Volcanic habitats in Hawaiʻi are rich in bacterial diversity, including many yet undiscovered species, shows a new study. These lava caves and geothermal vents are similar to what may have once existed on Mars and the bacterial communities that co-exist there provide clues about how life can exist in extreme environments. This work also suggests that there is still much to learn about as-of-yet unknown bacteria here on Earth.
The lava caves, lava tubes and geothermal vents on the big island of Hawaiʻi have higher bacterial diversity than scientists expected, reports a new study in Frontiers in Microbiology. These habitats represent how life might have existed on Mars and early Earth in the past, and this study explores the diversity and interactions within these microbial ecosystems. Surprisingly, the results revealed that a group of bacteria called Chloroflexi are often ‘hub’ species, meaning that they are connected with many other species and usually play key ecological roles in the community. Little is known about many Chloroflexi species and further study will reveal previously undiscovered species, as well as what role these species play in these extreme environments.
“This study points to the possibility that more ancient lineages of bacteria, like the phylum Chloroflexi, may have important ecological ‘jobs,’ or roles,” said first author Dr Rebecca D Prescott of NASA Johnson Space Center and University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, in the US. “The Chloroflexi are an extremely diverse group of bacteria, with lots of different roles found in lots of different environments, but they are not well studied and so we don’t know what they do in these communities. Some scientists call such groups ‘microbial dark matter’ – the unseen or un-studied microorganisms in nature.”
Unseen volcanic life
To have an idea of how the bacterial communities might develop over time, Prescott and her collaborators collected 70 samples from varied sites including active geothermal vents (fumaroles), as well as ‘younger’ and ‘older’ lava tubes and caves, which were under 400 years old and between 500 to 800 years old, respectively. By sequencing the ribosomal RNA in the samples, they could measure the diversity and abundance of the bacterial classes in each sample. The networks formed by co-occurring bacteria also gave clues about how these microbes may interact with each other.
The research team had expected that the harshest conditions—the geothermal sites—might have lower diversity than the more established and habitable lava tubes. While it was true that the diversity was lower, the team was surprised to see that the interactions within these communities were more complex than in locations with higher diversity.
“This leads to the question, do extreme environments help create more interactive microbial communities, with microorganisms more dependent on each other?” said Prescott. “And if so, what is it about extreme environments that helps to create this?”
Since Chloroflexi, and another class called Acidobacteria, were present at nearly all of the locations, they may play important roles in these communities. But these were not the most abundant bacteria, and the individual communities from the different sites showed large variation in the diversity and complexity of the microbial interactions. Counterintuitively, the most abundant groups, Oxyphotobacteria and Actinobacteria, were not often ‘hub’ species, suggesting that their roles may be less important to the overall structure of the community.
More questions than answers
The current study, based on the partial sequencing of one gene, cannot accurately determine the species of microbes or their ‘jobs’ in the community. Therefore, further studies are needed to help reveal the individual species that are present, as well as to better understand these bacteria’s roles in the environment.
“Overall, this study helps to illustrate how important it is to study microbes in co-culture, rather than growing them alone (as isolates),” said Prescott. “In the natural world, microbes do not grow in isolation. Instead, they grow, live and interact with many other microorganisms in a sea of chemical signals from those other microbes. This then can alter their gene expression, affecting what their jobs are in the community.”
Beyond the insights about past, or even future, life on Mars, bacteria from volcanic environments can also be useful in understanding how microbes turn volcanic rock (basalt) into soils, as well as bioremediation, biotechnology and sustainable resource management.
Reference: Prescott RD, Zamkovaya T, Donachie SP et al. Islands within islands: bacterial phylogenetic structure and consortia in Hawaiian Lava Caves and Fumaroles. Front. Microbiol. 13:934708. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2022.934708.
This article has been republished from the following materials. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.
‘Planetary defence’: NASA targets asteroid in space collision – Al Jazeera English
After NASA deliberately smashes a car-sized spacecraft into an asteroid next week, it will be up to the European Space Agency’s Hera mission to investigate the “crime scene” and uncover the secrets of these potentially devastating space rocks.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) aims to collide with the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos on Monday night, hoping to slightly alter its trajectory – the first time such an operation has been attempted.
