Category Archives: Astrobiology

‘Cauliflower’ silica formations on Mars: evidence of ancient life?

Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image of “cauliflower” silica formations found by the Spirit rover in 2008 near Home Plate in Gusev crater. Do they hold clues to ancient life on Mars? Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Was there ever life on Mars? That is one of the longest-running and most debated questions in planetary science, and while there have been tantalizing clues, solid evidence has been elusive. Now there is a new piece to add to the puzzle, which may be one of the most interesting yet. As first reported on Smithsonian.com, odd formations composed of silica seen by the Spirit rover, nicknamed “cauliflower” for their shapes, may have been produced by microbes, new research suggests. They are very similar to some silica formations on Earth which are found in hydrothermal environments and are known to have formed with the help of microscopic organisms.

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New 2016 NASA budget fully funds Europa mission, including lander

A view many have been waiting for – artist’s concept of the surface of Europa. The new NASA budget brings this closer to reality, with funding for not only a flyby probe, but also a lander. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A view many have been waiting for – artist’s concept of the surface of Europa. The new NASA budget brings this closer to reality, with funding for not only a flyby probe, but also a lander. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This was an exciting and very important week for NASA and planetary exploration: the new NASA budget from Congress is better than expected and, in the words of The Planetary Society, “extraordinary.” There is a healthy increase for planetary science, and one new mission in particular which a lot of people have been waiting for: a new mission to Europa. Not only is it now fully funded, the Congressional plan goes further than the initial mission concept in calling for not just multiple flybys, but also a lander.

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Cassini prepares for last epic flyby of Saturn’s ocean moon Enceladus

Cassini’s final close flyby of Enceladus will be on Dec. 19, 2015. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini’s final close flyby of Enceladus will be on Dec. 19, 2015. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Cassini spacecraft’s discoveries about the tiny moon Enceladus have been some of the most exciting of the entire mission at Saturn. What was once thought to likely be little more than a frozen ice world has turned out to be one of the best places in the Solar System to search for evidence of possible life, with its subsurface salty ocean and huge geysers of water vapor. Now, Cassini is preparing for its last close flyby of this intriguing moon and has also made new findings regarding the potential habitability of the ocean below as well as the nature of the geysers.

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NASA developing new ‘Chemical Laptop’ to search for evidence of alien life

The “Chemical Laptop” being designed by NASA to help search for evidence of alien life elsewhere in the Solar System. Photo Credit: NASA

The “Chemical Laptop” being designed by NASA to help search for evidence of alien life elsewhere in the Solar System. Photo Credit: NASA

One of NASA’s primary objectives, and the one which most excites the general public, is the search for evidence of life elsewhere, whether in our own Solar System or on some distant exoplanet. However, the best way to go about that is a subject of much debate. Now, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have come up with a new proposal: a “Chemical Laptop,” a miniaturized portable laboratory which would look for signs of materials associated with life (at least as we know it), such as amino acids.

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Cassini completes epic flyby through geysers of Enceladus, sends back stunning new images

View of Enceladus and Saturn’s rings during the flyby on Oct. 28, 2015, at a distance of 106,000 miles (171,000 kilometers) from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

View of Enceladus and Saturn’s rings during the flyby on Oct. 28, 2015, at a distance of 171,000 kilometres (106,000 miles) from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed its deepest dive through the water vapour geysers of Enceladus and is now sending back some fantastic images of the event. These and subsequent images, as well as science data still to come, will help scientists better understand the incredible active geology occurring on this tiny, cold moon of Saturn.

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Sampling an alien ocean: Cassini prepares for deep dive through Enceladus’ geysers on Wednesday

Artist’s conception of Cassini making a close flyby of Enceladus and its water vapor plumes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Artist’s conception of Cassini making a close flyby of Enceladus and its water vapour plumes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Today, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, the Cassini spacecraft will make a historic close flyby (dubbed “E21”) of Saturn’s tiny icy moon Enceladus, not only passing very close to the surface, but also making the deepest dive yet through the water vapour geysers which erupt from the south pole. These plumes are connected to a global ocean of salty water deep below the surface ice, which may be a habitable environment for some form of life.

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The Kepler discovery controversy: objects orbiting new star likely cometary fragments, not aliens

Are the unusual objects around KIC 8462852 a giant swarm of comets or something else? Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

Are the unusual objects around KIC 8462852 a giant swarm of comets or something else? Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

There has been a lot of discussion during the past several days regarding a discovery by the Kepler Space Telescope, which, according to some, may be the first evidence for advanced extraterrestrial intelligence, or perhaps just a weird but natural phenomenon instead.

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Cassini sends back spectacular new images of the north pole region of Enceladus

New high-resolution view of the north polar region on Enceladus, showing a cratered surface crisscrossed by many cracks. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

New high-resolution view of the north polar region on Enceladus, showing a cratered surface crisscrossed by many cracks. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft has just successfully completed the first of three final close flybys of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and has sent back some spectacular images of the northern regions of this icy and watery world, the best views ever seen so far. Two more upcoming flybys will dive back into the water vapor plumes at the south pole and measure how much heat is emanating from the tiny moon’s interior.

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Cassini begins series of three close flybys of Saturn’s water moon Enceladus

Illustration of Cassini’s “E-20” flyby of Enceladus, which will provide new, detailed views of the moon’s north polar region. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Illustration of Cassini’s “E-20” flyby of Enceladus, which will provide new, detailed views of the moon’s north polar region. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Starting yesterday, the Cassini spacecraft is making the first of three scheduled close flybys of the moon Enceladus, which will provide the first good look at the north polar region of the tiny, water-spraying moon. These will be the final close-up views of this fascinating world during Cassini’s mission, and may help scientists to better understand the potential habitability of Enceladus, which has become a primary target of interest in the search for evidence of life elsewhere.

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The saline slopes of Mars: NASA confirms evidence for flowing liquid water

False-colour image of RSL on slopes in Hale crater. The blue colour is thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (Infrared-Red-Blue/Green(IRB)) false colour image (ESP_030570_1440) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

False-colour image of RSL on slopes in Hale crater. The blue colour is thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (Infrared-Red-Blue/Green(IRB)) false colour image (ESP_030570_1440) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In a finding that is sure to fuel the ongoing debate about possible life on Mars, NASA announced yesterday the confirmation that intriguing seasonal dark streaks running down Sun-facing slopes are indeed flows of liquid water. The water is salty (briny), but just the fact that it is current liquid water, albeit transient and in relatively small amounts, is still big news.

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