Nearby ‘super-Earth’ exoplanet may be best place yet to search for alien life

Artist’s conception of the exoplanet LHS 1140b. Image Credit: ESO

Just recently, an exo-planetary system called TRAPPIST-1, with seven known planets close in size to Earth, was announced by astronomers. Some of those planets are in the star’s habitable zone, meaning that they could potentially be habitable for some kind of life. Then, another Earth-sized world was found orbiting the star GJ 1132b, and may have water and methane in its atmosphere. Now, another similar planet has been found orbiting another nearby star. It is also close in size to Earth and resides in the star’s habitable zone. According to scientists, it is another prime candidate in the search for alien life and may even be the best one yet.

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Water worlds? Updated masses for TRAPPIST-1 planets

Artist’s conception of some of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

There is an interesting new paper out about the seven near-Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1. According to the study, four of the planets may be true water worlds, although just what form those may take isn’t clear. All seven planets are close in size to the Earth, with some of them in the star’s habitable zone, where temperatures could allow liquid water on rocky surfaces.

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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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NASA’s new Europa mission formally named ‘Europa Clipper’

Artist’s conception of Europa Clipper during a flyby of Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s been a long time coming, but NASA’s new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa now has a formal name: Europa Clipper. The spacecraft, to be launched in the early 2020s, will conduct multiple close flybys of the moon, with the goal of determining just how habitable it actually is. With a global salty ocean just beneath its icy crust, Europa is thought to be one of the best places in the Solar System to search for possible alien life.

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Landing on an ocean moon: NASA unveils new plan to search for life on Europa

Artist’s conception of the proposed Europa lander, with sampling arm extended. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For decades now, Europa has beckoned – this moon of Jupiter which is frozen on the outside but hides a global ocean on the inside – has so far only been visited by spacecraft during brief flybys. Scientists and the public alike have been wanting to return to this fascinating little world since it offers the possibility of maybe, just maybe, being home to some kind of life. Plans have been inching forward for a new mission to conduct multiple, closer flybys of Europa, to learn more about the ocean just below the ice, but what about actually landing? A lander would be a more difficult prospect since Europa doesn’t have an atmosphere, but is certainly doable. Now, NASA has received a formal science report on how best to conduct such a mission. This is a significant step toward finally being able have the view of looking up at Jupiter hanging in the inky black Europan sky – a dream of many for a long time.

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More evidence from Curiosity rover for ancient habitability and widespread organics on Mars

View of the path ahead for the Curiosity rover, looking toward the foothills of Mount Sharp. The various sedimentary layers on the mountain are a geological record of different environmental conditions in the past. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
View of the path ahead for the Curiosity rover, looking toward the foothills of Mount Sharp. The various sedimentary layers on the mountain are a geological record of different environmental conditions in the past. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA held another press briefing this week about the latest findings from the Curiosity rover on Mars, detailing new evidence that this former lake environment was once quite hospitable for possible life. The findings were announced from the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In a related development, there is also new evidence from Curiosity that organics have not only been definitively found by the rover, but that they may be more widespread on Mars than previously thought.

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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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