Space Scientists Study Galactic Nursery Using Hubble Space Telescope

Irregular galaxy NGC 1140 starbursts at same rate as larger Milky Way

 Smaller irregular galaxies like NGC 1140 are of interest to astronomers studying the first galaxies to appear in our universe some 13.7 billions years ago because their composition is thought to be similar in nature to the early galactic building blocks that combined to make galaxies like our Milky Way.  Credits: NASA/Hubble

Smaller irregular galaxies like NGC 1140 are of interest to astronomers studying the first galaxies to appear in our universe some 13.7 billions years ago because their composition is thought to be similar in nature to the early galactic building blocks that combined to make galaxies like our Milky Way.
Credits: NASA/Hubble

Space news (July 29, 2015) – 60 million light-years away in constellation Eridanus

NASA space scientists recently viewed the dwarf galaxy NGC 1140 undergoing starburst, an intense, but brief period of star formation believed to be characteristic of the first galaxies born in the universe billions of years ago. 

Astronomers estimate during this starburst NGC 1140 will spawn a star like Sol every year, but knowledge concerning possible star-forming rates during starburst is rudimentary at this point. The bright, blue-white regions in the image above indicate the presence of young stars made up primarily of hydrogen and helium and fewer heavy metals than stars like Sol.

NASA space scientists plan on studying this irregular galaxy to gather data and facts concerning the evolution of the first galaxies to appear in the universe. The first galaxies born in the universe are much more distant in space-time, than galaxies like NGC 140, and therefore much harder to study. Studying this starburst is an opportunity for space scientists to learn more about the first galaxies to appear in the universe, without having to make a 13.77 billion year trip to the beginning of spacetime. 

To learn more about irregular galaxies go here.

To learn more about NASA’s space mission to the stars go here.

To read more about NGC 1140 go here.

Learn more about main sequence stars like Sol.

Learn more about Neptune-size exoplanets found in the cosmos.

Read about the search for the missing link in black hole evolution.

Crucible of the Building Blocks of Life

Just add water, gasses, and simple organic molecules 

Space news (July 27, 2015) – the search for life beyond Earth – a simple recipe for extraterrestrial life –

The simple building blocks of life could have traveled to Earth on icy grains of dust carried on asteroids and meteorites during the early moments of the Solar System.
The simple building blocks of life could have traveled to Earth on icy grains of dust carried on asteroids and meteorites during the early moments of the Solar System.

NASA scientists studying the origins of organic compounds important to the development of life on Earth think they’re on the trail of a cosmic “Crucible of the Building Blocks of Life”. Recent experiments conducted by astrobiologists working at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland indicate asteroids and meteorites could have been the source of complex organic compounds essential to the evolution of life on Earth. Essential organic compounds they have been able to reproduce in laboratory experiments from simpler organic compounds, water, and gasses in simulations of the space environments of meteorites and asteroids. 

“We found that the types of organic compounds in our laboratory-produced ices match very well to what is found in meteorites,” said Karen Smith of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This result suggests that these important organic compounds in meteorites may have originated from simple molecular ices in space. This type of chemistry may also be relevant for comets, which contain large amounts of water and carbon dioxide ices. These experiments show that vitamin B3 and other complex organic compounds could be made in space and it is plausible that meteorite and comet impacts could have added an extraterrestrial component to the supply of vitamin B3 on ancient Earth.”

“This work is part of a broad research program in the field of Astrobiology at NASA Goddard. We are working to understand the origins of biologically important molecules and how they came to exist throughout the Solar System and on Earth. The experiments performed in our laboratory demonstrate an important possible connection between the complex organic molecules formed in cold interstellar space and those we find in meteorites.”

The Crucible of the Building Blocks of Life

Deep within immense clouds of gas and dust created by exploding stars (supernovae) and the winds of red giant stars coming to the end of their days are countless dust grains. Many of these dust grains will end up part of asteroids and meteorites like the millions of bodies in the Main Asteroid Belt, Kuiper Belt, and Oort Cloud. Asteroids and meteorites that bombarded the Earth from space during the formation of the planets and Solar System.

