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I am an exoplanet enthusiast, and a Physics teacher.


A brief look at discoveries of alien oceans in the Solar System with evidence from Cassini and HST

In preparation for NASA's briefing on Thursday 13th April 2017 (see link below) about new discoveries relating to ocean worlds in the Solar System, this pinboard provides a brief look at research in this field, focussing on Saturn's moon Titan and based on evidence from the Cassini mission and the Hubble Space Telescope. (read more here)


Astrobiology and habitability of Titan

Abstract: Largest satellite of Saturn and the only in the solar system having a dense atmosphere, Titan is one of the key planetary bodies for astrobiological studies, due to several aspects. (i) Its analogies with planet Earth, in spite of much lower temperatures, with, in particular, a methane cycle on Titan analogous to the water cycle on Earth. (ii) The presence of an active organic chemistry, involving several of the key compounds of prebiotic chemistry. The recent data obtained from the Huygens instruments show that the complex organic matter in Titan’s low atmosphere is mainly concentrated in the aerosol particles. The formation of biologically interesting compounds may also occur in the deep water ocean, from the hydrolysis of complex organic material included in the chrondritic matter accreted during the formation of Titan. (iii) The possible emergence and persistence of Life on Titan. All ingredients which seem necessary for Life to appear and even develop – liquid water, organic matter and energy – are present on Titan. Consequently, it cannot be excluded that life may have emerged on or in Titan. In spite of the extreme conditions in this environment life may have been able to adapt and to persist. Many data are still expected from the Cassini-Huygens mission and future astrobiological exploration mission of Titan are now under consideration. Nevertheless, Titan already looks like another world, with an active organic chemistry, in the absence of permanent liquid water, on the surface: a natural laboratory for prebiotic-like chemistry.

Pub.: 03 Mar '07, Pinned: 11 Apr '17

Obliquity of the Galilean satellites: The influence of a global internal liquid layer

Abstract: The obliquity of the Galilean satellites is small but not yet observed. Studies of cycloidal lineaments and strike-slip fault patterns on Europa suggest that Europa's obliquity is about 1 deg, although theoretical models of the obliquity predict the obliquity to be one order of magnitude smaller for an entirely solid Europa. Here, we investigate the influence of a global liquid layer on the obliquity of the Galilean satellites. Io most likely has a fully liquid core, while Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are thought to have an internal global liquid water ocean beneath an external ice shell. We use a model for the obliquity based on a Cassini state model extended to the presence of an internal liquid layer and the internal gravitational and pressure torques induced by the presence of this layer. We find that the obliquity of Io only weakly depends on the different internal structure models considered, because of the weak influence of the liquid core which is therefore almost impossible to detect through observations of the obliquity. The obliquity of Europa is almost constant in time and its mean value is smaller (0.033-0.044 deg) with an ocean than without (0.055 deg). An accuracy of 0.004 deg (about 100 m on the spin pole location at the surface) would allow detecting the internal ocean. The obliquity of Ganymede and Callisto depends more on their interior structure because of the possibility of resonant amplifications for some periodic terms of the solution. Their ocean may be easily detected if, at the measuring time, the actual internal structure model lead to a very different value of the obliquity than in the solid case. A long-term monitoring of their shell obliquity would be more helpful to infer information on the shell thickness.

Pub.: 16 May '12, Pinned: 11 Apr '17

The pH of Enceladus' ocean

Abstract: Observational data from the Cassini spacecraft are used to obtain a chemical model of ocean water on Enceladus. The model indicates that Enceladus' ocean is a Na-Cl-CO3 solution with an alkaline pH of ~11-12. The dominance of aqueous NaCl is a feature that Enceladus' ocean shares with terrestrial seawater, but the ubiquity of dissolved Na2CO3 suggests that soda lakes are more analogous to the Enceladus ocean. The high pH implies that the hydroxide ion should be relatively abundant, while divalent metals should be present at low concentrations owing to buffering by clays and carbonates on the ocean floor. The high pH is interpreted to be a key consequence of serpentinization of chondritic rock, as predicted by prior geochemical reaction path models; although degassing of CO2 from the ocean may also play a role depending on the efficiency of mixing processes in the ocean. Serpentinization leads to the generation of H2, a geochemical fuel that can support both abiotic and biological synthesis of organic molecules such as those that have been detected in Enceladus' plume. Serpentinization and H2 generation should have occurred on Enceladus, like on the parent bodies of aqueously altered meteorites; but it is unknown whether these critical processes are still taking place, or if Enceladus' rocky core has been completely altered by past hydrothermal activity. The high pH also suggests that the delivery of oxidants from the surface to the ocean has not been significant, and the rocky core did not experience partial melting and igneous differentiation. On the other hand, the pH is compatible with life as we know it; life on Earth may have begun under similar conditions, and serpentinites on Earth support microbial communities that are centered on H2 that is provided by water-rock reactions.

