Subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa deemed potentially ‘habitable’

FILE PHOTO: Handout photo of a view of Jupiter's moon Europa, created from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990's
FILE PHOTO: Handout photo of a view of Jupiter’s moon Europa, created from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990’s

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Scientists have figured out how the subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa may have formed and determined that this vast expanse of water may have been able to support microbial life in the past.

Europa, with an ocean hidden beneath a thick shell of ice, long has been viewed as a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life in our solar system, alongside other candidates such as Mars and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. A new study presented on Wednesday at a geoscience conference underscores its potential.

Europa’s ocean may have formed after water-rich minerals ejected their water thanks to heating caused by the decay of radioactive elements in its interior early in its history, the researchers found.

The effect of tides caused by Europa’s gravitational interactions with Jupiter – the solar system’s largest planet – and two other large Jovian moons, Io and Ganymede, also may have played a role.

“We think Europa’s ocean may have been habitable early when it formed because our models show that the ocean’s composition may have been only mildly acidic, containing carbon dioxide and some sulfate salts,” said planetary scientist Mohit Melwani Daswani of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the study’s leader.

“The availability of liquid water is the first step to habitability. In addition, chemical exchange between the ocean and the rocky interior may have been significant in the past so potential life may have been able to use chemical energy to survive.”

Daswani said microbes akin to certain Earth bacteria that use carbon dioxide for energy could have survived using ingredients available in Europa’s early ocean.

Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon. Europa’s ocean, perhaps 40 to 100 miles (65 to 160 km) deep, may contain double the water of Earth’s oceans.

The study evaluated whether Europa was previously habitable and did not examine its present habitability, a question the researchers are now exploring.

“A word of caution,” Melwani Daswani said. “If a place is habitable, it does not mean that it is actually inhabited, just that the conditions could allow for the survival of some extremely hardy forms of life that we know of on Earth.”

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)

 
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Astronauts Could Mix Their Pee With Moon Dust to Build Lunar Bases

Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/20th Century Fox

Researchers have made a 3D-printable building material by mixing urea and moon dust.

As NASA plans to return to the moon, scientists are looking for ways to protect and shelter astronauts.

The combined material is homogeneous in texture and can be piped into shape.

Was The Martian a documentary after all? In a new paper in the Journal of Cleaner Production, scientists looked at the ways space travelers might end up building structures on the moon, and one avenue they studied combines urea (from urine) with different materials to utilize urea’s unique chemical properties.

The researchers say this is a way to capitalize on what the moon already has, which is tons of rock, regolith (smaller rock particulate), and fine, silky lunar soil. By combining some distillate of urea from astronaut urine and the lunar silt, scientists have made a kind of geopolymer cement that can be piped using a 3D printer. In their experiments, they used a syringe to pipe the composite material in a similar way to a 3D printer.

Why urea? Well, once you decouple the ick factor, it’s a useful chemical. “Urea can break hydrogen bonds, and therefore reduces the viscosities of many aqueous mixtures. Since urea is the second most abundant component in urine (after water), it is readily available anywhere there are humans,” the researchers explain.

In the experiment, the scientists used powdered urea, which is available for purchase as a fertilizer, adhesive, and beauty additive. It’s also given to patients with very specific kidney problems and diseases. Humans naturally produce urea, of course, but it can also be derived from animals and plants.

Once blended with water, this liquid is combined with fine rock powder. We colloquially call all moon surface gravel regolith, but what this team used is technically more like lunar soil.

Photo credit: Journal of Cleaner Production
On Earth, we think of soil as something that’s often pretty damp and filled with organic material and microorganisms. Moon soil is simply rocks that have been ground down until they’re the consistency of dust—it’s just the pure mineral component, without the enlivening nutrients and living things that plants need.

This dry, lifeless dust is made almost exclusively by wind erosion. What results is more like plaster of Paris or Portland cement, ideal for mixing into a paste.

In their tests, the researchers found their piped urea mixture dried into a strong solid that they hope will be structural grade for things astronauts might need. They explain:

“Further studies are needed in order to assess how these lunar regolith geopolymers will behave under the severe lunar conditions, with a vacuum that can cause the volatile components to evaporate, and large temperature fluctuations which might cause crack formation.”

There are logistical and safety challenges, too. How could astronauts set up and shelter a 3D printing environment? Even if the material holds up to the extreme vacuum conditions on the moon’s surface, it’s not very useful if it can’t withstand meteor activity or shelter astronauts from powerful cosmic radiation. All of this is work for subsequent tests.

Caroline Delbert
Popular Mechanics

Twisted Nuclear Fusion Is Much Closer to Actually Happening

Photo credit: The HSX Team, Jerahmie / Public domain

Permanent magnets could help to stabilize and simplify stellarator fusion reactor design.

