Tag Archives: life

Atomic Oxygen Has Been Detected In Mars’ Atmosphere

As far as we know, were the only habitable planet in the Solar System. We have yet to discover life elsewhere, but Mars even today is a pretty good bet. Its got salty, liquid water on its surface, and although its atmosphere is thin and insubstantial, microbial life could lurk within the sediments, where its shielded from incoming solar radiation.

However, as researchers are continuously discovering, Mars was likely once far more habitable. Recent data from NASAs Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission revealed that its once-thick atmosphere, held in place by a wavering magnetosphere, was stripped away by major solar storms. Now, another NASA mission called SOFIA the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy has found that there are traces of atomic oxygen still lingering in the gaseous envelope thatsurrounds the Red Planet.

Atomic oxygen was first detected in the Martian atmosphere 40 years ago by the Viking and Mariner missions, but it hasnt been picked up since. Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure,said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist, in a statement.

SOFIA, a flying observatory attached to a Boeing 747SP, looks at the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Its designed to peer into the hearts of stars, the complex clouds of planetary nebulae, and the atmospheres of planets both outside the Solar System and those right next door to us.

To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detectatomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth’s atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer, Marcum added. SOFIA provides both capabilities.

The abundance of atomic oxygen in Mars atmosphere peaks between 70 and 120 kilometers (44 to 75 miles). Rezac et al./Astronomy & Astrophysics

Flying between 11.3 and 13.7 kilometers (37,000 and45,000 feet) above ground, specialized detectors were able to spy atomic oxygen in the mesosphere (the upper atmosphere) of Mars, confirming it as not just an erroneous detection of Earths far more abundant atmospheric oxygen. The data from SOFIA was published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Although this atomic oxygen is a far cry from the amount of molecular, breathable oxygen (O2) seen on a planet covered in photosynthesizing bacteria and plants like ours, its discovery is nonetheless important: It is the key element controlling several atmospheric processes, including energy and mass flow into and out of the planet; in addition, it controls how much heat is lost from Mars carbon dioxide.

Ultimately, its presence influences how fast the atmosphere is disappearing into space. Understanding the atomic oxygen segment of the Martian atmosphere will allow researchers to gain a better understanding of why it was all but obliterated over the last few billions of years.

The researchers actually found half as much oxygen as they expected to find, but they put this down to natural variations in the Martian atmosphere. Its not yet clear where this atomic oxygen originated from, but seeing as its the third most abundant element in the universe, its discovery wasnt entirely surprising.

It is worth pointing out that the ancient atmosphere of Mars probably did contain far more oxygen than it currently does. Whether it was produced by chemical reactions in the atmosphere, or primitive life at the surface, is currently unknown.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/atomic-oxygen-has-been-detected-mars-atmosphere

Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute Release First Observations From “Alien Megastructure” Star

Take down the Welcome Aliens! bunting and pack away the cosmic red carpet. New observations have suggestedthat the alien megastructure spotted around a distant star is probably not alien at all, and likely has a more mundane (but probably still interesting) natural explanation. Here come the pretzels.

The star system KIC 8462852, 1,400 light-years away,hit the news big time when Jason Wright, an astrophysicist from Pennsylvania State University, suggested to The Atlantic that a huge dip in light seen from the star up to 20 percentof its light could be artificial in origin. Naturally, this had people dreaming of Dyson spheres, vast theoretical structures that could potentially harness the power of entire stars, and other exciting extraterrestrial constructs.

But following the suggestion, the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California,trained their vast Allen Telescope Array of 42 antennas on the system. And now, after two weeks of observations, the results are in and its disappointing news.

The array looked for signals between frequencies of one and 10 gigahertz, which would be consistent with emissions from an alien race harnessing the power of an entire star, and found nothing. They also looked for a hailing signal being sent out in all directions, but to no avail. This rules out omnidirectional transmitters of approximately 100 times todays total terrestrial energy usage in the case of the narrow-band signals, and ten million times that usage for broadband emissions, astatementfrom SETI said.

