The Search for Life Beyond Earth Takes a Turn at Jupiter

Astronomers view water geysers on Europa

This artists conception of vapour plumes possibly containing water and organic material
This artist’s conception of vapour plumes possibly containing water and organic material

Astronomy news (2013-12-22) – Galileo might have dreamed of unseen life forms existing in a watery soup under the icy surface of Europa when he first discovered Jupiter had moons on January 07, 1610. NASA astronomers working with the Hubble Space Telescope probably had similar thoughts when they recently saw images of what appears to be water geysers erupting from the south pole of Europa. The image above shows an artist’s conception of what astronomers and scientists believe is plumes of water vapour reaching over 100 miles into space from the south pole of Europa.

Are there life forms or maybe just organic material of some type existing on this watery moon? NASA astronomers, space scientists and interested people around the world are hoping this news will spur NASA officials and congress to provide them with the resources they need to fund the Europa Clipper (a NASA mission designed to travel to Europa to see if the conditions required for life exist).

“If there’s a geyser 200 kilometers tall, and you could fly a spacecraft through it and sample the water coming out from Europa, that would be phenomenal. What if there are organics in it? That’s getting to the question of ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ ” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s top official for space science. “A subsurface ocean at Europa potentially provides all conditions for microbial life — at least life we know,” says study lead author Lorenz Roth, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Astronomers believe Europa's "Great Lake" is thought to be one of many in the shallow regions of the moon's icy exterior
Astronomers believe Europa’s “Great Lake” is just one of many in the shallow regions of the moon’s icy exterior

Astronomers are currently taking a look at earlier data concerning Europa provided by the Voyager probes during the 1980s and Galileo spacecraft during the 1990s to see if they missed something. Astronomers and planetary scientists suspected back in the 1980s, when they first obtained the data from the Voyager probes, that Europa could have an ocean of water beneath its icy crust deeper and more massive than all of the oceans of Earth. The Galileo spacecraft also detected the magnetic signature of a subsurface ocean beneath the surface ice of Europa and brown regions on the ice planetary scientists think could be due to ice crystals containing possible organic material, formed from water vapor plumes like the ones recently viewed, being deposited on the surface of the moon.

Astronomers search for water near the south pole of Europa by looking for the presence of both hydrogen and oxygen
Astronomers search for water near the south pole of Europa by looking for the presence of both hydrogen and oxygen

Astronomers are also comparing this data to more recent information concerning Europa, they obtained last year through the repaired Hubble Space Telescope, to see if they can find the telltale signature of hydrogen and oxygen they’re looking for in the data. Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen and this signature will help astronomers and planetary scientists determine if plumes of water vapour are in fact coming from Europa’s southern hemisphere.

“As it hit the vacuum of space, the water would flash freeze and some of it would turn into water vapour. Those water molecules would be split into atomic hydrogen and oxygen in the harsh radiation environment of the Jupiter system. But it wouldn’t just be water in the plume: Whatever else was in that ocean would be squirted into space, too, said James Green, head of NASA’s planetary science division. For a planetary scientist, it’s huge,” Green said of the news.

The image above shows spikes in hydrogen and oxygen levels in two southern hemisphere regions on Europa’s surface that last for brief periods of about seven hours and coincide with the moon reaching its farthest point from Jupiter in its orbit. Astronomers and planetary scientists think current computer models suggest the images obtained through the Hubble Space Telescope could show plumes of water vapour over a hundred miles high streaming into space from the surface of Europa. It remains puzzling to astronomers and scientists why the water vapour plumes seem to coincide with Europa reaching its apocenter, since this is the moment when tidal forces on the moon are at a low point (Astronomers estimate these tidal forces can be over 1,000 times stronger than the tidal forces our own moon experiences due to Earth). Current ideas include the thought that maybe the surface cracks on Europa’s southern pole open once Jupiter’s gravity starts to lessen, allowing water vapour to squeeze out in jets reaching over a hundred miles into space.

The colored area here is called Thera Macula, a region below the icy exterior of Europa that appears to be in chaos
The coloured area here is called Thera Macula, a region below the icy exterior of Europa that appears to be in chaos

Astronomers and planetary scientists at NASA suggest Europa’s plumes are probably like geysers they found on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which also seem to appear when the moon reaches its apocenter. They’re excited about this discovery because Europa is only about half as far from Earth than Enceladus, which will allow the Hubble Space Telescope to have a closer look, this time. They hope to be able to use this fact to confirm the discovery of water on Europa and Enceladus and possibly get some quantitative data on the size, density, composition and timing of the plumes. Analysis of the composition of the plumes should also give them the data they need to model the interior of the moon, without having to land on the surface and drill holes.

