NASA plans a robotic mission to search for life on Europa | io9
It looks like it’s finally going to happen, an actual mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa — one of the the solar system’s best candidates for hosting alien life.
Yesterday, NASA announced an injection of $17.5 billion from the federal government (down by $1.2 billion from its 2010 peak). Of this, $15 million will be allocated for “pre-formulation” work on a mission to Europa, with plans to make detailed observations from orbit and possibly sample its interior oceans with a robotic probe. Mission details are sparse, but if all goes well, it could be launched by 2025 and arriving in the early 2030s.
Our planet maintains a high ratio of oxygen to carbon. Carbon actually makes up only about 0.1 percent of earth’s bulk (hence the scarcity of carbon based materials like fossil fuels and diamonds). Near the center of our galaxy however, where carbon is more plentiful than oxygen, planet formation is very different. It is here that you find what cosmologists call carbon planets. The morning sky on a carbon world would be anything but crystal clear and blue. Picture a yellow haze with black clouds of soot. As you descend farther down into the atmosphere you find seas made of compounds like crude oil and tar. The surface of the planet bubbles with foul smelling methane pits and black ooze. The weather forecast doesn’t look good either: it’s raining gasoline and asphalt (…no smoking). But there would be an upside to this “oil-well hell.” You may have g uessed it. Where carbon is plentiful you also find high quantities of diamond.
On Neptune, one can find constant jet stream winds that whip around the planet at terrifying speeds. Neptune’s jet-stream winds push frozen clouds of natural gas past the north edge of the planet’s Great Dark Spot, an Earth-size hurricane, at a staggering 1,500 miles per hour. That is more than double the speed needed to break the sound barrier. Such wind forces are clearly beyond what a human could withstand. A person who happened to find himself on Neptune would be most likely be ripped apart and lost forever in these violent and perpetual wind currents. It remains a mystery as to how it gets the energy to drive the fastest planetary winds seen in the solar system, despite it being so far from the sun, at times farther from the sun than Pluto, and having relatively weak internal heat.
3- 51 Pegasi b
Nick-named Bellerophon, in honor of the Greek hero who tamed the winged horse Pegasus, this gas giant is over 150 times as massive as earth and made mostly of hydrogen and helium. The problem is that Bellerophon roasts in the light of its star at over 1800 degrees F (1000 degrees C). Bellerophon’s star is over 100 times closer to it than the Sun is to Earth. For one thing, this heat creates an extremely windy atmosphere. As the hot air rises, cool air rushes down to replace it creating 1000 km per hour winds. The heat also ensures that no water vapor exists. However, that does not mean there is no rain. This leads us to Bellerophon’s main quirk. Such intense heat enables the iron composing the planet to be vaporized. As the vapor rises it forms iron vapor clouds, similar in concept to water vapor clouds here on Earth. The difference though, is that these clouds will then proceed to rain a relentless fury of molten iron down upon the planet (…don’t forget your umbrella).
4- COROT exo-3b
The densest and most massive exoplanet to date is a world known as COROT-exo-3b. It is about the size of Jupiter, but 20 times that planet’s mass. This makes COROT-exo-3b about twice as dense as lead. The degree of pressure put upon a human walking the surface of such a planet would be insurmountable. With a mass 20 times that of Jupiter, a human would weigh almost 50 times what they weigh on Earth. That means that a 180 pound man on Earth would weigh 9000 pounds! That amount of stress would crush a human beings skeletal system almost instantly. It would be the equivalent of an elephant sitting on your chest.
On Mars a dust storm can develop in a matter of hours and envelope the entire planet within a few days. They are the largest and most violent dust storms in our solar system. The Martian dust vortices tower over their earthly counterparts reaching the height of Mount Everest with winds in excess of 300 kilometers per hour. After developing, it can take months for a dust storm on Mars to completely expend itself. [Text redacted: see endnote.] Hellas Basin is the deepest impact crater in the Solar System. The temperatures at the bottom of the crater can be 10 degrees warmer than on the surface and the crater is deeply filled with dust. The difference in temperature fuels wind action that picks up the dust, then the storm emerges from the basin.
Simply put, this planet is the hottest planet ever discovered. It measures in at about 4,000 degrees F (2,200 degrees C) and orbits its star closer than any other known world. It goes without saying that anything known to man, including man himself, would instantly incinerate in such an atmosphere. To put it in perspective, the planets’ surface is about half the temperature of the surface of our sun and twice as hot as lava. It also orbits its star at ablistering pace. It completes a full orbit once every Earth day at a distance of only about 2 million miles (3.4 million km).
