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  • richardmitnick 7:22 pm on November 9, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , , , , , , , , , , , , Understanding our own backyard will be key in interpreting data from far-flung exoplanets   

    From COSMOS Magazine: “The tech we’re going to need to detect ET” 

    Cosmos Magazine bloc

    From COSMOS Magazine

    09 November 2018
    Lauren Fuge

    1
    Searching for biosignatures rather than examples of life itself is considered a prime strategy in the hunt for ET. smartboy10/Getty Images

    Move over Mars rovers, new technologies to detect alien life are on the horizon.

    A group of scientists from around the world, led by astrochemistry expert Chaitanya Giri from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan, have put their heads together to plan the next 20 years’ worth of life-detection technologies. The study is currently awaiting peer review, but is freely available on the pre-print site, ArXiv.

    For decades, astrobiologists have scoured the skies and the sands of other planets for hints of extraterrestrial life. Not only are these researchers trying to find ET, but they’re also aiming to learn about the origin and evolution of life on Earth, the chemical composition of organic extraterrestrial objects, what makes a planet or satellite habitable, and more.

    But the answers to such questions are preceded by long years of planning, development, problem-solving and strategising.

    Late in 2017, 20 scientists from Japan, India, France, Germany and the USA – each with a special area of expertise – came together at a workshop run by the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at Giri’s Tokyo campus. There, they discussed the current progress and enticing possibilities of life-detection technologies.

    In particular, the boffins debated which ones should be a priority for research and development for missions within the local solar system – in other words, which instruments will be most feasible to out onto a space probe and send off to Mars or Enceladus during the next couple of decades.

    Of course, the planets and moons in the solar system are an extremely limited sample of the number of potentially habitable worlds in the universe, but understanding our own backyard will be key in interpreting data from far-flung exoplanets.

    So, according to these astrobiology experts, what’s the future plan for alien detection?

    The first step of any space mission is to study the planet or satellite from afar to determine whether it is habitable. Luckily, an array of next-generation telescopes is currently being built, from the ultra-sensitive James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2021, to the gargantuan Extremely Large Telescope in Chile, which will turn its 39-metre eye to the sky in 2024. The authors point out that observatories such as these will vastly expand our theoretical knowledge of planet habitability.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

    Just because a world is deemed habitable doesn’t mean life will be found all over it, though. It may exist only in limited geographical niches. To reach these inaccessible sites, the paper argues that we will require “agile robotic probes that are robust, able to seamlessly communicate with orbiters and deep space communications networks, be operationally semi-autonomous, have high-performance energy supplies, and are sterilisable to avoid forward contamination”.

    But according to Elizabeth Tasker, associate professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), who was not involved in the study, getting there is only half the struggle.

    “In fact, it’s the most tractable half because we can picture the problems we will face,” she says.

    The second, more pressing issue is how to recognise life unlike anything we know on Earth.

    As Tasker explains: “We only have Earth life to compare to and this is the result of huge evolutionary history on a planet whose complex past is unlikely to be replicated closely. That’s a lot of baggage to separate out.”

    According to the paper, the way forward is to equip missions with a suite of life-detection instruments that don’t look for life as we know it, but are instead able to identify the kinds of features that make organisms function.

    The authors outline a huge variety of exciting technologies that could be used for this purpose, including spectroscopy techniques (to analyse potential biological materials), quantum tunnelling [Nature Nanotechnology
    ] (to find DNA, RNA, peptides, and other small molecules), and fluorescence microscopy [ https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2014/pdf/2744.pdf ](to identify the presence of cell membranes).

    They also nominate different forms of gas chromatography (to spot amino acids and sugars formed by living organisms, plus checking to see if molecules are “homochiral” [Space Science Reviews] (a suspected biosignature) using microfluidic devices and microscopes.

    High-resolution, miniaturised mass spectrometers would also be helpful, characterising biopolymers, which are created by living organisms, and measuring the elemental composition of objects to aid isotopic dating.

    Giri and colleagues also stress that exciting developments in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and pattern recognition will be useful in determining whether chemical samples are biological in origin.

    Interestingly, researchers are also developing technologies that may allow the detection of life in more unconventional places. On Earth, for example, cryotubes were recently used [International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology] to discover several new species of bacteria in the upper atmosphere.

    The scientists also discuss how certain technologies – such as high-powered synchrotron radiation and magnetic field facilities – are not yet compact enough to fly to other planets, and so samples must continue to be brought back for analysis.

    Several sample-and-return missions are currently underway, including JAXA’s Martian Moons exploration mission to Phobos, Hayabusa-2 to asteroid Ryugu, and NASA’s OSIRIS-rex to asteroid Bennu. What we learn from handling the organic-rich extraterrestrial materials brought back from these trips will be invaluable.

    JAXA MMX spacecraft

    JAXA/Hayabusa 2 Credit: JAXA/Akihiro Ikeshita

    NASA OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft

    What we learn from handling the organic-rich extraterrestrial materials brought back from these trips will be invaluable.

    The predictions and recommendations put forward by Giri and colleagues are the first steps in getting these technologies discussed in panel reviews, included in decadal surveys, and eventually funded.

    They complement several similar efforts, including a report prepared by US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), calling for an expansion of the range of possible ET indicators, and a US-led exploration of how the next generation of radio telescopes will be utilised by SETI.

    Perhaps most importantly, these papers all highlight the need for collaborative work between scientists across disciplines.

    “A successful detection of life will need astrophysicists and geologists to examine possible environments on other planets, engineers and physicists to design the missions and instruments that can collect data, and chemists and biologists to determine how to classify life,” JAXA’s Tasker says.

    “But maybe that is appropriate: finding out what life really is and where it can flourish is the story of everyone on Earth. It should take all of us to unravel.”

    See the full article here .


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  • richardmitnick 10:52 am on October 15, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , , , NASA Viking 2 Lander, , Search for Alien Life Should Be a Fundamental Part of NASA New Report Urges, , The Viking missions to Mars were the last time the space agency performed a direct explicit search for life on another world   

    From Scientific American: “Search for Alien Life Should Be a Fundamental Part of NASA, New Report Urges” 

    Scientific American

    From Scientific American

    October 15, 2018
    Adam Mann

    1
    An image taken by the Viking 2 lander from Utopia Planitia on the surface of Mars in 1976. The Viking missions to Mars were the last time the space agency performed a direct, explicit search for life on another world. Credit: NASA

    NASA Viking 2 Lander

    For decades many researchers have tended to view astrobiology as the underdog of space science. The field—which focuses on the investigation of life beyond Earth—has often been criticized as more philosophical than scientific, because it lacks in tangible samples to study.

    Now that is all changing. Whereas astronomers once knew of no planets outside our solar system, today they have thousands of examples. And although organisms were previously thought to need the relatively mild surface conditions of our world to survive, new findings about life’s ability to persist in the face of extreme darkness, heat, salinity and cold have expanded researchers’ acceptance that it might be found anywhere from Martian deserts to the ice-covered oceans of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

    Highlighting astrobiology’s increasing maturity and clout, a new Congressionally mandated report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) [National Academies Press] urges NASA to make the search for life on other worlds an integral, central part of its exploration efforts. The field is now well set to be a major motivator for the agency’s future portfolio of missions, which could one day let humanity know whether or not we are alone in the universe. “The opportunity to really address this question is at a critically important juncture,” says Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a geologist at the University of Toronto and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

    The astronomy and planetary science communities are currently gearing up to each perform their decadal surveys—once-every-10-year efforts that identify a field’s most significant open questions—and present a wish list of projects to help answer them. Congress and government agencies such as NASA look to the decadal surveys to plan research strategies; the decadals, in turn, look to documents such as the new NAS report for authoritative recommendations on which to base their findings. Astrobiology’s reception of such full-throated encouragement now may boost its odds of becoming a decadal priority.

    Another NAS study released last month could be considered a second vote in astrobiology’s favor. This “Exoplanet Science Strategy” report recommended NASA lead the effort on a new space telescope that could directly gather light from Earth-like planets around other stars. Two concepts, the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared (LUVOIR) telescope and the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx), are current contenders for a multibillion-dollar NASA flagship mission that would fly as early as the 2030s.

    NASA Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR)

    NASA Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) The Planet Hunter

    Either observatory could use a coronagraph, or “starshade”—objects that selectively block starlight but allow planetary light through—to search for signs of habitability and of life in distant atmospheres.

    NASA JPL Starshade

    NASA/WFIRST


    JPL-Caltech is developing coronagraph technology to enable direct imaging and spectroscopy of exoplanets using the Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (AFTA) on the NASA Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

    But either would need massive and sustained support from outside astrobiology to succeed in the decadal process and beyond.

