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Posted: 05 Mar 2015 06:50 PM PST
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Posted: 05 Mar 2015 06:28 PM PST
Excerpt from mashable.com
In a world first, chemical engineers have taken a different look at a question astronomers and biologists have been pondering for decades: Does Saturn moon Titan host life?
Of course, Titan is way too hostile for life as we know it to eke out an existence — it is a frigid world awash with liquid methane and ethane and a noxious atmosphere devoid of any liquid water. But say if there is a different kind of biology, a life as wedon't know it, thriving on the organic chemistry that is abundant on Titan's surface?Normally, astrobiologists combine what we know about Earth's biosphere and astronomers zoom in on other stars containing exoplanets in the hope that some of those alien world have some similarities to Earth. By looking for small rocky exoplanets orbiting inside their star's habitable zones, we are basically looking for a "second Earth" where liquid water is at least possible. Where there's liquid water on Earth, there's inevitably life, so scientists seeking out alien life 'follow the water' in the hope of finding life with a similar terrestrial template on other planets.
Titan, however, does not fall into this category, it is about as un-Earth-like as you can get. So, chemical molecular dynamics expert Paulette Clancy and James Stevenson, a graduate student in chemical engineering, from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, have looked at Titan in a different light and created a theoretical model of a methane-based, oxygen-free life form that could thrive in that environment.There is no known template for this kind of life on Earth, but the researchers have studied what chemicals are in abundance on Titan and worked out how a very different kind of life could be sparked.
As a collaborator on the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission, Lunine, professor in the Physical Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Astronomy, has been fascinated with the possibility of methane-based life existing on Titan for some time, so he joined forces with Clancy and Stevenson to see what this hypothetical life form might look like.
In their research published in the journal Science Advances on Feb. 27, Clancy and Stevenson focused on building a cell membrane "composed of small organic nitrogen compounds and capable of functioning in liquid methane temperatures of 292 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit; or 94 Kelvin)," writes a Cornell press release. On Earth, water-based molecules form phospholipid bilayer membranes that give cells structure, housing organic materials inside while remaining permeable. On Titan, liquid water isn't available to build these cell membranes.
"We're not biologists, and we're not astronomers, but we had the right tools," said Clancy, lead researcher of the study. "Perhaps it helped, because we didn't come in with any preconceptions about what should be in a membrane and what shouldn't. We just worked with the compounds that we knew were there and asked, 'If this was your palette, what can you make out of that?'"The researchers were able to model the ideal cell that can do all the things that life can do (i.e. support metabolism and reproduction), but constructed it from nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen-based molecules that are known to exist in Titan's liquid methane seas. This chemical configuration gives this theoretical alien cell stability and flexibility in a similar manner to Earth life cells.
"The engineers named their theorized cell membrane an 'azotosome,' 'azote' being the French word for nitrogen. 'Liposome' comes from the Greek 'lipos' and 'soma' to mean 'lipid body;' by analogy, 'azotosome' means 'nitrogen body.'" — Cornell"Ours is the first concrete blueprint of life not as we know it," said lead author Stevenson, who also said that he was inspired, in part, by Isaac Asimov, who wrote the 1962 essay "Not as We Know It" about non-water-based life.Having identified a possible type of cell membrane chemistry that functions in the Titan environment as a cell on Earth might, the next step is to model how such a hypothetical type of biology would function on Titan. In the long run, we might also be able to model what kinds of observable indicators we should look for that might reveal that alien biology's presence.
That way, should a mission be eventually sent to Titan's seas, sampling the chemical compounds in the soup of organics may reveal a biology of a very alien nature.
Scientists have been trying to know if life could exist on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. According to scientists, there are possibilities that life could survive amidst methane-based lakes of Titan. After conducting many studies, they have found signs of life on Titan, but the scientists also said that life will not be like life on earth.
As per some scientific reports, Titan is the only object other than earth which has clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid. Like earth, the moon has mountains, islands, lakes and storms, but it doesn’t have oxygen, which is a major element to support life. It means that only oxygen-free and methane-based can exist on Titan.
