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Cosmic Space

Fresh hints of hidden lakes put Mars in spotlight

Two years after reporting the detection of a subsurface lake of liquid water near Mars’ south pole, scientists say they’ve gathered further evidence for the existence of that lake — plus three more hidden reservoirs of what’s likely to be super-salty H2O.

Such findings raise new hopes in the search for life beyond Earth in the solar system, although the conditions that’d be required are close to the edge of plausibility.

The new findings, published this week in Nature Astronomy, take advantage of techniques that look at the smoothness as well as the brightness of radar reflections. The research team includes many of the same scientists who were behind the earlier study, including lead author Elena Pettinelli of the University of Rome.

Pettinelli and her colleagues of ground-penetrating radar readings from MARSIS, an instrument on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.

Two years ago, the team identified a spot in Ultimi Scopuli, an area within a Martian region called Planum Australe, where the brightness of the radar echoes hinted at a reservoir of liquid water that might lie a mile beneath layers of ice and dust. But the researchers had only a limited amount of observations to go on.

Since then, they’ve added lots more data, and they also took advantage of new techniques that were field-tested to discover lakes hidden beneath the ice of East Antarctica, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.

The new analysis confirmed readings related to the 12-mile-wide subsurface lake that was reported in 2018, and what appear to be smaller patches of water, slush or wet soil in the same area.

“These results corroborate the initial discovery … of a stable body of liquid water in Ultimi Scopuli using a different and independent technique, highlighting at the same time a more extensive, complex scenario with ubiquitous water patches surrounding the subglacial lake,” the researchers wrote.

A 55-by-75-mile-wide map of radar readings shows potential reservoirs of subsurface water as bluish patches. (Pettinelli et al. / Univ. of Rome / Nature Astronomy)

However, they say trying to explain how water could exist deep beneath the ice in Mars’ polar region is “at best, a matter of speculation at this point in time.”

They speculate that the water may be heavily laced with perchlorates or other salts that would allow it to exist in liquid form far below the normal freezing point for pure water. Previous Mars missions have turned up evidence of such salts at the surface.

Experiments on Earth have shown that perchlorate brines could remain liquid in a super-cooled state at temperatures as low as 190 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (150 Kelvin).

The researchers say subsurface temperatures at Ultimi Scopuli could come close to that level, and they propose that metastable conditions at depth “are likely to produce a remarkable effect, both in terms of the formation of brines and in terms of their longevity on Mars.”

Perchlorate-laced water is toxic to most life on Earth. In fact, perchlorate is a key ingredient of some types of rocket fuel. Nevertheless, some particularly hardy microbes are able to make a meal out of it — and that might turn out to be the case on Mars as well.

“The possibility of extended hypersaline water bodies on Mars is particularly exciting because of the potential for the existence of microbial life,” the researchers write.

For that reason, they say bodies of water in Mars’ south polar region would “represent areas of potential astrobiological interest and planetary protection concern, and future missions to Mars should target this region.”

The only probe to send data back from a spot anywhere close to Mars’ poles was Phoenix Mars Lander, which detected what may have been splashes of liquid water in 2008 at its landing site in the north polar region. Scientists have talked up ambitious plans for polar expeditions on Mars for decades, but so far there’s been little follow-through.

Should there be? Or should more attention be devoted to other potential targets in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, ranging from Venus to Europa and Enceladus?

In light of this month’s findings about the potential for life in Venus’ clouds, planetary scientist David Grinspoon is a bit meh about Mars.

“Mars??!!” he tweeted. “Life on Mars is so 2019.”

Mars’ spotlight brightens

It’s going to be hard to miss Mars in the weeks ahead: The Red Planet is getting brighter every night as it nears the closest point to Earth in its current orbit on Oct. 6, followed by opposition on Oct. 13.

Opposition is the time when Mars lines up directly opposite from the sun, as seen from Earth. This season is considered prime time for viewing Mars, which has started outshining Jupiter in the night sky. (Only Venus shines brighter in this month’s planetary parade.)

Mars gleams as a butterscotch-colored star in eastern skies after sunset — and at opposition, it should be right above you around midnight.

Mars is in opposition every 26 months, but some close encounters are closer than others. This time around, Mars will be only 38.6 million miles from Earth. The next time Mars comes this close will be in 2035.

