Posts Tagged ‘extraterrestrial life’

As those of you following my blog will know, I am currently on a cruise around New Zealand, giving astronomy talks. One of my six talks is about our current understanding of whether there is (or was) life on Mars. I try to only talk about objects which are visible during the cruise, and Mars is currently visible in the evening sky, albeit a lot fainter than it was in May when it was at opposition.


One of the talks I am giving on this cruise is our current understanding of whether there is (or was) life on Mars.

The question of whether there is life on Mars, or whether there ever has been in its history, is a fascinating one. I thought I would do a series of blogs to explore the question. But, I have to begin by saying that ANY search for life beyond Earth is predicated by our understanding of life on Earth. The only thing, it would seem, required by all forms of life which we have found on earth is water. Extremophiles show that life can exist without oxygen, without light, at high pressure, in radioactive environments; in fact in all sorts of environments which humans would find impossible. But, none of the life so far found on Earth can exist without water.

As a consequence, all searches for life in our Solar System tend to begin with the search for water. Now, it may be that life beyond Earth could have evolved to exist without the need for water. I am no chemist, but I don’t think there is anything particularly unique about water in its chemistry which makes it impossible for living cells to use some other substance. Water is the only substance on Earth which can exist in all three forms naturally (solid, liquid and gas), so it does occupy an unique place in the environment found on Earth. But, on Titan for example, methane seems to exist in all three forms. Maybe life has evolved on Titan to metabolise using methane in the same way that life on Earth has evolved to metabolise using water. We don’t know.

So, I thought I would start this series of blogs with the big news in the 1890s, that Martians had built canals on the red planet!

Schiaparelli and Martian ‘canali’

The Schiaparelli space probe which ESA sadly failed to land on Mars recently was named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. In the late 1880s he reported seeing ‘canali’ on the surface of Mars. Although this means ‘channels’, it got mis-translated to ‘canals’, and led to a flurry of excitement that this was evidence of an intelligent civilisation on Mars.

The idea grew that Martians had built canals to transport water from the “wet” regions near the poles to the arid equatorial regions. The ice caps of Mars are easily visible through a small telescope, so astronomers had known for decades that Mars had ice caps which they assumed were similar to the ice caps on Earth.


Giovanni Schiaparelli’s map of ‘canali’ on Mars, from 1888.

One person who became particularly taken with this idea of canals on Mars was American Percival Lowell. Lowell came from a rich Bostonian family, and had enough personal wealth to build an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He set about proving the existence of life on Mars, writing several books on the subject. He published Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). But, by 1909 the 60-inch telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory had shown that the ‘canali’ were natural features, and Lowell was forced to abandon his ideas that intelligent life existed on Mars.

However, his Flagstaff Observatory was to go on and make important contributions to astronomy. In the 1910s Vesto Slipher was the first person to show that nearly all spiral nebulae (spiral galaxies as we now call them) showed a redshift, the first bit of observational evidence that the Universe is expanding. And, in 1930 Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at Flagstaff Observatory.

In part 2 of this blog, next week, I will talk about the first space probes sent to Mars, and the first images taken of Mars by a space probe which successfully orbited the planet, Mariner 4.

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Earlier this week it was announced that NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope had observed evidence for water geysers shooting from the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s larger moons. Here is a link to NASA’s press release. I was on BBC TV talking briefly about this on Tuesday (27 September), the day after NASA’s announcement.


NASA has announced that the Hubble Space Telescope has observed water geysers emanating from the south pole of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

In fact, this announcement was additional evidence to add to a finding which had first been announced in 2013. In December 2012, astronomers used a spectroscope on Hubble to look in ultraviolet wavelengths at Europa. They found auroral activity near the moon’s south pole, and upon analysis of the spectrum of the UV emission from this auroral activity they found the spectral signatures of hydrogen and oxygen, the constituents of water.

