Chemical Trail On Saturn’s Moon Titan May Be Key To Prebiotic Conditions

NASA’s Cassini and Huygens missions have provided a wealth of data about chemical elements found on Saturn’s moon Titan, and Cornell scientists have uncovered a chemical trail that suggests prebiotic conditions may exist there.

mars

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, features terrain with Earthlike attributes such as lakes, rivers and seas, although filled with liquid methane and ethane instead of water. Its dense atmosphere — a yellow haze — brims with nitrogen and methane. When sunlight hits this toxic atmosphere, the reaction produces hydrogen cyanide — a possible prebiotic chemical key.

“This paper is a starting point, as we are looking for prebiotic chemistry in conditions other than Earth’s,” said Martin Rahm, postdoctoral researcher in chemistry and lead author of the new study, “Polymorphism and Electronic Structure of Polyimine and Its Potential Significance for Prebiotic Chemistry on Titan,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 4.

To grasp the blueprint of early planetary life, Rahm said we must think outside of green-blue, Earth-based biology: “We are used to our own conditions here on Earth. Our scientific experience is at room temperature and ambient conditions. Titan is a completely different beast.” Although Earth and Titan both have flowing liquids, Titan’s temperatures are very low, and there is no liquid water. “So if we think in biological terms, we’re probably going to be at a dead end,” he said.

Hydrogen cyanide is an organic chemical that can react with itself or with other molecules — forming long chains, or polymers, one of which is called polyimine. The chemical is flexible, which helps mobility under very cold conditions, and it can absorb the sun’s energy and become a possible catalyst for life.

“Polyimine can exist as different structures, and they may be able to accomplish remarkable things at low temperatures, especially under Titan’s conditions,” said Rahm, who works in the lab of Roald Hoffmann, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry and Cornell’s Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters Emeritus. Rahm and the paper’s other scientists consulted with Hoffmann on this work.

“We need to continue to examine this, to understand how the chemistry evolves over time. We see this as a preparation for further exploration,” said Rahm. “If future observations could show there is prebiotic chemistry in a place like Titan, it would be a major breakthrough. This paper is indicating that prerequisites for processes leading to a different kind of life could exist on Titan, but this only the first step.”

Lush Venus? Searing Earth? It Could Have Happened

If conditions had been just a little different an eon ago, there might be plentiful life on Venus and none on Earth.

The idea isn’t so far-fetched, according to a hypothesis by Rice University scientists and their colleagues who published their thoughts on life-sustaining planets, the planets’ histories and the possibility of finding more in Astrobiology this month.

earth

The researchers maintain that minor evolutionary changes could have altered the fates of both Earth and Venus in ways that scientists may soon be able to model through observation of other solar systems, particularly ones in the process of forming, according to Rice Earth scientist Adrian Lenardic.

The paper, he said, includes “a little bit about the philosophy of science as well as the science itself, and about how we might search in the future. It’s a bit of a different spin because we haven’t actually ­­­­done the work, in terms of searching for signs of life outside our solar system, yet. It’s about how we go about doing the work.”

Lenardic and his colleagues suggested that habitable planets may lie outside the “Goldilocks zone” in extra-solar systems, and that planets farther from or closer to their suns than Earth may harbor the conditions necessary for life.

The Goldilocks zone has long been defined as the band of space around a star that is not too warm, not too cold, rocky and with the right conditions for maintaining surface water and a breathable atmosphere. But that description, which to date scientists have only been able to calibrate using observations from our own solar system, may be too limiting, Lenardic said.

“For a long time we’ve been living, effectively, in one experiment, our solar system,” he said, channeling his mentor, the late William Kaula. Kaula is considered the father of space geodetics, a system by which all the properties in a planetary system can be quantified. “Although the paper is about planets, in one way it’s about old issues that scientists have: the balance between chance and necessity, laws and contingencies, strict determinism and probability.

“But in another way, it asks whether, if you could run the experiment again, would it turn out like this solar system or not? For a long time, it was a purely philosophical question. Now that we’re observing solar systems and other planets around other stars, we can ask that as a scientific question.