Cosmic dust grains carried on asteroids and meteorites that struck the Earth during the first moments of the birth of the Solar System could have carried complex organic compounds that contributed to the birth and evolution of life on Earth.
Cosmic dust grains carried on asteroids and meteorites that struck the Earth during the first moments of the birth of the Solar System could have carried complex organic compounds that contributed to the birth and evolution of life on Earth.

NASA space scientists were able to reproduce a “Crucible of the Building Blocks of Life” using an aluminum plate cooled to minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 253 Celsius) as the cold surface of an interstellar dust grain carried by an asteroid or meteorite heading to Earth 4.5 billion years ago. The experiments were conducted in a vacuum chamber used to replicate conditions in space to which they added gasses containing water, carbon dioxide, and the simple organic compound pyridine. Bombarding the cold surface with high energy protons from a particle accelerator to simulate cosmic radiation and other radiation found in space produced more complex organic compounds like vitamin B3.  

Data collected by the European Space Agency's Rosetta Mission during the months and years ahead could shine more light on this subject. Rosetta's lander, Philae, is currently sitting on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko awaiting its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015. Presently, the surface of the comet is warming and gases we can test to validate the results of these experiments are expected to be released as it nears Sol. 
Data collected by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission during the months and years ahead could shine more light on this subject. Rosetta’s lander, Philae, is currently sitting on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko awaiting its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015. Presently, the surface of the comet is warming and gasses we can test to validate the results of these experiments are expected to be released as it nears Sol.

To learn more about the European Space Agency and its work with the Rosetta mission go here.

To learn more about NASA’s space mission and the search for life beyond Earth visit here.

Learn more about the Goddard Space Flight Center here.

Learn more about plans to visit Jupiter’s moon Europa to have a look for the ingredients that make life possible.

Read about the search for the missing link in black hole evolution.

Learn about the planets space scientists are finding orbiting four star systems.

Pulsar in Double Star System PSR B1259-63/LS 2883 Punches Opening in Gas Disk Surrounding Companion Star

Launching an accelerating fragment of the thin disk at 7 percent of the speed of light 

This trio of images contains evidence from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory that a clump of stellar material has been jettisoned away from a double star system at incredibly high speeds. This system, known as PSR B1259-63/LS 2883 – or B1259 for short – is comprised of two objects in orbit around one another. The first is a star about 30 times as massive as the Sun that has a disk of material swirling around it. The other is a pulsar, an ultra-dense neutron star left behind when an even more massive star underwent a supernova explosion. Credits: NASA/CXC/PSU/G.Pavlov et al
This trio of images contains evidence from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory that a clump of stellar material has been jettisoned away from a double star system at incredibly high speeds. This system, known as PSR B1259-63/LS 2883 – or B1259 for short – is comprised of two objects in orbit around one another. The first is a star about 30 times as massive as the Sun that has a disk of material swirling around it. The other is a pulsar, an ultra-dense neutron star left behind when an even more massive star underwent a supernova explosion.
Credits: NASA/CXC/PSU/G.Pavlov et al

Space news (July 25, 2015) – 7,500 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus

The majority of lights in the night sky above are double star systems composed of two suns orbiting each other. NASA space scientists using the Chandra X-ray Observatory observed the unusual double star system PSR B1259-63/LS 2883 (B1259 is the short version) three times between December 2011 and February 2014 looking for clues to its nature.

These two objects are in an unusual cosmic arrangement and have given us a chance to witness something special,” said George Pavlov of Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, lead author of a paper describing these results. “As the pulsar moved through the disk, it appears that it punched a clump of material out and flung it away into space.” 

Composed of a pulsar and companion star 30 times the mass of the Sun, B1259 is in a weird looking cosmic arrangement that has been kicking up a little dust lately. Recent data indicates the high-energy particle winds created by the combination of rapid rotation and intense magnetic field of the pulsar appears to have punched a hole in the disk of gas surrounding the companion star. A hole composed of gas that has been ejected from the disk at 4 million miles per hour and accelerated from 7 percent of the speed of light to 15 percent between the second and third observation periods. 

