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  • richardmitnick 7:48 am on February 19, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Many Worlds, Northern Lights   

    From Many Worlds: “The Northern Lights, the Magnetic Field and Life” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2018-02-19
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Northern Lights over a frozen lake in Northern Norway, inside the Arctic Circle near Alta. The displays can go on for hours, or can disappear for days or weeks. It all depends on solar flares. (Ongajok.no)

    May I please invite you to join me in the presence of one of the great natural phenomena and spectacles of our world.

    Not only is it enthralling to witness and scientifically crucial, but it’s quite emotionally moving as well.

    Why? Because what’s before me is a physical manifestation of one of the primary, but generally invisible, features of Earth that make life possible. It’s mostly seen in the far northern and far southern climes, but the force is everywhere and it protects our atmosphere and us from the parched fate of a planet like Mars.

    I’m speaking, of course, of the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis, and the planet’s magnetic fields that help turn on the lights.

    Magnetosphere of Earth, original bitmap from NASA. SVG rendering by Aaron Kaase

    My vantage point is the far northern tip of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. It’s stingingly cold in the silent woods, frozen still for the long, dark winter, and it’s always an unpredictable gift when the lights show up.

    But they‘re out tonight, dancing in bright green and sometimes gold-tinged arches and spotlights and twirling pinwheels across the northerly sky. Sometimes the horizon glows green, sometimes the whole sky fills with vivid green streaks.

    It can all seem quite other-worldly. But the lights, of course, are entirely the result of natural forces.

    2
    Northern Lights over north western Norway. Most of the lights are green from collisions with oxygen, but some are purple from nitrogen. © Copyright George Karbus Photography.

    It has been known for some time that the lights are caused by reactions between the high-energy particles of solar flares colliding in the upper regions of our atmosphere and then descending along the lines of the planet’s magnetic fields. Green lights tell of oxygen being struck at a certain altitude, red or blue of nitrogen.

    But the patterns — sometimes broad, sometimes spectral, sometimes curled and sometimes columnar — are the result of the magnetic field that surrounds the planet. The energy travels along the many lines of that field, and lights them up to make our magnetic blanket visible.

    Such a protective magnetic field is viewed as essential for life on a planet, be it in our solar system or beyond.

    But a magnetic field does not a habitable planet make. Mercury has a strong magnetic field and is certainly not habitable. Mars also once had a weak magnetic field and stir has some remnants on its surface. But it fell apart early in the planet’s life, and that may well have put a halt to the emergence or evolution of living things on the otherwise habitable planet.

    I will return to some of the features of the northern lights and the magnetism is makes visible, but this is also an opportunity to explore the role of magnetism in biology itself.

    This was a quasi-science for some time, but more recently it has been established that migrating birds and fish use magnetic sensors (in their beaks or noses, perhaps) to navigate northerly and southward paths.

    3
    Graphic from Science Magazine.

    But did you know that bacteria, insects and mammals of all sorts appear to have magnetic compasses as well? They can read the magnetism in the air, or can read it in the rocks (as in the case of some sea turtles.) A promising line of study, pioneered by scientists including geobiologist Joseph Kirschvink of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo, is even studying potentially remnant magnetic senses in humans.

    “There no doubt now that magnetic receptors are present in many, many species, and those that don’t have it probably lost it because it wasn’t useful to them,” he told me. “But there’s good reason to say that the magnetic sense was most likely one of the earliest on Earth.”

    But how does it work for animals? How do they receive the magnetic signals? This is a question of substantial study and debate.

    One theory states that creatures use the iron mineral magnetite — that they can produce and consume – to pick up the magnetic signals. These miniature compass needles sit within receptor cells, either near a creature’s nose or in the inner ear.

    Another posits that magnetic fields trigger quantum chemical reactions in proteins called cryptochromes, which have been found in the retina. But no one has determined how they might send signals and information to the brain.

    Kirschvink was part of a team that Earth’s magnetic field dates back to the Archean era, 3 to 3.5 billion years ago. “My guess is that magnetism has been a major influence in the biosphere since then, the biological ability to make magnetic materials.”

    He said that when the sun is particularly angry and active, the geomagnetic storms that occur around the planet seem to interfere with these magnetic responses and that animals don’t navigate as well.

    Kirschvink sees magnetism as a possibly important force in the origin of life. Magnetite that is lined up like beads on a chain has been detected in bacteria, and he says it may have provided an evolutionary pathway for structure that allowed for the rise of eukaryotes — organisms with complex cells, or a single cell with a complex structures.

    Kirschvink and his team are in the midst of a significant study of the effects of geomagnetism on humans, and the pathways through which that magnetism might be used.

    That’s rather a long way from some of the early biomagnetism discoveries, which involved the gumboot chiton. A mollusk relative of the snail and the limpet, the gumboot chiton holds on to rocks in the shallow water and uses its magnetite-covered teeth to scrape algae from rocks. The teeth are on a tongue-like feature called the radula and those teeth are capped with so much magnetite that a magnet can pick up the foot-long gumboot chiton.

    4
    The underside of a gumboot chiton, with its teeth covered with magnetite, can be lifted up with a magnet. No image credit.

    Back at most northern and southerly regions of the planet, where the magnetic field lines are most concentrated, the lights put on their displays for ever larger audiences of people who want to experience their presence.

    We had part of one night of almost full sky action, with long arches, curves large and small, waves, spotlights , shimmers and curtains. It had the feel of a spectacular fireworks display, but magnified in its glory and power and, of course, entirely natural. (I hope to post images taken by others that night which, alas, were not captured by my camera because the battery froze in the 10 degree cold.)

    Our grand night was one of the special ones when the colors (almost all greens, but some reds too) were so bright that their shapes and movements were easy to see with the naked eye.

    Good cameras (especially those with batteries that don’t freeze) see and capture a much broader range of the northern light presence. The horizon, for instance, can appear just slightly green to the naked eye, but will look quite brightly green in an image.

    Thanks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service and NASA, forecasting when and where the lights are likely to be be active in the northern and southern (the Aurora Australis) polar regions.

    This forecasting of space weather revolves around the the eruption of solar flares. The high-energy particles they send out collide with electrons in our upper atmosphere accelerate and follow the Earth’s magnetic fields down to the polar regions.

    5
    Models based on measuring solar flares, or coronal mass ejections, coming from sunspots that rotate and face Earth every 27 or 28 days. Summer months in the northern hemisphere often make the sky too light for the lights to be seen, so the long winter nights are generally the best time to see them. But they do appear in summer, too. (NOAA).

    In these collisions, the energy of the electrons is transferred to the oxygen and nitrogen and other elements in the atmosphere, in the process exciting the atoms and molecules to higher energy states. When they relax back down to lower energy states, they release their energy in the form of light. This is similar to how a neon light works.

    The aurora typically forms 60 to 400 miles above Earth’s surface.

    All this is possible because of our magnetic field, which scientists theorize was created and is sustained by interactions between super-hot liquid iron in the outer core of the Earth’s center and the rotation of the planet. The flowing or convection of liquid metal generates electric currents and the rotation of Earth causes these electric currents to form a magnetic field which extends around the planet.

    If the magnetic field wasn’t present those highly charged particles coming from the sun, the ones that set into motion the processes that produce the Northern and Southern Lights, would instead gradually strip the atmosphere of the molecules needed for life.

    This intimate relationship between the magnetic field and life led to me ask Kirschvink, who has been studying that connection for decades, if he had seen the northern or southern lights.

    No, he said, he’d never had the chance. But if ever in the presence of the lights, he said he know exactly what he would do: take out his equipment and start taking measurements and pushing his science forward.

    6
    Northern Lights in northern Norway, near Alta. Sometimes they dance for minutes, sometimes for hours, but often they never come at all. It all depends on the rotation of the sun; if and when it may be shooting out high-energy solar flares. (Wiki Commons)

    See the full article here .

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    About Many Worlds

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

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

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

    About NExSS

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

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

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

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

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  • richardmitnick 2:29 pm on January 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Many Worlds, National Academy of Sciences decadal study   

    From Many Worlds: “False Positives, False Negatives; The World of Distant Biosignatures Attracts and Confounds” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2018-01-29
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    This artist’s illustration shows two Earth-sized planets, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, passing in front of their parent red dwarf star, which is much smaller and cooler than our sun. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope looked for signs of atmospheres around these planets. (NASA/ESA/STScI/J. de Wit, MIT)

    NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope

    What observations, or groups of observations, would tell exoplanet scientists that life might be present on a particular distant planet?

    The most often discussed biosignature is oxygen, the product of life on Earth. But while oxygen remains central to the search for biosignatures afar, there are some serious problems with relying on that molecule.

    It can, for one, be produced without biology, although on Earth biology is the major source. Conditions on other planets, however, might be different, producing lots of oxygen without life.

    And then there’s the troubling reality that for most of the time there has been life on Earth, there would not have been enough oxygen produced to register as a biosignature. So oxygen brings with it the danger of both a false positive and a false negative.

    Wading through the long list of potential other biosignatures is rather like walking along a very wet path and having your boots regularly pulled off as they get captured by the mud. Many possibilities can be put forward, but all seem to contain absolutely confounding problems.

    With this reality in mind, a group of several dozen very interdisciplinary scientists came together more than a year ago in an effort to catalogue the many possible biosignatures that have been put forward and then to describe the pros and the cons of each.

    “We believe this kind of effort is essential and needs to be done now,” said Edward Schwieterman, an astronomy and astrobiology researcher at the University of California, Riverside. “Not because we have the technology now to identify these possible biosignatures light years away, but because space and ground telescopes of the future need to know what to look for and what kind of equipment they will need to make the potentially find it.

