The three best places in the solar system to look for life (other than Mars)

Europa
Europa. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Not all that long ago, it was considered very unlikely that life could exist anywhere else in the solar system, apart from maybe Mars. A variety of robotic spacecraft missions, however, have changed scientists’ views; there are indeed a handful of other worlds in our own cosmic backyard which it is now known could potentially be habitable after all.

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Could life exist in Venus’ atmosphere?

Venus is an extremely inhospitable world on the surface, but high up in its atmosphere, life may be able to survive. Credit: NASA / JPL
Venus is an extremely inhospitable world on the surface, but high up in its atmosphere, life may be able to survive. Credit: NASA / JPL

Venus has a reputation for being one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system, and deservedly so. Its thick carbon dioxide (and acidic) atmosphere has a crushing pressure similar to that in the deepest oceans on Earth and the scorching temperature on the surface is hot enough to melt lead. It’s like that everywhere on the planet, all the time. It has therefore been considered an extremely unlikely environment to support any kind of life. Even the toughest microbes here would find survival next to impossible. There is however a possibility, even if remote, that the upper atmosphere of this hellish world could be habitable, according to some scientists.

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Three new possibly habitable ‘super-Earth’ planets discovered

Artist conceptions of the habitable zone planets found so far by Kepler, compared to Earth on the far right. From left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth. Credit: NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech
Artist conceptions of the habitable zone planets found so far by Kepler, compared to Earth on the far right. From left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth.
Credit: NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech

There is some more exciting news from the Kepler space telescope mission – as announced in a NASA press briefing this morning, three more planets have been detected orbiting in their stars’ habitable zones. Larger planets have been found already in this zone around various stars, but what makes this newest discovery so compelling is that these new planets are the smallest found so far in this zone, so-called “super-Earths.” Two of them may even be covered by oceans!

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Follow the water? No, follow the Martian salt

The next direction for NASA, in terms of searching for life on Mars, might not be “follow the water” – it might be “follow the salt.” Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS

You may be familiar with the phrase “follow the water” when it comes to the search for life on Mars, and for good reason – any place on Earth where there is liquid water, there is life. So, logically, the best places to look for evidence of past or present life on Mars would be where there has been liquid water in the past (or perhaps even still is, underground). But now there is also another approach being taken, in terms of possible present-day habitability in particular: follow the salt.

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