Archive for the ‘Extraterrestrial life’ Category


The Chinese government is relocating thousands of villagers to complete construction by September of the world’s biggest radio telescope, whose intended purpose is to detect signs of extraterrestrial life.

The telescope would be 500 meters, or 1,640 feet, in diameter, by far the largest of its kind in the world. It is called FAST, for Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, and costs an estimated 1.2 billion renminbi, or $184 million.

The mass relocation was announced on Tuesday in a report by Xinhua, the state news agency. The report said officials were relocating 2,029 families, a total of 9,110 people, living within a three-mile radius of the telescope in the area of Pingtang and Luodian Counties in the southwestern province of Guizhou.

Officials plan to give each person the equivalent of $1,800 for housing compensation, the report said. Guizhou is one of China’s poorest provinces.

Forced relocations for infrastructure projects are common across China, and the people being moved by officials often complain both of the eviction from their homes and inadequate compensation. The Three Gorges Dam displaced more than one million people along the Yangtze River, and the middle route of the gargantuan South-North Water Diversion Project has resulted in the relocation of 350,000 people to make way for a series of canals.

The Chinese government has announced ambitious plans for its space program, at a time when the American one is in retreat. China aims to put an astronaut on the moon and a space station in orbit. The FAST project is another important element in the larger plan.

The telescope is being built in a wide depression among karst hills. The depression is far from cities and ideal for picking up radio transmissions, the Xinhua report said. Scientists began looking for a site in 1994 and finally settled on the Dawodang depression.

If the truth is out there, then some Chinese scientists are confident that the giant telescope will find it. The current largest operational radio telescope is the 300-meter-diameter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, but FAST in Guizhou will far surpass that.

Li Di, a chief scientist with the National Astronomical Observatories under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told China Daily last year that “with a larger signal receiving area and more flexibility, FAST will be able to scan two times more sky area than Arecibo, with three to five times higher sensitivity.”

Last November, scientists successfully tested the telescope’s “retina,” which weighs 33 tons and is suspended 460 to 525 feet above the reflector dish, which was half-finished at the time, China Daily reported.

The telescope has 4,500 panels that are mostly triangular and whose sides measure 36 feet, the report said. Those create a parabolic shape. The panels move and, by doing so, alter the shape of the antenna, which is supposed to pick up radio signals from distant corners of the universe. Those signals would then be reflected to a focal point.

Mr. Li told China Daily that engineers were aiming to install all the panels by this June and complete debugging by September.

“Ultimately, exploring the unknown is the nature of mankind,” he said, adding that it was “as visceral as feeding and clothing ourselves.”

“It drives us to a greater future,” he said.

A large cluster of objects in space look like something you would “expect an alien civilization to build”, astronomers have said.

Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, is set to publish a report on the “bizarre” star system – suggesting the objects could be a “swarm of megastructures”.

He told The Independent: “I can’t figure this thing out and that’s why it’s so interesting, so cool – it just doesn’t seem to make sense.”

Speaking to The Atlantic, Mr Wright said: “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilisation to build. I was fascinated by how crazy it looked.”

The snappily named KIC 8462852 star lies just above the Milky Way, between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. It first attracted the attention of astronomers in 2009, when the Kepler Space Telescope identified it as a candidate for having orbiting Earth-like planets.

But KIC 8462852 was emitting a stranger light pattern than any of the other stars in Kepler’s search for habitable planets.

Kepler works by analysing light from distant places in the universe — looking for changes that take place when planets move in front of their stars. But the dip in starlight from KIC 8462852 does not seem to be the normal pattern for a planet.

Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale, told The Atlantic: “We’d never seen anything like this star. It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”

In 2011 the star was flagged up again by several members of Kepler’s “Planet Hunters” team – a group of ‘citizen scientists’ tasked with analysing the data from the 150,000 stars Kepler was watching.

The analysts tagged the star as “interesting “ and “bizarre” because it was surrounded by a mass of matter in tight formation.

This was consistent with the mass of debris that surrounds a young star just as it did with our sun before the planets formed. However this star was not young and the debris must have been deposited around it fairly recently or it would have been clumped together by gravity – or swallowed by the star itself.

Boyajian, who oversees the Planet Hunters project, recently published a paper looking at all the possible natural explanations for the objects and found all of them wanting except one – that another star had pulled a string of comets close to KIC 8462852. But he said even this would involve an incredibly improbable coincidence.

