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Life, Unbounded

Life, Unbounded

Discussion and news about planets, exoplanets, and astrobiology
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    Caleb A. Scharf Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.
  • The March 11 Solar Flare

    Gulp (NASA/SDO)

    We live a mere 93 million miles from an enormous fusion reactor. It’s easy to overlook this, after all the Sun is only about halfway through its long slog of converting protons into helium nuclei deep inside its core. Decommissioning is still a few billion years in the future. But our nearest star can occasionally [...]

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    The Grand Texture of Planets


                  In an idle moment, while staring at a set of solar system data, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to display a set of planetary surfaces on an equal footing, where the overall texture of these worlds was visible (although topography is probably a more [...]

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    Have we got Solar System Habitability Backwards?


    Enceladus, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Triton, Pluto, Eris…they may all have, or have had, large oceans of liquid water trapped beneath a frozen crust. That poses some interesting questions. I’ve written before on these pages (and elsewhere) about the wealth of evidence for internal bodies of liquid water in our solar system. Since the Pioneer, and [...]

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    A Blizzard of Astrobiology

    A wet Mars? (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger)

    Astrobiology has one key advantage when it comes to tooting its own horn – it can lay claim to a diverse range of scientific research as being relevant to the study of life in the universe. In that spirit (and an optimistic celebration of what might, just possibly, hopefully, be the advent of spring-like conditions [...]

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    Tricksy Mars may be Obscuring Signs of Organic Matter

    The view from Curiosity (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

    [Correction: jarosite has indeed been detected on Mars, this post has been updated to reflect that fact.] Picture a hot volcanic spring. Mineral-laden acidic water flows through sulfur-rich rocks. A foul odor hangs in the air. For us it’s a nasty environment, best enjoyed through the lens of a tourist’s camera. But for tough thermophilic [...]

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    Titan Loses its Speckles

    A 3-D view of a region of Kraken Mare showing the sharp turns in a 'river' (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI)

    Some of the most stunning images of Saturn’s moon Titan are made using a synthetic aperture radar to penetrate the thick atmosphere to see the frigid surface. But radar images are prone to what’s called ‘speckle noise’. This is the granular texture that covers the radar maps, and it’s caused by the physical roughness of [...]

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    Is AI Dangerous? That Depends…


    Somewhere in the long list of topics that are relevant to astrobiology is the question of ‘intelligence’. Is human-like, technological intelligence likely to be common across the universe? Are we merely an evolutionary blip, our intelligence consigning us to a dead-end in the fossil record? Or is intelligence something that the entropy-driven, complexity-producing, universe is [...]

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    Jupiter’s Moons Ascending


    Some natural phenomena need few words to explain why they’re fascinating. Eclipses, transits, and phases in astronomy tend to fall into that category. Here’s a stunning sequence of images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 showing the triple conjunction and transit of the large Jovian moons Europa, Callisto, and Io over [...]

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    Has An Exomoon Been Found?

    A ringed world (Credit: Ron Miller)

    Intriguing data from an event in 2007 hints at an exomoon forming around a giant planet in a youthful star system 420 light years from Earth. Moons are a big deal. In our own solar system we’ve discovered 176 natural satellites (even asteroids have them). Some, like Ganymede or Titan, are comparable in size to [...]

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    Notes From The Frontier: Life’s Origins

    (Credit: Wikipedia/Swollib)

    I spent some of last week at a fascinating and lively symposium on the origins of life and the search for life in the universe, held at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. To say that the science under discussion was broad in scope would be the understatement of the [...]

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