Over the last few months, I’ve read quite a lot about water in the universe: where else it exists, in what form it exists, how it got there, etc.
My imagination always leaps a little bit when I notice these stories, and I sometimes wonder if one day these water resources will be used to help refuel ships and space stations, or if they’ll be tapped to grow food and feed astronauts. There might even be a body of water in our own solar system that supports alien life, a conjecture we could test on the moon of Europa should anyone be up to the challenge (as Bill Stone claims he is). With NASA’s budget facing numerous cuts, that kind of optimism isn’t likely to be rewarded any time soon, but a guy can dream.
Here’s a list of some of the more exciting stuff I’ve found. The topics range from moon studies to observations of deep space, but they all share the same topic: water.
- Two teams of astronomers have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. The water, equivalent to 140 trillion times all the water in the world’s ocean, surrounds a huge, feeding black hole, called a quasar, more than 12 billion light-years away.
- “Because the light we are seeing left this quasar more than 12 billion years ago, we are seeing water that was present only some 1.6 billion years after the beginning of the Universe. This discovery pushes the detection of water 1 billion years closer to the Big Bang than any previous find.”
- The latest work involving Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) gives us fresh information about Saturn’s intriguing moon Enceladus and the likelihood of an internal ocean there. You’ll recall that plumes of water vapor and grains of ice have been found spewing from the ‘tiger stripe’ fractures at the moon’s southern pole, feeding material to Saturn’s E ring.
- “Geophysicists expected this little world to be a lump of ice, cold, dead, and uninteresting,” says Dennis Matson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Boy, were we surprised!”
- It’s raining on Saturn! Well, kind of. Actually, not really. But there’s some really cool news about Saturn, Enceladus and water – great topics, all. The bubbly water shooting from the moon Enceladus is responsible for the “mystery” water that was found in Saturn’s upper atmosphere several years ago. Observations with the Herschel space observatory has shown that water ice from geysers on Enceladus forms a giant ring of water vapor around Saturn.
- The past 20 years of space exploration, however, have caused what the astrobiologist David Grinspoon calls a sea change in thinking. It now appears that gravity, geology, radioactivity and antifreeze chemicals like salt and ammonia have given many “hostile” worlds the ability to muster the pressures and temperatures that allow liquid water to exist. And research on Earth has shown that if there is water, there could be life.
- The numbers get to be striking, as Hauke Hussmann and colleagues show in a 2006 paper in Icarus. Start with Galileo, the mission to Jupiter that brought home how much we needed to modify our view of the giant planet’s moons. Galileo discovered secondary induced magnetic fields in the vicinity of Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, offering strong observational evidence for subsurface oceans on all three. The fields are thought to be generated by ions contained in the liquid water layer underneath the icy outer shells. Europa has, of course, become a prime target for future study re astrobiology thanks to the prospect of water combined with a possibly thin ice layer.
- We don’t know whether life can exist on a planet circling a red dwarf, but as reported in these pages frequently in the last few years, there have been studies showing that liquid water could persist on the surface of such planets despite the fact that they would most likely be tidally locked, with one side always facing their star.
- For decades, the prevailing view of the Moon was that it was dry. Then, two years ago, a NASA probe crashed into a deep crater near the Moon’s south pole and confirmed large amounts of water ice within the shadows. Meanwhile, measurements by an orbiting Indian spacecraft suggested that a veneer of water, generated by the bombardment of solar wind particles, covered much of the Moon’s surface.
- “The plausibility of life on Mars depends on whether liquid water dotted its landscape for thousands or millions of years,” said Janice Bishop, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center at the SETI Institute at Moffett Field, California. “It’s possible that an important clue, the presence of carbonates, has largely escaped the notice of investigators trying to learn if liquid water once pooled on the Red Planet.”
- “While formation by liquid water is one of the proposed mechanisms for gully formation on Mars, there are others, such as gravity-driven mass-wasting (like a landslide) that don’t require the presence of liquid water. This is still an open question that scientists are actively pursuing.”
- “At such temperatures we expect the brown dwarf to have properties that are different from previously known brown dwarfs and much closer to those of giant exoplanets — it could even have water clouds in its atmosphere. In fact, once we start taking images of gas-giant planets around Sun-like stars in the near future, I expect that many of them will look like CFBDSIR 1458+10B.”
I’ll wrap this up with a pair of TED Talk videos featuring Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Team attached to the Cassini–Huygens space probe. In addition to the below talk, she’s spoken about the possibility of life on one of Saturn’s moons. You can see a video of that brief speech by following this link.
(If you haven’t already, you should check out the first link I posted above; it’s another TED Talk connected to the exploration of moons within our Solar System.)
If you have any similar links to share, I’d appreciate them. Leave a comment or send me an e-mail and I’ll update this list.