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  • richardmitnick 10:01 am on March 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A Vision That Could Supercharge NASA, , , , , Hab-Ex, LUVOIR Mission Flyer, Many Worlds,   

    From Many Worlds: “A Vision That Could Supercharge NASA” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-03-15
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    LUVOIR Mission Flyer
    An artist rendering of an approximately 16-meter telescope in space. This image was created for an earlier large space telescope feasibility project called ATLAST, but it is similar to what is being discussed inside and outside of NASA as a possible great observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope. Advocates say such a large space telescope would revolutionize the search for life on exoplanets, as well as providing the greatest observing ever for general astrophysics. (NASA)


    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated


    NASA/WFIRST telescope

    Let your mind wander for a moment and let it land on the most exciting and meaningful NASA mission that you can imagine. An undertaking, perhaps, that would send astronauts into deep space, that would require enormous technological innovation, and that would have ever-lasting science returns.

    Many will no doubt think of Mars and the dream of sending astronauts there to explore. Others might imagine setting up a colony on that planet, or perhaps in the nearer term establishing a human colony on the moon. And now that we know there’s a rocky exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri — the star closest to our sun — it’s tempting to wish for a major robotic or, someday, human mission headed there to search for life.


    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    All are dream-worthy space projects for sure. But some visionary scientists (and most especially one well-known former astronaut) have been working for some time on another potential grand endeavor — one that you probably have not heard or thought about, yet might be the most compelling and achievable of them all.

    It would return astronauts to deep space and it would have them doing the kind of very difficult but essential work needed for space exploration in the far future. It would use the very costly and very powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule being built now by NASA and Lockheed Martin respectively. Most important, it would almost certainly revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos near and far.

    At a recent meeting of the House Science Committee, chairman Lamar Smith, said of the hearing’s purpose that, “Presidential transitions offer the opportunities to reinvigorate national goals. They bring fresh perspectives and new ideas that energize our efforts.”

    That said, here’s the seemingly feasible project that fires my imagination the most.

    It has been quietly but with persistence promoted most visibly by John Grunsfeld, the former astronaut who flew to the Hubble Space Telescope three times to fix and upgrade it, who has spent 58 hours on spacewalks outside the Shuttle, and towards the end of his 40 years with the agency ultimately became an associate administrator and head of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

    3
    A visualization of the assembly in space of a large segmented telescope, with work being done by astronauts and robots. The honeycomb blocks are parts of the mirror, and the grey cylinders on the right are habitats for astronauts. (NASA)

    His plan: Build a segmented space telescope mirror that is 16 meters (52 feet) in diameter or larger, package it into one or several payload fairings and launch it into deep space. Accompanying astronauts would put it together either at its final destination or at a closer point where it could then be propelled to that destination.

    This would provide invaluable humans-in-space experience, would put the Orion and SLS to very good use in advance of a projected human mission to Mars, and would deploy the most penetrating telescope observing ever. By far.

    No mirror with a diameter greater than 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) has ever been deployed in space, although the the James Webb Space Telescope mirror will be substantially larger at 6.5 meters (21 feet) when launched in 2018. The largest ground telescopes are in the 10-meter (33 foot) range [for now].

    What Grunsfeld’s space behemoth would provide is an unprecedented power and resolution to see back to the earliest point possible in the history of the universe, and doing that in the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths. But perhaps more significantly and revolutionary, it would supercharge the agency’s ability to search for life beyond Earth.

    Like nothing else currently in use or development, it would provide a real chance to answer what is arguably humanity’s most fundamental question: Are we alone in the universe?

    Grunsfeld has been introducing people to the project/vision inside NASA for some time. He also told me that he has spoken with many members of Congress about it, and that most have been quite supportive. Now he’s starting to make the case to the public.

    “We need our leaders to be bold if we want to stay in the forefront of science and engineering,” he said. “Assembling a 16-meter telescope in space would not be easy by any means. But we can do it and — this is the key — it would be transformational. It’s a rational thing to do.”

    His confidence in the possibility of launching the segmented mirror parts and having astronauts assemble them in space comes, he says, from experience. Not only has he flown on the space shuttle five times and has his three very close encounters with the Hubble, but he has also overseen the difficult process of getting the JWST project — with its pioneering segmented, folding mirror — back on track after large budget overruns and delays. He’s also trained in astrophysics and is enamored of exoplanets.

    “If your goal is to search for inhabited planets, you just have to go up to the 16-meter range for the primary telescope mirror,” he said.

    “Think about it: if we sent up something smaller, it will give us important and potentially very intruiging information about what planets might be habitable, that could potentially support life. But then we’d have to send up a bigger mirror later to actually make any detection. Why not just go to the 16-meter now?”

    6
    The strongest driver on the size of the LUVOIR telescope is the desire to have a large sample of exoEarth candidates to study. This figure shows the real stars in the sky for which a planet in the habitable zone can be observed. The color coding shows the probability of observing an exoEarth candidate if it’s present around that star (green is a high probability, red is a low one). This is a visualization of the work of Chris Stark at Space Telescope Science Institute, who created an advanced code to calculate yields of exoplanet observations with different facilities. (C. Stark and J. Tumlinson, STScI)

    While all this may sound to many like science fiction, NASA actually has a team in place studying the science and technology involved with a very large space telescope, and has funded studies of in-space assembly as well.

    The current team is one of four studying different projects for a grand observatory for the 2030s. Their mission is called LUVOIR (the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor), and both it and a second mission under study (Hab-Ex) have exoplanets as a primary focus. It was Grunsfeld and Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, who selected the four concepts for more in-depth study based in large part on astronomy and astrophysics community thinking and aspirations, especially as laid out in the 2013 Thirty-Year Astrophysics Visionary Roadmap.

    7
    Hab-Ex

    The LUVOIR team started out with the intention of studying the engineering and technological requirements — and science returns — of a space telescope between 8 and 16 meters in diameter, while Hab-Ex would look at the 4 to 7 meter option for a telescope designed to find exoplanets. Grunsfeld addressed the LUVOIR study team and encouraged them to be ambitious in their thinking — a message delivered by quite a few others as well. What’s more, a number of study team members were inclined towards the 16-meter version from the onset.

    he LUVOIR team has not addressed the issue of assembly in space — their goals are to understand the science made possible with telescopes of different sizes, to design an observatory that can be repaired and upgraded, and to determine if the technology to pull it all together is within reach for the next decade or two.

    A key issue is how large a folded up mirror the launch vehicle rocket nose cone (the fairing) can hold. While the current version of the SLS would certainly not accommodate a 16-meter segmented mirror, team study scientist Aki Roberge — an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center — said that the team just recently got the good news that a next generation SLS fairing looks like it could well hold a folded mirror of up to 15 meters. Quite a few “ifs” involved, but still promising.

    “We’re still in the midst of our work, but it’s clear that a LUVOIR with a large aperture (mirror) gives us a major science return,” she said. “Going up to nine meters would be a major leap forward, and going to 16 would be a dramatic advance on that.”

    “But we have to assess what we gain in terms of going large and what we might lose in terms of added technical difficulty, cost and time.” As is, the 9 or 16-meter project — if selected — would not be ready to launch until the mid 2030s. All the great space observatories and missions have had decades-long gestation periods.

    The results from the LUVOIR and other formal NASA study teams will be reviewed by the agency and then assessed by a sizeable group of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences for the 2020 Astrophysics Decadal Survey. They set the next decade’s topic and mission priorities for the astronomy and astrophysics communities (as well as others) — assessments that are sent back to NASA and generally followed.

    One of Grunsfeld’s goals, he told me, is to make the assembled-in-space 16-meter telescope a top Decadal Survey priority. While supportive of the LUVOIR efforts, he believes that including astronauts in the equation, deploying a somewhat larger mirror even if the difference in size is not great, and making a mirror that he says will be easier to fix and upgrade than a folded up version, gives the assembled-in-space option the advantage.

    These images, which are theoretical simulations using the iconic Hubble Deep Field image, are adjusted to reflect the light collected by telescopes of different sizes. They show the increased resolution and quality of images taken by a 16-meter telescope, a 9-meter, and the Hubble Space Telescope, which is 2.4 meters in diameter. They illustrate pretty clearly why astronomers and exoplanet hunters want ever larger telescope mirrors to collect those photons from galaxies, stars and planets.

    Whether or not the LUVOIR project is selected to be a future NASA flagship observatory, and whether or not it will be an assembled-in-space version of it, many at the agency clearly see human activity and habitation in space (as well as on planets or moons) as a necessary and inevitable next step.

    Harley Thronson is the senior scientist for Advanced Concepts in Astrophysics at Goddard, and he has worked on several projects related to how and where astronauts might live and work in space. He said this research goes back decades, having gained the attention of then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin around 2000. It has recently experienced another spurt of interest as the agency has been assessing opportunities for human operations beyond the immediate vicinity of the Earth.

    “It’s inevitable that the astronomy community will want and need larger space observatories, and so we have to work out how to design and build them, how and where they might be assembled in space, and how they can be serviced,” Thronson said. The JWST will not be reachable for upgrades and servicing, and Congress responded to that drawback by telling NASA will make sure future major observatories can be serviced if at all possible.

    Thronson said that he supports and is inspired by the idea of a 16-meter space telescope, and he agrees with Grunsfeld that assembly in space is the wave of the future. But he said “I’m not quite as optimistic as John that we’re ready to attack that now, though it would be terrific if we were.”

    Part of Thronson’s work involves understanding operation sites where space telescopes would be most stable, and that generally involves the libration points, where countervailing gravity pulls are almost neutralized. LUVOIR, like JWST, is proposed for the so-called Sun-Earth L-2 point, about one million miles outward from Earth where the Earth and sun create a gravitational equilibrium of sorts.

    Thronson said there has been some discussion about the possibility of assembling a telescope at a closer Earth-moon libration point and then propelling it towards its destination. That assembly point could, over time, become a kind of depot for servicing space telescopes and as well as other tasks.

    8
    One of the locations in relatively nearby space where a space telescope would have a stable gravitational environment. (NASA


    LaGrange Points map. NASA

    As a sign of the level of interest in these kind of space-based activities, NASA last year awarded $65 million to six companies involved in creating space habitats for astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.

    At the time, the director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, Jason Crusan, said that “the next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule are deep space, long duration habitation and in-space propulsion. We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth.”

