Tag: astrobiology (page 1 of 2)

Guiding Our Search for Life on Other Earths

The James Webb Telescope

Excerpt from space.com

A telescope will soon allow astronomers to probe the atmosphere of Earthlike exoplanets for signs of life. To prepare, astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger and her team are modeling the atmospheric fingerprints for hundreds of potential alien worlds. Here's how:
The James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2018, will usher a new era in our search for life beyond Earth. With its 6.5-meter mirror, the long-awaited successor to Hubble will be large enough to detect potential biosignatures in the atmosphere of Earthlike planets orbiting nearby stars.
And we may soon find a treasure-trove of such worlds. The forthcoming exoplanet hunter TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), set to launch in 2017, will scout the entire sky for planetary systems close to ours. (The current Kepler mission focuses on more distant stars, between 600 and 3,000 light-years from Earth.) 

Astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger

While TESS will allow for the brief detection of new planets, the larger James Webb will follow up on select candidates and provide clues about their atmospheric composition. But the work will be difficult and require a lot of telescope time.
"We're expecting to find thousands of new planets with TESS, so we'll need to select our best targets for follow-up study with the Webb telescope," says Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomer at Cornell University and co-investigator on the TESS team.
To prepare, Kaltenegger and her team at Cornell's Institute for Pale Blue Dots are building a database of atmospheric fingerprints for hundreds of potential alien worlds. The models will then be used as "ID cards" to guide the study of exoplanet atmospheres with the Webb and other future large telescopes.
Kaltenegger described her approach in a talk for the NASA Astrobiology Institute's Director Seminar Series last December.
"For the first time in human history, we have the technology to find and characterize other worlds," she says. "And there's a lot to learn."

Detecting life from space  

In its 1990 flyby of Earth, the Galileo spacecraft took a spectrum of sunlight filtered through our planet's atmosphere. In a 1993 paper in the journal Nature, astronomer Carl Sagan analyzed that data and found a large amount of oxygen together with methane — a telltale sign of life on Earth. These observations established a control experiment for the search of extraterrestrial life by modern spacecraft.
"The spectrum of a planet is like a chemical fingerprint," Kaltenegger says. "This gives us the key to explore alien worlds light years away."
Current telescopes have picked up the spectra of giant, Jupiter-like exoplanets. But the telescopes are not large enough to do so for smaller, Earth-like worlds. The James Webb telescope will be our first shot at studying the atmospheres of these potentially habitable worlds.
Some forthcoming ground-based telescopes — including the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), planned for completion in 2020, and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), scheduled for first light in 2024 — may also be able to contribute to that task. [The Largest Telescopes on Earth: How They Compare]
And with the expected discovery by TESS of thousands of nearby exoplanets, the James Webb and other large telescopes will have plenty of potential targets to study. Another forthcoming planet hunter, the Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO), a planned European Space Agency mission scheduled for launch around 2022-2024, will contribute even more candidates.
However, observation time for follow-up studies will be costly and limited.
"It will take hundreds of hours of observation to see atmospheric signatures with the Webb telescope," Kaltenegger says. "So we'll have to pick our targets carefully."

Giant Magellan Telescope
Set to see its first light in 2021, The Giant Magellan Telescope will be the world’s largest telescope.

Getting a head start

To guide that process, Kaltenegger and her team are putting together a database of atmospheric fingerprints of potential alien worlds. "The models are tools that can teach us how to observe and help us prioritize targets," she says.
To start, they have modeled the chemical fingerprint of Earth over geological time. Our planet's atmosphere has evolved over time, with different life forms producing and consuming various gases. These models may give astronomers some insight into a planet's evolutionary stage.
Other models take into consideration the effects of a host of factors on the chemical signatures — including water, clouds, atmospheric thickness, geological cycles, brightness of the parent star, and even the presence of different extremophiles.
"It's important to do this wide range of modeling right now," Kaltenegger said, "so we're not too startled if we detect something unexpected. A wide parameter space can allow us to figure out if we might have a combination of these environments."
She added: "It can also help us refine our modeling as fast as possible, and decide if more measurements are needed while the telescope is still in space. It's basically a stepping-stone, so we don't have to wait until we get our first measurements to understand what we are seeing. Still, we'll likely find things we never thought about in the first place."

