Looking for Life: Enceladus and Gliese 1132 b

We haven’t found life on — or in — Enceladus. But we’ve found organic compounds in the Saturnian moon’s salt-water geysers.

Scientists detected an atmosphere around Gliese 1132 b, a planet about 39 light-years away. It’s Earth-like, in terms of size; but too hot for life as we know it. We’ll almost certainly learn a great deal, though, by studying its atmosphere.

LHS 1140 b: Super-Earth in a Habitable Zone

Thursday night, as I was finishing this post, I noticed that Harvard’s MEarth Project discovered another super-Earth; also about 39 light-years out: in the habitable zone of its star.

LHS 1140 b is about 1.4 times Earth’s diameter, with a mass 6.6 times our world’s. That makes it very roughly as dense as Earth, so it’s probably a rocky world, like Earth. I took a quick look at the paper published in the April 20, 2017, issue of Nature.1

LHS 1140 b is now on my list of upcoming topics: maybe for next week.

Abraham, Moses, and Minnesota

I take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

I don’t, however, insist on believing only what I find in the Bible. That’s just as well, since I live near the center of North America.

I’m pretty sure that Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Saint Peter, and the rest, didn’t know that the land I live on exists. But I’m quite sure that the State of Minnesota is real: even if it’s not “Biblical.”

I don’t, however, “believe in” Minnesota. Not in the sense that I expect it to give me a reason for living, or occupy the top of my priorities. I don’t “believe in” progress, science, or my computer’s operating system either. Not that way.

My priorities should be God first, everything else second. (Luke 10:27; Catechism, 2083, 2097, 21122114)

So how come I let myself think my wife matters, or take an interest in anything but doing every prayer, devotion, and other pious observance the Church has accumulated over the millennia?

For starters, I don’t think there’s time for one person, or one family, to do everything. (January 1, 2017; August 14, 2016)

Besides, although family isn’t top priority; it’s important. (Catechism, 21972233)

So is using the brains God gave us. (March 26, 2017)

Faith, Reason, and Questions

My interest in science isn’t a requirement. Using my brain is.

I’ve talked about ‘creation science,’ secondary causes, and getting a grip, before. (March 31, 2017; January 13, 2017; October 21, 2016)

Real-life equivalents of “The Church of Danae” notwithstanding, being curious, asking questions, is okay.

“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’…
“…So in this way they arrived at a knowledge of the god who made things, through the things which he made.”
(Sermon 241, St. Augustine of Hippo (ca. 411) (from www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20000721_agostino_en.html (December 6, 2016))

Which reminds me: I think Adam and Eve are as real as I am. That’s also just as well, since I’m supposed to. (Catechism, 362, 390401)

But I’m quite sure that they’re not German. (September 23, 2016)

Since I’m a Catholic, it’s faith and reason. Noticing this wonder-filled universe will, if I’m doing it right, point me toward God. Faith, the Catholic version, isn’t reason. But it’s reasonable. (Catechism, 3135, 159, 282283)

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:89; 63:23; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2)….”
(“Fides et Ratio.” Pope Saint John Paul II (September 14, 1998))
(From vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.pdf (April 20, 2017))

Studying this universe and using our knowledge is okay. It was part of being human when it was called natural philosophy, and it still is, now that we’re calling it science. Wondering why we’re here is okay, too. (Catechism, 284, 341, 2293)

Deciding that God can’t exist, no matter what we see, not so much. (Catechism, 2088)

1. Enceladus: Ice, Water, and Maybe Life

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Easy to sample: Jets of water spew from the south pole of Enceladus.”
(BBC News))

Saturn moon ‘able to support life’
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (April 13, 2017)

Saturn’s ice-crusted moon Enceladus may now be the single best place to go to look for life beyond Earth.

“The assessment comes on the heels of new observations at the 500km-wide world made by the Cassini probe.

“It has flown through and sampled the waters from a subsurface ocean that is being jetted into space.