“If we find a planet (in another solar system) sitting where Venus is that actually has signs of life, we’ll know that what we see in our solar system is not universal,” he said.

In expanding the notion of habitable zones, the researchers determined that life on Earth itself isn’t necessarily a given based on the Goldilocks concept. A nudge this way or that in the conditions that existed early in the planet’s formation may have made it inhospitable.

By extension, a similarly small variation could have changed the fortunes of Venus, Earth’s closest neighbor, preventing it from becoming a burning desert with an atmosphere poisonous to terrestrials.

The paper also questions the idea that plate tectonics is a critical reason Earth harbors life. “There’s debate about this, but the Earth in its earliest lifetimes, let’s say 2-3 billion years ago, would have looked for all intents and purposes like an alien planet,” Lenardic said. “We know the atmosphere was completely different, with no oxygen. There’s a debate that plate tectonics might not have been operative.

“Yet there’s no argument there was life then, even in this different a setting. The Earth itself could have transitioned between planetary states as it evolved. So we have to ask ourselves as we look at other planets, should we rule out an early Earth-like situation even if there’s no sign of oxygen and potentially a tectonic mode distinctly different from the one that operates on our planet at present?

“Habitability is an evolutionary variable,” he said. “Understanding how life and a planet co-evolve is something we need to think about.”

Lenardic is kicking his ideas into action, spending time this summer at conferences with the engineers designing future space telescopes. The right instruments will greatly enhance the ability to find, characterize and build a database of distant solar systems and their planets, and perhaps even find signs of life.

“There are things that are on the horizon that, when I was a student, it was crazy to even think about,” he said. “Our paper is in many ways about imagining, within the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, how things could be over a range of planets, not just the ones we currently have access to. Given that we will have access to more observations, it seems to me we should not limit our imagination as it leads to alternate hypothesis.”

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Rice graduate student Matt Weller, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, is a co-author of the paper. Additional co-authors are John Crowley, a geodetic engineer at the Canadian Geodetic Survey of Natural Resources Canada and an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Ottawa, and Mark Jellinek, a professor of volcanology, geodynamics, planetary science and geological fluid mechanics at the University of British Columbia.

The National Science Foundation supported the research.

Breaking News: Three New Findings Hint to Purpose of Concern

I suggest the purpose of these three studies released yesterday, appear to imply interest in the action of venturing  funnels of charged particles, often referred to as Active Galactic Nuclei or (AGN), heading into our solar systems path. Such an event could cause serious damage to Earth’s ozone layer, which protects us from harmful radiation.

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There is good reason to be concerned of a stream of charged particles produced by a gamma ray burst, supernova, quasar or galactic center black hole AGN. Why? Because it has happened before in near history and no doubt some number of times over vast history. The last event occurred in the year 774-775 A.D.

In this 2012 discovery, scientist Fusa Miyake announced the detection of high levels of the isotope Carbon-14 and Beryllium-10 in tree rings formed in 775 AD, suggesting that a burst of radiation struck the Earth in the year 774 or 775. Carbon-14 and Beryllium-10 form when radiation from space collides with nitrogen atoms, which then decay to these heavier forms of carbon and beryllium.

gamma-ray-tree-rings

Lead researcher Dr Ralph Neuhӓuser at Astrophysics Institute of the University of Jena in Germany said: “If the gamma ray burst had been much closer to the Earth it would have caused significant harm to the biosphere. But even thousands of light years away, a similar event today could cause havoc with the sensitive electronic systems that advanced societies have come to depend on. The challenge now is to establish how rare such Carbon-14 spikes are i.e. how often such radiation bursts hit the Earth. In the last 3000 years, the maximum age of trees alive today, only one such event appears to have taken place.”

New study published July 1st 2016 – Scientists from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, and the National Research University Higher School of Economics have devised a method of distinguishing black holes from compact massive objects that are externally indistinguishable from one another. The method involves studying the energy spectrum of particles moving in the vicinity — in one case it will be continuous and in the other it will be discrete. The findings have been published in Physical Review D.

schwarzshild_radius_m

Black holes, which were predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, have an event horizon — a boundary beyond which nothing, even light, can return to the outside world. The radius of this boundary is called the Schwarzschild radius, in physical terms it is the radius of an object for which the escape velocity is greater than the speed of light, which means that nothing is able to overcome its gravity.