“After this clump of stellar material was knocked out, the pulsar’s wind appears to have accelerated it, almost as if it had a rocket attached,” said co-author Oleg Kargaltsev of George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC.

The pulsar is an ultra-dense neutron star orbiting its companion star in a highly elliptical orbit that makes its closest approach every 41 months. The companion star is rotating at a speed resulting in a disk of material spinning off, creating the thin disk of gas surrounding the massive sun. The pulsar is expected to pass through the disk of material as it makes its next approach to B1259. NASA scientists expect to view the event and collect data on the unusual nature of this double star system.  

41 months is enough time for NASA scientists to plan their next move and get other telescopes and spacecraft in place to view the event. NASA scientists will collect data on the effects of the stellar winds of the pulsar on the gas disk surrounding the companion star as it passes through. There could be another ejection of gas material as it passes close to B1259, next time, which is an opportunity to learn more about double star systems and the cosmos.

“This just shows how powerful the wind blasting off a pulsar can be,” said co-author Jeremy Hare, also of GWU. “The pulsar’s wind is so strong that it could ultimately eviscerate the entire disk around its companion star over time.”

Study continues

NASA space scientists will next view double star system B1259, later in the year, and sometime in 2016. The next passing of the pulsar through the disk of gas surrounding its companion star could be even more spectacular and unusual in nature. 

You can learn more about the Chandra X-ray Observatory here.

To learn more about double star systems go here.

To learn more about NASA’s space mission visit here. 

Read about NASA’s plans to visit Europa to have a look at the habitability of any watery environments.

Learn more about what NASA space scientists think about the possibility of life during the early moments of the universe.

Learn more about possible plate tectonic forces operating on the surface of Europa.

Kepler Mission Discovers First Nearly-Earth-Sized Cradle for a New Human Genesis

NASA space scientists have discovered the first nearly Earth-sized exoplanet lying within the habitable zone of its Sun-like parent star 

This artist's concept compares Earth (left) to the new planet, called Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
This artist’s concept compares Earth (left) to the new planet, called Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Space news (July 23, 2015) – 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus –

Twenty years after proving other planets do exist the human journey to the beginning of space and time draws nearer to finding an Earth-like cradle for a new human Genesis

This artist's concept depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of star that is similar to our sun. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
This artist’s concept depicts one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of a star that is similar to our sun.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has discovered the first nearly Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting within the habitable zone of a star much like our own Sun. Called Kepler-452b and roughly 60 percent bigger than our home planet, this exoplanet is the smallest planet found orbiting at a distance from its parent star where liquid water could exist.

On the 20th anniversary year of the discovery that proved other suns host planets, the Kepler exoplanet explorer has discovered a planet and star which most closely resemble the Earth and our Sun,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “This exciting result brings us one step closer to finding an Earth 2.0.

A Star Like Our Sun

This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside the Kepler-186 system and the solar system. Kepler-186 is a miniature solar system that would fit entirely inside the orbit of Mercury. Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt
This size and scale of the Kepler-452 system compared alongside the Kepler-186 system and the solar system. Kepler-186 is a miniature solar system that would fit entirely inside the orbit of Mercury.
Credits: NASA/JPL-CalTech/R. Hurt

Kepler-452b’s parent star is an older cousin to the Sun, a G2 type star approximately 20 percent brighter, 1.5 billion years older, and 10 percent bigger than Earth’s home star.

We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth’s evolving environment,” said Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who led the team that discovered Kepler-452b. “It’s awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life to exist on this planet.

A Rocky Exoplanet like Earth?

Since Kepler launched in 2009, twelve planets less than twice the size of Earth have been discovered in the habitable zones of their stars. Credits: NASA/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel
Since Kepler launched in 2009, twelve planets less than twice the size of Earth have been discovered in the habitable zones of their stars.
Credits: NASA/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel

Kepler-452b is the twelfth exoplanet the human journey to the beginning of space and time has viewed lying within the habitable zone of its parent star. Data collected by both space and Earth-based telescopes indicates planets of this size are often rocky in nature. Indicating the possibility this exoplanet could have an atmosphere and environment that could act as a cradle for a new human Genesis to begin. 

