Sciencescience

Sat Feb 11, 2017, 10:39 PM

NASA has an unusually bold plan to find life on Europa

http://www.popsci.com/nasa-europa-lander-alien-life

For the first time since the Viking mission failures, the space agency may take the direct approach


(Europa's inner ocean may be capable of supporting simple lifeforms. A proposed lander may go and look for them in the 2030s.)

If we want to find alien life in our solar system, Jupiter's icy moon Europa is one of the best places to look for it. And scientists may get a chance to do just that in the coming decades. A new NASA report outlines the goals for a mission that could land on the icy moon as soon as the 2031. While the lander mission isn't officially on the books yet, Congress wants it it happen. The new report is preliminary, meaning the goals and instruments may be subject to change. But if all goes according to plan, the mission's primary goal would be to search for evidence of life on this frigid world. That's a bold move. NASA's missions tend to look for “evidence of habitability,” or the potential of a place to support life. That's because the last time the agency tried to look directly for alien life, it didn't end well.


(Artist's illustration of the proposed Europa lander. The mission is still in the preliminary planning stages, and subject to change.)

The Viking landers searched for life on Mars in the 1970s, and sent back results that are still being debated to this day. One instrument found a potential sign of life, while the other two instruments failed to find organics—and without organics, life as we know it would be impossible. A 20-year hiatus in Mars exploration followed those disappointing results. More recently, scientists learned that perchlorate compounds in the Martian soil could have broken down any organic molecules on its surface—so Viking may have actually detected organics.

While most scientists still think there's a low chance that the red planet supports life, the Viking brouhaha provides important lessons for astrobiologists. “What Viking taught is us that you don't just jump in and look for life,” says Curt Niebur, program scientist on the Europa lander mission, as well as the Europa Clipper, which will fly by the frozen moon in the 2020s. “You need a general understanding of the environment in which you're looking, because it can complicate things.”

Life on Europa?

Below its shell of ice, Europa contains a vast inner ocean that's thought to be in contact with its seafloor, potentially infusing the water with the energy and nutrients needed to support life. If there's life in this deep, dark ocean, it may resemble the microbes that squirm around Earth's seafloor and in subglacial lakes. But Europa's surface is blasted by radiation, which can break down organic materials. “There's no chance that life is active on the surface of Europa,” says Niebur. “It's a very hostile environment.” Instead, the lander would scoop up ice samples from 10 centimeters below the surface, and analyze the contents in a variety of ways. An onboard microscope could look for visible evidence of dead microbes. Other instruments would look for organic materials, such as amino acids and lipids, that make up life as we know it. Meanwhile, determining how inorganic compounds are distributed could also hint at whether life is present.


(Plumes and other geological processes may carry the ocean's contents up to the surface, where a lander could reach them.)

(Excerpt, remainder of article at link)

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Response to Juan Rico (Original post)

Sat Feb 11, 2017, 11:12 PM

1. I was afraid they'd planned to send a rocket to Europa and squirt out earthly DNA in an attempt...

... at Terraforming...

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Response to Gamle-ged (Reply #1)

Sat Feb 11, 2017, 11:17 PM

2. Terraforming Europa would be quite a trick. Seeding with gengineered bacteria might be part of a

feasible terraforming scheme on Mars, but Europa would be far more difficult to make habitable.

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Response to Juan Rico (Original post)

Sun Feb 12, 2017, 01:23 AM

3. Just what we need, new microbes on earth

and a real life science fiction movie plot becoming reality.

But the biggest danger I see is the introduction of man made global warming on Europa. As cold as it is now, you KNOW republicans will screw up the works there.

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Response to oflguy (Reply #3)

Sun Feb 12, 2017, 01:49 AM

4. This isn't a sample return mission. There are no plans to do any sort of return mission past

the asteroid belt for the foreseeable future.

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Response to Juan Rico (Reply #4)

Sun Feb 12, 2017, 01:50 AM

5. Good

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Response to oflguy (Reply #5)

Sun Feb 12, 2017, 01:54 AM

6. There are plans for sample return missions from comets, asteroids, and Mars, though.

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Response to oflguy (Reply #3)

Sun Feb 12, 2017, 04:00 AM

7. A global warming skeptic with no idea how microbes, satellites or science works?

 

I'm shocked.

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Response to Juan Rico (Original post)

Sun Feb 12, 2017, 09:11 PM

8. I balk at the suggestion that the Viking Missions were "failure(s)"

If we are still debating the results 40 years later I say they were a resounding success. As an aside it seems to me that the Mars Curiosity rover mission would at least begin to answer some of those questions. I would suspect that if "organics" were present Curiosity would easily find them. Metabolism then seems unlikely. Fossil life may eventually be found on Mars but I think the planet has been long sterile. Perhaps even for more than a billion years.

And before you patronize me, I understand that by "failure" they were referring to not finding life.

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Response to Juan Rico (Original post)

Mon Feb 13, 2017, 02:40 PM

9. While very exciting, this gives me pause

Considering the cold virus survived on the Surveyor Moon Lander for years i am very concerned about potential contamination if in face life already exists there.

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Response to Currentsitguy (Reply #9)

Mon Feb 13, 2017, 03:30 PM

10. They didn't bother to attempt to sterilize the Surveyor probes

They did sterilize the Viking and subsequent Mars landers.

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Response to marmot84 (Reply #10)

Mon Feb 13, 2017, 03:57 PM

11. Considering the increasing resistance of some pathogens

I'm not 100% convinced total sterilization is possible.

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Response to Currentsitguy (Reply #11)

Mon Feb 13, 2017, 06:24 PM

12. I agree

but the procedure is pretty robust

http://mars.nasa.gov/mer/technology/is_planetary_protection.html

Microbes have grown resistant to organism antibodies not high temperatures and alcohol.

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Response to marmot84 (Reply #12)

Mon Feb 13, 2017, 06:28 PM

13. I'm thinking more of

Viruses and more frighteningly prions.

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Response to Currentsitguy (Reply #13)

Mon Feb 13, 2017, 07:03 PM

14. Viruses aren't really alive

they need a host ... they are kinda like only half alive.

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Response to Currentsitguy (Reply #13)

Fri Feb 17, 2017, 05:56 PM

15. A prion likely transmits the disease by causing a conformation change in an analogous...

protein. That is, the prion can only affect those organisms that have the same protein as the prion, but is in a different conformation. So wouldn't worry that one too much with alien life. I think the chances of proteins being so similar are quite quite low (if there is even any alien life).

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