Those 2012 observations have since been followed up using a different method. This time astronomers have observed how the Sun’s light, which is reflected from Jupiter, is affected as it passes Europa. As Europa transited in front of its parent planet, astronomers looked for signs of absorption of this light near the limb of the moon, which would be due to gases associated with Europa. Such a technique can, for example, be used to find and study the atmosphere of an extra-solar planet as it passes in front of its parent star.

Whilst not finding any evidence that Europa has an atmosphere, what the team found was that absorption features were seen near the moon’s south pole. When they calculated the amount and extent of material required to produce these absorption features they found that their results were consistent with the 2012 finding. They calculate that water jets are spewing out from the surface of Europa and erupting to a height of about 160 km from the moon’s surface.

We have had evidence since the Voyager mission in the 1980s that Europa has an ocean of water below its icy surface. This evidence was further enhanced during the Galileo mission in the 1990s. Where there is water there may be life, so it is possible that Europa’s ocean is teeming with microbial life. To find out, we need to directly study the water in this sub-surface ocean.

Unfortunately, due to the thickness of the icy crust covering its ocean, studying this water directly poses a huge challenge. We currently don’t have the capability to drill through such a large thickness of ice, although it is certainly something we would hope to do in the future. This discovery of water jets provides a much easier way to sample the water directly, and so it is quite feasible that NASA and/or ESA could send a probe to fly through the jet, take a sample of the water, and analyse it to see whether there are any signs of microbial life. This is very exciting, and is why this discovery of water geysers erupting on Europa is so important.

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Could there be as many as 17 billion Earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy?
This has been suggested in a paper presented in this last few weeks at the semi-annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The lead author of the papaer is Dr. Francois Fressin, who was part of the team that discovered the first Earth-sized planets in late 2011.

An artist's representation of exoplanets

An artist’s representation of extra-solar planets

Dr. Fressin has analysed data from the Kepler mission to come up with his startling figure. But, it should be pointed out that a lot of assumptions come into this number, so I thought I would explain what some of these assumptions are, as well as explaining a little about the Kepler mission.

Wobbling stars

The history of detecting extra-solar planets (exoplanets) goes back to the mid 1990s. The detection technique used for the vast majority of the early discoveries was to detect the wobble that an orbiting planet produces in the position of its host star. When a planet orbits a star they in fact both orbit the system’s centre of mass. This may be a point actually within the body of the star. The larger the ratio between the mass of the star and the mass of the orbiting planet, the closer the centre of mass will be to the centre of the host star.

The dopper shift in the spectrum of a star produced as an unseen planet orbits it

The dopper shift in the spectrum of a star produced as an unseen planet orbits it

Our Earth produces a wobble in the Sun, but it is too small a wobble for us to be able to detect. However, Jupiter, the most massive planet in our Solar System, produces a wobble in the Sun’s position that is detectable.

If we are looking at a star with a Jupiter-mass planet going around it then, as long as this planet is not too far from its host star, we should be able to detect the wobble in the position of the host star. But, only if we are looking at it with the right orientation. This is because we do not directly see the wobble in the host star, what we observe is a rhythmic Doppler shift in the spectral lines of the star, which shows that it is moving towards and away from us in a regular manner.

If we were to look at such a system face-on (at right angles to the plane of orbit of the planet) we would not detect any wobble, as the wobble would be side-to-side. The effect is maximum when we view the system edge-on, and will be less for other angles. More precisely, if \theta is the angle between the plane of orbit of the planet and our line of sight, then the observed wobble to our line of sight will vary as \cos\theta, maximum when \theta=0^{\circ} (edge-on) and zero when \theta=90^{\circ} (face-on).

Because of the accuracy with which we can measure Doppler shifts, this technique for finding exoplanets tends to predominantly find planets with masses as large or larger than Jupiter orbiting often much closer than our Earth orbits the Sun.

The Kepler mission

The Kepler mission was launched in 2009 and uses an entirely different technique, known as the transit technique. If a planet passes in front of its host star, the light coming from the star will be reduced a small amount as the planet passes across the disk of its host star. Often the amount can be less than 1%, but with our modern-day high accuracy cameras we can detect such tiny dips in brightness.

The dip in light from a star when a planet passes in front of it.

