Water Worlds, Aquaplanets and Habitability

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This artist rendering may show a water world — without any land — or an aquaplanet with lots of more shallow water around a rocky planet. (NASA)

 

The more exoplanet scientists learn about the billions and billions of celestial bodies out there, the more the question of unusual planets — those with characteristics quite different from those in our solar system — has come into play.

Hot Jupiters, super-Earths, planets orbiting much smaller red dwarf stars — they are all grist for the exoplanet mill, for scientists trying to understand the planetary world that has exploded with possibilities and puzzles over the past two decades.

Another important category of planets unlike those we know are the loosely called “water worlds” (with very deep oceans) and their “aquaplanet” cousins (with a covering of water and continents) but orbiting stars very much unlike our sun.

Two recent papers address the central question of habitability in terms of these kind of planets — one with oceans and ice hundreds of miles deep, and one particular and compelling planet (Proxima Centauri b, the exoplanet closest to us) hypothesized to have water on its surface as it orbits a red dwarf star.

The question the papers address is whether these watery worlds might be habitable.  The conclusions are based on modelling rather than observations, and they are both compelling and surprising.

In both cases — a planet with liquid H20 and ice many miles down, and another that probably faces its red dwarf sun all or most of the time — the answers from modelers is that yes, the planets could be habitable.   That is very different from saying they are or even might be inhabited.  Rather,  the conclusions are based on computer models that take into account myriad conditions and come out with simulations about what kind of planets they might be.

This finding of potential watery-world habitability is no small matter because predictions of how planets form point to an abundance of water and ice in the planetesimals that grow into planets.

As described by Eric Ford, co-author of one of the papers and a professor of astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University, “Many scientists anticipate that planets with oceans much deeper than Earths could be a common outcome of planet formation. Indeed, one of the puzzling properties of Earth is that it has oceans that are just skin deep” compared to the radius of the planet.

“While some planets very close to their star might loose all their water, it would take a delicate balancing act to remove many ocean’s worth of water and to leave a planet with oceans as shallow as those on Earth.”

An interesting place to start.

 

Artist’s conception of a planet covered with a global ocean. A new study finds that these wate rworlds could maintain stable climates and perhaps sustain life under certain conditions. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

 

It should first be said that many scientists are dubious that extreme water worlds can support life or can support detectable life.  My colleague Elizabeth Tasker wrote a column — Can You Overwater a Planet? — focused on this view last year.

The first of the two new exoplanets/ocean papers involves planets with very deep oceans. Written by Edwin Kite of the University of Chicago and Ford of Penn State, the paper in the Astrophysical Journal concludes that even a planet with such super deep oceans could — under certain conditions — provide habitable conditions.

This finding is at odds with previous simulations, and Kite says that is part of its significance. The scientific community has largely assumed that planets covered in a deep ocean would not support the cycling of minerals and gases that keeps the climate stable on Earth, and thus wouldn’t be friendly to life.

But the Kite and Ford study found that ocean planets (with 10 to 1000 times as much water as Earth) could remain habitable much longer than previously assumed. The authors performed more than a thousand simulations to reach that conclusion.

Eric Ford is a professor astrophysics at Penn State and a specialist in planet formation. (Penn State)

“This really pushes back against the idea you need an Earth clone—that is, a planet with some land and a shallow ocean,” said Edwin Kite, assistant professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study.

Edwin Kite is an assistant professor of planetary sciences at the University of Chicago. (Univ. of Chicago)

Because life needs an extended period to evolve — and because the light and heat on planets can change as their stars age — scientists usually look for planets that have both some water and some way to keep their climates stable over time. The method for achieving this steady state that we know is, of course, how it works on Earth. Over eons, our planet has cooled itself by drawing down atmospheric greenhouse gases into minerals and warms itself up by releasing them via volcanoes.

But this model doesn’t work on a water world, with deep water covering the rock and suppressing volcanoes.

Kite and Ford wanted to know if there was another way to achieve a balance. They set up a simulation with thousands of randomly generated planets, and tracked the evolution of their climates over billions of years.

“The surprise was that many of them stay stable for more than a billion years, just by luck of the draw,” Kite said. “Our best guess is that it’s on the order of 10 percent of them.”

These planets sit in the right location around their stars. They happened to have the right amount of carbon present, and they don’t have too many minerals and elements from the crust dissolved in the oceans that would pull carbon out of the atmosphere. They have enough water from the start, and they cycle carbon between the atmosphere and ocean only, which in the right concentrations is sufficient to keep things stable.