A New Human Genesis!

Humans traveling across spacetime to Kepler-452b would evolve during a voyage lasting thousands or even hundreds of years. Extended hibernation of some type would certainly make the journey easier, but this kind of technology hasn’t been developed. An alternative solution to extended periods living in space during a voyage unlike any humans have undertaken is probably a necessity.

Once we land on Kepler-452b, learning to survive and live on this foreign planet will evolve us once again. Humans are designed to evolve in order to survive living in different environments. We would likely survive as a species, but doing so would change us in ways we can’t begin to imagine.

521 New Candidates for the Exoplanet Zoo

There are 4,696 planet candidates now known with the release of the seventh Kepler planet candidate catalog - an increase of 521 since the release of the previous catalog in January 2015. Credits: NASA/W. Stenzel
There are 4,696 planet candidates now known with the release of the seventh Kepler planet candidate catalog – an increase of 521 since the release of the previous catalog in January 2015.
Credits: NASA/W. Stenzel

At the same time, NASA released this news it announced the Kepler mission’s discovery of 521 new exoplanet candidates for the exoplanet zoo. 12 of these candidates orbit their parent star within the habitable zone and nine have home stars similar to the Sun in both size and temperature. Great news for the human desire to locate a second Earth to live on. 

We’ve been able to fully automate our process of identifying planet candidates, which means we can finally assess every transit signal in the entire Kepler dataset quickly and uniformly,” said Jeff Coughlin, Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who led the analysis of a new candidate catalog. “This gives astronomers a statistically sound population of planet candidates to accurately determine the number of small, possibly rocky planets like Earth in our Milky Way galaxy.

NASA space scientists will now take a closer look at each of the exoplanet candidates and specifically the ones lying within the habitable zone of their parent star. There could be a second Earth, a cradle for a new human Genesis, waiting to be discovered. An event that would change the course of human history on planet Earth and the way we view ourselves as cosmic beings.

To learn more about the Kepler mission go here.

To learn more about NASA’s space mission visit here.

Read about NASA’s Europa Orbiter and plans to take a closer look at one of the best places in the solar system to look for life other than Earth.

Learn more about ice geysers erupting from the frozen surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus helping to create the E ring of the second biggest planet in the solar system.

Learn about the mystery surrounding the existence of ultra-luminous x-ray sources in the cosmos and ways space scientists are beginning to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding these mysterious objects.

Survey of Debris Fields Around Infant Suns Reveals Structures with Unexpected Diversity and Complexity

Structures created during cataclysmic collisions between objects left over from planet formation or something unknown?

This is a set of images from a NASA Hubble Space Telescope survey of the architecture of debris systems around young stars. Ten previously discovered circumstellar debris systems, plus MP Mus (a mature protoplanetary disk of age comparable to the youngest of the debris disks), were studied.
This is a set of images from a NASA Hubble Space Telescope survey of the architecture of debris systems around young stars. Ten previously discovered circumstellar debris systems, plus MP Mus (a mature protoplanetary disk of age comparable to the youngest of the debris disks), were studied.

Space news (July 13, 2015) – collisions indicating possible gravitational effects of unseen orbiting exoplanets or consequences of the star traveling through interstellar space –

Space scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope recently completed a visible-light imaging survey of the debris field systems around 10 young stars between the ages of 10 million to 1 billion years old. Debris fields they studied in order to better understand the early solar system and formation of the planets.

Explore 25 Years of the Hubble Space Telescope NASA will host a one-day-long event for 50 social media and media attendees at the Newseum and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into a low Earth orbit and began returning groundbreaking images and data that continue to revolutionize astronomy.
Explore 25 Years of the Hubble Space Telescope
NASA will host a one-day-long event for 50 social media and media attendees at the Newseum and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into a low-Earth orbit and began returning groundbreaking images and data that continue to revolutionize astronomy.

