Scientists Propose Craft to Search Venus for Life

David Grossman

Photo credit: Northrop Grumman
Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

After decades of looking to the outer solar system and beyond for signs of extraterrestrial life, an international team of scientists is suggesting that humanity take another look at a planet a little closer to home: Venus.

Although the surface of Venus is much too hot and inhospitable for life as we know it, scientists have long thought that microbes could be comfortably reproducing in the clouds of the Venusian atmosphere. Now, a new study in the journal Astrobiology suggests that dark patches in the atmosphere of Venus could, just possibly, be caused by light-absorbing bacteria. To find out, the study authors want to send a floating aircraft to comb the skies of Venus.

Earth’s sister Venus, the second rock from the sun, is similar in size, mass, and composition to our home planet-but that is generally where the comparisons end. The planet’s atmosphere is 96.5 percent carbon dioxide and almost 3.5 percent nitrogen. The runaway greenhouse climate keeps surface temperatures hovering around 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius), while atmospheric pressures on Venus can be as high as pressures a kilometer deep in the oceans of Earth.

But for all the planet’s seemingly inhospitable traits, “Venus has had plenty of time to evolve life on its own,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist Sanjay Limaye, who led the new study, in a press release. Limaye points to models that suggest Venus could have sustained a habitable climate with liquid water on its surface for as long as 2 billion years. “That’s much longer than is believed to have occurred on Mars,” says Limaye.

American and Soviet probes studying Venus in the 1960s and 70s revealed that the temperature and pressure conditions in the lower and middle portions of the Venusian atmosphere-around 25–27 miles up from the surface-do not necessarily preclude life. In 1967, Carl Sagan co-authored a paper with noted biophysicist Harold Morowitz suggesting that life could exist in the clouds. “While the surface conditions of Venus make the hypothesis of life there implausible, the clouds of Venus are a different story altogether,” Sagan and Morowitz wrote.

A chance encounter convinced Limaye to give the planet another look. Talking with co-author of the new paper Grzegorz Słowik of Poland’s University of Zielona Góra, Limaye learned about bacteria on Earth with light-absorbing properties. With a group of researchers, they noted similarities between the bacteria and a mystery within the atmosphere of Venus: dark spots in the atmosphere.

NASA has studied “an unknown UV absorber” embedded within the Venusian clouds. In presentation slides, the agency says that “the unknown UV absorber has been a subject of intense scrutiny since the dawn of the space age.” At the moment, the only probes which have observed this phenomenon have lacked the technical capability to distinguish between materials of an organic or inorganic nature. This unknown absorber, Limaye’s team suggests, could be alien bacteria in the clouds of Venus.

Photo credit: JAXA/Institute of Space and Astronautical Science
Photo credit: JAXA/Institute of Space and Astronautical Science

“On Earth, we know that life can thrive in very acidic conditions, can feed on carbon dioxide, and produce sulfuric acid,” says Rakesh Mogul, a professor of biological chemistry at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a co-author on the new paper. Similarly harsh conditions might be able to sustain life amongst the clouds of Venus, something the team suggests could be similar to algae in lakes on Earth-except floating in the clouds.

There are many unknowns surrounding the new hypothesis, including when exactly Venus’s water supply evaporated. Limaye and his colleagues have an idea for how to get find the answers: the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform, better known as VAMP. A hypothetical aircraft proposed by Northrop Grumman, the VAMP would steer like a plane and float like a blimp through the skies of Venus, taking samples of the Venusian atmosphere. This craft would carry instruments capable of identifying living microorganisms.

“To really know, we need to go there and sample the clouds,” says Mogul. “Venus could be an exciting new chapter in astrobiology exploration.”


Virgin Galactic set to start powered flight tests, aims for 2018 commercial trips

 

Virgin Galactic is resuming powered tests of its spaceplane after a tragic accident with its test vehicle SpaceShipTwo resulted in the death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury in 2014. The news comes via Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who shared the news speaking to Bloomberg.

After current glide-only tests wrap up, powered tests will begin at a pace of one every three weeks, reaching higher altitudes until eventually climbing to the edge of space by November or December of this year. If all goes well, Branson himself is set to be among the first tourists to space in 2018 around mid-year, and then by the end of 2018 he hopes to begin offering full commercial flights for paying passengers.

This is the most we’ve heard about the progress of Virgin Galactic’s commercial passenger jet plan since the accident happened in 2014, and Branson tells Bloomberg that despite delays and the advent of new competitors in the space, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, they’ll still “never be able to build enough spaceships” to satisfy demand.

Virgin Galactic now includes Virgin Orbit, a small satellite launch and logistics business, and its most recent unpowered tests of its VSS Unity aircraft was a success, paving the way for flights with fuel on board, and then eventually powered flights as well.

 

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NASA plans to send a submarine to Saturn’s largest moon in next 20 years

By Alex Stuckey

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Studies find evidence of a fourth dimension

By Mike Wehner, BGR

We live in a three-dimensional reality. Because of that, it’s pretty hard to imagine what a four-dimensional reality might be like, but that isn’t stopping physicists from trying to figure it out. A pair of new research papers were just published in the journal Nature that explore the possibilities of a fourth dimension and, as difficult as any of this may be to comprehend, it seems the scientists are on to something.

The papers, which focused on two very differentexperimental approaches to detecting a fourth dimension, arrived as similar conclusions. But before we dive in to what the experiments attempted to prove, you have to have at least a vague understanding of what the research team was looking for. Buckle up, this is going to get weird.

