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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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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Large Reservoir of Liquid Water Found Deep Below the Surface of Mars

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Artist impression of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars, superimposed on a radar cross section of the southern polar layered deposits. The leftmost white line is the radar echo from the Martian surface, while the light blue spots are highlighted radar echoes along the bottom of the ice.  Those highlighted areas measure very high reflectivity, interpreted as being caused by the presence of water. (ESA, INAF. Graphic rendering by Davide Coero Borga )

Far beneath the frigid surface of the South Pole of Mars is probably the last place where you might expect the first large body of Martian liquid water would be found.  It’s -170 F on the surface, there are no known geothermal sources that could warm the subterranean ice to make a meltwater lake, and the liquid water is calculated to be more than a mile below the surface.

Yet signs of that liquid water are what a team of Italian scientists detected — a finding that they say strongly suggests that there are other underground lakes and streams below the surface of Mars.  In a Science journal article released today, the scientists described the subterranean lake they found as being about 20 kilometers in diameter.

The detection adds significantly to the long-studied and long-debated question of how much surface water was once on Mars, a subject that has major implications for the question of whether life ever existed on the planet.

Finding the subterranean lake points to not only a wetter early Mars, said co-author Enrico Flamini of the Italian space agency, but also to a Mars that had a water cycle that collected and delivered the liquid water.  That would mean the presence of clouds, rain, evaporation, rivers, lakes and water to seep through surface cracks and pool underground.

Scientists have found many fossil waterways on Mars, minerals that can only be formed in the presence of water, and what might be the site of an ancient ocean.

But in terms of liquid water now on the planet, the record is thin.  Drops of water collected on the leg of NASA’s Phoenix Lander after it touched down in 2008, and what some have described as briny water appears to be flowing down some steep slopes in summertime.  Called recurrent slope lineae or RSLs, they appear at numerous locations when the temperatures rise and disappear when they drop.

This lake is different, however, and its detection is a major step forward in understanding the history of Mars.

Color photo mosaic of a portion of Planum Australe on Mars.  The subsurface reflective echo power is color coded and deep blue corresponds to the strongest reflections, which are interpreted as being caused by the presence of water. (USGS Astrogeology Science Center, Arizona State University, INAF)

The discovery was made analyzing echoes captured by the the radar instruments on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, a satellite orbiting the planet since 2002.  The data for this discovery was collected from observation made between 2012 and 2015.

 

A schematic of how scientists used radar to find what they interpret to be liquid water beneath the surface of Mars. (ESA)

Antarctic researchers have long used radar on aircraft to search for lakes beneath the thick glaciers and ice layers,  and have found several hundred.  The largest is Lake Vostok, which is the sixth largest lake on Earth in terms of volume of water.  And it is two miles below the coldest spot on Earth.

So looking for a liquid lake below the southern pole of Mars wasn’t so peculiar after all.  In fact, lead author Roberto Orosei of the Institute of Radioastronomy of Bologna, Italy said that it was the ability to detect subsurface water beneath the ice of Antarctica and Greenland that helped inspire the team to look at Mars.

There are a number of ways to keep water liquid in the deep subsurface even when it is surrounded by ice.  As described by the Italian team and an accompanying Science Perspective article by Anja Diez of the Norwegian Polar Institute, the enormous pressure of the ice lowers the freezing point of water substantially.

Added to that pressure on Mars is the known presence of many salts, that the authors propose mix with the water to form a brine that lowers the freezing point further.

So the conditions are present for additional lakes and streams on Mars.  And according to Flamini, solar system exploration manager for the Italian space agency, the team is confident there are more and some of them larger than the one detected.  Finding them, however, is a difficult process and may be beyond the capabilities of the radar equipment now orbiting Mars.

 

Subsurface lakes and rivers in Antarctica. Now at least one similar lake has been found under the southern polar region of Mars. (NASA/JPL)

The view that subsurface water is present on Mars is hardly new.  Stephen Clifford, for many years a staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, even wrote in 1987 that there could be liquid water at the base of the Martian poles due to the kind of high pressure environments he had studied in Greenland and Antarctica.

So you can imagine how gratifying it might be to learn, as he put it “of some evidence that shows that early theoretical work has some actual connection to reality.”

He considers the new findings to be “persuasive, but not definitive” — needing confirmation with other instruments.

Clifford’s wait has been long, indeed.  Many observations by teams using myriad instruments over the years did not produce the results of the Italian team.

Their discovery of liquid water is based on receiving particularly strong radar echoes from the base of the southern polar ice — echoes consistent with the higher radar reflectivity of water (as opposed to ice or rock.)