None of this means that such a planet exists — our ability to detect oceans worlds is in its infancy.  The issue is rather that Kite and Ford conclude that a deep ocean planet could potentially be habitable if other conditions were met.

 

Artist rendering of Proxima Centauri b orbiting its red dwarf host star. (ESO/L.Calçada/Nick Risinger)

 

Anthony Del Genio and his team of modelers at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York used their state-of-the-art climate simulations to look at another aspect of the exoplanet water story, and they chose Proxima Centauri b as their subject.  The roughly Earth-sized planet was discovered in 2016 and is the closest exoplanet to Earth.

Scientists determined early on that it is a rocky (as opposed to gaseous) planet and that it orbits its host star every 11 days.  If that star was as powerful as our sun, there would be no talk of possible habitability on close-in Proxima b.  But the star is a red dwarf and puts out only a fraction of the radiation coming from a host star like our sun.

Still, the case for habitability on Proxima b was initially considered to be weak, in part because the planet is tidally locked by its closeness to the host star.  In other words, it would most likely not spin to create days and nights as it orbits, but rather would have a sun-facing side and a space-facing side — making the temperature differences great.

Our ability to characterize a small planet like Proxima b remains very limited, and so it is unknown whether the planet has water or whether it has an atmosphere.  So those two essential components of the habitability question are missing.

But Del Genio’s team decided to model the dynamics of Proxima b with a presumed ocean, though not one that is many miles deep.  In Earth science parlance, what Del Genio referred to as an “aquaplanet.” And using their sophisticated models, they would simulate “dynamic” oceans with currents like our own, rather than the stationary oceans modeled earlier on exoplanets.

And rather to their surprise, they reported in the journal Astrobiology that their model of ocean behavior showed that the planet would not have only small areas of potential habitability — the earlier proposed habitable “eyeball” scenario — but rather much of the planet could be habitable.  That could include some of the normally space-facing side.

 

One type of possible water world is an “eyeball” planet, where the star-facing side is able to maintain a liquid-water ocean, while the rest of the surface is ice. (Image via eburacum45/DeviantArt)

 

“Our group said let’s hook up an atmosphere to a dynamic ocean rather than a static one,” Del Genio said.  “That way you get ocean currents like those on our coasts, and they move water of different temperatures around.

“If you have a real and dynamic ocean in your model, then we found that the eyeball goes away.  Usually the currents go west to east and they carry warmer water even to the night side.”

Anthony Del Genio, leader of NASA’s GISS team that  uses cutting edge Earth climate models to better understand conditions on exoplanets.

So using this more sophisticated model, not insignificant areas of Proxima b, or any other planet like it orbiting a red dwarf star, could be habitable, they concluded.  But again, that is assuming some pretty big “ifs” — the presence of an ocean and an atmosphere.

And then the team added variables such as a thick nitrogen and carbon atmosphere or a thin one, fresh water or salty water, a planet that is firmly locked and never rotating, or one that rotates a modest amount — giving the dark side some light.  Del Genio said that with all these added factors, a substantial portion of the surface of Proxima b, or a planet like it, would have liquid water and potentially habitable conditions.

This focus on watery worlds — including those that would be extreme compared with Earth today — makes sense in the context of the history of Earth.

While there is no direct evidence of this, many scientists think that the very early Earth was covered for a period of time with water with little or no land.

And then after land appeared, it still took some three billion years for any life form — bacteria, early planets — to colonize the land, and another half billion years for animals to come ashore.  Yet the oceans were long habitable and inhabited, as early a 3.8 billion years ago.

So until astronomy and exoplanet science develop the needed instruments and scientists acquire the observed knowledge of conditions on water worlds, progress will come largely from modelling that tells us what might be possible.

 

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Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to marc.kaufman@manyworlds.space.

Curiosity Rover Looks Around Full Circle And Sees A Once Habitable World Through The Dust

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An annotated 360-degree view from the Curiosity mast camera.  Dust remaining from an enormous recent storm can be seen on the platform and in the sky.  And holes in the tires speak of the rough terrain Curiosity has traveled, but now avoids whenever possible. Make the screen bigger for best results and enjoy the show. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

 

When it comes to the search for life beyond Earth, I think it would be hard to point to a body more captivating, and certainly more studied, than Mars.

The Curiosity rover team concluded fairly early in its six-year mission on the planet that “habitable” conditions existed on early Mars.  That finding came from the indisputable presence of substantial amounts of liquid water three-billion-plus years ago, of oxidizing and reducing molecules that could provide energy for simple life, of organic compounds and of an atmosphere that was thick enough to block some of the most harmful incoming cosmic rays.

