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.

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Wild new theory says Earth may actually be two different planets

Chris Smith,BGR News

A new theory says Earth is made of two planets, rather than just one. Apparently, our planet is the result of a collision that helped map the course of both Earth as we know it and the moon.

According to new research from the University of California, Earth and a hypothesized early planet called Theia collided, and the two planets fused together 4.5 billion years ago. That impact also formed our moon, Science Alert explains.

The initial working theory was that the Earth and Theia only side-swiped each other, sending the moon into orbit and then flying away into space. But this new research says that Theia never left Earth and instead, it helped shape up our planet.

Scientists studied oxygen isotopes from moon rocks from the Apollo missions and volcanic rocks from Earth’s mantle. Since each planet has a particular oxygen signature when it comes to oxygen contents, they would be able to see differences between lunar soil and Earth rocks.

If Theia simply swiped Earth, then the moon would be made mostly of Theia, and the Earth and moon rocks would have different oxygen isotopes. However, the researchers found they have the same isotopes.

“We don’t see any difference between Earth’s and the Moon’s oxygen isotopes; they’re indistinguishable,” researcher Edward Young said.

“Theia was thoroughly mixed into both the Earth and the moon, and evenly dispersed between them. This explains why we don’t see a different signature of Theia in the Moon versus Earth.”

The researcher also explained there’s evidence that Theia was a growing planet, still evolving at the time of the impact. The planet was similar in size to either Earth or Mars.

If confirmed, the research will help us better understand the origins and history of our planet. You know, as long as you believe Earth is a spheroid planet, and not a flat surface floating in space.

AN ASTEROID MINING TEST VEHICLE JUST LAUNCHED FROM THE SPACE STATION

ROBO SPACE MINERS, DEPLOY!

Arkyd 3 Reflight Deploys From The ISS

NASA via Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources, a company that wants to mine asteroids for precious materials, has just launched a demonstration vehicle to test out its asteroid mining technologies. The breadbox-sized Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) is so-named because the original Arkyd 3 died a fiery death in the Orbital Sciences explosion in October. This one survived its launch to the International Space Station in April, and today, astronauts booted it out of an airlock to see how it fares in low Earth orbit.

The vehicle’s mission is to test out components that the company later plans to send into deep space to visit resource-rich asteroids, with the goal of extracting water, which can be broken down in to hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, and valuable metals, including platinum.

Over the next 90 days or so, the little spacecraft will test out its avionics and control systems–it won’t actually be doing any drilling anytime soon. While low Earth orbit isn’t a perfect facsimile to deep space, it will give the components a taste of the harsh environments they would face on the job—including extremely cold temperatures, radiation, and the vacuum of space. By pinpointing the components’ weaknesses in low Earth orbit, the company can hopefully fix any problems before sending spacecraft further beyond Earth.

The test is going according to plan so far, a Planetary Resources spokesperson told Popular Science.

Arkyd 3

Planetary Resources

About the size of a loaf of bread, the Arkyd 3 Reflight launched today from the International Space Station.

Later this year, Planetary Resources plans to launch another demonstration vehicle, the Arkyd-6. Twice the size of the A3R, the A6 will test out avionics, attitude control, power, and communications systems. (Notably, the robo-prospectors will eventually use LASERS to communicate with Earth.)

Onboard the A6 will also be an infrared imaging system, which will eventually scan asteroids for water and minerals. A Planetary Resources press release says “the system will first test targeted areas of our own planet before being deployed to near-Earth asteroids on future missions.”

The Arkyd-6 Test Vehicle Will Launch Later This Year

Planetary Resources

Later on, the company will figure out the best way to extract the resources from asteroids. But here’s one way it could be done, from a Planetary Resources video:

 

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years
Point a telescope at the moon, and you might just see one looking back. Chinese researchers have reported that their robotic telescope, the first of its kind, has been operating flawlessly ever since it landed on the moon in 2013.