A new research center

The spectral database is one of the main projects undertaken at the Institute for Pale Blue Dots, a new interdisciplinary research center founded in 2014 by Kaltenegger. The official inauguration will be held on May 9, 2015.
"The crux of the institute is the characterization of rocky, Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of nearby stars," Kaltenergger said. "It's a very interdisciplinary effort with people from astronomy, geology, atmospheric modeling, and hopefully biology."
She added: "One of the goal is to better understand what makes a planet a life-friendly habitat, and how we can detect that from light years away. We're on the verge of discovering other pale blue dots. And with Sagan's legacy, Cornell University is a really great home for an institute like that."

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Scientists: Enceladus may have warm water ocean with ingredients for life

Enceladus ocean
This artist's impression of the interior of Saturn's moon Enceladus shows that interactions between hot water and rock occur at the floor of the subsurface ocean -- the type of environment that might be friendly to life, scientists say. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Excerpt from latimes.com

Scientists say they’ve discovered evidence of a watery ocean with warm spots hiding beneath the surface of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. The findings, described in the journal Nature, are the first signs of hydrothermal activity on another world outside of Earth – and raise the chances that Enceladus has the potential to host microbial life.

Scientists have wondered about what lies within Enceladus at least since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft caught the moon spewing salty water vapor out from cracks in its frozen surface. Last year, a study of its gravitational field hinted at a 10-kilometer-thick regional ocean around the south pole lying under an ice crust some 30 to 40 kilometers deep.

Another hint also emerged about a decade ago, when Cassini discovered tiny dust particles escaping Saturn’s system that were nanometer-sized and rich in silicon.

“It’s a peculiar thing to find particles enriched with silicon,” said lead author Hsiang-Wen Hsu, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In Saturn’s moons and among its rings, water ice dominates, so these odd particles clearly stood out.

The scientists traced these particles’ origin to Saturn’s E-ring, which lies between the orbits of the moons Mimas and Titan and whose icy particles are known to come from Enceladus. So Hsu and colleagues studied the grains to understand what was going on inside the gas giant’s frigid satellite.   
Rather than coming in a range of sizes, these particles were all uniformly tiny – just a few nanometers across. Studying the spectra of these grains, the scientists found that they were made of silicon dioxide, or silica. That’s not common in space, but it’s easily found on Earth because it’s a product of water interacting with rock. 

Knowing how silica interacts in given conditions such as temperature, salinity and alkalinity, the scientists could work backward to determine what kind of environment creates these unusual particles.

A scientist could do the same thing with a cup of warm coffee, Hsu said.

“You put in the sugar and as the coffee gets cold, if you know the relation of the solubility of sugar as a function of temperature, you will know how hot your coffee was,” Hsu said. “And applying this to Enceladus’s ocean, we can derive a minimum [temperature] required to form these particles.”

The scientists then ran experiments in the lab to determine how such silica particles came to be. With the particles’ particular makeup and size distribution, they could only have formed under very specific circumstances, the study authors found, determining that the silica particles must have formed in water that had less than 4% salinity and that was slightly alkaline (with a pH of about 8.5 to 10.5) and at temperatures of at least 90 degrees Celsius (roughly 190 degrees Fahrenheit).

The heat was likely being generated in part by tidal forces as Saturn’s gravity kneads its icy moon. (The tidal forces are also probably what open the cracks in its surface that vent the water vapor into space.)
Somewhere inside the icy body, there was hydrothermal activity – salty warm water interacting with rocks. It’s the kind of environment that, on Earth, is very friendly to life.  

“It’s kind of obvious, the connection between hydrothermal interactions and finding life,” Hsu said. “These hydrothermal activities will provide the basic activities to sustain life: the water, the energy source and of course the nutrients that water can leach from the rocks.”

