Are We Alone in the Universe? NASA Calls for New Framework

TRAPPIST-1 f super Earth exoplanet (Credit: NASA)

by Elizabeth Landau
NASA Headquarters

How do we understand the significance of new scientific results related to the search for life? When would we be able to say, “yes, extraterrestrial life has been found?” 

NASA scientists are encouraging the scientific community to establish a new framework that provides context for findings related to the search for life. Writing in the journal Nature, they propose creating a scale for evaluating and combining different lines of evidence that would  ultimately lead to answering the ultimate question: Are we alone in the universe?   

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Probing for Life in the Icy Crusts of Ocean Worlds

During 2019 field tests near Greenland’s Summit Station, a high-elevation remote observing station, the WATSON instrument is put through its paces to seek out signs of life, or biosignatures, 360 feet (110 meters) down a borehole. The winch that holds the drill pokes out the top of the drill tent. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A technique for scanning Mars rocks for microscopic fossils of ancient life is also being developed to hunt for microbes in the deep ice of Enceladus, Titan, and Europa.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Long before NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, one of its highest-level mission goals was already established: to seek out signs of ancient life on the Martian surface. In fact, the techniques used by one of the science instruments  aboard the rover could have applications on Saturn’s moons  Enceladus and Titan as well Jupiter’s moon Europa.

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SwRI Researcher Theorizes Worlds with Underground Oceans May be More Conducive to Life than Worlds with Surface Oceans like Earth

Interior water ocean worlds like Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, are prevalent throughout the universe. New research from Southwest Research Institute suggests that layers of rock and ice may shield life within such oceans, protecting it from impacts, radiation and other hazards and concealing it from detection. Layers of rock and ice may therefore shield and protect life residing in them, and also sequester them from threats and detection. (Credits: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, March 16, 2021 (Southwest Research Institute PR) — One of the most profound discoveries in planetary science over the past 25 years is that worlds with oceans beneath layers of rock and ice are common in our solar system. Such worlds include the icy satellites of the giant planets, like Europa, Titan and Enceladus, and distant planets like Pluto.

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Returning a Sample From Titan Using In-Situ Propellants

Visualization of sample return launch from Titan. (Credits: Steven Oleson)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase I Award
Funding: up to $125,000
Study Period: 9 months

A Titan Sample Return Using In-Situ Propellants
Steven Oleson
NASA Glenn Research Center
Cleveland, Ohio

A Titan Sample Return Using In-Situ Propellants is a proposed Titan sample return mission using in-situ volatile propellants available on its surface. This approach for Titan is very different from all conventional in-situ resource utilization concepts, and will accomplish a return of great science value toward planetary science, astrobiology, and understanding the origin of life, that is an order of magnitude more difficult (in distance and ∆V) than other sample return missions.

2021 Phase I Selections

About NIAC

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs — radically better or entirely new aerospace concepts — while engaging America’s innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey.

The program seeks innovations from diverse and non-traditional sources and NIAC projects study innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts that could one day “change the possible” in aerospace. If you’re interested in submitting a proposal to NIAC, please see our “Apply to NIAC” link (https://www.nasa.gov/content/apply-to-niac) for information about the status of our current NASA Research Announcement (NRA). For descriptions of current NIAC projects, please refer to our ”NIAC Studies” link (https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/NIAC_funded_studies.html).

To find out more, see nasa.gov/niac or contact us at hq-niac@mail.nasa.gov.

NASA Issues RFI for Europa Clipper Launch

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit; NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In a blow to Space Launch System (SLS) backers, NASA has issued a request for information (RFI) for the October 2024 launch of the Europa Clipper orbiter that will search for signs of life on Jupiter’s enigmatic, ice-covered moon Europa.

It’s a clear sign that NASA is seeking commercial alternatives to launching the spacecraft on SLS. Congress had previously mandated by law that Europa Clipper’s orbiter and a follow-up lander be launched on the massive rocket. However, the most recent spending law stipulated that NASA should use SLS if one is available.

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7 Things to Know About the NASA Rover About to Land on Mars

In a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers observed the first driving test for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover on Dec. 17, 2019. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — With only about 50 million miles (80 million kilometers) left to go in its 293-million-mile (471-million-kilometer) journey, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is nearing its new planetary home. The spacecraft has begun its approach to the Red Planet and in 43 days, on Feb. 18, 2021, Perseverance will blaze through Mars’ atmosphere at about 12,100 mph (19,500 kph), touching down gently on the surface about seven minutes later.

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SwRI Models Point to a Potentially Diverse Metabolic Menu at Enceladus

This figure illustrates a cross-section of Enceladus, showing a summary of the processes SwRI scientists modeled in the Saturn moon. Oxidants produced in the surface ice when water molecules are broken apart by radiation can combine with reductants produced by hydrothermal activity and other water-rock reactions, creating an energy source for potential life in the ocean. (Credit: SwRI)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (SwRI PR) — Using data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, scientists at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) modeled chemical processes in the subsurface ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The studies indicate the possibility that a varied metabolic menu could support a potentially diverse microbial community in the liquid water ocean beneath the moon’s icy facade.

