The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Why Scientists Are Searching for Life in 'Alien Oceans' on Distant Moons
By Zulfikar Abbany
"We don't have a definition of life," says Kevin Peter Hand, one early California morning when we speak via video. "We don't actually know what life is."
He says that in between sips of coffee, as though it were perfectly obvious.
But scientists must really get bored — even annoyed — by journalists repeatedly asking how their fundamental research in space can be applied in the real world. It is a question worth asking, however. Especially when they tell you that they are looking for a "second origin of life." You just have to ask why.
Fortunately, Hand, who heads NASA's Ocean Worlds Lab, is charming and gentle as he explains his fascination with what he calls "alien oceans" both on Earth and on distant water worlds, like Jupiter's moon, Europa, Saturn's moon, Enceladus, or Triton, a "bizarre" object that rotates in the opposite direction from its host planet, Neptune.
"We have numerous hypotheses for how life originated on Earth," says Hand. "For instance, it may have originated in the hydrothermal vents of our ocean, or in warm tide pools on the continents of an ancient Earth, or perhaps it originated from spark discharge from lightning in the atmosphere and precipitating organic compounds glued together to form life… But nothing has so far crawled out of the lab."
Alien Oceans Here and There
Europa, Enceladus, and Triton are just three of over 200 moons in our solar system. But they are special moons. They seem to have live, liquid water environments below the surface — also known as subsurface oceans — under an icy shell.
"These are global liquid oceans covered with ice," says Hand. "And if we go to Europa or Enceladus, these worlds where hydrothermal vents could exist, but where no continents exist, and there's no atmosphere, and if we found life, that would almost certainly point to an origin of life in hydrothermal vents."
And that may then tell us more about life on Earth.
Hydrothermal vents are found at extreme depths of around 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) in vast trenches below the surface of Earth's own ocean.
Not so long ago, those trenches were believed to be too dark for any life to exist. But through oceanographic research and commercial prospectors trawling for rare minerals like manganese nodules, we now know that hydrothermal vents are teeming with microbial life. So, the same may be true on a distant moon.
"That's not to say we'd be able to cross off the potential for the origin of life in tide pools on ancient Earth, but if we found life in hydrothermal vents on these moons, we would at least have another data point," says Hand.
Biology Beyond Earth
Biology — or organic life as we know it — is perhaps the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle for space scientists.
Thanks to Galileo, says Hand, we know that the laws of physics work beyond Earth. So, too, with the principles of chemistry and geology.
"But we don't know whether this phenomenon called life has happened a second, independent time from life here on Earth. And that's why the question of a second origin of life is so compelling," says Hand.
And it's vital that that second origin of life is discovered — if at all — on planets, moons and other celestial bodies deep in the solar system, bodies that are too far away for any Earthly life to have reached or "contaminated" what may, or may not, be there.
"It would be hard for an Earth rock to get out there with Earth microbes and seed those oceans with DNA-based life," says Hand. "So, if we find life on these worlds, they will represent a separate, independent origin of life and, as such, that will tell us about the diversity of life, not just in our solar system, but in the universe as a whole."
The Europa Clipper
Hand's focus for now is Jupiter's moon, Europa. One of his current projects is the Europa Clipper mission, which will perform about 45 so-called "flybys" of the moon.
Its launch date has yet to be decided. But the plan is for the Europa Clipper to take hi-resolution images of the moon's surface on a scale of between 50 centimeters per pixel and tens of meters per pixel.
It will look for organics, like salt.
It will have an ice penetrating radar onboard, and spectrometers that could "taste" any plumes erupting out of Europa.
"It will fly through the plumes and capture some of that material so we can analyze it directly. That will be phenomenal, but it won't get us down to the surface," says Hand. So, they are working on another mission that would land on Europa, too.
Trident for Triton
Meanwhile, NASA's Discovery Program has two further outer solar system moon missions under consideration. One of those missions is called Trident. And if it's selected to move forward, the mission will investigate Neptune's moon, Triton.
Trident would launch in 2026 for a 12-year journey to Triton. The last spacecraft to study Triton was Voyager 2, which launched in 1977. It got to within 40,000 km of Triton, whereas Trident would get as close as 500 km on two flybys.
"Voyager gave us pictures that let us see geysers and plumes on Triton and that was 30 years ago — 50 years before Trident," says Yohai Kaspi, a professor of atmospheric dynamics and planetary science at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. "But with today's technology and imaging, we can do much better."