The 15-centimetre telescope is mounted on the Chang’e 3 lander, which touched down on the lunar surface in December 2013. Chang’e 3 (pictured above) carried the Yutu rover, which repeatedly struggled to survive the lunar night and ceased working in March this year – but the lander is still going strong.

The telescope sees in ultraviolet light, making it particularly suited for observations that aren’t possible here on Earth. “There is no atmosphere on the moon, so unlike Earth, the ultraviolet light from celestial objects can be detected on the moon,” says Jing Wang of the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing, China, who is in charge of the telescope. And since the moon rotates 27 times more slowly than the Earth, the scope can stay fixed on the same star for a dozen days without interruption, he says.

Snapping Earth
In a paper published this week, Wang and his colleagues detail the first 18 months of the telescope’s operation, during which it has observed for 2000 hours and monitored 40 stars. The team also captured a picture of the Pinwheel galaxy, shown below.

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

Astronauts on the Apollo 16 mission had a manually operated UV telescope, which they used to take pictures of Earth, stars and the Large Magellanic Cloud. But the Chinese telescope is the first to be operated remotely from Earth.

That’s a challenge, because the moon is a hostile environment, full of charged and abrasive lunar dust that can get into equipment and destroy electronics, as Yutu’s troubles demonstrate. To counter this, the telescope is stowed within Chang’e 3 during sunrise and sunset on the moon, when dust is thought to be at its worst, and has survived much longer than its expected one year life. Wang says the scope is still working today, and the team are awaiting a decision to continue its mission past the end of this year.

Journal reference: arxiv.org/abs/1510.01435

Image information (from top): The Chang’e 3 lander (credit: Xinhua/Corbis); Picture of the Pinwheel galaxy captured by the telescope on the moon lander (credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences/The Bruce Murray Space Image Library/The Planetary Society)

By Jacob Aron

NASA IS SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING TERRAFORMING PART OF THE MOON WITH ROBOTS

By Kelsey D. Atherton
Lunar Transformer Concept

Lunar Transformer Concept

NASA

Announced yesterday, NASA is moving ahead with funding to study several ambitious space research projects, including one that would transform an inhospitable lunar crater into a habitat for robots — and eventually, human explorers. Located on the moon’s South Pole, Shackleton Crater isn’t just prime real estate for terraforming experiments, it’s Optimus Prime real estate. NASA wants to fill the crater with solar-powered transformers, and then use the fleet of robots to turn the crater into a miniature hospitable environment.

Shackleton Crater is uniquely qualified as a location for terraforming in the small scale. Named after the famous explorer of Earth’s own south pole, the crater covers about 130 square miles, or roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. It is surrounded on all sides by peaks that rise over 14,000 feet above the surface of the crater. Inside this moon-bowl, scientists have already found water, which is essential for any future human habitation.

Before the humans come the robots. To function, robots need electrical power and warmth, and with the right equipment, the sun can provide both, with a little help. In darkness, the crater is about 100 degrees Kelvin, or -280 fahrenheit, but a series of solar reflectors could capture light from the peaks on the crater rim and then reflect it down into the crater, warming and fueling solar-powered rovers at the same time.

These reflectors would be carried around the crater rim by other rovers, unfolding and transforming into useful shapes when needed. A single reflector 130 feet in diameter could send light over six miles into the crater, powering a rover (or a fleet of several Curiousity-sized rovers) with up to one megawatt of energy and preventing them from freezing. Thanks to their height, there is always at least one point on the peaks on the crater rim that receives sunlight, so work could be done continuously in the crater.

Should this plan all work out, several transforming robots with reflectors would work on the edge of the crater, beaming sun in, while robots inside the crater built something close to an “oasis” on the moon. Or at least, an oasis for lunar robots.

The project was awarded in NASA’s Phase II funding, which provides up to $500,000 for two-year-long studies, so the next task is designing a workable reflector that fits into a cube slightly larger than three feet each side, weighing less than 220 pounds, and that unfolds to cover 10,700 square feet. If it all works out, the robots shall inherit the moon.

[NASA]