneath the ice at the poles, could Europa’s ocean also harbor life of some kind? Now, another discovery shows that Europa may be similar to Earth in yet another way, and one that could bolster the chances of life even more: plate tectonics. The new results were just published in Nature Geoscience on Sep. 7, 2014.

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Taking aim with ExoLance: a new way to search for life on Mars

“Got Life?” - the ExoLance logo. Image Credit: Explore Mars

“Got Life?” – the ExoLance logo. Image Credit: Explore Mars

Is or was there life on Mars? That is one of the biggest and most hotly debated questions in planetary science. The manner in which the evidence has been searched for is also a topic of much discussion. The Viking landers in the 1970s were the first to look for direct evidence for microbial life still existing in the Martian soil, and the results are still regarded as inconclusive, with both pro and con supporters debating whether the landers actually found living microbes or just unusual soil chemistry. Subsequent lander and rover missions have focused more on determining whether conditions in Mars’ ancient past were habitable and able to support life as we know it, rather than searching directly for evidence of past or present life itself.

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Bacteria discovered in lake of oil: implications for extraterrestrial life?

Pitch Lake in Trinidad, where life has been found inside water droplets within the oil deposits. Credit: Martina Jackson/Wikimedia Commons

Pitch Lake in Trinidad, where life has been found inside water droplets within the oil deposits. Credit: Martina Jackson/Wikimedia Commons

A recent discovery by scientists may have implications for possible extraterrestrial life: Bacteria have been found thriving in a lake of oil in Trinidad, again showing how life can exist in even the most inhospitable conditions on Earth. The discovery brings to mind the similar environment on Saturn’s moon Titan, where lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons (methane/ethane) exist at the moon’s poles.

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Behold Enceladus: Cassini maps 101 geysers on tiny Saturn moon

The geysers at the south pole of Enceladus, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The geysers at the south pole of Enceladus, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is already known as one of the most intriguing places in our solar system, and now new findings from the Cassini spacecraft have been published, which will only add to our fascination with this little world.

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Gliese 832c: astronomers discover another nearby potentially habitable exoplanet

Artist’s conception of Gliese 832c. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo/NASA Hubble/Stellarium

Artist’s conception of Gliese 832c. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo/NASA Hubble/Stellarium

As the number of exoplanets discovered continues to grow exponentially, the number of potentially habitable worlds out there continues to increase as well. Astronomers have now reported finding another one of the nearest known of these kinds of planets so far, Gliese 832c.

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Kapteyn b: a very old and potentially habitable exoplanet

Artist's conception of Kapteyn b. Credit:PHL @ UPR Arecibo/Aladin Sky Atlas

Artist’s conception of Kapteyn b. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo/Aladin Sky Atlas

Astronomers have discovered the oldest known (so far) exoplanet which might be capable of supporting life; the planet, Kapteyn b, is likely more than twice the age of the Earth. The planet was found by an international team of astronomers, led by Guillem Anglada-Escude from Queen Mary University.

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New technique could help find exomoons orbiting distant planets

Artist's conception of exomoons orbiting an alien gas giant planet. Some exomoons, like the largest one shown here, may even be Earth-like in some ways or at least habitable. Credit: NASA

Artist’s conception of exomoons orbiting an alien gas giant planet. Some exomoons, like the largest one shown here, may even be Earth-like in some ways or at least habitable. Credit: NASA

Exoplanets orbiting distant stars are now being discovered in the thousands, with a new discovery made almost every week now. But what about exomoons? In our own solar system, moons far outnumber planets, so it should be considered likely that many of those other planets out there would also have moons. The problem is size; moons tend to be much smaller than planets in most cases, so detecting them orbiting such far away worlds is very difficult. Thankfully, however, technology is now at the point where just such detections should begin to be possible. A new technique how now been proposed that could allow astronomers to bring exomoons from theoretical concepts to reality.

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Solar system’s largest moon Ganymede may have ‘club sandwich’ oceans

Illustration depicting the “club sandwich” layers of oceans and ice in Ganymede’s interior. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Illustration depicting the “club sandwich” layers of oceans and ice in Ganymede’s interior. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Europa and Enceladus, for good reason, have captured the attention and imagination of those searching for evidence of life elsewhere in our Solar System. Both moons are now thought to have subsurface oceans with conditions where life could possibly exist, as well as Jupiter’s moon Callisto. Saturn’s largest moon Titan may also have an ocean beneath its extremely cold surface of rock-hard ice and liquid methane seas and lakes. There is another moon with evidence for a similar ocean as well, Ganymede, but until now this ocean has been considered less likely to be able to support life. New findings, however, are now causing scientists to re-evaluate this possibility.

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