    Not surprisingly, building and maintaining telescopes and habitats in space will be costly (though less so than any serious effort to send humans to Mars). As a result, how much support NASA gets from the White House, Congress and the public — as well as the astronomy and astrophysics communities — will determine whether and when this kind of space architecture becomes a reality.

    John Grunsfeld, who has walked the walk like nobody else, plans to be stepping up his own effort to explain how and why this is a vision worth embracing.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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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 5:03 pm on February 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Many Worlds   

    From Many Worlds: “Ceres, Asteroids And Us” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-02-16
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Ceres Up Close. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

    For most of us, asteroids exist primarily as a threat. An asteroid that landed around the Yucatan peninsula, after all, is generally considered to have set into motion the changes that resulted in the elimination of the dinosaurs.

    Other large in-coming asteroids laid waste to swaths of Siberia in 1908, dug the world’s largest crater (118 mile wide) in South Africa long ago, and formed the Chesapeake Bay a mere 35 million years past. And another large asteroid will almost certainly threaten Earth again some day.

    There is, however, a reverse and possibly life-enhancing side to the asteroid story, one that is becoming more clear and intriguing as we learn more about them where they live. Asteroids not only contain a lot of water — some of it possibly delivered long ago to a dry Earth — but they contain some pretty complex organic molecules, the building blocks of life.

    The latest chapter in the asteroid saga is being written about Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system and recently declared to also be a dwarf planet (like Pluto.)

    Using data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, a team led by the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome and the University of California, Los Angeles identified a variety of complex organic compounds, amino acids and nucleobases — the kind that are the building blocks of life.

    NASA/Dawn Spacecraft
    NASA/Dawn Spacecraft

    The mission has also detected signs of a possible subsurface ocean as well as cryovolcanos, which spit out ice, water, methane and other gases instead of molten rock.

    “This discovery of a locally high concentration of organics is intriguing, with broad implications for the astrobiology community,” said Simone Marchi, a senior research scientist at Southwest Research Institute and one of the authors of the paper in Science. “Ceres has evidence of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and now organic materials.”

    He said that the organic-rich areas include carbonates and ammonia-based minerals, which are Ceres’ primary constituents. Their presence along with the organics makes it unlikely that the organics arrived via another asteroid.

    In an accompanying comment in the Feb. 16 edition of Science, Michael Küppers of the European Space Astronomy Center in Madrid makes the case that Ceres might be, or might once have been, habitable.

    The paper provides “the first observations of organic material on Ceres, confirming the presence of such material in the asteroid belt,” he writes. “Furthermore, because Ceres is a dwarf planet that may still preserve internal heat from its formation period and may even contain a subsurface ocean, this opens the possibility that primitive life could have developed on Ceres itself. It joins Mars and several satellites of the giant planets in the list of locations in the solar system that may harbor life.”

    2
    Illustration of the minor bodies in the inner part of the Solar System, including Jupiter trojans and the main asteroid belt. These objects are byproducts of planet formation and have key information about that process. Detecting them in extrasolar systems may help us to understand the early evolution of planetary systems. (NASA)

    Asteroids are as ancient as the solar system, some 4.6 billion years old. They are the leftovers from the planet formation process that took place in the disk around the very early sun — pieces of rock that didn’t become parts of planets or moons and weren’t otherwise smashed to bits.

    Both their age and their composition have made asteroids increasingly interesting to space scientists studying how the solar system came to look and behave as it does. The result has been a suite of missions to asteroids organized by NASA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the European Space Agency, the Russian space agency Roskosmos, and the China National Space Administration.

    Many of the missions include substantial collaboration between different national space agencies. The Dawn effort has major European involvement and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu and the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission to Ryugu each have three principal investigators from the other agency.

    NASA OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft
    NASA OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft

    hayabasu2-spacecraft
    JAXA Hayabasu 2 spacecraft

    Both spacecraft are now on their way, will spend months on their destination asteroids, and are designed to bring home samples (in 2018 for Hayabusa2 and 2023 for OSIRIS-REx.)

    NASA also approved two additional asteroid missions earlier this year. The first mission, called Lucy, will study asteroids, known as Trojan asteroids, trapped by Jupiter’s gravity.

    The Psyche mission will explore a very large and rare object in the solar system’s asteroid belt — an asteroid made of metal. Scientists believe it might be the exposed core of a planet that lost its rocky outer layers from a series of violent collisions. Lucy is targeted for launch in 2021 and Psyche in 2023.

    Left NASA Lucy; right NASA PSYCHE. NASA
    Left NASA Lucy; right NASA PSYCHE

    Why so many asteroid missions?

    I put the question to Harold C. Connolly Jr. of Rowan University, mission sample scientist for OSIRIS-REx and a co-investigator for the mission. He answered by email from Japan, together with Shogo Tachibana of Hakkaido University, who is a principal investigator for Hayabusa2. Both are co-principal investigators for the others’ sample analysis efforts.

    “The science is really driving the interest,” they wrote. “There now exists broader understanding that asteroids are time capsules to the past and can help illuminate the origin of Earth-like planets and potentially even the materials and conditions that lead to the origin of life.

    “The target asteroids of both missions are a treasure box of the earliest time period of the solar system, with such riches as prebiotic compounds (precursors to life-building organics) preserved in them.”

    In Japan, the Hayabusa2 mission is also a follow-on to the hugely popular original Hayabusa mission, which returned with grains from the asteroid Itokawa in 2010. Despite enormous difficulties and the failure of its lander, the spacecraft brought back enough sample to tell scientists that the asteroid was four billion years old, at one time was exposed to temperatures of 800 degrees centigrade, and much more.

    Hayabusa inspired so much interest in Japan that it led to not only the follow-on mission but also three movies, including one with star actor Ken Watanabe.

    In a phone conversation, Küppers of the European Space Astronomy Center expanded on the scientific importance of asteroids.

    He said that Ceres research has already determined that asteroid most likely was formed further out in the solar system and then migrated in. This conclusion flows from the observed presence of geological features and minerals on the surface that require the presence of water to form. Closer-in asteroids are believed to have had any water baked out of them, strongly suggesting that Ceres was once further from the sun.

    That asteroidal (and cometary) water plays an important role in the history of Earth. “The oceans on Earth certainly could have been filled with water, and organic compounds, from asteroids like Ceres,” Küppers said. Different kinds of water have different isotopic signatures, and the water signature on Earth is very much like that detected in some asteroids and comets.

    The Dawn spacecraft has already visited the large asteroid Vesta on its mission, and found minerals formed in water, a geology with steep cliffs and landslides, and the presence of an enormous crater at one of the poles. For Vesta, as for Ceres, a primary goal of the Dawn mission is to map the asteroid in various ways and with substantial precision. The overall goal, however, is to explore the conditions and processes found worlds as old as the solar system.

    While Vesta is a described as a “protoplanet” because of its size, Ceres is considered a dwarf planet (as well as an asteroid) because it has sufficient mass and gravity to be rounded like a planet. Vesta, and the other asteroids, are not. Itokawa, below, is considerably smaller than Ceres or Vesta, and so has been rounded far less.

    3
    Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system, features areas with concentrations of shiny, white material. Scientists have described them as likely to be salts and ice. The dwarf planet contains about one third of the mass in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, yet it is still dwarfed in size by our moon. The more detailed images was taken by Dawn from 3,200 miles away. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

    4
    NASA’s Dawn spacecraft captured this image of the asteroid Vesta while in orbit on July 18, 2011. The view looks across Vesta’s cratered and heavily-scarred south pole from a distance of about 6,500 miles. Vesta is the last remaining rocky protoplanet of the kind that formed the terrestrial planets. Numerous fragments of Vesta were ejected by collisions one and two billion years ago that left two enormous craters occupying much of Vesta’s southern hemisphere. Debris from these events has fallen to Earth as meteorites which have been a rich source of information about Vesta. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS)

    What was planned to be the biggest NASA asteroid mission is the Asteroid Redirect Mission. It was proposed as the first robotic mission to visit a large near-Earth asteroid, to collect a multi-ton boulder from its surface, and to then redirect it into a stable orbit around the moon. Once in orbit around the moon, astronauts would explore it and return with samples in the 2020s.

    The proposed mission was driven by science, but also was part of NASA’s plan to advance the new technologies and spaceflight experience needed for a human mission to the Martian system in the 2030s. What’s more, some space scientists are concerned about the possibility of a large asteroid heading our way, and they want to develop techniques for just slightly changing an in-coming asteroid’s path so it would miss Earth.

    Many in Congress were never excited by the asteroid re-direct plan, and the future of the mission remains quite uncertain.

    But the part of the mission involved with learning more about asteroid pathways and how they might be changed is still, at least indirectly, alive.

    That’s because the asteroid Bennu, the destination for OSIRIS-REx, is one that often comes close to the Earth. (The acrony, by the way, stands for the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer.)

    As explained on the NASA OSIRIS-REx webside, “Bennu is a B-type asteroid with a ~500 meter diameter. It completes an orbit around the Sun every 436.604 days (1.2 years) and every 6 years comes very close to Earth, within 0.002 astronomical units (the term used to describe the distance from the sun to Earth.) These close encounters give Bennu a high probability of impacting Earth in the late 22nd century.”

    Some place that probability considerably lower, but it is nonetheless a sobering thought given the damage that asteroids have periodically inflicted on the Earth.

    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 10:43 am on February 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Atmospheres can protect and nurture or they can destroy, “L” is for the longevity of a potentially civilized intelligent world, , , , , , Many Worlds, , The fate of Earth is indeed in our hands   

    From Many Worlds: “Do Intelligent Civilizations Across the Galaxies Self Destruct? For Better and Worse, We’re The Test Case” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-02-01
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    The Eastern Seaboard as seen from the International Space Station in 2012. (NASA)

    In 1950, while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, renowned physicist Enrico Fermi was lunching with colleagues including Edward Teller, Herbert York an Emil Konopinski. The group talked and laughed about a spate of recent UFO reports during the meal, as well as a cartoon about who might be stealing garbage can top.

    A bit later in the meal Fermi famously asked more seriously, “Where are they?” Sure, there were many bogus reports back then about alien flying saucers, but Fermi was asking what has turned out to be a significant and long-lasting question.

    If there are billions of exoplanets out there — as speculated back then but proven now — why have there been no bona fide reports of advanced extraterrestrials visiting Earth, or somehow leaving behind their handiwork?

    Many answers have been offered in the following decades — that we are alone in the universe, that the distances between solar systems are too great to travel, that Earth became home to life early in the galaxy’s history and other planets are only now catching up, that life might be common in the universe but intelligent life is not.

