New findings from two ‘ocean moons’ increase possibility of finding alien life

Illustration of the Cassini spacecraft flying through the water vapour plumes of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For those who are hoping to find evidence of life somewhere else in the Solar System, there was some exciting news this week. Two moons, Europa and Enceladus, were already thought to be among the best places to search, since both have liquid water oceans beneath their outer icy shells. And now, new data from the Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope has increased the potential for some form of living organisms to be found.

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Voyager spacecraft continue their interstellar journey with help from Hubble Space Telescope

Artist’s illustrationn of Voyager 1 looking back on the Solar System. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)
Artist’s illustrationn of Voyager 1 looking back on the Solar System. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)

There have been many incredible planetary missions over the past several decades, from as close as our Moon to the outer reaches of the Solar System. Right now, there are robotic explorers at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Ceres, and out past Pluto. But there are two more which have travelled even farther, to the most distant fringes of the Solar System, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Although they were launched way back in 1977, they are still active today, studying the region where our planetary system “ends” and interstellar space begins. Now, the Hubble Space Telescope is being used to help provide a “road map” for their future paths forward.

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Hubble Space Telescope analyzes atmosphere of super-Earth exoplanet for first time

Artist’s conception of 55 Cancri e, a searingly hot, carbon-rich world. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser
Artist’s conception of 55 Cancri e, a searingly hot, carbon-rich world. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

Exoplanets are now being discovered by the thousands, but most are so far away that determining anything specific about their composition or atmosphere is currently very difficult. But technology keeps advancing, and scientists are now starting to be able to learn more about them, at least ones which are a bit closer to our own Solar System. One of the most common types of exoplanets are the “super-Earths,” which are larger and more massive than Earth but smaller than Uranus or Neptune. Now, astronomers have been able to analyze the atmosphere of one of these worlds for the first time.

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Unusual fast-moving ‘ripples’ discovered in planetary debris disk surrounding nearby star

Hubble and VLT images of the “ripples” within the debris disk surrounding the young star AU Microscopii. Image Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA
Hubble and VLT images of the “ripples” within the debris disk surrounding the young star AU Microscopii. Image Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA

Planetary debris disks, or protoplanetary disks, are some of the most interesting phenomena in astronomy – these giant clouds of dust and gas surrounding young stars are the birthplaces of new planets. Now, astronomers studying one of these disks have found structures never seen before, giant “ripples” which are arch-like or wave-like in appearance.

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Two Earth-sized exoplanets may exist in closest star system, Hubble observations reveal

Artist’s conception of the Alpha Centauri binary star system and the exoplanet Alpha Centauri Bb. Our own Sun is also shown in the distance. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/N. Risinger
Artist’s conception of the Alpha Centauri binary star system and the exoplanet Alpha Centauri Bb. Our own Sun is also shown in the distance. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/N. Risinger

The closest star system to our own Sun may have two Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting it, a new study has shown based on observations by the Hubble Space Telescope. If confirmed, the discovery would help to illustrate just how common exoplanets are; data from Kepler and other telescopes has also already shown that the vast majority of stars have exoplanets orbiting them, and the number of exoplanets in our galaxy alone is now thought to number in the billions.

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New evidence from Hubble Space Telescope for exoplanet that ‘shouldn’t be there’

Hubble image and illustration showing the gap in the planetary disk surrounding TW Hydrae. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Debes (STScI), H. Jang-Condell (University of Wyoming), A. Weinberger (Carnegie Institution of Washington), A. Roberge (Goddard Space Flight Center), G. Schneider (University of Arizona/Steward Observatory), and A. Feild (STScI/AURA)
Hubble image and illustration showing the gap in the planetary disk surrounding TW Hydrae.
Click for larger version. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Debes (STScI), H. Jang-Condell (University of Wyoming), A. Weinberger (Carnegie Institution of Washington), A. Roberge (Goddard Space Flight Center), G. Schneider (University of Arizona/Steward Observatory), A. Feild (STScI/AURA)

So far, thousands of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates have been found orbiting other stars. As well, astronomers have seen some exoplanets still in the process of formation, providing clues as to how our own solar system came to be. One of these recent “planet-under-construction” findings however is challenging current theories on planetary formation – it’s a planet which “shouldn’t be there” according to conventional wisdom.

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