According to lead researcher Paulette Clancy, “We didn’t come in with any preconceptions about what should be in a membrane and what shouldn’t. We just worked with the compounds that, we knew were there and asked, ‘If this was your palette, what can you make out of that”.
According to reports, the researchers had used a molecular dynamics method to know about Titan. They screened for suitable candidate compounds from methane for self-assembly into membrane-like structures. As per the researchers, the most promising compound they discovered was an acrylonitrile azotosome, which is present in the atmosphere of Titan.
As per the researchers, acrylonitrile has shown good stability and flexibility similar to that of phospholipid membranes on Earth. It means that the Saturn largest has atmosphere and conditions to support life in a different way than earth.
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Posted: 05 Mar 2015 06:18 PM PST
Excerpt from cnet.com
We know a whole lot about life on our planet, but one mystery persists: how it got here.
NASA scientists working at the Ames Astrochemistry Laboratory in California and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland may have just found a clue to that mystery. They've determined that some of the chemical components of our DNA can be produced in the harsh crucible of space.
Pyrimidine is also found on meteorites, which prompted the researchers to explore how it reacts when frozen in water in space.
So they put their chunk of ice in a machine that reproduces the vacuum of space, along with temperatures around -430°F and harsh radiation created by high-energy ultraviolet (UV) photons from a hydrogen lamp.
They found that not only could the pyrimidine molecules survive these brutal conditions, but the radiation actually morphed some of them into three chemical components found in DNA and RNA: uracil, cytosine and thymine.
"We are trying to address the mechanisms in space that are forming these molecules," Christopher Materese, a NASA researcher working on these experiments, said in a statement. "Considering what we produced in the laboratory, the chemistry of ice exposed to ultraviolet radiation may be an important linking step between what goes on in space and what fell to Earth early in its development."
Added Scott Sandford, a space science researcher at Ames, "Our experiments suggest that once the Earth formed, many of the building blocks of life were likely present from the beginning. Since we are simulating universal astrophysical conditions, the same is likely wherever planets are formed."
While this research might help fill in a piece of the puzzle of our cosmic origins, another mystery remains. Scientists don't exactly know where meteoric pyrimidine comes from in the first place, although they theorize that it could arise when giant red stars die. And the search continues...
Posted: 05 Mar 2015 05:44 PM PST
Excerpt from nytimes.com
After six years of planetary observations, scientists at NASA say they have found convincing new evidence that ancient Mars had an ocean.
It was probably the size of the Arctic Ocean, larger than previously estimated, the researchers reported on Thursday. The body of water spread across the low-lying plain of the planet’s northern hemisphere for millions of years, they said.
If confirmed, the findings would add significantly to scientists’ understanding of the planet’s history and lend new weight to the view that ancient Mars had everything needed for life to emerge.
“The existence of a northern ocean has been debated for decades, but this is the first time we have such a strong collection of data from around the globe,” said Michael Mumma, principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology and an author of the report, published in the journal Science. “Our results tell us there had to be a northern ocean.”
But other experts said the question was hardly resolved. The ocean remains “a hypothesis,” said Ashwin Vasavada, project scientist of the Curiosity rover mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Dr. Mumma and Geronimo Villanueva, a planetary scientist at NASA, measured two slightly different forms of water in Mars’ atmosphere. One is the familiar H2O, which consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.
The other is a slightly “heavier” version of water, HDO, in which the nucleus of one hydrogen atom contains a neutron. The atom is called deuterium.
The two forms exist in predictable ratios on Earth, and both have been found in meteorites from Mars. A high level of heavier water today would indicate that there was once a lot more of the “lighter” water, somehow lost as the planet changed.
The scientists found eight times as much deuterium in the Martian atmosphere than is found in water on Earth. Dr. Villanueva said the findings “provide a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had by determining how much water was lost to space.”
He said the measurements pointed to an ancient Mars that had enough water to cover the planet to a depth of at least 137 meters, or about 450 feet. Except for assessments based on the size of the northern basin, this is the highest estimate of the amount of water on early Mars that scientists have ever made.
The water on Mars mostly would have pooled in the northern hemisphere, which lies one to three kilometers — 0.6 to 1.8 miles — below the bedrock surface of the south, the scientists said.