While Dimorphos is 11 million kilometres (6.8 million miles) away and poses no threat to Earth, the mission is a test run in case the world someday needs to deflect an asteroid from heading our way.
Astronomers around the world will watch DART’s impact and its effect will be closely followed to see if the mission passed the test.
The European Space Agency’s Hera mission, named after the ancient Greek queen of the gods, will follow in its footsteps.
The Hera spacecraft is planned to launch in October 2024, aiming to arrive at Dimorphos in 2026 to measure the exact impact DART had on the asteroid.
Scientists are not only excited to see DART’s crater, but also to explore an object very much out of this world.
‘A new world’
Dimorphos, which orbits a larger asteroid Didymos as they hurtle together through space, provides not only a “perfect testing opportunity for a planetary defence experiment, but it is also a completely new environment”, Hera Mission Manager Ian Carnelli said.
Hera will be loaded with cameras, spectrometers, radars and even toaster-sized nano-satellites to measure the asteroid’s shape, mass, chemical composition and more.
NASA’s Bhavya Lal said it was critically important to understand the size and composition of such asteroids.
“If an asteroid is made up of, for example, loose gravel, approaches to disrupt it may be different than if it was metal or some other kind of rock,” she told the International Astronautical Congress in Paris this week.
So little is known about Dimorphos that scientists will discover “a new world” at the same time as the public on Monday, Hera mission Principal Investigator Patrick Michel said.
“Asteroids are not boring space rocks – they are super exciting because they have a great diversity” in size, shape and composition, Michel said.
Because they have low gravity compared with Earth, matter there could behave completely differently than expected. “Unless you touch the surface, you cannot know the mechanical response,” he said.
‘Behaved almost like fluid’
For example, when a Japanese probe dropped a small explosive near the surface of the Ryugu asteroid in 2019, it was expected to make a crater of two to three metres. Instead, it blasted a 50-metre hole.
“There was no resistance,” Michel said. “The surface behaved almost like a fluid [rather than solid rock]. How weird is that?”
One way the Hera mission will test Dimorphos will be to land a nano-satellite on its surface, in part to see how much it bounces.
Binary systems such as Dimorphos and Didymos represent about 15 percent of known asteroids, but have not yet been explored.
With a diameter of just 160 metres – around the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza – Dimorphos will also be the smallest asteroid ever studied.
Learning about the impact of DART is not only important for planetary defence, Michel said, but also for understanding the history of our solar system, where most cosmic bodies were formed through collisions and are now riddled with craters.
That is where DART and Hera could shine a light not just on the future but on the past.
Approaching storm may delay launch try for NASA moon rocket – CP24
Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press
Published Friday, September 23, 2022 5:01PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 23, 2022 6:13PM EDT
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – An approaching storm threatens to delay NASA’s next launch attempt for its new moon rocket, already grounded for weeks by fuel leaks.
A tropical depression in the southern Caribbean is moving toward Florida and could become a major hurricane.
Managers on Friday declared that the rocket is now ready to blast off on its first test flight, after overcoming more hydrogen leaks during a fueling test earlier in the week. It will be the first time a crew capsule orbits the moon in 50 years; the spacecraft will carry mannequins but no astronauts.
Teams will keep monitoring the forecast and decide no later than Saturday whether to not only delay the test flight, but haul the rocket off the pad and back to the hangar. It’s unclear when the next launch attempt would be – whether October or even November – if the rocket must seek shelter indoors.
The preference is to remain at the launch pad and try for a Tuesday liftoff, “but there are still some uncertainties in the forecast,” said NASA’s Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems.
It takes three days of preparations to get the rocket back into Kennedy Space Center’s mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building, a 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) trip lasting several hours.
“I don’t think we’re cutting it close,” Whitmeyer told reporters. “We’re just taking it a step at a time.”
The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket can withstand gusts of 85 mph (137 kph) at the pad, but only 46 mph (74 kph) once it’s on the move.
This would be the third launch attempt for the Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful ever built by NASA. Fuel leaks and other technical problems scrapped the first two tries, in late August and early September.