    I would like to focus on another response, however, one that came to mind often while reading a new book by the former holder of the astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress, planetary scientist David Grinspoon.

    This potential explanation is among the most unsettling: that intelligent and technologically advanced beings are likely to ultimately destroy themselves. Along with the creativity, the prowess and the gumption, intelligence brings with it an inherent instinct for unsustainable expansion and unintentional self destruction.

    I should say right off that this is not a view shared by Grinspoon. His Earth in Human Hands, in fact, argues with data and conviction that humans are more likely than not to ultimately find ways to work together and avoid looming global threats from climate change, incoming asteroids, depleting the ozone layer and myriad other potential sources of mass extinction.

    But his larger point is the sobering one: that the fate of Earth is, indeed, in our hands. We humans are a force shaping the planet that is as powerful as a ring of volcanoes, a giant impactor from space, the long-ago rise of lifeforms that could, and did, dramatically change our atmosphere and along the way caused near global extinction.

    It may sound odd, but as he sees it we are now the planet’s most powerful and consequential force of nature.

    2
    Since the Industrial Revolution and the spread of technology over the past 200 years, humans have become the dominant force on the planet, says David Grinspoon, the first Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. (Credit: Tony Steele)

    “What I’ve sought to do is describe what is reality on our planet,” Grinspoon told me. “Some people have been hostile and told me it’s arrogant to say humans have so much control over the fate of the planet, and I agree that it’s a sobering thing.”

    But the Earth has been and will be dramatically changed by us. The big question for the future is whether change can be for the better, or will it be unsustainable and for the worse.”

    While Grinspoon’s major themes involve competing paths for the future of our planet, they consistently are based on and informed by knowledge gained in recent decades about planets in our solar system and those very far away. The logic and track record of the search for intelligent life beyond Earth (SETI) also plays a role, as does the author’s relationships — initially via family in childhood — with Carl Sagan and some of the scientists he mentored.

    For instance, Grinspoon has studied Venus and the evolution of its atmosphere. He says that an understanding of the runaway greenhouse effect that created surface temperatures of 800 degrees F has been instumental in the study of climate change on Earth.

    3
    David Grinspoon is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, and the author of “Earth in Human Hands.”

    Similarly, the disappearance of much of the Martian atmosphere left the once warmer planet frigid and likely lifeless. Sagan’s work on the dust storms of Mars, which have the effect of making the planet colder still, was an early scientific foray into understanding the importance of atmosphere and climate on a potential biosphere. So was Sagan’s work on the possible effects of atomic war — the globally life-destroying “nuclear winter.”

    The clear inference: Planetary atmospheres can change, as ours is doing now with major buildups in carbon dioxide. Atmospheres can protect and nurture, or they can destroy.

    And Exhibit A is the three rocky solar system planets in what is a slightly expanded habitable zone. But only one supports life.

    The buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans since the onset of the industrial revolution, Grinspoon writes, is a prime example of how intelligent people and their technology can unintentionally have a huge impact on nature and the planet. The jury remains out as to how humanity will respond.

    But Grinspoon also points to the way that nations around the globe responded to the discovery that the ozone layer was being depleted as an example of how humanity can repair unintentional yet potentially extinction-threatening challenges.

    It took a while, but the artificial refrigerants — chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — causing the damage were ultimately curtailed and then banned, and there are signs that the worrisome holes in the ozone layer are if not shrinking, at least no longer growing.

    4
    The Drake equation, created by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, assesses the probability of how many planets in our galaxy might have civilizations that can communicate. The last factor — the “L” for longevity — is considered key. Drake was one of the founders of SETI, and its effort to detect signals from intelligent life beyond Earth.

    This brings us back to the Fermi paradox, and the apparent absence of signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

    Fermi, and many others, have assumed that successful, technological civilizations elsewhere would have the desire and ultimately know-how to expand beyond their original planet and colonize others. Indeed, early SETI gatherings here and in the former Soviet Union took that drive to expand for granted, a reflection of attitudes of the times.

    This presumed drive to colonize was often discussed as either a kind of biological imperative or an acknowledgement that these “intelligent” civilizations are likely to have seriously damaged their own planets through unsustainable and hazardous growth. Either way, they would be on the move.

    Yet after more than a half century of listening for signals from these presumed intelligent and mobile beings, the SETI effort to detect such life via radio telescopes has come up empty. There are many potential reasons why, but let’s focus on the one introduced earlier.

    The pioneering Drake equation, first put forward in 1961, attempts to assess the probability of finding intelligent civilizations beyond Earth based on factors such as rate of star formation in the galaxy, the number of planets formed and then the percentage with life, then the number with complex life and finally intelligent and technologically-sophisticated life. But it’s the “L” at the end of the equations, says Grinspoon, that is widely considered the most important.

    SETI/Allen Telescope Array situated at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 miles (470 km) northeast of San Francisco, California, USA
    SETI/Allen Telescope Array situated at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory, 290 miles (470 km) northeast of San Francisco, California, USA

    The “L” is for the longevity of a potentially civilized, intelligent world, or “the length of time over which such civilizations release detectable signals.”

    Of all the components of the Drake equation, which is filled with unknowns and partially known estimates, L is no doubt the least well defined. After all, no extraterrestrial life, and certainly no intelligent life, has ever be detected.

    Yet as describe by Grinspoon, “L” — which for Earth is about 200 years now — is the key.

    “Let’s say that it’s impossible for a civilization with very powerful technology to last for 10,000 years, or even 1,000 years. That makes the likelihood of ever making contact with them vanishingly small even if life and intelligence are out there. The chances of them being close enough to detect and communicate with are pretty much nil.”

    If the opposite is true, if it’s possible for a civilization to get over their technological adolescence, then they ought to be detectable. Actually, they could last for millions of years using their technology to enhance and protect the planet.”

    Planets face all kinds of dire threats, and catastrophes and extinctions are the rule. But if technology can be used intentionally for the benefit the planet — like protecting it from an asteroid or avoiding the next Ice Age – longevity would clearly improve greatly.”

    This interstellar view, he says, helps to see more clearly what is happening on Earth. Now that through our technologies we have become the prime movers regarding the planet’s health and safety, it is really up to us as a species to choose between allowing these “advances” to knowingly or unintentionally harm the planet, or to consciously use technology to make it better.

    Grinspoon does not see our current century as one when the effects of technology are likely to be intentionally positive. But he does see the movement towards a more sustainable planet to be irreversible, whatever blips might come our way. What’s more, he said, fossil fuels will be largely gone by 2100 and there’s reason to believe the world’s human population will have stabilized — two enormous changes that favor a longer-lived human civilization.

    “The long-held view that humans will always expand, that they will maintain that biologically primitive imperative, that growth is always good — it’s interesting to wonder if those assumptions aren’t inherently wrong,” he said.

    “I suggest that true ‘intelligence’ able to sustain itself involves an inherent questioning of those values, and that a more measured and strategic growth pattern, or even material stasis might be values that come with a more universal intelligence.”

    Whether that intelligence is on Earth or many hundreds of light years away.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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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 9:41 pm on January 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ELSI - Earth-Life Science Institute, EON - ELSI Origins Network, LUCA - the Last Universal Common Ancestor of Life on Earth, Many Worlds, Messy chemistry, Ribosomes,   

    From Many Worlds: “Messy Chemistry, Evolving Rocks, and the Origin of Life” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Worlds

    Many Words icon

    2017-01-15
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Ribosomes are life’s oldest and most universal assembly of molecules. Today’s ribosome converts genetic information (RNA) into proteins that carry out various functions in an organism. A growing number of scientists are exploring how earliest components of life such as the ribosome came to be. They’re making surprising progress, but the going remains tough. No image credit.

    Noted synthetic life researcher Steven Benner of Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution is fond of pointing out that gooey tars are the end product of too many experiments in his field. His widely-held view is that the tars, made out of chemicals known to be important in the origin of life, are nonetheless a dead end to be avoided when trying to work out how life began.

    But in the changing world of origins of life research, others are asking whether those messy tars might not be a breeding ground for the origin of life, rather than an obstacle to it.

    One of those is chemist and astrobiologist Irena Mamajanov of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo. As she recently explained during an institute symposium, scientists know that tar-like substances were present on early Earth, and that she and her colleagues are now aggressively studying their potential role in the prebiotic chemical transformations that ultimately allowed life to emerge out of non-life.

    “We call what we do messy chemistry, and we think it can help shed light on some important processes that make life possible.”

    2
    Irena Mamajanov of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo was the science lead for a just completed symposium on emerging approaches to the origin of life question.

    It stands to reason that the gunky tar played a role, she said, because tars allow some essential processes to occur: They can concentrate compounds, it can encapsulate them, and they could provide a kind of primitive (messy) scaffolding that could eventually evolve into the essential backbones of a living entity.

    “Scientists in the field have tended to think of the origin of life as a process going from simple to more complex, but we think it may have gone from very complex — messy — to more structured.”

    Mamajanov is part of an unusual group gathered at (ELSI), a relatively new site on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology for origin of life study with a mandate to be interdisciplinary and to think big and outside the box.

    ELSI just completed its fifth annual symposium, and it brought together researchers from a wide range of fields to share their research on what might have led to the emergence of life. And being so interdisciplinary, the ELSI gathering was anything but straight and narrow itself.

    There was talk of the “evolution” of prebiotic compounds; of how the same universal 30 to 50 genes can be found in all living things from bacteria to us; of the possibility that the genomes of currently alive microbes surviving in extreme environments provide a window into the very earliest life; and even that evolutionary biology suggests that life on other Earth-like planets may well have evolved to form rather familiar creatures.

    Except for that last subject, the focus was very much on ways to identify the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), and what about Earth made life possible and what about life changed Earth.

    Scientific interest in the origin of life on Earth (and potentially elsewhere) tends to wax and wane, in large part because the problem is so endlessly complex. It’s one of the biggest questions in science, but some say that it will never be fully answered.

    But there has been a relatively recent upsurge in attention being paid and in funding for origin of life researchers.

    The Japanese government gave $100 million to start and operate ELSI, the Simons Foundation has donated another $100 million for an origins of life institute at Harvard, the Templeton Foundation has made numerous origin of life grants and, as it has for years, the NASA Astrobiology Institute has funded researchers. Some of the findings and theories are most intriguing and represent a break of sorts from the past.