Visible are plains of bright ice, cracks that run to the horizon, and dark patches that likely contain both ice and dirt
Visible on the surface of Europa are plains of bright ice, cracks that run to the horizon, and dark patches that likely contain both ice and dirt

The implications of the discovery of water on both Enceladus and Europa is stunning to contemplate for human beings, astronomers, and planetary scientists. We believe the human journey to the beginning of space and time should voyage to both of these moons in the future to determine if the ingredients for life exist on these distant bodies. We need to do this for science, mankind and future generations of humanity.

This image shows a crack in the icy exterior of Europa, through which vapour could escape into space
This image shows a crack in the icy exterior of Europa, through which vapour could escape into space

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. in Washington operates STScI for NASA.

To view the images of the evidence for plumes visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/hubble-europa-water-vapor

For more information about the Hubble Space Telescope, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

Watch this YouTube video on astronomers thoughts on the possibility of an ocean beneath the crust of Europa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrjY2BKm-TA.

Read about NASA’s Messenger spacecraft and its mission to Mercury

Have you heard about the recent meteorite that exploded near the Ural Mountains

Read about the supernova astronomers are studying looking for a black hole they think was created during the explosion

Space Exploration: To Boldly Go Where We Have Never Gone Before

The human journey to the beginning of space and time begins

A comparison of the sizes of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system and our own Sun
A comparison of the sizes of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system and our own Sun

Astronomers watch the greatest show on Earth every night

Astronomy News ( 2013-10-15) – Walk out to the darkest star viewing spot you can find at dusk and take a seat, “The greatest show on Earth is about to begin!” Lay back on your cold seat and you become lost-in-space as you stare upwards at one of the first sights to greet human consciousness onto the stage upon awakening during the distant past. Close your eyes and let your mind boldly fly off into the night sky in search of new lands of promise warmed by alien suns. Stand upon undreamed landscapes straight out of the Twilight Zone and record ideas and thoughts that could alter the course of human history and open up avenues to undreamed of events. Human beings have looked skyward in wonder and awe for thousands of years and dreamed of voyaging to the lights in the night sky. Today humans dream of traveling to the nearest star in our sky and standing on alien landscapes which will alter human beings as a race and create history unlike anything dreamed of by science fiction writers.

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For thousands of years, mankind has stood on the tip of the cosmic iceberg and dreamed of reaching for the stars. During the next century, mankind will venture out into the solar system and the unknown. The exoplanet in this Hubble image is Epsilon Eridani (HD 22049 one of the closest to Earth at 10.5 light-years. A voyage to this Jupiter-size planet’s going to take considerably longer than traveling to the Alpha Centauri system. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

 

Will human adventures travel across outer space to distant suns in search of answers to questions pondered throughout human history? Will human beings one day journey through the universe seeking the origins of human life or a suitable planet to call home? As Mr. Roddenberry points out, space will be one of the last frontiers of humankind. At the current rate of technological growth, it could be only a matter of time before human beings have the ability to travel across interstellar space looking for non-terrestrial life and the resources humans need to survive and prosper.

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A true visionary, Star Trek’s one of the most popular television shows in history. His dream for the future of mankind is truly inspiring. Credit: StarTreak.com

 

Space Exploration will be far more challenging than life on earth

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Frosty white water ice clouds and swirling orange dust clouds above a rusty landscape show Mars has a dynamic, often chaotic environment in this Hubble image. Even a 43 million miles, it can see details as small as ten miles across. A large amount of seasonal dust storm activity can be seen above the northern polar region (top), with smaller storms nearby, and a large one spilling out of the giant Hellas impact crater in the Southern Hemisphere (bottom right). Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

 

Traveling across the vast stretches of outer space between Earth and a nearby star system will be far more challenging and dangerous to undertake then climbing the tallest mountain or sailing an unexplored ocean. The distances in both space and time involved in such voyages will require human beings to surmount technological and social obstacles unlike any experienced during life on planet Earth. During the past century, humans have designed and engineered mechanized devices capable of launching into outer space and crossed the short stellar distance between Earth and its moon. We have started to become acquainted with life-in-space and the challenges involved in space travel. During the next fifty years, mankind will travel into the solar system and start to develop the technology required to successfully travel to nearby star systems to begin life again under an alien sun.