Last year, Curiosity scientists estimated that the window for a habitable Mars was some 700 million years, from 3.8 to 3.1 billion years ago.  Is it a coincidence that the earliest confirmed life on Earth appeared about 3.8 billion years ago?

Today’s frigid Mars, which has an atmosphere much thinner than in the planet’s early days, hardly looks inviting, although some scientists do see a possibility that primitive life survives below the surface.

But because it doesn’t look inviting now doesn’t mean the signs of a very different planet aren’t visible and detectable through instruments.  The Curiosity mission has proven this once and for all.

The just released and compelling 360-degree look (above) at the area including Vera Rubin Ridge brings the message home.

Those fractured, flat rocks are mudstone, formed when Gale Crater was home to Gale Lake.  Mudstone and other sedimentary formations have been visible (and sometimes drilled) along a fair amount of the 12.26-mile path that Curiosity has traveled since touchdown.

 

An image of Vera Rubin Ridge in traditional Curiosity color, and the same view below with filters designed to detect hematite, or iron oxide. That compound can only be formed in the presence of water. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

 

The area the rover is now exploring contains enough hematite — iron oxide — that its signal was detectable from far above the planet, making this area a prized destination since well before the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity were launched.

Like Martian clays and sulfates that have been identified and explored, the hematite is of great interest because of its origins in water.  Without H2O present many eons ago, there would be no hematite, no clay, no sulfates.  But as Mars researchers have found, there is a lot of all three.

I like to return to Mars and especially Curiosity because it provides something unique in the cosmos:  an environment where scientists today have ground-truthed the hypothesis that early Mars was once habitable, and found unambiguous results that it was.

That doesn’t mean that the planet necessarily ever gave rise to, or supported, living organisms.  But it’s a lot more than can be said for other targets for life beyond Earth.

NASA’s Europa Clipper may determine some day that beneath the ice crust of that moon of Jupiter is an ocean that is, or was, habitable.  But that determination is still years away.  Same with Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which some see as habitable beneath its ice, but no mission is currently approved to determine that.

And when it comes to exoplanets and possible life on them, it is both a logical and alluring conclusion that some support living organisms — there are, after all, billions and billions of exoplanets, and the cosmos is filled with the elements and compounds we find on Earth.

But we remain quite far away from consensus on what an exoplanet biosignature might be, and much further away from being able to confidently detect the probable biosignature elements and compounds on distant exoplanets.

And so for now we have Mars as our most plausible target for life beyond Earth.

 

Vera Rubin Ridge, with its high concentration of both red and green hematite. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

 

It wasn’t that long ago that the NASA exploration mantra for Mars was “follow the water,”  under the assumption that life needed water to survive.

But Curiosity and satellites orbiting Mars have found abundant proof that water did play a major role in the planet’s early times.  Not only has Curiosity found that a lake existed on and off for hundreds of millions of years at Gale Crater, but researchers recently announced the presence of a large reservoir of liquid water beneath the southern polar region.

What’s more, evidence of briny surface streams on steep Martian cliffs in their warm season has grown stronger, though it remains a much-debated finding.

But with the water story well established, researchers are focused more on organics, minerals and what can be found beneath the radiation-baked surface.

Curiosity has been working for months around Vera Rubin Ridge, though for much of that time with a big handicap — the rover’s long-armed drill wasn’t working.  Important internal mechanisms stopped performing in late 2016, and it wasn’t until late spring of 2018 that a workaround was ready.

After one successful drilling, the next two failed.  But there was no drill problem with those two; the rock on the ridge was just too hard to penetrate.  It makes sense that the rock would be very hard because it has withstood millions of years of powerful winds blowing across Gale Crater, while other nearby rock and sediments were carried away.

The best way to discover why these rocks are so hard is to drill them into a powder for the rover’s two internal laboratories. Analyzing them might reveal what’s acting as “cement” in the ridge, enabling it to stand despite wind erosion.

Most likely, said Curiosity project scientist Ashin Vasavada, groundwater flowing through the ridge in the ancient past had a role in strengthening it, perhaps acting as plumbing to distribute this wind-proofing “cement.” In this case, it would be some variation of hematite, which in crystal form can be pretty hard on its own.

On its third attempt — and after a prolonged search for a “soft” spot in the ridge — the Curiosity drill did succeed in digging a hole and bringing back some precious powdered contents for study in the two onboard labs.

