Cassini crashes: Time for a new mission to look for signs of life on Saturn’s moons

 Cassini in front of The Lord of the Rings. (Credit: NASA)

Cassini in front of The Lord of the Rings. (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s Cassini mission has made its “death plunge” into the swirling clouds of Saturn after 20 years of exploring the planet and its moons.

It’s been amazingly successful, making headlines with groundbreaking discoveries throughout its journey. But today the headlines are more like obituary notices, looking back at the mission’s spectacular achievements.

Cassini discovered new moons around Saturn, found evidence for an ocean below the surface of the moon Enceladus and even managed to land a probe on the satellite Titan (the Huygens probe). It also observed unusual features in the rings of the planet and recorded an enormous, hurricane-like storm whirling around its north pole. Surely, we must now know everything about Saturn and its moons?

Fortunately, scientists are never satisfied, and the answer to one question usually leads to at least three new questions. The discoveries from Cassini and Huygens have resulted in a whole series of issues that require further investigation. Two of the main targets for future exploration are Titan and Enceladus.

Signs of life

Before Huygens parachuted down onto Titan’s surface in January 2005, all we knew about the moon was that it was cold (about 100K or -173.15°C) and had a thick atmosphere (mostly of nitrogen, but with traces of methane), which prevented us from seeing the surface. Huygens revealed networks of valleys and rivers cutting through hills to the shoreline of an inland sea. Subsequent observations by instruments on-board Cassini have given us a greatly expanded understanding of Titan’s landscape – with an entire gazetteer of named features, from mountains to plains and oceans to ponds.

Titan. (Credit: ImsofiniteCC BY-SA)

We must now try to understand what they are, how they formed and how they change with the seasons. We need to learn about tides and ocean icebergs, to define a climate cycle and to determine the composition of the land masses – are they derived from basalt, the most common rock type in the solar system, or are they frozen ice and mud? Does Titan have a rocky core overlain directly by an icy mantle, or does it have an ocean below the surface? If so, is it made up of water?

This all matters because what we have learnt about Titan from Cassini and Huygens has confirmed that it has an active chemistry, based on methane and ammonia. We know that these substances, when irradiated by the sun, result in interesting mixes of chemicals that are precursors to amino acids and other biologically important molecules. The freezing temperature of Titan’s surface precludes anything being alive – but how far below the surface do you have to go before the environment becomes sufficiently balmy for a cryophile to be comfortable? Without a dedicated mission to Titan, we will not find out.

Cassini’s exploration of Titan was always one of the main goals of the mission, with a few larger moons also scheduled for observation. But early in the mission, it became clear that Enceladus should be a prime target too. Anomalies in data observed as the spacecraft flew past Enceladus were subsequently verified as resulting from a large plume of gas and dust venting from the surface close to the south pole.

Plumes on Enceladus. (Credit: NASA)

This was further investigated by Cassini, flying past Enceladus at different altitudes – the closest of which was at 25km. The data it collected helped scientists resolve the plume into a series of vents through cracks in the surface. It became clear that, like Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, Enceladus was home to an ocean below the icy crust.

Scientists also managed to identify grains of dust, water-rich ice and gases including methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide – plus traces of other organic molecules – in the plume. This lead to to much speculation about the possibility of life in the ocean.

Enceladus. (Credit: NASA)

Like Titan, Enceladus is now recognised as one of the solar system’s most likely locations for extraterrestrial life. A recent report of hydrogen in Enceladus’ plume has given that recognition even greater prominence. That’s because hydrogen is expected to be released as a byproduct of reactions between water and rock. Scientists believe that ocean water on Enceladus collides with rock, becomes heated, reacts chemically and rises up in the ocean via “hydrothermal vents”. That happens in the Earth’s oceans, too. And here, the chemically charged water around these vents supports a rich ecology of microbes and other life forms.

A single mission?

Follow-up missions to Saturn, Titan and Enceladus have all been proposed to both the European Space Agency and NASA, but none has yet been accepted and taken forward to the planning stage.

