The future of life detection on Mars: We come in peace, but carry lasers!


This is a guest post by Samantha Rolfe, a PhD student at the The Open University’s Department of Physical Sciences, where she is researching potential biomarkers on Mars using Raman spectroscopy. You can find her on Twitter, or talking science on Radio Verulam


The robotic exploration of other planets has been happening for many decades now. We have been to almost all the classical planets, with the New Horizons mission presently on its way to the Pluto‑Charon system (Pluto will always be a planet in my heart). Among the earliest fragile feelers of this type were extended in the 1970s in the shape of the Viking missions to Mars. Mars has been the subject of speculation for over a century in the minds of humans when considering whether we are alone in the Universe. For many years, almost right up to the landing of the Viking missions, it was believed that Mars had vegetation on its surface; Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he had observed a network of linear ‘channels’ on Mars during observations in 1877, which was later mistranslated as ‘canals’ by Percival Lowell, further fuelling the fire that intelligent Martians existed there. However, images from the Mariner program showed the surface to be littered with craters, a surface similar to that of the Moon.

The first ‘clear’ image from the surface of Mars sent back by Viking 1 shortly after landing (NASA/Roel van der Hoorn).

The Viking landers were sent with life detection instrumentation, the results of which proved inconclusive (though recent reanalysis shows they may have detected organic material but it was masked by geochemical processes that were not understood at the time) and this led to pessimism about finding life elsewhere in the Solar System in planetary science departments around the world. Nonetheless, with improving technology and further study of Mars from orbit and the ground has revealed that Mars definitely had areas of standing and running water on its surface for a significant amount of time; long enough to create fluvial fans, sedimentary stacks and rounded pebbles, which are amongst the evidence for liquid water. These discoveries, along with the developing discipline of astrobiology, have forced us to continue looking for the potential of Mars as a habitable planet.

The concept of habitability has been stretched in recent years with the in depth study of extremophiles, often single celled organisms (though they can be found on all three branches of the phylogenetic tree) living in conditions where humans would instantly perish. Examples of terrestrial life living at extremes of temperature, pressure or salinity, for example, makes for an interesting case that Mars may too host life. Liquid water can only exist at the surface of Mars if its freezing point is depressed to extremes, evidence of which has been found in the form of Recurring Slope Lineae – streaks seen to lengthen and retreat with the seasons on crater walls – if there is liquid water at the surface, perhaps there are reservoirs in the subsurface which life could utilise.

Recurring Slope Lineae in Newton Crater on Mars, evidence for liquid water at the surface (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona).

Future missions to planetary bodies will be employing new techniques to search for life. Raman spectroscopy is one of these techniques. A non-destructive laser is fired at a sample and some of the reflected photons are engaged in a non-elastic interaction with the sampled molecules, slightly changing the frequency of the returning light. This is displayed as spectroscopic peaks or bands representative of the individual bonds within the molecule. Therefore, each molecule has its own unique Raman spectrum allowing the identification of organic and inorganic molecules even within a mixed matrix of materials, making it a useful tool for life detection.

The present surface conditions of Mars are not forgiving to the survival organic material or, therefore, its detection. The surface is known to be an oxidising environment, leading to the destruction of organic material that may exist at the surface of Mars. The Martian subsurface may be protecting organic molecules waiting to be detected as tantalising evidence for the possible existence of life on the Red Planet. ESA’s ExoMars mission, due to launch in 2018, will be carrying a Raman spectrometer and ideas for future missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa are also considering strapping a Raman spectrometer to them and throwing it into the extreme radiation environment of the Jovian system.

Before we land on these planetary bodies, we can test what we think we are expecting i.e. can organic molecules be detected in simulated Martian environments? Experiments have shown that organic molecules such as amino acids are able to survive Martian surface conditions, for perhaps millions of years (extrapolated) in small quantities (parts per billion). In the harsh light of the Martian day (where the atmosphere does not block the ultraviolet radiation from the Sun as effectively as the Earth’s does), the Raman signatures of amino acids are degraded. Similar results are seen for microbes, such as Deinococcus radiodurans. Their Raman signatures have been analysed and examined after exposure to the ionising radiation environment expected at the surface and near surface of Mars.

If we are to discover organic molecules or even microbial Raman signatures on Mars then it is apparent that we will need to dig or drill down into the subsurface, beyond the depth where destructive ultraviolet and ionising radiation can penetrate. For ultraviolet, mere millimetres of regolith can block harmful rays, but the depth to which ionising radiation is able to penetrate is thought to be at least 2 m below the surface. Luckily, ExoMars will carry a drill with the ability to bore to a depth of 2 m (see what they did there?). Drilling to this depth has never been attempted before and will be a great feat of engineering if achieved. Samples recovered from the subsurface will need to be handled with great care and be removed from direct interaction with the Martian daylight as experiments have shown that Raman signatures of some organic molecules can begin to degrade within seconds, losing vital information about potential life that may exist or have existed in the subsurface.

A typical Raman spectrum of the amino acid Alanine, used in biological processes, most commonly in the building of proteins.

