SETI [Fwd: [seti] Life on Europa Conference info]

Robert Owen (
Tue, 28 Sep 1999 14:06:15 -0400

Larry Klaes wrote:

> From: Larry Klaes <>
> >From: "Bruce Moomaw" <>
> >To: "Icepick Europa Mailing List" <>
> >Subject: Weekend update
> >Date: Mon, 27 Sep 1999 18:11:56 -0700
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> >
> > Since I'm going nuts trying to respond to all of you at once, I'll
> >delay my latest response to Hibai Unzueta until later, and instead give you
> >the weekend news developments (which are very big).
> > First, I've found some Websites giving the details on the
> >consequences of the Senate's cuts in NASA's space science budget
> > and
> > ). The Senate -- unlike the House -- gives NASA a
> >lot of discretion in deciding what cuts to make, and NASA has officially
> >announced what they would be. In the fields of solar system exploration and
> >exobiology, there are four:
> > (1) A one-year delay in the next selection of a Discovery mission.
> > (2) Development funding cuts in the Terrrestrial Planet Finder
> >telescope (and thus in its 2010 launch).
> > (3) A cut of 25 percent in the "Cross-Enterprise Technology"
> >program, which focuses on "technological developments to enable
> >revolutionary rather than incremental increases in capability and/or
> >efficiency in robotic spacecraft and rovers". (A Friday Planetary Society
> >report says that this may cause delays in the 2004 Pluto flyby and/or the
> >Mars "Micromissions" intended for launch on Ariane starting in 2003.)
> > And, finally -- the envelope, please --
> > (4) A "significant delay" in the Europa Orbiter (whether one or two
> >years is unspecified).
> >
> > This, as I say, is the very best we can expect, since the final
> >result will probably be a compromise with the bigger House cuts. If a
> >House-sized cut existed but NASA was given discretion in deciding what would
> >be cancelled, they announced on their Website Friday that they would cancel
> >(at least for now) Deep Impact and MESSENGER, but they would apparently try
> >to save the 2002 CONTOUR comet probe (which the House explicitly cancelled)
> >by making big further cuts in their reseach grants and the Cross-Enterprise
> >Technology program. (The House, however, may not allow that.)
> >Interestingly, NASA has now retracted this announcement, suggesting that
> >they may be rethinking what the larger cuts would be.
> > One final interesting footnote: the Senate earmarked -- against the
> >wishes of NASA and the House -- $3 million for electrodynamic tether
> >research.
> >
> > Now for the good news: The abstracts from this December's American
> >Geophysical Union meeting are available
> > ), and they
> >are full of fascinating stuff. For us, most of it is in Special Sessions
> >B10 (Deep Biospheres), B14 (Astrobiology) and P5 (Compositions of the
> >Surfaces of the Icy Galilean Satellites). The papers in the Deep Biospheres
> >session make it clear that biologists are now certain that there is a
> >downright thriving bacterial ecosystem at astonishing depths in the Earth --
> >and that they are increasingly optimistic about the implications of this for
> >present-day life on (or rather, in) both Mars and Europa. Stephen Clifford,
> >in "The Subsurface Hydrosphere of Mars", says: "The comparative isolation
> >and stability of this subpermafrost [region of subsurface liquid water]
> >makes it difficult to imagine how life, once established in this niche,
> >could become extinct." Several other writers say that the evidence
> >continues to grow that such deep subsurface microbes were among the earliest
> >forms of life to evolve on Earth, and maybe the very earliest -- which
> >presumably means that they would have been among the earliest to appear on
> >Mars. Jack D. Farmer, in "Exploring for Evidence of Martian Life in Polar
> >Ice Deposits", says that hot-spring activity may have spat some of these
> >microbes all the way up to the Martian surface, and that they may still be
> >very well preserved in some near-surface ground ice deposits in the polar
> >regions.
> > As for Europa, the most interesting papers are three in Session B14
> >and one in P5 (John F. Cooper's "Energetic Ion and Electron Irradiation of
> >the Icy Galilean Satellites:, which agrees with Chris Chyba's recent
> >Division of Planetary Sciences paper that "Downward transport of [chemicals
> >produced by Jupiter's radiation in Europa's surface ice], driven by tidal
> >stresses and thermal instabilities on timescales of 10 million to 1 billion
> >years, could deliver significant chemical energy and other astrobiological
> >resources to subsurface ocean environments.") The B14 papers are:
> > (1) Richard Greenberg's "Habitability of Europa's Crust", in which
> >he says that areas where liquid water from Europa's ocean has gushed to near
> >the surface, instead of carrying useful chemicals back down to the ocean,
> >may instead carry oceanic microbes up to necessary "oxidants which are
> >available only near the surface."
> > (2) Thomas M. McCollom's "The Potential for Biomass Production by
> >Autotrophic Methanogenesis at Hydrothermal Systems on Europa and the Early
> >Earth", in which he confirms that the maximum mass of Europan organisms that
> >could possibly be supported by the chemicals produced by seafloor
> >volcanic-vent activity is only 1/10,000 that of Earth's biosphere -- but
> >also says that methane production from such vents on Europa may be much
> >higher than that of Earth's vents, and that in fact "Under some plausible
> >conditions, the amount of energy available from methanogenesis may be
> >equivalent to that available from the largest energy source in terran
> >systems" -- namely, the oxidation of hydrogen sulfide by oxygen produced by
> >photosynthetic Earth plants and dissolved in our oceans. Since, on Earth,
> >the mass of bacteria produced around vents by the latter process is high
> >enough to support thriving colonies of large animals, it seems to me that he
> >is hinting that for the first time there is some chance that Europan vents
> >might -- just might -- be able to support multicelled Europan animals.
> > (3) William B. McKinnon's "On the Conditions Necessary for a
> >Thriving Chemoautotrophic Ecosystem on Europa", in which he gives reasons
> >for thinking that Europan "volcanism is plausible", and disagrees with Eric
> >Gaidos' recent piece in "Science" (which I described in a June "SpaceDaily"
> >piece) predicting that the rocks of Europa's mantle are so depleted in
> >oxygen that they spew forth no significant amount of carbon dioxide, sulfur
> >dioxide or elemental sulfur to provide Europan germs with an energy source.
> >(McKinnon points out that Io -- which is probably internally similar to
> >Europa in composition -- spews large amounts of sulfur dioxide and elemental
> >sulfur from its volcanoes, indicating that its interior is highly oxidized.)
> >And since McCollom's paper says that Gaidos is right in saying that Europa's
> >vents spew forth large amounts of methane instead, but says that he's wrong
> >in thinking that such vents could not support large amounts of microbes, we
> >may have a win-win situation in the question of whether volcanic vents on
> >Europa (assuming they exist in adequate numbers) do supply chemicals capable
> >of supporting fairly large amounts of microbes.
> >
> > Bruce Moomaw
> >
> >
> >==

Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA

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