Imagine a transparent cube, like the kind you used to scribble in your math notebook when you were bored in high school. Any one line of that cube exists in a single dimension. You can go back and forth and that’s it. Once it reaches a corner and connects to a second line, that’s the second dimension. Now you can go back and forth and up and down, which is exponentially more freedom than you had previously. When that line reaches another corner that exists perpendicular to it — giving the object what we think of as depth — now you’re playing with three spatial dimensions.

Our world exists in three spatial dimensions (as well as the dimension of time, but that’s not something you can see). What these newest studies are looking for is the effects of a fourth spatial dimension that can be detected within our three-dimensional world. We’d have no idea what it looks like or what kind of a reality a fourth dimension would offer, but if it does exist in the hidden background of our three-dimensional existence, science might be able to prove it’s there.

In one of the experiments, scientists studied the behavior of light particles moving through specially made glass that bounces light back and forth between its edges. By simulating the effects of an electrical charge via physical input, the team observed how the light behaved, watching for irregularities that could only be made possible if a fourth dimension was working behind the scenes.

The other experiment used supercooled atoms held in place on a grid made of lasers. Scientists call this setup a “charge pump” and they use it test the flow of an electrical charge while monitoring how the atoms respond.

Both of the experiments yielded results that suggest that a fourth dimension really is all around us, even if we can’t see it. Science isn’t any closer to tapping into this hidden dimension, but know that it’s there is an important towards painting a more complete picture of physics and you can bet these won’t be the last experiments that toy with the idea.

 

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Aliens on Enceladus: Chances of E.T. Living in Subsurface Ocean of Saturn’s Icy Moon Given Major Boost

Hannah Osborne,Newsweek

Scientists have discovered that a subsurface ocean on Enceladus could have existed for billions of years, providing plenty of time for microbial alien life to emerge and evolve.

One of Saturn’s icy moons, Enceladus is considered one of the best bets for finding extraterrestrial life within our solar system. Geophysical evidence has long suggested it boasts a salty, liquid ocean between its frozen shell and rocky core. Scientists believe the ocean exists as the result of heat generated by hydrothermal activity the moon’s interior.

NASA has been considering a mission to Enceladus to search for evidence of alien life for several years, although no confirmed plans are in place.

Trending: How Life Began: Missing Link Chemical in First Living Cell Discovered

11_06_EnceladusImage of Enceladus’ surface taken from the Cassini spacecraft. NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

In a study published in Nature Astronomy, an international team of scientists looked data from NASA’s recently completed Cassini mission to better understand what is going on within Enceladus’ that allows it to have a sustained, global ocean. If it was just being heated by tidal forces within the ice, the ocean would freeze over in less than 30 million years. But they now know this is not the case—so something else must be heating the ocean.

Researchers looked at different ways Enceladus could be generating the heat to maintain the liquid ocean, producing models to find one that fits with Cassini observations. Their findings indicate that the additional heat is the result of Enceladus’ core being highly porous.

Water moving through the porous rock is heated then transported up through narrow upwellings, with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Celsius. The team also found these hotspots are particularly prevalent at the moon’s south pole, which explains why the ice seems thinner at this point. Further analysis showed that this heating mechanism could be sustained for tens of millions, if not billions of years.

 

11_06_EnceladusEncelauds has a global ocean sitting between its icy shell and rocky core. NASA

One of the most prevalent theories as to how life evolved on Earth is through chemical reactions at deep sea hydrothermal vents. The presence of hydrothermal activity in Enceladus that could last for such a long time has major implications for the potential for life to evolve. If Enceladus has had a liquid ocean for billions of years, life would have had the chance to emerge and evolve into a more complex form.

In an email interview with Newsweek, lead author Gaël Choblet, from the French National Center for Scientific Research, said that while he cannot speculate on the presence of alien life on Enceladus, their timescale for hydrothermal activity does bolster the case that microbial life could emerge.

If a new theory published last year is correct, then powerful hydrothermal activity could have been occurring since the formation of the moon, possibly as much as the age of the solar system,” he says, adding that which timescale they are working on—tens of millions or billions—could be determined with future research

He said the team now plans to simulate the chemical interactions within Enceladus and to work out how heat and chemicals are transported around the ocean.

Ravi Desai, from Imperial College London, U.K.,has previously looked at the chemistry of Enceladus’s ocean. Commenting on the latest study, which he was not involved in, he says the findings represent “excellent news” for the possibility of detecting microbial life deep in the ocean.

11_06_EnceladusIllustration shows NASA’s Cassini spacecraft diving through the plume of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. NASA/JPL-Caltech

“These findings from Enceladus are highly relevant to exploring the icy moons of Jupiter … [The] results are particularly exciting when considering what could be discovered at Europa and Ganymede.”

David A Rothery, professor of Planetary Geosciences at the Open University, U.K., also says the findings are exciting as “it all fits together”—Cassini observations have now been reconciled with a suitable model of heat transfer within Enceladus. In terms of the potential for life, he said the only possible drawback is that due to its size, it only take about 250 million years for the entire ocean to be recycled through the rock—and once this is done, the number of chemical reactions that take place becomes very limited.

“But this is still happening at the moment because we’re seeing the products,” he says. “Chemical reactions are going on even today. If it’s going on today it could have been going on a billion years into the past, and that’s long enough for life to get started—and to have evolved beyond the very most basic stages. It could be quite a complex microbial community down there and we’d love to study it.”



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