    There have been previous efforts to back large, astrobiologically focused missions such as NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder concepts—ambitious space telescope proposals in the mid-2000s that would have spotted Earth-size exoplanets and characterized their atmospheres (if these projects had ever made it off the drawing board). Instead, they suffered ignominious cancellations that taught astrobiologists several hard lessons. There was still too little information at the time about the number of planets around other stars, says Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University, meaning advocates could not properly estimate such a mission’s odds of success. His community had yet to realize that in order to do large projects it needed to band together and show how its goals aligned with those of astronomers less professionally interested in finding alien life, he adds. “If we want big toys,” he says. “We need to play better with others.”

    There has also been tension in the past between the astrobiological goals of solar system exploration and the more geophysics-steeped goals that traditionally underpin such efforts, says Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University. Missions to other planets or moons have limited capacity for instruments, and those specialized for different tasks often end up in ferocious competitions for a slot onboard. Historically, because the search for life was so open-ended and difficult to define, associated instrumentation lost out to hardware with clearer, more constrained geophysical research priorities. Now, Lunine says, a growing understanding of all the ways biological and geologic evolution are interlinked is helping to show that such objectives do not have to be at odds. “I hope that astrobiology will be embedded as a part of the overall scientific exploration of the solar system,” he says. “Not as an add-on, but as one of the essential disciplines.”

    Above and beyond the recent NAS reports, NASA is arguably already demonstrating more interest in looking for life in our cosmic backyard than it has for decades. This year the agency released a request for experiments that could be carried to another world in our solar system to directly hunt for evidence of living organisms—the first such solicitation since the 1976 Viking missions that looked for life on Mars. “The Ladder of Life Detection,” a paper written by NASA scientists and published in Astrobiology in June, outlined ways to clearly determine if a sample contains extraterrestrial creatures—a goal mentioned in the NAS report. The document also suggests NASA partner with other agencies and organizations working on astrobiological projects, as the space agency did last month when it hosted a workshop with the nonprofit SETI Institute on the search for “techno-signatures,” potential indicators of intelligent aliens.



    “I think astrobiology has gone from being something that seemed fringy or distracting to something that seems to be embraced at NASA as a major touchstone for why we’re doing space exploration and why the public cares,” says Ariel Anbar, a geochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

    All this means is astrobiology’s growing influence is helping bring what once were considered outlandish ideas into reality. Anbar recalls attending a conference in the early 1990s, when then–NASA Administrator Dan Goldin displayed an Apollo-era image of Earth from space and suggested the agency try to do the same thing for a planet around another star.

    “That was pretty out there 25 years ago,” he says. “Now it’s not out there at all.”

    See the full article here .


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    Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S., has been bringing its readers unique insights about developments in science and technology for more than 160 years.

     
  • richardmitnick 12:54 pm on August 2, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Astrobiology, , , , , , Life on moon Titan   

    From Astrobiology Magazine via EarthSky: “Where to look for life on Titan” 

    http://www.astrobio.net/

    1

    From EarthSky

    August 2, 2018
    Paul Scott Anderson

    1
    Saturn’s largest moon Titan as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. This world’s liquid methane and ethane rivers, lakes and seas might support some kind of life, and scientists now think they know the best places to look. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

    NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens Spacecraft

    NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and ESA’s Huygens lander showed that Saturn’s large moon Titan mimics Earth in many ways. But Titan displays different kinds of chemistry in a far colder environment. Given the similarities, the question of life inevitably arises: could Titan support some kind of simple life? Given the differences, scientists ponder the best places to look for Titan life. In late July 2018, a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Astrobiology and reported on in Astrobiology Magazine suggests the best places on Titan to look for evidence of life.

    Titan is a geological wonderland for planetary scientists. It has rivers, lakes and seas of actual liquid – not water, but the hydrocarbons methane and ethane – and it has mountain ranges, possible ice volcanoes (aka cryovolcanoes) and vast hydrocarbon dunes. There is also evidence for a subsurface ocean of water, similar to those believed to lie beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

    Perhaps surprisingly, the research team, led by Catherine Neish, a planetary scientist specializing in impact cratering at the University of Western Ontario, suggested that the best locations to look for life on Titan would not be the lakes or seas. Instead, the new work shows a better place to look would be within impact craters and cryovolcanoes on Titan.

    The scientists reason that these areas are where water ice in Titan’s crust could temporarily melt into a liquid. Water is still the only solvent known to be able to support life as we know it.

    2
    A large, fairly young crater on Titan, about 25 miles (40 km) in diameter. Such craters could temporarily melt frozen water in the crust, providing an environment for pre-biotic or biotic molecules to form. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

    Various studies have suggested that liquid methane and ethane could support life. But Saturn’s moon Titan – some nine astronomical units farther from the sun than Earth – is very cold, with surface temperatures hovering around -300 degrees Fahrenheit (–179 degrees Celsius). Methane and ethane do remain liquid at Titan’s surface temperature, but it’s too cold there for biochemical processes, at least as far as we know (although that, too, is a matter of debate).

    Titan’s surface is also covered with tholins, which are large, complex organic molecules produced when gases are subjected to cosmic radiation. When mixed with liquid water, tholins can produce amino acids, which are, essentially, life’s building blocks. According to researcher Morgan Cable at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California:

    “When we mix tholins with liquid water, we make amino acids really fast. So any place where there is liquid water on Titan’s surface or near its surface could be generating the precursors to life – biomolecules – that would be important for life as we know it, and that’s really exciting.”

    The temperatures on Titan’s surface are too cold for liquid water, so where could it be found? The answer is Titan’s craters and cryovolcanoes. The processes involved with both of these geologic features can melt water ice into liquid, even if only temporarily.

    But that might be enough for more complex organic molecules like amino acids to form.

    3
    Sotra Facula is a possible cryovolcano on Titan, one of the few candidates known. Image via NASA/JPL–Caltech/USGS/University of Arizona.

    4
    Another view of Sotra Facula. This image was built from radar topography with infrared colors overlaid on top. Image via NASA/JPL–Caltech/USGS/University of Arizona.

    Between craters and cryovolcanoes, it would seem that craters would be the most ideal location for pre-biotic or biotic chemistry to occur. As Neish explained:

    “Craters really emerged as the clear winner for three main reasons. One, is that we’re pretty sure there are craters on Titan. Cratering is a very common geologic process and we see circular features that are almost certainly craters on the surface.’

    Neish also noted that craters would produce more liquid water melt than a cryovolcano, so any water would remain liquid for a longer period of time. She also added:

    “The last point is that impact craters should produce water that’s at a higher temperature than a cryovolcano.”

    Warmer water would allow for faster chemical reaction rates, which would help in the creation of prebiotic or even biotic molecules. The largest known craters on Titan are Sinlap (70 miles/112 kms in diameter), Selk (56 miles/90 kms) and Menrva (244 miles/392 kms). These would be the primary locations to look for biomolecules.

    David Grinspoon at the Planetary Science Institute isn’t convinced yet, however. He commented:

    “We don’t know where to search even with results like this. I wouldn’t use it to guide our next mission to Titan. It’s premature.”

    5
    Titan is well-known for its lakes and seas of liquid methane/ethane, such as Ligiea Mare, shown here. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell.

    So what about cryovolcanoes? They haven’t actually been confirmed yet to exist on Titan, and if they do, they are more rare than craters (even though craters are also relatively rare on Titan). The most likely feature to be a cryovolcano is a mountain with a caldera on top called Sotra Facula. Other than that, they seem to be few and far between. As Neish said:

    “Cryovolcanism is the harder thing to do and there is very little evidence of it on Titan.”

    6
    Diagram illustrating how biosignatures could also be transported from the subsurface ocean to the surface of Titan. Image via Athanasios Karagiotas/Theoni Shalamberidze.

    There is also, of course, a possible subsurface ocean of water on Titan, but, if it exists, it is deep below the moon’s surface and inaccessible to any robotic probes in the near future. For now, we can only imagine what might be in that alien abyss.

    The methane/ethane lakes and seas should still be explored too; they are the only other known bodies of liquid on the surface of another moon or planet in the solar system. Methane-based life could theoretically exist in such environments, so it would obviously be a good idea to look, at least.

    Bottom line: Titan is a world that is eerily similar to Earth in some ways, yet still uniquely alien. Whether it supports any kind of life is still a big question, but researchers now think they know the best places to search for it.

    See the full article here .