After analyzing the data in some novels ways and going through the many possible explanations other than the presence of a lake, Orosei said that none fit the results they had.  The explanation, then, was clear:  “We have to conclude there is liquid water on Mars.”

The depth of the lake — the distance from top to bottom — was impossible to measure, though the team concluded it was at least one meter and perhaps in the tens of meters.

Might the lake be a habitable?  Orosei said that because of the high salt levels “this is not a very pleasant environment for life.”

But who knows?  As he pointed out, Lake Vostok and other subglacial Antarctic lake, are known to be home to single-cell organisms that not only survive in their very salty world, but use the salt as part of their essential metabolism.

 

 

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Back to the Future on the Moon

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There have been no humans on the surface of the moon since the Apollo program ended in 1972.  Now, in addition to NASA, space agencies in India, China, Russia, Japan and Europe and developing plans to land humans on the moon. (NASA/Robin Lee)

What does NASA’s drive to return to the moon have to do with worlds of exoplanets and astrobiology that are generally discussed here?  The answer is actually quite a lot.

Not so much about the science, although current NASA plans would certainly make possible some very interesting science regarding humans living in deep space, as well as some ways to study the moon, Earth and our sun.

But it seems especially important now to look at what NASA and others have in mind regarding our moon because the current administration has made a top priority of returning landers and humans to there, prospecting for resources on the moon and ultimately setting up a human colony on the moon.

This has been laid out in executive directives and now is being translated into funding for NASA (and commercial) missions and projects.

There are at least two significant NASA projects specific to the moon initiative now planned, developed and in some cases funded.  They are the placement of a small space station that would orbit the moon, and simultaneously a series of robotic moon landings — to be conducted by commercial ventures but carrying NASA and other instruments from international and other commercial partners.

The goal is to start small and gradually increase the size of the landers until they are large enough to carry astronauts.

And the same growth line holds for the overall moon mission.  The often-stated goal is to establish a colony on the moon that will be a signal expansion of the reach of humanity and possibly a significant step towards sending humans further into space.

A major shift in NASA focus is under way and, most likely in the years ahead, a shift in NASA funding.

Given the potential size and importance of the moon initiative — and its potential consequences for NASA space science — it seems valuable to both learn more about it.

 

Cislunar space is, generally speaking, the area region between the Earth and the moon. Always changing because of the movements of the two objects.

Development work is now under way for what is considered to be the key near-term and moon-specific project.  It used to be called the the Deep Space Gateway as part of the Obama administration proposal for an asteroid retrieval mission, but now it’s the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G.)

If built, the four-person space station would serve as a quasi-permanent outpost orbiting the moon that advocates say would enhance exploration and later commercial exploitation of the moon.  It would provide a training area and safe haven for astronauts, could become a center for moon, Earth and solar science, and could continue and expand the international cooperation nurtured on the International Space Station (ISS) project for several decades.

In its Gateway Memorandum, published last month, NASA and the administration also made clear that the station would have, as a central goal, geopolitical importance.

As stated in the memorandum, “the next step in human spaceflight is the establishment of U.S. preeminence in cislunar space through the operations and the deployment of a U.S.-led lunar orbital platform,  “Gateway.”  (“Cislunar space” is the region lying  between the Earth and the moon.)

The administration requested $500 million for planning the LOP-G project in fiscal 2019.  The first component to be built and hopefully launched into cislunar space under the plan is the “power and propulsion element.”

 

An artist version of a completed Gateway spaceport with the Orion capsule approaching. (NASA)

Five companies have put together proposals for the “PPE,” and NASA officials have said they are ready to move ahead with procurement.

During a March meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, Michele Gates, director of the Power and Propulsion Element at NASA Headquarters, said the agency will be ready to move ahead with procurement of the module when the five industry proposals are completed.

Some of those companies had been involved in studies for the cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission and Gates said, “Our strategy is to leverage all of the work that’s been done, including on the Asteroid Redirect Mission.”

Five different companies have contracts to design possible space station habitation modules as well.

So the plan has some momentum.  If all moves ahead as described, NASA will launch the components of the Gateway in the early to mid 2020s.  More than a dozen international agencies have voiced interest in joining the project, including European, Japanese, Canadian and other ISS partners.

As part of that outreach, an informal partnership agreement has already been signed with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, with the possibility of using a future Russian heavy rocket to help build the station and ferry crew.

 

Astronaut John Young of the Apollo 16 mission on the moon. The primary goal of the NASA moon initiative is to return astronauts to the surface.(NASA)

The other NASA moon initiative involves an effort to send many robotic landers to the moon to look for potential water and fuel (hydrogen) to be collected for a cislunar and ultimately lunar economy.