Astrophysicists have not yet been able to “see” a black hole directly, but there are many objects that are “suspected” of being black holes. Most scientists are sure that in the center of our galaxy there is a supermassive black hole; there are binary systems where one of the components is most likely a black hole. However, some astrophysicists believe that there may be compact massive objects that fall very slightly short of black hole status; their range is only a little larger than the Schwarzschild radius. It may be the case that some of the “suspects” are in fact objects such as these. From the outside, however, they are not distinguishable from black holes.

_radiation_black_hole

“We examined the scalar quantum field around a black hole and a compact object and found that around the collapsing object – it is a black hole; explains FedorPopov, of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), there are no bound states, but around the compact object there are.”

Second article published July 1st 2016 – Some galaxies pump out vast amounts of energy from a very small volume of space, typically not much bigger than our own solar system. The cores of these galaxies, so called Active Galactic Nuclei or AGNs, are often hundreds of millions or even billions of light years away, so are difficult to study in any detail. Natural gravitational ‘microlenses’ can provide a way to probe these objects, and now a team of astronomers have seen hints of the extreme AGN brightness changes that hint at their presence.

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The energy output of an AGN is often equivalent to that of a whole galaxy of stars. This is an output so intense that most astronomers believe only gas falling in towards a supermassive black hole – an object with many millions of times the mass of the Sun – can generate it. As the gas spirals towards the black hole it speeds up and forms a disc, which heats up and releases energy before the gas meets its demise.

A research team from the University of Edinburgh, explain if a planet or star in an intervening galaxy passes directly between the Earth and a more distant AGN, over a few years or so they act as a lens, focusing and intensifying the signal coming from near the black hole. This type of lensing, due to a single star, is termed microlensing. As the lensing object travels across the AGN, emitting regions are amplified to an extent that depends on their size, providing astronomers with valuable clues.

_Monochromatic_Emission_m

There are expected to be fewer than 100 active AGN microlensing events on the sky at any one time, but only some will be at or near their peak brightness. The big hope for the future is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a project the UK recently joined. From 2019 on, it will survey half the sky every few days, so has the potential to watch the characteristic changes in the appearance of the AGNs as the lensing events take place.

Third study published July 1st 2016 – A study of gravitationally lensed images of four mini-jets of material ejected from a central supermassive black hole has revealed the structure of these distant galaxies in unprecedented detail. This has enabled astronomers to trace particle emissions to a very small region at the heart of the quasars, and helped to solve a 50-year-old puzzle about their source. The results will be presented by Dr Neal Jackson at the National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham on Friday, 1st July.

gravitational_lensing_m

“In radio-loud quasars, the intense radio emission clearly comes from vast jets of material blasted out from the region around a central black hole. By contrast, the radio emission from radio-quiet quasars is extremely feeble and difficult to see, so it has been hard to identify its source,” explained Jackson of the Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics in Manchester. “To study most radio-quiet quasars, we will have to wait until future extremely large telescopes, like the Square Kilometer Array, come online. However, if we find radio-quiet quasars which are lensed by galaxies in front of them, we can use the increased brightness to be able to study them with today’s radio telescopes.”

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Clandestine Black Hole May Represent New Population

Astronomers have combined data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to conclude that a peculiar source of radio waves thought to be a distant galaxy is actually a nearby binary star system containing a low-mass star and a black hole. This identification suggests there may be a vast number of black holes in our Galaxy that have gone unnoticed until now.

chandra

For about two decades, astronomers have known about an object called VLA J213002.08+120904 (VLA J2130+12 for short). Although it is close to the line of sight to the globular cluster M15, most astronomers had thought that this source of bright radio waves was probably a distant galaxy.

Thanks to recent distance measurements with an international network of radio telescopes, including the EVN (European Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network) telescopes, the NSF’s Green Bank Telescope and Arecibo Observatory, astronomers realized that VLA J2130+12 is at a distance of 7,200 light years, showing that it is well within our own Milky Way galaxy and about five times closer than M15. A deep image from Chandra reveals it can only be giving off a very small amount of X-rays, while recent VLA data indicates the source remains bright in radio waves.