Although hydrogen fuel seeped past newly installed seals during Wednesday’s dress rehearsal, the launch team got the leakage down to acceptable levels by slowing the flow and reducing the pressure in the lines. That gave the launch team the confidence to proceed with a Tuesday launch attempt, officials said.
Managers said that the 30-year space shuttle program also saw plenty of hydrogen fuel leaks and hurricane-related rollbacks. The moon rocket’s main engines are actually upgraded versions of what flew on shuttles.
Also, the Space Force has extended the certification of on-board batteries that are part of the flight safety system – at least through the beginning of October.
NASA has just two chances to launch the rocket – Tuesday and Oct. 2 – before a two-week blackout period begins. The next launch period would open Oct. 17.
Astronauts would climb aboard for the second test flight around the moon in 2024. The third mission, targeted for 2025, would see a pair of astronauts landing on the moon.
Neptune and its rings come into focus with Webb telescope – Kathimerini English Edition
No spacecraft has visited Neptune since 1989, when the NASA probe Voyager 2 flew past on its way out of the solar system. Neptune, which is four times as wide as Earth, is the most distant planet of our solar system. Voyager 2’s observations whetted the appetites of astronomers, who were eager to learn more about the ice giant.
Now we’ve returned. Sort of.
On Wednesday, the James Webb Space Telescope cast its powerful gold-plated eye onto this remote world. The power of this infrared machine, the largest and most advanced telescope ever sent to space, has provided some of our best views of Neptune in 30 years.
“I have been waiting so long for these images of Neptune,” said Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which runs the Webb telescope. “I’m so happy that it has worked.”
Ground-based observatories and the Hubble Space Telescope have taken many images of Neptune in the past three decades. But the Webb’s views of Neptune, taken in July, provide an unprecedented glimpse at the planet in infrared light.
It took just a few minutes for the telescope to image Neptune close up, and an additional 20 to take a wider view, revealing not just the planet but myriad galaxies behind it stretching into the cosmos. “It’s aesthetically fascinating to see those distant galaxies and get a sense for how small the ice giant appears,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Most prominent in the telescope’s view are Neptune’s rings, seen encircling the planet at a slight tilt given its orientation to Earth. The Webb telescope will allow astronomers to measure the reflectivity of the rings, offering an unmatched insight into this remote spectacle. New images could reveal the size and composition of these thin bands, which are probably made of ice and other debris.
“The ring system was absolutely mind-boggling to me,” Hammel said. “I have not seen it in that level of detail since the Voyager encounter in 1989. It just pops right out.”
Across the planet there are bright spots believed to be clouds of methane ice, which rise high into the planet’s skies and can persist for days.
“Nobody really knows what these things are,” said Patrick Irwin, a planetary physicist at Oxford University. “They seem to come and go, a bit like cirrus clouds on Earth.” The Webb telescope’s future observations could uncover how they form and what they are made of.
Webb images also show seven of Neptune’s 14 moons. The brightest is Triton, the planet’s largest moon, which scientists suspect was captured by Neptune’s gravity early in the solar system’s history. In infrared images, Triton’s frozen nitrogen surface makes it shine like a star, brighter than Neptune itself, because methane dims the planet in infrared light. NASA recently declined to send a mission to study Triton, and not much can be gleaned about it from this image. But future Webb observations should hint at the composition of Triton’s surface and could show changes indicating geological activity.
“Triton is a geologically active world,” Hammel said. “When Voyager 2 flew by, it saw cryovolcanoes erupting. So there is a possibility that there are changes in the surface chemistry over time. We will be looking for that.”
Hammel also thinks a glimpse of Hippocampus, an eighth Neptunian moon, is pictured just above the planet. “It’s very faint, but it’s in the right location,” she said.
These images of Neptune are just the latest in Webb’s tour of the solar system. This week we were treated to the telescope’s first glimpses of Mars, while over the summer we saw amazing views of Jupiter. Much more of our solar system will come under the observatory’s roaming eye, including Saturn, Uranus and even remote icy objects beyond Neptune — such as the dwarf planet Pluto.
“It illustrates that we are an all-purpose observatory,” said Mark McCaughrean, a Webb telescope scientist and a senior scientific adviser at the European Space Agency. “We can observe very bright things like Mars and Neptune, but also very faint things. Everybody now sees that it works.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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