It’s like looking back in time to see the kinds of destructive events that once routinely happened in our solar system after the planets formed,” said survey leader Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.

eclipseguy with Glenn Schneider from The Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. Glenn is the Project Lead – he makes the calculations for our Totality Run: the aircraft’s interception of the Moon’s umbra. He’s seen 32 Total Solar Eclipses
eclipseguy with Glenn Schneider from The Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. Glenn is the Project Lead – he makes the calculations for our Totality Run: the aircraft’s interception of the Moon’s umbra. He’s seen 32 Total Solar Eclipses

What did the survey find?

Space scientists studying the evolution of stars and the formation of planets used to think debris fields surrounding young stars should be composed of simple pancake-like structures.

The complexity and diversity in debris fields studied in this recent survey strongly suggest this scenario is a little more involved than theories suggest. Facts indicate the possibility of gravitational effects of unseen exoplanets hidden within the dusty debris, the results of the young star traveling through interstellar space, or something unthought of as the reason for the deviation from theory.

We find that the systems are not simply flat with uniform surfaces,” Schneider said. “These are actually pretty complicated three-dimensional debris systems, often with embedded smaller structures. Some of the substructures could be signposts of unseen planets.” The astronomers used Hubble’s Space Telescope

Imaging Spectrograph to study 10 previously discovered circumstellar debris systems.

Star HD 181327 Shows Huge Debris Spray

Captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, this image shows the huge dusty debris discs around a star called HD 181327, showing a huge spray of debris possibly caused by the recent collision of two bodies into the outer part of the system. Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2826048/Hubble-spots-massive-eye-sky-reveal-massive-dust-clouds-left-planets-form-say-moon-formed.html#ixzz3gjPl6sI1 Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook
Captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, this image shows the huge dusty debris discs around a star called HD 181327, showing a huge spray of debris possibly caused by the recent collision of two bodies into the outer part of the system. Image credit NASA

The ring-like debris system surrounding star HD 181327 has irregularities space scientists think could be due to a recent collision between two bodies on the outer part of the system.

This spray of material is fairly distant from its host star — roughly twice the distance that Pluto is from the sun,” said co-investigator Christopher Stark. “Catastrophically destroying an object that massive at such a large distance is difficult to explain, and it should be very rare. If we are in fact seeing the recent aftermath of a massive collision, the unseen planetary system may be quite chaotic.

Another interpretation for the irregularity is that the disk has been mysteriously warped by the star’s passage through interstellar space, directly interacting with the unseen interstellar material. “Either way, the answer is exciting,” Schneider said. “Our team is currently analyzing follow-up observations that will help reveal the true cause of the irregularity.

As of 07/09/2015 space scientists have verified the existence of 1858 exoplanets, including 468 exosolar systems with multiple planets, and 92 Earth-size terrestrial-type planets. The structure and overall architecture of the systems discovered so far are more diverse than astrophysicists first proposed.

Habitable Worlds Image Credit & Licence: Planetary Habitability Laboratory (UPR Arecibo) Explanation: Is Earth the only known world that can support life? In an effort to find life-habitable worlds outside our Solar System, stars similar to our Sun are being monitored for slight light decreases that indicate eclipsing planets. Many previously-unknown planets are being found, including over 700 worlds recently uncovered by NASA's Kepler satellite. Depicted above in artist's illustrations are twelve extrasolar planets that orbit in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These exoplanets have the right temperature for water to be a liquid on their surfaces, and so water-based life on Earth might be able to survive on them. Although technology cannot yet detect resident life, finding habitable exoplanets is a step that helps humanity to better understand its place in the cosmos.
Habitable Worlds
Image Credit & Licence: Planetary Habitability Laboratory (UPR Arecibo)
Explanation: Is Earth the only known world that can support life? In an effort to find life-habitable worlds outside our Solar System, stars similar to our Sun are being monitored for slight light decreases that indicate eclipsing planets. Many previously unknown planets are being found, including over 700 worlds recently uncovered by NASA’s Kepler satellite. Depicted above in artist’s illustrations are twelve extrasolar planets that orbit in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These exoplanets have the right temperature for water to be a liquid on their surfaces, and so water-based life on Earth might be able to survive on them. Although technology cannot yet detect resident life, finding habitable exoplanets is a step that helps humanity to better understand its place in the cosmos.

