Tag Archives: NASA

Beyond the Pale Blue Dot

In all the gin joints, in all the world…

An old movie line, but it speaks a truth: life is miraculous to the point of being impossible. We search for it. To be fair, we’ve really only begun looking seriously in the last thirty years or so. The discovery of the first confirmed exoplanet in 1995 propelled us into the heavens, and we began to seriously believe we may just find life out there. Why not? That isn’t a scientific response, but life is incredibly improbable. The amount of unbelievable coincidences that enabled life to appear on our blue green marble almost beggars belief. Everything had to be just right, or life just never would have happened. Just like the proverbial bowl of porridge, which actually leads to the topic of this post. A certain famous little girl of fairy tale fame lent her name to the region around a star at which liquid water can exist in a stable form on the surface. More precisely, this region, or “Goldilocks Zone” is the distance from a star: the sweet spot where liquid water exists. To be more precise again, the Goldilocks zone is a function of stellar luminosity and output. The more energetic a star, the further out it’s Goldilocks or habitable zone is. It’s a fairly linear progression: the hotter the star, the more distant it’s habitable zone. Image: NASA/JPL Extremely simplistic, but that’s us in a nutshell. We happen to be just the right distance from our sun. Because life has only been found here (as far as we’re aware), we naturally think that life will tend to favour “earthlike” conditions somewhere else. That probably makes some sense. However, does all life in the universe necessarily exist on a rocky, watery world that essentially mirrors our own? It doesn’t have to be the case. Much recent thinking has been directed towards redefining the habitable zone. Our solar system is one of countless billions estimated to exist in our galaxy alone. As researchers discover more exo-solar systems seemingly every day it’s becoming apparent that perhaps our particular corner of the block is actually quite unusual. For astrobiology to have any relevance at all it’s important to think outside the square. For that reason we take a look at the habitable zone as we know it and stretch it’s limits.

The Local.

In our solar system we see a complex family of objects, all held together loosely by gravity. Many of these planets are suspected to possess water. Lots of it. In fact it’s believed by many researchers that the amount of water in the solar system not situated on earth is quite large. Our blue green marble is actually fairly arid compared to many other worlds in our solar system. The Galilean moon Europa is smaller than earth’s moon, but may hide two to three times more water than is found here! Earth is surprisingly dry compared to tiny worlds such as Europa, with the blue orbs representing an approximate comparison of each world’s respective water content. Europa is one of a small group of worlds in the solar system that have piqued the interest of astrobiologists over the years, as they are believed to possess certain sets of conditions and environments that could be conducive to the presence of life. Not just habitability (as was possibly the case with our Moon), but abiogenesis. Life arising from whatever hidden firmament lies within their icy depths. The reason these worlds give astrobiologists hope is that (quite naturally) exo-solar systems come in all shapes, sizes and flavours. Moons like Europa, Enceladus, or even now quite dead worlds such as Venus and Mars throw us tantalising glimmers of hope that Earth based life is not alone in the universe. These worlds (and others we discover) often possess sets of conditions assumed to be completely hostile to life: as we know it. However, even life as we know it has shown us that it can really go off script sometimes. Whole new classes of extremophilic organisms have been discovered, and are still being uncovered in some really nasty corners of the world which show one thing: life’s ability to shuffle pieces around on the evolutionary chessboard has enabled it to live almost anywhere: in space, nuclear reactors, and the earth’s mantle. Bacteria have recently been discovered in Antarctica which literally use hydrogen as a food source! These organisms suggest that the traditional concept of a habitable zone: the right amount of heat, light and atmospheric pressure as we observe on earth need not necessarily apply to alien planets.

Tidally locked exoplanets

These are worlds which orbit their star(s) with one side permanently facing inward. The obvious ramifications of this: the side facing the star obviously has a much greater actinic flux than the planets night side. Translation: it is likely a scorched wasteland, where temperatures are oven-like. On the dark side we expect to find extremes of temperature at the opposite end of the scale. This side would be frozen and permanently dark. Overall, the planet doesn’t seem to hold much hope for life. It is believed that a good percentage of confirmed explanets are locked into tight orbits around their stars. Often these worlds take a few days (or less) to complete an orbit, and they are most likely tidally locked as a result. But all hope is not lost. The discovery of water ice in permanently shadowed craters on worlds as hostile as mercury and the moon leads many researchers to believe similar regions could exist on tidally locked exoplanets. Such water filled craters lie within the Terminator, the boundary between a planets day and night side. On a larger object such as an exoplanet, small strips of habitability could exist, situated in literally a permanent twilight zone. Twilight Zones of habitability could be a surprising spot for life to appear… In such a situation, the habitable zone as we define it would not be as dependant on distance from a star.

