Latest on the Solar System

clipper_best_140912It was barely two months ago that I cited the existence of microbes beneath the ice of Antarctica as one of the biggest science stories of 2014, and now the story is already outdated. A team of drillers and scientists recently captured this remarkable image of a translucent fish living beneath a half-mile of ice in Antarctica. Nor is that the only big news related to extremophiles. In November, scientists confirmed that strands of DNA had survived the harsh vacuum of space and remained structurally intact. In December, scientists described “cloud-dwelling bacteria” that subsist on sugars in the atmosphere. Later that same month, a group of scientists reported the presence of hydrogen-rich waters deep in the Earth, and inferred that Life, living things, might subsist several miles underfoot. In news that is not unrelated, NASA recently announced the development of a full-fledged mission to send a space probe to Europa. What’s more, President Obama’s proposed budget allocates $30 million toward the space probe, known as the Europa Clipper. Here’s hoping the Clipper can survive the budget battles that lie ahead. Personally, I think it’s worth it. For roughly the price of Tony Romo’s annual salary, we can get the ball rolling toward quickly sending a robot to the only other place in the solar system known to harbor an ocean of liquid water and determine whether its well-documented tidal forces have generated life. Whatever we find on Europa, it will necessarily influence how we understand our place in the universe one way or another, and is thus well worth the gamble. Also, if you’re at all interested in learning about the biggest unexplored rocks in your solar system, stay tuned over the next several months. Next month, a NASA spacecraft will fall in orbit around Ceres, and will provide the first high-quality images of the sphere known as a “dwarf planet.” You can follow the daily feed of steadily improving pictures at this link. Cooler still, the New Horizons spacecraft will arrive at far more distant Pluto in July, providing our first up-close look at that recently-demoted-but-still-totally-fascinating dwarf planet. Exciting times.