Enceladus, Hsu said, is now likely the “second-top object for astrobiology interest” – the first being Jupiter’s icy moon and fellow water-world, Europa.
This activity is in all likelihood going on right now, Hsu said – over time, these tiny grains should glom together into larger and larger particles, and because they haven’t yet, they must have been recently expelled from Enceladus, within the last few months or few years at most.

Gabriel Tobie of the University of Nantes in France, who was not involved in the research, compared the conditions that created these silica particles to a hydrothermal field in the Atlantic Ocean known as Lost City.

“Because it is relatively cold, Lost City has been posited as a potential analogue of hydrothermal systems in active icy moons. The current findings confirm this,” Tobie wrote in a commentary on the paper. “What is more, alkaline hydrothermal vents might have been the birthplace of the first living organisms on the early Earth, and so the discovery of similar environments on Enceladus opens fresh perspectives on the search for life elsewhere in the Solar System.”

However, Hsu pointed out, it’s not enough to have the right conditions for life – they have to have been around for long enough that life would have a fighting chance to emerge.

“The other factor that is also very important is the time.… For Enceladus, we don’t know how long this activity has been or how stable it is,” Hsu said. “And so that’s a big uncertainty here.”

One way to get at this question? Send another mission to Enceladus, Tobie said.

“Cassini will fly through the moon’s plume again later this year,” he wrote, “but only future missions that can undertake improved in situ investigations, and possibly even return samples to Earth, will be able to confirm Enceladus’ astrobiological potential and fully reveal the secrets of its hot springs. ”

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Mars Had an Ocean, Scientists Say, Pointing to a Treasure Trove of New Data

Excerpt from nytimes.com

After six years of planetary observations, scientists at NASA say they have found convincing new evidence that ancient Mars had an ocean.

It was probably the size of the Arctic Ocean, larger than previously estimated, the researchers reported on Thursday. The body of water spread across the low-lying plain of the planet’s northern hemisphere for millions of years, they said.

If confirmed, the findings would add significantly to scientists’ understanding of the planet’s history and lend new weight to the view that ancient Mars had everything needed for life to emerge.
“The existence of a northern ocean has been debated for decades, but this is the first time we have such a strong collection of data from around the globe,” said Michael Mumma, principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology and an author of the report, published in the journal Science. “Our results tell us there had to be a northern ocean.”
But other experts said the question was hardly resolved. The ocean remains “a hypothesis,” said Ashwin Vasavada, project scientist of the Curiosity rover mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Dr. Mumma and Geronimo Villanueva, a planetary scientist at NASA, measured two slightly different forms of water in Mars’ atmosphere. One is the familiar H2O, which consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

The other is a slightly “heavier” version of water, HDO, in which the nucleus of one hydrogen atom contains a neutron. The atom is called deuterium.

The two forms exist in predictable ratios on Earth, and both have been found in meteorites from Mars. A high level of heavier water today would indicate that there was once a lot more of the “lighter” water, somehow lost as the planet changed.

The scientists found eight times as much deuterium in the Martian atmosphere than is found in water on Earth. Dr. Villanueva said the findings “provide a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had by determining how much water was lost to space.”

He said the measurements pointed to an ancient Mars that had enough water to cover the planet to a depth of at least 137 meters, or about 450 feet. Except for assessments based on the size of the northern basin, this is the highest estimate of the amount of water on early Mars that scientists have ever made.

The water on Mars mostly would have pooled in the northern hemisphere, which lies one to three kilometers — 0.6 to 1.8 miles — below the bedrock surface of the south, the scientists said.
At one time, the researchers estimated, a northern ocean would have covered about 19 percent of the Martian surface. In comparison, the Atlantic Ocean covers about 17 percent of Earth’s surface.

The new findings come at a time when the possibility of a northern ocean on Mars has gained renewed attention.

The Curiosity rover measured lighter and heavier water molecules in the Gale Crater, and the data also indicated that Mars once had substantial amounts of water, although not as much as Dr. Mumma and Dr. Villanueva suggest.