No Habitable Zone?

The recent discovery of two rogue planets lends itself to another interesting scenario. These rogue worlds are planets which aren’t gravitationally bound to a solar system. They are believed to be quite common. Current estimates have the complement of wandering worlds in the milky way galaxy at approximately two billion. How could such exotic locations possibly host life? Because geothermal or tidal heating could provide conditions in which life could possibly eke out a niche. Tidal heating is a mechanism for internal heating which has been observed in several frozen, distant worlds in our own solar system. Europa (mentioned above) and Enceladus likely possess subsurface oceans of liquid briny water. The heating for this comes from the gravitational stresses caused by interactions with nearby worlds. In the case of Europa and Enceladus their elliptical orbits around Jupiter and Saturn respectively cause an ebb and flow of tidal flexing in their rocky cores. Such frictional heating may even give rise to fissures and hydrothermal vents providing possible locales for biogenesis, as may have been the case here on earth. These frozen worlds appear lifeless, but appearances could be deceiving. Whilst far beyond the habitable zone of this solar system, the presence of life on either world would lead to further redefinition of habitable zones. Exoplanets are believed to number in the trillions in this galaxy and the recent discovery of the first known exomoon suggests that moons could be even more numerous. After all, in our solar system moons and natural satellites outnumber the planets by ten to one. Habitability on any of these worlds opens up the options for researchers observing distant solar systems for signs of life.

To the Weird..

Last but definitely not least. A benchmark of habitability as we define it for earth based life is that, overall, the environment should be fairly benign in order for life to have a chance. Earth itself only became habitable after billions of years of incredible geological upheaval and intense bombardment from outer space. Not only that, the presence of a thick atmosphere afforded protection from cosmic rays pumped out by a young sun. A class of exoplanets known as super earthsmay be able to support life despite often being in orbit around extremely energetic stars such as red dwarfs. These stars are tiny, often having only ten percent of the mass of our sun, but they are nasty. Frequently they have been seen producing extreme solar flare activity. This image shows a solar flare being generated by the red dwarf star DG Canum Vernaticorum (DG CVn). To put it in perspective the most powerful solar flare observed on our sun was rated X45 on a standard scale used to gauge glare events. In comparison DG CVn was rated X100,000: 10,000 times more powerful! At its peak the DG CVn flare reached temperatures 12 times hotter than the core of the sun! NASAs SWIFT observed this event over 11 days, recording the most powerful flare ever recorded. Image: NASA/SWIFT It stands to reason that any nearby planets would be baked into oblivion by the levels of energy being produced during such events. But larger rocky worlds such as super earths could provide a slim chance of life. Super earths are rocky worlds ranging in size from three to five times larger than Earth. Their mantle and outer layers could act as a shield against radiation, enabling any lifeforms present to carry on in subsurface biospheres, akin to recently discovered microbial biospheres deep in the earth’s crust. Lifeless surfaces could hide thriving ecosystems throughout the galaxy, or even beyond. Even neutron stars could harbour life bearing worlds if conditions are just right. These stellar objects don’t seem like an ideal location for life, but again a suitably large and dense world could provide safe harbour against lethal X-rays and other electromagnetic nastiness. Small worlds could be destroyed if they strayed too close, but if a super earth lay at a safe distance, who knows?

A Final Thought….

In this overview it’s been shown that life can theoretically exist outside the traditional confines imposed by earth based habitability criteria. However, I’ve only looked at planet based life… Who knows what else is out there? That’s a whole new type of thinking. Thanks for reading! I have a new video coming, which will be based upon this blog post. In the meantime, here are some speculations on a habitable moon in the distant past. P. S.. I have recently set up an online store, featuring my designs on a range of products, any of which would make fantastic and unique gifts! Take a look: https://www.redbubble.com/people/AstroBiological?asc=u All images © AstroAF Designs unless specified in image caption.
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16 Psyche

My newest video features the bizarre metal asteroid 16 Psyche. This improbable chunk of iron and nickel may one day be mined, yielding metals worth over 10000 quadrillion dollars! No, that figure doesn’t seem real to me either.