Raman spectroscopy is only some of what we have to look forward to in terms of future martian life detection missions and with all the new information we have been gathering with Curiosity of the Mars Sample Laboratory mission in Gale Crater (rounded pebbles indicating long term presence of liquid water, Mars is not red all over but grey too – a sedimentary rock, ‘John Klein’, was drilled into, a first in Mars exploration, and was found to be grey under the surface with analysis being consistent with clay minerals), we can only imagine what we might find in the future. Especially given that Curiosity’s mission is only to assess the habitability of Mars, not search for life, we have so much to look forward to.


Despite the amazing advances and discoveries made by robotic missions, robots are no substitute for human exploration. It is thought that humans could have conducted the same amount of research that the Mars rovers have within a few days or weeks, compared to the several years that it has taken. However, human space exploration warrants further discussion as there are many difficulties that we need to overcome before travel into interplanetary space will be safe enough, never mind the spiralling costs.

The Null Hypothesis: When Do We Declare a Barren World?

This is a guest post by Euan Monaghan, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physical Sciences at The Open University, where he studies the habitability of the subsurface of Mars. You can find him on Twitter


Astrobiology is the search for life elsewhere in the universe. When this search is focussed on a specific world, there’s a chance—quite a good chance it would seem—that this search will turn out to be fruitless; that there will be no life to be found except the terrestrial life we bring along with us in the process. But can we ever say for sure?

This piece is focussed on Mars, but the idea applies to all worlds targeted for astrobiological exploration. The particular habitats on Europa, Titan or Kepler-62e might be different to those found on Mars, but the question is the same everywhere: does this world host life?

Scientific progress has made the martians of our imagination progressively smaller and more insignificant. No longer the grand canal builders of old—no longer even considered to be multi-cellular—the optimistic amongst us imagine microbes in briny pockets kilometres beneath a hostile surface; their presence deep underground given away by a subtle disequilibrium in the gases of Mars’ tenuous atmosphere. If the martians are there, they’re in hiding.

As we gain a greater understanding of the geologic and climatic history of Mars, a subterranean biosphere doesn’t seem so unreasonable. While Mars was likely warm and wet long before the Earth was, it is also smaller and so cooled faster. It couldn’t hold onto a thick, warming atmosphere for long and so its surface water was gradually lost, both out into space and down into the planet’s interior, to be fixed within the structure of minerals, frozen as permafrost or trapped in groundwater aquifers beneath layers of ice. And as Mars cooled and the water descended, so did the planet’s habitable zone, until it was hidden from view.

Recurring slope lineae in Coprates Chasma may be due to active seeps of water; a clue to a possible subsurface biosphere? (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona, HiRise)

The habitability of any extra-terrestrial environment is estimated through the study of life adapted to extreme conditions on the Earth. This ‘envelope of life’, with its upper and lower boundaries of temperature, pressure, salt tolerance and so on, is expanding all the time. The relatively recent discovery of our own deep subsurface biosphere, as well as its remarkable diversity and extent, has broadened our concept of what we consider to be a habitable environment. It is with this ever-more subtle knowledge of our own world that we turn back to the planets in our search for life.

The next logical step in that search, for Mars at least, is a detailed study of its atmosphere. In early 2016 the European Space Agency will launch a mission to do just that: the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will perform a more comprehensive inventory of the martian atmosphere and the respective abundances of its gases than ever before. It is hoped that the results of this study will provide an insight into active processes occurring deep underground. But then again there is the very real possibility that the TGO will arrive in orbit and find no signs of life, however tentative. The null hypothesis—Mars is a barren world—would still stand. Should we then give up on our search, or do we commit time and resources to a strategy of ever more sophisticated astrobiological exploration, all the while striving to prevent accidental contamination by terrestrial life?

The inevitable moments when we decide to re-focus our search for life beyond the Earth should not be considered moments of pessimism. The universe has too much potential.

Lost in Space: Finding a Sense of Place in the Cosmos

This is a guest post by Sean McMahona PhD student in the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen. Sean’s research applies geological perspectives and techniques to astrobiological problems ranging from the origin and distribution of life in the universe to the origin of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Visit his excellent blog, Fourth Planetfor more on his research, his impressive space art and photography, and writings.


“Though a planetary perspective is a magnificent and enriching thing, places, not planets, are the core of human experience. It is from places that we build our world.”

—    Mapping Mars, Oliver Morton (2002)

“He stood thereby, though ‘in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,’ yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew.”

—    The French Revolution: A History, Thomas Carlyle (1837)

Last year, in a car park in Aberdeen, I saw Jupiter through a telescope for the first time. What I saw was not the familiar red-spotted giant from the Nasa photographs, that great bronze bauble marbled with cream like artisan coffee—no. What I saw, through a gap in the Scottish clouds, was a pale round smudge with three white specks for moons. It was not dramatic but it was a strange and lovely moment. It reminded me that Jupiter, the other planets, and even the distant stars and galaxies, are no less real, no less here—albeit further away—than Scotland, clouds, car parks, and me. They are on the same map, sharing our geography, our humdrum commonplace reality.