There might be a case for combining a mission to Titan with a mission to Enceladus to investigate the opportunities for life close to Saturn. I am not sure what such a mission would look like. Certainly there should be a spacecraft orbiting Titan and Enceladus, to gather additional information prior to launching vessels to the surface of both moons. Would these vessels be “penetrators” so they could pierce the ice of Enceladus? Or should they be balloons to float down through the atmosphere of Titan? I don’t know, but a possible name for the mission could be EnTiRE – Enceladus and Titan Research and Exploration. You heard it here first…

Of course, one should not forget the “Lord of the Rings” itself. There are still many unknown aspects of the giant planet that would be worth going back to investigate, such as the composition and formation of its unusual rings. And what about that huge, hexagonal-shaped hurricane at the north pole? Is there something comparable at the south pole? How do such weather systems form – and, more to the point, given the current catastrophic hurricanes experienced recently on Earth, can we learn anything from Saturn about our own atmospheric disturbances?

The ConversationGiven the timescale for mission planning, alongside the time it takes to get to the Saturnian system, it will realistically be at least another 20 years before Cassini’s successor arrives. Until then, we will have to rely on the next generation of Earth-based telescopes to help us explore Saturn and its fascinating satellites.

Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Independent energy review ‘welcome recognition’ of industry cost concerns

(Credit: zhongguo/ iStock)

(Credit: zhongguo/ iStock)

A review into energy prices and future consumption is “welcome recognition” of industry concerns amid rising costs compared to the EU, an expert has said.

The newly-announced review, led by Professor Dieter Helm, an economist at the University of Oxford, will recommend ways to keep energy prices as low as possible while ensuring the UK meets climate change targets. It will look for opportunities to cut costs in the whole electricity supply chain – generation, transmission, distribution and supply – and consider the role of new technologies like electric vehicles, robotics and artificial intelligence.

The Government said its ambition is the lowest energy costs in Europe, for both households and businesses. The review will ensure “clean, secure and affordable supplies over the coming decades”, said business and energy secretary Greg Clark.

“This is a welcome recognition by government of industry’s concerns over increasingly uncompetitive energy prices and the need to act,” said Roz Bulleid, head of climate and environment at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation. Terry Scuoler CBE, the body’s chief executive, will sit on an advisory panel.

“I think industry has been concerned for some time that we have got diverging costs from the rest of the EU,” Bulleid said to Professional Engineering. Factories in some UK industries pay far more than in EU countries like Germany, she added, costing businesses millions of pounds.

“It is good to see the Government addressing the issue of the cost of energy in this new review,” said Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment at IMechE. “However, the review only addresses electricity, which is approximately 20% of the whole energy system.  In order to fully understand the cost implications of energy, the connections and interdependencies within the whole system of electricity, heat and transport should be considered.”

Decarbonisation programmes need “huge” investment over the next decade and beyond, said Oxford professor and previous government adviser Helm. The Government aims to cut 80% of carbon emissions by 2050, a key national target to help restrict a global temperature increase to only 2°C. New technologies could bring many benefits but must be implemented properly, said Helm.

“Digitalisation, electric transport and smart and decentralised systems offer great opportunities,” he said. “It is imperative to do all this efficiently, to minimise the burdens. Making people and companies pay excessively for policy and market inefficiencies risks undermining the objectives themselves.”

The review, which will not comment on individual energy projects, will set out options for a “long-term road map” for the power sector. “All homes and businesses rely on an affordable and secure energy supply and the government is upgrading our energy system to make it fit for the future,” said Clark. “We want to ensure we continue to find the opportunities to keep energy costs as low as possible, while meeting our climate change targets.”

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Rising number of satellites could bring catastrophic collisions in space

Measures to combat the threat posed by space debris may not be enough to prevent collisions in Earth orbit, as companies prepare to launch unprecedented numbers of satellites, according to new research.

The findings come ahead of the launch of the first ‘mega-constellations’ of communications satellites, which the researchers say will present an increased risk to Earth’s space environment unless action is taken to reduce their impact.

Companies such as Boeing, OneWeb and SpaceX plan to launch constellations of between 720 and 4,425 small, low-cost satellites as early as next year in an effort to provide high-speed internet coverage worldwide. Many smaller satellites – especially CubeSats, a type of satellite used in space research – are expected to be launched at the same time.