    “It’s part of the very long road to learning whether or not we are alone in the universe.”

    2
    Artistic representations of some of the exoplanets detected so far with the greatest potential to support liquid surface water, based on their size and orbit. All of them are larger than Earth and their composition and habitability remains unclear. They are ranked here from closest to farthest from Earth. Mars, Jupiter, Neptune an Earth are shown for scale on the right. (Planetary Habitability Laboratory, managed by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.)

    The known and inferred population of exoplanets — even small rocky exoplanets — is now so vast that it’s tempting to assume that some support life and that some day we’ll find it. After all, those billions of planets are composed of same basic chemical elements as Earth and are subject to the same laws of physics.

    That assumption of life widespread in the galaxies may well turn out to be on target. But assuming this result, and proving or calculating a high probability of finding extraterrestrial life, are light years apart.

    The timing of this major community effort is hardly accidental. There is a National Academy of Sciences effort underway to review progress in the science of reading possible biosignatures from distant worlds, something that I wrote about recently.

    The results from the NAS effort will in term flow into the official NAS decadal study that will follow and will recommend to Congress priorities for the next ten or twenty years. In addition, two NASA-ordered science and technology definition teams are currently working on architectures for two potential major NASA missions for the 2030s — HabEx (the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission) and Luvoir (the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor.)

    The two mission proposals, which are competing with several others, would provide the best opportunity by far to determine whether life exists on other distant planets.

    With these formal planning and prioritizing efforts as a backdrop, NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) called for a biosignatures workshop in the fall of 2016 and brought together scientists from many disciplines to wrestle with the subject. The effort led to the white paper submitted to NAS and will result in publication of as many as five much more detailed papers in the journal Astrobiology this spring. The overview paper with Schwieterman as first author, which has already been made available to the community for peer review, is expected to lead off the package.

    So what did they find? First off, that Earth has to be their guide.

    “Life on Earth, through its gaseous products and reflectance and scattering properties, has left its fingerprint on the spectrum of our planet,” the paper reads. “Aided by the universality of the laws of physics and chemistry, we turn to Earth’s biosphere, both in the present and through geologic time, for analog signatures that will aid in the search for life elsewhere.

    Considering the insights gained from modern and ancient Earth, and the broader array of hypothetical exoplanet possibilities, we have compiled a state-of-the-art overview of our current understanding of potential exoplanet biosignatures including gaseous, surface, and temporal biosignatures.”

    In other words, potential biosignatures in the atmosphere, on the ground, and that become apparent over time. We’ll start with the temporal:

    4
    These vegetation maps were generated from MODIS/Terra measurements of the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). Significant seasonal variations in the NDVI are apparent between northern hemisphere summer and winter. (Reto Stockli, NASA Earth Observatory Group, using data from the MODIS Land Science Team.)

    NASA AQUA MODIS

    NASA/Terra satellite

    Vegetation is probably clearest example of how change-over-time can be a biosignature. As these maps show and we all know, different parts of the Earth have different seasonal colorations. Detecting exoplanetary change of this sort would be a potentially strong signal, though it could also have some non-biological explanations.

    If there is any kind of atmospheric chemical corroboration, then the time signal would be a strong one. That corroboration could come in seasonal modulations of biologically important gases such as CO2 or O2. Changes in cloud cover and the periodic presence of volcanic gases can also be useful markers over time.

    Plant pigments themselves which have been proposed as a surface biosignature. Observed in the near infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, the pigment chlorophyll — the central player in the process of photosynthesis — shows a sharp dropoff in reflectance at a particular wavelength. This abrupt change is called the “red edge,” and is a measurement known to exist only which chlorophyll engaged in photosynthesis.

    So the “red edge,” or parallel dropoffs in reflectance of other pigments on other planets, is another possible biosignature in the mix.

    And then there is “glint,” reflections from exoplanets that come from light hitting water.

    5
    True-color image from a model (left) compared to a view of Earth from the Earth and Moon Viewer (http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/Earth/). A glint spot in the Indian Ocean can be clearly seen in the model image.

    Since biosignature science essentially requires the presence of H2O on a planet, the clear detection of an ocean is part of the process of assembling signatures of potential life. Just as detecting oxygen in the atmosphere is important, so too is detecting unmistakable surface water.

    But for reasons of both science and detectability, the chemical make-up exoplanet atmospheres is where much biosignature work is being done. The compounds of interest include (but are not limited to) ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur gases, methyl chloride and less specific atmospheric hazes. All are, or have been, associated with life on Earth, and potentially on other planets and moons as well.

    The Schwieterman et al review looks at all these compounds and reports on the findings of researchers who have studied them as possible biosignatures. As a sign of how broadly they cast their net, the citations alone of published biosignature papers number more than 300.

    (Sara Seager and William Bains of MIT, both specialists in exoplanet atmospheres, have been compiling a separate and much broader list of potential biosignatures, even many produced in very small quantities on Earth. Bains is a co-author on one of the five biosignature papers for the journal Astrobiology.)

    All this work, Schwieterman said, will pay off significantly over time.

    “If our goal is to constrain the search for life in our solar neighborhood, we need to know as much as we possibly can so the observatories have the necessary capabilities. We could possibly save hundreds of millions or billions of dollars by constraining the possibilities.”

    “The strength of this compilation is the full body of knowledge, putting together what we know in a broad and fast-developing field,” Schwieterman said. ”

    He said that there’s such a broad range of possible biosignatures, and so many conditions where some might be more or less probable, that’s it’s essential to categorize and prioritize the information that has been collected (and will be collected in the future.)

    “We have a lot of observations recorded here, but they will all have their ambiguities,” he said. “Our goal as scientists will be to take what we know and work to reduce those ambiguities. It’s an enormous task.”

    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 5:31 pm on January 15, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Many Worlds   

    From Many Worlds: “Putting Together a Community Strategy To Search for Extraterrestrial Life” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2018-01-15
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    The scientific search underway for life beyond Earth requires input from many disciplines and fields. Strategies forward have to hear and take in what scientists in those many fields have to say. (NASA)

    Behind the front page space science discoveries that tell us about the intricacies and wonders of our world are generally years of technical and intellectual development, years of planning and refining, years of problem-defining and problem-solving. And before all this, there also years of brainstorming, analysis and strategizing about which science goals should have the highest priorities and which might be most attainable.

    That latter process is underway now in regarding the search for life in the solar system and beyond, with numerous teams of scientists tackling specific areas of interest and concern and turning their group discussions into white papers. In this case, the white papers will then go on to the National Academy of Sciences for a blue-ribbon panel review and ultimately recommendations on which subjects are exciting and mature enough for inclusion in a decadal survey and possible funding.

    This is a generally little-known part of the process that results in discoveries, but scientists certainly understand how they are essential. That’s why hundreds of scientists contribute their ideas and time — often unpaid — to help put together these foundational documents.

    With its call for extraterrestrial habitability white papers, the NASA got more than 20 diverse and often deeply thought out offerings. The papers will be studied now by an ad hoc, blue ribbon committee of scientists selected by the NAS, which will have the first of two public meetings in Irvine, Calif. on Jan. 16-18.

    Then their recommendations go up further to the decadal survey teams that will set formal NASA priorities for the field of astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science. This community-based process that has worked well for many scientific disciplines since they began in the late 1950s.

    I’m particularly familiar with two of these white paper processes — one produced at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo and the other with NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS.) What they have to say is most interesting.

    This is what Shawn Domagal-Goldman, an astrobiologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, had to say about their effort, which began 16 months ago with a workshop in Seattle:

    “This is an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ problem, and we held a workshop to start drawing a wide variety of scientists to the problem. Once we did, the group gave itself an ambitious goal – to quantify an assessment of whether or not an exoplanet has life, based on remote observations of that world.

    “Doing that will take years of collaboration of scientists like the ones at the meeting, from diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences.”

    Chaitanya Giri, a research scientist at ELSI with a background in organic planetary chemistry and organic cosmochemistry, said that his work on the European Rosetta mission to a comet convinced him that it is essential to “develop technological capacities to explore habitable niches on various planetary bodies and find unambiguous signatures of life, if present.” There is some debate about the organic molecules — the chemical building blocks of life — identified by Rosetta.

    “Over the years there have been scattered attempts at building such instruments, but a coherent collaborative network was missing,” Giri said. “This necessity inspired me to put on this workshop,” which led to the white paper.

    We’ll discuss the conclusions of the papers, but first at little about the decadal surveys:

    2
    NASA Decada:

    Here are the instruction from the NAS to potential white paper teams working on life beyond Earth projects and issues:

    Identify promising key research goals in the field of the search for signs of life in which progress is likely in the next 20 years.
    Identify key technological challenges in astrobiology as they pertain to the search for life in the solar system and extrasolar planetary systems.
    Identify key scientific questions in astrobiology as they pertain to the search for life in the solar system and extrasolar planetary systems
    Discuss scientific advances that can be addressed by U.S. and international space missions and relevant ground-based activities in operation or funded and in development
    Discuss how to expand partnerships (interagency, international and public/private) in furthering the study of life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe

    Quite a wide net, from specific issues to much broader ones. But the teams submitting their papers are not expected to address all the issues, but only one or perhaps a related second.
    The papers range from a SETI Institute call for a program to increase the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to address a range of astrobiology issues; to tempting possibilities offered by teams already in the running for future missions to Europa or Enceladus or elsewhere; to recommendations from the Planetary Science Institute about studying and searching for microbialites, living carbonate rock structures once common on Earth and possibly on Mars as well.