Stellarators look like huge metal donuts fully greebled with hardware sprinkles.

Permanent magnets would replace expensive to operate and complicated electromagnets.

A researcher in New Jersey says he had a nuclear fusion breakthrough while helping his son with a science project. He realized he could explore which kinds of permanent magnets could be powerful and stable enough to be part of a fusion reactor concept called a stellarator.

Michael Zarnstorff, from the Max Planck-Princeton Research Center for Plasma Physics, worked with three other researchers on the permanent magnet design.

“It is shown that the magnetic-field coils of a stellarator can, at least in principle, be substantially simplified by the use of permanent magnets,” the scientists’ new paper begins. A permanent magnet is one whose magnetic charge comes from the chemical makeup of the material itself, like the interplay between individual electrons. This is different from something like an electromagnet—whether that’s a copper wire electromagnet or the magnetic field generated by the Earth. If behaviors or assemblies generate magnetic force, that’s a temporary magnet.

These magnets can’t generate the required plasma flux inside a stellarator, but researchers say they can shape the course of the plasma and help to rein it in.

Like a tokamak, a stellarator—such as the one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shown above—is a donut-shaped (toroidal) plasma stream that generates power by fusing light particles into heavier ones. These generators must be brought up to temperatures like those of the sun and other, well, naturally occurring fusion plasma generators.

But the stability of these generators is really up to chance, based on a carefully managed magnetic field. Extremely hot moving plasma ends up corroding the materials containing it, and these small changes can drop the temperature and throw the fusion reactor out of the power generating zone. This is where permanent magnets could change the landscape of plasma reactor design.

Permanent magnets can’t replace the entire magnetic field by themselves, but they can supplement and add structure, the researchers say. Stellarators and tokamaks are both torus shaped, but stellarators require twisting the plasma so it swirls through the donut in a spiraling form.

“Such magnets cannot produce toroidal magnetic flux, but they can create poloidal flux and rotational transform of the magnetic field, and thus help to simplify stellarator design,” the researchers say. In other words, the permanent magnets can be used to make more effective twists, which has been a snarl in the design process for stellarator prototypes.

“In the original design, the magnetic field was created by 20 nonplanar, modular coils of 5 different types,” the researchers say. “Leaving permanent magnets to do most of the plasma shaping, a new optimization was now carried out where only 8 identical, planar, circular toroidal-field coils proved necessary.”

Permanent magnets are fixed solids that don’t require special equipment, and using them to replace complex electromagnetic coils isn’t just simpler to build or design around—it’s simpler to maintain and keep at high temperatures.

Scientists have wondered for thousands of years if magnets could be used to make perpetual motion machines, and if nuclear fusion ever comes to the wider commercial marketplace, they’ll really seem to generate extraordinary, long-term power from very little.

Caroline Delbert

 

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Aliens: could light and noise from Earth attract attention from outer space?

Jacco van Loon, Astrophysicist and Director of Keele Obse


NASA’s Orion crew capsule is officially complete and ready to prep for its first Moon mission

orion done 1

NASA’s  50th anniversary celebrations weren’t limited to just remembrances of past achievements – the space agency also marked the day by confirming that the Orion crew capsule that will bring astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the end of the Apollo program is ready for its first trip to lunar orbit, currently set for sometime after June 2020.

Orion won’t be carrying anyone for its first Moon mission – instead, as part of Artemis 1, it’ll fly uncrewed propelled by the new Space Launch System, spend a total of three weeks in space including six days orbiting the Moon, and then return back to Earth. Once back, it’ll perform a crucial test of high speed re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, to demonstrate the efficacy of the Orion capsule’s thermal shielding prior to carrying actual crew for Artemis 2 in 2022, and ultimately delivering astronauts back to the lunar surface with Artemis 3 in 2024.

This isn’t Orion’s first trip to space, however – that happened back in 2014 with Exploration Flight Test 1, another uncrewed mission in which Orion spent just four-hours in space, orbiting the Earth twice and then returning to ground. This mission used a Delta IV rocket instead of the new SLS, and was meant to test key systems prior to Artemis.

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NASA contractor Lockheed Martin,  which is responsible for the Orion spacecraft’s construction, also noting that the combined crew module and service module are currently being properly integrated, and then will undergo a series of tests before returning to Kennedy Space Center in Florida by the end of the year to begin the final preparations before launch.

Spacesuits have been bulky since before Apollo 11. A skintight design may change that .

Spacesuits have been bulky since before Apollo 11. A skintight design may change that

NASA is putting the finishing touches on its Mars helicopter

mars helicopterThe Mars 2020 mission will truly be one for the record books when it begins in July of next year. Not only is the Mars 2020 rover one of the most advanced piece of equipment that will ever be sent to the Red Planet, it’s also equipped with its very own helicopter.

