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Can signs of life be detected from Saturn’s frigid moon?

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Can signs of life be detected from Saturn’s frigid moon?


As astrophysics technology and research continue to advance, one question persists: is there life elsewhere in the universe? The Milky Way galaxy alone has hundreds of billions of celestial bodies, but scientists often look for three crucial elements in their ongoing search: water, energy and organic material. Evidence indicates that Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is an ‘ocean world’ that contains all three, making it a prime target in the search for life.

During its 20-year mission, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered that ice plumes spew from Enceladus’ surface at approximately 800 miles per hour (400 m/s). These plumes provide an excellent opportunity to collect samples and study the composition of Enceladus’ oceans and potential habitability. However, until now it was not known if the speed of the plumes would fragment any organic compounds contained within the ice grains, thus degrading the samples.

Now researchers from the University of California San Diego have shown unambiguous laboratory evidence that amino acids transported in these ice plumes can survive impact speeds of up to 4.2 km/s, supporting their detection during sampling by spacecraft. Their findings appear in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Beginning in 2012, UC San Diego Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Robert Continetti and his co-workers custom-built a unique aerosol impact spectrometer, designed to study collision dynamics of single aerosols and particles at high velocities. Although not built specifically to study ice grain impacts, it turned out to be exactly the right machine to do so.

“This apparatus is the only one of its kind in the world that can select single particles and accelerate or decelerate them to chosen final velocities,” stated Continetti. “From several micron diameters down to hundreds of nanometers, in a variety of materials, we’re able to examine particle behavior, such as how they scatter or how their structures change upon impact.”

In 2024 NASA will launch the Europa Clipper, which will travel to Jupiter. Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons, is another ocean world, and has a similar icy composition to Enceladus. There is hope that the Clipper or any future probes to Saturn will be able to identify a specific series of molecules in the ice grains that could point to whether life exists in the subsurface oceans of these moons, but the molecules need to survive their speedy ejection from the moon and collection by the probe.

Although there has been research into the structure of certain molecules in ice particles, Continetti’s team is the first to measure what happens when a single ice grain impacts a surface.

To run the experiment, ice grains were created using electrospray ionization, where water is pushed through a needle held at a high voltage, inducing a charge that breaks the water into increasingly smaller droplets. The droplets were then injected into a vacuum where they freeze. The team measured their mass and charge, then used image charge detectors to observe the grains as they flew through the spectrometer. A key element to the experiment was installing a microchannel plate ion detector to accurately time the moment of impact down to the nanosecond.

The results showed that amino acids — often called the building blocks of life — can be detected with limited fragmentation up to impact velocities of 4.2 km/s.

“To get an idea of what kind of life may be possible in the solar system, you want to know there hasn’t been a lot of molecular fragmentation in the sampled ice grains, so you can get that fingerprint of whatever it is that makes it a self-contained life form,” said Continetti. “Our work shows that this is possible with the ice plumes of Enceladus.”

Continetti’s research also raises interesting questions for chemistry itself, including how salt affects the detectability of certain amino acids. It is believed that Enceladus contains vast salty oceans — more than is present on Earth. Because salt changes the properties of water as a solvent as well as the solubility of different molecules, this could mean that some molecules cluster on the surface of the ice grains, making them more likely to be detected.

“The implications this has for detecting life elsewhere in the solar system without missions to the surface of these ocean-world moons is very exciting, but our work goes beyond biosignatures in ice grains,” stated Continetti. “It has implications for fundamental chemistry as well. We are excited by the prospect of following in the footsteps of Harold Urey and Stanley Miller, founding faculty at UC San Diego in looking at the formation of the building blocks of life from chemical reactions activated by ice grain impact.”

This work was supported by the Air Force Office of Science Research (MURI-22, grant FA9550-22-0199) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (grant 80NM0018D0004).



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New snake discovery rewrites history, points to North America’s role in snake evolution

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A new species of fossil snake unearthed in Wyoming is rewriting our understanding of snake evolution. The discovery, based on four remarkably well-preserved specimens found curled together in a burrow, reveals a new species named Hibernophis breithaupti. This snake lived in North America 34 million years ago and sheds light on the origin and diversification of boas and pythons.