This new study indicates that VLA J2130+12 is a black hole a few times the mass of our Sun that is very slowly pulling in material from a companion star. At this paltry feeding rate, VLA J2130+12 was not previously flagged as a black hole since it lacks some of the telltale signs that black holes in binaries typically display.

“Usually, we find black holes when they are pulling in lots of material. Before falling into the black hole this material gets very hot and emits brightly in X-rays,” said Bailey Tetarenko of the University of Alberta, Canada, who led the study. “This one is so quiet that it’s practically a stealth black hole.”

This is the first time a black hole binary system outside of a globular cluster has been initially discovered while it is in such a quiet state.

Hubble observations identified VLA J2130+12 with a star having only about one-tenth to one-fifth the mass of the Sun. The observed radio brightness and the limit on the X-ray brightness from Chandra allowed the researchers to rule out other possible interpretations, such as an ultra-cool dwarf star, a neutron star, or a white dwarf pulling material away from a companion star.

Because this study only covered a very small patch of sky, the implication is that there should be many of these quiet black holes around the Milky Way. The estimates are that tens of thousands to millions of these black holes could exist within our Galaxy, about three to thousands of times as many as previous studies have suggested.

“Unless we were incredibly lucky to find one source like this in a small patch of the sky, there must be many more of these black hole binaries in our Galaxy than we used to think,” said co-author Arash Bahramian, also of the University of Alberta.

There are other implications of finding that VLA J2130+12 is relatively near to us.

“Some of these undiscovered black holes could be closer to the Earth than we previously thought,” said Robin Arnason, a co-author from Western University, Canada “However there’s no need to worry as even these black holes would still be many light years away from Earth.”

Sensitive radio and X-ray surveys covering large regions of the sky will need to be performed to uncover more of this missing population.

If, like many others, this black hole was formed in the plane of the Milky Way’s disk, it would have needed a large kick at birth to launch it to its current position about 3,000 light years above the plane of the Galaxy.

These results appear in a paper in The Astrophysical Journal. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Rotating Ring Of Complex Organic Molecules Discovered Around Newborn Star: Chemical Diversity In Planet Forming Regions Unveiled

Researchers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered a rotating ring containing large organic molecules around a protostar. This observation definitively shows that organic materials formed in interstellar space are brought into the planet-forming region. Researchers also found that the molecular species brought into the planet-forming region vary from one protostar to another. Chemical composition is a new way to answer the long-standing question of whether or not the Solar System is a typical example of a planetary system.

protostar

Astronomers have long known that organic molecules form in diffuse gas clouds floating between stars. It is thought that as the Solar System formed 4.6 billion years ago, some of these organic molecules were transported from interstellar space to the planet forming disk. Later, these molecules played important roles in the chemical evolution resulting in the emergence of life on the Earth. However, it is still unknown what kinds and quantities of organic molecules were actually supplied from interstellar space. Although radio astronomy observations during the last decade showed that saturated complex organic molecules, such as methanol (CH3OH) and methyl formate (HCOOCH3) [1], exist around Solar-type protostars, their distributions were too compact to be resolved with the radio telescopes available at the time.

With ALMA, an international team lead by Yoko Oya, a graduate student of Department of Physics, The University of Tokyo, and Nami Sakai, an associate chief scientist of RIKEN, studied the distribution of various organic molecules around a Solar-type protostar IRAS 16293-2422A at a high spatial resolution. They discovered a ring structure of complex organic molecules around the protostar. The radius of the ring is 50 times wider than the Earth’s orbit. This size is comparable to the size of the Solar System, and the ring structure most likely represents the boundary region between infalling gas and a rotating disk structure around the protostar.

The observations clearly showed the distribution of large organic molecules methyl formate (HCOOCH3) and carbonyl sulfide (OCS). Apparently the distribution of methyl formate is confined in a more compact area around the protostar than the OCS distribution, which mainly traces the infalling gas. “When we measured the motion of the gas containing methyl formate by using the Doppler effect,” said Oya “we found a clear rotation motion specific to the ring structure.” In this way, they identified the rotating ring structure of methyl formate, although it is not resolved spatially. A similar ring structure is also found for methanol.