“Cassini’s chemistry analysis strongly suggests the Enceladean seafloor has hot fluid vents – places that on Earth are known to teem with life.

“To be clear: the existence of such hydrothermal systems is not a guarantee that organisms are present on the little moon; its environment may still be sterile. But the new results make a compelling case to return to this world with more sophisticated instrumentation – technologies that can re-sample the ejected water for clear evidence that biology is also at play….”

Easy to sample,” as the photo’s caption puts it, is a comparative term.

Positioning a probe’s orbit to go through jets from the Enceladan south polar region should be straightforward. No more difficult than any other maneuver near one of the Solar System’s outer worlds, at any rate.

Designing a probe to remain undamaged while passing through the jets at orbital speeds should be possible. We’ve built spacecraft that re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and survive.

Collecting samples should also be fairly straightforward. The Stardust probe collected samples from comet 81P/Wild’s coma, returning to Earth in 2006.

Calling any of those steps “easy” is, I think, a tribute to the remarkable engineering we’re used to; but perhaps not entirely accurate.

But that’s arguably easier than designing a probe to land on Enceladus; drill through 30 to 40 kilometers, 19 to 25 miles, of ice; and collect samples.

Particularly since I’m pretty sure that scientists would want to be confident that the probe, drill, and sampler, didn’t contaminate Enceladus with critters from Earth.

Eventually, we’ll want to explore Enceladus in person, and that’s another topic.

Hats off to Jonathan Amos, for that “to be clear” paragraph.

Conditions that allow life don’t necessarily mean that life is present. I’ll grant that we’ve gotten used to finding life just about everywhere near Earth’s surface: including places we thought were uninhabitable.

We’ve found living critters beneath a half-mile of antarctic glacier, and in the liquid asphalt of Pitch Lake. Cryptococcus neoformans is a sort of yeast found growing in what’s left of the Chernobyl reactor. That yeast may be using the reactor’s energy for growth.

Someone named MacElroy or McElroy came up with “extremophile” to describe critters living in places we thought they couldn’t. (“Bioactive Natural Products,” Atta-ur- Rahman, editor, p. 1126 (2006); via Google Books)

My guess is that it’s William D. McElroy, but I haven’t confirmed that.

Life as We Know It: Currently

(From WHOI/NSF/NASA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“On Earth, the microbes at vents support a range of more complex organisms”
(BBC News))

We got the first evidence of hot spots on Earth’s ocean floor in 1949, in the Red Sea. The unexpectedly hot seawater’s existence was confirmed in the 1960s.

We were pretty sure nothing could survive there. The water was too hot, and too saline.

In 1977 researchers took the DSV Alvin down for a close look at the hydrothermal vents on the Galápagos Rift, a spur of the East Pacific Rise.

There were very odd critters thriving there, like Alvinella pompejana, the Pompeii worm. Now scientists are discussing whether life might have started near hydrothermal vents.

Definitions for life-as-we-know-it have been stretched considerably since my high school days. (March 3, 2017)

Encelandan Geysers: Salt Water and Organic Compounds

NASA's illustration, showing the likely inner structure of Enceladus. (2017) via BBC News, used w/o permission.
(From NASA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

“…’We’re pretty darn sure that the internal ocean of Enceladus is habitable and we need to go back and investigate it further,’ said Cassini scientist Dr Hunter Waite from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

“‘If there is no life there, why not? And if there is, all the better. But you certainly want to ask the question because it’s almost as equally as interesting if there is no life there, given the conditions,’ he told BBC News.

“The sub-surface ocean on Enceladus is thought to be many kilometres deep, kept liquid by the heat generated from the constant gravitational squeezing the moon receives from the mighty Saturn….”
(Jonathan Amos, Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

There’s more than speculation behind the idea that Enceladus may have hydrothermal vents on its ocean floor. A 2005 flyby detected more infrared at the moon’s south pole than could be explained by sunlight. Something inside was providing heat.