“The more water was present — and especially if it was a large body of water that lasted for a longer period of time — the better the chances are for life to emerge and to be sustained,” said Paul Mahaffy, chief of the atmospheric experiments laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Just last month, the science team running the Curiosity rover held its first formal discussion about the possibility of such an ocean and what it would have meant for the rest of Mars.

Scientists generally agree that lakes must have existed for millions of years in Gale Crater and elsewhere. But it is not clear how they were sustained and replenished.

“For open lakes to remain relatively stable for millions of years — it’s hard to figure how to do that without an ocean,” Dr. Vasavada said. “Unless there was a large body of water supplying humidity to the planet, the water in an open lake would quickly evaporate and be carried to the polar caps or frozen out.”

Yet climate modelers have had difficulty understanding how Mars could have been warm enough in its early days to keep water from freezing. Greenhouse gases could have made the planet much warmer at some point, but byproducts of those gases have yet to be found on the surface.

James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University, said in an email that the new paper had “profound implications for the total volume of water” on ancient Mars.

But, he added, “climate models have great difficulty in reconstructing an early Mars with temperatures high enough to permit surface melting and liquid water.”

Also missing are clear signs of the topographic and geological features associated with large bodies of water on Earth, such as sea cliffs and shorelines.

Based on low-resolution images sent back by the Viking landers, the geologist Timothy Parker and his colleagues at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab reported in 1989 the discovery of ancient shorelines. But later high-resolution images undermined their conclusions.

Still, Dr. Parker and his colleagues have kept looking for — and finding, they say — some visible signs of a northern ocean. The new data “certainly encourages me to do more,” he said in an interview.

Other researchers have also been looking for signs of an ancient ocean.

In 2013, Roman DiBiase, then a postdoctoral student at the California Institute of Technology, and Michael Lamb, an assistant professor of geology there, identified what might have been a system of channels on Mars that originated in the southern hemisphere and emptied steeply into the northern basin — perhaps, they said, water flowing through a delta to an ocean.

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Strange find on Titan sparks chatter about life


Excerpt from nbcnews.com

Studies may suggest methane-based organic processes ... but maybe not  
New findings have roused a great deal of hoopla over the possibility of life on Saturn's moon Titan, which some news reports have further hyped up as hints of extraterrestrials.
However, scientists also caution that aliens might have nothing to do with these findings.

All this excitement is rooted in analyses of chemical data returned by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. One study suggested that hydrogen was flowing down through Titan's atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. Astrobiologist Chris McKay at NASA's Ames Research Center speculated that this could be a tantalizing hint that hydrogen is getting consumed by life.

"It's the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth," McKay said.

Another study investigating hydrocarbons on Titan's surface found a lack of acetylene, a compound that could be consumed as food by life that relies on liquid methane instead of liquid water to live.
"If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth," McKay said.
However, NASA scientists caution that aliens might not be involved at all.

"Scientific conservatism suggests that a biological explanation should be the last choice after all non-biological explanations are addressed," said Mark Allen, principal investigator with the NASA Astrobiology Institute Titan team. "We have a lot of work to do to rule out possible non-biological explanations. It is more likely that a chemical process, without biology, can explain these results."
McKay told Space.com that "both results are still preliminary."

To date, methane-based life forms are only speculative, with McKay proposing a set of conditions necessary for these kinds of organisms on Titan in 2005. Scientists have not yet detected this form of life anywhere, although there are liquid-water-based microbes on Earth that thrive on methane or produce it as a waste product. 

On Titan, where temperatures are around minus-290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius), any organisms would have to use a substance that is liquid as its medium for living processes. Water itself cannot do, because it is frozen solid on Titan's surface. The list of liquid candidates is very short — liquid methane and related molecules such as ethane. Previous studies have found Titan to have lakes of liquid methane.

Missing hydrogen? 

The dearth of hydrogen Cassini detected is consistent with conditions that could produce methane-based life, but do not conclusively prove its existence, cautioned researcher Darrell Strobel, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Strobel wrote the paper on hydrogen appearing online in the journal Icarus.