A this stage Mr Wright, the astronomer from Penn State University, and his colleague Andrew Siemion, the Director of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), got involved. Now the possibility the objects were created by intelligent creatures is being taken very seriously by the team.

As civilisations become more technologically advanced, they create new and better ways of collecting energy — with the end result being the harnessing of energy directly from their star. If the speculation about a megastructure being placed around the star system is correct, scientists say it could be a huge set of solar panels placed around the star.

The three astronomers want to point a radio dish at the star to look for wavelengths associated with technological civilisations. And the first observations could be ready to take place as early as January, with follow-up observations potentially coming even quicker.

“If things go really well, the follow-up could happen sooner,” Wright told The Atlantic. “If we saw something exciting… we’d be asking to go on right away.”

Thanks to Kebmodee and David Frey for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and Deep Space Network have uncovered evidence Saturn’s moon Enceladus harbors a large underground ocean of liquid water, furthering scientific interest in the moon as a potential home to extraterrestrial microbes.

Researchers theorized the presence of an interior reservoir of water in 2005 when Cassini discovered water vapor and ice spewing from vents near the moon’s south pole. The new data provide the first geophysical measurements of the internal structure of Enceladus, consistent with the existence of a hidden ocean inside the moon. Findings from the gravity measurements are in the Friday, April 4 edition of the journal Science.

“The way we deduce gravity variations is a concept in physics called the Doppler Effect, the same principle used with a speed-measuring radar gun,” said Sami Asmar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., a coauthor of the paper. “As the spacecraft flies by Enceladus, its velocity is perturbed by an amount that depends on variations in the gravity field that we’re trying to measure. We see the change in velocity as a change in radio frequency, received at our ground stations here all the way across the solar system.”

The gravity measurements suggest a large, possibly regional, ocean about 6 miles (10 kilometers) deep, beneath an ice shell about 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 kilometers) thick. The subsurface ocean evidence supports the inclusion of Enceladus among the most likely places in our solar system to host microbial life. Before Cassini reached Saturn in July 2004, no version of that short list included this icy moon, barely 300 miles (500 kilometers) in diameter.

“This then provides one possible story to explain why water is gushing out of these fractures we see at the south pole,” said David Stevenson of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, one of the paper’s co-authors.

Cassini has flown near Enceladus 19 times. Three flybys, from 2010 to 2012, yielded precise trajectory measurements. The gravitational tug of a planetary body, such as Enceladus, alters a spacecraft’s flight path. Variations in the gravity field, such as those caused by mountains on the surface or differences in underground composition, can be detected as changes in the spacecraft’s velocity, measured from Earth.

The technique of analyzing a radio signal between Cassini and the Deep Space Network can detect changes in velocity as small as less than one foot per hour (90 microns per second). With this precision, the flyby data yielded evidence of a zone inside the southern end of the moon with higher density than other portions of the interior.

The south pole area has a surface depression that causes a dip in the local tug of gravity. However, the magnitude of the dip is less than expected given the size of the depression, leading researchers to conclude the depression’s effect is partially offset by a high-density feature in the region, beneath the surface.

“The Cassini gravity measurements show a negative gravity anomaly at the south pole that however is not as large as expected from the deep depression detected by the onboard camera,” said the paper’s lead author, Luciano Iess of Sapienza University of Rome. “Hence the conclusion that there must be a denser material at depth that compensates the missing mass: very likely liquid water, which is seven percent denser than ice. The magnitude of the anomaly gave us the size of the water reservoir.”

There is no certainty the subsurface ocean supplies the water plume spraying out of surface fractures near the south pole of Enceladus, however, scientists reason it is a real possibility. The fractures may lead down to a part of the moon that is tidally heated by the moon’s repeated flexing, as it follows an eccentric orbit around Saturn.

Much of the excitement about the Cassini mission’s discovery of the Enceladus water plume stems from the possibility that it originates from a wet environment that could be a favorable environment for microbial life.

“Material from Enceladus’ south polar jets contains salty water and organic molecules, the basic chemical ingredients for life,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini’s project scientist at JPL. “Their discovery expanded our view of the ‘habitable zone’ within our solar system and in planetary systems of other stars. This new validation that an ocean of water underlies the jets furthers understanding about this intriguing environment.”

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. For more information about Cassini, visit:


Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

While investigators are stumped over the fate of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, the lack of evidence as to what happened hasn’t stopped speculation as to the fate of the missing jet and its 239 passengers and crew members.

