From an article on the American Scientist website:
Debra Fischer is an astrophysicist at Yale University who has discovered hundreds of exoplanets, and she was the first to discover a system with several exoplanets around one star.
On September 30, American Scientist met up with Dr. Fischer for a Google Hangout to discuss the methods used to find exoplanets, how much we can currently decipher about these planets’ properties, and what new information some planned ground and space-based observatories might be able to contribute. She also tackled the all-important question of whether we might find exoplanets that support life.
This event marked the first in a series of Google Hangouts with all of Sigma Xi’s Distinguished Lecturers, one of whom is Dr. Fischer. Dr. Fischer also helps to run a citizen science project called Planet Hunters, which aims to classify readings and find exoplanets with the public’s help.
For an in-depth discussion on exoplanets and how they are discovered, see Section 9.2, p. 236-244 in The Cosmos.
Link: Original article on American Scientist
An article in ScienceNews describes experiments on Earth about making a probe that can penetrate far enough into Europa’s surface ice to figure out what might be in Europa’s invisible ocean.
Jupiter’s moon, Europa, looks just as desolate and uninviting as any other place in the outer Solar System. Its frozen façade is colder than the most frigid spot on Earth by more than 100 degrees Celsius. Blasts of radiation sweep the surface. But beneath Europa’s inhospitable exterior, scientists think a vast ocean of liquid water flows. The moon’s seafloor might also bustle with activity from volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. If chemicals from the surface trickle down through the ice, as some scientists suspect, Europa could hold all the necessary ingredients for life.
Kevin Hand of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, says “You’ve got incredible ecosystems of tube worms and crabs and fish and microbes [on Earth]. It’s anybody’s guess whether or not you’d find tube worms on Europa.”
The idea of exploring this vast ocean has launched a number of scientists on a quest for a space-ready ice drill. Somehow, such a device has to breach the moon’s icy shell — perhaps with blazing hot metal or the jagged teeth of a drill bit — and carry enough power for the job. The device has to be simpler and more reliable than anything used to bore through ice on Earth, and it will have to take care of itself — there’s no way to send a team of engineers to the far edges of the Solar System. And the entire ice-tunneling, power-toting, problem-free package needs to be light enough to launch beyond Earth’s gravitational grip. Research teams are now exploring the different approaches to penetrate, drill, burrow or melt through Europa’s icy shell.
Read more about these varied projects at ScienceNews.
Is Earth the only known world that can support life? In an effort to find life-habitable worlds outside our Solar System, stars similar to our Sun are being monitored for slight light decreases that indicate eclipsing, or transiting, planets (see section 9.2d, pp. 240-243). Many previously-unknown planets are being found, including over 700 worlds recently uncovered by NASA’s Kepler satellite.
Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory (UPR Arecibo)
Depicted above in artist’s illustrations are twelve extrasolar planets that orbit in the habitable zones of their parent stars. These exoplanets have the right temperature for water to be a liquid on their surfaces, and so water-based life on Earth might be able to survive on them. Although technology cannot yet detect resident life, finding habitable exoplanets is a step that helps humanity to better understand its place in the cosmos.
Links: APOD for full-size image; Kepler mission website.
On December 4, 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met for a hearing on “Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond”.
The hearing’s purpose was to examine astrobiology research and the search for signs of life in our Solar System and beyond. It included a general assessment of the multi- and interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology research, including the role astrobiology plays in formulating NASA space missions. It also examined the techniques and capabilities necessary to determine the potential for the existence of biosignatures within our Solar System.
With the discovery of potential Earth-like planets outside of our Solar System, the committee heard three experts discuss what methods are being used to determine if any of these planets may harbour life and explored existing and planned astrobiology research strategies and roadmaps.
Links: House Committee on Science and Technology website, including the witnesses’ testimony in transcript form and an archived webcast of the proceedings.