Finding Extraterrestrial Life on Europa

Jupiter Europa

Earlier this week, we learned during a NASA press conference that scientists have discovered huge active plumes containing water vapor being released from the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. This sensational find was made using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Joachim Saur, professor at the Institute for Geophysics and Meteorology of the University of Cologne was principal investigator of the Hubble observing campaign. Read More →

Are Rocks the Key to Finding Extraterrestrial Life?

While scientists like to bandy origin of life theories around, they seldom make the connection to astrobiological research. These theories, however, have a lot to suggest about how life may have developed on other worlds. According to recent studies, low-density vesicular volcanic rock material like pumice might have acted as something like a natural laboratory for chemical reactants that produced the so-called primordial soup. Early geological records show that pumice clasts were abundant in the approximate 3,460 Ma era period.

Samples collected from the Pilbara region in Western Australia exhibit signs of carbon. Traces of titanium oxide and iron sulfide were also found in the samples. Both of these are catalysts for certain reactions that suggest basic life processes. Other researchers have pointed to aluminosilicate minerals in the geological samples, which might be some sort of remains left by prokaryote life forms. Early prokaryotes might have colonized the clasts before they were buried, and therefore what scientists are currently examining are modified forms of what would have otherwise been regular rocks.

In any case, these are some of the earliest examples of life forms currently known to researchers. By examining these samples, it’s somewhat same to assume that a profile can be put together of what substances to look for when searching for remnants of life in astronomical materials. Asteroids are probably what have been covered the most in these studies, but they aren’t the only places to search. If a meteorite were to strike Earth that resembles these clasts, it would pretty exciting nevertheless.

When taking soil samples from other planets, researchers haven’t always been sure what they’re looking for. The Viking probes on Mars attempted to incubate microbes, and this proved relatively fruitless. However, future missions could instead try to locate geological samples that resemble those collected from the Pilbara region. There are plenty of samples in laboratory storage facilities anyway, and these could be examined without any real problems if permission could be granted to scientists.

That’s assuming that evolution takes an identical path on every planet. While some people might suggest this is a shortsighted way to look at the problem, it does have the benefit of making the fewest assumptions. Either way, there’s no reason not to take a look at existing rock samples to see if they match any of these chemical configurations. There’s little risk, and the benefit for a pretty impressive reward if successful.

Reference:

Martin D. Brasiera, Richard Matthewmana, Sean McMahonb, Matt R. Kilburnc, & David Wacey (2013). Pumice from the ∼3460 Ma Apex Basalt, Western Australia: A natural laboratory for the early biosphere Precambrian Research, 224, 1-10 : 10.1016/j.precamres.2012.09.008

ResearchBlogging.org

Searching for Extraterrestrial Microbes

Locating thermophiles in other parts of the universe could very well aid in the search for extraterrestrial life. Most people have agreed that if life is found among the stars, it will be microbial (at least in the near-term future). Many individuals have also suggested that intelligent life forms might very well be extinct in other parts of the universe. If scientists could locate thermophile microbes, they could piece together an archaeological picture of once powerful civilizations.

Taiwan is well known for its hot springs. Most tourists that visit the island end up visiting at least one. Many people like to take relaxing baths in them. Hot springs can be great for people with arthritis. New research is proving that they can also be a great place to find astrobiological data.

Photosynthetic thermophiles that live in hot springs may potentially be removing significant amounts of industrially produced carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They’ve thrived because of fundamental changes to the atmosphere caused by humanity. In fact, there are some scientists who feel that these microbes could play a vital role in regulating the planet’s climate. That role might become increasingly important in the future.

Planets that were once inhabited by industrially developed civilizations that have since passed might be teeming with life similar to these. If a planet was sufficiently changed by another race of beings, it could have ultimately favored the development of these tiny beings. They could indicate that intelligent lifeforms once inhabited a planet, and that planet could be different today than it was in the past.

While discovering a planet full of microbes would be initially interesting, in the future it could be a relatively common occurrence. Therefore, news services of the future might very well pass by such stories after a few weeks – much like they do today with the discovery of new exoplanets. Finding sufficient numbers of photosynthetic thermophiles would be telling about the history of a world, but it would also require a great deal of geological activity. Then again, there’s nothing to say that other civilizations wouldn’t also have the ability to increase the amount of geological activity on other planets. They might even do it on purpose, as a way of terraforming for instance.

For that matter, humans might want to give that a try. Venus is superheated because of thermal runaway as a result of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If water were transported to that very hot world, colonists could use the resulting geysers to grow bacteria that would absorb the atmospheric gas.

