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Any Hope for Doomed Earth's Last Organsims?

Billions of years from now, life on Earth will be extinguished when the dying sun scorches the surface of our planet. New research has aimed to determine what the last life forms on Earth will be, and what kind of abodes they will cling to before the Earth becomes sterilized.

We are fortunate that our planet orbits a star that has a long main-sequence lifetime. However, the sun’s luminosity is gradually increasing, and in about one billion years the effects of this will start to be felt on Earth.

Surface temperatures will start to creep relentlessly upwards over the next few billion years, which will increase the amount of water vapor in the air. This will act to further increase temperatures and will thus signify the beginning of the end for life on Earth.

The rising temperatures will cause excessive amounts of rain and wind, and thus increase the weathering of silicate rocks, which will suck extra carbon from the atmosphere. (Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth)
Ordinarily, the carbon is replaced via plate tectonics in the carbon-silicate cycle as it is released in volcanic gases.

However, the oceans will start to evaporate as the temperatures continue to rise, which will probably put a stop to plate tectonics as scientists believe that water is an essential lubricant for the motion of tectonic plates on Earth. This will deplete the number of active volcanoes, and the carbon will not be replenished in the atmosphere.

The lack of carbon dioxide will effectively choke plant life on Earth, since plants require atmospheric CO2 for their respiration. The death of oxygen-producing plants will in turn lead to less oxygen in the atmosphere over a few million years. This will spell disaster for the remaining animal life on Earth, with mammals and birds being the first to become extinct. Fish, amphibians and reptiles would survive a little longer, as they need less oxygen and have a greater tolerance to heat.

The last type of animal present on the far-future Earth would likely be invertebrates. Once the insects finally succumb to the increasing temperatures, the Earth will once again be solely populated by microbial life, just as it had been for the first few billion years of our planet’s history. The last lingering life will desperately seek out niches of the planet that are still habitable, but  even extremophile forms of life will find this to be a challenge.

A habitable niche in an inhospitable world
As the Earth’s oceans evaporate, the few remaining pools of water could provide a last refuge for some microbes. The present average depth of the oceans is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers), but this extends to 6.8 (11 km) in the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest known ocean trench.

Trenches carved in the sea bed could be among the last places to harbor liquid water, with the looming walls offering some source of shade from the unforgiving sun. However, this potential haven is not quite as inviting as it may first seem. Air moving into the trench will become compressed as it sinks lower, and this pressure will greatly increase the air temperature above the water.

"By the time we get to the point where there's a trench with a small pool of water at the bottom, a large mass of ocean water would have evaporated, so surface temperatures on the planet would be rapidly increasing," said Jack O’Malley-James of the University of St. Andrews, and lead author of the new study. "Therefore, water at the bottom of a trench wouldn't remain cool enough for long enough to make a good refuge for life."
Another potential haven for the last microbial life on Earth could be in underground caves.

Microbes have been found living in caves on the present-day Earth without any need for sunlight. Most caves in the far-future Earth would not be suitable for life, as temperatures increase with depth. However, caves that have large chambers below a narrow entrance might be colder, as the dense cold air is sucked in, but lighter warmer air is barricaded out.

 Ice caves could be a final abode for microbial life in a far-future Earth with horrendous surface temperatures. CREDIT: Einreisenwelt

Such caves are formed from collapsed lava tubes, and the cold air in the caves will cause in-falling snow to compact into ice during the winter, as well as freeze any incoming water. When the outside temperature climbs again, the cold air is still trapped within the cave, along with the ice. However, the ice will melt eventually as heat is conducted through the walls of the cave, so it must be continually replaced and therefore some source of water would still be necessary on the far-future Earth for such a cave to retain its cool climate.

Life could also exist in subsurface environments other than ice caves. Microbial life today has been found at depths of 3.3 miles (5.3 km) below the Earth’s surface. The increase of temperature with depth is around 86 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) per mile (1.6 km); however, the exact increase depends on the type of rock. Such a subsurface refuge could be one of the last to contain life on Earth.

At the other end of the scale, temperatures will decrease by around 18.9 degrees Fahrenheit (10.5 degrees Celsius) per mile above the Earth’s surface. This is because the surface of the Earth re-radiates heat that has been received from the sun, thus heating the lower atmosphere.

The lower temperatures at high altitude would encourage microbial life on the far-future Earth to reach for the skies and seek refuge in the last remaining lakes in the mountains in an attempt to escape the heat. However, as tectonic plates cease to crash into each other, there will no longer be a force to drive mountains upwards. Instead, the mountains will succumb to weathering and eventually there will be fewer regions of high altitude on the planet.