Here is the transcript for said episode. I had some fun experimenting with effects for this episode, and I think it works well!

“G’day metal heads!

Do you think you’re rough and tough?

Do you believe you’re made of metal?

hah!

See if you can outmetal THIS monster! A ball of metal mayhem 200 km across! Let’s go check out 16 Psyche!!!

Long long ago, in a molecular cloud not so far away….

The Solar System: Episode 1

It is a time of turmoil in the newly formed solar system. Planets, moons and other heavenly bodies have coalesced from the primordial cloud. As larger bodies fall into orbit around a blazing new sun, smaller worlds are caught up in a system wide spree of destruction known as the Late Heavy Bombardment.

It is a perilous time for a planetesimal or moon, and many smaller planets are destroyed in the cataclysm.

A lone youtuber known as Ben has ventured out into the Big Empty, to visit the long dead core of one such world. Upon reaching it, he sends in a gallant drone to investigate….

Yes Sir! Here we are. Welcome to 16 Psyche. An oddball world really. This place is special for a few reasons.

Discovered in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, 16 Psyche was named after Psyche, a figure from ancient Greek mythology. The word itself means “Soul”.

16 Psyche is pretty big: a ball of metal over 200 km in diameter! It’s almost entirely nickel and iron to be more precise, although about 10 percent of its surface is strewn with silicate rock much as you’d find here on good old earth.

So this ball of tinfoil from hell comprises nearly one per cent of the mass within the asteroid belt where it lives. It actually lies roughly halfway between Jupiter and Mars, about 3.3 AU from the sun.

What’s an AU?

AU is a very common astronomical term. It means “astronomical unit’. 1 astronomical unit is defined as the distance between Earth and the Sun. This is about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometres. At 3.3 AU this means 16 Psyche lies some  308 million kilometres from the Sun.

Wanna know what’s really special about this metal asteroid?

Two things.

First of all, 16 Psyche is extremely valuable. All of that iron and nickel within has been valued at over 10000 quadrillion dollars!

Obviously that means a lot of folks would love to mine it for all that metal.  A whole bunch of companies have sprung up in the last few years, looking to cash in on asteroids: the next big thing!

Personally, I don’t care about all that. You wanna know what’s really cool about 16 Psyche?

It’s the exposed core of a long dead protoplanet; the remains of a tiny world maybe 500 km in diameter. This tiny planetoid took a beating during the Late Heavy Bombardment, some 4 billion years ago. In fact, this nameless world may have been impacted by other large bodies up to 8 times. This pounding shattered the outer crust, sending scattered fragments out into the newly forming asteroid belt and leaving behind an exposed core. Scientists would love to study 16 Psyche, because it can teach us a lot about planet formation and how planets work- including our own.

Just look at it!  Imagine walking on the core of a planet. 16 Psyche gives us an opportunity to see into our own world in a way. It’s like a time capsule: a snapshot of a newly forming planet, frozen in time for ever.

This is the real value of 16 Psyche, this frozen soul. Let’s take one last look and imagine actually being there….

Outro!

I hope you’ve enjoyed watching this episode. It was super fun to make, and if you got something out of it, then subscribe to this channel for more. Join the astrobiological Facebook group, find me on Twitter. Links in the description.

AstroBiological: giving you the universe in plain human. See you next time!”

Goldilocks and the Three Planets

Hi all. It’s been a while I’m ashamed to admit. I’ve been working on a new Facebook group to raise the profile of my channel. It’s been fun. Here is the link (hint: join the group!)
Here is my newest video. A basic breakdown of what exactly the Goldilocks (or circumstellar habitable) zone is, and it’s importance to life on Earth. If you like the channel please subscribe!


I’ve also provided the script/transcript for my upcoming episode of “Astro-Biological:”, which introduces us to the concept of the Goldilocks Zone….

G’day! Welcome to Astro-biological:!

Porridge!

Life.

Porridge!

Life!

Ben what the heck are you talking about? What’s the connection?

 Let’s go check out THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE!!!!