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    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

     
  • richardmitnick 10:20 am on June 26, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , , , NASA Asks: Will We Know Life When We See It?, , ,   

    From JPL-Caltech and U Washington: “NASA Asks: Will We Know Life When We See It?” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    June 25, 2018
    NASA:

    Calla Cofield
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
    818-393-1821
    Calla.e.cofield@jpl.nasa.gov

    Felicia Chou
    NASA Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-0257
    felicia.chou@nasa.gov 2018-147

    U Washington
    Peter Kelley

    From JPL-Caltech

    1
    This image is an artist’s conception of what life could look like on the surface of a distant planet. Credit: NASA

    2
    Life can leave “fingerprints” of its presence in the atmosphere and on the surface of a planet. These potential signs of life, or biosignatures, can be detected with telescopes. Credit: NASA/Aaron Gronstal

    3
    Abiotic processes can fool us into thinking a barren planet is alive. Rather than measuring a single characteristic of a planet, we should consider a suite of traits to build the case for life. Credit: NASA/Aaron Gronstal

    4
    NASA Asks: Will We Know Life When We See It?
    Since the data we collect from planets will be limited, scientists will quantify how likely a planet has life based on all the available evidence. Follow-up observations are required for confirmation. Credit: NASA/Aaron Gronstal

    In the last decade, we have discovered thousands of planets outside our solar system and have learned that rocky, temperate worlds are numerous in our galaxy. The next step will involve asking even bigger questions. Could some of these planets host life? And if so, will we be able to recognize life elsewhere if we see it?

    A group of leading researchers in astronomy, biology and geology has come together under NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or NExSS, to take stock of our knowledge in the search for life on distant planets and to lay the groundwork for moving the related sciences forward.

    “We’re moving from theorizing about life elsewhere in our galaxy to a robust science that will eventually give us the answer we seek to that profound question: Are we alone?” said Martin Still, an exoplanet scientist at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

    In a set of five review papers published last week in the scientific journal Astrobiology, NExSS scientists took an inventory of the most promising signs of life, called biosignatures. The paper authors include four scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. They considered how to interpret the presence of biosignatures, should we detect them on distant worlds. A primary concern is ensuring the science is strong enough to distinguish a living world from a barren planet masquerading as one.

    The assessment comes as a new generation of space and ground-based telescopes are in development. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will characterize the atmospheres of some of the first small, rocky planets. There are plans for other observatories — such as the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Extremely Large Telescope, both in Chile — to carry sophisticated instruments capable of detecting the first biosignatures on faraway worlds.

    Through their work with NExSS, scientists aim to identify the instruments needed to detect potential life for future NASA flagship missions. The detection of atmospheric signatures of a few potentially habitable planets may possibly come before 2030, although determining whether the planets are truly habitable or have life will require more in-depth study.

    Since we won’t be able to visit distant planets and collect samples anytime soon, the light that a telescope observes will be all we have in the search for life outside our solar system. Telescopes can examine the light reflecting off a distant world to show us the kinds of gases in the atmosphere and their “seasonal” variations, as well as colors like green that could indicate life.

    These kinds of biosignatures can all be seen on our fertile Earth from space, but the new worlds we examine will differ significantly. For example, many of the promising planets we have found are around cooler stars, which emit light in the infrared spectrum, unlike our sun’s high emissions of visible-light.

    “What does a living planet look like?” said Mary Parenteau, an astrobiologist and microbiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and a co-author. “We have to be open to the possibility that life may arise in many contexts in a galaxy with so many diverse worlds — perhaps with purple-colored life instead of the familiar green-dominated life forms on Earth, for example. That’s why we are considering a broad range of biosignatures.”

    The scientists assert that oxygen — the gas produced by photosynthetic organisms on Earth — remains the most promising biosignature of life elsewhere, but it is not foolproof. Abiotic processes on a planet could also generate oxygen. Conversely, a planet lacking detectable levels of oxygen could still be alive – which was exactly the case of Earth before the global accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere.

    “On early Earth, we wouldn’t be able to see oxygen, despite abundant life,” said Victoria Meadows, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of one of the papers. “Oxygen teaches us that seeing, or not seeing, a single biosignature is insufficient evidence for or against life — overall context matters.”

    Rather than measuring a single characteristic, the NExSS scientists argue that we should be looking at a suite of traits. A planet must show itself capable of supporting life through its features, and those of its parent star.

    The NExSS scientists will create a framework that can quantify how likely it is that a planet has life, based on all the available evidence. With the observation of many planets, scientists may begin to more broadly classify the “living worlds” that show common characteristics of life, versus the “non-living worlds.”

    “We won’t have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to finding life elsewhere,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and a co-author. “What we will have is a high level of confidence that a planet appears alive for reasons that can only be explained by the presence of life.”

    U Washington

    From University of Washington

    June 25, 2018

    For more information, contact
    Victoria Meadows at vsm@astro.washington.edu or
    Catling at dcatling@uw.edu.

    Researchers with the University of Washington-led Virtual Planetary Laboratory are central to a group of papers published by NASA researchers in the journal Astrobiology outlining the history — and suggesting the future — of the search for life on exoplanets, or those orbiting stars other than the sun.

    The research effort is coordinated by NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science, or NExSS, a worldwide network dedicated to finding new ways to study the age-old question: “Are we alone?”

    A theme through the research and the discussions behind it is the need to consider planets in an integrated way, involving multiple disciplines and perspectives.

    “For life to be detectable on a distant world it needs to strongly modify its planet in a way that we can detect,” said UW astronomy professor Victoria Meadows, lead author of one of the papers and principle investigator of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, or VPL for short. “But for us to correctly recognize life’s impact, we also need to understand the planet and star — that environmental context is key.”

    Work done by NExSS researchers will help identify the measurements and instruments needed to search for life using future NASA flagship missions. The detection of atmospheric signatures of a few potentially habitable planets may possibly come before 2030, although whether the planets are truly habitable or have life will require more in-depth study.

    The papers result from two years of effort by some of the world’s leading researchers in astrobiology, planetary science, Earth science, heliophysics, astrophysics, chemistry and biology, including several from the UW and the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, or VPL. The coordinated work was born of online meetings and an in-person workshop held in Seattle in July of 2016.

    The pace of exoplanet discoveries has been rapid, with over 3,700 detected since 1992. NASA formed the international NExSS network to focus a variety of disciplines on understanding how we can characterize and eventually search for signs of life, called biosignatures, on exoplanets.

    The NExSS network has furthered the field of exoplanet biosignatures and “fostered communication between researchers searching for signs of life on solar system bodies with those searching for signs of life on exoplanets,” said Niki Parenteau, an astrobiologist and microbiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, and a VPL team member. “This has allowed for sharing of ‘lessons learned’ by both communities.”

    The first of the papers [links for all papers are below] reviews types of signatures astrobiologists have proposed as ways to identify life on an exoplanet. Scientists plan to look for two major types of signals: One is in the form of gases that life produces, such as oxygen made by plants or photosynthetic microbes. The other could come from the light reflected by life itself, such as the color of leaves or pigments.

    Such signatures can be seen on Earth from orbit, and astronomers are studying designs of telescope concepts that may be able to detect them on planets around nearby stars. Meadows is a co-author, and lead author is Edward Schwieterman, a VPL team member who earned his doctorate in astronomy and astrobiology from the UW and is now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Riverside.

    Meadows is lead author of the second review paper, which discusses recent research on “false positives” and “false negatives” for biosignatures, or ways nature could “trick” scientists into thinking a planet without life was alive, or vice versa.

    In this paper, Meadows and co-authors review ways that a planet could make oxygen abiotically, or without the presence of life, and how planets with life may not have the signature of oxygen that is abundant on modern-day Earth.

    The paper’s purpose, Meadows said, was to discuss these changes in our understanding of biosignatures and suggest “a more comprehensive” treatment. She said: “There are lots of things in the universe that could potentially put two oxygen atoms together, not just photosynthesis — let’s try to figure out what they are. Under what conditions are they are more likely to happen, and how can we avoid getting fooled?”

    Schwieterman is a co-author on this paper, as well as UW doctoral students Jacob Lustig-Yaeger, Russell Deitrick and Andrew Lincowski.

    With such advance thinking, scientists are now better prepared to distinguish false positives from planets that truly do host life.

    Two more papers show how scientists try to formalize the lessons we have learned from Earth, and expand them to the wide diversity of worlds we have yet to discover.

    David Catling, UW professor of Earth and space sciences, is lead author on a paper that proposes a framework for assessing exoplanet biosignatures, considering such variables as the chemicals in the planet’s atmosphere, the presence of oceans and continents and the world’s overall climate. Doctoral student Joshua Krissansen-Totton is a co-author.