NASA had worked for some time on what was called a Resource Prospector, a mission to study water ice and other volatiles at the lunar poles.  But this spring NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the Prospector was being cancelled because it was not suited to the what is called the new Exploration Campaign — NASA’s concept for a series of missions that will initially use small, commercially developed landers, followed by larger landers.

So the Prospector project is now considered “too limited in scope for the agency’s expanded lunar exploration focus,” the agency said in a statement. “NASA’s return to the moon will include many missions to locate, extract and process elements across bigger areas of the lunar surface.”

The agency also says it will rely on private companies to design and build the landers, as well as launching them into space.

So these are the out-of-the gate projects NASA has in mind for the moon. They, however, are hardly where the big money is going.  That is directed to the heavy rocket under development and construction for more than a decade (the Space Launch System, or SLS) and the Orion space capsule.

They are designed to be the main conduits to the Gateway and perhaps beyond some day, and they have been enormously costly to build — at least $22 billion to construct up through 2021, NASA officials told the Government Accounting Office in 2014. And that doesn’t include the more costly second SLS rocket scheduled for 2023 with a crew aboard.

What’s more, it is estimated to cost at least $1.5 billion to launch each SLS/Orion voyage in years ahead.

 

Astronauts go into an Orion capsule mock-up. The un-manned spacecraft is expected to be ready for launch in 2020. (NASA/ Bill Stafford and Roger Markowitz)

 

Another mock-up of the inside of the Orion crew module, which carries four astronauts and is scheduled to launch in 2023. It has 316 cubic feet of habitable space, compared with 210 cubic feet for the Apollo capsules. (NASA)

 

Since this column is primarily about space and origins science, I was drawn to the conference held late Feb. in Denver — billed as the Deep Space Gateway Concept Science Workshop.  The idea, surely, was to share and showcase what science might be achievable on the mini-space station.

As you might imagine, a major scientific focus was on the challenges to humans of living in deep space and techniques that might be used to mitigate problems. Abstracts included studies of the effects of radiation on astronauts, on drugs, on food, on the immune system and more.

NASA and others have studied for years radiation and micro-gravity effects on astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but conditions in a deep space environment would be quite a bit different.  Probably most importantly, astronauts aboard the Gateway would be exposed to much more dangerous radiation than those in the ISS because that low-Earth orbit station is protected by the Van Allen radiation belts.

There was also an intriguing proposal to study the ability of lunar regolith (the rock, dust and gravel on the surface) to shield growing plants on the station from radiation, and others on the role and usefulness of plants and micro-organisms in deep space.

Scientists also proposed many different ways to study the moon, the Earth and the sun.  Harley Thronson of NASA Goddard, one of the moderators of the conference, said that sun scientists seemed especially excited by the opportunities the Gateway could offer.

As far as I could tell, there was but one proposal that involved astrobiology or exoplanets.  It was a plan by scientists from SETI and NASA Ames to study Earth with a spectrometer as a way to understand and measure potential bio-markers on exoplanets.

So there’s undoubtedly good science to be done on a lunar space port regarding human space flight, the moon, the Earth and sun.

What I wonder is this:  Will this new, intense and costly lunar focus on the moon take away from what I like to think of as The Golden Age of Space Science — the unending breakthroughs of recent decades in understanding planets and distant moons in our solar system, detecting and characterizing the billions and billions of exoplanets out there,  as well as revealing the structure and history of the cosmos.

 

The Sombrero Galaxy, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s Flagship observatory of the 1990s. The James Webb Space Telescope is delayed but is expected to provide the same remarkable images and science as Hubble once it’s up and working.  WFIRST, the planned flagship observatory of the 2020s was cancelled by the administration earlier this year because of a NASA funding shortfall, but its fate remains undecided. (NASA)

I’m not thinking about today but about when costly NASA flagship space observatories or major planetary missions come up for approval, or non-approval, in the future.  Will the funding, and the deep interest, still be there?

Others more knowledgeable about the mechanics of space travel also criticize the Gateway as a costly detour from what long has been considered the main goal of space exploration — sending humans to Mars — and as redundant when it comes to accessing and studying the moon.

On a more encouraged note, a lunar station and lunar base could become part of a much larger space architecture that will allow for all kinds of advances in the decades ahead.  This is precisely the kind of build-out that Thronson, who is Senior Scientist for Advanced Astrophysics Mission Concepts at NASA Goddard and Chief Technologist for the Cosmic Origins and Physics of the Cosmos Program Offices, has been working towards for years.

