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Astronomers bolster case for potential of life on one of Jupiter's moons, Europa – CBC.ca

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In the search for life in our solar system, the discussion typically revolves around Mars. But there are two moons many astronomers believe are even better bets: Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Now a new computer model by NASA scientists lends further support to the theory that, beneath the thick, icy crust of Europa, the Jovian moon’s interior ocean could be habitable.

Europa is the sixth-largest moon in the solar system, smaller than the Earth’s moon but larger than Pluto.

The scientists believe the moon’s ocean may have formed after water-rich minerals released their water due to heating caused by the radioactive decay of the satellite’s core. Due to its gravitational interactions with gas giant Jupiter and with other moons, the water is kept warm. 

But not all water means life. Other important building blocks are needed, and researchers believe that was the case.

‘This ocean could be quite habitable’

Billions of years ago, the ocean would have been mildly acidic, but with concentrations of carbon dioxide, calcium and sulfate too high for life as we know it.

“Our simulations, coupled with data from the Hubble Space Telescope, showing chloride on Europa’s surface, suggests that the water most likely became chloride-rich,” said Mohit Melwani Daswani, a geochemist and planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who presented the recent findings at the virtual Goldschmidt conference this week.

“In other words, its composition became more like oceans on Earth. We believe that this ocean [now] could be quite habitable for life.”

Observations of Europa by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope uncovered a probable plume of material erupting from the moon’s surface at the same location where a similar plume was seen two years earlier by Hubble. Astronomers believe that this is more evidence of liquid water below its icy surface. (NASA/ESA)

Water and minerals aren’t the only thing needed for life. Life needs energy.

“It’s unlikely that any possible life forms in Europa’s ocean would use sunlight as a source of energy, because Europa is really quite far from the sun, and the ocean would be under complete darkness beneath a really thick ice shell,” Melwani Daswani said. “So we have to think about other sources of energy.”

On Earth, life exists around hydrothermal vents, openings on the ocean floor that emit dissolved minerals, and there has been strong evidence that these may exist in Europa’s subglacial ocean as well. That could be used as a source of energy for any potential life.

Melwani Daswani is cautious.

“We don’t even know whether life as we know it would be happy over there or whether the energy available for that for life would be sufficient,” he added.

Mission to Europa

Gordon Osinski, a professor in the department of Earth sciences at Western University in London, Ont., who was not involved in the study, said that this new research is another reason that missions to moons like Europa or Enceladus are so intriguing.

“I think the key take-home here is that these ocean worlds present the best likelihood for present-day habitable environments,” he said. “So, life living on those planets at the present day. All the key ingredients are there.”

NASA does have a mission in the works to visit the moon: the Europa Clipper.

The mission — the first dedicated mission to a moon other than our own — won’t be looking for signs of life, since it will only orbit, but it will look for increasing evidence of potential habitability by studying its geology, icy shell and composition.

Osinski said that it would be ideal for a future sample-return mission, where a spacecraft could even fly through and collect from plumes of water vapour that have been seen blown into space by both Europa and Enceladus through fissures in the ice.

“Because then we’ll know,” he said. “We’ll have the unequivocal determination of whether there is life there or not.”

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Recipe is different – but Saturn's moon Titan has ingredients for life – Western News

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Steve Gribben/Johns Hopkins APL

An artist’s rendering shows a Dragonfly quadcopter landing on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, unfolding its rotors and lifting off again to survey the landscape and atmosphere.

Catherine Neish is counting the days until her space launch. While the Western planetary geologist isn’t space-suiting up for her own interstellar voyage, she is playing a key role in an international mission – dispatching a robotic drone to Saturn’s moon Titan – set to blast-off in 2027.

For nearly two decades, the global space sector has focused a majority of its funds and research on Mars, in search of the building blocks of life. And yet, there are dynamic worlds like Saturn’s moon Titan, which may actually have more going on biologically than the Red Planet.

In a recent study published by Astronomy and Astrophysics, Neish – a member of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space) – and her collaborators at the European Space Agency (ESA) used advanced imaging technology to investigate Titan. They found when impact craters are formed on Saturn’s largest moon, it exposes relatively fresh ‘water ice’ from Titan’s icy crust.

On Titan, atmospheric processes bury the ice under a layer of sand-like organic material. In Titan’s dry equatorial regions, the sand piles up; but at higher, wetter latitudes, surface streams erode the sand away.

It is difficult to assess what lies beneath Titan’s hazy atmosphere – unless of course, you have a multi-million dollar Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer like ESA’s, which collected both light visible to humans and infrared light of slightly longer wavelengths during NASA’s Cassini mission.

“It’s wild. There’s no other place like Titan in the solar system. There’s more sand on Titan per area than anywhere else.” said Neish.