The remaining high-altitude regions would likely be comprised of volcanoes, as convection of molten rock in the mantle of the Earth will still occur even after the cessation of plate movement. The lack of plate tectonics will allow these "hot spot" volcanoes to reach heights that are currently impossible to achieve today.
"Sites around active volcanoes on Earth today host life, so living near an active volcano shouldn't be a challenge for extremophilic microorganisms," said O’Malley-James. "It's likely that volcanic activity would decline as the planet cools, but it may not stop completely during the time period in which planet is still habitable."

Isolated pools from the remnants of the ocean will have high salt concentrations, meaning that bacterial life would have to withstand high saline as well as high temperatures. Such microbes are called thermohalophiles, and they exist today in such conditions around hydrothermal vents. Microbes on the far-future Earth would also have to contend with being bombarded with high doses of ultraviolet radiation, as the ozone layer would have been stripped away when the oxygen in the atmosphere diminished.

Biosignatures of a dying planet

Studying what life will be like on Earth at the end of the habitable era helps scientists narrow down what kind of biosignatures might exist on Earth-like exoplanets orbiting aging stars near the end of their main sequence. So what kind of biosignatures would the last life on Earth exhibit?

Thermohalophiles, such as those found at volcanoes in Chile's Atacama Desert, use carbon monoxide to obtain energy, and the by-products of their metabolic processes include carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and ethanol.

Carbon dioxide could be seen as an indicator of life, considering that the carbon dioxide inherent to the planet would have been severely reduced million of years previously. Carbon dioxide by itself is not a biosignature and its presence, such as on Mars, does not indicate that life exists on a planet. However, biologically produced carbon dioxide would cause a disequilibrium of the CO2 in the atmosphere that could reveal the presence of microbial life.

Similarly, the biological production of hydrogen by the thermohalophiles could create an excess of hydrogen in the atmosphere, which could be used as an indicator of life. However, all of these biosignatures would likely be weak, as biological productivity would be severely diminished in a dying world.

Microbes can adapt to extreme conditions, such as the harsh conditions that existed on the early Earth. The first life to appear on Earth, as far back as 3.8 billion years ago, was unicellular life. Similarly, microbes will be the sole occupants of the Earth during its final days as a habitable planet. Microbial biospheres would exhibit biosignatures that are very dissimilar to what is present on the current Earth, but whether late-type biospheres would appear similar to early-type biospheres is another question.

"It looks like they would be similar to the biosignatures for early-type microbial biospheres, but the strength of the various atmospheric signatures would be much lower for the late-type microbial biospheres," said O'Malley-James. "So it may be possible to distinguish between early and late microbial biospheres purely by looking at the strength of the various biosignature gases in the atmospheric spectra of Earth-like planets."

Future work will seek to refine what these biosignatures could be, and ultimately search for the telltale signs of a dying habitable planet among the Earth-like planets that have been discovered so far.

Snowing with Microbes on Enceladus?

Aside from ancient Mars, the moons of Saturn might be one of the best places to look for life outside this planet. The methane lakes of Titan are promising places, but so are the spewing plumes of ice on Enceladus — and the latter would be an easy one to check, as it turns out. The Cassini orbiter just flew through them, and Cassini scientists want to go back and take a longer look.

Cassini has been examining Enceladus‘ ghostly, icy plumes for several years now, tasting the water, ice and organic material flying out of them. (Organic meaning carbon-based compounds, not necessarily living material.) The plumes are also piping hot, at least in distant solar system terms — about -120 degrees F, which equates to lots of thermal energy. And perhaps the most tantalizing part? The icy particles are salty, possessing the same salinity as Earth’s oceans.

Enceladus might have a vast interior sea, and it also has an energy source in the form of massive tidal forces courtesy of its planet. Saturn’s wrenching gravitational pull flexes Enceladus’ interior, generating heat. Heat and salty water sounds a lot like environments on Earth — like subterranean microbe communities in places like Yellowstone, or perhaps the thriving ecosystems that exist in hydrothermal vents in the absence of sunlight. Could Enceladus host any such life forms?

