In the article “Mission Debriefing” by Cassie Martin (Science News Dec.13/Jan.6, page 31), the author summarizes new findings of six missions in our solar system. Here’s a summary. There is some hope—but no direct evidence yet–that we may have some simple life forms in our neighborhood.
Spacecraft Juno has orbited Jupiter since 2016, studying the Great Red Spot and finding ammonia surging up from deep in the atmosphere. A study of cloud dynamics is next. No life here as we know it, for sure.
After twenty years orbiting Saturn, Cassini returned new information about the planet’s atmosphere, its rings (including the “ravioli” moon, Pan), and the “bubbling nitrogen” in Titan’s hydrogen sea, Ligeia Mare. It dove through the plumes of its moon Enceladus and found molecular hydrogen—food for microbes on Earth–hence something for subice ocean critters to eat if they are there.
Curiosity hopes to find “chemical building blocks” for life on Mars as it samples new rock layers of hematite and clay on Mount Sharp. In 2015 New Horizons gave us 15 minutes of “defining” images of Pluto and is now on its way to Spacecraft 2014Mu69 in the Kuiper Belt.
Osiris –Rex had a gravity boost over Antarctica in order to go out to the asteroid carbon-rich Bennu and orbit it for 2 ½ years. A rock sample is planned, which could tell us more about the early solar system.
Finally, more life clues came from Spacecraft Daun, orbiting Ceres since 2015. “Hints or organic material” were reported in February on Ceres’ surfaces. A sample is needed to confirm the light patterns “consistent with organics.” Daun is in stable orbit around Ceres, hence it will stay there when its fuel runs out next year.
Meanwhile, prospects for life elsewhere are looking up. Planets seem to be ever more common, even Earth-sized worlds hosting liquid water—like three of TRAPPIST-1’s exoplanets. This “ultra-cool dwarf star” burns its nuclear fuel very slowly, which gives life billions of years to find a way to evolve. When the new observatories come available, astronomers will be lookinig for hydrogen in their planets’ atmospheres. Three warm planets are in fast orbit around this M dwarf, so life could be shared between them by “tossing materials” or by space travel.
Author of The Archives of Varok
The View Beyond Earth (Book 1.)
The Webs of Varok (Book 2.)
Nautilus Silver Award 2013 YA
ForeWord IBPA finalist 2012 adult SF
The Alien Effect (Book 3.)
An Alien’s Quest (Book 4. Released Nov.21, 2016)
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