    Proposed White Paper Subjects

    3
    Several white papers discussed the desirability of sending a proble to Saturn’s moon Enceladus. plume of water vapor flowing out from its South Pole. (NASA)

    4
    Microbialites are fresh water versions of the organic and carbonate structures called stromatolites — which are among the oldest signs of life detected on Earth.

    The white paper from ELSI focuses how to improve and discover technology that can detect potential life on other planets and moons. It calls for an increasingly international approach to that costly and specialized effort.

    The paper from Giri et al begins with a disquieting conclusion that only “lately,
    scattered efforts are being undertaken towards the R&D of the novel and as-yet space unproven
    ‘life-detection’ technologies capable of obtaining unambiguous evidence of
    extraterrestrial life, even if it is significantly different from {Earth} life. As the suite of
    space-proven payloads improves in breadth and sensitivity, this is an apt time to examine the
    progress and future of life-detection technologies.”
    The paper points to one discovery in particular as indicative of what the team feels is necessary — an ability to search for life in regions theoretically devoid of life and therefore requiring novel detection
    techniques or probes.
    “For example,” they write, “air sampling in Earth’s stratosphere with a novel
    scientific cryogenic payload has led to the isolation and identification of several new species
    of bacteria; this was an innovative technique analyzing a region of the atmosphere that was
    initially believed to be devoid of life.”
    Other technologies they see as promising and needing further development are high-sensitivity fluorescence microscopy techniques that may be able to detect extraterrestrial organic compounds with catalytic activity surrounded by membranes, i.e., extraterrestrial cells. In addition, they support on-going and NASA-funded work on genetic samplers that could go to Mars and — if present — actually identify nucleic acid-based life.
    “With back-to-back missions under development and proposed by various space agencies to the potentially habitable Mars, Enceladus, Titan, and Europa, this is a right time for a detailed envisioning of the technologies needed for detection of life,” Giri said in an e-mail.

    5
    Yellowknife Bay on Mars, where the rover Curiosity first found conditions that were habitable to life. The rover subsequently found many more habitable spots, but no existing or fossil life so far. (NASA)

    The NExSS white paper is an especially ambitious one, and focuses on potential biosignatures from distant exoplanets. The NASA-sponsored effort brought in many top scientists working in the field of biosignatures, and in the past year has already resulted in the publication or submission of five major science papers in addition to the white paper.
    In keeping with the interdisciplinary mission of NExSS, the paper brought in people from many fields and ultimately advocates for a Bayesian approach to exoplanet life detection (named after 18th century statistician and philosopher Thomas Bayes. )
    In most basic terms, the Bayes approach describes the probability of an event based on prior knowledge of conditions that might be related to the event. A simple example: Runners A and B have competed four times, and runner A won three times. So the probability of A winner is high, right? But what if the two competed twice on a rainy track and each won one race. If the forecast for the day of the next race is rain, the probability of who will be the winner would change.
    This approach not only embraces probability as an essential way forward, but it is especially useful in terms of weighing probabilities involving many measurements and fields. Because the factors involved in finding a biosignature are so complex and potentially confounding, they argue, the field has to think in terms of the probability that a number of biosignatures together suggest the presence of life, rather than a 100 percent certain detection (although that may some day be possible.)
    Both Domagal-Goldman and collaborator exoplanet photosynthesis expert Nancy Kiang of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies are eager to adopt climate modeling and it’s ability to use known characteristics of divergent sub-fields to put together a big picture.
    For instance, Kiang said, the Global Climate Modeling program at GISS simulates the circulation patterns of Earth’s wind, heat, moisture, and gases, and can make pretty good predictions of what climate conditions will result. She sees a similar possibility with exoplanets and biosignatures.
    Such a computer model can take in data from different fields and come up with some probabilities. The model “might tell us that a planet is habitable over a certain percent of its surface,” she said.
    “A geochemist or planetary formation person might then tell us that if certain chemistry exists on that planet, it has good potential for prebiotic compounds to form. A biologist and geologist might tell us that certain surface signatures on the planet are plausible for either life or mineral background.” That’s not a robust biosignature, but the probability that it could be life is not zero, depending on origin of the signature.
    “These different forms of information can be integrated into a Bayesian analysis to tell us the likelihood of life on the planet,” she wrote.
    One arm of the NExSS team is already using the tools of climate modeling to predict how particular conditions on exoplanets would play out under different circumstances.

    6
    This example of how Earth planet modeling can be used for exoplanets is a plot of what the sea ice distribution could look like on a synchronously rotating ocean world. The star is off to the right, blue is where there is open ocean, and white is where there is sea ice. (NASA/GISS/Anthony Del Genio)

    I will return to the NExSS biosignatures white paper later, since it is so rich with cutting edge thinking about this upcoming stage in space science. But I do want to include one specific recommendation made by what is called the Exoplanet Biosignatures Workshop Without Walls (EBWWW).
    What they say is necessary now is for more biologists to join the search for extraterrestrial life.
    “The EBWWW revealed that the search for exoplanet life is still largely driven by astronomers
    and planetary scientists, and that this field requires more input from origins of life researchers
    and biologists to advance a process-based understanding for planetary biosignatures.
    “This includes assessing the {already assessed probability} that a planet may have life, or a life process evolved for a given planet’s environment. These advances will require fundamental research into the origins and processes of life, in particular for environments that vary from modern Earth’s. Thus, collaboration between origins of life researchers, biologists, and planetary scientists is critical to defining research questions around environmental context.”
    The recommendation, it seems to me, illustrates both the infancy and the maturing of the field.

    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 12:46 pm on January 12, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Many Worlds, The Mars Water Story Gets Ever More Interesting   

    From Many Worlds: “The Mars Water Story Gets Ever More Interesting” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2018-01-11
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Enchanced-color traverse section of Martian icy scarps in late spring to early summer. Arrows indicate locations where relatively blue material is particularly close to the surface. Image taken by HiRISE camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA/USGS )

    U Arizona NASA Mars Reconnaisance HIRISE Camera

    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    Huge escarpments of quite pure water ice have been found in the Southern Highlands of Mars — accessible enough that astronauts might some day be able to turn the ice into water, hydrogen and oxygen.

    Some of these deposits are more than 100 meters thick and begin only a meter or two below the surface.

    These are among the conclusion from a new paper in the journal Science that describes these previously unknown water ice reserves. While Mars scientists have long theorized the presence of subsurface ice under one-third of the planet, and even exposed bits of it with the Phoenix lander, the consensus view was that Martian ice was generally cemented with soil to form a kind of permafrost.

    But the “scarp” ice described by Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey and colleagues is largely water ice without much other material. This relative purity, along with its accessibility, would make the ice potentially far more useful to future astronauts.

    “The ice exposed by the scarps likely originated as snow that transformed into massive ice sheets, now preserved beneath less than 1 to 2 meters of dry and ice-cemented dust or regolith,” the authors write. The shallow depths, the write “make the ice sheets potentially accessible to future exploration.”

    3
    The bright red regions contain water ice, as determined by measurements by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Oribter. (NASA)

    The importance is clear: These sites are “very exciting” for potential human bases as well, says Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, who led a recent NASA study exploring potential landing sites for astronauts.

    Water is a crucial resource for astronauts, because it could be combined with carbon dioxide, the main ingredient in Mars’s atmosphere, to create oxygen to breathe and methane, a rocket propellant. And although researchers suspected the subsurface glaciers existed, they would only be a useful resource if they were no more than a few meters below the surface. The ice cliffs promise abundant, accessible ice, Abbud-Madrid told Science Magazine.

    While the discovery adds to the view that Mars is neither bone-dry now nor was earlier in its history, it does not necessarily add to the question of where all the Martian water has gone or how much was originally there.

    That’s because the paper describes the huge ice deposits as the result of snowfall over more recent eons that was packed into its current form, rather than water that might have been present during the warmer wetter periods of Mars history. With this in mind, Dundas said in an email that his team’s work does not add to what is known about the early Mars water budget.

    As for the age of the water ice, he said “we can’t put an accurate number on it at this time, but the icy units are lightly cratered. Others in the community have proposed snowfall during periods of high axial tilt within the last few million years.”

    So the ice is relatively young. But that doesn’t mean it has no story to tell. Exposed ice, like exposed rock, always has a story to tell.

    “We expect the vertical structure of Martian ice-rich deposits to preserve a record of ice deposition and past climate,” the authors write.

    The eight scarps studied were steep and faced the poles. All were in the mid-latitudes, and therefore far from the polar ice sheets.

    4
    The lander Phoenix dug into the soil of the northern polar region and found cemented ice as well as pure ice several inches down. (NASA)

    NASA Mars Phoenix Lander

    NASA has long had a motto for exploring Mars and other sites beyond Earth of “follow the water.” That has been expanded to “follow the carbon” and “follow the organics,” but the water is still a guidepost of sorts of where life, or its remnants, might be found. Now with these large and seemingly accessible deposits of water ice, “follow the water” takes on a new meaning for potential future astronauts in search of essential chemical components.

    Still, the issue of just how much water there is and has been on Mars is a central to piecing together the planet’s history and how much of the planet might have one day been eminently habitable.

    The last decade of Mars exploration and observation has led most Mars scientists to conclude that the planet once had rivers, lakes and possibly a northern ocean. That water is almost entirely (or perhaps entirely) gone from the surface now, and understanding where it went is certainly key to understanding the history of the planet.