It’s not unusual for mysterious or dramatic aviation accidents to catch the imaginations of the conspiratorially inclined – the Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Pan Am Flight 103, and TWA Flight 800 tragedies spurred all kinds of claims of conspiracy, and last week’s apparent tragedy in the Gulf of Thailand is no different.

Conspiracy theorists took to social media this week to contribute their own ideas as to why Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared.

1. Aliens are involved: Alexandra Bruce at ForbiddenKnowledgeTV points to records on the flight mapping website Flightradar24 as evidence of extra-terrestrial meddling. She goes so far as to say the “captured signals” could “only be termed a UFO.”

Her source? YouTube user DAHBOO77, who posted a video that attempts to recreate the plane’s last moments. The clip shows a quick-moving plane and other strange anomalies around the time of the MH370’s disappearance from radar.

Loading the logs directly on the site allows readers to easily click and identify the so-called “UFO,” which is clearly marked as Korean Airlines Flight 672. Its apparent supersonic speed is likely related to a glitch in the system, not alien intervention, according to the site’s CEO Mikael Robertsson.

“[Some] receivers do not provide the same data quality, so sometimes parts of the data can be corrupt [and] generate errors like the one you see on the video,” he explained. “For example if Longitude received is 120 instead of 110, that would generate such error.”

2. The passengers are still alive: Families awaiting news about lost loved ones have told reporters they are able to call the cell phones of their missing relatives, and have said they can also see their instant messaging service accounts remain active online.

The news has fueled all kinds of speculation, but phones that are turned off do not always necessarily go straight to voicemail. Factors such as location, the phone’s network type and its proximity to a cell phone tower can all affect whether a dead phone will still ring on the caller’s end.

You can test this for yourself: turn off your cell phone, remove the battery and call your number on another line – most kinds of phones will still ring before you reach voicemail.

3. There’s a Snowden connection: Reddit user Dark_Spectre posted an unusual theory on the website’s conspiracy boards, related to 20 employees of the Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor who were reportedly on the flight:

“So we have the American IBM Technical Storage Executive for Malaysia, a man working in mass storage aggregation for the company implicated by the Snowden papers for providing their services to assist the National Security Agency in surveilling the Chinese.. And now this bunch of US chip guys working for a global leader in embedded processing solutions (embedded smart phone tech and defense contracting) all together..on a plane..And disappeared.. Coincidence??”

Dark_Spectre goes as far as to suggest those chip experts may have been kidnapped by Chinese or American authorities:

“Perhaps a little fast and furious dive under the radar to a flat water landing to rendezvous with a Chinese ship or sub for transport to a black-site for advanced interrogation, scuttling the plane along with the remaining passengers.(any oceanic trenches in fuel capacity distance?) What would 200 lives be to the Chinese intelligence community for the chance to find out ‘exactly’ the depth and scope of our intrusion.”

“US intelligence got late wind that their flying brain-trust of 21 were going to be arrested/detained and interrogated upon landing in China and the US intelligence community deemed the risk too great to their Asian based espionage programs and took appropriate action to “sanitize” the plane in flight.”

So far, there is no evidence of an explosion.

4. Iranians kidnapped engineers: UFO Digest’s Tony Elliott points to revelations that an Iranian national was responsible for buying plane tickets for two passengers with stolen passports as evidence that the country was involved, possibly to extract technological intelligence from Freescale Semiconductor employees.

“If the plane is not found in the next few days, or ever, we must assume the plane was hijacked and taken to a nearby country where that government wants to keep the disappearance a secret,” he wrote. “If this is the case, the two passengers with stolen passports must be the hijackers.”

Elliott concludes that the plane is in East Timor, due to an apparent u-turn made by the plane in its final moments on radar.

“If the Iranian government wanted to hijack the plane, it would have had its hijackers make an abrupt turn and head to the nearest friendly Muslim country,” he wrote. “In this case, it would be East Timor, the most likely country, located in the opposite direction from the flight path.”

The theory doesn’t address why the plane suddenly disappeared from radar entirely – no passenger plane could drop from 36,000 feet to below radar horizon in mere seconds.

5. Passengers were taken to Pyongyang: This map is slightly deceptive – while the trip to both Beijing and Pyongyang appear equidistant, this theory would require the plane fly at extremely low altitudes to avoid radar detection, which – due to greater air density at lower altitudes – would require more fuel to travel the same distance.

6. The Illuminati is involved: “Was looking at the Wikipedia page for the missing Malaysia Airlines, and noticed that it’s was [sic] the 404th 777 Boeing produced,” Redditor i-am-SHER-locked wrote.