Ever mindful of the uses of such a space architecture, he pointed out one potential use of a lunar space station that is seldom heard:  If a powerful new telescope in deep space needs repair or upgrading, he wrote in an email, there’s no way to get humans to it now.  The Hubble Space Telescope could be fixed because it was not in deep space and astronauts could get to it.

Thronson sees a potential parallel use for the Gateway, as he described in an email. “My astronomy colleagues, including myself, have been for many years advocating using a Gateway-type facility to assemble, repair, and upgrade the next generation (and beyond) of major astronomical missions. Nothing beats having a human on site, if there are complicated activities that need to be carried out.”

 

 

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Joining the Microscope and the Telescope in the Search for Life Beyond Earth

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Niki Parenteau of NASA’s Ames Research Center is a microbiologist working in the field of exoplanet and Mars biosignatures. She adds a laboratory biology approach to a field generally known for its astronomers, astrophysicists and planetary scientists. (Marisa Mayer, Stanford University.)

 

The world of biology is filled with labs where living creatures are cultured and studied, where the dynamics of life are explored and analyzed to learn about behavior, reproduction, structure, growth and so much more.

In the field of astrobiology, however, you don’t see much lab biology — especially when it comes to the search for life beyond Earth.  The field is now largely focused on understanding the conditions under which life could exist elsewhere, modeling what chemicals would be present in the atmosphere of an exoplanet with life, or how life might begin as an organized organism from a theoretical perspective.

Yes, astrobiology includes and learns from the study of extreme forms of life on Earth, from evolutionary biology, from the research into the origins of life.

But the actual bread and butter of biologists — working with lifeforms in a lab or in the environment — plays a back seat to modeling and simulations that rely on computers rather than actual life.

Niki Parenteau with her custom-designed LED array, can reproduce the spectral features of different simulated stellar and atmospheric conditions to test on primitive microbes. (Marc Kaufman)

There are certainly exceptions, and one of the most interesting is the work of Mary “Niki” Parenteau at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay area.

A microbiologist by training, she has been active for over five years now in the field of exoplanet biosignatures — trying to determine what astronomers could and should look for in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Working in her lab with actual live bacteria in laboratory flasks, test tubes and tanks, she is conducting traditional biological experiments that have everything to do with astrobiology.

She takes primitive bacteria known to have existed in some form on the early Earth, and she blasts them with the radiation that would have hit the planet at the time to see under what conditions the organisms can survive.  She has designed ingenious experiments using different forms of ultraviolet light and a LED array that simulate the broad range of radiations that would come from different types of stars as well.

What makes this all so intriguing is that her work uses, and then moves forward, cutting edge modeling from astronomers and astrobiologists regarding thick photochemical hazes understood to have engulfed the early Earth — making the planet significantly colder but also possibly providing some protection from deadly ultraviolet radiation.

That was a time when the atmosphere held very little oxygen, and when many organisms had to make their living via carbon dioxide and sulfur-based photosynthesis that did not use water and did not produce oxygen. This kind of photosynthesis has been the norm for much of the history of life on Earth, and certainly could be common on many exoplanets orbiting other stars as well.

So anything learned about how these early organisms survived in frigid conditions with high ultraviolet radiation — and what potentially detectable byproducts they would have produced under those conditions — would be important in the search for biosignatures and extraterrestrial life.

Parenteau has spent years learning from astronomers working to find ways to characterize exoplanet biosignatures, and she has been eager to convert her own work into something useful to them.

“These are not questions that can be answered by one discipline,” she told me.  “I certainly understand that when it comes to exoplanet biosignatures and life detection, astronomy has to be in the lead.  But biologists have a role to play, especially when it comes to characterizing what life produces.”

When haze built up in the atmosphere of Archean Earth, the young planet might have looked like this artist’s interpretation – a pale orange dot. A team led by Goddard scientists thinks the haze was self-limiting, cooling the surface by about 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 Kelvins) – not enough to cause runaway glaciation. The team’s modeling suggests that atmospheric haze might be helpful for identifying earthlike exoplanets that could be habitable. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Francis Reddy)

Here is the back story to Parenteau’s work:

Recent work by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astronomer and astrobiologist Giada Arney and colleagues points to the existence of a thick haze around the early Archean Earth and probably today around some, and perhaps many, exoplanets.  This haze — which is more like pollution than clouds — is produced by the interaction of strong incoming radiation and chemicals (most commonly methane and carbon dioxide) already in the atmosphere.

The haze, Arney concluded based on elaborate modeling of those radiation-chemical interactions, would be hard on any life that might exist on the planet because it would reduce surface temperatures significantly, though probably not always fatally.