    For some decades now, the origins of life field has been pretty sharply divided. One group holds that life began when metabolism (a small set of reactions able to harness and transform energy ) arose spontaneously; others maintain that it was the ability of a chemical system to replicate itself (the RNA world) that was the turning point. Metabolism First versus the RNA First, plus some lower-profile theories.

    In keeping with its goal of bringing scientists and disciplines together and to avoid as much origin-of-life dogma as possible, Mamajanov sees their “messy chemistry” approach as a third way and a more non-confrontational approach. It’s not a model for how life began per se, but one of many new approaches designed to shed light and collect data about those myriad processes.

    “This division in the field is hurting science because people are not talking to each other ,” she said. “By design we’re not in one camp or another.”

    3
    Loren Williams of Georgia tech

    Another speaker who exemplified that approach was Loren Williams of Georgia Tech, a biochemist whose lab studies the genetic makeup of those universal 30 to 50 ribosomes (a complex molecule made of RNA molecules and proteins that form a factory for protein synthesis in cells.) He was principal investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Georgia Tech Center for Ribosome Adaptation and Evolution from 2009-2014.

    His goal is to collect hard data on these most common genes, with the inference that they are the oldest and closest to LUCA.

    “What becomes quickly clear is that the models of the origin of life don’t fit the data,” he said. “What the RNA model predicts, for instance, is totally disconnected from this data. So what happens with this disconnect? The modelers throw away the data. They say it doesn’t relate. Instead, I ignore the models.”

    A primary conclusion of his work is that early molecules — rather like many symbiotic relationships in nature today — need each other to survive. He gave the current day example of the fig wasp, which spends its larval stage in a fig, then serves as a pollinator for the tree, and then survives on the fruit that appears.

    He sees a parallel “mutualism” in the ribosomes he studies. “RNA is made by protein; all protein is made by RNA,” he said. It’s such a powerful concept for him that he wonders if “mutualism” doesn’t define a living system from the non-living.

    4
    These stromatolites, wavelike patterns created by bacteria embedded in sediment, are 3.7 billion years old and may represent the oldest life on the planet. Photo by Allen Nutman

    5
    Stromalites, sedimentary structures produced by microorganisms, today at Shark Bay, Australia. Remarkably, the lifeform has survived through billions of years of radical transformation on Earth, catastrophes and ever-changing ecologies.

    A consistent theme of the conference was that life emerged from the geochemistry present in early Earth. It’s an unavoidable truth that leads down some intriguing pathways.

    As planetary scientist Marc Hirschmann of the University of Minnesota reported at the gathering, the Earth actually has far less carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and other elements essential for life than the sun, than most asteroids, than even intersellar space.

    Since Earth was initially formed with the same galactic chemistry as those other bodies and arenas, Hirschmann said, the story of how the Earth was formed is one of losing substantial amounts of those elements rather than, as is commonly thought, by gaining them.

    The logic of this dynamic raises the question of how much of those elements does a planet have to lose, or can lose, to be considered habitable. And that in turn requires examination of how the Earth lost so much of its primordial inheritance — most likely from the impact that formed the moon, the resulting destruction of the early Earth atmosphere, and the later movement of the elements into the depths of the planet via plate tectonics. It’s all now considered part of the origins story.

    And as argued by Charley Lineweaver, a cosmologist with the Planetary Science Institute and the Australian National University, it has become increasingly difficult to contend that life on other planets is anything but abundant, especially now that we know that virtually all stars have planets orbiting them and that many billions of those planets will be the size of Earth.

    Other planets will have similar geochemical regimes and some will have undergone events that make their distribution of elements favorable for life. And as described by Eric Smith, an expert in complex systems at ELSI and the Santa Fe Institute, the logic of physics says that if life can emerge then it will.

    Any particular planetary life may not evolve beyond single cell lifeforms for a variety of reasons, but it will have emerged. The concept of the “origin of life” has taken on some very new meanings.

    6
    ELSI was created in 2012 after its founders won a World Premier International Research Center Initiative grant from the Japanese government. The WPI grant is awarded to institutes with a research vision to become globally competitive centers that can attract the best scientists from around the world to come work in Japan.

    The nature and aims of ELSI and its companion group the ELSI Origins Network (EON) strike me as part of the story. They break many molds.

    The creators of ELSI, both Japanese and from elsewhere, say that the institute is highly unusual for its welcome of non-Japanese faculty and students. They stay for years or months or even weeks as visitors.

    While ELSI is an government-funded institute with buildings, professors, researchers and a mission (to greatly enhance origin of life study in Japan), EON is a far-flung collection of top international origins scientists of many disciplines. Their home bases are places like Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Caltech and the University of Minnesota, among others in the U.S., Europe and Asia. NASA officials also play a supporting, but not financial, role.

    ELSI postdocs and other students live in Tokyo, while the EON fellows spend six months at ELSI and six months at home institutions. All of this is in the pursuit of scientific collaboration, exposing young scientists in one field related to origins to those in another, and generally adding to global knowledge about the sprawling subject of origins of life.

    Jim Cleaves, of ELSI and the Institute for Advanced Study, is the director of EON and an ambassador of sorts for its unusual mission. He, and others at the ELSI symposium, are eager to share their science and want young scientists interested in the origins of life to know there are many opportunities with ELSI and EON for research, study and visitorships on the Tokyo campus.

    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 10:46 am on January 5, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Many Worlds, , , The Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes or SETG   

    From Many Worlds: “In Search of Panspermia” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Worlds

    Many Words icon

    2017-01-05
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    This image is from the NASA Remote Sensing Tutorial. NASA

    When scientists approach the question of how life began on Earth, or elsewhere, their efforts generally involve attempts to understand how non-biological molecules bonded, became increasingly complex, and eventually reached the point where they could replicate or could use sources of energy to make things happen. Ultimately, of course, life needed both.

    Researchers have been working for some time to understand this very long and winding process, and some have sought to make synthetic life out of selected components and energy. Some startling progress has been made in both of these endeavors, but many unexplained mysteries remain at the heart of the processes. And nobody is expecting the origin of life on Earth (or elsewhere) to be fully understood anytime soon.

    To further complicate the picture, the history of early Earth is one of extreme heat caused by meteorite bombardment and, most important, the enormous impact some 4.5 billion years of the Mars-sized planet that became our moon. As a result, many early Earth researchers think the planet was uninhabitable until about 4 billion years ago.

    Yet some argue that signs of Earth life 3.8 billion years ago have been detected in the rock record, and lifeforms were certainly present 3.5 billion years ago. Considering the painfully slow pace of early evolution — the planet, after all, supported only single-cell life for several billion years before multicellular life emerged — some researchers are skeptical about the likelihood of DNA-based life evolving in the relatively short window between when Earth became cool enough to support life and the earliest evidence of actual life.

    1
    A DNA helix animation. Life on Earth is based on DNA, and some researchers have been working on ways to determine whether DNA life also exists on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system. No image credit.

    So what else, from a scientific as opposed to a religious perspective, might have set into motion the process that made life out of non-life?

    A team of prominent scientists at MIT and Harvard are sufficiently convinced in the plausibility of panspermia that they have spent a decade, and a fair amount of NASA and other funding, to design and produce an instrument that can be sent to Mars and potentially detect DNA or more primitive RNA.

    In other words, life not only similar to that on Earth, but actually delivered long ago from Earth. It’s called the The Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes, or SETG.

    Gary Ruvkun is one of those researchers, a pioneering molecular biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.

    I heard him speaking recently at a Space Sciences Board workshop on biosignatures, where he described the real (if slim) possibility that DNA or RNA-based life exists now on Mars, and the instrument that the SETG group is developing to detect it should it be there.

    The logic of panspermia — or perhaps “dispermia” if between but two planets — is pretty straight-forward, though with some significant question marks. Both Earth and Mars, it is well known, were pummeled by incoming meteorites in their earlier epochs, and those impacts are known to have sufficient force to send rock from the crash site into orbit.

    Mars meteorites have been found on Earth, and Earth meteorites no doubt have landed on Mars. Ruvkun said that recent work on the capacity of dormant microbes to survive the long, frigid and irradiated trip from planet to planet has been increasingly supportive.

    “Earth is filled with life in every nook and cranny, and that life is wildly diverse,” he told the workshop. “So if you’re looking for life on Mars, surely the first thing to look for is life like we find on Earth. Frankly, it would be kind of stupid not to.”

    The instrument being developed by the group, which is led by Ruvkun and Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. It would potentially be part of a lander or rover science package and would search DNA or RNA, using techniques based on the exploding knowledge of earthly genomics.

    The job is made easier, Ruvkun said, by the fact that the basic structure of DNA is the same throughout biology. What’s more, he said, there about 400 specific genes sequences “that make up the core of biology — they’re found in everything from extremeophiles and bacteria to worms and humans.”

    Those ubiquitous gene sequences, he said, were present more than 3 billion years ago in seemingly primitive lifeforms that were, in fact, not primitive at all. Rather, they had perfected some genetic pathways that were so good that they still used by most everything alive today.

    And how was it that these sophisticated life processes emerged not all that long (in astronomical or geological terms) after Earth cooled enough to be habitable? “Either life developed here super-fast or it came full-on as DNA life from afar,” Ruvkun said. It’s pretty clear which option he supports.

    Ruvkun said that the rest of the SETG team sees that kind of inter-planetary transfer — to Mars and from Mars — as entirely plausible, and that he takes panspermia a step forward. He thinks it’s possible, though certainly not likely nor remotely provable today, that life has been around in the cosmos for as long as 10 billion years, jumping from one solar system and planet to another. Not likely, but at idea worth entertaining.

    Maria Zuber of MIT, who was the PI for the recent NASA GRAIL mission to the moon, has been part of the SETG team since near its inception, and MIT research scientist Christopher Carr is the project manager. Zuber said it was a rather low-profile effort at the start, but over the years has attracted many students and has won NASA funding three times including the currently running Maturation of Instruments for Solar System Exploration (MatISSE) grant.

    “I have made my career out of doing simple experiments. if want to look for life beyond earth helps to know what you’re looking for.

    “We happen to know what life on Earth is like– DNA based or possibly RNA-based as Gary is looking for as well. The point is that we know what to look for. There are so many possibilities of what life beyond Earth could be like that we might as well test the hypothesis that it, also, is DNA based. It’s a low probability result, but potentially very high value.”

