Finding life

A trio of scientists from the University of Washington took the audience on a search for life on other planets during a recent Science in the City talk at Pacific Science Center.

Professor Erika Harnett opened the evening explaining the overall work of NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, which is headquartered at the UW.

Harnett

Erika Harnett (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

“We use a variety of techniques to study planets found in our solar system and in other solar systems for their potential habitability, the potential for life developing there,” Harnett explained.

Harnett’s particular research interest is on the vanishing atmosphere of Mars. Rovers there have helped us confirm that, while the Red Planet is now cold and arid, it was once warm and had oceans and flowing rivers. It also once had a global magnetic field, but it doesn’t any more.

“At some point in Mars’s history—and we’re really having a hard time telling when—its global magnetic field disappeared, and at that point its atmosphere was fully exposed to the radiation of space,” Harnett said. “Probably at that point it started losing a large amount of its atmosphere to space and that’s when water stopped becoming stable.”

There’s lots of ice at the poles and underground on Mars, but if warmed it would go straight to vapor because of the low atmospheric pressure.

Harnett and others are working to figure out the time line for if and when Mars was habitable.

Space is big

While we’ve been to Mars robotically and may well go in person one day, Harnett noted that space is big and there aren’t that many other places to go where life might be possible. For the rest of the universe we use remote sensing.

“We train telescopes looking at a variety of wavelenghts at those locations and try to see what kind of information we can read from those wavelengths of light,” she said.

We can figure out a lot even from a little bit of light. Aliens looking at Earth from afar might conclude that the blue light means lots of water. They could measure our rotation by tracking light changes. Green or brown light might mean vegetation while white would be an indicator of ice. We could use similar methods learn such things about exoplanets far away.

Life on Jupiter’s moons

Marshall “Moosh” Styczinski is a UW graduate student who said he first got interested in Jupiter after watching the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jupiter is still his favorite planet.

Styczinski

Moosh Styczinski (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

“Its got these four big moons that are a great place to start looking if we want to find life elsewhere in the solar system,” Styczinski said. The focus is on Europa, but the other Galilean moons play a part as well.

“Io plays a surprisingly big role in both why Europa is a promising place to look, and how we study it,” Styczinski noted. Io is pockmarked with volcanoes and its surface is coated with sulfur spewed from those volcanoes. The moons are heated internally because of tidal heating and orbital heating, and not just on the rocky moons.

“Tidal heating causes friction in the interior that warms up the rocks and melts the ice from the underside,” Styczinski explained. “The ice forms a thick crust on top that acts like a blanket, keeping the water warm from the cold space outside.”

Life needs more than just water. Europa also probably has nutrients because liquid water comes into contact with hot rocks.

“Hydrothermal vents are what makes Europa an exciting place to look for life,” Styczinski said. “It has all the basic ingredients that life needs: an energy source, nutrients, water, and shelter.”

We’ve learned a lot about Europa and made models based on our observations so far, but we need more data to get a better handle on questions like the inner structure of this moon, how deep the water is, and where geysers and hydrothermal vents might be found. The Galileo probe is no more, but a couple of other missions are on the drawing boards. NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper some time in the next decade, and the European Space Agency is scheduled to launch JUICE—Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer—in 2022.

“Both of these missions are going to visit Europa many times, and return lots of valuable measurements that can help refine our models,” Styczinski said. “Finding the right model for Europa’s interior can directly guide future missions by telling them where to go and what we might find when we get there.”

Analyzing exoplanets

We know for certain of some 2,500 exoplanets—planets orbiting stars other than our own Sun—and there are about five thousand more possibles, of which UW grad student Brett Morris, a co-founder of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, expects about 95 percent will also be confirmed as planets. Most of these have been discovered by the Kepler telescope observing a dip in the light when an exoplanet transits in front of its host star. Morris said this discovery is not really so tricky as it sounds.

Morris

Brett Morris (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

“Probably even your iPhone camera is good enough to measure the change in brightness of the Sun when something goes in front of it,” he said. “If you just measure the brightness of the star instead of actually resolving the surface and seeing things going on, you can discover planets.”

Morris said that for every exoplanet the size of Jupiter, they’re discovering two that are about the size of Neptune and a dozen that are roughly the size of Earth.

“The big suprise is that the most common type of world is one that we don’t know anything about,” Morris said. A great many exoplanets have been discovered that are somewhere between the size of Earth and Neptune, which is about four times the diameter of the home planet. Since we don’t have any of these “mystery worlds” of that size in our solar system, the first thing astronomers want to figure out is at what size point these planets are more likely to be gaseous than rocky.

“Exactly where that line is will determine how much habitable real estate there is in the universe,” Morris said, as we don’t expect anyone or anything to be living on gas planets.

Morris is looking forward to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, now scheduled for next year. JWST will see in infrared, and will examine spectra of light from the atmospheres of exoplanets to reveal the elements that exist there.

“What we hope to look for are oddballs,” Morris said. Earth, for example, is the oddball of our solar system. While Venus and Mars have atmospheres of mainly carbon dioxide, ours is rich with nitrogen, oxygen, and a host of trace elements.

“Life is what causes the atmosphere here to be different,” Morris said. “We might have trouble saying whether or not life is to blame if we were looking at planetts in other solar systems, but we could definitely flag that one and then try to study it harder, because something interesting is going on there.”

After the talks we watched the 3-D movie The Search for Life in Space. The film is visually spectacular. One often had the notion that a moon or the Cassini spacecraft were about to land in the next seat. It’s worth a look if you get a chance. It’s showing at Pacific Science Center at least through January. Check out the trailer below.

 

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