The vehicle, named simply the Mars Helicopter, is the first of its kind, and a great deal of work as been put into perfecting its simple design and ensuring that it can withstand the conditions of Mars. Now, in a new blog post, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says that the helicopter has entered its final testing phase and it’s already passed many of its trials with flying colors.

“Nobody’s built a Mars Helicopter before, so we are continuously entering new territory,” MiMi Aung, manager of the Mars Helicopter project at JPL, said in a statement. “Our flight model – the actual vehicle that will travel to Mars – has recently passed several important tests.”

The tiny copter will be affixed to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover during the flight to Mars and throughout the landing phase. Once the rover is on the surface, it will deploy the helicopter.

The helicopter doesn’t have any scientific objectives this time around, and it’s being sent to Mars simply as a testing and demonstration vehicle to provide scientists with information on flight within the thin atmosphere of Mars. The helicopter’s sole instrument is a high-resolution camera that, NASA hopes, will capture some lovely shots of the Red Planet and relay them back to Earth.

In the future, helicopter-like vehicles may be a regular addition to Mars missions since they afford greater flexibility to relocate to new areas in short periods of time. Rovers are, generally speaking, pretty slow, but if NASA can perfect the art of flight on Mars it will have the power to explore new areas rapidly.

The Moon’s largest crater is hiding something, and astronomers don’t know what

Compared to other bodies in our Solar System, Earth’s moon isn’t particularly huge. However, its relatively small size belies one of its most interesting features, which is a colossal crater measuring over 1,500 miles across. Now, researchers believe the crater, which forms a huge basin on the far side of the Moon near its south pole, is hiding something.

In a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers reveal the discovery of a huge mass hiding beneath the crater. An incredibly dense area under the lunar surface was detected with gravitational sensors, pointing to the presence of something massive lurking below.

Before you go imagining a mysterious subterranean civilization of Moon Men hiding out below the lunar surface, that’s not exactly what scientists have in mind. Instead, the researchers believe the dense mass is actually leftover material from the object that struck the Moon and created the colossal crater.

“One of the explanations of this extra mass is that the metal from the asteroid that formed this crater is still embedded in the Moon’s mantle,” lead author of the paper, Peter B. James, Ph.D., said in a statement. “Imagine taking a pile of metal five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii and burying it underground. That’s roughly how much unexpected mass we detected.”

It’s an incredibly large mass of something, but the asteroid metal theory isn’t the only idea being floated. Another possibility is that the dense mass is a buildup of material still left over from when the Moon’s hot liquid rock cooled after formation.

With humans headed back to the Moon sooner rather than later, the crater could be an interesting location for further study, though NASA and other space-faring organizations already have plenty of scientific objectives on their plates. Still, it sure would be neat to see what’s down there.

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NASA wants to commercialize the International Space Station, and make heaps of cash doing it

NASA has big plans for its immediate future, including missions to Mars and of course the Moon 2024 effort that was completely unaccounted for in the most recent federal budget. When it comes to science, funding can be hard to come by, and many of NASA’s projects are pricey.

So, in the hopes of generating additional revenue that it can then use for its own scientific research efforts, NASA just announced a new effort to embrace commercial interests and open up the International Space Station to private business. New opportunities for commercial visits to the ISS are expected to come swiftly, with pricing already being hashed out.

At present, NASA doesn’t have the cash it needs to make it to the Moon in 2024. The agency was recently given a mandate from the current administration to return humans to the lunar surface within five years, and despite how shortsighted that request was, NASA has been doing its best to generate support for the cause. Lawmakers have yet to allocate the additional funds NASA requested to make the mission a reality, and it’s unclear when (or if) that might occur.

So, with its wallet lighter than ever, NASA will now sell access to the ISS, an orbiting laboratory where companies can conduct their own research without needing NASA astronauts to do it for them.

Here’s NASA’s own description of its decision to commercialize the space station:

This effort is intended to broaden the scope of commercial activity on the space station beyond the ISS National Lab mandate, which is limited to research and development. A new NASA directive will enable commercial manufacturing and production and allow both NASA and private astronauts to conduct new commercial activities aboard the orbiting laboratory. The directive also sets prices for industry use of U.S. government resources on the space station for commercial and marketing activities.

NASA says it’s limiting its own “allocation of crew resources and cargo capability” in order to make room for private companies. This includes “90 hours of crew time and 175 kg of cargo launch capability” that it will now sell to whoever is willing to pay.

At present, NASA envisions at least two “short-duration private astronaut missions” to the ISS each year. Everything about the missions will be privately funded and will follow NASA’s guidelines for its Commercial Crew Program.

A 10-Year Odyssey: What Space Stations Will Look Like in 2030

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