    While much no doubt escaped to space after the early protective Mars magnetic field and atmosphere largely disappeared, researchers say there remains a lot of Mars water to be accounted for.

    An article in the journal Nature last month reported the possibility of large amounts of water mixing with Martian basalts long ago and forming a broadly water-rich crust. The authors of that paper, led by Jon Wade of Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences, described modeling that found water on early Mars could be absorbed into spongy rock at a far greater rate than on Earth.

    In an accompanying review [Nature], geochemist and cosmochemist Tomohiro Usui of the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo, supported the notion, and added another possibility that he has published on as well.

    “Ground ice might also account for the missing water reservoir on Mars,” he wrote. “Subsurface radar-sounder measurements have detected an anomaly in an electrical property of rocks in the planet’s northern hemisphere, which implies that massive ice deposits are embedded among or between layers of sediment and volcanic materials at a depth of 60–80 m.”

    Usui wrote that the ground-ice model has also been proposed based of analyses of hydrogen isotopes in Martian meteorites and of the shapes and characteristics of craters. Indeed, the crater study indicated that the subsurface water ice has a volume comparable to the size of the ancient oceans.

    5
    Where did the large amounts of water once present on Mars go. Some clearly was lost to the atmosphere, but some researchers are convinced that much is underground as ice or incorporated into minerals. (Nature)

    Dundas agreed that the new paper was a continuation of earlier work, rather than something entirely new. “We’ve known for some time that there is shallow ground ice within a meter of the surface, and there have been recent radar detections of ice sheets tens of meters thick,” he said in his email. “What our work does is provide some three-dimensional information at high resolution that helps tie things together.”

    Dundas et al reported that the fractures and steep angles found indicate that the ice is cohesive and strong. What’s more, bands and variations in color suggest that the ice contains distinct layers, which could be used to understand changes in Mars’ climate over time.

    Because the ice is only visible where surface soil has been removed, the paper says it is likely that ice near the surface is more extensive than detected in this study.

    And that could be very important to astronauts on future missions to Mars.

    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 3:01 pm on December 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Airapetian and Goddard colleague William Danchi argue the solar flares were an essential part of the process that led to us, As a way to potentially improve the chances of finding habitable conditions on those exoplanets that are observed a new approach has been proposed by a group of NASA scientists, , , , , , , , Many Worlds, The novel technique takes advantage of the frequent stellar storms emanating from cool young dwarf stars, This new research suggests that some stellar storms could have just the opposite effect — making the planet more habitable., When high-energy particles from a stellar storm reach an exoplanet they break the nitrogen oxygen and water molecules that may be in the atmosphere into their individual components   

    From Many Worlds: “A New Way to Find Signals of Habitable Exoplanets?” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-12-04
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Scientists propose a new and more indirect way of determining whether an exoplanet has a good, bad or unknowable chance of being habitable. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk)

    The search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets is extremely difficult and time-consuming work. The telescopes that can potentially take the measurements required are few and more will come only slowly. And for the current and next generation of observatories, staring at a single exoplanet long enough to get a measurement of the compounds in its atmosphere will be a time-consuming and expensive process — and thus a relatively infrequent one.

    As a way to potentially improve the chances of finding habitable conditions on those exoplanets that are observed, a new approach has been proposed by a group of NASA scientists.

    The novel technique takes advantage of the frequent stellar storms emanating from cool, young dwarf stars. These storms throw huge clouds of stellar material and radiation into space – traveling near the speed of light — and the high energy particles then interact with exoplanet atmospheres and produce chemical biosignatures that can be detected.

    The study, titled “Atmospheric Beacons of Life from Exoplanets Around G and K Stars“, recently appeared in Nature Scientific Reports.

    “We’re in search of molecules formed from fundamental prerequisites to life — specifically molecular nitrogen, which is 78 percent of our atmosphere,” said Airapetian, who is a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and at American University in Washington, D.C. “These are basic molecules that are biologically friendly and have strong infrared emitting power, increasing our chance of detecting them.”

    1
    The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

    So this technique, called a search for “Beacons of Life,” would not detect signs of life per se, but would detect secondary or tertiary signals that would, in effect, tell observers to “look here.”

    The scientific logic is as follows:

    When high-energy particles from a stellar storm reach an exoplanet, they break the nitrogen, oxygen and water molecules that may be in the atmosphere into their individual components.

    Water molecules become hydroxyl — one atom each of oxygen and hydrogen, bound together. This sparks a cascade of chemical reactions that ultimately produce what the scientists call the atmospheric beacons of hydroxyl, more molecular oxygen, and nitric oxide.

    For researchers, these chemical reactions are very useful guides. When starlight strikes the atmosphere, spring-like bonds within the beacon molecules absorb the energy and vibrate, sending that energy back into space as heat, or infrared radiation. Scientists know which gases emit radiation at particular wavelengths of light. So by looking at all the radiation coming from the that planet’s atmosphere, it’s possible to get a sense of what chemicals are present and roughly in what amounts..

    Forming a detectable amount of these beacons requires a large quantity of molecular oxygen and nitrogen. As a result, if detected these compounds would suggest the planet has an atmosphere filled with biologically friendly chemistry as well as Earth-like atmospheric pressure. The odds of the planet being a habitable world remain small, but those odds do grow.

    “These conditions are not life, but are fundamental prerequisites for life and are comparable to our Earth’s atmosphere,” Airapetian wrote in an email.

    Stellar storms and related coronal mass ejections are thought to burst into space when magnetic reconnections in various regions of the star. For stars like our sun, the storms become less frequent within a relatively short period, astronomically speaking. Smaller and less luminous red dwarf stars, which are the most common in the universe, continue to send out intense stellar flares for a much longer time.

    3
    Vladimir Airapetian is a senior researcher at NASA Goddard and a member of NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) initiative.

    The effect of stellar weather on planets orbiting young stars, including our own four billion years ago, has been a focus of Airapetian’s work for some time.

    For instance, Airapetian and Goddard colleague William Danchi published a paper in the journal Nature last year proposing that solar flares warmed the early Earth to make it habitable. They concluded that the high-energy particles 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.

    In other words, they argue, the solar flares were an essential part of the process that led to us.

    What Airapetian is proposing now is to look at the chemical results of stellar flares hitting exoplanet atmospheres to see if they might be an essential part of a life-producing process as well, or of a process that creates a potentially habitable planet.

    Airapetian said that he is again working with Danchi, a Goddard astrophysicist, and the team from heliophysics to propose a NASA mission that would use some of their solar and stellar flare findings. The mission being conceived, the Exo Life Beacon Space Telescope (ELBST), would measure infrared emissions of an exoplanet atmosphere using direct imaging observations, along with technology to block the infrared emissions of the host star.

    For this latest paper, Airapetian and colleagues used a computer simulation to study the interaction between the atmosphere and high-energy space weather around a cool, active star. They found that ozone drops to a minimum and that the decline reflects the production of atmospheric beacons.

    They then used a model to calculate just how much nitric oxide and hydroxyl would form and how much ozone would be destroyed in an Earth-like atmosphere around an active star. Earth scientists have used this model for decades to study how ozone — which forms naturally when sunlight strikes oxygenin the upper atmosphere — responds to solar storms. But the ozone reactions found a new application in this study; Earth is, after all, the best case study in the search for habitable planets and life.

    Will this new approach to searching for habitable planets out?

    “This is an exciting new proposed way to look for life,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a Goddard astrobiologist not connected with the study. “But as with all signs of life, the exoplanet community needs to think hard about context. What are the ways non-biological processes could mimic this signature?”

    4
    A 2012 coronal mass ejection from the sun. Earth is placed into the image to give a sense of the size of the solar flare, but our planet is of course nowhere near the sun. (NASA, Goddard Media Studios)

    Today, Earth enjoys a layer of protection from the high-energy particles of solar storms due to its strong magnetic field. However, some particularly strong solar events can still interact with the magnetosphere and potentially wreak havoc on certain technology on Earth.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classifies solar storms on a scale of one to five (one being the weakest; five being the most severe). For instance, a storm forecast to be a G3 event means it could have the strength to cause fluctuations in some power grids, intermittent radio blackouts in higher latitudes and possible GPS issues.

    This is what can happen to a planet with a strong magnetic field and a sun that is no longer prone to sending out frequent solar flares. Imagine what stellar storms can do when the star is younger and more prone to powerful flaring, and the planet less protected.

    Exoplanet scientists often talk of the possibility that a particular planet was “sterilized” by the high-energy storms, and so could never be habitable. But this new research suggests that some stellar storms could have just the opposite effect — making the planet more habitable.

    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 8:16 pm on November 22, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Can You Overwater a Planet?, , Many Worlds,   

    From Many Worlds: “Can You Overwater a Planet?” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    Posted on 2017-11-22 by Marc Kaufman
    By guest columnist Elizabeth Tasker

    Wherever we find water on Earth, we find life. It is a connection that extends to the most inhospitable locations, such as the acidic pools of Yellowstone, the black smokers on the ocean floor or the cracks in frozen glaciers. This intimate relationship led to the NASA maxim, “Follow the Water”, when searching for life on other planets.

    Yet it turns out you can have too much of a good thing. In the November NExSS Habitable Worlds workshop in Wyoming, researchers discussed what would happen if you over-watered a planet. The conclusions were grim.

    Despite oceans covering over 70% of our planet’s surface, the Earth is relatively water-poor, with water only making up approximately 0.1% of the Earth’s mass. This deficit is due to our location in the Solar System, which was too warm to incorporate frozen ices into the forming Earth. Instead, it is widely — though not exclusively — theorized that the Earth formed dry and water was later delivered by impacts from icy meteorites. It is a theory that two asteroid missions, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and JAXA’s Hayabusa2, will test when they reach their destinations next year.