INTRO BIT

Life, as I like to remind you, is really special. Here on earth, life exists only because certain conditions are met. Today, we’ll consider water. Everything needs it, but it only exists as a liquid at the surface here on Earth. 

So? Big deal right?

Well it is actually!

Check out the sun. Giver of life! Driver of climate! Pumping out some pretty respectable energy. How much?

384.6 yottawatts.

Yotta whatta?

1 yottawatt equals 10 with 26 zeroes after it!

Brutal! And the sun is a pretty average star! Nothing special about it!So there’s plenty of sunlight for everyone!

Could other planets benefit from the sun’s golden goodness the way we do? Let’s take a look at the inner planets. They’re the only ones that really matter in all this…

Let’s see…Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The rocky planets. The so called “Terrestrial Planets”. 

Mercury is 58 million kilometres from the sun. That’s really close. This close proximity has turned Mercury’s surface into an oven, where liquid water couldn’t possibly last.

Let’s visit the next in line: Venus. Venus is similar to Earth in composition, gravity and size. Long ago Venus might have had oceans just like Earth, but again the planets closeness to the sun and other factors saw all that water disappear into space. Venus is now the hottest place in the solar system. Definitely no liquid water there anymore!

Wanna know more about what happened to Earth’s twin? This guy I know made a video! 

Earth! Beautiful Earth. Our home. Every thing’s home actually. Eighty per cent of earth’s surface is covered by liquid water. There’s so much spare water here that our bodies are mostly made up of it! It’s absolutely everywhere, even locked up deep in the earth’s crust! Enough of earth. We’ve all been there.

Next planet out:

Mars. The cool planet. Every one wants to go here. Pity it’s so cold! Liquid water may exist here in tiny amounts, but most of the red planet’s water is locked up as ice or permafrost just below it’s surface. Plenty there for future colonists to use, but nothing readily available for biological processes. Pity. It’s a beautiful planet. Just ask Matt Damon!

So what is the Goldilocks Zone then?

Here’s the inner solar system. Mercury, Venus,  Earth and Mars. Let’s visit a special guest who can explain the Goldilocks Zone for us…

Chef Ben bit. (Watch the video when it’s up!)

Nice work Chef! So, if Earth was a bowl of porridge it would be the one Goldilocks ate: the one that was just right! it’s that simple! Earth is lucky enough to be at the perfect distance from the sun, where water likes to slosh around in liquid form. Things would be a lot different here if that wasn’t the case. 

So that’s it for now! A simple but important piece of information. The Goldilocks Zone!

How am I going so far?

If you thought I was alright, then subscribe for more. If you thought this video was useful to you, then give it a like! Likes help this channel get noticed. That little notifications bell is just the thing if you want to see more. Go on. You know you want to.

Thanks for watching astrobiological. Giving you the universe in plain human. Ciao!

Europa: Life Beneath the Ice?

The Chicken and the Egg

 

There’s an old theory known as Panspermia,  which hypothesises that life got its initial leg up on Earth (around 4-3.5 billion years ago) after a long journey across space. According to this theory, (which at the very least is quite reasonable) the ingredients and precursor molecules for life hitched a ride on comets and asteroids and reached earth early in its history, when these objects impacted our planet. As for where these molecules and ingredients came from…well, that is a real chicken and the egg type question, and one I will be exploring in more detail in future posts as well as videos.

Not all astrobiologists agree with this of course. Each to their own. Science and seeking the truth is all about disagreement. I’ll leave the debate alone and for the purpose of this post assume that Panspermia is a pretty valid idea.

Screenshot_2017-09-11-12-58-26-1
You said it Neil. Funny thing is, look at all the people agreeing with him. Kinda ironic?

 

This post (and the YouTube video it will eventually give birth too) is essentially a piece of speculation. Looking into the future of space exploration, what is waiting for us out there?

Europa has been the hearts desire of many an astrobiologist for decades now. Ever since the Pioneer 10  probe rushed past back in 1973 and sent back the first pictures it’s been a bit of a rock star. Why? Because it ticks a whole lot of boxes on the “Things could live here because…” checklist.

Things could live here because….

Let’s look at some of those boxes. And why they’re important. First of all:

1: Europa is  now widely believed to harbour a substantial subsurface ocean: of actual honest to gosh water. How have we come to this conclusion?

Take a look at the surface of Europa.