    DNA sequencing instruments like the one her team is developing are taken to the field regularly by thousands of researchers, including some working with with SETG. The technology has advanced so quickly that they can pick up a sample in a marsh or desert or any extreme locale and on the spot determine what DNA is present. That’s quite a change from the pain-staking sequencing done painstakingly by graduate students not that long ago.

    Panspermia, Zuber acknowledged, is a rather improbable idea. But when nature is concerned, she said “I’m reticent to say anything is impossible. After all, the universe is made up of the same elements as those on Earth, and so there’s a basic commonality.”

    Zuber said the instrument was not ready to compete for a spot on the 2020 mission to Mars, but she expects to have a sufficiently developed one ready to compete for a spot on the next Mars mission. Or perhaps on missions to Europa or the plumes of Enceladus.

    he possibility of life skipping from planet to planet clearly fascinates both scientists and the public. You may recall the excitement in the mid 1990s over the Martian meteorite ALH84001, which NASA researchers concluded contained remnants of Martian life. (That claim has since been largely refuted.)

    Of the roughly 61,000 meteorites found on Earth, only 134 were deemed to be Martian as of two years ago. But how many have sunk into oceans or lakes, or been lost in the omnipresence of life on Earth? Not surprisingly, the two spots that have yielded the most meteorites from Mars are Antarctica and the deserts of north Africa.

    And when thinking of panspermia, it’s worthwhile to consider the enormous amount of money and time put into keeping Earthly microbes from inadvertently hitching a ride to Mars or other planets and moons as part of a NASA mission.

    The NASA office of planetary protection has the goal of ensuring, as much as possible, that other celestial bodies don’t get contaminated with our biology. Inherent in that concern is the conclusion that our microbes could survive in deep space, could survive the scalding entry to another planet, and could possibly survive on the planet’s surface today. In other words, that panspermia (or dispermia) is in some circumstances possible.

    Testing whether a spacecraft has brought Earth life to Mars is actually another role that the SETG instrument could play. If a sample tested on Mars comes back with a DNA signature result exactly like one on Earth–rather one that might have come initially from Earth and then evolved over billions of years– then scientists will know that particular bit of biology was indeed a stowaway from Earth.

    Rather like how a very hardy microbe inside a meteorite might have possibly traveled long ago.

    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 3:31 pm on December 22, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Celebration of 2016 in Astronomy, Many Worlds   

    From Many Worlds: “Some Spectacular Images (And Science) From 2016” A Real Celebration of Astronomy in 2016 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2016-12-22
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    This is a golden era for space and planetary science, a time when discoveries, new understandings, and newly-found mysteries are flooding in. There are so many reasons to find the drama to be intriguing: a desire to understand the physical forces at play, to learn how those forces led to the formation of Earth and ultimately us, to explore whether parallel scenarios unfolded on planets far away, and to see how our burgeoning knowledge might set the stage for exploration.

    But always there is also the beauty; the gaudy, the stimulating, the overpowering spectacle of it all.

    Here is a small sample of what came in during 2016:

    2
    The Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy that is a satellite of our Milky Way galaxy, can be seen only in the southern hemisphere. Here, the Hubble Space Telescope captured two nebulas in the cloud. Intense radiation from the brilliant central stars is heating hydrogen in each of the nebulas, causing them to glow red.

    Together, the nebulas are called NGC 248 and are 60 light-years long and 20 light-years wide. It is among a number of glowing hydrogen nebulas in the dwarf satellite galaxy, which is found approximately 200,000 light-years away.

    The image is part of a study called Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Gas Evolution (SMIDGE). Astronomers are using Hubble to probe the Milky Way satellite to understand how dust is different in galaxies that have a far lower supply of heavy elements needed to create that dust. (NASA.ESA, STSci/K. Sandstrom (University of California, San Diego), and the SMIDGE team)

    3
    Probably the biggest exoplanet news of the year, and one of the major science stories, involved the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star closest to our own.

    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker
    Centauris Alpha Beta Proxima 27, February 2012. Skatebiker

    This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the European Space Observatory’s 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left).

    The planet Proxima Centauri b is thought to lie within the habitable zone of its star. Learning more about the planet, the parent star and the two other stars in the Centauri system has become a focus the exoplanet community.

    4
    We all know about auroras that light up our far northern skies, but there’s no reason why they wouldn’t exist on other planets shielded by a magnetic field — such as Jupiter. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found them on the poles of our solar system’s largest planet, and produced far ultraviolet light images taken as the Juno spacecraft approached the planet.

    NASA/Juno
    “NASA/Juno

    Auroras are formed when charged particles in the space surrounding the planet are accelerated to high energies along the planet’s magnetic field. When the particles hit the atmosphere near the magnetic poles, they cause it to glow like gases in a fluorescent light fixture. Jupiter’s magnetosphere is 20,000 times stronger than that of Earth.

    The full-color disk of Jupiter in this image was separately photographed at a different time by Hubble’s Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program, a long-term Hubble project that annually captures global maps of the outer planets.

    5
    Peering deep into the core of the Crab Nebula, this close-up image reveals the heart of one of the most historic and intensively studied remnants of a supernova, an exploding star. The inner region sends out clock-like pulses of radiation and tsunamis of charged particles embedded in magnetic fields.

    The neutron star at the very center of the Crab Nebula has about the same mass as the sun but compressed into an incredibly dense sphere that is only a few miles across. Spinning 30 times a second, the neutron star shoots out detectable beams of energy that make it look like it’s pulsating.

    The NASA Hubble Space Telescope image is centered on the region around the neutron star (the rightmost of the two bright stars near the center of this image) and the expanding debris surrounding it. Intricate details of glowing gas are shown in red and the blue glow is radiation given off by electrons spiraling at nearly the speed of light in the powerful magnetic field around the crushed stellar core.

    NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

    Observations of the Crab supernova were recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 A.D. The nebula, bright enough to be visible in amateur telescopes, is located 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. (NASA, ESA)

    6
    The Gemini Planet Imager provides some of the earliest high-resolution, high-contrast direct imaging of exoplanets. Using a coronagraph inside the telescope to block out the light of the star, the GPI can then allow researchers to see the region surrounding that star — in other words, where exoplanets might be.

    NOAO Gemini Planet Imager on Gemini South
    NOAO Gemini Planet Imager on Gemini South

    This image includes a wide-angle view of the star HD 106906 taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and a close-up view from the Planet Imager, which operates on the Gemini South telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

    Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile
    Gemini South Interior
    Gemini South telescope, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) campus near La Serena, Chile

    The image reveals a disturbed system of comets near the star, which may be responsible for the orbit of the the unusually distant giant planet (upper right).

    The GPI Exoplanet Survey is operated by a team of astronomers from the University of California at Berkeley and 23 other institutions, and is targeting 600 young stars to understand how planetary systems evolve over time.

    Paul Kalas of UC Berkeley is responsible for the image and led the team that wrote about it. That paper actually came out in the Astrophysical Journal in late 2015 but, hey, that’s almost 2016.

    7
    Astronomers have regularly found a galaxy or star that is the furthest from us ever to be detected. But the record is there to be broken, and in 2016 it was astronomers from the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS) made the discovery.

    Galaxy GN-z11, shown in the inset, was imaged as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the big bang. That means the universe was only three percent of its current age when the light left that galaxy.

    The galaxy has many blue stars that are bright and young, but it looks red in this image because its light has been stretched to longer spectral wavelengths by the expansion of the universe.

    (NASA, ESA, P. Oesch (Yale University), G. Brammer ( STScI)), P. van Dokkum (Yale University), and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz)

    8
    No, these are not images of actual exoplanets, but they represent the continuing work of one of NASA’s most pioneering and productive missions, the Kepler Space Telescope. In May the Kepler team announced the detection of 1284 more planets or planet candidates as part of its newest catalog, the largest number announced at once in the mission.

    NASA/Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler Telescope

    To date, Kepler has identified unconfirmed 4,696 planet candidates, 2,331 confirmed planets, and 21 confirmed small planets in a habitable zone. In addition, the follow-on K2 mission has identified 458 candidate planets and 173 confirmed.

    The Kepler spacecraft starred fixedly at a small portion of the sky for four years, looking to identify miniscule dimmings in the brightness of stars that would indicate that a planet was passing between the telescope and the star. In this way, Kepler has established a census of exoplanets that has been extrapolated to show the presence of billions and billions of planets around other stars.

    9
    The 21-foot array that will collect photons for the James Webb Space Telescope was finished and put on display in November at the Goddard Space Flight Center. It will be the largest mirror to go into space, and will likely make the JWST into the most powerful and far-seeing observatory ever.

    It will observe in the infrared portion of the spectrum because its goals include peering deep into the past of the universe, which is now most visible in the infrared. This means the JWST will have to be cooled to -364 degrees F, just 50 degrees above absolute zero). To achieve that temperature, it’s insulated from the sun by five membrane layers, each no thicker than a human hair. Placing those membranes was finished in November, marking an end to construction of the telescope “mirror.”

    The project has been enormously ambitious, and with that has come long delays and budget overruns that almost resulted in it being scrapped. Just this month, some early vibrating tests – designed to simulate launch conditions – experienced an anomaly that NASA engineers are working on now. The JWST is scheduled to launch in late 2018.

    9
    This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The plumes, photographed by NASA’s Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter.

    While the plumes spitting out of Saturn’s moon Enceladus are much better known now — the Cassini spacecraft flew through them in 2015, after all — the growing scientific consensus that Europa also has some plumes may be of even greater importance.

    NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini Spacecraft
    NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini Spacecraft

    That moon is much larger, its ice-covered oceans have been determined to hold more water than all the oceans of Earth, and those oceans have clearly been around for a long time.

    Hubble’s ultraviolet sensitivity allowed for the detection of the plumes, which rise more than 100 miles above Europa’s icy surface. The image of Europa, superimposed on the Hubble data, is assembled from data from the Galileo and Voyager missions. (NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center.)

    9
    How the fundamentals needed for life are created in space has been a longstanding mystery. The cosmos, after all, began with hydrogen and helium, and that was about it. But life needs carbon atoms connected to hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and other elements

    Astronomers and astrochemists have been making progress in recent years and now understand the basics of how the heavier elements are formed in space. New data from the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory has gone further and has established that ultraviolet light from stars plays a key role in creating these molecules. Previously, scientists thought than turbulence created by “shock” events was the driving force.

    ESA/Herschel spacecraft
    ESA/Herschel spacecraft

    This image is of the Orion nebula, where scientists studied carbon chemistry of a major star-forming region. Herschel probed an area of the electromagnetic spectrum — the far infrared, associated with cold objects — that no other space telescope has reached before so it could take into account the entire Orion Nebula instead of individual stars.