Titan has weather. It’s not unlike the Earth in that way. It’s just that the ingredients are all wrong. It has methane rain and streams cutting through the surface and organic sand getting blown around. It’s still very active, just like it is here on Earth.” ~ Catherine Neish, Western Space

These findings could prove beneficial in discovering ancient ecosystems frozen in the bottoms of impact craters and will also prove invaluable when preparing data analysis and monitoring techniques for the forthcoming Dragonfly drone mission to Titan.

As interest in Titan and other planetary bodies grow, Neish feels the global space sector is ready to start looking beyond Mars for the existence of life – even if the Red Planet remains the prime destination for NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and blockbuster movie producers in Hollywood.

“I think more and more, we’re seeing a false equivalency between life and Mars. The recent findings about Venus and all the new things we’re learning about it once being an ocean world is another game-changer,” said Neish. “Finally, people are saying, ‘In our search for life in the universe, we really need to focus on a lot more places, and not just Mars.’ And that includes NASA sending the Dragonfly mission to Titan.”

***

Related:

Dragonfly project will soar across Saturn moon, July 2019

Western research sets eyes on Saturn’s larges moon, February 2018

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SpaceX aborts Starlink launch due to ground-sensor reading – Space.com

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SpaceX aborted the launch of a batch of Starlink internet satellites 18 seconds before blastoff due to an anomalous ground-sensor reading this morning (Oct. 1) at the launchpad in Florida.

The company has not yet announced when the next launch opportunity for the rocket will occur. SpaceX has a second Falcon 9 rocket on a neighboring launchpad that is preparing to launch a new GPS satellite on Friday morning (Oct. 2).

“The purpose of countdown is to help us catch potential issues prior to flight,” Siva Bharadvaj, a spacecraft operator at SpaceX, said after announcing the abort. “There’s a thousand ways that a launch can go wrong and only one way it can go right.”

Related: SpaceX’s Starlink satellite megaconstellation launches in photos

Twin SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets seen at Kennedy Space Center before a Starlink launch abort on Oct. 1, 2020. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Despite the ground-sensor reading, Bharadvaj said, the rocket seemed to be in fine condition. “Overall, the vehicle does appear to be in good health,” he said.

Whenever it does launch, this mission will deliver the 13th batch of about 60 Starlink satellites into orbit to join SpaceX’s growing megaconstellation that is designed to provide internet services, particularly in remote areas that are not currently well connected.

Before this morning’s abort, the launch had been delayed by two weeks by bad weather.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Hashtag Trending – EMS use SpaceX’s Starlink; Cross-platform messaging on Facebook; Talking COVID-19 via social media – IT World Canada

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Washington emergency responders are the first to use SpaceX’s Starlink internet, Facebook will be launching cross-platform messaging on Instagram and Messenger, and why social media should be used more to inform young people about Covid-19 in Canada.

It’s all the tech news that’s popular right now. Welcome to Hashtag Trending! It’s Thursday, October 1 and I’m your host Baneet Braich.

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Washington emergency responders first to use SpaceX’s Starlink internet in the field: ‘It’s amazing’ from technology

Washington emergency responders are the first to use SpaceX’s Starlink internet and they say the results are a huge success. Washington’s state military began using Starlink in early August to bring internet service to areas damaged by wildfires. Washington state’s emergency telecommunications leader Richard Hall told CNBC, “I have spent the better part of four or five hours with some satellite equipment trying to get a good [connection]. So, to me, it’s amazing,” Starlink internet has been developed to deliver high-speed internet to anywhere on the planet. The full Starlink network is planned to have about 12,000 satellites flying in low Earth orbit which is much closer to the surface than traditional satellites.

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Facebook is launching cross-platform messaging on Instagram and Messenger. Facebook will now integrate various messaging platforms where users on messenger and Instagram to message one another app to app. Instagram will also get a major change in its DM system, which will get more features taken from Messenger. With the cross-platform features, users will also search for profiles across both apps simultaneously. Instagram will get updates like vanishing messages, selfie stickers, custom emoji, chat colours, new ways to block unwanted messages, and Messenger’s Watch Together feature, which lets users collectivity watch videos with friends during a video call.

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The second wave of Covid-19 is largely attributed to younger people. A Toronto Star article about the benefits platforms like TikTok could have on delivering important information about COVID is trending on Twitter. Dr. Naheed Dosani was an early adopter of TikTok to inform younger audiences about Covid-19. His early videos quickly went viral, reaching more than 100,000 people. However, he says social media apps can be better used to effectively communicate with young people. I can’t understand why public health messaging hasn’t prioritized these (social media) platforms for COVID-19 education,” Dosani said. He suggests involving clinicians that use the platforms or influencers and celebrities to get out the proper messaging could be highly effective in convincing younger audiences with bite-sized information. [Twitter thread]

That’s all the tech news that’s trending right now. Hashtag Trending is a part of the ITWC Podcast network. Add us to your Alexa Flash Briefing or your Google Home daily briefing. I’m Baneet Braich, thanks for listening.


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