It sure is striking. Huge channels and streaks criss cross the moons frozen exterior.

And that’s about it.

No craters? Callisto is part of the Jovian family as well, and is the most heavily cratered  object in the solar system. Compared to Europa Callisto is a teenager with weapons grade acne.

Like an explosion in a pizza factory.

Europas surface is geologically new, having been resurfaced recently (in geological terms). Something is wiping the slate clean on Europa, and this is our first clue that Europa is special. Something under that icy shell is acting upon the surface and rearranging it.

Astrobiologists think it’s water. A lot of it. Europas surface is basically a shell of ice, rafting and fracturing like pack ice on Earth. Essentially vast swathes of pack ice remodel the Europan landscape and are thought to be it’s version of our plate tectonics.

 

2: Some time ago, none other than the venerable Charles Darwin postulated that life began in a “warm little pond”, whereby the right combination of mineral salts and energy resulted in the first biomolecules. Ever since this first speculation, forwarded in a private letter from Darwin to his friend Joseph Hooker in 1871, science has placed an emphasis on water as the likeliest birthplace of life on Earth. Darwin believed in a warm little pool, many other theories have thought bigger, fingering the ocean as the culprit. Whatever the case may be, and whatever supporting evidence gives testament to it, water (for now) is the one thing no life can exist without.

And Europa has a lot of it. The deepest point on our planet lies at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, some 12 kilometres below sea level. That is deep to be sure, but the abyssal plains of the world’s oceans are on average about 4 kilometres beneath the waves. Europas subsurface ocean averages a cold dark 62 kilometres deep!

Where do the minerals fit into this? Patience, grasshopper!

Jupiter pumps out extremely high levels of electromagnetic radiation. This is, of course, a constant engineering hurdle for the various missions that have paid the gas giant a visit. It’s extensive family of moons: some 67 in total are constantly immersed in this field, which interacts with various bodies in various ways. Europas magnetic field is no different,  and is an induced magnetic field.  This is a special kind of magnetic field produced when an electromagnetic field is passed through some kind of conductive material. In the case of Europa this material is believed to be an ocean, brimming with conductive mineral salts. Such an ocean would be a vast salty brew, fulfilling Darwin’s vision somewhat.

Europa-magnetic-field.jpg
Europa’s magnetic field changes in relation to it’s position within Jupiter’s magnetic field, indicating it isn’t generated by the moon itself, but is induced by Jupiter.

What of Darwin’s energy source? To understand this a little more, and to see what it means for Europa, we need to understand that all life requires an energy source. On Earth, the vast majority of life is solar powered. What does this mean? You can’t just go outside and photosynthesise! You need to go to the fridge and get a snack. Food keeps you going, right?

Absolutely. But where did that food come from? Whether  you’re a vegetarian or a carnivore, ultimately every single thing in that fridge of yours exists because of the sun. Either it grew from the ground, something came along and ate it, or something bigger came along and ate that something. The sun is at the base of this very simplified food web, and it’s been doing it forever of course.

No solar power is not some fandangled idea. Renewable energy has been around, well, since before life began. The sun provides energy not only for Earth’s climate and hydrological cycle, it also fuels all photosynthesis on Earth. Plant life not only provides food and oxygen for animal and fungal life, it also contributes to climatic processes.  Yes, the Sun is really important.

Ah, you think, how does any of this relate to Europa? The frozen moon is a bit further out from the sun than warm little earth, at about 485 million kilometres. Not much use for solar power out there! Well it turns out that not all life on Earth is completely dependent on the Sun after all.

Enter the hydrothermal vents.

These are exciting and mysterious places, home to a bewildering and diverse array of lifeforms. They are found where life seemingly has no business existing, and yet there they are: on the vast abyssal plains of the ocean floor. Miles away from any sunlight, subjected to pressures and extremes that would kill us instantly life thrives in a hostile alien world.

