Friday, March 30, 2012

Snowing Microbes

Of all the places in our solar system (besides Earth) that are most likely to harbor life, none is better than Enceladus, Sat­urn’s sixth largest moon. Although extremely cold, it has been recording spouting geyser-like plumes of liquid water high into the air. Enceladus is one of only a few other places in our solar system with recorded geologic activity.
Although it is so very cold on Enceladus, that does not have researchers worried, because we have life here in our arctic oceans on Earth.
The lucky thing about the water being sprayed into the air also means that the probes that have been sent to Enceladus do not even need to land! All they have to do is fly through the spray to gather their samples and analyze the liquid. With the envi­ronment being so cold, however, all of the spray is probably being frozen into snow in the atmosphere. 
There are also concerns that perhaps the oceans are far too acidic to support life, but again, it may be possible for mi­crobes to survive in such conditions.
Microbes, are, in fact, what the researchers are looking for; millions of microscopic bacteria and other organisms that live just about everywhere here on Earth. As the water is likely being spurted from the oceans beneath the frozen surface of the planet, any life held within them would be blown up into the atmosphere in the geysers.
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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Solar Flares, 03.08.12

It seems like everyone is buzzing about solar flares. We even had a bit of a scare this morning with our power cutting out a few times. Are the flares really to blame, though? Let us take a look.
Credit: NASA/SDO.
Solar flares are a sort of burp created by a star when energy concentrates and bubbles in one place, eventually erupting out in a CME, or Coronal Mass Ejection. CMEs send out massive amounts of magnetic, radio, and radiation emissions. In ex­treme cases, solar flares have caused interruptions in commu­nications and blackouts. Just last year, solar storms made communications for some airplanes and ships difficult over some parts of Alaska and the Pacific. With genuine CME-caused damage, though, the effects are usually very widespread, and last longer than just a power outage of a few minutes.
Do not get us wrong, there is an honest to goodness major so­lar storm going on right now. has some excellent photos and footage of it. Sunspot AR1429 has been spewing some major emissions, and scientists have been ex­pecting this. The spot has been tracked ever since last month when it was on the far side of the sun, even then creating spikes in energy readings.
Scientists have known for a long time these flares were com­ing, and in fact, some have even been let down. Some are say­ing the flare is actually weaker then they had expected.
So, what does this all mean for us? For one, the classic line “do not panic.” We are all still here, and we are not likely to be plunged back into the dark ages. For another, it is not likely that the power outages experienced around town today can be blamed on this flare. Solar flares are the rock stars of outer space. They do major, widespread damage when they come to town, and we just are not seeing that with this flare. Most likely the power outages were caused by overheating and burn­out in our local power grid. Lastly, auroras: there is a very slim chance you could see some sort of aurora activity in the night sky. We make no guarantees, though. Most likely, those people further north would be able to see it better. If you want to give it a shot, though, travel out into the country tonight and look towards the northern sky. You may be able to see the greenish opalescence of the auroras, commonly known as the “northern lights.” If you do, send us a picture! We will be keeping our eyes peeled, too.
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Friday, March 2, 2012

Life on Europa: a soda ocean? 03.02.12

Of all of the other places in our solar system, one of the most promising locations for extraterrestrial life has been Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Completely covered with ice on the surface, researchers believe Europa harbors an ocean of liquid water at least 100 miles deep, which leads down to a rocky interior and a solid core of some type, most likely metal. Surface studies on the moon have yet to be conducted, however, so the re­searchers have no idea how thick the icy crust on the outside of the planet may be.
Credit: NASA.
While the possibility of an ocean of liquid water is more than enough to be excited about, some researchers are beginning to doubt whether or not life as we know it would be able to thrive on the chilling planet. What research has been done on the planet is beginning to lead the scientists to believe that whatever water is there would be highly contaminated by extremely acidic chemicals. There is some speculation that it is possible the acidity could be balanced out by more basal minerals at the ocean floor, but again, it is all speculation.
There are a few places on Earth where some microbes and other life forms thrive in highly acidic environments, but those areas are few and far between. So, the likelihood of life sur­viving on an entire planet like that? Very slim.
Without the bases and minerals at the ocean floor to balance out the pH, though, the researchers say the ocean would have moderately corrosive characteristics, “about the same as your average soft drink,” except it would be more along the lines of hydrogen peroxide than a cola. Swim time, anyone?
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