“An HTTP 404 error mean [sic] not found, which in this case is oddly approiate [sic] for the status of the aircraft, or just a concidence [sic]. Coincidence, i think not!”

7. There’s a new Bermuda triangle: Though the Bermuda Triangle’s status as one of the sea’s most mysteriously treacherous zones has been debunked for decades, it doesn’t stop some from seeing triangles in the Gulf of Thailand.

8. The plane is in Vietnam, where it is waiting to be used as a weapon: “Conspiracy and prophecy in the news” blogger ShantiUniverse said she has three possible theories about what happened to Flight MH370: A major mechanical error (OK), a terrorist attack (reasonable) or it was whisked away to a secret Vietnamese airport to be used in a later 9/11 style attack (…).

“Flight 370 was last contacted by another unnamed pilot 10 minutes after losing initial contact,” she writes. “He claims the plane was deep into Vietnam airspace. Its [sic] possible it was hijacked and forced to land at another airport, where passengers are being held hostage. There is a long list of former airports and proposed airports in Vietnam. Its also possible since the plane had no contact, it could of [sic] managed to get to Cambodia to a former or proposed airport…Why would terrorist want a plane intact? Though this is highly unlikely, but not impossible, the only reason I can think of is they would want the plane to use as a weapon of mass destruction like on the September 11 attacks.”

9: There was some kind of miniature hydrogen bomb controlled by an iPhone app and it created a miniature black hole: It’s hard to tell whether @Angela_Stalcup’s account is the work of a completely unhinged lunatic or a genius, masterful troll. Wading through claims that Donald Trump runs a prostitution ring through Trump University or that Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of 92 clones of Adolf Hitler, you may stumble upon this gem of a theory about Flight MH370:

10. Terrorists employed a new electromagnetic pulse weapon: Such a device snuck on board and activated would cause the plane to instantly lose power and fall into the ocean. Had this been a test run, terrorists in possession of such a device would now know that it works, and we could expect to see a multitude of such attacks in the future, perhaps in multiple planes simultaneously. This, of course, has been challenged by conflicting reports of persistent electronic communication from the plane after its disappearance.

So what really happened?: The truth is, no one really knows. The AP now cites a senior Malaysian military official who reports the country has radar data detecting the plane in the Malacca Strait – hundreds of miles from the last position recorded by civilian authorities.

*Armchair conspiracy theorists have also speculated (on Twitter, of course) that the passengers on flight 370 have landed on a remote, impossible-to-find island a la “Lost.”


Curiosity has found discovered that Mars possesses conditions that could have supported ancient — and future — life, announced NASA scientists during a press conference today.

“A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “From what we know now, the answer is yes.”

Reportedly, the sample taken from the sedimentary rock targeted by Curiosity contains sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon, all key ingredients for life. One NASA scientist referred to the findings as “really something special,” as well as containing up to 20% clay — which is formed by the reaction of relatively fresh water with igneous materials.

Additonally, scientists discovered a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals capable of supporting an energy gradient of the sort many microbes on Earth require for survival.

“The range of chemical ingredients we have identified in the sample is impressive, and it suggests pairings such as sulfates and sulfides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms,” said Paul Mahaffy, a NASA official.

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The search continues for life in subglacial Lake Whillans, 2,600 feet below the surface of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—but a thrilling preliminary result has detected signs of life.

At 6:20am on January 28, four people in sterile white Tyvek suits tended to a wench winding cable onto the drill platform. One person knocked frost off the cable as it emerged from the ice borehole a few feet below. The object of their attention finally rose into sight: a gray plastic vessel, as long as a baseball bat, filled with water from Lake Whillans, half a mile below.

The bottle was hurried into a 40-foot cargo container outfitted as a laboratory on skis. Some of the lake water was squirted into bottles of media in order to grow whatever microbes might inhabit the lake. Those cultures could require weeks to produce results. But one test has already produced an interesting preliminary finding. When lake water was viewed under a microscope, cells were seen: their tiny bodies glowed green in response to DNA-sensitive dye. It was the first evidence of life in an Antarctic subglacial lake.

(A Russian team has reported that two types of bacteria were found in water from subglacial Lake Vostok, but DNA sequences matched those of bacteria that are known to live inside kerosene—causing the scientists to conclude that those bacteria came from kerosene drilling fluid used to bore the hole, and not from Lake Vostok itself.)