    The result was a better understanding of how carbon and hydrogen reach the states necessary to bond and form the basic carbon chemistry of the cosmos (and of life.)

    Within the inset image, the emission from ionized carbon atoms (C+), overlaid in yellow, was isolated and mapped out from spectrographic data.

    10
    Following a successful close flyby of Enceladus, the NASA-ESA Cassini spacecraft captured this image of the moon with Saturn’s rings beyond.

    The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera when it was about 106,000 miles away from Enceladus. That flyby turned into a fly-through as well, when Cassini entered the plumes of water vapor and dust that shoot out of the bottom of the moon.

    Scientists already know that an array of organic and other chemicals are in the plumes, but the field is awaiting word about the presence (or absence) of molecular hydrogen, which is formed when water comes into contact with rocks in hydrothermal vents. Many think that Enceledus is habitable and should be tested for signs of life because biosignatures could potentially exist in the relatively easy-to-access geysers.

    10
    While Yuri Beletsky is a staff astronomer at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, he is also a noted astrophotographer who specializes in capturing the beauty of nighttime scenes — usually connecting the celestial with the terrestrial.

    Carnegie Las Campanas Observaory in the southern Atacama Desert of Chile in the Atacama Region approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of the city of La Serena
    Carnegie Las Campanas Observaory in the southern Atacama Desert of Chile in the Atacama Region approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of the city of La Serena

    In this 2016 photo, the moon is surrounded by a halo caused by the presence of millions of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. Great conditions for an astrophotographer, but pretty much useless for an astronomer.

    The star within the halo is Regulus, brightest object in the constellation Leo the Lion. On the left outside the halo is Procyon from Canis Minor and on the right is the planet Jupiter.

    As is so often the case in this line of endeavor, it’s quite a sight to see.

    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 11:38 am on December 14, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Boron, Many Worlds,   

    From Many Worlds: “With The Discovery of Boron on Mars, The Package of Chemicals Needed For Life May Well Be Complete” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2016-12-14
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Using its laser technology, the Curiosity ChemCam instrument located the highest abundance of boron observed so far on this raised calcium sulfate vein. The red outline shows the location of the ChemCam target remote micro images (inset). The remote micro images show the location of each individual ChemCam laser point (red crosshairs) and the additional chemistry associated with each point (colored bars). JPL-Caltech/MSSS/LANL/CNES-IRAP/William Rapin

    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover
    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover

    For years, noted chemist and synthetic life researcher Steven Benner has talked about the necessary role of the element boron in the origin of life.

    Without boron, he has found, the process needed to form the earliest self-replicating ribonucleic acid (RNA) falls apart when it comes into contact with water, which it also necessary for the process to succeed. Only in the presence of boron, Benner found and has long argued, can the formation of RNA and later DNA proceed.

    Now, to the delight of Benner and many other scientists, the Curiosity team has found boron on Mars. In fact, as Curiosity climbs the mountain at the center of Gale Crater, the presence of boron has become increasingly pronounced.

    3
    A shaded and colorized topographic map of Gale Crater, Mars, based on publicly released High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) data. The MSL landing ellipse is indicated in the northwestern crater floor.
    14 September 2010
    Source Anderson and Bell, 2010
    Author Ryan Anderson

    And to make the discovery all the more meaningful to Benner, the boron is being found in rock veins. So it clearly was carried by water into the fractures, and was deposited there some 3.5 billion years ago.

    Combined with earlier detections of phosphates, magnesium, peridots, carbon and other essential elements in Gale Crater, Benner told me, “we have found on Mars an environment entirely consistent with a what we consider conducive for the origin of life.

    “Is it likely that life arose? I’d say yes…perhaps even, hell yes. But it’s also true that an environment conducive to the formation of life isn’t necessarily one conducive to the long-term survival of life.”

    5
    The foreground of this scene from the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows purplish rocks near the rover’s late-2016 location. The middle distance includes future destinations for the rover. Variations in color of the rocks hint at the diversity of their composition on lower Mount Sharp. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

    Another factor in the Mars-as-habitable story from Benner’s view is that there has never been the kind of water world there that many believe existed on early Earth.

    While satellites orbiting Mars and now Curiosity have made it abundantly clear that early Mars also had substantial water in the form of lakes, rivers, streams and perhaps an localized ocean, it was clearly never covered in water.

    And that’s good for the origin of life, Benner said.

    “We think that a largely arid environment, with water present but not everywhere, is the best one for life to begin. Mars had that but Earth, well, maybe not so much. The problem is how to concentrate the makings of RNA, of life, in a vast ocean. It’s like making a cake in water — all the ingredients will float away.

    “But the mineral ensemble they’ve discovered and given us is everything we could have asked for, and it was on a largely dry Mars,” he said. “So they’ve kicked the ball back to us. Now we have to go back to our labs to enrich the chemistry around this ensemble of minerals.”

    In his labs, Benner has already put together a process — he calls it his discontinuous synthesis model — whereby all the many steps needed to create RNA and therefore life have been demonstrated to be entirely possible.

    What’s missing is a continuous model that would show that process at work, starting with a particular atmosphere and particular minerals and ending up with RNA. That’s something that requires a lot more space and time that any lab experiments would provide.

    “This is potentially what Mars provides,” he said,

    Benner, it should be said, is not a member of the Curiosity team and doesn’t speak for them.

    But his championing of boron as a potentially key element for the origin of life was noted as a guide by one of the Curiosity researchers during a press conference with team members at the American Geophysical Union Dec. 13 in San Francisco. It was at that gathering that the detection of the first boron on Mars was announced.

    Benner said he has been in close touch with the two Curiosity instrument teams involved in the boron research and was most pleased that his own boron work — and that of at least one other researcher — had helped inspire the search for and detection of the element on Mars. That other researcher, evolutionary biologist James Stephenson, had detected boron in a meteorite from Mars.

    Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is a member of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument team which identified the boron at Gale Crater. The instrument uses laser technology to identify chemical elements in Martian rocks.

    Gasda said at AGU that if the boron they found in calcium sulfate rock veins on Mars behaves there as it does on Earth, then the environment was conducive to life. The ancient groundwater that formed these veins would have had temperatures in the 0-60 degrees Celsius (32-140 degrees Fahrenheit) range, he said, with a neutral-to-alkaline pH.

    While the presence of boron (most likely the mineral form borate, Benner said) has increased as the rover has climbed Mount Sharp, the element still makes up only one-tenth of one percent of the rock composition. But to stabilize that process of making RNA, that’s enough.

    6
    A drawing of Gale Crater as it is organized now. Water moving beneath the ground, as well as water above the surface in ancient rivers and lakes, provided favorable conditions for microbial life, if Mars has ever hosted life. A well-done animation including a second drawing showing conditions 3.5 billion years ago at Gale can be seen here. It toggles back and forth to show how things have changed. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

    Benner’s view of Gale Crater and Mars as entirely habitable is not new — the Curiosity team has been saying roughly the same for several years now. But with four full years on Mars the rover keeps adding to the habitability story, and that was the central message from Curiosity scientists speaking at the AGU press conference.

    As the rover examines higher, younger layers, the researchers said they were especially impressed by the complexity of the ancient lake environments at Gale when sediments were being deposited, and also the complexity of the groundwater interactions after the sediments were buried.

    “There is so much variability in the composition at different elevations, we’ve hit a jackpot,” said John Grotzinger of Caltech, and formerly the mission scientist for Curiosity.

    “A sedimentary basin such as this is a chemical reactor. Elements get rearranged. New minerals form and old ones dissolve. Electrons get redistributed. On Earth, these reactions support life.”

    This kind of reactivity occurs on a gradient based on the strength of a chemical at donating or receiving electrons. Transfer of electrons due to this gradient can provide energy for life.

    6
    An illustration of the ChemCam instrument, with its laser zapper, which identified the element boron as Curiosity climbs Mount Sharp. (NASA)

    While habitability is key to Curiosity’s mission on Mars, much additional science is being done that has different goals or looks more indirectly at the planet’s ancient (or possibly current) ability to support life. Understanding the ancient environmental history of Gale Crater and Mars is a good example.

    For instance, the Curiosity team is now undertaking a drilling campaign in progressively younger rock layers, digging into four sites each spaced about 80 feet (about 25 meters) further uphill. Changes in which minerals are present and in what percentages they exist give insights into some of that ancient history.

    One clue to changing ancient conditions is the presence of the mineral hematite, a form of the omnipresent iron oxide on Mars. Hematite has replaced magnetite as the dominant iron oxide in rocks Curiosity has drilled recently, compared with the site where Curiosity first found lake bed sediments.

    Thomas Bristow of NASA Ames Research Center, who works with the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) laboratory instrument inside the rover, said Mars is sending a signal. Both forms of iron oxide (hematite and magnetite) were deposited in mudstone in what was once the bottom of a lake, but the increased abundance of hematite higher up Mount Sharp suggests conditions were warmer when it was laid down. There also was probably more interaction between the atmosphere and the sediments.

    On a more technical level, an increase in hematite relative to magnetite also indicates an environmental change towards a stronger tug on the iron oxide electrons, causing a greater degree of oxidation (the loss of electrons) in the iron. That would likely be caused by changing atmospheric conditions.

    It’s all part of putting together the jigsaw puzzle of Mars circa 3.5 billion years ago.

    7
    This view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows an outcrop with finely layered rocks within the “Murray Buttes” region on lower Mount Sharp. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

    Returning to the boron, Benner said that the discovered presence of all the chemicals his group believes are necessary to ever-so-slowly move from prebiotic chemistry to biology provides an enormous opportunity. Because of plate tectonics on Earth and the omnipresence of biology, the conditions and environments present on early Earth when life first arose were long ago destroyed.

    But on Mars, the apparent absence of those most powerful agents of change means it’s possible to detect, observe and study conditions in a changed but intact world that just might have given rise to life on Mars. Taken a step further, Mars today could provide new and important insights into how life arose on Earth.

    And then there’s the logic of what finding signs of ancient, or perhaps deep-down surviving life on Mars would mean to the larger search for life in the cosmos.

    That life exists on one planet among the hundreds of billions we now know are out there suggests that other planets — which we know have many or most of the same basic chemicals as Earth — might have given rise to life as well.

    And if two planets in one of those many, many solar system have produced and supported life, then the odds go up dramatically regarding life on other planets.