In addition to Pettinelli, the authors of the Nature Astronomy study, “Multiple Subglacial Water Bodies Below the South Pole of Mars Unveiled by New MARSIS Data,” include Sebastian Emanuel Lauro, Graziella Capranelli, Luca Guallini, Angelo Pio Rossi, Elisabetta Mattei, Barbara Cosciotti, Andrea Cicchetti, Francesco Soldovieri, Marco Cartacci, Federico Di Paolo, Raffaella Noschese and Roberto Orosei.

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Cosmic Space

Billionaire boosts missions to the clouds of Venus

Breakthrough Initiatives, a space science program founded by Russian-Israeli tech billionaire Yuri Milner, says it’s funding a study that will follow up on this week’s controversial findings about the potential for life in the clouds of Venus.

The study could lead to a range of concepts for space missions to Venus, adding to several proposals that are already under consideration by NASA and other space agencies.

MIT planetary scientist Sara Seager, one of the authors of the research paper published this week in Nature Astronomy, is leading the Breakthrough Initiatives’ project as principal investigator. There’s already a website devoted to the study, VenusCloudLife.com, and a virtual kickoff meeting is set for Sept. 18, she told me today.

Among other leaders of the Venus Life Finder Mission Concept Study are MIT’s Janusz Petkowski and William Bains, two of the co-authors of the Nature Astronomy study; Georgia Tech’s Chris Carr; Caltech’s Bethany Ehlmann; the Planetary Science Institute’s David Grinspoon; and Pete Klupar, chief engineer of the Breakthrough Initiatives.

The study group will follow up on findings suggesting that a biomarker known as phosphine or PH3 is present within a potentially habitable band of clouds surrounding the hellishly hot planet. Phosphine can be produced by non-biological processes, but the team behind this week’s published findings said they could not explain how it was present at the detected levels unless biology was involved.

For decades, scientists have debated whether life might exist in the clouds of Venus — specifically, within a layer that’s between 30 and 40 miles above the surface. That’s the only place in the planet’s environment where water could exist in liquid form, and even there, the atmosphere contains droplets of highly corrosive sulfuric acid. Finding life is a long shot, but it’s a shot Milner thinks is worth taking.

“Finding life anywhere beyond Earth would be truly momentous,” Milner said in a news release. “And if there’s a non-negligible chance that it’s right next door on Venus, exploring that possibility is an urgent priority for our civilization.”

Breakthrough Initiatives is already funding several $100 million space projects — including an expanded search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations and a project to send fleets of life-seeking nanoprobes through the Alpha Centauri star system. Milner has also provided resources for exoplanet studies and a potential mission to Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn that may harbor life.

The budget for the Venus mission concept study is nowhere near $100 million. Seager said via email that the study will get a “few hundred thousand” dollars in support from the Breakthrough Initiatives, and that “we aim to have ‘in-kind’ contributions, i.e., work contributed, that push that number much higher.”

“It’s not really a huge amount for mission studies, but we are leveraging the formal study to get lots of people from the community to contribute,” she explained during a separate phone conversation. “We’ve got scientists, engineers, and we also have some industrial partners joining … but the study is just starting.”

One of those partners is Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab, which has already said it’s aiming to send a probe toward Venus in the 2023-2024 time frame, using its low-cost Electron rocket.

Seager said Rocket Lab’s plan would be classified as a small mission concept. Such a concept envisions having a cruise vehicle drop off a descent capsule with a few kilograms’ worth of scientific instruments. The instruments would analyze Venus’ atmospheric composition for up to 10 minutes, potentially confirming the presence of phosphine and looking for other chemical signs of life.

Medium mission concepts would involve sending an inflatable balloon to Venus on a bigger rocket as a piggyback payload. The mission would be similar to what the Soviets did in the 1980s when they sent balloon-borne instruments into the Venusian atmosphere. Those probes transmitted data for a couple of days before their batteries gave out.

Such missions could accommodate an arsenal of scientific instruments amounting to as much as 20 kilograms (44 pounds).

“They could go beyond just detecting gases,” Seager told me. “They could analyze the liquid droplets in Venus’ atmosphere. They could try to identify complex molecules, like heavier molecules of the types that are only associated with life. And we’d like to imagine having a microscope on board. We could collect droplets and concentrate them and see if there’s anything that might resemble any kinds of life.”

Large mission concepts would involve sending an orbiter as well as a long-lasting balloon platform to Venus for months of study.

Seager said she expects the Breakthrough Initiatives project to work in a collaborative fashion with other teams that have parallel proposals for missions to Venus.