Reference:
Leu, J., Lin, T., Selvamani, M., Chen, H., Liang, J., & Pan, K. (2012). Characterization of a novel thermophilic cyanobacterial strain from Taian hot springs in Taiwan for high CO2 mitigation and C-phycocyanin extraction Process Biochemistry DOI: 10.1016/j.procbio.2012.09.019

ResearchBlogging.org

Carbon Cycles in Extraterrestrial Atmospheres

A great deal of time is spent discussing the carbon cycle and what it means for the Earth’s climate. It seems that scientific journalists are very focused on issues surrounding the absorption of carbon. However, comparatively few people discuss what these theories could mean when applied to space exploration. Venus, for instance, lacks a natural carbon cycle. It currently lacks oceans, which means that no great carbon sink absorbs anything. There’s no biomass to take in gas either.

That doesn’t mean that humans couldn’t create one. Forests and reefs could be constructed over a long period of time to terraform the planet. While it would take decades, its not as unrealistic as one might think. Likewise, Mars could actually stand to benefit from the greenhouse effect.

As climatologists learn more about the Earth, they develop models that can be used to develop other planets. Nearly any terrestrial object in our solar system that has an atmosphere could be reshaped and used as a cradle for whatever life forms were deposited on it. Policymakers had better be sure that life doesn’t exist on a rock before attempting such a procedure, however. It’s better to be safe than sorry in that situation.

Are Invisible Extraterrestrials Out There?

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox Films

I recently watched The Darkest Hour, a film about invisible aliens that invade and terrorize Earth. While the movie itself leaves much to be desired, the concept of invisible aliens is one that I find noteworthy. As we search for alien lifeforms, could we be missing them due to their invisibility?

While invisibility has been a frequent theme in science fiction, often presented with a feeling of artificiality, nature has actually perfected it a number of times. The Darkest Hour reminded me that  “invisible” animals, those that are comprised to a large degree of Read More →

SETI Live to Crowdsource Search for Extraterrestrials

As part of the TED Prize Wish made by renowned astronomer Jill Tarter, the TED Prize today launches SETI Live (setilive.org): a site where – for the first time – the public can view data being collected by radio telescopes and collectively help search for intelligent life on other planets. Read More →

The Extraterrestrial Debate Rages On

Sigh…another day, another research paper trying to convince the world that we are alone in the universe…

I came across a post last night on The Daily Galaxy discussing a paper that was published last summer by David Spiegel with Princeton University and Edwin Turner with the University of Tokyo entitled, Bayesian analysis of the astrobiological implications of life’s early emergence on Earth.

PDF Download HERE.

Jeez, where to begin? Read More →

Did Life Originate in the Earth’s Crust?

Early Earth

This, at least, is what the geologist Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schreiber and the physico-chemist Prof. Dr. Christian Mayer of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany are convinced of. “It is the first model on the origin of life which includes a complete process leading from inorganic chemistry to a protocell where the problems of molecule formation, local concentration, driving force and membrane formation are being solved simultaneously” Prof. Mayer from the faculty of Chemistry says. Read More →

Plasma Crystal Experiment Concludes Aboard ISS

The technology for producing cold plasma is now also used for medical purposes. In the world's first clinical trial, the participating scientists and doctors were able to demonstrate that the plasma not only kills germs, but shows wound-healing effects as well. © MPE

The technology for producing cold plasma is now also used for medical purposes. In the world’s first clinical trial, the participating scientists and doctors were able to demonstrate that the plasma not only kills germs, but shows wound-healing effects as well. © MPE

For seven years it delivered outstanding results for science and technology on the International Space Station, now the successful plasma crystal laboratory PK-3 Plus operated one last time. After undocking from the International Space Station the ESA Einstein transporter with the laboratory on board entered the Earth’s atmosphere beginning of November and burned up – and PK-3 Plus produced its last plasma, a hot one. In June the operational phase of PK-3 Plus ended with a last series of experiments and with a spectacular finish; the scientists will still need some time to analyse these data. Read More →

One with the Cosmos: NASA App Review

NASA_App_02

Photo courtesy of NASA via Geek.com

The human collective interest of the final frontier has never reached such high levels today. With news of a successful Mars landing to open applications and marketing campaigns to become astronauts,  we feel like space is inching its way towards the palm of our hands. It may sound a little bit hypothetical, but in this age of smartphones and portable technology, it is very literal. Read More →