Kaspi and his colleagues are contributing a special clock to the project, with which they hope to measure the density and temperature of Triton's atmosphere.
The clock is called an Ultra-Stable Oscillator (USO).
It's a basically quartz clock, like a quartz wristwatch, but it's kept it at a very stable temperature to protect it from all the temperature variations in space.
"You hold it in a little oven, literally a tiny oven, with a stable temperature of one milliKelvin," says Kaspi, "and that gives us an accurate time frequency."
The spacecraft will have a radio link to Earth for the purpose of Kaspi's experiment and for general use, such as navigation. It will be a constant signal.
But the speed at which that signal travels back to Earth will change as the spacecraft enters and moves through Triton's atmosphere. The atmosphere is almost a filter through which the signal will have to pass. Measuring and comparing the difference in time it takes the signal to travel to Earth will allow scientists to measure thickness of Triton's atmosphere and build a profile of the moon's atmospheric temperature.
How Do Moon Oceans and Their Atmospheres Interact?
Kaspi says Triton's atmosphere makes it unique. "Enceladus is too small to have an atmosphere and Europa barely has an atmosphere," he says. "Triton's atmosphere is not as dense as the one on Earth but it's enough of an atmosphere to transport material around. And in addition to that, it's likely that Triton was not even formed in our solar system. So, it's a real opportunity."
If the mission goes ahead, it may also be an opportunity to understand more about the interaction between subsurface oceans, or the "interior" of such moons, and their atmospheres. Because atmospheres are just as important for maintaining life and water is for originating life.
"We see these plumes coming from the interior, and they are then transported by the atmosphere. We see these active geysers and then these streaks on the planet, and they're all in the same direction," Kaspi says. "So, you would assume that there is a wind going from one side to the other. Voyager observed that. But that is about as much as we know."
What we don't know, says Kaspi, is how much of Triton's atmosphere originated from the interior, or whether the subterranean ocean can communicate or interact much with the outside.
The instruments on Trident are designed to find out how the whole system works together. They may even get us a little closer to that elusive definition of life itself.
"I hope that maybe 400 years from now our descendants will be able to point to innovations and discoveries that we made and go, 'Wow, can you believe they argued about the importance of searching for life beyond Earth and its application?'" says NASA's Kevin Hand.
"And perhaps they will be able to laugh about that in the same way that we look at Galileo and say: 'Of course, Galileo's work was pivotal in changing the way we think about the universe' — and everything that cascades from that, right down to the computer conversation that we're having now."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
- GOP to NASA: Forget Climate Science, Focus on Space - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Signs Executive Order to Mine the Moon for Minerals ... ›
- 'Shockingly Stupid': Trump to Eliminate NASA Climate Research ... ›
- Water May Have Originated on Earth, Study Finds ›
- Scientists Detect Possible Sign of Life on Venus - EcoWatch ›
- Jupiter and Saturn Will Form ‘Double Planet’ This December for the First Time in 800 Years - EcoWatch ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Michael Svoboda, Ph.D.
Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
The authors of the many new books released in just the past few months (or scheduled to be published soon) seem to have anticipated this pivotal moment.
- 10 Best Books On Climate Change, According to Activists - EcoWatch ›
- New and Recent Books About Hope in a Time of Climate Change ... ›
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
Fifteen states are in for an unusually noisy spring.
- Millions of Cicadas Set to Emerge After 17 Years Underground ... ›
- Cicadas Show Up 4 Years Early - EcoWatch ›
Deep in the woods, a hairy, ape-like man is said to be living a quiet and secluded life. While some deny the creature's existence, others spend their lives trying to prove it.
- Why Hunting Isn't Conservation, and Why It Matters - Rewilding ›
- Decline In Hunters Threatens How U.S. Pays For Conservation : NPR ›
- Is Hunting Conservation? Let's examine it closely ›
- Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation | Oklahoma ... ›
- Oklahoma Bill Calls for Bigfoot Hunting Season | Is Bigfoot Real? ›
By Jon Queally
Noted author and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben was among the first to celebrate word that the president of the European Investment Bank on Wednesday openly declared, "To put it mildly, gas is over" — an admission that squares with what climate experts and economists have been saying for years if not decades.
- Fossil Fuel Industry Is Now 'in the Death Knell Phase': CNBC's Jim ... ›
- Mayors of 12 Major Global Cities Pledge Fossil Fuel Divestment ... ›
- World's Largest Public Bank Ditches Oil and Coal in Victory for the ... ›