    By combining all this information in systematic ways, scientists can analyze whether data from a planet can be better explained statistically by the presence of life, or its absence.

    “If future data from an exoplanet perhaps suggest life, what approach can distinguish whether the existence of life is a near-certainty or whether the planet is really as dead as a doornail?” said Catling. “Basically, NASA asked us to work out how to assign a probability to the presence of exoplanet life, such as a 10, 50 or 90 percent chance. Our paper presents a general method to do this.”

    The data that astronomers collect on exoplanets will be sparse. They will not have samples from these distant worlds, and in many cases will study the planet as a single point of light. By analyzing these fingerprints of atmospheric gases and surfaces embedded in that light, they will discern as much as possible about the properties of that exoplanet.

    “Because life, planet, and parent star change with time together, a biosignature is no longer a single target but a suite of system traits,” said Nancy Kiang, a biometeorologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and a VPL team member. She said more biologists and geologists will be needed to interpret observations “where life processes will be adapted to the particular environmental context.”

    The final article discusses the ground-based and space-based telescopes that astronomers will use to search for life beyond the solar system. This includes a variety of observatories, from those in operation today to ones that will be built decades in the future.

    Taken together, this cluster of papers explains how the exoplanet community will evolve from their current assessments of the sizes and orbits of these faraway worlds, to thorough analysis of their chemical composition and eventually whether they harbor life.

    “I’m excited to see how this research progresses over the coming decades,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and a VPL team member. He is also a co-author on four of the five papers.

    “NExSS has created a diverse network of scientists. That network will allow the community to more rigorously assess planets for biosignatures than would have otherwise been possible.”

    NExSS is an interdisciplinary, cross-divisional NASA research coordination network.

    Science papers in journal Astrobiology:

    Exoplanet Biosignatures: At the Dawn of a New Era of Planetary Observations
    Exoplanet Biosignatures: Understanding Oxygen as a Biosignature in the Context of Its Environment
    Exoplanet Biosignatures: A Review of Remotely Detectable Signs of Life
    Exoplanet Biosignatures: A Framework for Their Assessment
    Exoplanet Biosignatures: Observational Prospects
    Exoplanet Biosignatures: Future Directions

    See the full NASA article here .
    See the full U Washington article here .


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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge, on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

    Caltech Logo

    NASA image

     
  • richardmitnick 2:40 pm on June 7, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , , ,   

    From Many Worlds: “Breakthrough Findings on Mars Organics and Mars Methane” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    From Many Worlds

    2018-06-07
    Marc Kaufman

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover

    After almost six years of searching, drilling and analyzing on Mars, the Curiosity rover team has conclusively detected three types of naturally-occurring organics that had not been identified before on the planet.

    The Mars organics Science paper by NASA’s Jennifer Eigenbrode and much of the rover’s Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument team was twinned with another paper describing the discovery of a seasonal pattern to the release of the simple organic gas methane on Mars.

    This finding is also a major step forward not only because it provides ground truth for the difficult question of whether significant amounts of methane are in the Martian atmosphere, but equally important it determines that methane concentrations appear to change with the seasons. The implications of that seasonality are intriguing, to say the least.

    In an accompanying opinion piece in Science, Inges Loes ten Kate of Utrecht University in Netherlands wrote of the two papers: “Both these findings are breakthroughs in astrobiology.”

    2
    Remains of 3.5 billion-year old lake that once filled Gale Crater. NASA scientists concluded early in the Curiosity mission that the planet was habitable long ago based on the study of mudstone remains like these. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS).

    Finding organic compounds on Mars has been a prime goal of the Curiosity rover mission.

    Those carbon-based compounds surely fall from the sky on Mars, as they do on Earth and everywhere else, but identifying them has proven illusive.

    The consequences of that non-discovery have been significant. Going back to the Viking missions of 1976, scientists concluded that life was not possible on Mars because there were no organics, or none that were detected.

    But the reasons for the disappearing organics are pretty well understood. Without much of an atmosphere to protect it, the Martian surface is bombarded with ultraviolet radiation, which can destroy organic compounds. Or, in the case of the samples discovered by the SAM team, large organic macromolecules — the likes of proteins, membranes and DNA — are broken up into much smaller pieces.

    That’s what the team found, Eigenbrode told me. The organics were probably preserved, she said, because of exceptionally high levels of sulfur present in that part of Gale Crater.

    The organics, extracted from mudstone at the Mojave and Confidence Hill sites, had bonded tightly with ancient non-organic material. The organic material was freed to be collected as gas only after being exposed to temperatures of more than 500 to 800 centigrade in the SAM oven.

    “This material was buried for billions of years and then exposed to extreme surface conditions, so there’s a limit to what we can learn about. Did it come from life? We don’t know.

    “But the fact we found the organic carbon adds to the habitability equation. It was in a lake environment that we know could have supported life. Organics are things that organisms can eat.”

    It will take different kinds of instruments and samples from drilling deeper into the extreme Martian surface to answer the question of whether the organics came from living microbes. But for Eigenbrode, future answers of either “yes” or “no” are almost equally interesting.

    Finding clear signs of early Martian life would certainly be hugely important, she said. But a conclusion that Mars never had life — although it had conditions some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago quite similar to conditions on Earth at that time — raises the obvious question of “why not?”

    3
    NASA’s Curiosity rover raised robotic arm with drill pointed skyward while exploring Vera Rubin Ridge at the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched from raw images taken on Sol 1833, Oct. 2, 2017 and colorized. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo)

    Organic molecules are the building blocks of all known life on Earth, and consist of a wide variety of molecules made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. However, organic molecules can also be made by chemical reactions that don’t involve life.

    Examples of non-biological sources include chemical reactions in water at ancient Martian hot springs or delivery of organic material to Mars by interplanetary dust or fragments of asteroids and comets.

    It needs to be said that today’s Mars organics announcement was not the first we have heard. In 2014, a NASA team reported the presence of chlorine-based organics in Sheepbed mudstone at Yellowknife Bay, the first ancient Mars lake visited by Curiosity.

    That work, led by NASA Goddard scientists Caroline Freissinet and Daniel Glavin and published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, focused on signatures from unusual organics not seen naturally on Earth.

    The organics were complex and made entirely of Martian components, the paper reported. But because they combined chlorine with the organic hydrocarbons, they are not considered to be as “natural” as the discovery announced today.

    And when it comes to organics on Mars, the complicated history of research into the presence of the gas methane (a simple molecule that consists of carbon and hydrogen) also shows the great challenges involved in making these measurements on Mars.

    4
    By measuring absorption of light at specific wavelengths, the tunable laser spectrometer on Curiosity measures concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor in the Martian atmosphere. (NASA)

    4
    The gold-plated Sample Analysis on Mars contains three instruments that make the measurements of organics and methane. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

    The second Science paper, authored by Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and colleagues, reports that the gas methane has been detected regularly in recent years, with surprising seasonality.

    “The history of Mars methane has been frustrating, with reports of some large plumes and spikes detected, but none have been repeatable. It’s almost like they’re random,” he told me. “But now we can see a large seasonal cycle in the background of these detections, and that’s extremely important.”

    Over three Mars years, or almost five Earth years, Webster said there have been significant increases in methane detected during the summer, and especially the late summer. That tripling of the methane counts is considered too great to be random, especially since the count declines as predicted after the summer ends.

    No definite explanation of why this happens has emerged yet, but one theory has been embraced by some scientists.

    While it is still cold in the Martian summer, it can get warm enough where the sun shines directly on a collection of ice for some melting to occur. And that melting, the paper reports, could provide an escape valve for methane collected long ago under the surface. The process is termed “microseepage.”

    5
    This illustration shows the ways in which methane from the subsurface might find its way to the
    surface where its release could produce the large seasonal variation in the atmosphere
    as observed by Curiosity. Potential methane sources include byproducts from organisms alive or long dead, ultraviolet degradation of organics, or water-rock chemistry; and its losses include atmospheric photochemistry and surface reactions. Seasons refer to the northern hemisphere. The plotted data is from Curiosity’s TLS-SAM instrument, and the curved line through the data is to aid the eye. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

    Methane is a crucial organic in astrobiology because most of that gas found on Earth comes from biology, although various non-biological processes can produce methane as well.

    Today’s paper by Webster et al is the third in Science on Mars methane as measured by Curiosity, and it is the first to find a seasonal pattern. The first paper, in 2013 Science, actually reported there was no methane measured in early runs, a conclusion that led to push-back from many of those working in the field.

