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Scientists to hunt for alien life on Jupiter moons

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European Space Agency

 

London: After a successful mission to Pluto last week, scientists are preparing to launch a probe to search for life on the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, media reports said.

Earlier this week, the European Space Agency announced that it would collaborate with aircraft manufacturing giant Airbus to launch a space probe in 2022 to look for extra-terrestrial existence on the four icy moons — Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and the ocean-bearing worlds of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto of Jupiter, the Telegraph newspaper reported on Saturday.

Dubbed as the “Juice” (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) spacecraft, the mission will look whether the frozen worlds that surround the two giant gaseous planets could support extra-terrestrial life.

“All our current exciting and fascinating space missions have been dealing with either understanding the origins of life and our Solar System or finding exoplanets (planets that revolve around a star other than the Sun) that might host Earth-like planets,” Daniel Brown, an astronomy expert from Nottingham Trent University, was quoted as saying.

“But, life doesn’t have to exist on planets like Earth, it could also have developed in oceans within icy moons around Jupiter like gas giants,” he added.

It is hoped that micro-organisms or even fish-like creatures may be present in deep-water hydrothermal vents, known as ‘black smokers’, which are known to harbour life on Earth.

“Juice will be exploring the Titan and three Galilean moons of Jupiter thought to harbour oceans under their surface. It will give us a much better understanding what lies beneath the icy crust and how it could offer an environment for life to develop.”

The probe will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket which would spend seven and a half years slingshotting around Earth, Mars and Venus to pick up enough speed to get to the Jupiter system with as little fuel as possible.

For three and a half years, the spacecraft will sweep around the giant planet, exploring its turbulent atmosphere, enormous magnetosphere, and tenuous set of dark rings, as well as studying the icy moons — Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto.

The probe will start with Callisto before making two fly-bys of Europa, where it will study the icy surface.

 

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Astronomers Have Found a Cloud Free Planet Outside Our Solar System

Just like an individual's fingerprints are unique, atoms and molecules have a unique spectral characteristic that can be used to detect their presence in celestial objects.

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Astronomers have found that a planet outside our solar system, which is similar to Saturn in mass and exceeds the size of Jupiter by 20 per cent, has an atmosphere free of clouds.
Astronomers during IAU meet, wikimedia commons

Astronomers have found that a planet outside our solar system, which is similar to Saturn in mass and exceeds the size of Jupiter by 20 per cent, has an atmosphere free of clouds.

The hot gas giant, WASP-96b, periodically transits a Sun-like star 980 light years away in the southern constellation Phoenix.

Using the the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, the team studied the atmosphere of WASP-96b when the planet passed in front of its host-star.

This enabled the team to measure the decrease of starlight caused by the planet and its atmosphere, and thereby determine the planet’s atmospheric composition.

“We’ve been looking at more than twenty exoplanet transit spectra. WASP-96b is the only exoplanet that appears to be entirely cloud-free and shows such a clear sodium signature, making the planet a benchmark for characterisation,” said lead author of the study Nikolay Nikolov from University of Exeter in Britain.

Just like an individual’s fingerprints are unique, atoms and molecules have a unique spectral characteristic that can be used to detect their presence in celestial objects.

The spectrum of WASP-96b shows the complete fingerprint of sodium, which can only be observed for an atmosphere free of clouds, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

The spectrum of WASP-96b shows the complete fingerprint of sodium, which can only be observed for an atmosphere free of clouds, according to the study published in the journal Nature.
Planets and solar system, Pixabay

It has long been predicted that sodium exists in the atmospheres of hot gas-giant exoplanets, and in a cloud-free atmosphere it would produce spectra that are similar in shape to the profile of a camping tent.

“Until now, sodium was revealed either as a very narrow peak or found to be completely missing. This is because the characteristic ‘tent-shaped’ profile can only be produced deep in the atmosphere of the planet and for most planet clouds appear to get in the way,” Nikolov added.

Clouds and hazes are known to exist in some of the hottest and coldest solar system planets and exoplanets.

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The presence or absence of clouds and their ability to block light plays an important role in the overall energy budget of planetary atmospheres.

“It is difficult to predict which of these hot atmospheres will have thick clouds. By seeing the full range of possible atmospheres, from very cloudy to nearly cloud-free like WASP-96b, we’ll gain a better understanding of what these clouds are made of,” explains study co-author Jonathan Fortney, Professor at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), US. (IANS)