Among the potential missions are DAVINCI+, which aims to send a probe through Venus’ clouds; and VERITAS, which is designed to map Venus’ geology. Those mission concepts are among four finalists  in NASA’s Discovery Program, along with concepts for missions to the Jovian moon Io and the Neptunian moon Triton. One or two of the concepts are to be selected for further funding next year.

“There is no doubt that NASA’s Science Mission Directorate will have a tough time evaluating and selecting from among these very compelling targets and missions, but I know the process will be fair and unbiased,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said this week.

But wait, there’s more: Plans for a NASA-led Venus Flagship Mission have been under discussion for years, and NASA is currently talking with the European Space Agency about an ambitious Venus mission concept called EnVision. Meanwhile, space scientists in Russia, India and China have their own ideas for missions to Venus.

A decade ago, the European Space Agency considered sending a balloon to Venus as part of a proposed mission called the European Venus Explorer, or EVE. That proposal fizzled out, but a different mission with a European connection, BepiColombo, should get a close-up look at Venus next month while on its way to Mercury.

The Oct. 15 flyby is the first of two close encounters with Venus on BepiColombo’s itinerary. During each of those flybys, the probe could use its thermal infrared spectrometer to check for signs of phosphine and anything else that could help scientists plan for future missions.

“If they have the right instrument and they can take a look at Venus, that’d be awesome,” Seager said. “It would be great to get whatever observations we can.”

Update for 9:25 a.m. PT Sept. 17: I’ve updated this report with Seager’s comments on how much support will be provided by the Breakthrough Initiatives.

Read more: David Grinspoon weighs in on Venus
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Cosmic Space

Life on Venus? Future space missions could check it out

Scientists say they’ve detected a chemical associated with biological activity within the clouds of Venus, at a height where airborne life forms could theoretically exist.

The chemical, known as PH3 or phosphine, isn’t the first biomarker to be found in Venus’ atmosphere. But the scientists say they can’t come up with a non-biological process that could produce phosphine at the levels they’re seeing.

This isn’t the smoking gun for life on Venus. Nevertheless, the latest findings — which leaked out over the weekend and were published today in Nature Astronomy — give peer-reviewed weight to an idea that once seemed almost ludicrous: the idea that microbes or other life forms may be perpetually floating in Venus’ acidic air, more than 30 miles above the planet’s searingly hot surface.

The findings are also likely to give a push to several proposed space missions that are already targeting the clouds of Venus.

“It may be that Venus, not Mars, is our best hope for a long-inhabited nearby neighbor,” David Grinspoon, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Instutute, told me in an email.

The possibility of finding life in Venus’ clouds has been under debate for decades. The late astronomer Carl Sagan surveyed the prospects almost 60 years ago. More recently, Grinspoon and other astrobiologists have revived the case for closer study of Venus, in hopes of finding traces of microbial life in the clouds.

Grinspoon told me it’s been a tough sell. “Folks would roll their eyes at my conference talks, but I was tolerated because I did a lot of good work on other aspects of Venus, writing papers on the clouds, the surface evolution, the climate, and so forth,” he said.

It’s not hard to see why Venus has been upstaged by Mars as well as the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn when it comes to the search for life elsewhere in the solar system. Although Venus is close to Earth’s size and mass, its average surface temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit is hot enough to melt lead, due to a runaway greenhouse-gas effect.

Venus’ dense, surface-obscuring atmosphere consists primarily of carbon dioxide, but it’s also laced with droplets of sulfuric acid that makes it inhospitable to most life on Earth.

Even if amped-up versions of our own planet’s acid-loving microbes were to exist on Venus, the only place astrobiologists can imagine them getting a foothold would be within a temperate band of clouds that lie between 30 and 40 miles above the surface.

Just last month, a team of scientists — including some of the co-authors of the newly published study — proposed a spore-based life cycle for aerial microbes within that cloud band.

What kind of evidence might such creatures leave behind? Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology zeroed in on phosphine — a smelly, toxic gas given off by anaerobic bacteria on Earth. MIT planetary scientist Clara Sousa-Silva thought the spectral fingerprint of phosphine would be a good biosignature to look for when advanced telescopes analyze the light reflected by planets in alien star systems.

“I was thinking really far, many parsecs away, and really not thinking literally the nearest planet to us,” she said in a news release.

The astronomers who focused in on Venus weren’t expecting to find phosphine, either. When they observed the planet using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, they expected to rule out some of the claims surrounding life on Venus.