Giada Arney is an astronomer and astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  As with Parenteau, her general approach to science was formed at the University of Washington’s pioneering Virtual Planetary Laboratory. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

On the other hand, the haze would also have the effect of blocking 84 percent of the destructive ultraviolet radiation bombarding the planet — especially the most damaging ultraviolet-C light that would otherwise destroy nucleic acids in cells and disrupt the working of DNA.  (Ultraviolet-C radiation is used as a microbial disinfectant.)

Ozone in our atmosphere now plays the role of blocking the most destructive forms of UV radiation, but ozone is formed from oxygen and on early Earth there was very little oxygen at all.

So how did organisms survive the radiation assault?  Might it have been that haze? And might there be hazes surrounding exoplanets as well?  (None have been found so far.)

It’s difficult enough to sort through the potentially protective role of a haze on early Earth.  To do it for exoplanets requires not only an understanding of the effects of a haze on ultraviolet light, but also how the dynamics of a haze would change based on the amounts and forms of radiation emitted by different types of stars.

It’s all very complicated, but the answers needn’t be theoretical, Arney concluded. They could be tested in a lab.

And that’s where Parenteau comes in, with her desire and ability to design biological experiments that might help scientists understand better how to look for life on distant exoplanets.

“I knew that (Parenteau) had been super interested in this kind of question for a long time,” Arney said.  “She one of the few people in the world with the know-how to simulate an atmosphere, and probably the only one in the world who could do the experiment.”

The 48 LEDs (light-emitting diodes) of the board designed and created by Parenteau and Ames intern Cameron Hearne. Each one is independently controlled and can be used to simulate the amount of radiation arriving on a planetary surface — taking into account the flux from the planet’s star and some aspects of its atmosphere.  A microbe is then exposed to the radiation to see whether or how it can survive. (Niki Parenteau.)

Parenteau’s experiment at first looks pretty low-tech, but in fact it’s very much custom-designed and custom-built.

The ultraviolet bulbs include the powerful, germicidal ultraviolet-C variety, some of the glass for the experiment is made of special quartz that is transparent to that ultraviolet light, the LED array has 48 tiny bulbs that can be controlled by software to provide different amounts and kinds of light as identified and provided by Arney

Before designing and making her own LED board with Ames intern Cameron Hearne, Parenteau met with solar panel specialists who might be able to provide an instrument she could use, but it turned out they were very expensive and not nearly as versatile as she wanted.  Having grown up on a farm in northern Idaho, Parenteau is comfortable with making things from scratch, and her experiments reflect that comfort and talent.

How would Parenteau determine whether the haze does indeed protect the microbial cells after exposing them to the various radiation regimes?  This is how she explained the process, which measures the number of cells living or dead given a simulated UV and stellar bombardment:

“Imagine the cells as soap bubbles in a clear glass.  If you look through the glass, the soap bubbles prevent you from seeing through and the glass has a higher ‘optical density.’ However, if you pop or lyse the soap bubbles, suddenly you can see through the glass and the optical density decreases. 

“The latter represents dead ‘popped’ cells that were killed by the UV irradiation.   I predict that by simulating the spectral qualities of the haze, which decreases the UV flux by 84%, more cells will survive.”

The Parenteau-Arney collaboration is being funded through a National Astrobiology Institute grant to the University of Washington’s famously-interdisciplinary Virtual Planetary Laboratory.

The microbes-and-haze experiment is one of many that Parenteau is working on in the general field of biosignatures.  While the haze experiment is primarily designed to determine if microbes could survive a UV bombardment if a haze was present, she is also working on the central question of what might constitute a biosignature.

With that in mind, she is also measuring the gases produced by microbes under different radiation and atmospheric conditions, and that is directly applicable to searching for extraterrestrial life.

A densely-packed community of microbes, including oxygen-producing cyanobacteria as well as anoxygenic purple and green bacteria, being studied with Parenteau’s LED array. A central question involves what gases are emitted and might be detectable on a distant planet. (Niki Parenteau)

 

Parenteau’s lab glove box with green, purple and other bacteria that is regularly exposed to radiation conditions believed to have existed on early Earth when a photochemical haze is believed to have been present.  (Marc Kaufman)

If and when she does find particularly interesting results in the gas measurements inside the anaerobic glove box, she says, she knows where to go.

“I would hand the results to an astronomer.  We could say that if a particular kind of exoplanet with a particular atmosphere had microbial life, this is the suite of gases we would expect to be emitted.”

Those gases, Parenteau says, may be photochemically altered as they as they rise through the planet’s atmosphere to the upper levels where they could be detected by the telescopes of the future. But in the challenging and complex world of biosignatures, every bit of hard-won data is most valuable since it could some day lead to a discovery for the ages.

 

 

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