In our eagerness to be inspired by astronomical imagery, we are often tempted to forget this fundamental sameness. Documentaries about the cosmos besiege us with spectacular graphics, rousing orchestral music and rapturous, lyrical narration. In the tradition of Carl Sagan, we are urged to adopt a “cosmic perspective”, in which the Earth dwindles to an insignificant1 “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Meanwhile, digital space art is reliving the Romanticism of 19th Century painting: balance, proportion and subtlety are abandoned in favour of vertiginous perspectives, extremes of colour and contrast, and sublime, mystical lighting: silhouetted planets disintegrate into vast purple nebulae bristling with crepuscular rays. Thus, it seems that an ecstatic, almost mythical vision of outer space, emphasizing above all its spiritual and aesthetic grandeur, has taken root in popular culture.

McMahon juvenilia. This is what I thought space looked like when I was 17. I have since changed my mind.

McMahon juvenilia. This is what I thought space looked like when I was 17. I have since changed my mind.

Maybe that vision has some role to play in attracting public interest to the space sciences. But paradoxically, it can make the “wonders of the universe” seem less accessible than ever; profound, ethereal, miraculous, even unreal. It bolsters the popularity of astrology by reinforcing the illusion that planets and stars are unfathomable, heavenly beings: much more plausible aids to divination than ordinary material things. Most worryingly, it can give the impression that space exploration is an esoteric spiritual quest, unrelated to ordinary human problems and unfit for serious attention from media, government or young, career-minded scientists.

Perhaps the “numinous” view of space reflects a deeper failure to grasp the implications of the Copernican Revolution. Somehow, I suggest, we still make some kind of basic ontological distinction between the heavens and the Earth2. Consequently, we are unable to feel truly embedded in our extraterrestrial environment, which remains a transcendent, detached and coldly beautiful space rather than a homely, material, lived-in place. The Apollo programme helped to bridge that gap for a generation, transforming the moon from an icon of celestial indifference into a humanly intelligible landscape—rather like a golf course, in fact, replete with bunkers, buggies, flags and footprints3. Revealingly, many people today find it easier to believe that the whole thing was a hoax.

A Summer 2012 photograph by NASA's Curiosity rover inside Gale Crater on Mars.

A Summer 2012 photograph by NASA’s Curiosity rover inside Gale Crater on Mars.

The sharp, vivid photographs taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover can have a similar effect, reminding us that the martian surface is a real place, not so different in appearance from the rocky deserts of Libya or the High Arctic. Despite our unsophisticated cultural relationship with outer space—a mixture of mythology, indifference and reverence—a crewed mission to Mars in the next thirty years now seems very likely. I hope that mission will allow the next generation to feel more at home in the universe, more fully at ease with the fact that even Milton Keynes4 is part of the Milky Way. What we stand to gain is not an exalted “cosmic perspective” but simply a richer, more expansive sense of place, of where it is that we live our lives.


1     This strain of rhetoric characteristically fails to observe that human beings adjudicate the significance of the universe, not the other way around.

2      Douglas Adams exploited this confusion to humorous effect, juxtaposing ordinary things with cosmic phenomena: the “restaurant at the end of the universe,” the “whelk in a supernova” and so on; “you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist but that’s just peanuts compared to [the size of] space”.

3      Some readers will know that the American astronaut Alan Shephard did in fact play golf on the moon; two golf balls remain there.

4       Milton Keynes is an architecturally unprepossessing English town and home to the Open University, where much British space research has been conducted.

The hunt for an Exo-Earth: How close are we?

This is a guest post by Hugh Osborn, a PhD student in the Astronomy and Astrophysics group at the University of Warwick. Hugh’s research involves using transit surveys to discover exoplanets. Visit his excellent blog, Lost in Transitsfor more on exoplanets, their detection and his research.


In the 1890s Percival Lovell pointed the huge, 24-inch Alvan Clark telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona towards the planet Mars. Ever the romantic, he longed to find some sign of life on the Red Planet: to hold a mirror up to the empty sky above and find a planet that looked a little bit like home. Of course, in Lovell’s case, it was the telescope itself that gave the impression of life, imposing faint lines onto the image that he mistook for canals. But, with Mars long since relegated to the status of a dusty, hostile world, that ideal of finding such a planet still lingers. In the great loneliness of space, our species yearns to find a world like our own, maybe even a world that some other lineage of life might call home.

51 Pegasi: Home to the first exoplanet discovered by humans (Copyright: Royal Observatory Edinburgh, Anglo-Australian Observatory, and AURA)

A hundred years after Lovell’s wayward romanticism, the real search for Earth-like planets began. A team of astronomers at the University of Geneva used precise spectroscopy to discover a Jupiter-sized world around the star 55-Peg. This was followed by a series of similar worlds; all distinctly alien with huge gas giants orbiting perishingly close to their stars. However, as techniques improved and more time & money was invested on exoplanet astronomy, that initial trickle of new worlds soon turned into a flood. By 2008 more than 300 planets had been discovered including many multi-planet systems and a handful of potentially rocky planets around low-mass stars. However, the ultimate goal of finding Earth-like planets still seemed an impossible dream.

In 2009 the phenomenally sensitive Kepler mission launched. Here was a mission that might finally discover Earth-sized planets around Sun-like stars, detecting the faint dip in light as they passed between their star and us. Four years, 3500 planetary candidates and 200 confirmed planets later, the mission was universally declared a success. Its remarkable achievements include a handful of new terrestrial worlds, such as Kepler-61b and 62e, orbiting safely within their star’s habitable zones. However, despite lots of column inches and speculation, are these planets really the Earth 2.0s we were sold?