 

A Global Mars Map
The image seen here was made by combining four hemisphere views of the Hubble Space Telescope during the Red Planet’s closest approach to Earth into a full-color global map – called a Mollweide projection -. The resolution of Hubble is 12 miles per pixel near the equator. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

 

Does mankind presently have the technology, will power, and resources to journey to a nearby star system? The answer at this point in human history is a realistic and resounding, “No!” Using a reaction engine similar to the liquid oxygen/hydrogen main engine of the space shuttle to travel to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, would require over 100 years and fuel tanks too big to carry. Nuclear powered propulsion using fusion or fission requires technology and radiation shielding presently unavailable in order for human beings to survive the journey. Doctors also have questions concerning the possible medical problems associated with long-term exposure to acceleration and deep space radiation, and the drag forces involved using this form of propulsion still have to be addressed. The often dreamed of, but at this point unrealized, warp drive will probably never make it off the pages of science fiction books and into the cold of deep space. Instead, it will be replaced by an undreamed of propulsion system allowing us to travel closer to the speed of light, or circumvent the universe’s speed limit using a new idea, yet to be conceived.

Fly over the craters and canyons of Mars watching this Hubble video.

The distances between the stars in the Centauri system are extreme, but it's possible for planets to exist
The distances between the stars in the Centauri system are extreme, but it’s possible for planets to exist

Proxima Centauri or bust

If mankind made traveling to the nearest star system the top priority during the years ahead what would be needed to make the journey a success? The answer to this question continues to change as scientists and engineers study the goal more. The closest alien sun to Earth is the Red Dwarf Proxima Centauri, which on average is the short stellar distance of just 4.22 light-years (24.7 trillion miles or 29.9 km) away. Traveling at the estimated speed of Voyager 1, around 37,000 mph, it would take a spaceship over 76,000 years to complete the journey. During this length of time, human beings would have long enough to evolve significantly in the new and alien environment of deep space. Would we recognize our human ancestors after 76,000 years evolving during a trip through outer space?

The red dwarf sun Proxima Centauri could have planets which could serve as a new cradle for human life to begin anew
The red dwarf sun Proxima Centauri could have planets which could serve as a new cradle for human life to begin anew

Proxima Centauri also has no known planets upon which humans could begin life again under an alien sun. This Red Dwarf star is also significantly cooler than our own sun, so the habitability of any existing alien worlds would be questionable at best. Optimistic humans point out that Proxima Centauri is part of a bigger star system, containing other possible candidates which could have habitable planets. This dim star is considered by many to be part of the bigger Alpha Centauri system, which includes the binary stars Alpha Centauri A and B, just 4.4 light-years from Earth. Astronomers and scientists have their doubts about the possibility of other habitable planets in this star system at this point. Instead, they point to star systems further out in deep space, which seem to offer a better possibility of habitable planets.

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At 4 light-years, Proxima Centauri isn’t visible in the night sky because of its low luminosity and small size at 1/8th the size of Sol. Even though it’s considered a close neighbor this sun is only a pin-like source even with the eagle eye of the Hubble Space Telescope. Considered a flare star, Proxima Centauri occasionally puts on a show. This stellar production of the Milky Way’s expected to have periodic shows throughout the life of the star, an estimated 4 trillion years or over 300 times the age estimate of the cosmos. Better get comfortable. The next show could be awhile! Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

 

The stars can’t wait

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The International Space Station will be the first stop for mankind on its way deeper into the solar system. From here we’ll make bigger better stations and travel to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Credit: NASA

If humans move to a new home circling an alien sun, we’ll do it in stages, beginning with the exploration of the solar system. The International Space Station will be the staging point for the next phase of the exploration of the solar system. From here we can reach outward into the solar system to see what mysteries and discoveries await us just beyond the visible horizon. We’ll need time to develop the technology required for interstellar space travel and the terraforming of alien worlds. In the meantime, we’ll continue to send out envoys and ambassadors in the form of unmanned spacecraft to nearby star systems within our reach. The first of these envoys of the human race, Voyager 1, has traveled a distance of around 11 billion miles during 35 years of continuous space travel. This puts Voyager 1 still firmly within the boundaries of the known solar system, which reaches some 4.6 trillion miles into cold space and the Oort Cloud on the fringes of our system of planets. Eventually, Voyager 1 will travel beyond the boundaries of the solar system and into interstellar space, and this is when the real human journey to the beginning of space and time begins.

Click this link to watch a YouTube video on the search for earth-like planets.

The search for earth-like planets

Click this link to watch a YouTube video on finding a new cradle for human civilization.
New Earth: A new cradle for human life

Read about NASA’s Messenger spacecraft and its mission to Mercury

Have you heard about the recent meteorite that exploded near the Ural Mountains

Read about the supernova astronomers are studying looking for a black hole they think was created during the explosion