After the exploration of Vera Rubin Ridge and its hematite will come explorations of large deposits of sulfates and phyllosilicates (clays) — both formed in water as well — further up Mt. Sharp.

 

Curiosity’s pathway over the past six years, from near the Bradbury Landing site to the successful drilling at Vera Rubin Ridge. The route has gone through fossil lake beds, dune fields, the underlying rock formation of Mt. Sharp and now up to the hematite concentrations. (NASA/JPL=Calgtech)

 

I find the landscape of Mars that Curiosity shows us to be captivating, but also sobering when it comes to the search for life beyond Earth.

Here is the planet closest to Earth (during some orbits, at least), one that has been determined to be habitable 3 to 4 billion years ago,  one that can be studied with rovers on the ground and orbiting satellites — and still we can’t determine if it ever actually supported life, and probably won’t be able to for decades to come.

The big confounding factor on Mars really is time.  Life could have come and gone billions of years ago, and intense surface radiation could have erased that history and made it appear as if life was never there.  (This is one reason why Mars scientists want to dig deeper below the surface, where the effects of radiation would be much reduced.)

Time may be a powerful obstacle when it comes finding signs of life on exoplanets as well.  If life exists elsewhere in the cosmos, it surely comes and goes, too.  The odds of us catching it when it’s present may be low, despite all those billions and billions of planets. (Given the way that exoplanet biosignatures work, the life needs to be present at the time of observation.)

Or maybe the time for life in the cosmos has really just begun.

Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Avi Loeb argued several years ago that life on Earth may be a premature flowering, compared with what may well happen later and elsewhere. (Column on his intriguing ideas is here.)

A majority of stars in the cosmos are red dwarfs, or M stars.  They take eons to stabilize and then generally continue in a steady state for much longer than a G star like our sun.  So, he argued,  life in the cosmos around red dwarfs may not become widespread for some time, and then could last for a very long time if and when it did arise.

But enough about time — other than to perhaps take a little more time to enjoy the 360-degree view of Mars and Curiosity that brings thoughts like these to mind.

 

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Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to marc.kaufman@manyworlds.space.

A National Strategy for Finding and Understanding Exoplanets (and Possibly Extraterrestrial Life)

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The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine took an in-depth look at what NASA, the astronomy community and the nation need to grow the burgeoning science of exoplanets — planets outside our solar system that orbit a star. (NAS)

 

An extensive, congressionally-directed study of what NASA needs to effectively learn how exoplanets form and whether some may support life was released today, and it calls for major investments in next-generation space and ground telescopes.  It also calls for the adoption of an increasingly multidisciplinary approach for addressing the innumerable questions that remain unanswered.

While the recommendations were many, the top line calls were for a sophisticated new space-based telescope for the 2030s that could directly image exoplanets, for approval and funding of the long-delayed and debated WFIRST space telescope, and for the National Science Foundation and to help fund two of the very large ground-based telescopes now under development.

The study of exoplanets has seen remarkable discoveries in the past two decades.  But the in-depth study from the private, non-profit National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concludes that there is much more that we don’t understand than that we do, that our understandings are “substantially incomplete.”

So the two overarching goals for future exoplanet science are described as these:

 

  • To understand the formation and evolution of planetary systems as products of star formation and characterize the diversity of their architectures, composition, and environments.
  • To learn enough about exoplanets to identify potentially habitable environments and search for scientific evidence of life on worlds orbiting other stars.

 

Given the challenge, significance and complexity of these science goals, it’s no wonder that young researchers are flocking to the many fields included in exoplanet science.  And reflecting that, it is perhaps no surprise that the NAS survey of key scientific questions, goals, techniques, instruments and opportunities runs over 200 pages. (A webcast of a 1:00 pm NAS talk on the report can be accessed here.)

 


Artist’s concept showing a young sun-like star surrounded by a planet-forming disk of gas and dust.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

These ambitious goals and recommendations will now be forwarded to the arm of the National Academies putting together 2020 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey — a community-informed blueprint of priorities that NASA usually follows.

This priority-setting is probably most crucial for the two exoplanet direct imaging missions now being studied as possible Great Observatories for the 2030s — the paradigm-changing space telescopes NASA has launched almost every decade since the 1970s.

HabEx (the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory) and LUVOIR (the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor) are two direct-imaging exoplanet projects in conception phase that would indeed significantly change the exoplanet field.