The Allen Telescope Array, pictured, consists of 42 separate antennas. Seth Shostak/SETI Institute

The history of astronomy tells us that every time we thought we had found a phenomenon due to the activities of extraterrestrials, we were wrong, SETI Institute director Seth Shostak said in the statement. But although its quite likely that this stars strange behavior is due to nature, not aliens, its only prudent to check such things out.

All hope is not lost, though; the press release notes that a signal being deliberately pointed in our direction would have a significantly lower frequency, which has not been looked for yet. “Just because someone helicopters you into a field in Africa and you dont see any elephants, it is not proof that there are none,” Shostak told IFLScience.”So too do our measures only rule out signals at the level we could detect.”

However, the lack of a detection in the microwave frequency band that was studied, which Shostak thinks would be “favored for interstellar signalling,” suggests the object is more likely a natural than an artificial phenomenon.The most prominent theory, suggested in a paper led by Tabetha Boyajian in September, is that it is a cloud of debris, possibly cometary in origin.

While the alien theory can seemingly be ruled out, dont despair just yet.With hundreds of billions of planets in our galaxy alone, its pretty unlikely that ours is the only one that hosts life. Even in our own Solar System, there are hints that worlds such as Mars and Saturn’s moonEnceladus may be habitable, and were doing our best to find out if theres anything out there via various current and future spacecraft.

The dream may appear to be over forKIC8462852, but the search for other life in the universe goes on.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/alien-megastructure-probably-not-alien-megastructure-says-seti

35 Memes To Spice Up Your Saturday Night

Let’s get this meme party started.

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Read more: http://cheezburger.com/3121925/35-memes-to-spice-up-your-saturday-night

Extreme Methane-Producing Microbes Found At Earth’s Surface Hint At Life On Mars

Not all microbes are created equal. Some of them are particularly resilient, and can live without sunlight in soaring temperatures at perpetually dark depths, including within Earths crust itself.

It has long been thought that extremely hardy organisms should only be found in extreme environments, but a new study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences reveals that, sometimes, certain mischievous microbes turn up where they shouldnt be. Methane-producing microbes, those often found in deep-sea hydrothermal vent systems, have just been discovered in a set of freshwater springs in Sonoma County, California.

The freshwater emerges up through a set of serpentinized rocks, a geological alteration feature that indicates that circulating, high-temperature, high-pH fluids have been moving through the region. Active serpentinization processes often occur deep underground and within oceanic crust, and the microbes living in these areas use its chemical byproducts to produce energy. The fact that they now clearly exist at the surface too is thoroughly unorthodox.

As our technologys expanding, were able to look outside of the box a little to capture some of these groups [of microbes], Matt Schrenk, a microbiologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement. As were beginning to look into some of these natural environments [deep underground], our view of the microbial world, and of life in general, is really expanding.

Previous analysis of the water from the area suggested that the high concentrations of methane may be down to microbes rather than non-biological chemical processes, including active serpentinization. In order to confirm this, water samples were taken back to a laboratory, and the team exposed them to a variety of conditions.

In the samples that were sterilized, no methane was ultimately produced; conversely, samples with live microbes contained up to 650 percent more methane than the sterilized ones. With the serpentinization reactions removed from the equation, it was concluded that a set of microbes in the water were responsible for methane production, also known as methanogenesis.

These methane-detecting organisms likely belong to the archaea domain, single-celled microorganisms that, despite having similar ecological roles to bacteria, are in fact physiologically distinct.

This discovery brings with it several revelations. Firstly, methanogens organisms thatmanufacture methane are likely found in a wider variety of environments around the world, and possibly on other worlds, than previously thought.

The Cedars is a small, isolated set of springs flowing out of a large patch of red rock in Sonoma County, California. The Cedars is one of the few easily-accessible sites of active serpentinization on land. Lukas Kohl

Methane has recently been detected in Mars atmosphere, and many have suggested that serpentinization is the culprit. This new microbial discovery suggests that its possible that archaea at or near the Martian surface, perhaps within patches of high-pH water, may be responsible for pumping methane into the atmosphere instead.