Strobel looked at densities of hydrogen in different parts of the atmosphere and at the surface. Previous models from scientists had predicted that hydrogen molecules, a byproduct of ultraviolet sunlight breaking apart acetylene and methane molecules in the upper atmosphere, should be distributed fairly evenly throughout the atmospheric layers.

Strobel's computer simulations suggest a hydrogen flow down to the surface at a rate of about 10,000 trillion trillion molecules per second. 

"It's as if you have a hose and you're squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it's disappearing," Strobel said. "I didn't expect this result, because molecular hydrogen is extremely chemically inert in the atmosphere, very light and buoyant. It should 'float' to the top of the atmosphere and escape."

Strobel said it is not likely that hydrogen is being stored in a cave or underground space on Titan. An unknown mineral could be acting as a catalyst on Titan's surface to help convert hydrogen molecules and acetylene back to methane.

Although Allen commended Strobel, he noted "a more sophisticated model might be needed to look into what the flow of hydrogen is."

Consumed acetylene? 

Scientists had expected the sun's interactions with chemicals in the atmosphere to produce acetylene that falls down to coat Titan's surface. But when Cassini mapped hydrocarbons on Titan's surface, it detected no acetylene on the surface, according to findings appearing online in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Instead of alien life on Titan, Allen said one possibility is that sunlight or cosmic rays are transforming the acetylene in icy aerosols in the atmosphere into more complex molecules that would fall to the ground with no acetylene signature.

In addition, Cassini detected an absence of water ice on Titan's surface, but loads of benzene and another as-yet-unidentified material, which appears to be an organic compound. The researchers said that a film of organic compounds is covering the water ice that makes up Titan's bedrock. This layer of hydrocarbons is at least a few millimeters to centimeters thick, but possibly much deeper in some places. 

"Titan's atmospheric chemistry is cranking out organic compounds that rain down on the surface so fast that even as streams of liquid methane and ethane at the surface wash the organics off, the ice gets quickly covered again," said Roger Clark, a Cassini team scientist based at the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver. "All that implies Titan is a dynamic place where organic chemistry is happening now."

All this speculation "is jumping the gun, in my opinion," Allen said.

"Typically in the search for the existence of life, one looks for the presence of evidence -- say, the methane seen in the atmosphere of Mars, which can't be made by normal photochemical processes," Allen added. "Here we're talking about absence of evidence rather than presence of evidence — missing hydrogen and acetylene — and oftentimes there are many non-life processes that can explain why things are missing."

These findings are "still a long way from evidence of life," McKay said. "But it could be interesting."

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UK Scientists: Aliens May Have Sent Space Seeds To Create Life On Earth

Excerpt from huffingtonpost.comScientists in the U.K. have examined a tiny metal circular object, and are suggesting it might be a micro-organism deliberately sent by extraterrestrials to create life on Earth.Don't be fooled by the size of the objec...

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How Would the World Change If We Found Alien Life?

Excerpt from space.com
By by Elizabeth Howell

In 1938, Orson Welles narrated a radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" as a series of simulated radio bulletins of what was happening in real time as Martians arrived on our home planet. The broadcast is widely remembered for creating public panic, although to what extent is hotly debated today.

Still, the incident serves as an illustration of what could happen when the first life beyond Earth is discovered. While scientists might be excited by the prospect, introducing the public, politicians and interest groups to the idea could take some time.

How extraterrestrial life would change our world view is a research interest of Steven Dick, who just completed a term as the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology. The chair is jointly sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Program and the John W. Kluge Center, at the Library of Congress. 

Dick is a former astronomer and historian at the United States Naval Observatory, a past chief historian for NASA, and has published several books concerning the discovery of life beyond Earth. To Dick, even the discovery of microbes would be a profound shift for science.

"If we found microbes, it would have an effect on science, especially biology, by universalizing biology," he said. "We only have one case of biology on Earth. It's all related. It's all DNA-based. If we found an independent example on Mars or Europa, we have a chance of forming a universal biology."