Jupiter’s atmosphere brews storms twice as wide as the Earth itself. These goliaths generate 400 mph winds and titanic lightning bolts 100 times brighter than ones on Earth. Lurking underneath this frightening and dark atmosphere is a 25,000 mile deep ocean of liquid metallic hydrogen. Here on Earth, hydrogen is a colorless, transparent gas, but in the core of Jupiter, hydrogen transforms into something never seen on our planet. In Jupiter’s outer layers, hydrogen is a gas just like on Earth. But as you go deeper, the atmospheric pressure sky-rockets. Eventually the pressure becomes so great that it actually squeezes the electrons out of the hydrogen atoms. Under such extreme conditions, the hydrogen transforms into a liquid metal, conducting electricity as well as heat. Also, like a mirror, it reflects light. So if you were immersed in it, and caught under o ne of those ferocious lightning bolts, you wouldn’t be able to see anything.
(Note: Pluto is technically no longer classified as a planet). Do not let the picture fool you; this is not a winter wonderland. Pluto is an extremely cold world where frozen nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane blanket the surface like snow during most of its 248 year plutonian year. These ices have been transformed from white to a pinkish-brown due to interactions with gamma rays from deep space and the distant Sun. On a clear day the sun provides about as much heat and light as a full moon does back on earth. With Pluto’s surface temperature of -378 to -396 F (-228 to -238 C) your body would freeze solid instantly.
The temperatures on the star-facing side of this planet are so hot that they can vaporize rock. Scientists who modeled the atmosphere of CoRoT-7b determined that the planet likely has no volatile gases (carbon dioxide, water vapor, nitrogen), and is instead likely made up of what could be called vaporized rock. The atmosphere of CoRoT-7b could have weather systems that unlike the watery weather on Earth cause pebbles to condense out of the air and rain rocks onto the molten lava surface of the planet. And if the planet doesn’t already sound inhospitable to life, it also could be a volcanic nightmare.
Whoever gave Venus, the second planet from the sun, the nickname “Earth’s Twin” was flat out WRONG. Except where size is concerned, Venus is not really all that similar to Earth. For starters, Venus’ atmosphere is chock-full of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. These gasses are responsible for making this planet ‘hellacious’ to the highest regard.
Earth’s twin? More like “Earth’s Evil Twin.”
Our atmosphere, which is primarily responsible for distributing the energy (and heat) we receive from the sun, has the opposite effect of Venus. Instead of heating the planet so that it has a more tropical climate (with heaps of water in various forms), Venus’ atmosphere super-heats the planet. It is so hot that it is totally inhospitable for any kind of life that we are familiar with (at least on the surface of the planet)
. Since Venus’ dense atmosphere is opaque to light at visible wavelengths, we couldn’t see what the surface was like. This led some to speculate that the planet was filled with exotic alien life
Also, Venus’s day is longer than its year. Yes, you read that right. It takes more than 243 Earth days for Venus to complete an entire rotation on its axis, while it takes more than 225 Earth days to make a full orbit around the sun in short, one could cook a 16-inch pizza on Venus in just 7 seconds flat, but you would be dead before you could start your meal.
Titan IS perhaps the most “Earth-like” world in our solar system. It has shores, oceans, rivers, mountains, and valleys. All of these are reminiscent of Earth. However, there is an important distinction to make — While Earth’s surface is covered 70% by water, Titan is covered in hydrocarbons . Titan is the only world known to hold a subsurface body of liquid (besides Earth, of course). Most other bodies are much too cold or too hot to retain any sort of liquid on their surfaces. With Titan’s chilly temperatures, which hang around -289 degrees Fahrenheit (-178 degrees Celsius), water would be frozen solid. certain substances (ethane and methane) turn from a gas to a liquid at these temperatures.
If you’re looking for a more balmy climate, Io (the inner-most Jovian moon) might be your best bet. Despite it’s distance from the sun (a chilly 741 million miles [780 million km]), tidal stresses between this strange, cheese colored moon and its parent planet can warm this tiny world to temperatures exceeding those found on its sister moons (Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede).
The tidal forces of Jupiter and the other three Galilean moons cause so much stress on Io that there are more than 400 active volcanoes littering the surface of the moon, which is no more than 2,263 miles (3,642 km) in diameter. This makes Io one of the most geologically active body in our solar system.
The most powerful of Io’s volcanoes is Loki, which is also the most powerful volcano we’ve found in our solar system. It is capable of spitting lava more than 186 miles (300 km) up into space. Furthermore, exo-geologists have discovered a subsurface ocean of magma that extends more than 31 miles (50 km) beneath the low-density crust, feeding the volcano with energy to emit more heat than all of the volcanoes on Earth combined.
Lastly, Io is sometimes called a land of both fire and ice, as the surface temperatures on the large moon generally hang around about -202 degrees F (-130 degrees C), while the temperatures near the molten volcanoes can reach about 3000 degrees F (1649 degrees C), giving way to sulfur dioxide snowfields. Even if you were able to find a patch of land with tame temperatures, you would still be fried by the extreme amount of radiation the moon receives from Jupiter.