“This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity, really — taking advantage of JCMT’s powerful technology, and thinking about future instruments,” study lead author Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales, said in a news release.

“I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed with organisms,” she said. “When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’ spectrum, it was a shock!”

What’s more, the phosphine was found precisely in the band of the cloud layer that’s most hospitable to life.

The detection was confirmed with follow-up observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, in Chile. Greaves and her team then turned to other scientists to help interpret the findings.

Researchers considered a wide range of non-biological mechanisms for putting phosphine into the Venusian atmosphere — for example, by cooking other molecules with solar radiation or lightning, or having the wind sweep up minerals from the surface, or having the phosphine expelled by volcanoes, or bringing it in from space via meteors.

Phosphine is created non-biologically at Jupiter and Saturn, due to the abundance of hydrogen and the crushing atmospheric pressure at those gas giants, but the researchers noted that such conditions don’t exist on Venus. “That particular chemistry is definitely not happening at Venus,” MIT’s William Bains said today during a news briefing.

None of the mechanisms that the researchers considered could produce the level of phosphine that the astronomers detected, which amounts to 20 molecules per billion. Their most productive non-biological scenario could make, at most, only one-ten-thousandth of the required amount.

That leaves the biological scenario as the favored explanation, unless someone else comes up with a better explanation that the research team missed.

“It’s very hard to prove a negative,” Sousa-Silva said. “Now, astronomers will think of all the ways to justify phosphine without life, and I welcome that. Please do, because we are at the end of our possibilities to show abiotic processes that can make phosphine.”

On Earth, microbes are routinely lofted into upper levels of the atmosphere and eventually drift back down. But on Venus, such organisms would be killed off if they sank too low. Such an exclusively aerial biosphere might have evolved from an earlier age when Venus was far more hospitable to life, Sousa-Silva said.

“A long time ago, Venus is thought to have oceans, and was probably habitable like Earth,” she said. “As Venus because less hospitable, life would have had to adapt, and they could now be in this narrow envelope of the atmosphere where they can still survive.”

So what’s next? Sousa-Silva and MIT’s Jason Dittman are leading an effort to confirm the phosphine findings with data from other telescopes, and map the distribution of phosphine across the Venusian atmosphere over time. If there are daily or seasonal variations, that could provide additional evidence for biological activity.

“The experiment must and will be repeated,” Grinspoon told me. “Laboratory studies will be undertaken to see how PH3 behaves in a Venus-like environment and what else could possibly produce it. But the best test, and the one I’m most excited about, is to go back to Venus and investigate the atmosphere in situ.”

Last month, a panel of scientists presented a 222-page report laying out the possibilities for a flagship mission to Venus, as part of the astronomy community’s 2020 decadal survey of science priorities.

One mission concept, advanced by Northrop Grumman, calls for sending an instrument-laden, solar-powered aircraft called VAMP into the Venusian atmosphere.

Another concept, known as DAVINCI+, is one of four proposals vying for funding through NASA’s Discovery Program. The DAVINCI+ spacecraft would map Venus and its atmosphere from orbit. It’d also drop a spherical probe through the atmosphere, all the way to the surface, to sniff out the molecules making up each layer.

“Our vision for DAVINCI+ is to send a chemistry lab and orbiter to Venus to put the planet into its appropriate context in our solar system,” principal investigator Jim Garvin, who is chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a news release.

If DAVINCI+ is selected for full funding next year, Garvin and his teammates propose launching the mission in 2026.

Yet another Discovery Program finalist, the proposed VERITAS mission, would concentrate on creating three-dimensional maps of Venus’ surface features and geology. NASA is also considering a CubeSat mission to study Venus’ atmosphere.

Meanwhile, California-based Rocket Lab is making plans to send a probe to Venus within three years or so.

“I’m working very hard to put together a private mission to go to Venus in 2023,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said last month during a webcast. “We’re going to learn a lot on the way there, and we’re going to have a crack at seeing if we can discover what’s in that atmospheric zone. And who knows? You may hit the jackpot.”

MIT’s Sara Seager said she and her colleagues have been talking with Rocket Lab about putting together the scientific payload for such a mission. The requirements are challenging: Such a payload would have to weigh no more than 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds), Seager said.

Details about potential funding for Rocket Lab’s mission haven’t yet come to light, but Russian-Israeli tech billionaire Yuri Milner is known to have Venus on his short list for a privately funded mission.