    While the Mars methane results released today are being described as a “breakthrough,” they follow closely the findings of a Science paper in 2009 by Michael Mumma and Geronimo Villanueva, both at NASA Goddard.

    The two reported then similar findings of plumes of methane on Mars, of a seasonality associated with their distribution, and a similar conclusion that the methane probably was coming from subsurface reservoirs. Like Webster et al, Mumma and Villanueva said they were unable to determine if the source of methane was biological or geological.

    The methane levels in the plumes they found were considerably higher than detected so far by Curiosity, but what they were detecting was quite different. Using ground-based telescopes, they detected the high concentrations in two specific areas over a number of years, while Curiosity is measuring methane levels that are more global or regional.

    Just as Webster was criticized for his initial paper saying there was no methane detected on Mars, the Mumma team also got sharp questions about their methodology and conclusions. This grew as their numerous follow-up efforts to detect the Mars methane proved unsuccessful.

    But now Webster says the Curiosity findings have essentially “confirmed” what Mumma and Villanueva reported nine years ago.

    Still, the Curiosity results are a breakthrough because they were made on Mars rather than through a telescope. Mumma, who described the new Curiosity results as “satisfying,” agreed that they were a major step forward.

    “This is how science works,” he said. “We do our work and put out our papers and other scientists react. We take it all in and make changes if needed. But the big changes come when new, and maybe different, data is presented.”

    And that’s exactly what will be happening soon regarding methane on Mars. Beginning early this year, the European/Russian Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) has been collecting data specifically on Mars gases including methane. Unlike previous Mars methane campaigns, this one can potentially determine whether the methane being released from below the surface was formed by biology or geology — although not without great difficulty.

    Mumma, who is part of that TGO team, said the first release of information is due in the fall.

    See the full article here .


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    About Many Worlds

    There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

    Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

    This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

     
    • stewarthoughblog 12:28 am on June 8, 2018 Permalink | Reply

      Fascinating results and science from exploration and experiments on Mars. Understanding that much of the funding justification is predicated on the possibility of hopefully finding evidence of life, past or present, the whole thing is seriously over-optimistic and not scientifically based on reality. Proposing Mars was once habitable to a level similar on Earth is extremely speculative, especially considering that primordial Earth conditions are not comprehensively understood. More importantly, there are no naturalistic processes capable of creating life, no matter the planet examined. Consequently, the only life found on Mars will be Earth effluent.

      Like

      • richardmitnick 12:01 pm on June 8, 2018 Permalink | Reply

        To be honest, I do not know why we spend so much time and money on Mars exploration.

        Like

        • stewarthoughblog 11:31 pm on June 8, 2018 Permalink

          I believe it is because no other solar system body is as approachable and accessible, and no other is as close to Earth parametrically, so no other is likely to have replicated the conditions of primordial Earth when the first life arose. Since determining the origin of life and the possibility of it ever having existed anywhere in the universe is arguably the greatest desire of humanity to find out, that is why Mars is so intriguing.Virtually all space missions are striving to learn about life, and it is a sexier topic than geology and atmospheres, it is thrown out continually to promote funding.

          Like

  • richardmitnick 5:31 pm on June 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Astrobiology, , , ENIGMA-Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors, ,   

    From Rutgers: “NASA Funds Rutgers Scientists’ Pursuit of the Origins of Life” 

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    Our Great Seal.

    From Rutgers University

    [THIS POST IS DEDICATED TO L.Z. OF RUTGERS AND HP FOR HIS UNENDING SUPPORT OF THIS BLOG AND PHYSICS AT RUTGERS UNIVERSITY]

    Jun 4, 2018

    Todd Bates
    848-932-0550
    todd.bates@rutgers.edu

    Rutgers-led ENIGMA team examines whether “protein nanomachines” in our cells arose before life on Earth, other planets.

    What are the origins of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere? Did “protein nanomachines” evolve here before life began to catalyze and support the development of living things? Could the same thing have happened on Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Neptune, and elsewhere in the universe?

    A Rutgers University-led team of scientists called ENIGMA, for “Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors,” will try to answer those questions over the next five years, thanks to an approximately $6 million NASA grant and membership in the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

    Rutgers Today asked Paul G. Falkowski, ENIGMA principal investigator and a distinguished professor at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, about research on the origins of life.

    1
    Iron- and sulfur-containing minerals found on the early Earth (greigite, left, is one example) share a remarkably similar molecular structure with metals found in modern proteins (ferredoxin, right, is one example). Did the first proteins at the dawn of life on Earth interact directly with rocks to promote catalysis of life?
    Image: Professor Vikas Nanda/Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers

    What is astrobiology?

    It is the study of the origins of life on Earth and potential life on planets – called extrasolar planets – and planetary bodies like moons in our solar system and other solar systems. More than 3,700 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in the last decade or so. Many of these are potentially rocky planets that are close enough to their star that they may have liquid water, and we want to try and understand if the gases on those planets are created by life, such as the oxygen on Earth.

    What is the ENIGMA project?

    All life on Earth depends on the movement of electrons; life literally is electric. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out water vapor and carbon dioxide, and in that process we transfer hydrogen atoms, which contain a proton and an electron, to oxygen to make water (H20). We move electrons from the food we eat to the oxygen in the air to derive energy. Every organism on Earth moves electrons to generate energy. ENIGMA is a team of primarily Rutgers researchers that is trying to understand the earliest evolution of these processes, and we think that hydrogen was probably one of the most abundant gases in the early Earth that supported life.

    What are the chances of life being found elsewhere in our solar system and the universe?

    We’ve been looking for evidence of life on Mars since the Viking mission, which landed in 1976. I think it will be very difficult to prove there is life on Mars today, but there may be signatures of life that existed on Mars in the distant past. Mars certainly had a lot of water on it and had an atmosphere, but that’s all largely gone now. A proposed mission to Europa – an ice-covered moon of Jupiter – is in the planning phase. NASA’s Cassini mission to investigate Titan, a moon of Neptune, revealed liquid methane over what we think is water – very cold, shallow oceans – so there may be life on Titan.

    What are protein nanomachines?

    They are enzymes that physically move. Each time we take a breath, an enzyme in every cell allows you to transfer electrons to oxygen. Enzymes, like all proteins, are made up of amino acids, of which there are 20 that are used in life. Early on, amino acids were delivered to Earth by meteorites, and we think some of these amino acids could have been coupled together and made nanomachines before life began. That’s what we’re looking to see if we can recreate, using the tens of thousands of protein structures in the Protein Data Bank at Rutgers together with our colleagues in the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine.

    What are the next steps?

    Organizing our research so it is coherent and relevant to the other collaborating teams in the NASA Astrobiology Institute. We want to develop an education and outreach program at Rutgers that leads to an astrobiology minor for undergraduate students and helps inform K-12 schoolchildren about the origins of life on Earth and what we know and don’t know about the potential for life on other planets. We also want to help make Rutgers a center of excellence in this field so future undergraduate and graduate students and faculty will gravitate towards this university to try to understand the evolution and origin of the molecules that derive energy for life.

    See the full article here .

    Follow Rutgers Research here .

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    Stem Education Coalition

    rutgers-campus

    Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is a leading national research university and the state’s preeminent, comprehensive public institution of higher education. Rutgers is dedicated to teaching that meets the highest standards of excellence; to conducting research that breaks new ground; and to providing services, solutions, and clinical care that help individuals and the local, national, and global communities where they live.

    Founded in 1766, Rutgers teaches across the full educational spectrum: preschool to precollege; undergraduate to graduate; postdoctoral fellowships to residencies; and continuing education for professional and personal advancement.

    As a ’67 graduate of University college, second in my class, I am proud to be a member of

    Alpha Sigma Lamda, National Honor Society of non-tradional students.

     
    • stewarthoughblog 1:20 am on June 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply

      I suppose it is inevitable for naturalists to revisit the myths of chemical evolution, Darwin’s “warm little ponds,” OparinHaldane prebiotic soup, Miller-Urey test tube goo, FeS minerals, etc. This may get funding, have some interesting science, but otherwise will offer nothing to the present chaotic mess of naturalist origin of life, OoL, research.
      If they really want to address OoL, then they need to explain the creation of DNA and the homochiral amino acids and pentose sugars required. The 20 amino acids mentioned are exclusively produced through cellular, aka living, functions, never naturalistically. There is no naturalistic process capable of producing all amino acids.
      The propositions in this article are intellectually insulting and scientifically nonsensical.

      Like

      • richardmitnick 12:59 pm on June 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply

        While I respect your opinions, the main reason I posted this was that anything good that happens at Rutgers, my alma mater, I need to jump on. Rutgers is a great research university with a penchant for very poor representation in social media.