In order to conclusively demonstrate that Lake Whillans harbors life, the researchers will need to complete more time-consuming experiments showing that the cells actually grow—since dead cells can sometimes show up under a microscope with DNA-sensitive staining. And weeks or months will pass before it is known whether these cells represent known types of microbes, or something never seen before. But a couple of things seem likely. Most of those microbes probably subsist by chewing on rocks. And despite being sealed beneath 2,600 feet of ice, they probably have a steady supply of oxygen.

The oxygen comes from water melting off the base of the ice sheet—maybe a few penny thicknesses of ice per year. “When you melt ice, you’re liberating the air bubbles [trapped in that ice],” says Mark Skidmore, a geomicrobiologist at Montana State University who is part of the Whillans drilling, or WISSARD, project. “That’s 20 percent oxygen,” he says. “It’s being supplied to the bed of the glacier.”

In one possible scenario, lake bacteria could live on commonly occurring pyrite minerals that contain iron and sulfur. The bacteria would obtain energy by using oxygen to essentially “burn” that iron and sulfur (analogous to the way that animals use oxygen to slowly burn sugars and fats). Small amounts of sulfuric acid would seep out as a byproduct; that acid would attack other minerals in the sands and sediments of the lake—leaching out sodium, potassium, calcium, and other materials that would accumulate in the water.

This process, called weathering, breaks down billions of tons of minerals across the Earth’s surface each year. Researchers working on the National Science Foundation-funded WISSARD project hope to learn whether something like this also happens under the massive ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland. They’ve already seen one tantalizing sign.

The half mile of glacial ice sitting atop Lake Whillans is quite pure—derived from snow that fell onto Antarctica thousands of years ago. It contains only one-hundredth the level of dissolved minerals that are seen in a clear mountain creek, or in tap water from a typical city. But a sensor lowered down the borehole this week showed that dissolved minerals were far more abundant in the lake itself. “The fact that we see high concentrations is suggestive that there’s some interesting water-rock-microbe interaction that’s going on,” says Andrew Mitchell, a microbial geochemist from Aberystwyth University in the UK who is working this month at Lake Whillans.

Microbes, in other words, might well be munching on minerals under the ice sheet. The Whillans team will take months or years to unravel this picture. They will perform experiments to see whether microbes taken from the lake metabolize iron, sulfur, or other components of minerals. And they will analyze the DNA of those microbes to see whether they’re related to rock-chewing bacteria that are already known to science.

Antarctica isn’t the only place in the solar system where water sits concealed in the dark beneath thick ice. Europa and Enceladus (moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively) are also thought to harbor oceans of liquid water. What is learned at Lake Whillans could shed light on how best to look for life in these other places.

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.


A top British scientist has claimed that he has found proof of extraterrestrial life after he discovered tiny fossils of algae, similar to the kind found in seaweed, in a meteorite fragment that crash landed in central Sri Lanka in December.

Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe believes it proves we are not alone in the universe.

The finding provides strong evidence that human life started outside Earth, he stated.

The two-inch wide rock was one of several fragments of a meteorite that fell to earth in a spectacular fireball. They were still smoking when villagers living near the city of Polonnaruwa picked them up.

The fossils were discovered when the rocks were examined under a powerful scanning electron microscope in a British laboratory.

They are similar to micro-organisms found in fossils from the dinosaur age 55 million years ago.

Though critics argued that the rock had probably become contaminated with algae fossils from Earth, Prof Wickramasinghe insisted that they are the remnants of extra-terrestrial life.

He noted that the algae organisms are similar to ones found in Earth fossils and that the rock also has other organisms they have not yet identified.


A hardy bacteria common on Earth was surprisingly adaptive to Mars-like low pressure, cold and carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, a finding that has implications in the search for extraterrestrial life.

The bacteria, known as Serratia liquefaciens, is found in human skin, hair and lungs, as well as in fish, aquatic systems, plant leaves and roots.

“It’s present in a wide range of medium-temperature ecological niches,” said microbiologist Andrew Schuerger, with the University of Florida.

Serratia liquefaciens most likely evolved at sea level, so it was surprising to find it could grow in an experiment chamber that reduced pressure down to a Mars-like 7 millibars, Schuerger said.

Sea-level atmospheric pressure on Earth is about 1,000 millibars or 1 bar.

“It was a really big surprise,” Schuerger said. “We had no reason to believe it was going to be able to grow at 7 millibars. It was just included in the study because we had cultures easily on hand and these species have been recovered from spacecraft.”