Hibernophis breithaupti has unique anatomical features, in part because the specimens are articulated — meaning they were found all in one piece with the bones still arranged in the proper order — which is unusual for fossil snakes. Researchers believe it may be an early member of Booidea, a group that includes modern boas and pythons. Modern boas are widespread in the Americas, but their early evolution is not well understood.These new and very complete fossils add important new information, in particular, on the evolution of small, burrowing boas known as rubber boas.

Traditionally, there has been much debate on the evolution of small burrowing boas. Hibernophis breithaupti shows that northern and more central parts of North America might have been a key hub for their development. The discovery of these snakes curled together also hints at the oldest potential evidence for a behavior familiar to us today — hibernation in groups.

“Modern garter snakes are famous for gathering by the thousands to hibernate together in dens and burrows,” says Michael Caldwell, a U of A paleontologist who co-led the research along with his former graduate student Jasmine Croghan, and collaborators from Australia and Brazil. “They do this to conserve heat through the effect created by the ball of hibernating animals. It’s fascinating to see possible evidence of such social behavior or hibernation dating back 34 million years.”



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Good timing: Study unravels how our brains track time

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Ever hear the old adage that time flies when you’re having fun? A new study by a team of UNLV researchers suggests that there’s a lot of truth to the trope.

Many people think of their brains as being intrinsically synced to the human-made clocks on their electronic devices, counting time in very specific, minute-by-minute increments. But the study, published this month in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed Cell Press journal Current Biology, showed that our brains don’t work that way.

By analyzing changes in brain activity patterns, the research team found that we perceive the passage of time based on the number of experiences we have — not some kind of internal clock. What’s more, increasing speed or output during an activity appears to affect how our brains perceive time.

“We tell time in our own experience by things we do, things that happen to us,” said James Hyman, a UNLV associate professor of psychology and the study’s senior author. “When we’re still and we’re bored, time goes very slowly because we’re not doing anything or nothing is happening. On the contrary, when a lot of events happen, each one of those activities is advancing our brains forward. And if this is how our brains objectively tell time, then the more that we do and the more that happens to us, the faster time goes.”

Methodology and Findings

The findings are based on analysis of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain important for monitoring activity and tracking experiences. To do this, rodents were tasked with using their noses to respond to a prompt 200 times.

Scientists already knew that brain patterns are similar, but slightly different, each time you do a repetitive motion, so they set out to answer: Is it possible to detect whether these slight differences in brain pattern changes correspond with doing the first versus 200th motion in series? And does the amount of time it takes to complete a series of motions impact brain wave activity?

By comparing pattern changes throughout the course of the task, researchers observed that there are indeed detectable changes in brain activity that occur as one moves from the beginning to middle to end of carrying out a task. And regardless of how slowly or quickly the animals moved, the brain patterns followed the same path. The patterns were consistent when researchers applied a machine learning-based mathematical model to predict the flow of brain activity, bolstering evidence that it’s experiences — not time, or a prescribed number of minutes, as you would measure it on a clock — that produce changes in our neurons’ activity patterns.

Hyman drove home the crux of the findings by sharing an anecdote of two factory workers tasked with making 100 widgets during their shift, with one worker completing the task in 30 minutes and the other in 90 minutes.

“The length of time it took to complete the task didn’t impact the brain patterns. The brain is not a clock; it acts like a counter,” Hyman explained. “Our brains register a vibe, a feeling about time. …And what that means for our workers making widgets is that you can tell the difference between making widget No. 85 and widget No. 60, but not necessarily between No. 85 and No. 88.”

But exactly “how” does the brain count? Researchers discovered that as the brain progresses through a task involving a series of motions, various small groups of firing cells begin to collaborate — essentially passing off the task to a different group of neurons every few repetitions, similar to runners passing the baton in a relay race.

“So, the cells are working together and over time randomly align to get the job done: one cell will take a few tasks and then another takes a few tasks,” Hyman said. “The cells are tracking motions and, thus, chunks of activities and time over the course of the task.”

And the study’s findings about our brains’ perception of time applies to activities-based actions other than physical motions too.

“This is the part of the brain we use for tracking something like a conversation through dinner,” Hyman said. “Think of the flow of conversation and you can recall things earlier and later in the dinner. But to pick apart one sentence from the next in your memory, it’s impossible. But you know you talked about one topic at the start, another topic during dessert, and another at the end.”