        Like

        • stewarthoughblog 11:32 pm on June 6, 2018 Permalink

          Richard, no slight intended against your alma mater, but it is the substance of the article that prompted my comment, which I can only propose was written by someone very uninformed about the pertinent science, or by a fully impregnated naturalistic ideologue, if you know what I mean.. Regards.

          Like

        • richardmitnick 3:13 pm on June 7, 2018 Permalink

          No harm, no foul. I appreciate your continued interest in the blog. I am in a personal war with Rutgers to wake them up to their web compeition like all of the University of California schools, UBC, U Toronto, U Arizona, a bunch of “state” schools in Australia, and the like, all state schools. I am not asking them to to be Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Oxford or Cambridge. I want what I want.

          Like

        • stewarthoughblog 12:31 am on June 8, 2018 Permalink

          Thank you, sounds like a noble cause, best wishes

          Like

  • richardmitnick 11:45 am on May 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, Existence of a thick haze around the early Archean Earth and probably today around some and perhaps many exoplanets, , , NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astronomer and astrobiologist Giada Arney, Niki Parenteau of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Radiation-under what conditions the organisms can survive, So how did organisms survive the radiation assault?, The microbes-and-haze experiment is one of many that Parenteau is working on in the general field of biosignatures, , This can all tested in a lab   

    From Many Worlds: “Joining the Microscope and the Telescope in the Search for Life Beyond Earth” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    2018-05-30
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Niki Parenteau of NASA’s Ames Research Center is a microbiologist working in the field of exoplanet and Mars biosignatures. She adds a laboratory biology approach to a field generally known for its astronomers, astrophysicists and planetary scientists. (Marisa Mayer, Stanford University.)

    The world of biology is filled with labs where living creatures are cultured and studied, where the dynamics of life are explored and analyzed to learn about behavior, reproduction, structure, growth and so much more.

    In the field of astrobiology, however, you don’t see much lab biology — especially when it comes to the search for life beyond Earth. The field is now largely focused on understanding the conditions under which life could exist elsewhere, modeling what chemicals would be present in the atmosphere of an exoplanet with life, or how life might begin as an organized organism from a theoretical perspective.

    Yes, astrobiology includes and learns from the study of extreme forms of life on Earth, from evolutionary biology, from the research into the origins of life.

    But the actual bread and butter of biologists — working with lifeforms in a lab or in the environment — plays a back seat to modeling and simulations that rely on computers rather than actual life.

    There are certainly exceptions, and one of the most interesting is the work of Mary “Niki” Parenteau at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay area.

    2
    Niki Parenteau with her custom-designed LED array, can reproduce the spectral features of different simulated stellar and atmospheric conditions to test on primitive microbes. (Marc Kaufman)

    A microbiologist by training, she has been active for over five years now in the field of exoplanet biosignatures — trying to determine what astronomers could and should look for in the search for extraterrestrial life.

    Working in her lab with actual live bacteria in laboratory flasks, test tubes and tanks, she is conducting traditional biological experiments that have everything to do with astrobiology.

    She takes primitive bacteria known to have existed in some form on the early Earth, and she blasts them with the radiation that would have hit the planet at the time to see under what conditions the organisms can survive. She has designed ingenious experiments using different forms of ultraviolet light and a LED array that simulate the broad range of radiations that would come from different types of stars as well.

    What makes this all so intriguing is that her work uses, and then moves forward, cutting edge modeling from astronomers and astrobiologists regarding thick photochemical hazes understood to have engulfed the early Earth — making the planet significantly colder but also possibly providing some protection from deadly ultraviolet radiation.

    That was a time when the atmosphere held very little oxygen, and when many organisms had to make their living via carbon dioxide and sulfur-based photosynthesis that did not use water and did not produce oxygen. This kind of photosynthesis has been the norm for much of the history of life on Earth, and certainly could be common on many exoplanets orbiting other stars as well.

    So anything learned about how these early organisms survived in frigid conditions with high ultraviolet radiation — and what potentially detectable byproducts they would have produced under those conditions — would be important in the search for biosignatures and extraterrestrial life.

    Parenteau has spent years learning from astronomers working to find ways to characterize exoplanet biosignatures, and she has been eager to convert her own work into something useful to them.

    “These are not questions that can be answered by one discipline,” she told me. “I certainly understand that when it comes to exoplanet biosignatures and life detection, astronomy has to be in the lead. But biologists have a role to play, especially when it comes to characterizing what life produces.”

    Here is the back story to Parenteau’s work:

    Recent work by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astronomer and astrobiologist Giada Arney and colleagues points to the existence of a thick haze around the early Archean Earth and probably today around some, and perhaps many, exoplanets.

    3
    Giada Arney is an astronomer and astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. As with Parenteau, her general approach to science was formed at the University of Washington’s pioneering Virtual Planetary Laboratory. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

    This haze — which is more like pollution than clouds — is produced by the interaction of strong incoming radiation and chemicals (most commonly methane and carbon dioxide) already in the atmosphere.

    The haze, Arney concluded based on elaborate modeling of those radiation-chemical interactions, would be hard on any life that might exist on the planet because it would reduce surface temperatures significantly, though probably not always fatally.

    On the other hand, the haze would also have the effect of blocking 84 percent of the destructive ultraviolet radiation bombarding the planet — especially the most damaging ultraviolet-C light that would otherwise destroy nucleic acids in cells and disrupt the working of DNA. (Ultraviolet-C radiation is used as a microbial disinfectant.)

    Ozone in our atmosphere now plays the role of blocking the most destructive forms of UV radiation, but ozone is formed from oxygen and on early Earth there was very little oxygen at all.

    So how did organisms survive the radiation assault? Might it have been that haze? And might there be hazes surrounding exoplanets as well? (None have been found so far.)

    It’s difficult enough to sort through the potentially protective role of a haze on early Earth. To do it for exoplanets requires not only an understanding of the effects of a haze on ultraviolet light, but also how the dynamics of a haze would change based on the amounts and forms of radiation emitted by different types of stars.

    It’s all very complicated, but the answers needn’t be theoretical, Arney concluded. They could be tested in a lab.

    And that’s where Parenteau comes in, with her desire and ability to design biological experiments that might help scientists understand better how to look for life on distant exoplanets.

    “I knew that (Parenteau) had been super interested in this kind of question for a long time,” Arney said. “She one of the few people in the world with the know-how to simulate an atmosphere, and probably the only one in the world who could do the experiment.”

    4
    The 48 LEDs (light-emitting diodes) of the board designed and created by Parenteau and Ames intern Cameron Hearne. Each one is independently controlled and can be used to simulate the amount of radiation arriving on a planetary surface — taking into account the flux from the planet’s star and some aspects of its atmosphere. A microbe is then exposed to the radiation to see whether or how it can survive. (Niki Parenteau.)

    Parenteau’s experiment at first looks pretty low-tech, but in fact it’s very much custom-designed and custom-built.

    The ultraviolet bulbs include the powerful, germicidal ultraviolet-C variety, some of the glass for the experiment is made of special quartz that is transparent to that ultraviolet light, the LED array has 48 tiny bulbs that can be controlled by software to provide different amounts and kinds of light as identified and provided by Arney

    Before designing and making her own LED board with Ames intern Cameron Hearne, Parenteau met with solar panel specialists who might be able to provide an instrument she could use, but it turned out they were very expensive and not nearly as versatile as she wanted. Having grown up on a farm in northern Idaho, Parenteau is comfortable with making things from scratch, and her experiments reflect that comfort and talent.

    How would Parenteau determine whether the haze does indeed protect the microbial cells after exposing them to the various radiation regimes? This is how she explained the process, which measures the number of cells living or dead given a simulated UV and stellar bombardment:

    “Imagine the cells as soap bubbles in a clear glass. If you look through the glass, the soap bubbles prevent you from seeing through and the glass has a higher ‘optical density.’ However, if you pop or lyse the soap bubbles, suddenly you can see through the glass and the optical density decreases.

    “The latter represents dead ‘popped’ cells that were killed by the UV irradiation. I predict that by simulating the spectral qualities of the haze, which decreases the UV flux by 84%, more cells will survive.”

    The Parenteau-Arney collaboration is being funded through a National Astrobiology Institute grant to the University of Washington’s famously-interdisciplinary Virtual Planetary Laboratory.

    The microbes-and-haze experiment is one of many that Parenteau is working on in the general field of biosignatures. While the haze experiment is primarily designed to determine if microbes could survive a UV bombardment if a haze was present, she is also working on the central question of what might constitute a biosignature.