While such worlds may well have surfaces with beautifully Earth-like temperatures, there are a number of problems with calling such worlds definitive Earth twins. For a start the majority of these potentially habitable planets (such as Kepler-62e) orbit low-mass M-type stars. These are dimmer and redder than our Sun and, due to the relative distance of the habitable zone, such planets are likely to be tidally locked. The nature of such stars also makes them significantly more active, producing more atmosphere-stripping UV radiation. This means, despite appearances, ‘habitable’ planets around M-dwarfs are almost certainly less conducive to life than more sun-like stars.

Even more damning is the size of these planets. Rather than being truly Earth-like, the crop of currently known ‘Habitable planets’ are all super-Earths. In the case of Kepler’s goldilocks worlds, this means they have radii between 1.6 and 2.3 times that of Earth. That may not sound too bad, but the mass of each planet scales with the volume. That means, when compression due to gravity is taken into account, for such planets to be rocky they would need masses between 8 and 30 times that of Earth. With 10ME often used as the likely limit of terrestrial planets, can we really call such planets Earth-like. In fact, a recent study of super-Earths put the maximum theoretical radius for a rocky planet as between 1.5 and 1.8RE, with most worlds above this size likely being more like Mini-Neptunes.

So it appears our crop of habitable super-Earths may not be as life-friendly as previously thought. But it is true that deep in Kepler’s 3500 candidates a true Earth-like planet may lurk. However the majority of Kepler’s candidates orbit distant, dim stars. This means the hope of confirming these worlds by other techniques, especially tiny exo-Earths, is increasingly unlikely. And with Kepler’s primary mission now ended by a technical fault, an obvious question arises: just when and how will we find a true Earth analogue?

Future exoplanet missions may well be numerous, but are they cut out to discover a true Earth-like planet? The recently launched Gaia spacecraft, for example, will discover hundreds of Gas Giants orbiting Sun-like stars using the astrometry technique, but it would need to be around a hundred times more sensitive to discover Earths. New ground-based transit surveys such as NGTS are set to be an order of magnitude better than previous such surveys, but still these will only be able to find super-Earth or Neptune-sized worlds.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) (

Similarly, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite which is due to be launched in 2017, will only be able to find short-period planets with radii more than 50% larger than Earth. HARPS, the most prolific exoplanet-hunting instrument to date, is also due for an upgrade by 2017. Its protégée is a spectrometer named ESPRESSO that will be able to measure the change in velocity of a star down to a mere 10cms-1. Even this ridiculous level of accuracy is still not sufficient to detect the 8cms-1 effect Earth’s mass has on the Sun.

So despite billions spent on the next generation of planet-finders, they all fall short of finding that elusive second Earth. What, precisely, will it take to find this particular Holy Grail? There is some hope that the E-ELT (European-Extremely Large Telescope), with its 35m of collecting area and world-beating instruments will be able to detect exo-earths. Not only will its radial velocity measurements likely be sensitive enough to find such planets, it may also be able to directly image earth-analogues around the nearest stars. However, with observing time likely to be at a premium, the long-duration observations required to find and study exo-earths could prove difficult.

Alternatively, large space telescopes could be the answer. JWST will be able to do innovative exoplanet research including taking direct images of long-period planets and accurate atmospheric spectra of transiting super-Earths and giants. Even more remarkably, it may manage to take spectra of habitable zone super-Earths such as GJ 581d. But direct detection of true Earth-analogues remains out of reach. An even more ambitious project may be required, such as TPF or Darwin. These were a pair of proposals that could have directly imaged nearby stars to discover Earth-like planets. However, with both projects long since shelved by their respective space agencies, the future doesn’t look so bright for Earth-hunting telescopes.

After the unabashed confidence of the Kepler era, the idea that no Earth-like planet discovery is on the horizon may come as a surprisingly pessimistic conclusion. However not all hope is lost. The pace of technological advancement is quickening. Instruments such as TESS, Espresso, E-ELT and JWST are already being built. These missions may not be perfectly designed to the technical challenge of discovering truly Earth-like planets, but they will get us closer than ever before. As a civilisation we have waited hundreds of years for such a discovery; I’m sure we can hold out for a few more.

The Atmospheric Mirror

‘Earthrise’ : A blue marble, floating in a sea of blackness.


When viewed from space, the Earth glows like a blue marble under the light of the distant Sun. Azure oceans lap against the jagged coastlines and pale clouds swirl gracefully across its face, temporarily obscuring from view the brown-green landmasses beneath. From this vantage point, there is little to suggest that intelligent bipedal apes are scuttling around the coasts; confident of their centrality to all the workings of the cosmos, yet mostly unaware of the intricate complexities of its operation.

With the exception of five hundred  operational satellites amidst a sea of orbital debris, one permanently occupied space station in low Earth orbit and two intrepid robotic explorers on the planet next door (Opportunity and Curiosity), humans have little visible presence outside of the Earth. In spite of our delusions of grandeur, we assume that no evidence of our global civilisation could be detected from light-year distances.