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Space Weather Discovery Puts ‘Habitable Planets’ at Risk

Artist’s impression of flare from our neighbouring star Proxima Centauri ejecting material onto a nearby planet. (Credit: Mark Myers/OzGrav)

Stellar flares with a chance of radio bursts: the weather from Proxima Centauri

SYDNEY (University of Sydney PR) — A discovery that links stellar flares with radio-burst signatures will make it easier for astronomers to detect space weather around nearby stars outside the Solar System. Unfortunately, the first weather reports from our nearest neighbour, Proxima Centauri, are not promising for finding life as we know it.

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Breakthrough Initiatives to Fund Research into Search for Primitive Life in Clouds of Venus

Venus hides a wealth of information that could help us better understand Earth and exoplanets. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

SAN FRANCISCO (Breakthrough Initiatives PR)  – Breakthrough Initiatives, the privately-funded space science programs founded by science and technology investor and philanthropist Yuri Milner, are funding a research study into the possibility of primitive life in the clouds of Venus. The study is inspired by the discovery, announced yesterday, of the gas phosphine, considered a potential biosignature, in the planet’s atmosphere.

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Venus Phosphine Detection Fact Sheet

Artist’s impression of Venus, with an inset showing a representation of the phosphine molecules detected in the high cloud decks. (Credit: ESO / M. Kornmesser / L. Calçada & NASA / JPL / Caltech)

Royal Astronomical Society
Fact Sheet

On 14 September 2020, astronomers announced the detection of phosphine, a potential biomarker, in the atmosphere of Venus. Here are ten essential facts about the discovery:

What has been discovered?

A molecule called phosphine has been detected in the atmosphere of the planet Venus.

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Scientists Find Hints of Life on Venus

By Ultraviolet Imager (UVI), at around 2:19 p.m. on Dec. 7 (Japan Standard Time) at the Venus altitude of about 72,000 km. (Credit: JAXA)

CARDIFF, Wales (Cardiff University PR) — An international team of astronomers, led by Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University, today announced the discovery of a rare molecule – phosphine – in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially, or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments.

Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes – floating free of the scorching surface, but still needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine molecules, which consist of hydrogen and phosphorus, could point to this extra-terrestrial ‘aerial’ life. The new discovery is described in a paper in Nature Astronomy.

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Bacteria in Rock Deep Under Sea Inspire New Search for Life on Mars

Aerobic bacteria live densely packed into tunnels of clay minerals found in this sample of solid rock, collected from 122 meters beneath the seafloor. Image B is 1,000 times greater magnification than Image A. The left-side photo in each image was taken using normal light and the right-side photo was taken using fluorescent light. The solid basalt rock is gray, the clay minerals are orange, and the bacterial cells are green spheres. (Credit: Suzuki et al. 2020, DOI: 10.1038/s42003-020-0860-1, CC BY 4.0)

Microbes live in tiny clay-filled cracks in solid rock millions of years old

TOKYO (University of Tokyo PR) — Newly discovered single-celled creatures living deep beneath the seafloor have given researchers clues about how they might find life on Mars. These bacteria were discovered living in tiny cracks inside volcanic rocks after researchers persisted over a decade of trial and error to find a new way to examine the rocks.

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Billionaire Milner Eyes Private Missions to Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Hydrothermal activity in Enceladus’ core and the rise of organic-rich bubbles. (Credit: ESA; F. Postberg et al — 2018)

Billionaire Yuri Milner, founder of Breakthrough Initiatives, is eying a private missions to search for life elsewhere in the Solar System, Space.com reports.

Breakthrough Initiatives, which already scans the heavens for possible signals from faraway alien civilizations, is considering looking for E.T. on worlds close to home, founder Yuri Milner said.

“We are thinking very seriously about solar system-based initiatives,” Milner said here Sunday (Nov. 4) at the seventh annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “We’re thinking, within our foundation, is there something we can do, privately funded, which will supplement the government-funded projects?

{…]

So, where might this putative Breakthrough mission go? Milner cited as possibilities Jupiter’s moon Europa and the Saturn satellite Enceladus, both of which have oceans of liquid water beneath their icy shells, as well as Venus.

Venus may seem like an odd choice, given that its surface is bone-dry and hot enough to melt lead. But conditions in the clouds, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) up, are much more life-friendly, Milner noted.











ARADS Project Designs Tools for Finding Signs of Life on Other Worlds

Atacama Desert in Chile (Credit: NASA)

 

ATACAMA DESERT, Chile (NASA PR) — How would you search for signs of life – traces of tiny, living microbes or their fossilized remains – in an extreme and distant environment? NASA scientists and engineers are working on an answer to that question, aiming to find out if life ever evolved on the planet Mars and if it still harbors life today.

A project called the Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies, or ARADS, has been designing tools and techniques for future exploration and testing them in one of the most Mars-like places on Earth: Chile’s Atacama Desert.

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Awesome Find: Data Point to Great Lake on Europa

Europa's "Great Lake." Researchers predict many more such lakes are scattered throughout the moon's icy shell. Credit: Britney Schmidt/Dead Pixel VFX/Univ. of Texas at Austin.

NASA PR — Data from a NASA planetary mission have provided scientists evidence of what appears to be a body of liquid water, equal in volume to the North American Great Lakes, beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

The data suggest there is significant exchange between Europa’s icy shell and the ocean beneath. This information could bolster arguments that Europa’s global subsurface ocean represents a potential habitat for life elsewhere in our solar system. The findings are published in the scientific journal Nature.

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