Back in 1985, the twin Soviet Vega probes deployed two balloon explorers in the Venusian atmosphere. Instruments on the balloons sent back data for 46 hours before their batteries ran out. Today, Seager was asked about that mission concept and said “a balloon is certainly the best way” to study what’s in the clouds.

“We have a long list of things we’d like, actually,” she said.

Over the past 30 years, NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have sent probes to Venus. In light of the findings published today, Grinspoon thinks it’s high time for the next visit.

“Now that we’ve found a genuine candidate biosignature, we absolutely must go,” he said. “And even if this turns out to be a false alarm, it could be productive, in the way that the ‘Mars rock’ (ALH84001) was. That turned out — probably — to be a false alarm, but it got everyone to think about it in a fresh way and ask, ‘Why not?’ ”

Update for 8:50 a.m. PT Sept. 14: NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, tweeted that the findings are “intriguing” but added that NASA will defer further comment until the post-publication discussion has run its course:

Update for 1:10 p.m. PT Sept. 14: Later in the day, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that “it’s time to prioritize Venus” — which will probably lift the spirits of the folks working on the aforementioned proposals for missions to Venus:

In addition to Greaves, Sousa-Silva, Bains and Seager, the authors of the Nature Astronomy paper, “Phosphine Gas in the Cloud Decks of Venus,” include Anita Richards, Paul Rimmer, Hideo Sagawa, David Clements, Janusz Petkowski, Sukrit Ranjan, Emily Drabek-Maunder, Helen Fraser, Annabel Cartwright, Ingo Mueller-Wodarg, Zhuchang Zhan, Per Friberg, Iain Coulson, E’lisa Lee and Jim Hoge.

Read more: David Grinspoon weighs in on Venus
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Cosmic Space

Hubble uses eclipse to practice hunt for alien life

Astronomers made use of the Hubble Space Telescope — and a total lunar eclipse — to rehearse their routine for seeking signs of life in alien atmospheres.

You’ll be relieved to know that the experiment, conducted on Jan. 20-21, 2019, determined that there are indeed signs of life on Earth.

The evidence came in the form of a strong spectral fingerprint for ozone. To detect that ultraviolet fingerprint, Hubble didn’t look at Earth directly. Instead, it analyzed the dim reddish light that was first refracted by Earth’s atmosphere, and then reflected back by the moon during last year’s lunar eclipse.

“Finding ozone is significant because it is a photochemical byproduct of molecular oxygen, which is itself a byproduct of life,” said Allison Youngblood of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colo., lead researcher of Hubble’s observations.

Other ground-based telescopes made spectroscopic observations at other wavelengths during the eclipse. They were looking for the fingerprints of different atmospheric ingredients linked to life’s presence, such as oxygen and methane.

This wasn’t just an academic exercise. Astronomers hope future observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Roman Space Telescope, will be able to detect life’s fingerprints in the atmospheres of faraway exoplanets. But that takes practice.

“One of NASA’s major goals is to identify planets that could support life,” Youngblood said in a Hubble news release. “But how would we know a habitable or an uninhabited planet if we saw one? What would they look like with the techniques that astronomers have at their disposal for characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets? That’s why it’s important to develop models of Earth’s spectrum as a template for categorizing atmospheres on extrasolar planets.”

Check out the news release for further details, or delve into the research paper published today in The Astronomical Journal. And to learn more about how lunar eclipses work, check out this “Inconstant Moon” interactive (after you enable Flash in your browser).

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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GeekWire

SETI deals with new tools and new troubles

PANOSETI telescopes
Two PANOSETI telescopes are installed in the recently renovated Astrograph Dome at the Lick Observatory in California. PANOSETI will use a configuration of many SETI telescopes to allow simultaneous monitoring of the entire observable sky. (© Laurie Hatch Photo via UCSD)

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, better known as SETI, is taking advantage of a widening array of strategies — ranging from sophisticated laser searches, to a new type of wide-angle optical observatory, to arrangements to conduct the search simultaneously with other scientific efforts.

But new technologies are also bringing new challenges: For example, how will radio astronomers deal with the noise created by a fast-growing number of satellites in low Earth orbit?

The technological pluses and minuses for the SETI quest, and for other strategies aimed at detecting life beyond our solar system, took the spotlight in Seattle last weekend during a session presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Space bits suggest CO2 blanketed ancient Earth

Deep-sea spherules
Iron-rich spherules like the ones shown here can contain chemical clues about the composition of the early Earth’s atmosphere. (UW Photo / Don Brownlee)

Today, rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a cause for concern, but 2.7 billion years ago, high levels of CO2 probably kept our planet warm enough for life even though the sun was about 20% fainter than it is today.