Blasting skyward an Atlas V rocket carrying a U.S. Navy satellite pierces a cloud bank in this starry night scene captured on January 20. On its way to orbit from Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, planet Earth, the rocket streaks past brightest star Sirius, as seen from a dark beach at Canaveral National Seashore. Above the alpha star of Canis Major, Orion the Hunter strikes a pose familiar to northern winter skygazers. Above Orion is the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, head of Taurus the Bull, and farther still above Taurus it’s easy to spot the compact Pleiades star cluster. Of course near the top of the frame you’ll find the greenish coma and long tail of Comet Lovejoy, astronomical darling of these January nights.
I did this print a few weeks back and little did I know that it looks like “Planet Dorf” might actually be Pluto - (if you haven’t seen the photos recently taken please do. The giant heart on Pluto is incredible.) This quote comes from Kristen Specht and her 4 year old daughter Evelyn. Thanks guys, this quote is so sweet and I think we discovered Pluto’s true look way before those NASA astronauts and scientists. Ha!
Yesterday a team of us scientists and engineers submitted a proposal to NASA’s Discovery program. The goal: To conduct a mission back to the Saturn system and search for life within its small icy moon, Enceladus! Since all details concerning the mission are still embargoed, and will be until we are selected … if we are selected … I am not free to divulge how we intend to go about this search. But I can say that we will be doing what Cassini cannot, and may in fact be employing diagnostic techniques never used anywhere before in the exploration of the solar system.
I thrill at the thought of it.
When I was a graduate student, moons like Enceladus, and even Titan — both seen in the image here — were mere points of light in the world’s largest telescopes. Forty years later, we’ve been there and know the tantalizing possibilities that are present but hidden and just out of reach.
If our mission is chosen, we may have the chance to make the most intellectually significant and emotionally satisfying discovery humankind has ever made: That a second genesis has occurred in our own backyard and, by inference, that life is not a bug but a feature of the universe in which we live. A look up at the night sky thereafter will never be the same.
Clinical pharmacologist Jens Titze, M.D., knew he had a one-of-a-kind scientific opportunity: the Russians were going to simulate a flight to Mars, and he was invited to study the participating cosmonauts.
Titze, now an associate professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University, wanted to explore long-term sodium balance in humans. He didn’t believe the textbook view – that the salt we eat is rapidly excreted in urine to maintain relatively constant body sodium levels. The “Mars500” simulation gave him the chance to keep salt intake constant and monitor urine sodium levels in humans over a long period of time.
Now, in the Jan. 8 issue of Cell Metabolism, Titze and his colleagues report that – in contrast to the prevailing dogma – sodium levels fluctuate rhythmically with 7-day and monthly cycles. The findings, which demonstrate that sodium is stored in the body, have implications for blood pressure control, hypertension and salt-associated cardiovascular risk.
Titze’s interest in sodium balance was sparked by human space flight simulation studies he conducted in the 1990s that showed rhythmic variations in sodium urine excretion. “It was so clear to me that sodium must be stored in the body, but no one wanted to hear about that because it was so different from the textbook view,” he said.
He and his team persisted with animal studies and demonstrated that the skin stores sodium and that the immune system regulates sodium release from the skin.
In 2005, planning began for Mars500 – a collaboration between Russia, the European Union and China to prepare for manned spaceflight to Mars. Mars500 was conducted at a research facility in Moscow between 2007 and 2011 in three phases: a 15-day phase to test the equipment, a 105-day phase, and a 520-day phase to simulate a full-length manned mission.
Crews of healthy male cosmonauts volunteered to live and work in an enclosed habitat of sealed interconnecting modules, as if they were on an international space station. Titze and his colleagues organized the food for the mission and secured commitments from the participants to consume all of the food and to collect all urine each day. They studied twelve men: six for the full 105-day phase of the program, and six for the first 205 days of the 520-day phase.
“It was the participants’ stamina to precisely adhere to the daily menu plans and to accurately collect their urine for months that allowed scientific discovery,” Titze said. The researchers found that nearly all (95 percent) of the ingested salt was excreted in the urine, but not on a daily basis. Instead, at constant salt intake, sodium excretion fluctuated with a weekly rhythm, resulting in sodium storage. The levels of the hormones aldosterone (a regulator of sodium excretion) and cortisol (no known major role in sodium balance) also fluctuated weekly.
Changes in total body sodium levels fluctuated on monthly and longer cycles, Titze said. Sodium storage on this longer cycle was independent of salt intake and did not include weight gain, supporting the idea that sodium is stored without accompanying increases in water.
The findings suggest that current medical practice and studies that rely on 24-hour urine samples to determine salt intake are not accurate, he said. “We understand now that there are 7-day and monthly sodium clocks that are ticking, so a one-day snapshot shouldn’t be used to determine salt intake.”
Using newly developed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies to view sodium, Titze and his colleagues have found that humans store sodium in skin (as they found in their animal studies) and in muscle.
The investigators suspect that genes related to the circadian “clock” genes, which regulate daily rhythms, may be involved in sodium storage and release. “We find these long rhythms of sodium storage in the body particularly intriguing,” Titze said. “The observations open up entirely new avenues for research.”