Dick points out that even the possibilities of extraterrestrial fossils could change our viewpoints, such as the ongoing discussion of ALH84001, a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica that erupted into public consciousness in 1996 after a Science article said structures inside of it could be linked to biological activity. The conclusion, which is still debated today, led to congressional hearings.

"I've done a book about discovery in astronomy, and it's an extended process," Dick pointed out. "It's not like you point your telescope and say, 'Oh, I made a discovery.' It's always an extended process: You have to detect something, you have to interpret it, and it takes a long time to understand it. As for extraterrestrial life, the Mars rock showed it could take an extended period of years to understand it."

ALH84001 Meteorite
The ALH84001 meteorite, which in a 1996 Science publication was speculated to be host to what could be ancient Martian fossils. That finding is still under dispute today.

Mayan decipherments

In his year at the Library of Congress, Dick spent time searching for historical examples (as well as historical analogies) of how humanity might deal with first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. History shows that contact with new cultures can go in vastly different directions.

Hernan Cortes' treatment of the Aztecs is often cited as an example of how wrong first contact can go. But there were other efforts that were a little more mutually beneficial, although the outcomes were never perfect. Fur traders in Canada in the 1800s worked closely with Native Americans, for example, and the Chinese treasure fleet of the 15th Century successfully brought its home culture far beyond its borders, perhaps even to East Africa.

Even when both sides were trying hard to make communication work, there were barriers, noted Dick.

"The Jesuits had contact with Native Americans," he pointed out. "Certain concepts were difficult, like when they tried to get across the ideas of the soul and immortality."

A second look by the Mars Global Surveyor at the so-called Viking “Face on Mars” in Cydonia revealed a more ordinary-looking hill, showing that science is an extended process of discovery.

Indirect contact by way of radio communications through the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), also illustrates the challenges of transmitting information across cultures. There is historical precedence for this, such as when Greek knowledge passed west through Arab translators in the 12th Century. This shows that it is possible for ideas to be revived, even from dead cultures, he said.

It's also quite possible that the language we receive across these indirect communications would be foreign to us. Even though mathematics is often cited as a universal language, Dick said there are actually two schools of thought. One theory is that there is, indeed, one kind of mathematics that is based on a Platonic idea, and the other theory is that mathematics is a construction of the culture that you are in. 

"There will be a decipherment process. It might be more like the Mayan decipherments," Dick said.

The ethics of contact

As Dick came to a greater understanding about the potential c impact of extraterrestrial intelligence, he invited other scholars to present their findings along with him. Dick chaired a two-day NASA/Library of Congress Astrobiology Symposium called "Preparing for Discovery," which was intended to address the impact of finding any kind of life beyond Earth, whether microbial or some kind of intelligent, multicellular life form.

The symposium participants discussed how to move beyond human-centered views of defining life, how to understand the philosophical and theological problems a discovery would bring, and how to help the public understand the implications of a discovery.

"There is also the question of what I call astro-ethics," Dick said. "How do you treat alien life? How do you treat it differently, ranging from microbes to intelligence? So we had a philosopher at our symposium talking about the moral status of non-human organisms, talking in relation to animals on Earth and what their status is in relation to us."

Dick plans to collect the lectures in a book for publication next year, but he also spent his time at the library gathering materials for a second book about how discovering life beyond Earth will revolutionize our thinking.

"It's very farsighted for NASA to fund a position like this," Dick added. "They have all their programs in astrobiology, they fund the scientists, but here they fund somebody to think about what the implications might be. It's a good idea to do this, to foresee what might happen before it occurs."

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Scientists discover organism that hasn’t evolved in more than 2 billion years

Nonevolving bacteria
These sulfur bacteria haven't evolved for billions of years.
Credit: UCLA Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life

Excerpt from natmonitor.com
By Justin Beach

If there was a Guinness World Record for not evolving, it would be held by a sulfur-cycling microorganism found off the course of Australia. According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they have not evolved in any way in more than two billion years and have survived five mass extinction events.
According to the researchers behind the paper, the lack of evolution actually supports Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
The researchers examined the microorganisms, which are too small to see with the naked eye, in samples of rocks from the coastal waters of Western Australia. Next they examined samples of the same bacteria from the same region in rocks 2.3 billion years old. Both sets of bacteria are indistinguishable from modern sulfur bacteria found off the coast of Chile.