“Constant gravitation squeezing” is one of the probable heat sources.

Tidal heating should be happening, but a 2007 study said that it was probably adding 1.1 gigawatts to the 4.7 gigawatts indicated by Cassini’s sensors.

Maybe Enceladus was in a more eccentric orbit at some point, and what we’re observing is heat left over from that era. Heat from radioactive materials is another likely explanation. But the numbers show that there’s almost certainly something more heating the moon.

Where all the heat comes from is one of many things we don’t know. Not yet.

One thing we’re more certain about is that Europa has a subsurface ocean, and that it’s global. The way it wobbles or nods as it orbits Saturn, its libration, makes more sense if we assume that the moon’s crust isn’t attached to its interior.

Like I keep saying, don’t bother memorizing these terms, there won’t be a test

Since sunlight hits those geysers near the Enceladan south pole, and probes orbiting Saturn were ‘watching’ them, we have a pretty good idea of what’s shooting out of that moon.

I’ve talked about spectroscopy before, and put a possibly-excessive set of links near the end of this post.2 (March 3, 2017)

Water from Enceladan geysers isn’t pure. There’s salt, silica-rich sand, nitrogen (in ammonia), and organic molecules: including traces of simple hydrocarbons like methane, propane, acetylene, and formaldehyde.

Organic stuff doesn’t always come from living critters, but our sort of life can’t happen without organic compounds. I’ve talked about what’s organic and what’s not, life, vitalism, science, being Catholic, and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” before. (September 9, 2016)

“…We Need to Go Back….”

The salty, methane and formaldehyde-laced Enceladan water would need processing before I’d drink it, but I’m human.

Earth’s seawater isn’t a particularly safe drink for me: too much salt. And Earth’s ocean is teeming with life.

A great many critters live and thrive in environments that would kill me.

I talked about extremophiles earlier. I also think Dr. Waite is right:

“…’We’re pretty darn sure that the internal ocean of Enceladus is habitable and we need to go back and investigate it further,’ said Cassini scientist Dr Hunter Waite….

“…’If there is no life there, why not? And if there is, all the better. But you certainly want to ask the question because it’s almost as equally as interesting if there is no life there, given the conditions,’….”
(Jonathan Amos, Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

If we do find life in Enceladus, I’m not expecting people. I’d be excited if we found microbes that clearly didn’t have their origins here on Earth.

I’m also quite sure that we’d see many different reactions to the news.

I’ve talked about Thomas Paine, Brother Guy Consolmagno, science, and “greater admiration” before. (April 14, 2017; March 17, 2017; December 23, 2016)

2. Gliese 1132 b: (Somewhat) Earth-Like

(From Dana Berry, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Artist’s impression of GJ 1132b: The planet’s thick atmosphere may contain water or methane”
(BBC News))

Atmosphere found around Earth-sized planet GJ 1132b
Rebecca Morelle, BBC News (April 6, 2017)

Scientists say they have detected an atmosphere around an Earth-sized planet for the first time.

“They have studied a world known as GJ 1132b, which is 1.4-times the size of our planet and lies 39 light years away.

“Their observations suggest that the ‘super-Earth’ is cloaked in a thick layer of gases that are either water or methane or a mixture of both.

The study is published in the Astronomical Journal….”

GJ 1132 is smaller and cooler than our sun. The GJ stands for Gliese. BBC News could have called the star Gl 1132, too, and that’s yet another topic.

GJ 1132 b’s orbit puts it between its star and us once each of its years. That’s about 39 and a half hours.

It orbits Gliese 1132 at about 1,400,000 miles; 0.0154 Astronomical Units, the distance from Earth to our sun.