    One planet with life could be an anomaly. Two nearby planets with life, even if its similar, are a trend.

    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 4:18 am on December 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Many Worlds, ,   

    From Many Worlds: Women in STEM – “The Search for Organic Compounds On Mars Is Getting Results” Jennifer Eigenbrode 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2016-12-08
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Sedimentary rocks of the Kimberley Formation in Gale Crater, as photographed in 2015. The crater contains thick deposits of finely-laminated mudstone from fine-grained sediments deposited in a standing body of water that persisted for a long period of time. Scientists have now reported several detections of organic compounds — the building blocks of life in Gale Crater samples. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

    One of the primary goals of the Curiosity mission to Mars has been to search for and hopefully identify organic compounds — the carbon-based molecules that on Earth are the building blocks of life.

    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover
    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover

    No previous mission had quite the instruments and capacity needed to detect the precious organics, nor did they have the knowledge about Martian chemistry that the Curiosity team had at launch.

    Nonetheless, finding organics with Curiosity was no sure things. Not only is the Martian surface bombarded with ultraviolet radiation that breaks molecules apart and destroys organics, but also a particular compound now known to be common in the soil will interfere with the essential oven-heating process used by NASA to detect organics.

    So when Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biochemist and geologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of the Curiosity organics-searching team, asked her colleagues gathered for Curiosity’s 2012 touch-down whether they thought organics would be found, the answer was not pretty.

    “I did a quick survey across the the team and I was convinced that a majority in the room were very doubtful that we would ever detect organics on Mars, and certainly not in the top five centimeters or the surface.”

    Yet at a recent National Academies of Sciences workshop on “Searching for Life Across Space and Time,” Eigenbrode gave this quite striking update:

    “At this point, I can clearly say that I am convinced, and I hope you will be too, that organics are all over Mars, all over the surface, and probably through the rock record. What does that mean? We’ll have to talk about.”

    2
    The hole drilled into this rock target, called “Cumberland,” was made by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on May 19, 2013. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

    This is not, it should be said, the first time that a member of the Curiosity “Sample Analysis on Mars” (SAM) team has reported the discovery of organic material. The simple, but very important organic gas methane was detected in Gale Crater, as were chlorinated hydrocarbons and some nonchlorinated organics. Papers by Sushil Atreya, Daniel Glavin and Carol Freissinet, along with other team members from the Goddard SAM team, have been published on all these finds.

    But Eigenbrode’s findings and comments — which acknowledged the essential work of SAM colleagues — move the organics story substantially further.

    That’s because her detections involve larger organic compounds, or rather pieces of what were once larger organics. What’s more, these organics were found only when the Mars samples were cooked at over over 800 degrees centigrade in the SAM oven, while the earlier ones came off as detectable gases at significantly lower temperatures.

    3
    Goddard biogeochemist Jennifer Eigenbrode, an expert at detecting organic compounds in rocks, has found them in Martian samples collected by the Curiosity rover.
    (Chris Gunn)

    These latest carbon-based organics were most likely bound up inside minerals, Eigenbrode said. Their discovery now is a function of having an oven on Mars that, for the first time, can get hot enough to break them apart.

    The larger molecules bring with them additional importance because, as Eigenbrode explained it, 75 to 90 percent of organic compounds are of this more complex variety. What’s more, she said that the levels at which the compounds are present, as well as where they were found, suggests a pretty radical conclusion: that they are a global phenomenon, most likely found around the planet.

    Her logic is that the overall geochemistry of Gale Crater as read by Curiosity instruments is quite similar to the chemistry of samples tested by earlier rovers at two other sites on Mars, Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum.

    Many Mars scientists are comfortable with taking these parallel bulk chemistry readouts — the sum total of all the chemicals found in the samples — and inferring that much of the planet has a similar chemical makeup.

    Taking the logic a step further, Eigenbrode proposed to the assembled scientists that the signatures of carbon-based organics are also a global phenomenon.

    “I think it just might be,” she told the NAS workshop. “We’ll have to find out more, but I think there’s a good possibility.”

    That’s rather a jump — from the situation not long ago when no organics had been knowingly detected on Mars, to one where there’s a possibility they are everywhere.

    4
    The Sample Analysis on Mars instrument has the job of searching for, among other xxx, organics on Mars. And it seems to have succeeded, despite some major obstacles. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

    And actually, they should be found everywhere. Not only do organic molecules rain down from the sky embedded in asteroids and interstellar dust, but they can also be formed abiotically out of chemicals on Mars and, just possibly, can be the products of biological activity.

    The fact that Mars surely has had organics on its surface and elsewhere has made the non-detection of organics a puzzle. In fact, that conclusion of “no organics present” following the Viking landings in the mid 1970s set the Mars program back several decades. If there weren’t even organic compounds to be found, the thinking went, then a search for actual living creatures was pointless.

    As is now apparent, the Viking instrument used to detect organics was not sufficiently powerful. What’s more, the scientists working with it did not know about a particular chemical on the Martian surface that was skewing the results. Plus the scientists may well have misunderstood their own findings.

    First with the question of technological muscle. The oven associated with the search for organics is part of a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS), and it heats and breaks apart dirt and rock samples for analysis of their chemical makeup. The oven on the Viking landers went up to 500 degrees C, a temperature where Curiosity was not finding signs of organics. But when the oven temperature was raised to 825 degrees C, the signs of organics were found.

    In addition, NASA’s Phoenix lander discovered in 2008 that the Martian soil contained the salt perchlorate, which when burned in a GCMS oven can mask the presence of organics. And finally, the Viking landers actually did detect organics in the form of simple chlorinated hydrocarbons. They were determined at the time to be contamination from Earth, but the same compounds have been detected by Curiosity, suggesting that Viking might actually have found Martian, rather than Earthly, organics.

    What makes carbon-based organic compounds especially interesting to scientists is that life is made of them and produces them. So one source of the organics in Martian samples could be biology, Eigenbrode said. But she said there were other potential sources that might be more plausible.

    Organics, for instance, can be formed through non-biological geothermal and hydrothermal processes on Earth, and presumably on Mars too. In addition, both meteorites and interstellar dust are known to contain organic compounds, and they rain down on Mars as they do on Earth.

    Eigenbrode said the organics being detected could be coming from any one source, or from all of them.

    Asked at the workshop what concentrations of organics were found, she replied with a smile that light will be shed on the question at next week’s American Geophysical Union meeting.

    The detection of a growing variety of organics on Mars adds to the conclusion already reached by the Curiosity team — that Mars was once much wetter, warmer and by traditional definitions “habitable.” That doesn’t mean that life ever existed there, but rather that what are considered basic basic conditions for life were present for many millions of years.

    Eigenbrode said that the detection of these carbon-based compounds is important in terms of both the distant past and the perhaps mid-term future.

    For the past, it means that organics in a substantial reservoir of water like the one at Gale Crater some 3.6 billion years ago could have been a ready source of energy for microbial life. The microbes would then have been heterotrophs, which get their nutrition from organic material. Autotrophs, simpler organisms, are capable of synthesizing their own food from inorganic substances using light or chemical energy.

    But Eigenbrode also sees the organics as potentially good news for the future — for possibly still living microbes on Mars and also for humans who might be trying to survive there one day.

    “Thinking forward, the organic matter could be really important for farming — an ready energy source provided by the carbon,” she said.

    Just what a human colony on Mars might need.

    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 4:06 pm on December 1, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , K2-33b, Many Worlds   

    From Many Worlds: “The Stellar Side of The Exoplanet Story” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2016-12-01
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    K2-33b, shown in this illustration, is one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date. It makes a complete orbit around its star in about five days, and as a result its characteristics are very much determined by its host. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

    When it comes to the study of exoplanets, it’s common knowledge that the host stars don’t get much respect.

    Yes, everyone knows that there wouldn’t be exoplanets without stars, and that they serve as the essential background for exoplanet transit observations and as the wobbling object that allows for radial velocity measurements that lead to new exoplanets discoveries.

    But stars in general have been seen and studied for ever, while the first exoplanet was identified only 20-plus years ago. So it’s inevitable that host stars have generally take a back seat to the compelling newly-found exoplanets that orbit them.

    As the field of exoplanet studies moves forward, however, and tries to answer questions about the characteristics of the planets and their odds of being habitable, the perceived importance of the host stars is on the rise.

    The logic: Stars control space weather, and those conditions produce a space climate that is conducive or not so conducive to habitability and life.

    Space weather consists of a variety of enormously energetic events ranging from solar wind to solar flares and coronal mass ejections, and their characteristics are defined by the size, variety and age of the star. It is often said that an exoplanet lies in a “habitable zone” if it can support some liquid water on its surface, but absent some protection from space weather it will surely be habitable in name only.

    A recognition of this missing (or at least less well explored) side of the exoplanet story led to the convening of a workshop this week in New Orleans on “The Impact of Exoplanetary Space Weather On Climate and Habitability.”

    “We’re really just starting to detect and understand the secret lives of stars,” said Vladimir Airapetian, a senior scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. He organized the highly interdisciplinary workshop for the Nexus for Exoplanet Space Studies (NExSS,) a NASA initiative.

    “What has become clear is that a star affects and actually defines the character of a planet orbiting around it,” he said. “And now we want to look at that from the point of view of astrophysicists, heliophysicists, planetary scientists and astrobiologists.”

    William Moore, principal investigator for a NASA-funded team also studying how host stars affect their exoplanets, said the field was changing fast and that “trying to understand those (space weather) impacts has become an essential task in the search for habitable planets.”

    2
    The newly discovered giant planet orbits around its young and active host star inside the inner hole of a dusty circumstellar disk (artist view). Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

    So with space weather in the forefront, the workshop grappled with issues not frequently on the exoplanet agenda including the formation and protective effects of magnetic fields around planets; how, why and at what rate potentially life-supporting elements and compounds are likely to “escape” from bombarded exoplanets; and the extent to which those solar winds in particular speed that escape process.

    Direct exoplanet measurements of these sun/planet dynamics remains sparse to entirely absent. That’s why much of the workshop discussion has centered around what’s known about our solar system — the workings of our sun and the way our solar dynamics impact planets.

    This quite mature science and provides an exoplanet road map of sorts, though one always used with the caveat that what happens in and around our sun might be quite different than what’s happening around a sun many light years away.

    We’ll return to the workshop, but first a little stellar science:

    Our sun is not only a nuclear reactor producing enormous heat, but also has massive and very active electromagnetic fields in its outer corona.