Secondly, as these microorganisms appear to be able to convert carbon dioxide into methane as part of their metabolic processes, researchers in the area may have to rethink their carbon sequestration efforts. Using technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is all well and good when it comes to militating against climate change, but if this is locked up in this methanogen-containing soil as a form of carbonate, it will be rapidly converted it to methane a shorter-lasting but far more powerful greenhouse gas.

Image in text: Another example of a methane-generating microorganism, typically of the archaea domain. Maryland Astrobiology Consortium, NASA, and STScI

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/environment/extreme-methane-producing-microbes-found-surface-hint-life-mars

Interstellar Civilizations Might Be Living In Globular Clusters

Scientists are finding it more and more difficult to answer the Fermi paradox:If planets are so common, where is everybody? Where are the advanced civilizations? Researchers from Harvard and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, have now suggested that we should look for intelligent life just outside our galaxy.

According to new research presentedby Rosanne Di Stefano and Alak Rayat the American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Floridatoday, an interstellarcivilizationmight develop within the globular clusters of stars that surround the Milky Way.

Globular clusters (GCs) are spherical collections of thousands of stars that orbit galaxies in large orbits. Astronomers think there are over 150 GCs surrounding the Milky Way, and Andromeda may have as many as 500.

Stars in globular clusters are usually metal-poor, meaning they lack the elements like carbon, oxygen, and iron that make up most of the composition of rocky planets and living creatures. So far, we have discovered only one exoplanet in a globular cluste,r and some scientists believethat globular clusters dont have the right conditionsto form planets.

Di Stefano and Ray are more optimistic:Its premature to say there are no planets in globular clusters, says Ray in a statement.

In recent years, it has been shown that rocky planets are just as likely to form around metal-poor starsas metal-rich ones. The lack of planetary detections might be due to the fact that globular clusters are several thousand light-years from the Milky Way, making direct observations more difficult.

If planets could evolve, they might be able to survive for a long time, which would make the likelihood of life and then an intelligent species to evolve higher. If such a species existed, they could eventually be capable of navigating throughout the cluster.

Stars within a globular cluster are also significantly closer than stars around the Sun. Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System, is 4.7 light-years away, while the typical distance between stars in globular clusters is about 20 times smaller than that. Exploration and communication within the cluster would be more manageable than our attempts.

“We call it the ‘globular cluster opportunity,'”says Di Stefano. Sending a broadcast between the stars wouldnt take any longer than a letter from the U.S. to Europe in the 18th century.

She added: Interstellar travel would take less time too. The Voyager probes are 100 billion miles from Earth, or one-tenth as far as it would take to reach the closest star if we lived in a globular cluster. That means sending an interstellar probe is something a civilization at our technological level could do in a globular cluster.

Although the idea isintriguing, its highly speculative at this stage. The first goal would be to look for planets in clusters, but a positive detection wouldnt mean life there is probable. Most stars in globular clusters are red dwarfs and they might be less suitable for life than previously thought.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/interstellar-civilizations-might-be-living-globular-clusters

Incredible Video Shows The Earth “Breathing”

The people at NASA dont always have their heads above the clouds, looking outwards. They just as often use their incredible technology and expertise to get a bit introspective and gaze down onto Earth.

Using datareceived from numerous satellites, this incredible animation shows the 12-month cycle of Earths seasons. As well as showing the vegetative plantlife on land, it also shows the chlorophyll concentration from microscopic organisms called phytoplankton in the ocean.

The parts where the land looks brown and barren are regions of Earth experiencing their winter months, whereas during summer you’ll see a lush green.


Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/environment/nasa-video-shows-mother-nature-pulse-life

Earth Used To Be Orange

TodayEarth is a pale blue dot, as famously coined by the late Carl Sagan. But 2.5 billion years ago, it would have been a pale orange dot owing to the methane produced by organisms and finding exoplanets that look similar could suggest they, too,have life on their surface.