“It seems astounding that life has not evolved for more than 2 billion years — nearly half the history of the Earth. Given that evolution is a fact, this lack of evolution needs to be explained,” said J. William Schopf, a UCLA professor of earth, planetary and space sciences in the UCLA College who was the study’s lead author in a statement.
Critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution might be tempted to jump on this discovery as proof that Darwin was wrong, but that would be a mistake.
Darwin’s work focused more on species that changed, rather than species that didn’t. However, there is nothing in Darwin’s work that states that a successful species that has found it’s niche in an ecosystem has to change. Unless there is change in the ecosystem or competition for resources there would be no reason for change.
“The rule of biology is not to evolve unless the physical or biological environment changes, which is consistent with Darwin. These microorganisms are well-adapted to their simple, very stable physical and biological environment. If they were in an environment that did not change but they nevertheless evolved, that would have shown that our understanding of Darwinian evolution was seriously flawed.” said Schopf, who also is director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life.
It is likely that there were genetic mutations in the organisms. Mutations are fairly random and happen in all species, but unless those mutations are improvements that help the species function better in the environment, they usually do not get passed on.
Schopf said that the findings provide further proof that Darwin’s ideas were right.
The oldest fossils analyzed for the study date back to the Great Oxidation Event. This event, which occurred between 2.2 and 2.4 billion years ago, saw a substantial increase in Earth’s oxygen levels. That period also saw an increase in sulfates and nitrates, which is all that the microorganisms would have needed to survive and reproduce.
Shopf and his team used Raman spectroscopy, which allows scientists to examine the composition and chemistry of rocks as well as confocal laser scary microscopy to generate 3-D images of fossils embedded in rock.
The research was funded by NASA Astrobiology Institute, in the hope that it will help the space agency to find life elsewhere.

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Neptune-Like Planets Could Transfom Into Habitable Worlds

Strong irradiation from the host star can cause planets known as mini-Neptunes in the habitable zone to shed their gaseous envelopes and become potentially habitable worlds.Credit: Rodrigo Luger / NASA imagesExcerpt from sciencedaily.com Two ph...

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NASA Injects New Funds Into Search for Origins of Life

Excerpt from

In a new round of funding announced on Monday, NASA is allocating $50 million to 7 astrobiology research groups in the US to tackle these questions.

The grants will cover 5 years of study and will average $8 million per research group...

The astrobiology teams are based at 3 NASA institutions (Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. and Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.), 3 universities (University of Colorado at Boulder, University of California, Riverside and the University of Montana in Missoula) and at The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at Mountain View, Calif...

“The intellectual scope of astrobiology is vast, from understanding how our planet went from lifeless to living, to understanding how life has adapted to Earth’s harshest environments, to exploring other worlds with the most advanced technologies to search for signs of life,” said Mary Voytek, director, astrobiology program, NASA Headquarters. “The new teams cover that breadth of astrobiology, and by coming together in the NAI (NASA Astrobiology Institute), they will make the connections between disciplines and organizations that stimulate fundamental scientific advances.”

These 7 new teams join 5 existing NAI teams at the University of Washington in Seattle; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

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NASA Brings Scientists & Theologians Together To Prepare World For Extraterrestrial Contact

Arjun Walia, Collective-EvolutionA couple of months ago top U.S. astronomers gathered in front of congress to let them know that extraterrestrial life exists without question. Their main argument was the size of the universe, emphasizing that there are trillions of stars out there, with one in every five most likely harboring an Earth-like planet. It’s also important to keep in mind that planets do not have to be “Earth-like” in order to harbor life. You can read mor [...]

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Scientists discover first evidence of water ice clouds on an object outside of our solar system

Discovery! First Water Ice Clouds Found Beyond Our Solar System
This artist's conception shows a newfound object named WISE J085510.83-071442.5, the coldest known brown dwarf.