Both would greatly enhance scientists’ ability to detect and characterize exoplanets. But the more ambitious LUVOIR in particular, would not only find many exoplanets in all stages of formation, but could readily read chemical components of the atmospheres and thereby get clear data on whether the planet was habitable or even if it supported life.  The LUVOIR would provide either an 8 meter or a record-breaking 15-meter space telescope, while HabEx would send up a 4 meter mirror.

HabEx and LUVOIR are competing with two other astrophysics projects for that Great Observatory designation, and so NAS support now and prioritizing later is essential if they are to become a reality.

 

An artist notional rendering of an approximately 15-meter telescope in space. This image was created for an earlier large space telescope feasibility project called ATLAST, but it is similar to what is being discussed inside and outside of NASA as a possible great observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope. (NASA)

These two potential Great Observatories will be costly and would take many years to design and build.  As the study acknowledges and explains, “While the committee recognized that developing a direct imaging capability will require large financial investments and a long time scale to see results, the effort will foster the development of the scientific community and technological capacity to understand myriad worlds.”

So a lot is at stake.  But with budget and space priorities in flux, the fate of even the projects given the highest priority in the Decadal Survey remains unclear.

That’s apparent in the fact that one of the top recommendations of today’s study is the funding of the number one priority put forward in the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey — the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST.)

The project — which would boost the search for exoplanets further from their stars than earlier survey mission using microlensing– was cancelled in the administration’s proposed 2019 federal budget.  Congress has continued funding some development of this once top priority, but its future nonetheless remains in doubt.

WFIRST could have the capability of directly imaging exoplanets if it were built with technology to block out the blinding light of the star around which exoplanets would be orbiting — doing so either with internal coronagraph or a companion starshade.  This would be novel technology for a space-based telescope, and the NAS survey recommends it as well.

 

An artist’s rendering of a possible “starshade” that could be launched to work with WFIRST or another space telescope and allow the telescope to take direct pictures of other Earth-like planets. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The list of projects the study recommends is long, with these important additions:

That “ground-based astronomy – enabled by two U.S.-led telescopes – will also play a pivotal role in studying planet formation and potentially terrestrial worlds, the report says. The future Giant Magellan telescope (GMT) and proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) would allow profound advances in imaging and spectroscopy – absorption and emission of light – of entire planetary systems. They also could detect molecular oxygen in temperate terrestrial planets in transit around close and small stars, the report says.”

The committee concluded that the technology road map to enable the full potential of GMT and TMT in the study of exoplanets is in need of investments, and should leverage the existing network of U.S. centers and laboratories. To that end, the report recommends that the National Science Foundation invest in both telescopes and their exoplanet instrumentation to provide all-sky access to the U.S. community.

And for another variety of ground-based observing the study called for the funding of a project to substantially increase the precision of instruments that find and measure exoplanets using the detected “wobble” of the host star.  But stars are active with or without a nearby exoplanet, and so it has been difficult to achieve the precision that astronomers using this “radial velocity” technique need to find and characterize smaller exoplanets.

Several smaller efforts to increase this precision are under way in the U.S., and the European Southern Observatory has a much larger project in development.

Additionally, the report recommends that the administrators of the James Webb Space Telescope give significant amounts of observing time to exoplanet study, especially early in its time aloft (now scheduled to begin in 2021.)  The atmospheric data that JWST can potentially collect could and would be used in conjunction with results coming from other telescopes, and to further study of exoplanet targets that are already promising based on existing theories and findings.

 

Construction has begun on the Giant Magellan Telescope at the Carnegie Institution’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. This artist rendering shows what the 24.5 meter (80 foot) segmented mirror and observatory will look like when completed, estimated to be in 2024. (Mason Media Inc.)

 

While the NAS report gives a lot of attention to instruments and ways to use them, it also focuses as never before on astrobiology — the search for life beyond Earth.

Much work has been done on how to determine whether life exists on a distant planet through modeling and theorizing about biosignatures.  The report encourages scientists to expand that work and embraces it as a central aspect of exoplanet science.

The study also argues that interdisciplinary science — bringing together researchers from many disciplines — is the necessary way forward.  It highlights the role of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, a NASA initiative which since 2015 has brought together a broad though limited number  of science teams from institutions across the country to learn about each other’s work and collaborate whenever possible.

The initiative itself has not required much funding, instead bringing in teams that had been supported with other grants.   However, that may be changing. One of the study co-chairs, David Charbonneau of Harvard University, said after the release of the study that the “promise of NExSS is tremendous…We really want that idea to grow and have a huge impact.”

The NAS study itself recommends that “building on the NExSS model, NASA should support a cross-divisional exoplanet research coordination network that includes additional membership opportunities via dedicated proposal calls for interdisciplinary research.”

