To Europa! NASA announces science instruments for new mission to ocean moon

The cracked icy surface of Europa. Could the ocean below support life? The Europa Clipper mission will try to answer that question. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk
The cracked icy surface of Europa. Could the ocean below support life? The Europa Clipper mission will try to answer that question. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

An exciting new development in planetary exploration was announced yesterday: NASA has chosen the science instruments which will be included in a new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. For those advocating and supporting such a mission, this is welcome news indeed. Europa’s subsurface ocean has become a prime target in the search for possible life elsewhere in the Solar System, and this mission may finally help to answer long-standing questions about this fascinating moon.

Continue reading →

‘Ocean Worlds Exploration Program': new budget proposal calls for missions to Europa, Enceladus and Titan

Artist’s conception of Europa’s interior, with water rising through cracks in the surface, depositing salts similar to sea salt on Earth. The ocean below may be a habitable environment for some kind of life. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of Europa’s interior, with water rising through cracks in the surface, depositing salts similar to sea salt on Earth. The ocean below may be a habitable environment for some kind of life. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The exploration of the outer Solar System has revealed a plethora of amazing worlds, the likes of which were little known or even unheard of just a decade ago. Among the most remarkable and tantalizing discoveries are the “ocean moons” such as Europa and Enceladus, which have oceans or seas of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. Other moons like Titan, Ganymede, and Callisto may also have them, and even some asteroids. Titan also has seas and lakes of liquid methane/ethane on its surface. With all that water, these small worlds have become a primary focus in the search for possible life elsewhere in the Solar System. Now, a new NASA budget proposal wants to take that a step further and fund new missions to these watery moons.

Continue reading →

Researchers develop new technique to search for chemical evidence of life on Mars

YouTube Preview Image

Despite decades of searching, definitive evidence for life on Mars, past or present, has still remained elusive and controversial. Confirmation of such a finding would need to be thoroughly tested and documented, and now researchers at the University of Kansas have developed a new technique that they hope would help to do just that, should that evidence be found by future rovers or landers.

Continue reading →

Dark material in fractures on Europa’s surface is sea salt, new research suggests

The darker-colored material within the fractures and elsewhere on Europa’s surface might be sea salt brought up from the ocean below. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk
The darker-coloured material within the fractures and elsewhere on Europa’s surface might be sea salt brought up from the ocean below. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

For over a decade, scientists have been curious about the long fractures on Europa’s icy surface and the darker-coloured material they contain, as well as other relatively young geological features which are also coated with the mystery dark stuff. Now, researchers have come up with an explanation which not only provides an answer, but suggests that the moon’s subsurface ocean is able to interact with the surface as well as the rocky interior: the dark material is sea salt. Plus, a proposed squid-like robotic probe might actually explore that alien salty ocean one day…

Continue reading →

Enceladus’ water geysers may be ‘curtain eruptions’ according to new study

The water vapor jets on Enceladus are now thought to mostly be more like diffuse “curtains” rather than separate plumes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/PSI
The water vapour jets on Enceladus are now thought to mostly be more like diffuse “curtains” rather than separate plumes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/PSI

The water vapour geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus are one of the most fascinating phenomena in the Solar System; the jets spray far out into space in a dazzling display unseen anywhere else. Known to emanate from the “tiger stripe” fissures at the south pole, they were thought to be separate, distinct plumes erupting from the surface, but now scientists think that they might actually be mostly broader, more diffuse “curtains” of spray along the length of the fissures.

Continue reading →

Discovery of salty aquifer beneath Antarctica may have implications for life on Mars

The SkyTEM sensor suspended beneath a helicopter over Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica. Photo Credit: L. Jansan
The SkyTEM sensor suspended beneath a helicopter over Blood Falls and the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica. Photo Credit: L. Jansan

Scientists have discovered a vast network of salty aquifers beneath the surface of Antarctica, thanks to an airborne imaging system used there for the first time. The finding may have interesting implications for the search for life elsewhere, such as Mars, since it is known that, at least on Earth, a large variety of microscopic life forms can thrive in those kinds of environments.

Continue reading →

New NASA NExSS coalition to lead search for life on distant exoplanets

NASA’s NExSS collaboration will bring together scientists from diverse backgrounds to help search for evidence of life in other Solar Systems. Image Credit: NASA
NASA’s NExSS collaboration will bring together scientists from diverse backgrounds to help search for evidence of life in other Solar Systems. Image Credit: NASA

The search for, and discovery of, exoplanets orbiting other stars has become a full-fledged endeavour in recent years, with thousands found so far and more being discovered practically every week. Now, NASA wants to take it a big step further by establishing a coalition of research groups and disciplines tasked specifically with this purpose.

Continue reading →

‘Old Earths': the search for ancient and habitable (but dying) exoplanets

Illustration depicting the life cycle of Sun-like stars. Billions of years from now, our own Sun will expand into a red giant star, scorching any life that exists. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Illustration depicting the life cycle of Sun-like stars. Billions of years from now, our own Sun will expand into a red giant star, scorching any life that exists. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Researchers at Cornell University are taking a new approach to the search for alien life: looking for habitable planets older than Earth, “old Earth analogues,” which may be nearing the end of their habitable lifetimes. Astronomers would search for biosignatures from worlds much older than Earth, where lifeforms are dying off due to circumstances such as the planet’s star expanding in its old age, gradually heating the planet to a point where life is no longer possible.

Continue reading →

Curiosity rover finds more evidence for possible liquid water brines on Mars

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) on the Curiosity rover, used to make the brine calculations. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) on the Curiosity rover, used to make the brine calculations. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The search for liquid water on Mars is one that has been on-going for decades. It can’t exist for long on the surface, as it will quickly sublimate into the cold, thin atmosphere. Aquifers deep below the surface are still possible, but there is also another tantalizing possibility which scientists have been considering: brines. Such salty liquid water could theoretically last a bit longer on the surface or in the near-subsurface, and now the Curiosity rover has provided more evidence that this may indeed be happening at its location in Gale Crater, as well as elsewhere.

Continue reading →

Scientists create colour-based catalogue of Earthly life forms to help search for alien biology

A hypothetical rendering of colorful plant life on a habitable exoplanet. Although most such alien life, if it exists, found with this technique may be microscopic, it illustrates how analysis of color could help scientists learn more about the physical nature of alien biology. Image Credit: NASA/Caltech/Doug Cummings
A hypothetical rendering of colourful plant life on a habitable exoplanet. Although most such alien life, if it exists, found with this technique may be microscopic, it illustrates how analysis of colour could help scientists learn more about the physical nature of alien biology. Image Credit: NASA/Caltech/Doug Cummings

With exoplanets now being discovered by the thousands, and estimated to be in the billions in our galaxy alone, attention is naturally turning to how astronomers might be able to search for evidence of life on any of those far-away worlds. Now, a team of scientists is taking a novel approach to doing just that, by creating a colourful catalogue of reflection signatures of various life forms on Earth. The new database and research was just published in the March 16 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Continue reading →