    NASA OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft

    JAXA/Hayabusa 2

    But not all planets orbit where they were formed. Around other stars, planets frequently show evidence of having migrated to their present orbit from a birth location elsewhere in the planetary system.

    One example are the seven planets orbiting the star, TRAPPIST-1.

    A size comparison of the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system, lined up in order of increasing distance from their host star. The planetary surfaces are portrayed with an artist’s impression of their potential surface features, including water, ice, and atmospheres. NASA


    The TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultracool dwarf, is orbited by seven Earth-size planets (NASA).

    Discovered…


    ESO Belgian robotic Trappist-South National Telescope at Cerro La Silla, Chile, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

    …in February this year, these Earth-sized worlds orbit in resonance, meaning that their orbital times are nearly exact integer ratios. Such a pattern is thought to occur in systems of planets that formed further away from the star and migrated inwards.

    The TRAPPIST-1 worlds currently orbit in a temperate region where the levels of radiation from the star are similar to that received by our terrestrial worlds. Three of the planets orbit in the star’s habitable zone, where a planet like the Earth is most likely to exist.

    However, if these planets were born further from the star, they may have formed with a high fraction of their mass in ices. As the planets migrated inwards to more clement orbits, this ice would have melted to produce a deep ocean. The result would be water worlds.

    With more water than the Earth, such planets are unlikely to have any exposed land. This does not initially sound like a problem; life thrives in the Earth’s seas, from photosynthesizing algae to the largest mammals on the planet. The problem occurs with the planet itself.

    The clement environment on the Earth’s surface is dependent on our atmosphere. If this envelope of gas was stripped away, the Earth’s average global temperature would be about -18°C (-0.4°F): too cold for liquid water. Instead, this envelope of gases results in a global average of 15°C (59°F).

    Exactly how much heat is trapped by our atmosphere depends on the quantity of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. On geological timescales, the carbon dioxide levels can be adjusted by a geological process known as the “carbon-silicate cycle”.

    In this cycle, carbon dioxide in the air dissolves in rainwater where it splashes down on the Earth’s silicate rocks. The resulting reaction is termed weathering. Weathering forms carbonates and releases minerals from the rocks that wash into the oceans. Eventually, the carbon is released back into the air as carbon dioxide through volcanoes.

    3
    Continents are not only key for habitability because they sources of minerals and needed elements but also because they allow for plate tectonics — the movements and subsequent crackings of the planet’s crust that allow gases to escape. Those gases are needed to produce an atmosphere. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

    The rate of weathering is sensitive to temperature, slowing when he planet is cool and increasing when the temperature rises. This allows the Earth to maintain an agreeable climate for life during small variations in our orbit due to the tug of our neighboring planets or when the sun was young and cooler. The minerals released by weathering are used by all life on Earth, in particular phosphorous which forms part of our DNA.

    However, this process requires land. And that is a commodity a water world lacks. Speaking at the Habitable Worlds workshop, Theresa Fisher, a graduate student at Arizona State University, warned against the effects of submerging your continents.

    Fisher considered the consequences of adding roughly five oceans of water to an Earth-sized planet, covering all land in a global sea. Feasible, because weathering could still occur with rock on the ocean floor, though at a much reduced efficiency. The planet might then be able to regulate carbon dioxide levels, but the large reduction in freed minerals with underwater weathering would be devastating for life.

    Despite being a key element for all life on Earth, phosphorus is not abundant on our planet. The low levels are why phosphorous is the main ingredient in fertilizer. Reduce the efficiency with which phosphorous is freed from rocks and life will plummet.

    Such a situation is a big problem for finding a habitable world, warns Steven Desch, a professor at Arizona State University. Unless life is capable of strongly influencing the composition of the atmosphere, its presence will remain impossible to detect from Earth.

    “You need to have land not to have life, but to be able to detect life,” Desch concludes.

    However, considerations of detectability become irrelevant if even more water is added to the planet. Should an Earth-sized planet have fifty oceans of water (roughly 1% of the planet’s mass), the added weight will cause high pressure ices to form on the ocean floor. A layer of thick ice would seal the planet rock away from the ocean and atmosphere, shutting down the carbon-silicate cycle. The planet would be unable to regulate its surface temperature and trapped minerals would be inaccessible for life.

    Add still more water and Cayman Unterborn, a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State, warns that the pressure will seal the planet’s lid. The Earth’s surface is divided into plates that are in continual motion. The plates melt as they slide under one another and fresh crust is formed where the plates pull apart. When the ocean weight reaches 2% of the planet’s mass, melting is suppressed and the planet’s crust grinds to a halt.

    A stagnant lid would prevent any gases trapped in the rocks during the planet’s formation from escaping. Such “degassing” is the main source of atmosphere for a rocky planet. Without such a process, the Earth-sized deep water world could only cling to an envelop of water vapor and any gas that may have escaped before the crust sealed shut.

    Unterborn’s calculations suggest that this fate awaits the TRAPPIST-1 planets, with the outer worlds plausibly having hundreds of oceans worth of water pressing down on the planet.

    So can we prove if TRAPPIST-1 and similarly migrated worlds are drowning in a watery grave? Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, notes that exoplanets are currently seen only as “dark shadows” briefly reducing their star’s light.

    However, the next generation of telescopes such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, will aim to change this with observations of planetary atmospheres.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    Intertwined with the planet’s geological and biological processes, this cloak of gases may reveal if the world is living or dead.

    Elizabeth Tasker is a planetary scientist and communicator at the Japanese space agency JAXA and the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo. She is also author of a new book about planet formation titled The Planet Factory.

    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 7:50 am on October 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Many Worlds, Red Dwarf Stars and the Planets Around Them   

    From Many Worlds: “Red Dwarf Stars and the Planets Around Them” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-10-26
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Artist rendering of a red dwarf or M star, with three exoplanets orbiting. About 75 percent of all stars in the sky are the cooler, smaller red dwarfs. (NASA)

    It’s tempting to look for habitable planets around red dwarf stars, which put out far less luminosity and so are less blinding. But is it wise?

    That question has been near the top of the list for many exoplanet scientists, especially those involved in the search for habitable worlds.

    Red dwarfs are plentiful (about three-quarters of all the stars out there) and the planets orbiting them are easier to observe because the stars are so small compared to our Sun and so an Earth-sized planet blocks a greater fraction of starlight. Because planets orbiting red dwarfs are much closer in to their host stars, the observing geometry favors detecting more transits.

    A potentially rich target, but with some drawbacks that have become better understood in recent years. Not only are most planets orbiting these red dwarf stars tidally locked, with one side always facing the sun and the other in darkness, but the life history of red dwarfs is problematic. They start out with powerful flares that many scientists say would sterilize the close-in planets forever.

    Also, they are theorized to be prone to losing whatever water remains even if the stellar flares don’t do it. Originally, it was thought that this would happen because of a “runaway greenhouse,” where a warming planet under a brightening star would evaporate enough water from its oceans to create a thick blanket of H2O vapor at high altitudes and block the escape of radiation, leading to further warming and the eventual loss of all the planet’s water.

    The parching CO2 greenhouse of a planet like Venus may be the result of that. Later it was realized that on many planets, another mechanism called the “moist greenhouse” might create a similar thick blanket of water vapor at high altitudes long before a planet ever got to the runaway greenhouse stage.

    Finally now has come some better news about red dwarf exoplanets. Using 3-D models that characterize atmospheres going back, forward and to the sides, researchers found atmospheric conditions quite different from those predicted by 1-D models that capture changes only going from the surface straight up.

    One paper found that using some pretty simple observations and calculations, scientists could determine the bottom line likelihood of whether or not the planet would be undone by a moist greenhouse effect. The other found that these red dwarf exoplanets could have atmospheres that are always heavily clouded, but could still have surface temperatures that are moderate.

    The new studies also enlarge the size of the habitable zones in which exoplanets could be orbiting a red dwarf or other “cool” star, making more of them potentially habitable.

    2
    The green sections are the habitable zones surround the different star types. The term refers to the region around a star where water on a planet could remain liquid at least part of the time. The term does not mean the planets in the zone are necessarily habitable, but that they make it past one particular large hurdle. (NASA)

    “This is good news for those of us hoping to find habitable planets,” said Anthony Del Genio, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York, and co-author of a new paper in The Astrophysical Journal.

    “These studies show that a broader range of planets could have stable climates than we thought. This is a broadening of the width of the habitable zone by showing that we can get closer to a star and still have a potentially habitable planet.”

    In a NASA release, the paper’s lead author, Yuka Fujii, said this: “Using a model that more realistically simulates atmospheric conditions, we discovered a new process that controls the habitability of exoplanets and will guide us in identifying candidates for further study.” Fujii was formerly at NASA GISS and now is a project associate professor at the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo.

    Since telescope time available for exoplanets will be quite limited on observatories such as the James Webb Space Telescope — which has many astronomical tasks to accomplish — the Earth-sized exoplanets around red dwarfs seem to be the more technologically feasible target to observe.

    Scientists have to observe Earth-size planets for a long time and for many transits in front of the star to get a good enough signal to interpret. So given that, it will be impossible to observe all, or even many, of the candidate Earth-size planets discovered so far or will be discovered. Tough choices have to be made.

    What the group found using their 3-D models is that unlike the predictions from 1-D models, this moist greenhouse effect does not set in immediately for a particular luminosity of the star. Rather, it occurs more gradually as the star becomes brighter.