The initiative, I’m proud to say, sponsors this interdisciplinary column in addition to all that interdisciplinary science.

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Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to marc.kaufman@manyworlds.space.

15,000 Galaxies in One Image

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Astronomers have just assembled one of the most comprehensive portraits yet of the universe’s evolutionary history, based on a broad spectrum of observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and other space and ground-based telescopes.  Each of the approximately 15,000 specks and spirals are galaxies, widely distributed in time and space. (NASA, ESA, P. Oesch of the University of Geneva, and M. Montes of the University of New South Wales)

Here’s an image to fire your imagination: Fifteen thousand galaxies in one picture — sources of light detectable today that were generated as much as 11 billion years ago.

Of those 15,000 galaxies, some 12,000 are inferred to be in the process of forming stars.  That’s hardly surprising because the period around 11 billions years ago has been determined to be the prime star-forming period in the history of the universe.  That means for the oldest galaxies in the image, we’re seeing light that left its galaxy but three billion years after the Big Bang.

This photo mosaic, put together from images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and other space and ground-based telescopes, does not capture the earliest galaxies detected. That designation belongs to a galaxy found in 2016 that was 420 million years old at the time it sent out the photons just collected. (Photo below.)

Nor is it quite as visually dramatic as the iconic Ultra Deep Field image produced by NASA in 2014. (Photo below as well.)

But this image is one of the most comprehensive yet of the history of the evolution of the universe, presenting galaxy light coming to us over a timeline up to those 11 billion years.  The image was released last week by NASA and supports an earlier paper in The Astrophysical Journal by Pascal Oesch of Geneva University and a large team of others.

And it shows, yet again, the incomprehensible vastness of the forest in which we are a tiny leaf.

Some people apparently find our physical insignificance in the universe to be unsettling.  I find it mind-opening and thrilling — that we now have the capability to not only speculate about our place in this enormity, but to begin to understand it as well.

The Ultra-Deep field composite, which contains approximately 10,000 galaxies.  The images were collected over a nine-year period.  {NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)} 

For those unsettled by the first image, here is the 2014 Ultra Deep Field image, which is 1/14 times the area of the newest image.  More of the shapes in this photo look to our eyes like they could be galaxies, but those in the first image are essentially the same.

In both images, astronomers used the ultraviolet capabilities of the Hubble, which is now in its 28th year of operation.

Because Earth’s atmosphere filters out much ultraviolet light, the space-based Hubble has a huge advantage because it can avoid that diminishing of ultraviolet light and provide the most sensitive ultraviolet observations possible.

That capability, combined with infrared and visible-light data from Hubble and other space and ground-based telescopes, allows astronomers to assemble these ultra deep space images and to gain a better understanding of how nearby galaxies grew from small clumps of hot, young stars long ago.

The light from distant star-forming regions in remote galaxies started out as ultraviolet. However, the expansion of the universe has shifted the light into infrared wavelengths.

These images, then,  straddle the gap between the very distant galaxies, which can only be viewed in infrared light, and closer galaxies which can be seen across a broad spectrum of wavelengths.

The farthest away galaxy discovered so far is called GN-z11 and is seen now as it was 13.4 billion years in the past.  That’s  just 400 million years after the Big Bang.

GN-z11 is surprisingly bright infant galaxy located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major. Thus NASA video explains much more:

The farthest away galaxy ever detected — GN-z11. {NASA, ESA, P. Oesch (Yale University, Geneva University), G. Brammer (STScI), P. van Dokkum (Yale University), and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz)} 

 

Galaxy formation chronology, showing GN-z11 in context. Hubble spectroscopically confirmed the farthest away galaxy to date. {NASA, ESA, P. Oesch and B. Robertson (University of California, Santa Cruz), and A. Feild (STScI)}

In addition representing cutting-edge science — and enabling much more — these looks into the most distant cosmic past offer a taste of what the James Webb Space Telescope, now scheduled to launch in 2021, is designed to explore.  It will have greatly enhanced capabilities to explore in the infrared, which will advance ultra-deep space observing.

But putting aside the cosmic mysteries that ultra deep space and time astronomy can potentially solve, the images available today from Hubble and other telescopes are already more than enough to fire the imagination about what is out there and what might have been out there some millions or billions of years ago.

A consensus of exoplanet scientists holds that each star in the Milky Way galaxy is likely to have at least one planet circling it, and our galaxy alone has billions and billions of stars.  That makes for a lot of planets that just might orbit at the right distance from its host star to support life and potentially have atmospheric, surface and subsurface conditions that would be supportive as well.