    With that in mind, she is also measuring the gases produced by microbes under different radiation and atmospheric conditions, and that is directly applicable to searching for extraterrestrial life.

    5
    A densely-packed community of microbes, including oxygen-producing cyanobacteria as well as anoxygenic purple and green bacteria, being studied with Parenteau’s LED array. A central question involves what gases are emitted and might be detectable on a distant planet. (Niki Parenteau)

    6
    Parenteau’s lab glove box with green, purple and other bacteria that is regularly exposed to radiation conditions believed to have existed on early Earth when a photochemical haze is believed to have been present. (Marc Kaufman)

    If and when she does find particularly interesting results in the gas measurements inside the anaerobic glove box, she says, she knows where to go.

    “I would hand the results to an astronomer. We could say that if a particular kind of exoplanet with a particular atmosphere had microbial life, this is the suite of gases we would expect to be emitted.”

    Those gases, Parenteau says, may be photochemically altered as they as they rise through the planet’s atmosphere to the upper levels where they could be detected by the telescopes of the future. But in the challenging and complex world of biosignatures, every bit of hard-won data is most valuable since it could some day lead to a discovery for the ages.

    See the full article here .


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    About Many Worlds

    There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

    Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

    This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

     
  • richardmitnick 11:41 am on May 11, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , , , First Mapping of Interstellar Clouds in Three Dimensions- a Key Breakthrough for Better Understanding Star Formation,   

    From Many Worlds: “First Mapping of Interstellar Clouds in Three Dimensions; a Key Breakthrough for Better Understanding Star Formation” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    From Many Worlds

    2018-05-11
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    This snakelike gas cloud (center dark area) in the constellation Musca resembles a skinny filament. But it’s actually a flat sheet that extends about 20 light-years into space away from Earth, an analysis finds. (Dylan O’Donnell, deography.com/WikiCommons)

    When thinking and talking about “astrobiology,” many people are inclined to think of alien creatures that often look rather like us, but with some kind of switcheroo. Life, in this view, means something rather like us that just happens to live on another planet and perhaps uses different techniques to stay alive.

    But as defined by NASA, and what “astrobiology” is in real scientific terms, is the search for life beyond Earth and the exploration of how life began here. They may seem like very different subjects but are actually joined at the hip; having a deeper understanding of how life originated on Earth is surely one of the most important set of clues to how to find it elsewhere.

    Those con-joined scientific disciplines — the search for extraterrestrial life and the extraordinarily difficult task of analyzing how it started here — together raise another most complex challenge.

    Precisely how far back do we look when trying to understand the origins of life? Do we look to Darwin’s “warm little pond?” To the Miller-Urey experiment’s conclusion that organic building blocks of life can be formed by sparking some common gases and water with electricity? To an understanding the nature and evolution of our atmosphere?

    The answer is “yes” to all, as well as to scores of additional essential dynamics of our galaxies. Because to begin to answer those three questions, we also have to know how planets form, the chemical make-up of the cosmos, how different suns effect different exoplanets and so much more.

    This is why I was so interested in reading about a breakthrough approach to understanding the shape and nature of interstellar clouds. Because it is when those clouds of gas and dust collapse under their own gravitational attraction that stars are formed — and, of course, none of the above questions have meaning without preexisting stars.

    In theory, the scope of astrobiology could go back further than star-formation, but I take my lead from Mary Voytek, chief scientist for astrobiology at NASA. The logic of star formation is part of astrobiology, she says, but the innumerable cosmological developments going back to the Big Bang are not.

    So by understanding something new about interstellar clouds — in this case determining the 3D structure of such a “cloud” — we are learning about some of the very earliest questions of astrobiology, the process that led over the eons to us and most likely life of some sort on the billions of exoplanets we now know are out there.

    2
    Cepheus B, a molecular cloud located in our Milky Galaxy about 2,400 light years from the Earth, provides an excellent model to determine how stars are formed. This composite image of Cepheus B combines data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope.The Chandra observations allowed the astronomers to pick out young stars within and near Cepheus B, identified by their strong X-ray emission.
    Credits X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/K. Getman et al.; IRL NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J. Wang et al.

    NASA/Chandra X-ray Telescope

    NASA/Spitzer Infrared Telescope

    So, what is an interstellar cloud?

    It’s the generic name given to an accumulation of gas, plasma, and dust in our and other galaxies, left over from galaxy formation. So an interstellar cloud is a denser-than-average region of the interstellar medium.

    Hydrogen is its primary component, and that hydrogen exists in a wide variety of states depending on the density, the age, the location and more of the cloud.

    Until recently the rates of reactions in interstellar clouds were expected to be very slow, with minimal products being produced due to the low temperature and density of the clouds. However, organic molecules were observed in the spectra that scientists would not have expected to find under these conditions, such as formaldehyde, methanol, and vinyl alcohol.

    The reactions needed to create such substances are familiar to scientists only at the much higher temperatures and pressures of earth and earth-based laboratories. The fact that they were found indicates that these chemical reactions in interstellar clouds take place faster than suspected, likely in gas-phase reactions unfamiliar to organic chemistry as observed on earth.

    What was newly revealed this week is that it is possible to determine the 3D structure of an interstellar cloud. The advance not only reveals the true structure of the molecular cloud Musca, which differs from previous assumptions in looking more like a pancake than a needle.

    But the two authors, astrophysicist Konstantinos Tassis of the University of Crete and Aris Tritsis, now a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University, say their discovery will lead to a better understanding of the evolution of interstellar clouds in general. This, in turn, which will help astronomers answer the longstanding questions of how and why the enormous number and wild variety of stars exists in our galaxy and beyond.

    The two put together a video to help explain the science of Musca and its dimensions. The work was published in the journal Science, and here is their description of what the video shows:

    “The first part of the movie gives an overview of the problem of viewing star-forming clouds in 2D projection. The second part of the video shows the striations in Musca, and the process through which the normal mode spatial frequencies are recovered. The third part of the movie demonstrates how the apparently complex profiles of the intensity cuts through striations are reproduced by progressively summing the theoretically predicted normal modes. At this part of the video (1:30-1:52) the spatial frequencies are scaled to the frequency range of human hearing and are represented by the musical crescendo.”

    In an email, Tritsis said that this is the first time that the 3-dimensional coordinates of an interstellar cloud have been measured.

    “There have been other crude estimates of the 3D sizes of clouds that relied on many assumptions so this is the first time we were able to determine the size with such accuracy and certainty,” he wrote.

    “What we are after is the physics that controls the nature of the stars that will form. This physics will dictate how many star will form and with what masses, but it will also be responsible for shaping the cloud. Thus, this physics is encoded in the shape and that is why we are so interested about it.”

    Their pathway in to mapping a 3D cloud was the striations (wispy stripe-like patterns) they detected within the cloud. They show that these striations form by the excitation of fast magnetosonic waves (longitudinal magnetic pressure waves) – the cloud is vibrating, like a bell ringing after it has been struck.

    “What we have actually found is that the entire cloud oscillates just like waves on the surface of a pond,” he wrote in his email.

    “However, in this instance is not the surface of the water that is oscillating but the magnetic field that is threading the cloud. Furthermore, because these waves get trapped, they act like a fingerprint. They are unique and by studying their frequencies we can deduce the sizes of the boundaries that confined them.

    “It is the same concept as a violin and a cello making very different sounds. In a similar fashion, clouds with different shapes and sizes will vibrate differently. After having identify the frequencies of these oscillations we scaled them to the frequency range of human hearing to get the ‘song of Musca’!”

    By analyzing the frequencies of these waves the authors produce a model of the cloud, showing that Musca is not a long, thin filament as once thought, but rather a vast sheet-like or pancake structure that stretches 20 light-years away from Earth. (The cloud is some 27 light 490 and 650 light-years from Earth.)

    With the determination of its 3D nature, the scientists modeled a cloud that is ten times more spacious than earlier thought.

    From the 3D reconstruction, the authors were able to determine the cloud’s density. Tritsis and Tassis note that, with its geometry now determined, Musca can be used to test theoretical models of interstellar clouds.

    “Because of the fact that Musca is isolated and it is very ordered, it was the obvious choice for us to test our method,” Tritis wrote. “However, other clouds out there could also vibrate globally.

    “Knowing the exact dimensions of Musca, we can simulate it in great detail, calculate many different properties of this particular cloud based on different star formation models, and compare them with observations.

    “We believe that, with its 3D structure revealed, Musca will now act as a prototype laboratory to study star formation in greater detail than ever before. The Musca star formation saga is only now beginning, and this is a very exciting development that goes beyond this particular discovery.”