However, if we imagine that somewhere in the menagerie of stars that make up our local neighbourhood in the Milky Way, on a planet not too dissimilar from ours, an alien astronomer was perched at his (or her) telescope one night staring out into the dark when our Solar System happened into view. What would they see? Just another star on their survey, if relatively young and brighter than most, but perhaps one of many observed that evening. Initially, the blinding glare of the Sun would obscure our family of planets from direct view. Luckily, there are a number of ways to circumvent this problem. Using indirect planet detection techniques familiar to us such as radial velocity measurements or transit timings, the planetary companions of this curious yellow dwarf star are revealed:  four gas giants and four smaller worlds. If the exo-astronomer ran their observations through their superior spectrometer however, chances are they may be intrigued by the results from one tiny blue planet in the orbit of this humdrum star.

Spectrometers measure the properties of light, first emitted by stars but then altered by the constituent gases of the planetary atmospheres through which the beam passes on the way to the receiving instrument. Different gases absorb light at different wavelengths to produce characteristic spectra and the composition of the atmosphere mirrored in the light can be teased out of the noise with sufficient skill. The high levels of water vapour, oxygen, methane and other gases associated with biological activity discovered in the atmosphere of this planet should result in the alien equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Methane is a ‘reduced’ gas and is usually rapidly destroyed in the presence of oxygen, meaning that detecting an appreciable amount of both may suggest that a biological mechanism is responsible for their continual replenishment. This mismatch is identified as a ‘biosignature‘ – a sign that this planet may harbour life.

Planetary atmospheres are something we are all intimately familiar with. The Earth’s is flush with life-giving oxygen, greenhouse gases essential (in the right balance) to maintaining a clement climate and an ozone layer that shields us from the Sun’s harmful rays. Most of us will never leave its gaseous embrace, and without it life would be extremely difficult. However, we take for granted the atmosphere’s ability to act as a mirror of our activities detectable from astronomical distances, able to reflect the unique signatures of the gases injected into it and hold them there for those with the correct instruments to see.

Further studies by the inquisitive alien astronomer would reveal a soup of exotic chemicals in the atmosphere of this distant little planet: increasing levels of carbon dioxide along with a suite of destructive, industrially produced compounds like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). There is no known biological pathway for producing CFCs, so their detection in the atmosphere of this planet is a strong indication of the activities of industry. They have struck gold (or the equivalently rare element on their planet) by discovering compelling evidence for the existence of another technologically advanced species. In doing so, they may have forever altered the way their civilisation views itself – one of perhaps many in a vast, galactic family.

Cloaked in an imaginative example, this is the theory that lies behind using spectroscopy as a method of detecting life, and perhaps even advanced civilisations, across the depths of space. Two promising space telescopes, TPF (NASA) and Darwin (ESA), were cancelled due to budgetary constraints, so for now at least interstellar planetary spectroscopy remains out of our grasp. However, the hope is that instruments of the near-future will be able to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets to search for these signs of life. Until they can, it might be worth remembering that we might not be the only ones able to gaze into the Earth’s atmospheric mirror.

Perhaps we should try to keep it clean?

Men and Machines

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.

- Carl Sagan (Cosmos, 1980)

Since the dawn of civilisation, humans have gazed up at the stars and planets overhead. Even now, separated from our forebears by an expansive gulf of time, technology and knowledge, the stars remain distant, esoteric but evocative targets. Our curiosity and thirst for understanding drives us on, pushing the limits of human endurance, engineering and science to the point where 528 humans from 38 nations have flown beyond the tenuous envelope of gases clinging to the surface of the Earth into wilderness of space. A first, unsteady and cautious step into the vast unknown that surrounds our tiny globe. Of these, only 12 have stepped foot on the surface of the Moon. At over 385,000 km away, reaching the desolate face of our lunar companion remains the pinnacle of manned spaceflight capability, yet it is a mere stone’s throw from Earth in astronomical terms. We peer out from the relative safety of our home, edge into the abyss that surrounds us and tentatively contemplate its content.

The delicate squishiness of the human form is not conducive to the hostile environment of space. Fleshy bags of meat and fluids don’t travel well in a vacuum, the near absolute-zero temperatures dessicate skin and lung and our fragile bones snap and break easily under undue strain. Bombarded by radiation, and far from the protective effect of the ozone layer, our cells mutate and die.  Ingenuity and engineering have surmounted these problems in the short term by wrapping our bodies in spacecraft and suits, but the frailties of our terrestrial form remain.

As with many aspects of our lives, we have increasingly outsourced the monumental task of space exploration to robotic envoys. Obedient, unfaltering and better able to withstand the hardships of space travel, these metallic pioneers are our eyes and ears in the depths of space, straddling the boundary of the known and unknown to help us elucidate the mysteries of our near and distant planetary neighbours. Beacons in the fog, they light the way out into space.

Moreover, these scientific emissaries are more than merely (very expensive) collections of navigational equipment, cameras, sensors and propulsion. They are more than laboratories, more than the experiments they conduct, or the raw data they return. More too than the images they record, most never seen by the eyes of a human. These magnificent machines, representative of the peak of human exploratory technology are much greater than the sum of their parts. Often the result of years of international collaboration, teamwork, anguish and joy, these are the ambassadors of our knowledge, the manifestations of the spirit of human curiosity and the first steps of a lonely species wandering out into the darkness. Whilst they wander space in isolation, they have the dreams and imagination of many people behind them.