A look these deep space images raises the question of how many of them also house stars with orbiting planets, and the answer is probably many of them.  All the exoplanets identified so far are in the Milky Way, except for one set of four so far.

Their discovery was reported earlier this year by Xinyu Dai, an astronomer at the University of Oklahoma, and his co-author, Eduardo Guerras.  They came across what they report are planets while using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the environment around a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy located 3.8 billion light-years away from Earth.

In The Astrophysical Journal Letters , the authors report the galaxy is home to a quasar, an extremely bright source of light thought to be created when a very large black hole accelerates material around it. But the researchers said the results of their study indicated the presence of planets in a galaxy that lies between Earth and the quasar.

Furthermore, the scientists said results suggest that in most galaxies there are hundreds of free-floating planets for every star, in addition to those which might orbit a star.

The takeaway for me, as someone who has long reported on astrobiology and exoplanets, is that it is highly improbable that there are no other planets out there where life occurs, or once occurred.

As these images make clear, the number of planets that exist or have existed in the universe is essentially infinite.  That no others harbor life seems near impossible.

 

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Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to marc.kaufman@manyworlds.space.

Piecing Together The Narrative of Evolution

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A reconstruction of the frond-like sea creature Stromatoveris psygmoglena, which lived during the Cambrian explosion of life forms on Earth.  Newfound fossils of Stromatoveris were compared with Ediacaran fossils, and researchers concluded they were all very early animals and that this animal group survived the mass extinction event that occurred between the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods. (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill.)

An essential characteristic of life is that it evolves. Whether on Earth or potentially Mars, Europa or distant exoplanets, we can assume that whatever life might be present has the capacity and the need to change.

Evolution is intimately tied to the origin-of-life question, which this column often explores.  Having more answers regarding how life might have started on Earth can no doubt help the search for life elsewhere, just as finding life elsewhere could help understand how it started here.

The connection between evolution and exoplanets has an added and essential dimension when it comes to hunting for signatures of distant extraterrestrial life.

Searching for a planet with lots of oxygen and other atmospheric compound in disequilibrium (as on Earth) is certainly a way forward. But it is sobering to realize that those biosignatures would not have been detectable on Earth for most of the time that life has been present.  That’s because large concentrations of oxygen are a relative newcomer to our planet,  product of biological evolution.

With all this in mind, it seems both interesting and useful to look at the work of a researcher studying the fossil record to better understand a particular transition on Earth — the one from simpler organisms to multicellular creatures that can be considered animals.

The surprising, large transitional life of the Ediacaran period, which just preceded the Cambrian explosion of complex life. This grouping is termed the Ediacara assemblage, and existed late in the period.  (John Sibbick)

The researcher is Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill of the University of Cambridge, who I first met at the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo, a unique place where scientists research the origin of Earth and of life on Earth.

She had been included in a group of twelve two-year fellows recruited from around the world who specialized in fields ranging from the microbiology of extreme environments to the current and past dynamics of the deep Earth and the digital world of chemo informatics.  And then there was Hoyal Cuthill, whose field is paleobiology, with a heavy emphasis on evolution.

Now Hoyal Cuthill has published a paper in the journal Paleontology that describes findings in the fossil record that shed light on that transition from less complex organisms like bacteria, algae and fungi to  to animals.

Her specialty is the Ediacaran period some 635 to 541 million years ago.  This transitional period came after a snowball Earth event and was followed by the Cambrian explosion, when ocean life of all sorts grew and changed at an unprecedented rate.  But as she and others have found, the Ediacaran also had large and unique lifeforms, and she is working to make sense of them.

She described her work and findings more specifically as follows:

“When did animals originate? What were the bizarre, early fossils known as the Ediacaran biota?

“We show that both questions are answered by a frond-like sea creature called Stromatoveris psygmoglena known from exceptionally preserved, Cambrian fossils from Chengjiang County, China.

“Originally described from only eight specimens, we examined over 200 new fossils since discovered by researchers from Northwest University (in Xian.) Stromatoveris was compared to earlier Ediacaran fossils in a computer analysis of anatomy and evolutionary relationships.

“This showed that Stromatoveris and seven key members of the Ediacaran biota share detailed anatomical similarities, including multiple, radiating, branched fronds that unite them as a phylum of early animals, originating by the Ediacaran Period and surviving into the early Cambrian.”