Since it crosses the face of its sun from our vantage point, scientists can tell how wide it is. Measuring how much Gliese 1132 wobbles as the planet orbits gives the planet’s mass.3

Gliese 1132 b is about 1.6 times as massive as Earth, and 1.2 times wider. That gives it a density very close to our home’s. It’s very likely made of the same stuff as the Solar System’s terrestrial planets: mostly rock and metal.

I’m not sure where the BBC News article got 1.4 as its size: maybe as an average the mass and diameter comparisons, or data from a source I didn’t see.

It could be a water world, or ocean planet; a hypothetical type of planet that’s entirely covered by water.

We don’t know that ocean planets exist, but that’s one tentative explanation scientists have for what they’ve observed: planets like Gliese 1214 b, a super-Earth discovered in 2009.

Gliese 1132 b is ‘Earth-like,’ but not habitable. Venus is even more Earth-like, with 0.81 our home’s mass and 0.95 Earth’s diameter. Its surface probably cooler than Gliese 1132 b’s, too. I’ll get back to that.

Water, Maybe Methane

When scientists discovered Gliese 1132 b, they realized that we could learn a great deal from the planet.

Crossing its star’s face, and orbiting on of the nearer stars, they figured we could tell whether it had an atmosphere, and what the atmosphere was like.

They were right, at least as far as confirming that Gliese 1132b has an atmosphere goes. We still don’t know what’s in the atmosphere, but water vapor and methane are very likely candidates. Whatever’s there, the planet won’t support life. Not as we know it.

Gliese 1132 b is too close to its star to be like Star Trek’s Class M planets — which generally looked like southern California from the surface.

Scientists figure the top of Gliese 1132b’s atmosphere is around 533 K, 260 °Centigrade, 500 °Fahrenheit; probably hotter at the surface.

At its surface, Venus is 737 K, 462 °C, 867 °F.

Even if Gliese 1132 b is tidally locked, with one face always facing its star, we’ve learned that an atmosphere distributes temperature effectively.

Life as we know it would die quite promptly on Gliese 1132 b. Life not-as-we-know it, maybe fluorosilicone in fluorosilicone or fluorosilicone in sulfur, might. That’s assuming that such life exists. (March 3, 2017)

There’s More to Learn

GJ 1132, this planet’s sun, is in the constellation Vella: not quite half-way to Mu Velorum. GJ 1132 is 12.04 parsecs away, give or take 0.24: which works out to 39 light-years, maybe a bit more.

The “artist’s impression of GJ 1132b” isn’t as ‘artistic’ as some illustrations of other planets I’ve seen, but Dana Berry exercised artistic license.

GJ 1132 is cooler than our star, but it wouldn’t look like that.

That’s okay, since the illustration is there to get a reader’s attention; which it does effectively. Which is probably why Phys.org used this illustration last year. (September 2, 2016)

Although GJ 1132 is a great deal cooler than our star, it’s still hot. It’s a red dwarf, spectral type M3.5D. It’s surface is 3,270 K, 2,997 °C, 5,426 °F.

Our sun’s surface is 5,772 K, 5,498.9 °C, 9,930 °F. I’ve talked about stars and colors before. (July 29, 2016)

GJ 1132’s visible surface is about the color of a tungsten halogen light bulb: ‘warmer’ than sunlight here on Earth; but ‘cooler’ than light from a candle or incandescent bulb.

And certainly far from the deep, rich, red of that illustration.

Because they’re cooler than our star, a red dwarf’s habitable zone is much smaller than our star’s. That’s assuming that planets circling red dwarf stars could be habitable. That sort of star has flares as powerful as ours: and ‘habitable’ planets would be a lot closer than Earth.

I think we’re currently learning how much we have left to learn about life in the universe.4 (September 2, 2016; March 3, 2017; September 2, 2016; July 29, 2016)

More opportunities for admiring God’s work:

1 Another maybe-habitable world:

2 Enceladus, Europa, and a little science:

3 More about Gliese 1132 and studying exoplanets:

4 Stars, planets, and (maybe) life:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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