In addition to concerns that hitchhiking microbes could inadvertently contaminate Mars, the study opens the door to a wider variety of life forms with the potential to evolve indigenously.

To survive, however, the microbes would need to be shielded from the harsh ultraviolet radiation that blasts the surface of Mars, as well as have access to a source of water, organic carbon and nitrogen.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is five months into a planned two-year mission to look for chemistry and environmental conditions that could have supported and preserved microbial life.

Scientists do not expect to find life at the rover’s landing site – a very dry, ancient impact basin called Gale Crater near the Martian equator. They are however hoping to learn if the planet most like Earth in the solar system has or ever had the ingredients for life by chemically analyzing rocks and soil in layers of sediment.

So far, efforts to find Earth microbes that could live in the harsh conditions of Mars have primarily focused on so-called extremophiles which are found only in extreme cold, dry or acidic environments on Earth. Two extremophiles tested along with the Serratia liquefaciens and 23 other common microbes did not survive the experiment.

A follow-up experiment on about 10,000 other microbes retrieved from boring 12 to 21 meters into the Siberian permafrost found six species that could grow in the simulated Mars chamber, located at the Space Life Sciences Laboratory adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The next step is to see how the microbes fare under even more hostile conditions.



It’s time to add Mercury to the list of worlds where you can go ice-skating. Confirming decades of suspicion, a NASA spacecraft has spotted vast deposits of water ice on the planet closest to the sun.

Temperatures on Mercury can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit (427 degrees Celsius), but around the north pole, in areas permanently shielded from the sun’s heat, NASA’s Messenger spacecraft found a mix of frozen water and possible organic materials.

Evidence of big pockets of ice is visible from a latitude of 85 degrees north up to the pole, with smaller deposits scattered as far away as 65 degrees north.

The find is so enticing that NASA will direct Messenger’s observation toward that area in the coming months — when the angle of the sun allows — to get a better look, said Gregory Neumann, a Messenger instrument scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. [Latest Mercury Photos from Messenger]

“There is an ongoing campaign, when the spacecraft permits, to look further northward,” said Neumann, the lead author of one of three Mercury studies published online in the Nov. 29 edition of the journal Science.

Researchers also believe the south pole has ice, but Messenger’s orbit has not allowed them to obtain extensive measurements of that region yet.

Messenger will spiral closer to the planet in 2014 and 2015 as it runs out of fuel and is perturbed by the sun’s and Mercury’s gravity. This will let researchers peer closer at the water ice as they figure out how much is there.

Speculation about water ice on Mercury dates back more than 20 years.

In 1991, Earth-bound astronomers fired radar signals to Mercury and received results showing there could be ice at both poles. This was reinforced by 1999 measurements using the more powerful Arecibo Observatory microwave beam in Puerto Rico. Radar pictures beamed back to New Mexico’s Very Large Array showed white areas that researchers suspected was water ice.

A closer view, however, required a spacecraft. Messenger settled into Mercury’s orbit in March 2011, after a few flybys.  Almost immediately, NASA used a laser altimeter to probe the poles. The laser is weak — about the strength of a flashlight — but just powerful enough to distinguish bright icy areas from the darker, surrounding Mercury regolith.

Neumann said the result was “curious”: There were few bright spots inside craters.

Team member John Cavanaugh was pretty sure of what they were finding, Neumann recalled. Cavanaugh had been a part of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team, and he had seen a similar strange pattern on Earth’s moon when LRO found ice at the lunar poles in 2009.

Flash heating on Mercury would mix nearly all of its ice with the surrounding regolith – as well as with possible organic material borne to the planet by comets and ice-rich asteroids.

“So what you’re seeing is the fact that water ice can’t survive indefinitely in these locations because the temperatures apparently spike up,” Neumann said.

The team expected to find water ice on Mercury. Indeed, Messenger already drew a link this year between permanently shadowed areas on the planet and the “radar bright” spots seen from Earth.

All researchers needed to do was point their instruments in the right spot, seek out bright areas and then measure the temperature and composition.

Messenger’s neutron spectrometer spotted hydrogen, which is a large component of water ice. But the temperature profile unexpectedly showed that dark, volatile materials – consistent with climes in which organics survive – are mixing in with the ice.

“This was very exciting. You are looking for bright stuff, and you see dark stuff – gee, it’s something new,” Neumann said.

Organic materials are life’s ingredients, though they do not necessarily lead to life itself. While some scientists think organics-bearing comets sparkedlife on Earth, the presence of organics is also suspected on airless, distant worlds such as Pluto. Scientists say comets carrying organic bits smashed into other planets frequently during the solar system’s history.