A team of engineers – led by Dr Hugh Lewis, senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton, working with the European Space Agency – undertook a study into the effects of constellations and small satellites on the space environment.

The engineers used the University of Southampton’s space debris model and Iridis High-Performance Computing facility to simulate the effects of large constellations and small satellites over a 200-year period.

The simulation was based on the existing satellite population and predicted future launches, including a mega-constellation and small satellites, with more than 300 different scenarios being investigated.

It revealed that adding a mega-constellation into space resulted in a 50% increase in the number of catastrophic collisions – involving the complete destruction of a satellite – over the 200 years, with potentially serious consequences for other satellites and the services they provide, as well as financial implications for the operators.

“There has been a paradigm shift in the manufacturing of satellites,” said Lewis. “The cost of making a single communications satellite usually runs to hundreds of millions of pounds, but mass-produced satellites will potentially be much cheaper.”

The research concluded that space debris mitigation guidelines need to be updated to incorporate measures to address mega-constellations and small satellite traffic. Other methods to decrease the likelihood of collisions could include:

•      Decreasing the time that satellites spend in low Earth orbit after the end of their mission. The current guidelines stipulate a maximum of 25 years to bring a satellite out of orbit, a process that can take it across the orbits of other satellites

•      Making satellites smaller and lighter

•      The addition of propulsion systems and other features to small satellites

•      Extending a satellite’s active lifespan so that fewer need to be launched

•      Deploying missions to remove faulty satellites from orbit.

“The good news is that there are opportunities for mega-constellation operators to address these issues, through good design and by aiming to do better than the minimum required of them,” said Lewis.

The team also included engineers from Clyde Space, Belstead Research, Airbus Defence and Space, the Braunschweig University of Technology in Germany, and the National Research Centre in Italy.

Star Trek’s tricorder gets beamed into reality 13

Bones loved it – and we may soon, too. Tricorder, a fictional Star Trek-style medical scanner device, could soon be used by real doctors, after two international teams have been awarded more than $3m to develop their versions of the technology.

The mobile phone-sized device, dubbed a tricorder, was made famous in the TV series Star Trek, and could diagnose illnesses simply by being waved over a patient’s body.

XPRIZE, a nonprofit organisation that runs competitions to create “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” is behind the contest to develop the portable scanner.  Five years ago, XPRIZE joined forces with chip manufacturer Qualcomm and announced it would award $10m (£8m) to researchers who would create a real-life tricorder device.

Of the 300 teams that joined the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group have been announced winners.

Final Frontier Medical Devices, a Pennsylvania-based team led by brothers Basil Harris, an emergency medicine physician, and George Harris, a network engineer, got the 1st place. They have received $2.6m to develop an artificial intelligence-based engine, DxtER, that learns to diagnose medical conditions by integrating the information from clinical emergency medicine with data analysis from actual patients.

The prototype includes a group of “non-invasive sensors” aimed at collecting data about vital signs, body chemistry and biological functions. This information is then analysed in the device’s diagnostic engine to make a “quick and accurate” assessment.

Dynamical Biomarkers Group’s tricorder prototype

A second-place prize of $1m was granted to Taiwan-based finalist, Dynamical Biomarkers Group, led by Harvard Medical School Associate Professor Chung-Kang Peng, and supported by HTC Research. Their prototype, which pairs diagnostic algorithms with a special method of analysis, is controlled with a smartphone.

While both devices aren’t quite as advanced as the Star Trek’s tricorder, XPRIZE organisers said that the teams “exceeded the competition requirements for user experience”, and met the goal of diagnosing 13 ailments and five vital signs at once. The prototypes have “taken humanity one step closer to realizing Gene Roddenberry’s 23rd century sci-fi vision,” the company mentioned in a press release.

Team Cloud DX, a cloud-based medical diagnoses firm that is sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation, was also recognised as XPRIZE’s first “Bold Epic Innovator” and received $100,000.

This is not the only competition XPRIZE is running. In 2004, it awarded $10m to fund the first private spacecraft – SpaceShipOne, and it will soon give $20m to the winner of its Google Lunar XPRIZE challenge, where teams aim to get a rover to the moon.