During this time, space scientists have only viewed about two dozen light-scattering, circumstellar debris systems due to their comparative faintness and proximity to their parent stars. Despite the small sample size in exoplanetary debris systems astronomers view a surprising variety of architectures.

We are now seeing a similar diversity in the architecture of the accompanying debris systems,” Schneider said. “How are the planets affecting the disks, and how are the disks affecting the planets? There is some sort of interdependence between a planet and the accompanying debris that might affect the evolution of these exoplanetary debris systems.

What’s next?

Space scientists will now use the results obtained through this survey and the overall study of the debris system disks viewed to devise new theories and experiments to determine more about the evolution and growth of young stars in the cosmos.

They’ll also use the data and information gained to begin looking at how our solar system formed and evolved during the past 4.6 billion years. They want to study collisions between objects like HD 181327 and Earth-like planets to give more insight into the birth and evolution of our planet and the Moon during the first moments of the solar system.

You can learn more about and follow NASA’s space mission here.

Learn more about the Hubble Space Telescope here.

Learn about the NExSS Coalition’s Search for Habitable Planets and Life Beyond Earth.

Read about NASA telescopes detection of water vapor and clear skies on a Neptune-sized exoplanet.

Learn how to calculate the orbit of asteroids within the Main Asteroid Belt.

The Human Journey to the Beginning of Space and Time is All-Systems-Go for Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Planetary scientists and exobiologists are planning a trip to determine if an ocean of water exists beneath its icy surface

Four hundred years ago, the astronomer Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's four large moons forever changed humanity's view of the universe, helping to bring about the understanding that Earth was not the center of all motion. Today one of these Galilean moons could again revolutionize science and our sense of place, for hidden beneath Europa's icy surface is perhaps the most promising place to look for present-day environments that are suitable for life.
Four hundred years ago, the astronomer Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s four large moons forever changed humanity’s view of the universe, helping to bring about the understanding that Earth was not the center of all motion. Today one of these Galilean moons could again revolutionize science and our sense of place, for hidden beneath Europa’s icy surface is perhaps the most promising place to look for present-day environments that are suitable for life. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Space news (July 15, 2015) – the search for life beyond Earth – With abundant water, a rocky substrate, and available heat energy due to tidal forces, Europa would be one of the best places in the solar system to search for signs of life.  

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John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Credit: NASA

Today we’re taking an exciting step from concept to a mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions.”  

Artist concept of NASA's Europa mission spacecraft approaching its target for one of many flybys. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist concept of NASA’s Europa mission spacecraft approaching its target for one of many flybys. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Europa Multiple Flyby Mission will conduct a detailed survey of the moon and its suitability for sustaining life. Estimates by planetary scientists indicate there could be as much as twice the volume of water as on Earth underneath the icy crust of this distant moon.  

465917main_9902730
NASA astrobiologist Dr. Richard Hoover discovered this ancient moss still capable of growing and reproducing after 40,000 years beneath the Russian permafrost. Credit: (NASA/MSFC)

Could extremophiles – extreme forms of life found on Earth – exist on Europa? Some exobiologists think it could be possible forms of life found surviving and evolving in extreme environments on our planet could be tough enough. The existence of single-celled life forms in such environments would truly be a monumental point in human history.  

465919main_main_pic

NASA astrobiologist Dr. Richard Hoover retrieved this extremophile bacterium from ice dating to over 32,000 years ago. Credit: (NASA/MSFC)

Energy for living things to survive, prosper and evolve could be extracted from the environment if heat energy produced by tidal flexing of the crust of Europa is sufficient to drive chemical reactions. Chemical reactions that could recycle elements, making them available for use by living things in the battle to survive and evolve.  

465923main_water_bear

One of the oldest lifeforms still existing on the Earth, a tardigrade or “water bear” is seen through an electron microscope. Less than 1 mm in length, these hardy creatures can withstand the rigors of space travel for extended periods. They’re currently being studied to see just how tough they’re. Credit: ESA/Dr. Ralph O. Schill

Could there be life existing in the oceans of Europa? The known requirements for the existence of life, extraterrestrial or Earth-based, are still pretty basic at this point and they’ll change as we discover and learn more about what life really needs to survive, prosper and evolve.  