Washington, D.C.—A team of scientists led by Carnegie's Jacqueline Faherty has discovered the first evidence of water ice clouds on an object outside of our own Solar System. Water ice clouds exist on our own gas giant planets--Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune--but have not been seen outside of the planets orbiting our Sun until now. Their findings are published today by The Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available here.

At the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, Faherty, along with a team including Carnegie's Andrew Monson, used the FourStar near infrared camera to detect the coldest brown dwarf ever characterized. Their findings are the result of 151 images taken over three nights and combined. The object, named WISE J085510.83-071442.5, or W0855, was first seen by NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Explorer mission and published earlier this year. But it was not known if it could be detected by Earth-based facilities.

"This was a battle at the telescope to get the detection," said Faherty. 

Chris Tinney, an Astronomer at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology, UNSW Australia and co-author on the result stated: "This is a great result. This object is so faint and it’s exciting to be the first people to detect it with a telescope on the ground."

Brown dwarfs aren't quite very small stars, but they aren't quite giant planets either. They are too small to sustain the hydrogen fusion process that fuels stars. Their temperatures can range from nearly as hot as a star to as cool as a planet, and their masses also range between star-like and giant planet-like. They are of particular interest to scientists because they offer clues to star-formation processes. They also overlap with the temperatures of planets, but are much easier to study since they are commonly found in isolation. 

W0855 is the fourth-closest system to our own Sun, practically a next-door neighbor in astronomical distances. A comparison of the team's near-infrared images of W0855 with models for predicting the atmospheric content of brown dwarfs showed evidence of frozen clouds of sulfide and water. 

"Ice clouds are predicted to be very important in the atmospheres of planets beyond our Solar System, but they've never been observed outside of it before now," Faherty said. 

The paper's other co-author is Andrew Skemer of the University of Arizona. 
This work was supported by the Australian Research Council. It made use of data from the NASA WISE mission, which was a joint project of the University of California Los Angeles and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, funded by NASA. It also made use of the NASA/IPAC Infrared Science Archive, which is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, under contract with NASA.

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NASA review panel criticizes Mars Curiosity rover, says it lacks ‘scientific focus’

Mars rover Curiosity 'selfie'


Troubles seem to be far from over for the Mars rover Curiosity which is exploring the Martian surface in search of life. A review panel for the US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has condemned the Rover Curiosity mission, saying it lack in its scientific focus.
The harsh reaction comes at a time when Mars rover Curiosity, which was launched in 2012, was spotted gazing at the Martian clouds, growing speculation among the panelists that it lacks scientific approach. Recently holes in the rover’s wheels were also reported. Moreover, NASA had to give up one of its drilling project at the Martian rock after it was found unfit for the rover.
The Planetary Mission Senior Review panel that carried an analysis of NASA’s seven planetary science missions expressed its disappointment over the success rate of Curiosity.
According to the review panel, the Curiosity mission is the NASA’s flagship Mars project which is the most expensive of the seven space missions that have got renewed funding from NASA. The panel said that seeing the extent of funding and the high expectations from the mission, Curiosity fails to make best out of its technical capabilities.
The review panel further expressed dismay saying the team behind the Curiosity mission only plans to study the eight samples during its extended mission, which is far less than the expectations from a high magnitude project like this. The panel also cited other technical problems with the Curiosity mission terming it as a poor science return to the large investment.
Recently, Curiosity was spotted gazing at the clouds of Mars, a development which was criticized by the review panel.
The rover had tweeted on September 3 that it was heading towards Pahrump Hills while advancing towards Mount Sharp for conducting geology work and search for clouds.
Robert Haberle, who is part of the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) team, defended the action saying it was part of the study of martian environment.
According to him, clouds are a major part of the climate system of any planet and their behavior could give close insights about winds and temperatures of the Mars.

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Richard C. Hoagland Presents a Series of Mars Anomalies

  coasttocoastam.com In tandem with his 7/2/13 appearance, Richard C. Hoagland sends a set of images & descriptions related to his presentation to the Coast To Coast radio program. 1) (Above) NASA close-up of the infamous "Face on Mars...

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