Researchers are now working to determine if they indeed saw organics on Mercury. So far, they suspect Mercury’s water ice is coated with a 4-inch (10 centimeters) blanket of “thermally insulating material,” according to Neumann’s paper.

It will take further study to figure out exactly what this material is, but Neumann said the early temperature curves could show organic materials such as amino acids.


Enceladus is little bigger than a lump of rock and has appeared, until recently, as a mere pinprick of light in astronomers’ telescopes. Yet Saturn‘s tiny moon has suddenly become a major attraction for scientists. Many now believe it offers the best hope we have of discovering life on another world inside our solar system.

The idea that a moon a mere 310 miles in diameter, orbiting in deep, cold space,   1bn miles from the sun, could provide a home for alien lifeforms may seem extraordinary. Nevertheless, a growing number of researchers consider this is a real prospect and argue that Enceladus should be rated a top priority for future space missions.

This point is endorsed by astrobiologist Professor Charles Cockell of Edinburgh University. “If someone gave me several billion dollars to build whatever space probe I wanted, I would have no hesitation,” he says. “I would construct one that could fly to Saturn and collect samples from Enceladus. I would go there rather than Mars or the icy moons of Jupiter, such as Europa, despite encouraging signs that they could support life. Primitive, bacteria-like lifeforms may indeed exist on these worlds but they are probably buried deep below their surfaces and will be difficult to access. On Enceladus, if there are lifeforms, they will be easy to pick up. They will be pouring into space.”

The cause of this unexpected interest in Enceladus – first observed by William Herschel in 1789 and named after one of the children of the Earth goddess Gaia – stems from a discovery made by the robot spacecraft Cassini, which has been in orbit of Saturn for the past eight years. The $3bn probe has shown that the little moon not only has an atmosphere, but that geysers of water are erupting from its surface into space. Even more astonishing has been its most recent discovery, which has shown that these geysers contain complex organic compounds, including propane, ethane, and acetylene.

“It just about ticks every box you have when it comes to looking for life on another world,” says Nasa astrobiologist Chris McKay. “It has got liquid water, organic material and a source of heat. It is hard to think of anything more enticing short of receiving a radio signal from aliens on Enceladus telling us to come and get them.”

Cassini’s observations suggest Enceladus possesses a subterranean ocean that is kept liquid by the moon’s internal heat. “We are not sure where that energy is coming from,” McKay admits. “The source is producing around 16 gigawatts of power and looks very like the geothermal energy sources we have on Earth – like the deep vents we  see in our ocean beds and which bubble up hot gases.”

At the moon’s south pole, Enceladus’s underground ocean appears to rise close to the surface. At a few sites, cracks have developed and water is bubbling to the surface before being vented into space, along with complex organic chemicals that also appear to have built up in its sea.

Equally remarkable is the impact of this water on Saturn. The planet is famed for its complex system of rings, made of bands of small particles in orbit round the planet. There are seven main rings: A, B, C, D, E, F and G, and the giant E-ring is linked directly with Enceladus. The water the moon vents into space turns into ice crystals and these feed the planet’s E-ring. “If you turned off the geysers of Enceladus, the great E-ring of Saturn would disappear within a few years,” says McKay. “For a little moon, Enceladus has quite an impact.”

Yet the discovery of Enceladus’s strange geology was a fairly tentative affair, says Professor Michele Dougherty of Imperial College London. She was the principal investigator for Cassini’s magnetometer instrument. “Cassini had been in orbit round Saturn for more than six months when it passed relatively close to Enceladus. Our results indicated that Saturn’s magnetic field was being dragged round Enceladus in a way that suggested it had an atmosphere.”

So Dougherty and her colleagues asked the Cassini management to direct the probe to take a much closer look. This was agreed and in July 2005 Cassini moved in for a close-up study. “I didn’t sleep for two nights before that,” says Dougherty. “If Cassini found nothing we would have looked stupid and the management team might not have listened to us again.”

Her fears were groundless. Cassini swept over Enceladus at a height of 173km and showed that it did indeed possess an atmosphere, albeit a thin one consisting of water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen. “It was wonderful,” says Dougherty. “I just thought: wow!”

Subsequent sweeps over the moon then revealed those plumes of water. The only other body in the solar system, apart from Earth, possessing liquid water on its surface had  been revealed. Finally came the discovery of organics, and the little moon went from being merely an interesting world to one that was utterly fascinating.