    That fact, Del Genio said, makes the findings from the new 3-D modeling studies additionally important because they can help observers determine which small, rocky exoplanets might be most promising in terms of habitability.

    They do this by identifying — and then eliminating — exoplanets that have undergone what is called a “moist greenhouse” transformation.

    A moist greenhouse occurs when a watery exoplanet orbits too close to its host star. Light from the star will then heat the oceans until they begin to evaporate and are lost to space.

    This happens when water vapor rises to a layer in the upper atmosphere called the stratosphere and gets broken into its elemental components (hydrogen and oxygen) by ultraviolet light from the star.
    The extremely light hydrogen atoms can then escape to space. Planets in the process of losing their oceans this way are said to have entered a “moist greenhouse” state because of their humid stratospheres.

    What the group found using their 3-D models is that unlike the runaway greenhouse effect this moist greenhouse effect does not set it immediately at a particular temperature threshold. Rather, it occurs more gradually, even over eons.

    They came to this conclusion because the upper atmosphere heating turned out to be a function of the infrared radiation coming from the stars rather than from turbulent convective activity (as in massive thunderstorms) from the surface, as earlier believed.

    The infrared radiation (which is at wavelengths slightly longer than the visible wavelength area of the spectrum) will warm the planet and cause what water is present to eventually. evaporate.

    2
    This is a plot of what the sea ice distribution could look like on a tidally locked ocean world. The star would be off to the right, blue is where there is open ocean, and white is where there is sea ice. (NASA/GISS/Anthony Del Genio)

    This paper comes on the heels of a related one in the August edition of The Astrophysical Journal.

    Ravi Kopparapu, a research scientist at NASA Goddard and Eric Wolf of the University of Colorado, Boulder came to a similar conclusion about surfaces on exoplanets orbiting red dwarfs. As they wrote in their abstract, the modeling “implies that some planets around low mass (red dwarf) stars can simultaneously undergo water-loss and remain habitable.”

    They also reported general circulation model 3-D modeling that showed moist greenhouse scenarios around red dwarfs were slow moving and took place at relatively low temperatures. As a result, oceans could remain for a long time — even billions of years — as they slowly evaporated.

    Both groups use general circulation models (GCM), though different ones. GCMs are an advanced type of climate model that looks at the general circulation patterns of planetary atmospheres and oceans. They were initially designed to model Earth’s climate patterns, but now are used for exoplanets as well.

    The original theory of the moist greenhouse scenario was put forward in the 1980s by James Kasting of Pennsylvania State University, who also did much original work on the concept of a habitable zone and helped popularize the concept. Both the runaway greenhouse and the moist greenhouse have become important factors in exoplanet study.

    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 8:33 am on October 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: All important research in what is a chipping away of the many unknowns in the stories of the origins of Earth and the origin of life, , , Flow of electrons (electricity) from the core of the Earth, Geobiochemistry, Many Worlds, ,   

    From Many Worlds: “2.5 Billions Years of Earth History in 100 Square Feet’ 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-10-19
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Scalding hot water from an underground thermal spring creates an iron-rich environment similar to what existed on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. (Nerissa Escanlar)

    Along the edge of an inlet on a tiny Japanese island can be found– side by side – striking examples of conditions on Earth some 2.4 billion years ago, then 1.4 billion years ago and then the Philippine Sea of today.

    First is a small channel with iron red, steaming and largely oxygen-free water – filled from below with bubbling liquid above 160 degrees F. This was Earth as it would have existed, in a general way, as oxygen was becoming more prevalent on our planet some 2.4 billion years ago. Microbes exist, but life is spare at best.

    Right next to this ancient scene is region of green-red water filled with cyanobacteria – the single-cell creatures that helped bring masses of oxygen into our atmosphere and oceans. Locals come to this natural “onsen” for traditional hot baths, but they have to make their way carefully because the rocky floor is slippery with green mats of the bacteria.

    And then there is the Philippine Sea, cool but with spurts of warm water shooting up from below into the cove.

    All of this within a area of maybe 100 square feet.

    It is a unique hydrothermal scene, and one recently studied by two researchers from the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo – microbiologist Shawn McGlynn and ancient virus specialist Tomohiro Mochizuki.

    They were taking measurements of temperature, salinity and more, as well as samples of the hot gas and of microbial life in the iron-red water. Cyanobacterial mats are collected in the greener water, along with other visible microbe worlds.

    2
    Microbiologist Shawn McGlynn of the Earth Life Science Institute in Tokyo scoops some iron-rich water from a channel on Shikine-jima Island, 100 miles from Tokyo. (Nerissa Escanlar)

    The scientific goals are to answer specific questions – are the bubbles the results of biology or of geochemical processes? What are the isotopic signatures of the gases? What microbes and viruses live in the super-hot sections? And can cyanobacteria and iron co-exist?

    All are connected, though, within the broad scientific effort underway to ever more specifically understand conditions on Earth through the eons, and how those conditions can help answer fundamental questions of how life might have begun.

    “We really don’t know what microbiology looked like 2.5 billion or 1.5 billion years ago,” said McGlynn, “But this is a place we can go where we can try to find out. It’s a remarkable site for going back in time.”

    In particular, there are not many natural environments with high levels of dissolved iron like this site. Yet scientists know from the rock record that there were periods of Earth history when the oceans were similarly filled with iron.

    Mochizuki elaborated: “We’re trying to figure out what was possible chemically and biologically under certain conditions long ago.

    “If you have something happening now at this unusual place – with the oxygen and iron mixing in the hot water to turn the water red – then there’s a chance that what we find today was there as well billions of years ago. ”

    3
    Tomohiro Mochizuki at collecting samples directly from the spot where 160 degree F water pushes up through the rock at Jinata hot spring. (Nerissa Escanlar)

    The Jinata hot springs, as the area is known, is on Shikine-jima Island, one of the furthest out in the Izu chain of islands that starts in Tokyo Bay. More than 100 miles from Tokyo itself, Shikine-jima is nonetheless part of Tokyo Prefecture.

    The Izu islands are all volcanic, created by the underwater movements of the Philippine and Pacific tectonic plates. That boundary remains in flux, and thus the hot springs and volcanoes. The terrain can be pretty rugged: in English, Jinata translates to something like Earth Hatchet, since the hot spring is at the end of a path through what does look like a rock rising that had been cut through with a hatchet.

    Hot springs and underwater thermal vents have loomed large in thinking about origins of life since it became known in recent decades that both generally support abundant life – microbial and larger – and supply nutrients and even energy in the form of electricity from vents and electron transfers from chemical reactions.

    And so not surprisingly, vents are visited and sampled not infrequently by ELSI scientists. McGlynn was on another hydrothermal vent field trip in Iceland over the summer with, among others, ELSI Origins Network fellow Donato Gionovelli and ELSI principal investigator and electrochemist Ruyhei Nakamura..

    McGlynn’s work is focused on how electrons flow between elements and compounds, a transfer that he sees as a basic architecture for all life. With so many compelling flows occurring in such a small space, Jinata is a superb laboratory.

    4
    The volcanic Izu island chain, starting in Tokyo Bay and going out into the Philippine Sea.

    For Mochizuki, the site turned out to be exciting but definitely not a goldmine. That’s because his speciality is viruses that live at very high temperatures, and even the bubbling hot spring in the iron trench measured about 73 degrees C (163 degrees F.) The viruses he incubates live at temperatures between closer to 90 C (194 F), not far from the boiling point.

    His goal in studying these high-temperature (hyperthermophilic) viruses is to look back to the earliest days of life forming on Earth, using viruses as his navigators. Since life is thought by many scientists to have begun in a super hot RNA world, Mochizuki wants to look at viruses still living in those conditions today to see what they can tell us.

    So far, he explained, what they have told us is that the RNA in the earliest lifeforms on Earth – denizens of the Archaean kingdom – did not have viruses. And this is puzzling.

    So Mochizuki is always interested in going to sample hot springs and thermal vents to collect high temperature viruses, and to look for surprises.

    Though the bubbling waters were so hot that both researchers had difficulty standing in the water with boots on and holding their collection vials with gloves, it was not hot enough for what Mochizuki is after. But that certainly didn’t stop him from taking as many samples as he could, including some for other ELSI researchers doing different work but still needing interesting samples.

    Researchers often need to be inventive on field trips, and that was certainly the case at Jinata. When McGlynn first tried to sample the bubbles at the scalding spring, his hands and feet quickly felt on fire and he had to retreat.

    To speed the process, he and Mochizuki built a funnel out of a large plastic water bottle, a device that allowed the bubbles to be collected and directed into the sample vial without the gloved hands being so close to the heat. The booted feet, however, remained a problem and the heat just had to be endured.

    Nearby the steaming bubbling of the hot spring were collections of what appeared to be fine etchings on the bottom of the red channel. These faint designs, McGlynn explained, were the product of a microbe that makes it’s way along the bottom and deposits lines of processed iron oxide as it goes. So while the elegant designs are not organic, the creatures that creates them surely is.

    “Touch the area and the lines go poof,” McGlynn said. “That’s because they’re just the iron oxide; nothing more. Next to us is the water with much less iron and a lot more oxygen, and so there are blooms of (green) cyanobacteria. Touch them and they don’t go poof, they stick to your hand because they’re alive.”

    5
    Patterns created by microbes as they deposit iron oxide at the bottom of small channel. (Marc Kaufman)

    McGlynn also collects some of the the poofs to get at the microbes making the unusual etchings. It may be a microbe never identified before.

