Scientists closing on alien life beyond earth

Scientists said on Monday they have detected in the harshly acidic clouds of Venus a gas called phosphine that indicates microbes may inhabit Earth’s inhospitable neighbor, a tantalizing sign of potential life beyond Earth.

The researchers did not discover actual life forms, but noted that on Earth phosphine is produced by bacteria thriving in oxygen-starved environments. The international scientific team first spotted the phosphine using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and confirmed it using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile.

“I was very surprised – stunned, in fact,” said astronomer Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in Wales, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The existence of extraterrestrial life long has been one of the paramount questions of science. Scientists have used probes and telescopes to seek “biosignatures” – indirect signs of life – on other planets and moons in our solar system and beyond.

“With what we currently know of Venus, the most plausible explanation for phosphine, as fantastical as it might sound, is life,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology molecular astrophysicist and study co-author Clara Sousa-Silva.

“I should emphasize that life, as an explanation for our discovery, should be, as always, the last resort,” Sousa-Silva added. “This is important because, if it is phosphine, and if it is life, it means that we are not alone. It also means that life itself must be very common, and there must be many other inhabited planets throughout our galaxy.”

Venus has not been the focus of the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, with Mars and other worlds getting more attention.

Phosphine – a phosphorus atom with three hydrogen atoms attached – is highly toxic to people.

Earth-based telescopes like those used in this research help scientists study the chemistry and other characteristics of celestial objects.

Credit: Reuters

Earth’s building blocks may have had far more water than previously thought

Meteorites suggest that H2O in the mantle comes from local origins, contrary to expectations

A study of enstatite chondrites (one shown), a type of meteorite similar to the material that formed Earth, suggests that Earth’s primordial building material had plenty of water, even though the planet is thought to have been born in an interplanetary desert.L. PIANI, MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY IN PARIS

A new analysis of meteorites from the inner solar system — home to the four rocky planets — suggests that Earth’s building blocks delivered enough water to account for all the H2O buried within the planet. What’s more, the water produced by the local primordial building material likely shares a close chemical kinship with Earth’s deep-water reserves, thus strengthening the connection, researchers report in the Aug. 28 Science.

Earth is thought to have been born in an interplanetary desert, too close to the sun for water ice to survive. Many researchers suspect that ocean water got delivered toward the end of Earth’s formation by ice-laden asteroids that wandered in from cooler, more distant regions of the solar system (SN: 5/6/15). But the ocean isn’t the planet’s largest water reservoir. Researchers estimate that Earth’s interior holds several times as much water as is found at the surface.

To test whether or not the material that formed Earth could have delivered this deep water, cosmochemist Laurette Piani of the University of Lorraine in Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy, France, and colleagues analyzed meteorites known as enstatite chondrites. Thanks to many chemical similarities with Earth rocks, these relatively rare meteorites are widely thought to be good analogs of the dust and space rocks from the inner solar system that formed Earth’s building blocks, Piani says.

Published courtesy of Science News

The launch date of SpaceX CRS-17 updated to no earlier than Friday

OCO-3 sits on the large vibration table (known as the “shaker”) in the Environmental Test Lab at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s new satellite to observe near-global measurements of carbon dioxide on land and sea will hitch a ride to the International Space Station on a Space-X Dragon capsule, launched on a Falcon 9 rocket.

When the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, OCO-3, heads to the International Space Station, it will bring a new view – literally – to studies of Earth’s carbon cycle.

Two robotic arms will welcome OCO-3 at the station: one to pull OCO-3 out of the capsule’s trunk, another to grab it and install it on the Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility module. All this happens while OCO-3 is without power, so it has to be installed before it gets too cold. While this sounds like a nail-biter, the station operators have successfully performed this carefully crafted robotic choreography for several payloads over the last few years.

From its perch on the space station, OCO-3 will observe near-global measurements of carbon dioxide on land and sea, from just after sunrise to just before sunset. That makes it far more versatile and powerful than its predecessor, OCO-2.

“OCO-2 revisits areas on Earth at roughly the same time of day due to its sun-synchronous orbit,” said Matt Bennett, OCO-3’s project systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “OCO-3 will expand the time period of that coverage and observe the presence of carbon dioxide at varying times of day.”

Since the space station orbits Earth every 90 minutes, OCO-3 will complete 16 passes a day.

“The point of the mission is to continue the legacy of OCO-2 but from the perspective of the International Space Station,” Bennett said.

The OCO-3 space instrument is the immediate successor to OCO-2, which has been studying carbon dioxide distribution and detecting emission hotspots and volcanoes since 2014.

OCO-3’s new capabilities depend heavily on an innovative swiveling mirror assembly, which Bennett described as a “very agile pointing mechanism.”

“When OCO-2 points toward an observation target, the entire spacecraft has to rotate,” Bennett said. “Since OCO-3 is a ‘passenger’ on the space station, we had to add the pointing mirror assembly to point independently of the station.”

The pointing assembly uses two pairs of mirrors to rotate in two complementary directions – one parallel to Earth’s surface, the other perpendicular. This setup allows OCO-3 to point to just about anywhere within view of the space station but also allows it to capture “snapshot maps” – detailed mini-maps of carbon dioxide – over areas of interest.

This snapshot mapping mode can measure emissions from sources ranging from relatively small areas surrounding power plants to large urban areas up 1,000 square miles (2,590 square kilometers) in just two minutes. That means OCO-3 can measure the entire Los Angeles Basin in just a single pass – a task that would take OCO-2 several days.

Measuring large urban areas is particularly important to scientists since about 70% of total fossil-fuel emissions come from large cities.

“These targeted measurements will help us disentangle which sources of carbon dioxide are in nature and which are anthropogenic, or human-caused,” Bennett said.

While measuring carbon dioxide, OCO-3 can simultaneously measure how well plants are performing photosynthesis by measuring how much their chlorophyll “fluoresces” – or emits a specific wavelength of light – while illuminated by the Sun. This will help carbon-cycle scientists observe how well vegetation is absorbing carbon dioxide on the ground and how the surrounding atmosphere is responding.

“We will get to see how different sources of carbon dioxide, and sinks – areas that collect carbon, such as forests and oceans – vary by day, by season and annually,” Bennett said.

Since OCO-2 is still gathering data, the two missions will cross-calibrate by measuring carbon in some of the same areas on Earth, which improves verification of data.

JPL’s director for Earth Science and Technology, Diane Evans, said combined observations from both OCO missions will provide more comprehensive information about the state of carbon on our planet.

“They will add to the growing body of research from multiple Earth-observing missions,” Evans said. “And combining these data with data sets from other instruments on the space station like ECOSTRESS and GEDI will make it possible to answer key questions about the interactions of the carbon and water cycles.”