    When oppositely directed magnetic fields meet and become “reconnected,” an intense flare of high-energy photons can shoot out at a speed that will bring them to Earth in 20 minutes to several hours. Often, a coronal mass ejection will accompany the flare. These vast CMEs consist of bubbles of magnetic field and billions of tons of of super-heated plasma (protons and neutrons), and they will arrive on Earth in one to three days.

    In addition, the million degree heat of the sun’s outer corona produces a solar wind that also sends high-energy particles into space. Unlike flares and CMEs, the solar wind is always blowing.

    These phenomena and more would fry Earth were it not for our own protective magnetic field. But this space weather can wreck havoc with satellites, GPS and electric power grids. And it can potentially harm unprotected astronauts in space. Not surprisingly, the study of space weather is a hot subject now.

    3
    llustration of solar wind arriving at Earth’s magnetosphere. No image credit.

    The same or similar space weather is inferred to exist in other solar systems as well. Flares have been actually detected, but workshop scientists said the CMEs have not been measured so far on the host stars of exoplanets.

    The effects of space weather are especially important when it comes to red dwarfs — smaller and cooler stars that make up some 75 percent of the stars out there.

    These smaller stars generally form exoplanets that orbit quite close in, leaving them in danger of a complete sterilizing from solar wind or other space weather. Adding to the risk, red dwarfs are generally very active in their early lives, throwing out large and powerful flares and more. Only later do they become far more sedentary, long-lived and seemingly good targets for habitable exoplanets.

    But while an exoplanet of a red dwarf might orbit in a habitable zone later in its life and have other characteristics of habitability, the planet is considered unlikely to ever recover if it was sterilized eons before by a solar flare.

    Space weather is often discussed in terms of the damage it can do, but the same high energy protons that can sterilize one planet may be able, through photochemistry, to create some of the chemical building blocks of life.

    Airapetian and Goddard colleague William Danchi published a paper in the journal Nature in June proposing that solar super-flares not only warmed the early Earth to make it habitable, but also provided the vast amounts of energy needed to combine evenly scattered simple molecules into the kind of complex molecules that could keep the planet warm and form some of the chemical building blocks of life.

    What’s more, Gregg Hallinan of Caltech proposed future searches for protective magentic fields as way to identify potentially habitable exoplanets. He said that as techniques improve for detecting stellar flares, they should as well for observing stellar CMEs and ultimately planetary magnetic fields.

    3
    NASA’s Swift mission detected a record-setting series of X-ray flares unleashed by DG CVn, a nearby binary consisting of two red dwarf stars, illustrated here. At its peak, the initial flare was brighter in X-rays than the combined light from both stars at all wavelengths under normal conditions. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger)

    Bill Moore’s “Living, Breathing Planet” team was well represented at the workshop. While Moore is a professor at Virginia’s Hampton University’s Department of Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, his NASA-sponsored team includes scientists from six other institutions along the East Coast.

    The talks by team members focused on how and why material escapes from planetary atmospheres, and the implications of that escape. On Mars, for instance, hydrogen escape due to solar winds is a major factor as water and other molecules break apart and send that lightest element into space.

    One result that exoplanet scientists worry about is that the escaping hydrogen can leave behind reservoirs of oxygen that might lead to misleading conclusions. An atmosphere filled with oxygen has long been seen as a promising one in terms of extraterrestrial life; indeed, oxygen and ozone are considered essential biosignatures of life.

    But if oxygen can also be left behind when an atmosphere is stripped of hydrogen, then that clearly must be taken into account. So models for detecting actual biosignatures on exoplanets now include oxygen and other compounds together, rather than oxygen alone.

    “As the field turned to habitability on exoplanets rather than solely detection, we had to start worrying more about the host star. The issue became not detection but how to live around that star, which we’re finding is, not surprisingly, a very complex question.”

    Inevitably, that question involves not only current space conditions, but the evolution of the exoplanet and its solar system. In particular, that requires an understanding of the stellar radiation environment that the planet formed in and has lived in, as well as what other stars might be close by.

    He offered as an example the exciting discovery of a planet in the habitable zone around the star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our own. Teams around the world are now studying the planet for potential habitability, and they may get some promising results.

    But Moore’s group is looking at the Proxima Centauri planet from the perspective of its environment, and that it’s located in what is essentially a three-star cluster. That means the planet has potentially been exposed to the forces of all three stars.

    “We see a planet sitting out there on its own, and it seems to be a closed system. But that’s not true; it’s related to the stars. The Proxima planet is a case in point. We’ve done some work and have found a very complicated environment to live in — to say the least.”

    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 12:02 pm on October 21, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Hot Jupiter clouds, Many Worlds   

    From Many Worlds- “Exoplanet Clouds: Friend and Foe” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Worlds

    Many Words icon

    2016-10-21
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    An illustration representing how hot Jupiters of different temperatures and different cloud compositions might appear to a person flying over the day side of these planets on a spaceship, based on computer modeling. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/V. Parmentier)

    Understanding the make-up and dynamics of atmospheric clouds is crucial to our interpretations of how weather and climate behave on Earth, and so it should come as no surprise that clouds are similarly essential to learning the nature and behavior of exoplanets.

    On many exoplanets, thick clouds and related, though different, hazes have been impediments to learning what lies in the atmospheres and on surfaces below. Current technologies simply can’t pierce many of these coverings, and scientists have struggled to find new approaches to the problem.

    One class of exoplanets that has been a focus of cloud studies has been, perhaps unexpectedly, hot Jupiters — those massive and initially most surprising gas balls that orbit very close to their suns.

    Because of their size and locations, the first exoplanets detected were hot Jupiters. But later work by astronomers, and especially the Kepler Space Telescope, has established that they are not especially common in the cosmos.

    Due to their locations close to suns, however, they have been useful targets of study as the exoplanet community moves from largely detecting new objects to trying to characterize them, to understanding their basic features. And clouds are a pathway to that characterization.

    For some time now, scientists have understood that the night sides of the tidally-locked hot Jupiters generally do have clouds, as do the transition zones between day and night. But more recently, some clouds on the super-hot day sides — where temperatures can reach 2400 degrees Fahrenheit –have been identified as well.

    Vivien Parmentier, a Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona, Tucson, as well as planetary scientist Jonathan Fortney of the University of California at Santa Cruz have been studying those day side hot Jupiter clouds to see what they might be made of, and how and why they behave as they do.

    “Cloud composition changes with planet temperature,” said Parmentier, who used a 3D General Circulation Model (GCM) to track where clouds form in hot Jupiter atmospheres, and what impact they have on the light emitted and reflected by the planets. “The offsetting light curves tell the tale of cloud composition. It’s super interesting, because cloud composition is very hard to get otherwise.”

    The paper by Parmentier, Fortney and others was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

    2
    Artist’s impression of a hot Jupiter. (NASA)

    Solid observational evidence of clouds on the days sides of hot Jupiters has been collected for only a short time, and is done by measuring parent starlight being reflected off the atmosphere. Enough information has accumulated by now, Fortney said, to begin to offer theoretical explanations of the measurements being made.

    “What this suggests is that the cloud behavior is quite complex — there is no ‘uniform planet-wide cloud,’ for these tidally locked planets,” he said in an email.

    “The hot day side may sometimes lack clouds, compared to the cooler night side, where many clouds form. Energy redistribution, via winds, leads to gas that is moving into “sunset” from day to night being cloud-free, but gas going into “sunrise,” moving from night to day is full our cloud material that will evaporate when the gas warms up.

    The atmospheres are way too hot for water clouds. Instead, the cloud material detected has been iron and silicate rocks (well-known from brown dwarf atmospheres), and manganese sulfide (which has been suggested for brown dwarf as well.)

    The different elements and compounds in the clouds give hints about the appearance of the planets, and Parmentier used the GCM model to predict what these planets would look like to the human eye.

    The differences in color, said Fortney, are a function of the amount of heat coming off the planet and the stellar scattered light coming off of atmospheric gases and clouds. “Not all clouds are the same color, which is fun.”

    He also said that “this is the first in what will be a longer study to better understand the transport of cloud material around the planets.

    For this first study, we only suggest that clouds will form when the temperature is right, but we didn’t track how the cloud material moves with the flow. That is the next step for a more comprehensive and accurate model.”

    3
    Hot Jupiters often have cloud or haze layers in their atmospheres. This may prevent space telescopes from detecting atmospheric water that lies beneath the clouds, according to an earlier study in the Astrophysical Journal. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

    he new insights into hot Jupiter clouds via the GCM allowed the team to draw conclusions about wind and temperature differences.

    Just before the hotter planets passed behind their stars, a blip in the planet’s optical light curve revealed a “hot spot” on the planet’s eastern side. And on cooler eclipsing planets, a blip was seen just after the planet re-emerged on the other side of the star, this time on the planet’s western side.

    The early blip on hotter worlds was interpreted as being powerful winds that were pushing the hottest, cloud-free part of the day side atmosphere to the east. Meanwhile, on cooler worlds, clouds could bunch up and reflect more light on the “colder,” western side of the planet, causing the post-eclipse blip.

    “We’re claiming that the west side of the planet’s day side is more cloudy than the east side,” Parmentier said in a JPL release.

    While the puzzling pattern has been seen before, this research was the first to study all the hot Jupiters showing this behavior.

    This led to another first. By teasing out out how clouds are distributed, which is intimately tied to the planet’s overall temperature, scientists were able to determine the compositions of the clouds — likely formed as exotic vapors condense to form minerals, chemical compounds like aluminum oxide, or even metals, like iron.

    The science team found that manganese sulfide clouds probably dominate on “cooler” hot Jupiters, while silicate clouds prevail at higher temperatures. On these planets, the silicates likely “rain out” into the planet’s interior, vanishing from the observable atmosphere.

    So while exoplanet clouds can and do mask important information about what lies below in a planet’s atmosphere, scientists are learning ways to use the information that clouds provide to push forward on that process of characterizing the vast menagerie of exoplanets being found.

    4
    Analysis of data from the Kepler space telescope has shown that roughly half of the dayside of the exoplanet Kepler-7b is covered by a large cloud mass. Statistical comparison of more than 1,000 atmospheric models show that these clouds are most likely made of enstatite, a common Earth mineral that is in vapor form at the extreme temperature on Kepler-7b. These models varied the altitude, condensation, particle size, and chemical composition of the clouds to find the right reflectivity and color properties to match the observed signal from the exoplanet. (NASA, edited by Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

    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.

     
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