Resilient, stubborn, adaptable


This is why we have to be careful not to teach the textbook. The textbook says that life requires heat, water, and reproduction. And chains of life require vast amounts of these. Yet, here is an example where no heat is available, and life upon life is thriving. Scientists on a research mission sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have found what could be the U.S. Atlantic Coast’s largest methane cold seep near Virginia. These seeps are regions in the sea floor where fluid rich in compounds like methane flows out at the same temperature as the surrounding ocean water (in contrast to the hot water that seeps from hydrothermal vents).

Seemingly, methane allows life to flourish in otherwise fairly barren deep sea environments. Mussels can survive in seeps through a process that utilizes bacteria in their gills to turn methane into energy. The seep’s surrounding ecosystem also contained sea cucumbers, shrimp and fish, some of which exhibited what the researchers call “unusual behaviors,” though they did not elaborate.

This is really interesting to astrophysics, because we know of several locations in the solar system, in particular the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, where this sort of environment is likely to replicated. And if we assume all life is equally resilient, stubborn, and adaptable, then we could be close to finding life outside Earth.


Drill baby, drill


We came, we saw, we drill. Nasa’s Curiosity rover on Mars has drilled a second rock sample to deliver to its onboard laboratories. The powder was taken from the interior of a target called “Cumberland”, about 2.75m from the site where the rover acquired its first drill sample in February.

Analysis conducted on this earlier powder revealed details of a past environment on Mars that would have been favourable to microbial life. Curiosity’s instruments determined the rock to have been laid down billions of years ago in a benign water setting, possibly a lake, and to retain markers for key chemical and energy conditions required for biology. The new Cumberland sample, which will be delivered to the rover’s Sam and Chemin labs in the coming days, is expected to confirm this assessment.

Curiosity has now spent 280 Martian days in the planet’s equatorial Gale Crater. For most of this period, the robot has been investigating a small depression called Yellowknife Bay. The location is about 500m east of Curiosity’s August 2012 touchdown point. The mission team is keen to get the robot moving towards the main mission destination – the foothills of the big mountain that dominates the crater floor. It will likely take many months to get to Aeolus Mons (also known as Mount Sharp). When Curiosity does set out on this big drive, it will stop briefly to re-examine some rocks it saw on the way into Yellowknife Bay.

Here comes the Sun


The sun has unleashed three strong solar flares since Sunday evening, punctuating a short period of increased solar restlessness that comes as scientists are keeping an eye out for this cycle’s solar maximum. All were X-flares, classified in the category of most intense solar activity. None was pointed at the Earth, though several spacecraft, including the Spitzer space telescope in particular, are in their path.

Each was the most energetic solar flare of 2013 — until the next one came along. The first, an X1.7, occurred around 10 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, on May 12. Then, an X2.8 erupted at 12:05 p.m. on May 13. And the last one, an X3.2, peaked at 9:11 p.m. on May 13. X3.2 is the third-largest flare of this solar cycle, with the largest being an X6.9 in 2011.

“Current estimates are for a 40 percent probability of another X flare during the next 24 hours,” said Alex Young, a heliophysicist and associate director for science in NASA’s heliophysics division. He calculated that each of the flares produced around 100 sextillion (that’s 10 followed by 23 zeros) Joules of energy – the equivalent of 100 million hydrogen bombs – and spat several billion tons of solar material into space. The sunspotted region producing the flares is just rotating into view. Within a week, they’ll be pointed squarely at us – and scientists will be able to get a good look at the turbulent spots, which Young estimates are several Earths across. “We’ll watch it to see if it’s continuing to grow in size, or if it’s starting to get smaller,” he said.

Flares of X-magnitude are multi-stage events, produced by sunspotted regions where magnetic fields are twisted and tangled, knotted and strained like rubber bands wound too tightly. Eventually, strain building up causes the magnetic field lines to snap, releasing a flare. “If you look on the sun, you’ll see some very symmetric-looking, simple sunspots. These are the ones that don’t really do anything, even if they’re really big,” Young said. “But if you look at sunspots like the one that’s been so active, it’s very complicated and very twisted. You would probably see rotation and a lot of jumbled mess. That’s a really strong indication that it’s got a lot of energy built up in it.”

This period of unrest comes as scientists are keeping an eye out for the solar maximum, a period of peak activity that occurs at the height of the 11-year solar cycle. Forecast to be a relatively quiet maximum, the peak should be occurring just about now, though it’s hard to define a peak until it’s passed. An earlier period of peak activity occurred in 2011, but Young suggests that asynchronous activity in the sun’s northern and southern hemispheres can produce twin-peaked maxima. “That’s something we’ve seen in the past, with many different solar cycles,” he said.