    As a microbiologist, he is of course interested in identifying and classifying microbes. He initially thought the microbes in the iron channel would be anaerobic, but he found that even tiny amount of oxygen making their way into the springs from the atmosphere made most aerobic, or possibly anaerobes capable of surviving with oxygen (which usually is toxic to them.)

    He also found that laboratory studies that found cyanobacteria would not flourish in the presence of iron were not accurate in nature, or certainly were not accurate at Jinata onsen.

    But it is that flow of electrons that really drives McGlynn – he even dreams of them at night, he told me.

    One of the goals of his work, and that of his colleague and sometimes collaborator at ELSI, geobiochemist Yuichiro Ueno, is to answer some of the outstanding questions about that flow of electrons (electricity) from the core of the Earth. The energy transits through the mantle, to the surface and then often is in contact with the biosphere (all living things) before it enters the atmosphere and sometimes disappears into space.

    He likened the process to the workings of a gigantic battery, with the iron core as the cathode and the oxygen in the atmosphere as the anode. Understanding the chemical pathways traveled by the electrons today, he is convinced, will tell a great deal about conditions on the early Earth as well.

    It’s all important research in what is a chipping away of the many unknowns in the stories of the origins of Earth and the origin of life.

    6
    A boundary between where the very hot iron-rich water meets and the less hot water with thriving cyanobacteria colonies at Jinata.

    The field work also illustrated the hit-and-miss nature of these kind of outings. While McGlynn has not come up with Jinata surprises or novel understandings, he was so taken with the setting that he wondered if a seemly empty building not too far from the site could be turned into an ELSI marine lab.

    And while Mochizuki did not find sufficiently hot water for his work, he might still be coming back to the island, or others nearby. That’s because he learned of a potentially much hotter spring at a spot where the sea hits one of the island’s steep cliffs – a site that requires boat access that was unsafe in the choppy waters during this particular visit.

    In addition, McGlynn and Mochizuki did make some surprising discoveries, though they didn’t involve microbes, electron transfer or viruses.

    During a morning visit to a different hot spring, they came across a team of what turned out to be officials of the Izu islands – all dressed in suits and ties. They were visiting Shikine-jima as part of a series of joint islands visit to assess economic development opportunities.

    The officials were intrigued to learn what the scientists were up to, and made some suggestions of other spots to sample. One was an island occupied by Japanese self-defense forces and generally closed to outsiders. But the island is known to have areas of extremely hot water just below the surface of the land, sometimes up to 100 C (212 F.)

    The officials gave their cards and told the scientists to contact them if they wanted to get onto that island for sampling. And as for the official from Shikine-jima, he was already thinking big.

    “It would be a very good thing,” he said, “if you found the origin of life on our island.

    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 7:16 pm on October 2, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , formamide - common in star-forming regions of space, Many Worlds, Natural nuclear reactor, One possible source of high energy particles on early Earth, Our universal solvent it turns out can be extremely corrosive, , The essential chemical backbones of early life-forming molecules fall apart in water   

    From Many Worlds: “Could High-Energy Radiation Have Played an Important Role in Getting Earth Ready For Life?” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-10-02
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    The fossil remains of a natural nuclear reactor in Oklo, Gabon. It entered a fission state some 2 billion years ago, and so would not have been involved in any origin of life scenario. But is a proof of concept that these natural reactors have existed and some were widespread on earth Earth. It is but one possible source of high energy particles on early Earth. The yellow rock is uranium oxide. (Robert D. Loss, Curtin University, Australia)

    Life on early Earth seems to have begun with a paradox: while life needs water as a solvent, the essential chemical backbones of early life-forming molecules fall apart in water. Our universal solvent, it turns out, can be extremely corrosive.

    Some have pointed to this paradox as a sign that life, or the precursor of life, originated elsewhere and was delivered here via comets or meteorites. Others have looked for solvents that could have the necessary qualities of water without that bond-breaking corrosiveness.

    In recent years the solvent often put forward as the eligible alternative to water is formamide, a clear and moderately irritating liquid consisting of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Unlike water, it does not break down the long-chain molecules needed to form the nucleic acids and proteins that make up life’s key initial instruction manual, RNA. Meanwhile it also converts via other useful reactions into key compounds needed to make nucleic acids in the first place.

    Although formamide is common in star-forming regions of space, scientists have struggled to find pathways for it to be prevalent, or even locally concentrated, on early Earth. In fact, it is hardly present on Earth today except as a synthetic chemical for companies.

    New research presented by Zachary Adam, an earth scientist at Harvard University, and Masashi Aono, a complex systems scientist at Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at Tokyo Institute of Technology, has produced formamide by way of a surprising and reproducible pathway: bombardment with radioactive particles.

    2
    In a room fitted for cobalt-60 testing on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, a team of researchers gather around the (still covered) cobalt-60 and vials of the chemicals they were testing. The ELSI scientists are (from left) Masashi Aono, James Cleaves, Zachary Adam and Riquin Yi. (Isao Yoda)

    The two and their colleagues exposed a mixture of two chemicals known to have existed on early Earth (hydrogen cyanide and aqueous acetonitrile) to the high-energy particles emitted from a cylinder of cobalt-60, an artificially produced radioactive isotope commonly used in cancer therapy. The result, they report, was the production of substantial amounts of formamide more quickly than earlier attempts by researchers using theoretical models and in laboratory settings.

    It remains unclear whether early Earth had enough radioactive material in the right places to produce the chemical reactions that led to the formation of formamide. And even if the conditions were right, scientists cannot yet conclude that formamide played an important role in the origin of life.

    Still, the new research furthers the evidence of the possible role of alternative solvents and presents a differing picture of the basis of life. Furthermore, it is suggestive of processes that might be at work on other exoplanets as well – where solvents other than water could, with energy supplied by radioactive sources, provide the necessary setting for simple compounds to be transformed into far more complex building blocks.

    “Imagine that water-based life was preceded by completely unique networks of interacting molecules that approximated, but were distinct from and followed different chemical rules, than life as we know it,” said Adam.

    Their work was presented at recent gatherings of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, and the Astrobiology Science Conference.

    The team of Adam and Aono are hardly the first to put forward the formamide hypothesis as a solution to the water paradox, and they are also not the first to posit a role for high-energy, radioactive particles in the origin of life.

    An Italian team led by Rafaelle Saladino of Tuscia University recently proposed formamide as a chemical that would supply necessary elements for life and would avoid the ‘water paradox.’ Since the time that Marie Curie described the phenomenon of radioactivity, scientists have proposed innumerable ways that the emission of particle-shedding atomic nuclei might have played roles, either large or small, in initiating life on Earth.

    Merging the science of formamide and radioactivity, as Adam and Aono have done, is a potentially significant step forward, though one that needs deeper study.

    “If we have formamide as a solvent, those precursor molecules can be kept stable, a kind of cradle to preserve very interesting products,” said Aono, who has moved to Tokyo-based Keio University while remaining a fellow at ELSI.

    4
    Aono and technician Isao Yoda in the radiation room with the cobalt-60 safely tucked away. (Nerissa Escanlar.)

    The experiment with cobalt-60 did not begin as a search for a way to concentrate the production of formamide. Rather, Adam was looking more generally into the effects of gamma rays on a variety of molecules and solvents, while Aono was exploring radioactive sources for a role in the origin of life.

    The two came together somewhat serendipitously at ELSI, an origins-of-life research center created by the Japanese government. ELSI was designed to be a place for scientists from around the world and from many different disciplines to tackle some of the notoriously difficult issues in origins of life research. At ELSI, Adam, who had been unable to secure sites to conduct laboratory tests in the United States, learned from Aono about a sparingly-used (and free) cobalt-60 lab; they promptly began collaborating.

    It is well known that the early Earth was bombarded by high-energy cosmic particles and gamma rays. So is the fact that numerous elements (aluminum-26, iron-60, iodine-129) have existed as radioactive isotopes that can emit radiation for minutes to millennium, and that these isotopes were more common on early Earth than today. Indeed, the three listed above are now extinct on Earth, or nearly extinct, in their natural forms

    Less known is the presence of “natural nuclear reactors” as sites where a high concentration of uranium in the presence of water has led to self-sustaining nuclear fission. Only one such spot has been found —in the Oklo region of the African nation of Gabon — where spent radioactive material was identified at 16 sites separate sites. Scientists ultimately concluded widespread natural nuclear reactions occurred in the region some 2 billion years ago.

    That time frame would mean that the site would have been active well after life had begun on Earth, but it is a potential proof of concept of what could have existed elsewhere long before

    Adam and Aono remain agnostic about where the formamide-producing radioactive particles came from. But they are convinced that it is entirely possible that such reactions took place and helped produce an environment where each of the backbone precursors of RNA could readily be found in close quarters.

    Current scientific thinking about how formamide appeared on Earth focuses on limited arrival via asteroid impacts or through the concentration of the chemical in evaporated water-formamide mixtures in desert-like conditions. Adam acknowledges that the prevailing scientific consensus points to low amounts of formamide on early Earth.

    “We are not trying to argue to the contrary,” he said, “but we are trying to say that it may not matter.”

    If you have a unique place (or places) on the Earth creating significant amounts of formamide over a long period of time through radiolysis, then an opportunity exists for the onset of some unique chemistry that can support the production of essential precursor compounds for life, Adam said.

    “So, the argument then shifts to— how likely was it that this unique place existed? We only need one special location on the entire planet to meet these circumstances,” he said.