Champagne_vent_white_smokers
A white smoker, situated at the Champagne Vent in the Marianas Trench, Pacific Ocean. Image: NOAA

These ecosystems are based not on photosynthesis, whereby sunlight is converted into a food source for plants, but chemosynthesis. Down here life has found a way, to steal a phrase from “Jurassic Park”. Literally, bacteria have evolved to survive at the hellish temperatures and pressures around these hydrothermal  vents, where the water can reach temperatures of over 350 degrees Celsius. With nothing but a rich mineral brew spewing from these vents out onto the ocean floor, these bacteria have learnt to make use of this brew. These bacteria then form the basis for some of the most intriguing ecosystems on the planet. These vents are an oasis of life, all alone in the abyssal night.

life-on-europa
Concept art showing the possible structure beneath the ice. Image: NASA/JPL

Does Europa have the capacity for such vents, far beneath the ice? On Earth, the vents are geothermally heated. Earth posesses a core of molten iron, heated by slow radioactive decay of elements from the formation of the planet 4.6 billion years ago. This internal heat eventually reaches the upper mantle of the planet, seeping through in more threadbare regions of the Earth’s crust,  Europa is heated by Jupiter itself. As the moon orbits the gas giant, tidal forces act upon it, squeezing and massaging. Resulting frictional forces are believed to sustain a heated core, which, just like earth, could provide energy to keep systems of hydrothermal vents running on the abyssal plains of Europa.

So. Europa may tick some really important boxes, for the existence of life. Water: definitely check. Minerals and organic compounds: check. A source of heat, to power possible life: check.

Now the only thing for it is to visit; to get through the icy shell to the ocean beneath….

To be continued….

Next post takes a ride beneath the ice.

17th November 2017:

And here is the video for which this post formed the script:


 

Further Reading and Resources

http://geology.com/stories/13/life-on-europa/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panspermia

http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=83497&tid=7842&cid=70453

View story at Medium.com

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtomics/did-life-evolve-in-a-warm-little-pond/

http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/webproj/212_spring_2015/Amir_Raz/amir_raz/Magnetic.htm

https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/hunting-the-building-blocks-of-alien-life?utm_content=bufferc7d0e&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

#Astrobiology

Were I offered the chance to study again, I know what I would do. Astrobiology. In the last few years it’s been something I’ve followed. The trouble is, I’m easily interested in almost anything I come across. However, I would study astrobiology in a heartbeat.  So, what is astrobiology? 

Ever since humanity made its first baby steps beyond our thin layer of atmosohere astrobiology has looked to the stars, emerging as a discipline in its own right. It is the study of life on other worlds. Moreover, it is the study of life itself and asks the question: could life exist anywhere else? 

We’ve all seen the movies and heard stories. The idea of life on other worlds has had a vice like grip on the human imagination for a very long time. Every single culture on Earth has some accounts of visitors from the sky and encounters with otherworldly beings.

“Ezekiel’s Vision” by Mattheaus Merian. Image: Wikimedia Commons

From Judeo-Christian mythology and tradition to the various disparate and yet somewhat homogenous mythologies of Australia’s aboriginal people, it seems we’ve had visitors from the sky for quite some time.

Wandjina rock art, from the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. Image: Wikipedia

 At least so the stories go. Those stories will persist in one form or another for a long time to come, and the popular imagination is still fired up with tales of otherworldly visitors. Just trawl social media sometime and you’ll see what I mean. A search on YouTube: that paragon of level headedness, for a term such as “Area 51” will yield a miasma of conspiracy theories, alien “sightings” and general silly nonsense. Many of these videos have had millions of views. In my first search one particular video had over 20 million views. It was a “sighting” of an alien strolling across a road in some generic American desert setting. 

20 million views? Seriously?

People are eating this stuff up. But what does it have to do with astrobiology? Our desire for interstellar neighbours is always a little, shall we say, elitist? Does all extraterrestrial life need to be flying around in advanced spacecraft and spying on us: the cosmic equivalent of an ant farm? 

An early version of the Big Brother house. Image: Factzoo.com

(Are we that fascinating?)
Astrobiology specifically looks for life beyond earth. That life doesn’t need to be a wookie or a Borg drone. Something as simple as a bacterium would rock the worlds of astrobiologists everywhere. 

Missions to other worlds in the solar system have had this in mind for decades now. Missions to Mars almost turned the science world on its head when micro traces believed to be produced by single celled organisms were relayed back to space agencies. Big news indeed. Life on another world. Not Yoda, to be sure, but better! The jury is still out on this “evidence” but time will tell!