Cutaway diagram of Europa's interior. Artwork credit: Michael Carroll
Cutaway diagram of Europa’s interior. Artwork credit: Michael Carroll

We have waited patiently since NASA’s Galileo spacecraft first showed us oceans of water could exist beneath the icy surface of Europa. Sometime in the 2020s mankind will launch the Europa Multiple Flyby Mission to this distant moon of Jupiter in a desire to take a look.  

converted PNM file

The Galileo spacecraft being deployed from the cargo bay of STS-34 Atlantis at 7:15 p.m. EDT on 18th October 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL

All systems go for Europa

The trip to Europa is expected to launch from Cape Canaveral and take about 6.5 years, with gravity-assist from flybys of Venus and Earth, before arriving in the Jupiter system sometime in 2026 or 2027.  

europa_full
The Europa Orbiter above the surface of Europa, with Jupiter in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL

The mission calls for a spacecraft to flyby Europa 45 times, conducting a detailed survey and analysis of the icy surface of the moon in high-resolution images. In order to give planetary scientists more information on its composition and the environment and structure of the moon’s interior regions.  

“It’s a great day for science,” said Joan Salute, Europa program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We are thrilled to pass the first major milestone in the lifecycle of a mission that will ultimately inform us on the habitability of Europa.”  

You can follow the development of NASA’s Europa Multiple Flyby Mission here.  

You can learn more about NASA’s space mission here.  

You can discover more about Jupiter’s moon Europa here.  

Learn more about the formation of young stars in galaxy clusters.

Read about NASA’s recent appeal for private business partnerships to help enable the human journey to the stars.

Learn about the kinds of planets space scientists are finding in four star systems.

Pluto

Considered the ninth planet for nearly 75 years, the second biggest dwarf planet discovered in the solar system. Pluto was originally given the name of the Greek god of the underworld by 11-year-old Venetia Burney.

This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003. The center disk (180 degrees) has a mysterious bright spot that is unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost. Pluto is so small and distant that the task of resolving the surface is as challenging as trying to see the markings on a soccer ball 40 miles away. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute). Photo No. STScI-PR10-06a
This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003. The center disk (180 degrees) has a mysterious bright spot that is unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost. Pluto is so small and distant that the task of resolving the surface is as challenging as trying to see the markings on a soccer ball 40 miles away. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute). Photo No. STScI-PR10-06a

Space & Astronomy Wiki – the planets in the solar system –

The furthest of the original nine planets in the solar system from Sol at 3.7 billion miles (5.9 billion km) or 39.5 AU, Pluto is the second biggest dwarf planet behind Eris, which is about 28 percent more massive.

In 2005, this image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope was used to identify two new moons orbiting Pluto. Pluto is in the center. The moon Charon is just below it. The newly discovered moons, Nix and Hydra, are to the right of Pluto and Charon. Credits: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST
In 2005, this image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was used to identify two new moons orbiting Pluto. Pluto is in the center. The moon Charon is just below it. The newly discovered moons, Nix, and Hydra are to the right of Pluto and Charon.
Credits: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST

Orbited by moons Charon, Nix, Styx, Kerberos, and Hydra, Pluto was discovered on February 18, 1930, by Clyde W. Tombaugh. Charon is almost 50 percent the size of Pluto and is believed to be the result of a collision between a planet-sized object and the dwarf planet early in the history of the solar system.

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If the icy surface of Pluto's giant moon Charon is cracked, analysis of the fractures could reveal if its interior was warm, perhaps warm enough to have maintained a subterranean ocean of liquid water, according to a new NASA-funded study.
If the icy surface of Pluto’s giant moon Charon is cracked, analysis of the fractures could reveal if its interior was warm, perhaps warm enough to have maintained a subterranean ocean of liquid water, according to a new NASA-funded study.