This is why, when a launch fails or an unmanned probe goes missing, the loss is felt by us all. The cost can be counted in dollars or euros, but the real price is the setback to the campaign for understanding that our failed or lost probe was spearheading. A scout lost to the enemy. I’ve heard stories of folks who cried at the loss of Beagle II (the British-built Mars lander lost to the Martian atmosphere in 2003/4), and who amongst us are not moved by xkcd‘s wonderful homage to the late (but very successful) MER Spirit rover?

On the eve of the landing of MSL Curiositythe most complex rover ever designed, it is worth bearing in mind the hard work and dedication that it took for the latest generation of scientists and engineers to push the limits of our understanding and put a car-sized robot on Mars. I wish all those involved in the construction and operation of this wonderful machine the best of luck. Earth is rooting for you!


Follow Curiosity’s landing live at JPL’s site here

Enough Time for Life: Part II

We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it’s forever.

 -Carl Sagan. Cosmos

In my last post I discussed how it was possible to make tentative estimates about the total amount of  time that a planet spends in the habitable zone, also known as its habitable period, and why this is important.  In this post, I’d like to put numbers to those estimates.

This figure plots the results as a function of star mass, running along the horizontal axis. The vertical axis is in units of billions of years, and is on a logarithmic scale. The dashed line running through the middle (‘mean habitable period’) represents the habitable period that would be expected if a planet was located right in the centre of the habitable zone at the beginning of the star’s lifetime. I’ve included it to highlight the fact that lower mass stars have longer habitable periods. I’ve also included the Earth and Mars, as well as the four habitable exoplanet candidates mentioned in the preceding post.

This simple model, the results of which are outlined in the image above, estimates the Earth’s total habitable period to be approximately 4.91 billion years, meaning that it will end about 370 million years  from now. That sounds like a long time, and in the context of human time-scales, it certainly is. Even geologically, the world of  370 million years ago was a very different place. It was the height of the Late Devonian period, and a full 172 million years after the Cambrian explosion saw the rapid diversification and speciation of some the earliest complex eukaryote life. The first forests were in the process of transforming the landscape of the supercontinent Gondwana, unconstrained by the lack of large herbivorous animals, and the first tetrapods were appearing in the fossil record. Who knows what transformations the world and life will undergo during the next 370 million years?

I should note that the error bars for these numbers are high, and I’m making no concrete predictions here for the inhabitants of the world 369 million years from now to call me out on. The habitable zone as a theory itself is fraught with assumptions that are, at this stage of understanding, regrettably necessary and regularly challenged and amended.

The Clock is Ticking

Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end

 -William Shakespeare, Sonnet LX

It remains intrinsically unsettling to consider the fact that at some point our lovely blue-green home planet will eventually lose its ability to support life. It is certain that, whether after 4.91 billion years or not, the edge of the gradually advancing theoretical boundary of habitability will near planet Earth; now an apocalyptic world of blistering heat and desolation, unrecognisable from today’s lush, watery paradise. As Sol’s mass, radiative output and surface temperature steadily increase,  the Earth’s climate will eventually become scorching. The fundamental biogeochemical mechanisms that help to regulate the Earth’s climate will break down, buckling under the strain of the ever encroaching Sun, and a ‘runaway greenhouse‘ crisis will result. Caused by the evaporation of the oceans and the initiation of a irreversible water vapour/temperature feedback mechanism, the runaway greenhouse is thought to be responsible for the of climate of Venus today. High temperatures result in more water vapour in the air and higher humidity, which in turns boosts the temperature further causing more evaporation and more humidity. Eventually the Earth will become enveloped in thick, impenetrable cloud, insulating the surface and acting like an planet-wide pressure cooker, undoubtedly heralding the end of life on the Earth as we know it.

As the Sun grows larger and hotter, high energy particles from the solar wind will eventually strip away this thick atmosphere which will be forever lost to space. The parched, molten husk of the Earth, former home to countless organisms and every human ever to exist, as well as the stage to every single event, from the minuscule to the revolutionary that took place for nearly 5 billion years, will probably be devoured by the Sun long after it has become inhospitable for life, an incomprehensibly distant 7 billion years from now.

What Earth may look like 5-7 billion years from now – after the Sun swells and becomes a Red Giant. (Wikipedia)

The Earth, my friends, is lost. But fear not, perhaps we could move out to Mars? Our dusty neighbour will move into the habitable zone approximately 1.7 billion years from now, and stay there for the remainder of the Sun’s main sequence lifetime. The Sun in it’s death throes will make for an incredible sight in the Martian sky. However, Mars has a very chaotic orbit, making it difficult to determine exactly where it will be in the distant future. On top of all this, it’s hard to predict what conditions will be like around the ageing Sun.

Well, so much for the Earth and Mars. Let’s hope that in the preceding 370 million years our descendants make it to a better world.

The Lives of Planets

The Super-Earth Gliese 581d (top left of plot) has an approximate habitable period of over 50 billion years. I don’t know about you, but I have real difficultly grasping the truly unfathomable immensity of that amount of time. Research suggests that its star, red dwarf Gliese 581, is approximately 8 billion years old, and therefore the habitable zone has been home to Gliese 581d for 1.4 times as long as the Earth has existed for, yet it is only 13% of the way through its total habitable period.  Still, this isn’t to say that it’s ‘habitable'; there are plenty of other factors (its large mass for example) that suggests that it’s not a place where life would thrive. Although, given 50 billion years who knows what evolution could throw up?