    5
    Zachary Adam, an earth scientist in the lab of Andrew Knoll at Harvard University. (Nerissa Escanlar)

    After that, the system set into motion would have the ability to bring together the chemical building blocks of life.

    “That’s the possibility that we look forward to investigating in the coming years,” Adam said.

    James Cleaves, an organic chemist also at ELSI and a co-author of the cobalt-60 paper, said while production of formamide from much simpler compounds represents progress, “there are no silver bullets in origin of life work. We collect facts like these, and then see where they lead.”

    Another member of the cobalt-60 team is Albert Fahrenbach, a former postdoc in the lab of Harvard University’s Nobel laureate Jack Szostak and now an associate principal investigator at ELSI.

    An organic geochemist, Fahrenbach was a late-comer to the project, brought in because Cleaves thought the project could use his expertise.

    “Connecting the origins of life, or precursors chemicals, with radiolysis (or radioactivty) was an active field back in the 70s and 80s,” he said. “Then it pretty much died out and went out of fashion.”

    Fahrenbach said he remains uncertain about any possible role for radiolysis in the origin of life story. But the experiment did intrigue him greatly, it led him to experiment with some of the chemicals formed by the gamma ray blasts, and he says the results have been productive.

    “Without this experiment, I would definitely not be going down some very interesting paths,” he said

    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 3:45 pm on September 21, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Complexity is indeed the desired endpoint, Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo, Hyperbranched polymers, Many Worlds,   

    From Many Worlds: “Messy Chemistry: A New Way to Approach the Origins of Life” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    Many Worlds

    2017-09-21
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Astrobiologist and chemist Irena Mamajanov and prebiotic chemist Kuhan Chandru in their messy chemistry garb at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo. Mamajanov leads an effort at the institute to study a new “messy” path to understanding how some prebiotic chemical systems led to building blocks of life on early Earth. (Nerissa Escanlar)

    More than a half century ago, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey famously put water and gases believed to make up the atmosphere of early Earth into a flask with water, sparked the mix with an electric charge, and produced amino acids and other chemical building blocks of life.

    The experiment was hailed as a ground-breaking reproduction of how the essential components of life may have been formed, or at least a proof of concept that important building blocks of life could be formed from more simple components.

    Little discussed by anyone outside the origins of life scientific community was that the experiment also produced a lot of a dark, sticky substance, a gooey tar that covered the beaker’s insides. It was dismissed as largely unimportant and regrettable then, and in the thousands of parallel origins of life experiments that followed.

    Today, however, some intrepid researchers are looking at the tarry residue in a different light.

    Just maybe, they argue, the tar was equally if not more important as those prized amino acids (which, after all, were hidden away in the tar until they were extracted out.) Maybe the messy tar – produced by the interaction of organic compounds and an energy source — offers a pathway forward in a field that has produced many advances but ultimately no breakthrough.

    Those now studying the tar call their research “messy chemistry,” as opposed to the “clean” chemistry that focused on the acclaimed organic compounds.

    There are other centers where different versions of “messy chemistry” research are under way — including George Cody’s lab at the Carnegie Institution for Sciences and Nicholas Hud’s at the Georgia Institute of Technology — but it is probably most concentrated at the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo (ELSI.)

    There, messy chemistry is viewed as an ignored but promising way forward, and almost a call to arms.

    “In classical origin-of-life synthetic chemistry and biology you’re looking at one reaction and analyzing its maximum result. It’s A+B = C+D,” said Irena Mamajanov, an astrobiologist with a background in chemistry who is now a principal investigator ELSI and head of the overall messy chemistry project.

    “But life is not like that; it isn’t any single reaction. They’re looking at a subset of reactions and we ask: ‘Why not look at the whole complex system?’”

    2
    rena Mamajanov of ELSI, with colleague Yuki Suna, synthesizes particular complex molecules similar to enzymes to explore the many pathways that could have been involved in the production of actual early enzymes. The term “messy chemistry” grew out of an prebiotic chemistry conference at the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington several years ago. (Nerissa Escanlar)

    There’s a scientific lineage here – researchers have worked with complex systems and reaction systems in many fields, and in principle this is the same. It’s taking a “systems” approach and applying it to that black box period on Earth when non- biological chemicals were slowly transformed (or transformed themselves) into chemical systems with the attributes of “life.”

    The messy chemistry work is getting noticed, and Mamajanov was a featured speaker on the “New Approaches to the Origins of Life” plenary at the 2017 Astrobiology Science Conference, in Mesa, Arizona. At ELSI alone, researchers have been working on messy chemistry using metals, using electricity, using radioactivity, using computational chemistry and using analytical chemistry to tease out patterns and structure in the tars.

    Mamajanov says this messy chemistry approach – which she learned to some extent as a fellow at both Carnegie and Georgia Tech — makes intuitive, as well as scientific sense because life is nothing if not complex.

    Wouldn’t it be logical for the origin of life to be found in some of the earliest complex systems on Earth. rather than in looking for straight-line processes that progress almost independent of all the chemistry happening around them?

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

    It’s the structure, in fact, that stands out as a particularly promising aspect of messy chemistry. More traditional synthetic biology is looking for simple molecular structures created by clean reactions, while messy chemistry is doing the opposite.

    The goal of messy chemists is to see what interesting chemical processes take place within a defined portion of the messy, complex sample. What unexpected, surprising compounds or chemical structures might be formed? And how might they shed light on the process of chemical self-organization and more generally the origin of life question?

    In her lab on the basement floor of the ELSI main building, Mamajanov works with colleagues to synthesize her messy molecules and push further into understanding their structures, their potential ability to adapt, and their suitability as possible precursors to the RNA and DNA molecules that characterize life.

    Her specific area of study is hyperbranched polymers – three-dimensional, tree-shaped chains of repeating molecules that connect with other similar molecules. The result is globular, presents multitudes of chemical reactions and has some hidden and protected spaces inside their globs. Related synthetic, or bio-mimicked chemicals (i.e., modeled on biological compounds and processes) have been used by the drug industry for some time.

    With these hyperbranched polymers, Mamajanov has worked to produce pathways within the messy systems where the polymers show characteristics of evolvability.

    Her hyperbranched polymers are synthetic, as are those of noted synthetic chemists–in-search-of-biology such as Steven Benner, at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution and Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Institute.

    But the starting points are quite different, as are the goals. The two men are working to create clean chemical systems that produce the building block molecules that they want, but without the tar. Mamajamov is intentionally making tar.

    Eric Smith, a specialist in complexity systems, physics and chemistry who is also at ELSI sees the messy approach as containing the seeds of an important new way forward. “What is now called messy chemistry used to be completely out of the mainstream,” he said. “That is no longer the case.”

    Smith described how John Sutherland of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, U.K. won accolades for his work on the prebiotic assembly of important building blocks for RNA, using controlled chemistry that avoided all the messiness.

    But he was also criticized later for using a such a controlled model – early Earth, after all, did not have any outside controller – and Smith said Sutherland is incorporating the messier side of prebiotic chemistry today, although tar remains an enemy rather than a potential friend.

    “Now he’s going back to a one pot synthesis, allowing reactions that would have to be less controlled than what he was doing before,” Smith said of Sutherland. “He may do it in a way quite different from Irena and others involved in messy chemistry, but it seems to allow for many more complex reactions.”

    And complexity is indeed the desired endpoint. Not simply repetitive reactions and not random ones, but rather reactions that are very complex but ultimately structured.

    This is where another novel aspect of the messy chemistry approach comes into play: Mamajanov and others at ELSI are collaborating with practitioners of “artificial chemistry,” computer simulated versions of what could be happening in messy interactions.

    The work is being done primarily by Nathaniel Virgo, an artificial life specialist who uses computing to learn about how chemical systems behave once you leave the laboratory world where the number of chemical components is small and controlled.

    And his big question: “Are there situations in which you can get ‘order from disorder’ in chemistry – to start with a messy system and have it spontaneously become more ordered? If so, what kinds of conditions are required for this to happen, and what kinds of ordered states can result?

    Mamajanov needs Virgo’s computations to analyze and project forward what a messy chemical system might do, since the sheer number of possible chemical reactions involved is huge. And Virgo needs the messy chemistry as a test bed of sorts for his abstracted questions about, in effect, making order out of what appears to be chaos. They are, for each other, hypothesis-generating machines.

    Virgo pointed to several primary reasons why computational work is important for answering the question of creating order from disorder (and ultimately, he is convinced, life from non-life.)

    “The first is simply that studying messy chemistry experimentally is really hard. If you have a test tube containing a mess, it takes a lot of work to find out what molecules are in it, and basically impossible to know what reactions are happening, at least not without an enormous amount of work. In contrast, in a simulation you know exactly what molecules and reactions are present, even if there are millions of different types.”

    The second reason involves the fundamental issue of studying specific chemical systems versus studying general mechanisms.

    “As a complex systems scientist, I first want to know what, in general, is required, for a given phenomenon to occur. Once this is known, it should become clear which real systems will exhibit the right kinds of properties.

    “This allows us to narrow down the vast space of possible hypotheses for the origins of life, rather than simply testing them one at a time. It should also give us some insight into the question of whether life might be possible with completely different kinds of chemistry than the protein-nucleic acid-metabolite chemistry we have on Earth.

    From his studies he has found that in messy chemical systems, chemical self-production occurs and tht the systems can change dramatically in response to small changes such as an increased temperature.

    “This suggests that messy chemistry is fundamentally qualitatively different from clean chemistry – adding more species doesn’t just mean the system gets harder to study, it also means that fundamentally new things can happen.”

    And in the origins of life world, things are happening.

    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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