Fossil of Stromatoveris psygmoglena, turned on its side.  New research suggests that Stromatoveris and related Ediacaran lifeforms could be among the earliest creatures that can be described as an animal. Ediacaran fossils have been found from Australia to arctic Siberia, Canada to southern Africa.  (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill)

 

Dickinsonia is a genus of iconic fossils of the Ediacaran biota. While a bilaterian affinity had been previously suggested by some researchers, this study suggests that it is closely related to other members of the Ediacaran biota as well as Cambrian Stromatoveris.  (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill)

 

More broadly, Hoyal Cuthill told me that “the story of the origin of life and the evolution of life are so interwoven.”

“Looking back as far as we can, we see important patterns emerging from the very start.  All things learn.  If possible, they add to complexity… And evolution does not result in a complete replacement.  When transitions happen -– even big ones – important life patterns continue.  And so do some creatures.”

This continuity within change is what she has focused on, in the transitional Proterozoic Eon when bacterial and plant life evolved into the more complex ocean animal life of the Cambrian explosion.

She has traveled the world and scoured the fossil record to come up with this conclusion:  that creatures that can be called “animals” existed at least as far back as the early days of the Ediacaran, some 630 million years ago, when many macro-fossils quite suddenly appeared following that early epoch of global freezing.

The Ediacaran period gets its name from the Ediacara Hills in Australia, where famous fossils of this age were found. Known also as the Vendian, the Ediacaran was the final stage of Pre-Cambrian time. During this time, large (up to meter-sized) organisms, often shaped like fronds with holdfast discs, lived on thick mats of bacteria which, unlike today, coated the sea floor. The slimy mats acted as a barrier between the water above and the sediments below, preventing oxygen from reaching under the sea floor and making it less habitable.

During this time, large (up to meter-sized) organisms, often shaped like discs or fronds,  lived on or in shallow horizontal burrows beneath thick mats of bacteria which, unlike today, coated the sea floor. The slimy mats acted as a barrier between the water above and the sediments below, preventing oxygen from reaching under the sea floor and turning it largely uninhabitable.

And then when the Cambrian explosion occurred beginning some 540 million years ago, most of those lifeforms were thought to have gone extinct. Some paleobiologists hold that Earth’s first mass extinction actually took place during this period, when newly evolved animals transformed the environment.

Biota from the Ediacaran period through the Cambrian explosion. (Proceedings of the Royal Academy; B M. Gabriela Mángano, Luis A. Buatois)

Hoyal Cuthill says that her research leads her to a very different view: that there was a broad but not mass extinction, and that Ediacaran animals survived well after the Cambrian Explosion.

And in the journal paper published this week, Hoyal Cuthill and co-author Jian Han of Northwest University in Xian present fossil evidence from southern China of Cambrian creatures that she argues are unquestionably animal.

She said they have characteristics such as radial symmetry, differentiated bodies and an animal type organization. These fossils date from the early Cambrian, she said, yet they are similar in important ways to creatures found during the earlier Ediacaran period.

In other words, this group of animals not only persisted from the onset of the Ediacaran period, but also after the often-invoked mass extinction that came along with the Cambrian Explosion.

Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill, paleobiologist with a focus on Ediacaran period when life began to grow substantially in size. (Julieta Sarmiento Photography).

Hoyal Cuthill says that while the fossil record from the Ediacaran is sparse, flora and fauna are known to have included some of the oldest definite multicellular organisms. The organisms, she said, resembled fractal fronds but bear little resemblance to modern lifeforms.

The world’s first ever burrowing animals also evolved in the Ediacaran, though we don’t know what they looked like. The only fossils that have been found are of the burrows themselves, not the creatures that made them.

In an earlier paper, she described how and why many of the Ediacaran lifeforms got as large as they did.

“All organisms need nutrients simply to survive and grow, but nutrients can also dictate body size and shape.

“During the Proterozoic, there seem to have been major changes in the Earth’s oceans which may have triggered this… growth to the macro-scale. These include increases in oxygen and, potentially, other nutrients such as organic carbon.”

In other words, the surrounding atmosphere, oceans, perhaps reversing magnetic fields, tectonic and volcanic activity and the resulting menu of chemical compounds available and climatic conditions are essential drivers of biological evolution.  Just as they are now considered some of the important indicators of a potentially habitable exoplanet.

And on a currently far more fanciful note, wouldn’t it be wonderful if scientists could some day not only find life beyond Earth, but to learn to study how that life, too, might have evolved.

 

 

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Marc Kaufman
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: "Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

To contact Marc, send an email to marc.kaufman@manyworlds.space.