This is according to a new study by Giada Arney from the University of Washington and her colleagues, presented atthe American Astronomical Societys Division for Planetary Sciences conference inMaryland this week. The research used geological data to examine what Earth would have looked like in the Archaean era, 2.5 billion years ago, and see if this appearance could help in the hunt for habitable exoplanets. Turns out, it might.

During this era, methane molecules in the atmosphere broken downby light formed complex hydrocarbons, organic compounds of hydrogen and carbon, giving Earth an orange haze, or smog, that would have been visible from space. There are two possible sources for such methane biological, namely life, or geological processes, such as on Saturn’s moon Titan. Thus, finding exoplanets with anorange hue could suggest they are going through a similar process to that which occured on theyounger Earth.

As Arney explains, to find out if an exoplanets orange hue comes from biological or geological processes, youll need to find out how much carbon dioxide is there. If its a lot, it could be Earth-like; if not, its probably more like Titan.

If we saw a hydrocarbon haze in an exoplanets atmosphere, it could suggest a methane source consistent with biological methane production, but it isnt enough to just detect the haze, she told IFLScience. To argue that the haze is a sign of life, youd have to also characterize the background atmosphere, particularly the amount of carbon dioxide.

Arney said Archaean Earth’s hue would have been similar to Titan, shown. NASA

On Earth, our haze which would have extended 20 to 70 kilometers (12 to 43 miles)into the atmosphere eventually gave way to the relatively bluer appearance we have today as the amount of oxygen grew. Oxygen destroys methane, so once levels started rising 2.5 billion years ago, the haze disappeared for good. But its a good indicator of biosignatures.

At the moment, we know of a few exoplanets that have hazes or clouds in their atmospheres, but we cant be sure they are Earth-like hydrocarbon hazes just yet. Future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope(JWST), though, could potentially characterize them.

Perhaps, in the continuing search for worlds like Earth, we may have to start looking for more of these pale orange dots.

The study will be published in the journal Astrobiology.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/earth-used-look-orange

Evidence For Ancient Wet Martian Environment Hints At Habitats For Life

Mars wasnt always so dry and barren the large fluvial features on its surface betray a past brimming with flowing water. Along with clear evidence of liquid, salty water patches still existing today, evidence of ancient mega-tsunamis has also recently been uncovered. If these were generated by huge impacts, then there had to have been a sizable ocean residing on the surface once upon a time.

Now, a new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research reveals that ironand calcium-rich carbonate-bearing rocks are fairly widespread on Mars.Carbonate rocks on Earth, such as limestone, form in aquatic, primarily marine environments that contain dissolved carbon. If deposits of Martian carbonates really are as commonplace as this study implies, then the ancient environment on Mars was certainly anything but dry.

Identification of these ancient carbonates and clays on Mars represents a window into history when the climate on Mars was very different from the cold and dry desert of today, Janice Bishop, a researcher at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and co-author of the paper, said in a statement.

Wind-formed geological units overlie ancient carbonate-rich rocks (bottom right), excavated up to the surface by impact events. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Recent advances in scientists understanding of the physical characteristics of geological units mean that the uppermost layers of a planet, be that our own or one of our neighbors, can be analyzed and classified visually without having to visit the surface directly. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) contains an instrument designed to do exactly that: the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), which uses infrared emissions to identify mineralogical compositions of rocks.

Taking command of this instrument, the team of researchers focused its gaze on the Huygens basin, a massive impact crater 456kilometers(283miles) in diameter. The gargantuan depression is pockmarked with plenty of younger craters, many of which were suspected to be ideal sites for finding carbonates.When they were initially formed, its likely that the energetic impact would have managed to excavate some buried carbonates up to the surface.