Possible biogenic structures, found in the Alan Halls meteorite, Antarctica in 1996. Image: NASA

You see, astrobiology is the search for life beyond earth. It is the application of a diverse set of scientific disciplines (which includes but isn’t restricted to) chemistry, geology, biology, planetolgy,  ecology and astronomy to look for anything. Any life at all. If human or robotic explorers ventured across the gulf of space and found something as simple as a bacterium it would be a massive deal. From the time of earth’s formation circa 4.6 billion years ago life took around a 

Life really was pushing it uphill in the beginning. Image: NASA/JPL

billion years to appear. The story of life isn’t the key point here. On earth life still took a long time to gain traction. It was only around 800 million years ago that anything as complex as a sponge first appeared, and it went through a pounding before all this happened. The Late Heavy Bombardment, a highly toxic and reducing atmosphere; likely similar to that on Titan today, which was replaced by another highly toxic atmosphere: oxygen. This change led to the greatest mass extinction this planet has ever known. An irradiated, toxic lethal planet somehow gave rise to life. 
Astrobiology looks at life on this primeval earth and posits the question: if it could make it here, it kind of stands to reason that it could develop somewhere else. Earth now is a benign paradise, possessing a very particular set of attributes that enable life to thrive. Among these; a thick atmosphere and life giving heat from a nearby sun which respectively enable liquid water to exist at the surface and provide the fundamental energy for life to prosper. Earth possesses an active magnetosphere which shields life from cosmic radiation.  These are only some of the factors that make earth just right, like the proverbial bowl of porridge. In fact, in honour of that famous metaphor, Earth is said to orbit the Sun in a “Goldilocks Zone” This means that we are just far enough from the sun that the temperature range is just right for liquid water to exist at its surface. Hence the thing with the porridge.

Many other worlds we’ve examined don’t have any or all of these qualities, but that’s no reason to dismiss them. 

Life is seemingly turning up everywhere we look these days, and the more we look the more we see that life is extremely tenacious    From the clouds above us to hadean environments deep within the earth’s crust to active nuclear reactors life seems to be able to survive anywhere. 


That’s what gives astrobiologists hope.
This post is to be the outline of an upcoming episode on my “Ben’s Lab” YouTube channel. For any who are following the channel (thank you!) It will be undergoing renovations. The subject matter will focus more on things near and dear to my heart, and astrobiology is one of those things!  If you like astrobiology please leave suggestions for episode ideas in the comments, or share this with others who like it as well.

References and resources:
This list is not comprehensive and is intended to begin those who are interested on beginning their own research; 

https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/about/
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Hills_84001
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1932751/
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/life-found-deep-inside-earths-oceanic-crust/
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deinococcus_radiodurans

#MetalCore: Walking on 16 Psyche

Soundtrack: anything that makes you bleed out of your ears..

The horizon is small. It always feels weird when  you see it curving away unnaturally the way it does. Of course, this chunk of nowhere you’re on is a little smaller than home on Mars. Even there though tourists from Earth are full of ooh and aahs at the Red Planet’s horizon.

16 Psyche. Take a security job there they said. It’ll be fun they said. Guard the most precious hunk of metal in the solar system; an asteroid over 200 km in diameter, composed almost entirely of iron and nickel. Over a quadrillion dollars worth. This place could smash the earth’s economy to smithereens.

16 psyche 1
Roughly elliptical in shape, and with a fairly even surface, 16 Psyche is a true relic from the formation of the solar system. Image: Arizona State University

Easily.

A lot of other places in the solar system have a certain feduciary value. Asteroid mining has been big biz for a long time now.  Your grandparents were among the first belt miners, heading out from Hamer Station on Phobos.

16 Psyche is the jewel in the Crown. This chunk of metal comprises nearly one per cent of the asteroid belt. Like all gold rushes there’s naturally a lot of interest, to put it diplomatically. You’re here to take care of folks who get a little….too interested.

This place sure gets boring though. Most security is automated these days. Fleets of weaponised drones orbit the moon, keeping a watchful eye out for unwanted visitors. Space piracy isn’t much like Star Wars. Space is way to dangerous and chaotic for that. No, in this day and age anyone wanting a piece of this prize has to be organised to the fourteenth decimal place. They need to know what they’re doing, and they need lots and lots of money behind them. Like the privateers of old, the only pirates these days are on government or corporate payrolls, mainly out to disrupt things. Occasionally they head out here and make pains in the ass of themselves, but that’s about all they really do. The real wars for territory take place in boardrooms across the solar system.