A newly published study, based on analyses of ancient micrometeorites and a fresh round of computer modeling, estimates just how high those CO2 levels were. The likeliest level is somewhere in excess of 70% CO2, scientists from the University of Washington report today in the open-access journal Science Advances.

Based on the modeling, global mean temperatures would have been in the mid-80s Fahrenheit (roughly 30 degrees Celsius).

All that is good news for astrobiologists, because such an environment matches up well with the picture that scientists have of Earth during what’s known as the Archean Eon. The high CO2 levels wouldn’t be livable for us humans, but they’d be fine for the early organisms that ruled the Earth before oxygen levels rose.

The findings “could also inform our understanding of Earth-like exoplanets and their potential habitability,” said the study team, led by UW researcher Owen Lehmer.

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Did life emerge from carbonate-rich lakes?

Mono Lake
Eastern California’s Mono Lake has no outflow, allowing salts to build up over time. The high salts in this carbonate-rich lake can grow into pillars. (Matthew Dillon Photo via Flickr / AAAS)

Where did life on Earth get its start? In a newly published study, researchers from the University of Washington argue that carbonate-rich lakes would have been the best place for life’s chemical building blocks to come together.

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Scientists fine-tune standards for habitable planets

M-dwarf planet
An artist’s conception shows a hypothetical planet with two moons orbiting within the habitable zone of an M-dwarf star. (NASA / Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Illustration / D. Aguilar)

Astronomers have identified thousands of stars that have planets, and that number could mushroom even faster when waves of next-generation telescopes come online. But where are the best places to look for life?

newly released study focuses on the most plentiful category of stars in our Milky Way galaxy — M-dwarf stars, also known as red dwarfs — and delivers good news as well as bad news for astrobiologists.

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NASA decides to send a nuclear drone to Titan

Dragonfly probe
An artist’s conception shows the Dragonfly probe on the dunes of Titan. (NASA / JHUAPL Illustration)

NASA has chosen to commit up to $850 million to creating an interplanetary probe unlike any seen before: a rotor-equipped spacecraft that will fly through the smoggy atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon.

The Dragonfly mission will be managed by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory on NASA’s behalf, with its launch scheduled for 2026 on a rocket to be named later, and its landing due amid the dunes of Titan in 2034.

This won’t be the first landing on Titan: That happened back in 2005, when the Cassini spacecraft dropped off the Huygens lander to send back the first pictures from the moon’s cloud-obscured surface. Observations from Cassini and Huygens confirmed that chilly Titan held rivers and lakes of liquid methane and ethane, and that methane fell like rain on the icy terrain.

“Titan is the only other place in the solar system known to have an Earthlike cycle of liquids flowing across its surface,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said in a tweet. “Dragonfly will explore the processes that shape this extraordinary environment filled with organic compounds – the building blocks to life as we know it.”

Today’s announcement was the climax of a years-long process to choose the next mission for NASA’s New Horizons portfolio, which supports projects costing no more than $850 million. Past selections include the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Juno mission to Jupiter. and the OSIRIS-REx mission to bring back a sample from asteroid Bennu.

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Cave-exploring rover tested for moon and Mars

Cave rover team
NASA’s robotics team drives the test rover, CaveR, into Valentine Cave at Lava Beds National Monument in California. One of the CaveR engineers is perched on a lava ledge, a marker of one of the lava flows in the cave. (NASA Photo)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Underground lava tubes are great places to set up bases on the moon, or look for life on Mars — but they’ll be super-tricky to navigate. Which is why a NASA team is practicing with a cave rover in California.

Scientists are sharing their experiences from the Biologic and Resource Analog Investigations in Low Light Environments project, or BRAILLE, here at this week’s Astrobiology Science Conference.

The site of the experiment is California’s Lava Beds National Monument, which houses North America’s largest network of lava tubes. These are tunnel-like structures left behind by ancient volcanic flows of molten rock. They’re known to exist on the moon and Mars, and in some places there are even openings that make those lava tubes accessible from the surface.

The underground passageways provide shelter from the harsh radiation hitting the surface of the moon and Mars, which would be a big plus for would-be settlers. There’s even a chance that microbes could find a foothold in lava tubes on Mars, as they do on Earth.

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