The dip in light from a star when a planet passes in front of it.

Of course, we will only see such a dip if we are viewing the system edge-on or close to edge-one. Depending on how close the planet is to its host star, once the viewing angle is more than a few degrees away from being edge-on, the planet will no longer be seen to pass across the disk of its host star and so no dip in light will be observed.

Although this is a severe limitation, Kepler gets around this by viewing many stars simultaneously. Kepler constantly stares at the same small patch of the sky (some 1/400th of the sky), but in its field of view there are over 150,000 stars. To date, Kepler has found some 2,740 candiate exoplanets, a much larger figure than the number of exoplanets found using the wobble technique.

The Kepler mission telescope, which was launched in 2009.

The Kepler mission telescope, which was launched in 2009.

I should also point out that not only orbiting planets can cause a dip in a star’s light. Some stars are intrinsically variable, but we know which kinds of stars these are so can ignore those. Also, something else could come between us and the star, such as a clould of gas and dust, or another passing star. So, the dip in light of a particular star needs to be observed to be repeating for us to know that it is due to a planet in orbit about it.

In addition to its greater number of detections, the transit technique is able to observe planets as small as the Earth orbiting their host star, because we are capable of detecting even such tiny dips in the light of the host star. In late 2011, Dr.Fressin and his team made the first announcement of the detection of Earth-sized exoplanets which were detected by the Kepler mission.

What can we learn from the dips of light

It turns out that we can learn quite a lot about the exoplanet from observing the dip in light. First, by observing the time between the dips in the star’s light we can determine how long the planet takes to orbit its host star (the period of orbit). Also, by analysing the amount the host star’s light dims, we can work out the physical size of the planet as we know from the spectral type of the star what it’s physical size is.

In order to confirm that a transit event is indeed an orbiting planet we need to follow up the observation using the Doppler-shift technique to see its radial wobble. The Doppler-shift technique allows us to determine the mass of the exoplanet, because we know from the host star’s spectral type what its mass is, and so the size of the host star’s wobble is related to the ratio of the host star’s mass to the exoplanet’s mass.

By combining the two techniques we can also determine the exoplanet’s density, as the transit technique tells us its size and the Doppler-shift technique tells us its mass. The density allows us to say whether the exoplanet is gaseous or rocky.

Is 17 billion reasonable?

So far Kepler has detected some 2,740 possible exoplanets, from the more than 150,000 stars that it is observing. As scientists only recently announced a 461 new candidates, clearly new detections are still being made. Dr. Fressin calculates that 17% of stars host a planet up to 1.25 times the size of the Earth. This figure is based on several steps of calculations – including how many of the 2,740 detections are Earth-sized planets and how many of the approximately 150,000 stars in the field of view have the correct orientation for us to see a transit event. The figure of 17% that Dr. Fressin has determined is then multiplied by the calculation that there are 100 billion stars in our Galaxy to come up with the figure of 17 billion Earth-like planets.

By anyone’s reckoning, 17 billion Earth-like planets is a lot! Even if the figure is found to be too high, it is unlikely to be out by more than a factor or 10, probably much less. This still leaves more than 2 billion Earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy, a very large number. Not all of these Earth-like planets would be suitable places for life to have evolved; they may be orbiting high-mass stars whose lifetimes are too brief for life to evolve, or they may be too close or too far from their host star to be suitable.

It seems to me that there is every likelyhood of not only life but intelligent life elsewhere in our Galaxy. Whether we ever make contact with extra-terrestrial civilisations is a whole different matter.


This interesting histogram has recently been produced by NASA, as their Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for Saturday the 12th of January 2013.

A histogram produced by NASA showing the percentages of different types of exoplanets.

A histogram produced by NASA showing the percentages of different types of exoplanets.

As the caption to the image on NASA’s APOD page says, these percentages are for predominantly planets in orbits close to the host star, within the equivalent of Mercury’s orbit. This is because Kepler is more likely to detect a transit event when the exoplanet is in a close orbit, because a larger range of viewing angles will still lead to our seeing a transit event.

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