These saturated organic molecules are formed in interstellar space and are preserved on the surfaces of dust grains. Around the outer boundary of the disk structure, they evaporate due to shock generated by collisions of the disk and infalling material, and/or due to heating by the light from the baby star. This result is the first direct evidence that interstellar organic materials are indeed fed into the rotating disk structure that eventually forms a planetary system.

In 2014, the team found a similar ring structure of SO (sulfur monoxide) around another Solar-type protostar L1527. In this source, unsaturated complex organic molecules such as CCH and cyclic-C3H2 are very abundant in the infalling gas, while SO preferentially exists in the boundary between the infalling gas and the disk structure. Although the physical structure in L1527 is similar to that found in IRAS 16293-2422A, the chemical composition is much different. Saturated complex organic molecules are almost completely absent in L1527. The present result, taken together with previous results on L1527, clearly demonstrates for the first time that the materials delivered to a planetary system differ from star to star. A new perspective on chemical composition is thus indispensable for a thorough understanding of the origin of the Solar System and the origin of life on the Earth.

NASA Rover Findings Point To A More Earth-Like Martian Past

Chemicals found in Martian rocks by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover suggest the Red Planet once had more oxygen in its atmosphere than it does now.

martian

Researchers found high levels of manganese oxides by using a laser-firing instrument on the rover. This hint of more oxygen in Mars’ early atmosphere adds to other Curiosity findings — such as evidence about ancient lakes — revealing how Earth-like our neighboring planet once was.

This research also adds important context to other clues about atmospheric oxygen in Mars’ past. The manganese oxides were found in mineral veins within a geological setting the Curiosity mission has placed in a timeline of ancient environmental conditions. From that context, the higher oxygen level can be linked to a time when groundwater was present in the rover’s Gale Crater study area.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

Microbes seem far-fetched at this point, but the other alternative — that the Martian atmosphere contained more oxygen in the past than it does now — seems possible, Lanza said. “These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions. Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

Lanza is the lead author of a new report about the Martian manganese oxides in the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters. She uses Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, which fires laser pulses from atop the rover’s mast and observes the spectrum of resulting flashes of plasma to assess targets’ chemical makeup.

In Earth’s geological record, the appearance of high concentrations of manganese oxide minerals is an important marker of a major shift in our atmosphere’s composition, from relatively low oxygen abundances to the oxygen-rich atmosphere we see today. The presence of the same types of materials on Mars suggests that oxygen levels rose there, too, before declining to their present values. If that’s the case, how was that oxygen-rich environment formed?

“One potential way that oxygen could have gotten into the Martian atmosphere is from the breakdown of water when Mars was losing its magnetic field,” said Lanza. “It’s thought that at this time in Mars’ history, water was much more abundant.” Yet without a protective magnetic field to shield the surface, ionizing radiation started splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Because of Mars’ relatively low gravity, the planet wasn’t able to hold onto the very light hydrogen atoms, but the heavier oxygen atoms remained behind. Much of this oxygen went into rocks, leading to the rusty red dust that covers the surface today. While Mars’ famous red iron oxides require only a mildly oxidizing environment to form, manganese oxides require a strongly oxidizing environment, more so than previously known for Mars.

Lanza added, “It’s hard to confirm whether this scenario for Martian atmospheric oxygen actually occurred. But it’s important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated.” Abundant atmospheric oxygen has been treated as a so-called biosignature, or a sign of extant life, but this process does not require life.

Curiosity has been investigating sites in Gale Crater since 2012. The high-manganese materials it found are in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in the “Kimberley” region of the crater. But that’s not the only place on Mars where high manganese abundances have been found. NASA’s Opportunity rover, exploring Mars since 2004, also recently discovered high manganese deposits thousands of miles from Curiosity. This supports the idea that the conditions needed to form these materials were present well beyond Gale Crater.

Los Alamos National Laboratory leads the U.S. and French team that jointly developed and operates ChemCam. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, built the rover and manages the Curiosity mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.