At one time, the researchers estimated, a northern ocean would have covered about 19 percent of the Martian surface. In comparison, the Atlantic Ocean covers about 17 percent of Earth’s surface.
The new findings come at a time when the possibility of a northern ocean on Mars has gained renewed attention.
The Curiosity rover measured lighter and heavier water molecules in the Gale Crater, and the data also indicated that Mars once had substantial amounts of water, although not as much as Dr. Mumma and Dr. Villanueva suggest.
“The more water was present — and especially if it was a large body of water that lasted for a longer period of time — the better the chances are for life to emerge and to be sustained,” said Paul Mahaffy, chief of the atmospheric experiments laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
Just last month, the science team running the Curiosity rover held its first formal discussion about the possibility of such an ocean and what it would have meant for the rest of Mars.
Scientists generally agree that lakes must have existed for millions of years in Gale Crater and elsewhere. But it is not clear how they were sustained and replenished.
“For open lakes to remain relatively stable for millions of years — it’s hard to figure how to do that without an ocean,” Dr. Vasavada said. “Unless there was a large body of water supplying humidity to the planet, the water in an open lake would quickly evaporate and be carried to the polar caps or frozen out.”
Yet climate modelers have had difficulty understanding how Mars could have been warm enough in its early days to keep water from freezing. Greenhouse gases could have made the planet much warmer at some point, but byproducts of those gases have yet to be found on the surface.
James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University, said in an email that the new paper had “profound implications for the total volume of water” on ancient Mars.
But, he added, “climate models have great difficulty in reconstructing an early Mars with temperatures high enough to permit surface melting and liquid water.”
Also missing are clear signs of the topographic and geological features associated with large bodies of water on Earth, such as sea cliffs and shorelines.
Based on low-resolution images sent back by the Viking landers, the geologist Timothy Parker and his colleagues at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab reported in 1989 the discovery of ancient shorelines. But later high-resolution images undermined their conclusions.
Still, Dr. Parker and his colleagues have kept looking for — and finding, they say — some visible signs of a northern ocean. The new data “certainly encourages me to do more,” he said in an interview.
Other researchers have also been looking for signs of an ancient ocean.
In 2013, Roman DiBiase, then a postdoctoral student at the California Institute of Technology, and Michael Lamb, an assistant professor of geology there, identified what might have been a system of channels on Mars that originated in the southern hemisphere and emptied steeply into the northern basin — perhaps, they said, water flowing through a delta to an ocean.
Posted: 05 Mar 2015 05:33 PM PST
(Reuters) - Astronomers have found a star hurtling through the galaxy faster than any other, the result of being blasted away by the explosion of a massive partner star, researchers said on Thursday.
The star, known as US 708, is traveling at about 746 miles (1,200 km) per second, fast enough to actually leave the Milky Way galaxy in about 25 million years, said astronomer Stephan Geier with Germany-based European Southern Observatory, which operates three telescopes in Chile.
"At that speed you could travel from Earth to the moon in five minutes," noted University of Hawaii astronomer Eugene Magnier.
US 708 is not the first star astronomers have found that is moving fast enough to escape the galaxy, but it is the only one so far that appears to have been slingshot in a supernova explosion.
The 20 other stars discovered so far that are heading out of the galaxy likely got their impetus from coming too close to the supermassive black hole that lives at the center of the Milky Way, scientists report in an article in this week’s edition of the journal Science.
Before it was sent streaming across the galaxy, US 708 was once a cool giant star, but it was stripped of nearly all of its hydrogen by a closely orbiting partner. Scientists suspect it was this feeding that triggered the partner’s detonation.
If confirmed, these types of ejected stars may provide more insight into how supernova explosions occur. Since the explosions give off a fairly standard amount of radiation, scientists can calculate their distances by measuring how bright or dim they appear and determine how fast the universe is expanding.
Posted: 05 Mar 2015 04:28 PM PST
Leading experts, including Professor Stephen Hawking and Dr Michio Kaku, reveal their views on time travel.
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Posted: 05 Mar 2015 04:17 PM PST
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Posted: 05 Mar 2015 03:59 PM PST