You don’t care. The view is incredible. You’re walking on the core of a protoplanet!

This place was named Psyche after the greek word for soul. Walking on this bare expanse of metal it seems fitting; that this exposed core is a window into the soul of a dead world…

The gravity on these tiny bodies always messes with you. On Phobos you weigh about 70 grams. Here, you’re the same weight as a small cat. You think back to your time on the tiny Martian moon. Handrails everywhere. The moon was covered with them like chain mail. Too easy to trip over a rock and become an unofficial new moon of the red planet. Who was that guy working out of Stickney Crater?  He had a good operation going; a small fleet of drones patrolling the space around Phobos, plucking over enthusiastic hikers from Martian orbit.

You’ve forgotten his name. Who cares anyway? Here on 16 Psyche the handrails aren’t a big deal. The whole asteroid is metal, right? Iron, for the most part. Taking a walk across the metal fissures and canyons is simple. No engineering expertise needed; just magnetic boots.

Break time. You squat down in a dark crack in the surface and log off for a bit.

The commute out here is the ultimate trip to work.

This asteroid lies roughly 3 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun. An AU is roughly 93 million  kilometres: the distance at which earth lies from the sun. 16 Psyche spins slowly- so you’ve been told. With only the Milky Way up there you can’t really tell. There’s been a bit of activity today. A few unmarked ships have come a little close. One even buzzed the extraction facility over at Jay Gorge. It’s a low gee quarry basically. The drill broke down, a monster the miners out at Jay call Grindstein. Built on Earth decades ago, Grindstein saw service on Mars and the Moon, carving cities out of the regolith. Now it’s here, taking tiny nibbles out of the most valuable chunk of metal anywhere.

The broken drill is sabotage someone said. Economic rivals want this place, and they’ll stoop to all sorts of tricks to disrupt things anyway they can.

You don’t really care. You really came here because it’s not every day you get to walk on the core of a planet! 16 Psyche is a battle scarred veteran of the very earliest eons of the solar system. Once it was a newly minted protoplanet. Now a remnant, this place dodged other large forming bodies and chunks of debris, orbiting a ten million year old sun. The night sky looked very different then. The solar system was a coalescing mess of rock, ice and organic muck. Everything was colliding and jostling. 16 Psyche’s outer layers were destroyed; torn away by up to eight impacts with other large bodies.

Earth’s moon may have formed in a similar cataclysm. 16 Psyche’s original face may have been destroyed in 8 such impacts.

  1. Rough childhood. Maybe this nugget represents what Earth may have ended up looking like, had Jupiter not scooped up rogue planetesimals terrorising the inner solar system during the late Heavy Bombardment.

Where did all that outer shell go? You wonder sometimes. This place took a beating for sure. Now this frozen little nugget is all that’s left. Old NASA sent a mission here way back in the 2020s, sending back pictures of a cracked metal hulk. Not all of the outer mantle was stripped away.  About ten per cent of the surface is silicate rock, no different to anywhere on Mars, Earth, Venus or Mercury. That thin veneer was once the mantle and crust of a planet that no longer exists.

Video: Arizona State University

Science began taking a back seat to big business sometime after that NASA mission arrived, so the one and only scientific mission to 16 Psyche couldn’t turn up much. But big business was more motivated. All the big players headed out here to slap their dollars, roubles,  renminbi or rupees down on the table. There were even people sent here. There’s only so much automation can do. Tunnels were dug into the asteroid, and human beings finally journeyed to the centre of the earth, in a sense. Jules Verne would have been proud. The first tunnel into the core of this core was actually called Verne tunnel….

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip into the future. 16 Psyche is just one of a number of bizarre places in the solar system that are worth a tale. There are several other incredible places I plan on visiting in future posts. Tell me what you think!

 

Ben.

P.S.

Follow the nascent 16 Psyche mission, blasting off from a planet near you in 2022.

Take a look at NASA Psyche Mission (@NASAPsyche): https://twitter.com/NASAPsyche?s=09

References and further reading:

https://sese.asu.edu/research/psyche
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16_Psyche

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-03-06/16-psyche-asteroid-like-no-other-metal-world-nasa-mission/8316054

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-selects-two-missions-to-explore-the-early-solar-system