Sunday, March 24, 2013

Looking for Life in All the Right Places

Forget Mars, is there life on one of Jupiter's moons? The conditions may exist.

Blogger's Note: HA! It's Science Saturday on SUNDAY! Bet you didn't see that one coming dear reader.

Some people look for God, or the gods, among the stars, while others limit their search to Switzerland.

Here on Science Sunday, we can accommodate both.

Zeus and Europa had a non-traditional
And to be fair, what they are really looking for in the stars, at least in this case, is not so much God, but life, or at least the proper environment for it. Scientists are  just looking for it among the Roman gods whose names we appropriated for the planets of our solar system.

And it looks like there may be hope not on Mars, where we're focusing most of our scientific energy these days and where signs of former life may be present, but on a moon of Jupiter named Europa.

Named after a lover of Zeus, who had a lot I'm told, Europa is the sixth closest moon to the gas giant Jupiter, was discovered by Galileo and is only slightly smaller than Earth's own single moon.

Most important about Europa is the fact that it's covered in water and, apparently, that water is pretty toasty warm because of gravitational forces and the moon's warm interior.

According to this article in Time magazine:

Gravitationally plucked by the tidal tugging of its sister moon Io and Jupiter itself, Europa retains a hot interior, which keeps the water comparatively warm and even pulsing. If that doesn’t sound like a place that could cook up life, nothing does. The only ingredients missing to make Europa’s ocean a potential home to living things have been salt and organic compounds. Now, according to a study about to be published in The Astronomical Journal, they’re not missing anymore. A dip in the waters of Europa, the paper concludes, could be very much like a dip in our oceans, perhaps with all the biology that implies.
When the Galileo probe showed up, it became clear that Europa’s ice coating was thick—but more important, the cracks, now clearly evident, meant the ice was floating, forever being fractured and re-fractured by the movement of the ocean below and the flexing of the moon itself. Neighboring Io is continually squeezed the same way, but there isn’t much water there, so the internal heating leads instead to sulfur-spewing volcanoes.
The Keck observatory in Hawaii.
None of this meant Europa had the ingredients for life: you could keep a tank of sterile water warm and churning for 4.5 billion years and at the end, all you’d have would be the same tank of sterile water. Finding evidence of the organics and salt was the key, and that has at last been provided, thanks to a set of observations by the giant Keck II telescope in Hawaii.
There is not absolute proof of salt in Europa's waters, just speculation, based on it's magnetic field, which would not be generated by fresh water, and with other chemicals being ruled out.
Still, it’s a speculation with big implications. The fractures on the surface have always suggested that the water in the ocean is not entirely trapped by the crust, but instead bubbles up and back down, with the chemistry of the ice above and the water below commingling. It’s statistically inevitable that Europa has been bombarded by many comets during its long lifetime, and since comets are known to contain carbon-based organic compounds, the oceans would be laced with the stuff too, rounding out the recipe for biology.
When Nasa's Galileo probe visited Jupiter and Europa in
the 1990s, its electronics were vintage 1970s.
“I’m not an expert on life,” says Caltech planetary scientist Mike Brown. “But I do know that if you dip a net in the ocean here, you’re bound to pick up something.” Even if you could not get your net two miles deep into the Europan ocean, simply sampling the surface ice would tell you a lot. “You could just land on the surface, dig up a scoop, and know what the chemistry of the ocean really is,” says Brown.
That kind of hands-on study is not likely to happen soon; even a robot lander would be too ambitious (read: too expensive) for the current NASA. Instead, the agency is thinking about a probe called the Europa Clipper, which would orbit Jupiter and make flybys as little as 10 miles above the Europan surface. Armed with far better instruments than Galileo’s vintage electronics, it would nail down the chemistry on the moon’s surface. If that chemistry is life-friendly, the case for a lander would be much stronger—and perhaps irresistible. We’ve never before encountered seawater, after all, that didn’t have at least a little something swimming around in it.
So enough about gods, how about God? Or at least, the "God particle.."

According to this Associated Press article in your very own ever-lovin' Mercury, the search for the next big clue in The Big Bang Theory (no, not the one with Sheldon Cooper) may have been found this month.
In what could go down as one of the great Eureka! moments in physics — and win somebody the Nobel Prize — scientists said Thursday that after a half-century quest, they are confident they have found a Higgs boson, the elusive subatomic speck sometimes called the “God particle.”
I prefer DaVinci's depiction of God over this modern
art version.
The existence of the particle was theorized in 1964 by the British physicist Peter Higgs to explain why matter has mass. Scientists believe the particle acts like molasses or snow: When other tiny basic building blocks pass through it, they stick together, slow down and form atoms.
Scientists at CERN, the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced in July that they had found something that looked like the Higgs boson, but they weren’t certain, and they needed to go through the data and rule out the possibility it wasn’t something else.
On Thursday, they said they believe they got it right.
“To me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is,” said Joe Incandela, a physicist who heads one of the two main teams at CERN, each involving about 3,000 scientists.
 So, we've got that going for us....

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