Pub.: 06 Feb '15, Pinned: 11 Apr '17

THEO Concept Mission: Testing the Habitability of Enceladus’s Ocean

Abstract: Saturn’s moon Enceladus offers a unique opportunity in the search for life and habitable environments beyond Earth, a key theme of the National Research Council’s 2013-2022 Decadal Survey. A plume of water vapor and ice spews from Enceladus’s south polar region. Cassini data suggest that this plume, sourced by a liquid reservoir beneath the moon’s icy crust, contain organics, salts, and water-rock interaction derivatives. Thus, the ingredients for life as we know it– liquid water, chemistry, and energy sources– are available in Enceladus’s subsurface ocean. We have only to sample the plumes to investigate this hidden ocean environment. We present a New Frontiers class, solar-powered Enceladus orbiter that would take advantage of this opportunity, Testing the Habitability of Enceladus’s Ocean (THEO). Developed by the 2015 Jet Propulsion Laboratory Planetary Science Summer School student participants under the guidance of TeamX, this mission concept includes remote sensing and in situ analyses with a mass spectrometer, a sub-mm radiometer-spectrometer, a camera, and two magnetometers. These instruments were selected to address four key questions for ascertaining the habitability of Enceladus’s ocean within the context of the moon’s geological activity: (1) How are the plumes and ocean connected? (2) Are the abiotic conditions of the ocean suitable for habitability? (3) How stable is the ocean environment? (4) Is there evidence of biological processes? By taking advantage of the opportunity Enceladus’s plumes offer, THEO represents a viable, solar-powered option for exploring a potentially habitable ocean world of the outer solar system.

Pub.: 07 Jun '16, Pinned: 11 Apr '17

Ocean Worlds Exploration

Abstract: Ocean worlds is the label given to objects in the solar system that host stable, globe-girdling bodies of liquid water—“oceans”. Of these, the Earth is the only one to support its oceans on the surface, making it a model for habitable planets around other stars but not for habitable worlds elsewhere in the solar system. Elsewhere in the solar system, three objects—Jupiter's moon Europa, and Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan—have subsurface oceans whose existence has been detected or inferred by two independent spacecraft techniques. A host of other bodies in the outer solar system are inferred by a single type of observation or by theoretical modeling to have subsurface oceans. This paper focusses on the three best-documented water oceans beyond Earth: those within Europa, Titan and Enceladus. Of these, Europa's is closest to the surface (less than 10 km and possibly less than 1 km in places), and hence potentially best suited for eventual direct exploration. Enceladus’ ocean is deeper—5–40 km below its surface—but fractures beneath the south pole of this moon allow ice and gas from the ocean to escape to space where it has been sampled by mass spectrometers aboard the Cassini Saturn Orbiter. Titan's ocean is the deepest—perhaps 50–100 km—and no evidence for plumes or ice volcanism exist on the surface. In terms of the search for evidence of life within these oceans, the plume of ice and gas emanating from Enceladus makes this the moon of choice for a fast-track program to search for life. If plumes exist on Europa—yet to be confirmed—or places can be located where ocean water is extruded onto the surface, then the search for life on this lunar-sized body can also be accomplished quickly by the standards of outer solar system exploration.

Pub.: 23 Nov '16, Pinned: 11 Apr '17

Titan's Atmosphere and Climate

Abstract: Titan is the only moon with a substantial atmosphere, the only other thick N$_{2}$ atmosphere besides Earth's, the site of extraordinarily complex atmospheric chemistry that far surpasses any other solar system atmosphere, and the only other solar system body with stable liquid currently on its surface. The connection between Titan's surface and atmosphere is also unique in our Solar system; atmospheric chemistry produces materials that are deposited on the surface and subsequently altered by surface-atmosphere interactions such as aeolian and fluvial processes resulting in the formation of extensive dune fields and expansive lakes and seas. Titan's atmosphere is favorable for organic haze formation, which combined with the presence of some oxygen bearing molecules indicates that Titan's atmosphere may produce molecules of prebiotic interest. The combination of organics and liquid, in the form of water in a subsurface ocean and methane/ethane in the surface lakes and seas, means that Titan may be the ideal place in the solar system to test ideas about habitability, prebiotic chemistry, and the ubiquity and diversity of life in the Universe. The Cassini-Huygens mission to the Saturn system has provided a wealth of new information allowing for study of Titan as a complex system. Here I review our current understanding of Titan's atmosphere and climate forged from the powerful combination of Earth-based observations, remote sensing and \emph{in situ} spacecraft measurements, laboratory experiments, and models. I conclude with some of our remaining unanswered questions as the incredible era of exploration with Cassini-Huygens comes to an end.

Pub.: 27 Feb '17, Pinned: 11 Apr '17