By observing the rodents who worked quickly, scientists also concluded that keeping up a good pace helps influence time perception: “The more we do, the faster time moves. They say that time flies when you’re having fun. As opposed to having fun, maybe it should be ‘time flies when you’re doing a lot’.”

Takeaways

While there’s already a wealth of information on brain processes over very short time scales of less than a second, Hyman said that the UNLV study is groundbreaking in its examination of brain patterns and perception of time over a span of just a few minutes to hours — “which is how we live much of our life: one hour at a time. ”

“This is among the first studies looking at behavioral time scales in this particular part of the brain called the ACC, which we know is so important for our behavior and our emotions,” Hyman said.

The ACC is implicated in most psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, and is a concentration area for mood disorders, PTSD, addiction, and anxiety. ACC function is also central to various dementias including Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by distortions in time. The ACC has long been linked to helping humans with sequencing events or tasks such as following recipes, and the research team speculates that their findings about time perception might fall within this realm.

While the findings are a breakthrough, more research is needed. Still, Hyman said, the preliminary findings posit some potentially helpful tidbits about time perception and its likely connection to memory processes for everyday citizens’ daily lives. For example, researchers speculate that it could lend insights for navigating things like school assignments or even breakups.

“If we want to remember something, we may want to slow down by studying in short bouts and take time before engaging in the next activity. Give yourself quiet times to not move,” Hyman said. “Conversely, if you want to move on from something quickly, get involved in an activity right away.”

Hyman said there’s also a huge relationship between the ACC, emotion, and cognition. Thinking of the brain as a physical entity that one can take ownership over might help us control our subjective experiences.

“When things move faster, we tend to think it’s more fun — or sometimes overwhelming. But we don’t need to think of it as being a purely psychological experience, as fun or overwhelming; rather, if you view it as a physical process, it can be helpful,” he said. “If it’s overwhelming, slow down or if you’re bored, add activities. People already do this, but it’s empowering to know it’s a way to work your own mental health, since our brains are working like this already.”



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Another intermediate-mass black hole discovered at the center of our galaxy

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While researching a cluster of stars in the immediate vicinity of the supermassive black hole SgrA* (Sagittarius A*) at the centre of our galaxy, an international team of researchers led by PD Dr Florian Peißker has found signs of another, intermediate-mass black hole. Despite enormous research efforts, only about ten of these intermediate-mass black holes have been found in our entire universe so far. Scientists believe that they formed shortly after the Big Bang. By merging, they act as ‘seeds’ for supermassive black holes. The study ‘The Evaporating Massive Embedded Stellar Cluster IRS 13 Close to Sgr A*. II. Kinematic structure’ was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The analysed star cluster IRS 13 is located 0.1 light years from the centre of our galaxy. This is very close in astronomical terms, but would still require travelling from one end of our solar system to the other twenty times to cover the distance. The researchers noticed that the stars in IRS 13 move in an unexpectedly orderly pattern. They had actually expected the stars to be arranged randomly. Two conclusions can be drawn from this regular pattern: On the one hand, IRS 13 appears to interact with SgrA*, which leads to the orderly motion of the stars. On the other hand, there must be something inside the cluster for it to be able to maintain its observed compact shape.

Multi-wavelength observations with the Very Large Telescope as well as the ALMA and Chandra telescopes now suggest that the reason for the compact shape of IRS 13 could be an intermediate-mass black hole located at the centre of the star cluster. This would be supported by the fact that the researchers were able to observe characteristic X-rays and ionized gas rotating at a speed of several 100 km/s in a ring around the suspected location of the intermediate-mass black hole.

Another indication of the presence of an intermediate-mass black hole is the unusually high density of the star cluster, which is higher than that of any other known density of a star cluster in our Milky Way. “IRS 13 appears to be an essential building block for the growth of our central black hole SgrA*,” said Florian Peißker, first author of the study. “This fascinating star cluster has continued to surprise the scientific community ever since it was discovered around twenty years ago. At first it was thought to be an unusually heavy star. With the high-resolution data, however, we can now confirm the building-block composition with an intermediate-mass black hole at the centre.” Planned observations with the James Webb Space Telescope and the Extremely Large Telescope, which is currently under construction, will provide further insights into the processes within the star cluster.



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