Geysers on Europa? Hubble Space Telescope finds more evidence for water vapour plumes

Composite image showing the possible water vapor plumes near the south pole of Europa, at about the 7 o’clock position. The image of Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions, is superimposed on the Hubble data. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center
Composite image showing the possible water vapour plumes near the south pole of Europa, at about the 7 o’clock position. The image of Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions, is superimposed on the Hubble data. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Intriguing new findings about Jupiter’s moon Europa were announced today by NASA, and while they don’t involve any direct evidence for life, they do provide more information on how scientists could better search for such evidence, without having to drill through the icy crust to the ocean below. The new observations, by the Hubble Space Telescope, have added to the evidence for active water vapour plumes on Europa – an exciting possibility, since they would possibly originate from the subsurface ocean, similar to the plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And just like the Cassini spacecraft has already done at Enceladus, those plumes – geysers really – could be sampled directly by a future spacecraft such as Europa Clipper.

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NASA’s Europa mission facing possible budget cuts in 2017

Artist’s conception of the Europa Clipper spacecraft near Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Europa Clipper spacecraft near Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For a long time now, there has been growing interest in sending a mission back to Jupiter to better study one moon in particular: Europa. Previous missions such as Voyager and Galileo showed us this world up close for the first time, revealing a place that maybe, just maybe, is home to some kind of life. On the outside, Europa is cold and frozen, like an airless version of Antarctica, with its surface completely composed of ice. But deeper down, as those probes found, there is a global ocean of water deeper than any oceans on Earth. In more recent years and months, a new NASA mission to Europa has finally started to take shape, with a launch tentatively scheduled for 2022. As often happens, however, the mission is facing possible budget cuts in 2017.

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Pale Red Dot: Astronomers discover potentially habitable exoplanet orbiting nearest star

Artist’s conception of what Proxima b might look like. It is just slightly more massive than Earth and orbits in its star’s habitable zone. Temperatures might allow liquid water to exist on its surface. A potentially habitable world, it is also now the closest known exoplanet. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s conception of what Proxima b might look like. It is just slightly more massive than Earth and orbits in its star’s habitable zone. Temperatures might allow liquid water to exist on its surface. A potentially habitable world, it is also now the closest known exoplanet. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers today announced one of the most exciting exoplanet discoveries yet: an Earth-mass rocky world orbiting the nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri. There had been hints before of such a world, but nothing was confirmed, until now. The planet, called Proxima b, is not only just slightly more massive than Earth, it orbits within the star’s “habitable zone.” The estimated temperatures of the planet could allow liquid water to exist on its surface. Not only is this planet potentially habitable, depending on other factors, it is also now the closest known exoplanet.

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Viking remembered: Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first search for life on Mars

Iconic painting of a Viking lander on Mars, prior to launch. The sampling arm reaches into the foreground. Image Credit: Charles Bennett/Lockheed Martin (Martin Marietta)
Iconic painting of a Viking lander on Mars, prior to launch. The sampling arm reaches into the foreground. Image Credit: Charles Bennett/Lockheed Martin (Martin Marietta)

July 20, 1976, will be forever remembered by space enthusiasts. On that day, Viking 1 became the first U.S. spacecraft to land on another planet – in this case, Mars (the USSR Venera 9 spacecraft landed on Venus in 1975). That lander, and Viking 2 which followed it Sept. 3, 1976, paved the way for more complex missions later on, which would begin to finally unlock some of the secrets of the mysterious Red Planet. The two Viking landers, and their counterpart orbiters, were genuine trailblazers, opening up the vast Martian landscape to robotic and human eyes for the first time.

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Evidence from Curiosity rover shows Mars once had oxygen-rich atmosphere

Mars’ atmosphere is thin, dry, and cold now, but it used to be thicker and contained a lot more oxygen. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Mars’ atmosphere is thin, dry and cold now, but it used to be thicker and contained a lot more oxygen. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Mars’ atmosphere is thin and cold, composed primarily of carbon dioxide along with other trace gases and some water vapour. Evidence has continued to mount, however, that the rarified atmosphere we see today once used to be much thicker and possibly warmer, making it potentially more life-friendly early on. Just how thick and how warm is still a subject of much debate, but there is also another interesting aspect to all of this: New evidence from the Curiosity rover has shown that the Martian atmosphere also used to have a lot more oxygen in it than it does now. Today, only very small traces of oxygen can be found, as opposed to Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. So what does this mean? Could there be biological implications?

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NASA’s FY2017 budget request may delay SLS Europa mission several years

We are finally going back to Europa, but it may be a little later than originally planned. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
We are finally going back to Europa, but it may be a little later than originally planned. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

The recently announced new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a highly anticipated return to this ocean world, may face a launch delay from 2022 to the late 2020s. The news comes amid the release yesterday of NASA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, which provides substantially less funding than Congress had mandated last year.

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‘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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