With only 12, 173 miles (19, 591 km) between Pluto and Charon, astronomers and space scientists consider the pair to be a double planet system. The entire Pluto system is part of the distant Kuiper Belt, a distant disk-like region beyond the orbit of Neptune full of icy bodies formed during the early history of the solar system.

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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took this image of Pluto’s dark side with the Sun on the other side of this distant, lonely wanderer. Sunlight filters through and illuminates complex layers of atmospheric haze. Credit: NASA/New Horizons/JHUAPL/SwRI

A day on Pluto is about 153 hours long, which is the time it takes the dwarf planet to spin once on its axis, and a year, the time it takes this distant object it orbit the Sun, takes about 248 Earth years.

The structure of Pluto is not very well understood at present. Nevertheless, spectroscopic observation from Earth in the 1970s has revealed that the planet surface is covered with methane ice. Surface temperature is -230 degrees C, and the frozen methane exhibits a bright coloration. However, with the exception of the polar caps, the frozen methane surface is seen to change to a dark red on the basis of observation of eclipse by its moon Charon. Image Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute
The structure of Pluto is not very well understood at present. Nevertheless, spectroscopic observation from Earth in the 1970s has revealed that the planet surface is covered with methane ice. Surface temperature is -230 degrees C and the frozen methane exhibits a bright coloration. However, with the exception of the polar caps, the frozen methane surface is seen to change to a dark red on the basis of observation of eclipse by its moon Charon.
Image Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

What are planetary scientists saying?

Some planetary scientists think Pluto could have an ocean hidden beneath its icy surface, but this cold and distant body isn’t thought to be a place life could exist. Scientists estimate this dwarf planet has three times as much water in the form of ice as contained within the oceans of Earth.

How big is Pluto’s atmosphere? This is not a typical question one finds in planetary science. Earth’s atmosphere has an equivalent thickness – the thickness if you compress the atmosphere to uniform pressure and density – of about 10 kilometers, or six miles. Compare this with the radius of Earth, 6,370 kilometers, and you see that the razor-thin thickness of Earth’s atmosphere is about 0.17% of its radius. Even if you consider the “outer limit” of Earth’s neutral atmosphere, what we call the exobase, that reaches about 600 kilometers altitude, the atmosphere’s equivalent thickness is only 10% of Earth’s radius—still very thin. So the volume of Earth’s atmosphere is tiny compared to Earth’s volume. Michael E. Summers is a professor of Planetary Science and Astronomy at George Mason University, and specializes in the study of the chemistry and dynamics of planetary atmospheres. He is a New Horizons co-investigator and member of the atmospheres science theme team.
How big is Pluto’s atmosphere? This is not a typical question one finds in planetary science. Earth’s atmosphere has an equivalent thickness – the thickness if you compress the atmosphere to uniform pressure and density – of about 10 kilometers or six miles. Compare this with the radius of Earth, 6,370 kilometers, and you see that the razor-thin thickness of Earth’s atmosphere is about 0.17% of its radius. Even if you consider the “outer limit” of Earth’s neutral atmosphere, what we call the exobase, that reaches about 600 kilometers altitude, the atmosphere’s equivalent thickness is only 10% of Earth’s radius—still very thin. So the volume of Earth’s atmosphere is tiny compared to Earth’s volume.
Michael E. Summers is a professor of Planetary Science and Astronomy at George Mason University and specializes in the study of the chemistry and dynamics of planetary atmospheres. He is a New Horizons co-investigator and member of the atmospheres science theme team.

The surface is also covered by frozen methane and nitrogen gas, which thaws as Pluto nears the Sun, forming a thin atmosphere composed primarily of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, with a little methane thrown in.

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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took this enhanced-color image of the southeastern region of Pluto’s great plains of ice called Sputnik Planum. At lower right these plains border rugged, dark highlands that rise 1.5 miles above them. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is the only human envoy to be sent to the Pluto system.

For more information on Pluto go here.

Follow New Horizons as it writes space history here.

Follow NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it closes in on Pluto and Charon and prepares to write space history.

Read about the search for the missing link in black hole evolution.

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