“Those plumes do not represent a torrent,” cautions McKay. “This is not the Mississippi pouring into space. The output is roughly equivalent to that of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone national park. On the other hand, it would be enough to create a river that you could kayak down.

“The fact that this water is being vented into space and is mixed with organic material is truly remarkable, however. It is an open invitation to go there. The place may as well have a big sign hanging over it saying: ‘Free sample: take one now’.”

Collecting that sample will not be easy, however. At a distance of 1bn miles, Saturn and its moons are a difficult target. Cassini took almost seven years to get there after its launch from Cape Canaveral in  1997.

“A mission to Enceladus would take a similar time,” says McKay. Once there, several years would be needed to make several sweeps over Enceladus to collect samples of water and organics. “Then we would need a further seven years to get those samples back to Earth.”

Such a mission would therefore involve almost 20 years of space flight – on top of the decade needed to plan it and to construct and launch the probe. “That’s 30 years in all, a large chunk of any scientist’s professional life,” says McKay.

McKay and a group of other Nasa scientists based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are undaunted, however. They are now finalising plans for an Enceladus Sample Return mission, which would involve putting a probe in orbit round Saturn. It would then use the gravity of the planet’s biggest moon, Titan, to make sweeps over Enceladus. Plume samples would then be stored in a canister that would eventually be fired back to Earth on a seven-year return journey.

Crucially, McKay and his colleagues believe such a mission could be carried out at a relatively modest cost – as part of Nasa’s Discovery programme, which funds low-budget missions to explore the solar system. Previous probes have included Lunar Prospector, which studied the moon’s geology; Stardust, which returned a sample of material scooped from a comet’s tail; and Mars Pathfinder, which deployed a tiny motorised robot vehicle on the Red Planet in 1997.

“The criteria for inclusion in the Discovery programme demand that any mission must cost less than $500m, though that does not include the price of launch,” says McKay. “We think we can adapt the technology that was developed on the Stardust mission to build an Enceladus Sample Return. If so, we can keep the cost below $500m. We are finalising plans and will announce our proposals in autumn.”

Such a mission is backed by Dougherty. “I think Enceladus is one of the best bets we now have for finding life on another world in our solar system. It is certainly worth visiting but it is not the only hope we have. The icy moons of Jupiter – such as Ganymede, Callisto and Europa – still look a very good prospect as well.”

And there is one problematic issue concerning Enceladus: time. “Conditions for life there are good at present but we do not know how long they have been in existence,” says McKay. “They might be recent or ancient. For life to have evolved, we need the latter to have been the case. At present, we have no idea about their duration, though geologists I have spoken to suggest that water and organics may have been there for a good while. The only way we will find out is to go there.”

The late entry of Enceladus in the race to find extraterrestrial life adds an intriguing new destination for astrobiologists in their hunt for aliens. Before its geysers were discovered, two main targets dominated their research: Mars and the icy moons of Jupiter. The former is the easiest to get to and has already received visits from dozens of probes. On 6 August, the $2.5bn robot rover Curiosity is set to land there and continue the hunt for life on the Red Planet. “For life to evolve you need liquid water, and although it is clear it once flowed on Mars, its continued existence there is debatable,” says Cockell. “By contrast, you can see water pouring off Enceladus along with those organics.”

Many scientists argue that water could exist deep below the Martian surface, supporting bacteria-like lifeforms. However, these reservoirs could be many metres, if not kilometres, below Mars’s surface and it could take decades to find them. Similarly, the oceans under the thick ice that covers Europa – and two other moons of Jupiter, Ganymede and Callisto – could also support life. But again, it will be extremely difficult for a robot probe to drill through the kilometres of ice that cover the oceans of these worlds.

Enceladus, by these standards, is an easy destination – but a distant one that will take a long time to reach. “No matter where we look, it appears it will take two or three decades to get answers to our questions about the existence of life on other worlds in the solar system,” says Cockell. “By that time, telescopes may have spotted signs of life on planets elsewhere in the galaxy. Our studies of extra-solar planets are getting more sophisticated, after all, and one day we may spot the presence of oxygen and water in our spectrographic studies of these distant worlds – an unambiguous indication that living entities exist there.

However, telescopic studies of extra-solar planets won’t reveal the nature of those lifeforms. Only by taking samples from planets in our solar system and returning them to laboratories on Earth, where we can study them, will we be able to reveal their exact nature and mode of replication – if they exist, of course. The little world of Enceladus could then have a lot to teach us.