    And in that way, the discovery is very much a part of the long and broad sweep of astrobiology.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    About Many Worlds

    There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

    Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

    This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

     
  • richardmitnick 3:25 pm on March 16, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , , , Language arts, , , Speak like a human to ET   

    From METI: “Speak like a human to ET” 

    1

    METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International has announced plans to start sending signals into space

    METI International

    3.16.18

    Morris Jones

    Much attention in the METI world is focused on designing codes or languages that could be understood by extraterrestrials. We don’t think they would speak any languages commonly used by humans, so attempts are made to produce something close to a “universal language”. Mathematics heavily influences this process, and with good reason. It’s a more objective reflection of the universe, and taps into rules and laws that would apply to extraterrestrials as much as us. Addition works the same way on Earth and Proxima Centauri. But even the way humans interpret and communicate mathematics is subjective. It’s not only the code and symbolism we use. It could even reflect cognitive processes that could be unique to humans, and not necessarily shared by creatures with different minds.

    Other attempts at communication involve photographs and pictograms. But even these efforts can be less clear than we think. What we show, and what we expect to be interpreted, can be very different. People read different messages into the same image, even if they speak the same language. These differences can be profound between members of the same species. Imagine how this would affect communication between different planets!

    This analyst thus seeks to highlight a paradigm that approaches extraterrestrial messaging from another angle. Speak like a human! We don’t know how extraterrestrials think or communicate. Any effort we make in this regard is likely to have problems. But we know how humans communicate very well. Our languages and media (including all the arts) are vivid and profound. We have a lot to say, and the means to do so. Our systems are not always perfect, but they are effective.

    SETI and METI scientists love to invoke analogy in their considerations of extraterrestrials. We know about humans but we know essentially nothing about extraterrestrials. So it makes sense to work with what you have. Extrapolating human factors to extraterrestrials is hazardous, but it does have some degree of utility. There is likely to be a lot in common, even though there could be profound differences.

    Let’s apply this principle to communication. The languages of humans are known to us. They could even be more universal than we realize. Cognitive scientists and linguists claim that much of the basis of language seems to be hardwired into our brains, whether we speak Spanish or Swahili. There could even be principles of logic and information theory that mandate certain factors in communication, regardless of biology. Extraterrestrials may not think exactly the same way or communicate as we do, but they could still decipher much of what we want to say.

    Our languages are more than just means of communicating ideas. They presumably convey knowledge about the minds and societies that developed them. Some of these mechanisms are known to us, but others could be yet undiscovered by our own scholars. Extraterrestrials may know better. Furthermore, they could presumably conduct comparative linguistic studies with their own languages or those of other civilizations they have encountered.

    Furthermore, human languages are really a more open and direct way of saying what who we are. They are a part of us, and we should communicate our languages as much as we communicate anything else.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    The primary objectives and purposes of METI International are to:

    Conduct scientific research and educational programs in Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

    Promote international cooperation and collaboration in METI, SETI, and astrobiology.

    Understand and communicate the societal implications and relevance of searching for life beyond Earth, even before detection of extraterrestrial life.

    Foster multidisciplinary research on the design and transmission of interstellar messages, building a global community of scholars from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts.

    Research and communicate to the public the many factors that influence the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, with a special emphasis on the last three terms of the Drake Equation: (1) the fraction of life-bearing worlds on which intelligence evolves, (2) the fraction of intelligence-bearing worlds with civilizations having the capacity and motivation for interstellar communication, and (3) the longevity of such civilizations.

    Offer programs to the public and to the scholarly community that foster increased awareness of the challenges facing our civilization’s longevity, while encouraging individual and community activities that support the sustainability of human culture on multigenerational timescales, which is essential for long-term METI and SETI research.

     
  • richardmitnick 9:36 am on March 12, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , , , Carbon-based molecules are a by-product of red giants, Circumstellar envelopes, , , , ,   

    From University of Hawaii Manoa via COSMOS: “Complex organic compounds from dying stars could be life precursors” 

    U Hawaii

    University of Hawaii Manoa

    COSMOS

    12 March 2018
    Richard A. Lovett

    Lab experiments reveal carbon-based molecules are a by-product of red giants.

    1
    A red giant star – the font, perhaps, of life… QAI Publishing/UIG via Getty Images

    Laboratory experiments designed to recreate conditions around carbon-rich red giant stars have revealed that startlingly complex organic compounds can form in the “circumstellar envelopes” created by stellar winds blowing off from them.

    The carbon is present because nuclear reactions in these dying stars have progressed to the point that much of their initial complement of hydrogen and helium has been converted into heavier elements such as carbon.

    “There is a lot of carbon in these circumstellar envelopes,” says Ralf Kaiser, a physical chemist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, US.

    In research published in the journal Nature Astronomy, a team led by Kaiser used a high-temperature chemical reactor to simulate conditions inside these circumstellar envelopes.

    The goal, he says, is to demonstrate how complex compounds can be assembled a couple of carbon atoms at a time at temperatures of up to about 1200 degrees Celsius. Previous research found that a host of organic chemicals can indeed be formed, but the new study pushed the process farther, demonstrating that it is possible to create chemicals at least as complex as pyrene, a 16-carbon compound with a structure like four fused benzene rings.

    So far, pyrene is the most complex molecule constructed in this manner, but Kaiser thinks that it might be just the beginning. “We hope when we do further experiments that this can be extended,” he says.

    What this means, he explains, is that circumstellar envelopes might be able to create molecules with 60 or 70 carbons, or even nanoparticle-sized sheets of graphene, a material composed of a larger array of fused rings.

    Such materials, he says, can act as building blocks on which other molecules, such as water, methane, methanol, carbon monoxide, and ammonia can condense as they move away from the star and cool to temperatures as low as minu-263 degrees Celsius. When the resulting chemical stew is exposed to ionising radiation either from nearby sources or galactic cosmic rays, Kaiser says, they can form sugars, amino acids, and dipeptides.

    “These are molecules relevant to the origins of life,” he adds.

    Billions of years ago, such organic-rich particles may have found their way into asteroids that then rained down onto the primordial Earth, endowing us with the precursors for life.

    Pyrene is a member of a family of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the simplest of which is naphthalene, the primary ingredient of mothballs. Simple PAHs have already been detected in space, but the holy grail, Kaiser says, will be if more complex ones, such as pyrene, are found by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, now en route to asteroid 101955 Bennu, from which it is expected to send back a sample in 2023.

    NASA OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft

    “We do not know what this mission will find,” Kaiser says. But, “if they find carbonaceous materials such as PAHs, then our experiments say how this organic matter can be formed.”

    Humberto Campins, a planetary scientist from Central Florida University, Orlando, Florida, and member of the OSIRIS REx science team, agrees. Studying the chemical makeup of asteroids, he says, doesn’t just tell us about the composition of our own early solar system, but can also reveal information about “pre-solar” compounds.

    “One of the beauties of sample return missions is that the latest analytical techniques for chemical, mineralogical, and isotopic composition can be applied to very small components of the sample, such as pre-solar grains or molecules,” he says.

    “We know that the dust from these kinds of stars gets incorporated into meteorites, so they are absolutely contributing to the compounds that would be present within Bennu,” adds Chris Bennett, also of the University of Central Florida (and a former student of Kaiser’s, although he was not part of the present study team).

    Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, California, adds that the paper supports the notion that that the universe contains a large amount of carbon in the form of organic molecules. “[That’s] not a new result,” he says, “but [it is] further support for this key idea in astrobiology.”

    Kaiser adds that the finding demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary studies.

    “Most of the scientists dealing with PAHs [in space] are astronomers,” he says. “They are excellent spectroscopists, but by nature, astronomy sometimes lacks fundamental knowledge about chemistry.”

    Laboratory studies are necessary to turn theories for how complex chemicals can form in space from “hand-waving” into something more definitive, he says.

    But the interdisciplinary impact goes beyond astronomy. Pyrene and other PAHs are common pollutants that can be incorporated into dangerous soot particles created by internal combustion engines and other industrial processes.

    Lessons from astrochemistry about how they can be formed, he says, says Kaiser, can therefore have the very practical side effect of helping us develop less-polluting automobile engines.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    System Overview

    The University of Hawai‘i System includes 10 campuses and dozens of educational, training and research centers across the Hawaiian Islands. As the public system of higher education in Hawai‘i, UH offers opportunities as unique and diverse as our Island home.

    The 10 UH campuses and educational centers on six Hawaiian Islands provide unique opportunities for both learning and recreation.

    UH is the State’s leading engine for economic growth and diversification, stimulating the local economy with jobs, research and skilled workers.

     
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