Gliese 667Cc, also orbiting a red dwarf star, will be in the habitable zone for 1.8 billion years because it formed straddling the inner edge – it won’t be (relatively) long until the heat of its star overwhelms its ability to maintain a habitable environment, if it has one at all.  It’s a similar story for the Super-Earth HD 85512 b. Despite it’s location in the habitable zone, it’s still too close to be habitable for any considerable length of time – a mere 603 million years which, if we draw on Earth’s evolutionary history for comparison, is barely enough time for the denizens of the Cambrian to make themselves comfortable, if we extrapolate backwards (and ignore the ~3.5 billion years that it took to get to this stage in the first place).

Kepler 22b is another excellent candidate for a habitable planet, orbiting well within the habitable zone and remaining there for 3.4 billion years. On Earth, 3.4 billion years ago, it is thought that the first primitive organisms had emerged and were building reefs (stromatolites) and going about their daily business of dividing and multiplying – the kind of stuff that modern bacteria tend to fill their lives with. From these humble beginnings we emerged eons later; perhaps the same can be true on Kepler 22b?

In the End…

I realise this has been quite a long article, and I appreciate you sticking it out to the end. I hope that you found it as interesting to read as I did to write. The concept of habitability through time hasn’t been explored in great detail, and I hope to refine these numbers and tweak the model and its assumptions to improve the accuracy of the estimates in the future. Nevertheless, I found it an interesting, and rather humbling, thought experiment if nothing else.

Perspective is important, and yet always in short supply. We’re currently 92% of the way through our planet’s habitable period, enjoying the twilight years of its habitable lifetime. We have to remember that the Earth isn’t going to be able to shelter us indefinitely and that all planets’ lives come to an end at some point. It’s worth bearing that mind when considering that despite our delusions of grandeur, our brief residence on this planet has been a fleeting blip in its long and tumultuous history. Our future may well be too.

Enough Time for Life: Part I

As you may know if you frequent this blog often, I spend a fair amount of time writing about planets that astronomers spend a lot more time discovering. My main interest in these worlds lies with their ‘habitability’, a rather esoteric and loosely defined term that is primarily concerned with describing how broadly livable these planets are,  in a very Earthcentric way. Planetary habitability is an extremely complex recipe that turns climatic, planetary and geological ingredients, added in just the right quantities, into a warm, salty, non-toxic broth. Perhaps life on other planets, if it exists, has completely different requirements, but without a good sample of inhabited planets teeming with life we can’t really be sure and have to make this assumption for now.

A reasonably good place to start looking for planets hosting these conditions is the ‘habitable zone‘ of stars, a concept that I’ve discussed before. The habitable zone describes an area around a star where a planet, if it was discovered to be orbiting within this area, could have liquid water on its surface. Stars of different masses and classifications have different habitable zone distances, and not all planets in the habitable zone are habitable: some may be too massive, others too small, many wouldn’t have the correct mix of atmospheric constituents, others may have no atmosphere at all. In fact, there are more reasons to think that planets, whether inside or outside the habitable zone, are more likely to be completely unsuitable for (Earth-like) life than there are to consider the opposite.

However, whilst habitability is variable in space, it is almost certainly variable in time as well. The habitable zone isn’t a fixed distance: its boundaries move outwards as the star undergoes main-sequence evolution, growing larger and hotter over time. More massive stars (classifications F, G and K) have the shortest main sequence lifetimes and therefore the habitable zone boundaries around these stars migrate outwards at a proportionally more rapid rate. Low mass stars, M-stars for example, have extensive lifetimes on the order of tens or hundreds of billions of (Earth) years, and therefore their habitable zones are relatively more static in time.

The Habitable Period: A Measure of Habitability Through Time

The habitable zone for stars of different masses at the point of entry on to the ‘main sequence’. The horizontal axis shows the distance from the star in astronomical units (AU) on a logarithmic scale. The dashed boundaries illustrate the uncertainty of the HZ when cloud cover is taken into account.


The habitable zone for stars of differing masses at the end of their main sequence evolution.

The time that a planet spends within the habitable zone can be considered its ‘habitable period‘. The habitable period of a planet is an important factor when considering the possibility of life on these worlds. A planet with a long habitable period is perhaps more likely to host complex organisms that require more time to evolve, if we make the assumption that evolution by natural selection is a universal constant, operating in a similar way in potential exobiological systems as it does on Earth. An alternative means of speciation has not been discovered on Earth, and natural selection has withstood 200 years of intense scientific scrutiny and analysis relatively unscathed. As before, with a sample of one assumptions have to be made.

Building on this idea, if it is possible to determine the extent of the habitable zone at the beginning and end of the star’s main sequence lifetime using modelling techniques, and estimate the approximate age of the star, then a rate of outward migration of the boundaries of the habitable zone can be derived and quantifying the habitable periods of these planets becomes a possibility.

