. Scientific Frontline: Planetary Science
Showing posts with label Planetary Science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Planetary Science. Show all posts

Friday, March 22, 2024

Signs of life detectable in single ice grain emitted from extraterrestrial moons

An artist’s rendition of Saturn’s moon Enceladus depicts hydrothermal activity on the seafloor and cracks in the moon’s icy crust that allow material from the watery interior to be ejected into space. New research shows that instruments destined for the next missions could find traces of a single cell in a single ice grain contained in a plume.
Illustration Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The ice-encrusted oceans of some of the moons orbiting Saturn and Jupiter are leading candidates in the search for extraterrestrial life. A new lab-based study led by the University of Washington in Seattle and the Freie Universität Berlin shows that individual ice grains ejected from these planetary bodies may contain enough material for instruments headed there in the fall to detect signs of life, if such life exists.

“For the first time we have shown that even a tiny fraction of cellular material could be identified by a mass spectrometer onboard a spacecraft,” said lead author Fabian Klenner, a UW postdoctoral researcher in Earth and space sciences. “Our results give us more confidence that using upcoming instruments, we will be able to detect lifeforms similar to those on Earth, which we increasingly believe could be present on ocean-bearing moons.”

The open-access study was published March 22 in Science Advances. Other authors in the international team are from The Open University in the U.K.; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; the University of Colorado, Boulder; and the University of Leipzig.

The Cassini mission that ended in 2017 discovered parallel cracks near the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Emanating from these cracks are plumes containing gas and ice grains. NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, scheduled to launch in October, will carry more instruments to explore in even more detail an icy moon of Jupiter, Europa.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Icy impacts: Planetary scientists use physics and images of impact craters to gauge the thickness of ice on Europa

Brandon Johnson and his team study impact craters around the solar system for clues about planetary bodies’ history and composition.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Robinos / Purdue University

Sometimes planetary physics is like being in a snowball fight. Most people, if handed an already-formed snowball, can use their experience and the feel of the ball to guess what kind of snow it is comprised of: packable and fluffy, or wet and icy.

Using nearly the same principles, planetary scientists have been able to study the structure of Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon.

Europa is a rocky moon, home to saltwater oceans twice the volume of Earth’s, encased in a shell of ice. Scientists have long thought that Europa may be one of the best places in our solar system to look for nonterrestrial life. The likelihood and nature of that life, though, heavily depend on the thickness of its icy shell, something astronomers have not yet been able to measure.

A team of planetary science experts including Brandon Johnson, an associate professor, and Shigeru Wakita, a research scientist, in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences in Purdue University’s College of Science, announced in a new paper published in Science Advances that Europa’s ice shell is at least 20 kilometers thick.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Juno Spacecraft Measures Oxygen Production on Jupiter's Moon, Europa

For the first time, SwRI scientists used the Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment (JADE) instrument to definitively detect oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere of one of Jupiter's largest moons, Europa. NASA's Juno spacecraft, using its SwRI-developed instrument, made the measurements during a 2022 flyby of Europa.
Image Credit: Courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has directly measured charged oxygen and hydrogen molecules from the atmosphere of one of Jupiter’s largest moons, Europa. According to a new study co-authored by SwRI scientists and led by Princeton University, these observations provide key constraints on the potential oxygenation of its subsurface ocean.

“These findings have direct implications on the potential habitability of Europa,” said Juno Principal Investigator Dr. Scott Bolton of SwRI, a co-author of the study. “This study provides the first direct in-situ measurement of water components existing in Europa’s atmosphere, giving us a narrow range that could support habitability.”

In 2022, Juno completed a flyby of Europa, coming as close as 352 kilometers to the moon. The SwRI-developed Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment (JADE) instrument aboard Juno detected significant amounts of charged molecular oxygen and hydrogen lost from the atmosphere.

Groundbreaking survey reveals secrets of planet birth around dozens of stars

This research brings together observations of more than 80 young stars that might have planets forming around them in spectacular discs. This small selection from the survey shows 10 discs from the three regions of our galaxy observed in the papers. V351 Ori and V1012 Ori are located in the most distant of the three regions, the gas-rich cloud of Orion, some 1600 light-years from Earth. DG Tau, T Tau, HP Tau, MWC758 and GM Aur are located in the Taurus region, while HD 97048, WW Cha and SZ Cha can be found in Chamaeleon I, all of which are about 600 light-years from Earth.  The images shown here were captured using the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument mounted on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). SPHERE’s state-of-the-art extreme adaptive optics system corrects for the turbulent effects of Earth’s atmosphere, yielding crisp images of the discs around stars. The stars themselves have been covered with a coronagraph — a circular mask that blocks their intense glare, revealing the faint discs around them.  The discs have been scaled to appear roughly the same size in this composition. 
Full Size Zoomable Image
Image Credit: ESO/C. Ginski, A. Garufi, P.-G. Valegård et al.

In a series of studies, a team of astronomers has shed new light on the fascinating and complex process of planet formation. The stunning images, captured using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) in Chile, represent one of the largest ever surveys of planet-forming discs. The research brings together observations of more than 80 young stars that might have planets forming around them, providing astronomers with a wealth of data and unique insights into how planets arise in different regions of our galaxy.

“This is really a shift in our field of study,” says Christian Ginski, a lecturer at the University of Galway, Ireland, and lead author of one of three new papers published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. “We’ve gone from the intense study of individual star systems to this huge overview of entire star-forming regions.”

Monday, March 4, 2024

Water May Have Flowed Intermittently in Martian Valleys for Hundreds of Millions of Years

Detail of an unnamed valley network on Mars. Impact craters are marked with blue and red circles. Craters marked in red postdate the valley network while those marked in blue predate the valley network. Dashed circles have a lower degree of superposition certainty with the valley network. Dashed black line is the mapped valley network. (a) overview of the valley system. The entire basin is outlined in white; the highland areas that have undergone less erosion are outlined in black. (b) detail of the area marked in (a).

Using impact craters as a dating tool, Planetary Science Institute Research Scientist Alexander Morgan has determined maximum timescales for the formation of Martian valley networks shaped by running water.

“Mars today is a global desert, but its surface preserves extensive evidence of past flowing water, including what appear to be river valleys. The timescale over which these valleys formed has big implications for early Mars’ habitability, as long eras with stable liquid water would be more conducive to life,” said Morgan, sole author of “New maximum constraints on the era of Martian valley network formation” that appears in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Martian valley networks formed more than 3 billion years ago and have long been considered among the strongest pieces of evidence of liquid water on early Mars. Previous work has found that it took a minimum of tens of thousands of years to erode these valleys, but the frequency of flow events, and thus the total time era over which the valleys formed, has not been constrained.

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