Indeed, the spectral fingerprints of carbonate-bearing rocks werefound in the rims of several craters within the Huygens basin, some of which were previously buried at depths of around 5 kilometers (3miles). Additional carbonate outcrops were found scattered across other parts of the Red Planet, adding credence to the idea that much of the planet once experienced a complex, surface-level hydrogeological system.

This excavation depth indicates that they are fairly ancient, which hints at a wetter past for the region. In fact, the researchers conclude that they date back to the Noachian period, which roughly dates from 4.1 to 3.7 billion years ago, a time period corresponding to a chapter of frequent, powerful impacts in the inner Solar System known as the Late Heavy Bombardment.

The Huygens basin on Mars.The image in the top right shows elevation, with blue being low and red being high. NASA

This period also corresponds to the approximate age of the earliest life on Earth. As far as we know, where there is water, there is life it doesnt necessarily require sunlight so could these carbonates have formed in aquatic environments that also hosted life around the same time?

Sadly, researchers have yet to detect any signs of fossilized or contemporary microbial life on Mars, but anywhere that liquid water exists or once existed aids them in their search for it.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/ancient-wet-martian-environment-revealed-widespread-excavated-carbonate-rocks

“Hellish” Ancient Organisms Found Living Inside Earth’s Crust

Billions of years of evolution on Earth have produced endless forms most beautiful, as Darwin poetically noted. Some have evolved to live in extreme environments, such asdeep sea hydrothermal vents and around the rims of lava lakes. Now, anew study published in Nature Microbiology reveals that extremely rare lifeforms have even managed to eke out a living inside the Earths crust itself.

The microbes in question are calledachaea,highly primitive lifeforms that have been found thriving in acidic hot springsand salt likes, environments that would be uninhabitable to most other critters.Although theyresemble bacteria, the two groups are about as genetically different as a human and a tree.

These new microscopic extremists, found 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) ina South African gold mine, are called Hadesarchaea roughly meaning hellish ancient things. Surviving at temperatures of up to 80C (176F), this name is certainly appropriate. This new study is the first to work out how these deep-dwelling,single-celled microbes are able to live within the Earths crust, at extremely high temperatures, lacking both oxygen and light.

Without the ability to photosynthesize, as many types of microorganisms do, scientists thoughtthe Hadesarchaea may obtain their energy by taking advantage of certain chemical compounds in their surroundings. This process is known as chemosynthesis.

During chemosynthesis,carbon-containing moleculessuch as carbon dioxide or methane, losean electron in a process calledoxidation. These reactions produce small amounts of energythatthe microorganisms use to makecarbohydrates. Plenty of bacteria and archaea use this method to survive within areas like the Lost City Hydrothermal Field at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Hadesarchaea were also found living beneath and within Yellowstones hot springs. Oliver S/Shutterstock

These extremophiles are also found in the Yellowstone National Park hot springs in Wyoming and within the White Oak River estuary in North Carolina. By carefully sequencing the genome of these surface-dwelling Hadesarchaea, the researchers were able to identify key genes responsible for controlling metabolicprocesses.

By comparing the metabolic genes ofHadesarchaea with those ofother microorganisms, we figured out that Hadesarchaea had a rather versatile metabolic repertoire, Thijs Ettema, an associate professor at Uppsala University, Sweden, told IFLScience. Genes associated with the oxidization of carbon monoxide were found, meaning that they mayuse a considerably rare form of chemosynthesis.

Ettema notes that the Hadesarchaea appear to have adapted to make do with whatever forms of carbon seep down to these nearly-inhospitable depths, making them scavengers in a manner of speaking. In addition, their relatively small genome means that they use very little energy in producing nutrients or replicating themselves.

All in all, they are certainly well-adapted to living in such challenging conditions. Life that may have evolved in comparably extreme environments elsewhere in the Solar System and beyond may perhaps gain energy by using the same type of chemosynthesis. However, Ettema cautions that before being able to provide a more firm, educated guess about [this], we would first need to understand better how other microbes of Earths deep biosphere make a living.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/hellish-ancient-organisms-found-living-within-earths-crust