The figures above go some what to illustrating this point: the image on the left shows the extent of the habitable zone of different stars at the stage at which the star enters the ‘main sequence‘ – the beginning of its hydrogen-burning life. I’ve included the Earth, Mars and the confirmed habitable zone exoplanets from the Habitable Exoplanet Catalog and plotted them at their semi-major axes. Note that the Earth and Kepler 22b are comfortably within the warming embrace of their respective suns’ habitable zone at this stage, whilst the other planets remain fairly peripheral. The figure on the right shows the same planets in the same relative orbital locations, but at the end of their star’s lives. Earth, Kepler 22b and most of the other planets, with the welcome exception of Mars (not likely to be at this location in the future anyway because of its chaotic orbit), have all been relegated to the dangerous and inhospitable ‘hot zone’ nearest the star as the boundaries of the habitable zone migrated past their positions at some point during stellar evolution. The rate at which the imaginary boundaries move outwards is proportional to the mass of the star, as discussed above.

I used a very simple model to estimate exactly how long these planets will spend in the habitable zone and I’ll post the results in the coming days.

Bugs from Space: Panspermia and The Interplanetary Transfer of Life

Teeming with Life? The Rho Ophiuchus cloud complex located about 500 light-years away. This view spans about five light-years across. The false-color image is taken from the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Historically, the theory of panspermia (from the Greek pas meaning ‘all’ and sperma meaning ‘seed’) – that life exists throughout the Universe, and is distributed by asteroids, meteoroids and planetesimals – arose as an attempt to address fundamental concerns over the evolution of life on our planet, specifically the ability of life to evolve in the harsh conditions postulated to be present on the early Earth. The theory was re-popularised by Francis Crick (the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule) and Leslie Orgel in a 1973 paper that rather controversially suggested that life was intentionally sent to the Earth by an advanced civilisation on another planet.

Conditions on the early Earth were unlikely to have particularly conducive for life. A particularly unpleasant period of the Earth’s history, known as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), occurred at the Hadean-Archean boundary, roughly 4 Ga ago, and was characterised by extremely high cratering rates on inner Solar System planets, evident from petrological analysis of impact craters on the mostly undisturbed surface of the Moon. The LHB presents a conundrum when considering the evolution of life on Earth: a series of statistically plausible cataclysmic asteroid or meteorite impacts would have in effect sterilised the planet, boiling the oceans and obliterating vast swathes of terra firma. However, life arose rapidly after the LHB, recorded by carbon isotope analysis of sedimentary rocks to be possibly as early as ~3.8 Ga, in direct contention with our understanding of the probabilities of the critical evolutionary steps required for the evolution of life.  Is it possible that the Earth was seeded with life during, or after, the Late Heavy Bombardment?

Approaching this problem methodically, organisms that survive interplanetary transfer would have to endure ejection from an impacted planet, transit in space and eventual re-entry and impact onto another world, thousands or perhaps millions of years later. Is this really feasible?

As it turns out, it is.

Bacillus subtilis: a surprisingly competent astronaut (

Studies analysing the factors associated with the ejection process considered the ability of bacteria to endure the associated extreme pressures, temperatures and acceleration likely to be experienced at the beginning of a trip to space.  A study exposing spores of Bacillus subtilis to peak shock pressures of 32 GPa (gigapascals) and post-shock temperatures of 250 °C, similar to values expected to have been experienced by Martian ejecta, reported survival rates of 10-4, indicating that the high shock-pressures and heating associated with planetary escape may not be detrimental to bacterial survival in the long-term, providing that a significant fraction of the ejecta avoids being heated to > 100 °C. Similar research indicated that, even when Bacillus subtilis spores are subjected to acceleration 2.5 – 25 times greater than would be normally experienced by ejected material, survival rates remained between 40 and 100%.

Similarly, interplanetary space may not be as harsh an environment as initially thought, at least for bacteria encased in several metres of rock. However, there are still the issues of vacuum, long periods of thermal inactivation, desiccation, photolysis of volatiles, impacts with micrometeorites and most significantly ionising radiation, in the form of solar ultra-violet, solar particle events and galactic cosmic rays to deal with. Modelling studies suggest that organisms at the centre of objects greater than 100m in diameter receive a sterilising dose of radiation after 10 to 100 million years in space, whilst centimetre and smaller objects are sterilised in less than 10,000 years. For an estimate of transit duration, Monte-Carlo trajectory analysis used to estimate the likely duration of ejecta in space approximates that the vast majority of Martian meteorites reach the Earth within 10,000 to 100 million years; for approximately 0.1% of Martian meteorites the transit period is less than 10,000 years. On top of this, recent studies suggest that the space environment may actually be conducive to microorganism growth, providing adequate radiation defence is in place, due to a currently undiscovered mechanism disrupting the ability of antibiotics to inhibit the proliferation of bacteria.

Seems plausible so far, but what about landing? With no external evidence of lithopanspermic planetary colonisation as of yet this stage of the transfer process is perhaps the least well understood. The shock of a low angle (≤ 30°) impact is predicted to be less than those associated with ejection, so a viable population may be able to survive landing. Even large organisms, such as the worms recovered from the wreckage of the Columbia space shuttle, may be able to weather re-entry. However, environmental conditions such as nutrient availability and appropriate osmolarity, low toxicity and low predation will dictate the ability of surviving organisms to colonise the planet.

Considering the time scale of the evolution of the Solar System, the ejecta liberating LHB event and the results of empirical studies on Earth and in space, the possibility of panspermia may not as unfeasible as it first appears…