Category Archives: Astrobiology

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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Big discovery: first Earth-sized exoplanet in the habitable zone of another star

Artist’s conception of Kepler-186f in orbit around its red dwarf star. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s conception of Kepler-186f in orbit around its red dwarf star. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Today was another big day for those interested in space exploration, and the search for other Earth-like alien worlds in particular – the first Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting another star in the habitable zone has been discovered, it was announced by astronomers with the Kepler space telescope mission.

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The sea of Enceladus: Cassini confirms underground ocean on Saturn’s geyser moon

Diagram of what the interior of Enceladus is now thought to look like, with the icy outer shell, liquid water ocean, and inner rocky core. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Diagram of what the interior of Enceladus is now thought to look like, with the icy outer shell, liquid water ocean, and inner rocky core. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Coming just after the news of the ringed asteroid and new dwarf planet, some more exciting news from the outer Solar System was announced last Thursday, and this will be of particular interest to those hoping to find evidence of alien life elsewhere in our solar system. Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus, famous for its geysers of water vapour spewing out into space, has long been suspected of harboring an internal ocean, just like Jupiter’s moon Europa (and possibly others). Now it seems that scientists have the evidence they’ve been looking for, thanks to new findings based on data returned by the Cassini spacecraft, still in orbit around Saturn.

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Europa or bust: possible mission to icy moon in fy 2015 budget proposal

Europa peeking out from Jupiter's limb, as seen by Voyager 2 on July 3, 1979. Credit: NASA / JPL / Daniel Macháček

Europa peeking out from Jupiter’s limb, as seen by Voyager 2 on July 3, 1979. Credit: NASA / JPL / Daniel Macháček

For scientists and space enthusiasts who have been advocating a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, there was some good news this week from NASA. A mission to Europa has been officially included in the NASA 2015 Budget request. The inclusion is a reason for cautious optimism; while naming it as a target for a future robotic mission in the 2020s, NASA also wants to do that mission as cheaply as possible. Given the current economic climate, that may not be surprising, but what would reduced cost mean in terms of science?

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