Enceladus Jets Dramatic plumes spray water ice from many locations near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus. More than 30 individual jets of different sizes can be seen in this image captured during a flyby from NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Nov. 21, 2009. NASA/Cassini Imaging Science Team


It would be fairly simple to find out, according to Carolyn Porco, a renowned Cassini scientist and leader of the spacecraft’s imaging science team. All you’d need to do is fly by and take a whiff.
“It sounds crazy, but it could be snowing microbes on the surface of this little world,” she says in an interview with NASA’s science news portal. “It’s the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search. We don't even need to go scratching around on the surface. We can fly through the plume and sample it. Or we can land on the surface, look up and stick our tongues out.  And voilĂ …we have what we came for.”

Simply flying through the plume would be easier than designing an interplanetary boat, at least.

 Enceladus: Cassini flew just 46 miles above Enceladus' south pole on March 27, 2012, cruising right through the spewing plumes seen here. This image is from 2009.  NASA/Cassini Imaging Science Team

First Living Animal Captured via Scanning Electron Microscopy

Bombarded with electrons and sealed in a vacuum, the noble tick survived the ordea. You didn’t wake up this morning thinking that a tick under a scanning electron microscope was going to be the coolest thing you saw all day, and yet here you are. After discovering some ticks alive inside a vacuum drying chamber, Yasuhito Ishigaki of Kanazawa Medical University decided to see if the hardy little bloodsuckers could stand up to the electron bombardment and vacuum conditions inside a scanning electron microscope (SEM). They could, and he’s got the video to prove it.

SEM rigs are great for capturing very fine detail of very small things, but they aren’t easy on their subjects. They work by bombarding a sample with electrons and recording how they scatter to create an image. Air interferes with this electron beam, so all this takes place inside a vacuum. And samples are often stained or even coated with metal beforehand to enhance the resolution of the microscopy.

All said, life is not good for a SEM sample. In fact, putting anything living into an SEM sample chamber pretty much ensures that it won’t be living when you take it out. But this clearly isn’t true for ticks. In the video below, you can clearly see the tick moving its legs. Ishigaki did this with 20 different ticks, and all of them survived, making them the first animals to ever be scanned with SEM.

VIrgin Sends Humans Back into Mariana Trench

If you thought space was the only frontier Virgin has an interest in tackling, you’ve been missing out on Virgin Oceanic’s drive to pilot the first manned submersible all the way to the very bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench--and thus dive deeper than any solo human has ever dived before. It’s a cool story that is still ongoing, and PopSci favorite IEEE Spectrum has an amazing semi-long read from its March issue up online today.

If you’re short on context, the context is this: the Mariana Trench is the deepest subsea place on the planet, reaching a known depth of more than six-and-three-quarters miles (some measurements are deeper but unconfirmed). Only two people have been down there, together, back in 1960 aboard what’s known as a bathyscaphe. The pressure there is something like 1,100 times greater than that at sea level--enough to crush most submersibles like an empty beer can. The temperatures down there are absolutely frigid. So naturally, Virgin is going to send a lone human down there.

The short video trailer below provides a bit more background, but we highly recommend a click through to the IEEE Spectrum piece, which takes you aboard the expedition paving the way for the manned dive. It’s worth perusing.

Find the Nex Image for NASA

Nasa wants you to help search for spectacular but overlooked images from the Hubble space telescope.
Hubble has made more than a million observations during its two decades in orbit. Astronomers working with Hubble data have created amazing, iconic images of gaseous nebulae, forming stars, and massive galaxies.

Only a handful of researchers have looked at much of the Hubble archive, which is stored in an online public database. Nasa and the European Space Agency, which jointly run Hubble's website, want people to discover what's been overlooked.

The agencies are now running two contests for the best hardly-before-seen Hubble pictures. Because the multifaceted images are scientific data and not normal digital photographs, they contain far more information than is visible to the naked eye. By manipulating the images, members of the public may potentially reveal a different side of a famous picture such as the one above or uncover something completely new.


For Hubble's Hidden Treasures Contest, amateur astronomers can use simple online tools to adjust the zoom, contrast, and color balance on images, and save the work in a standard JPEG form. Upload the pictures to a special Flickr page and they may be featured as future Hubble images of the week (or perhaps find their way onto Wired.com's space photo of the day collection). The user who submits the best photo will win an iPod touch.

If you want to dig deeper and learn how to use some astronomical image processing software, try Hubble's Hidden Treasures Image Processing Contest. Users can download raw Hubble data and manipulate the files to produce beautiful new results. Several different software options exist for the interested amateur image processor, including a free Photoshop plugin called Fits Liberator. Participants can upload their images to the competition's Flickr page and the winner will receive an iPad.

Cold Fusion Race: NASA, MIT, DARPA and CERN

Four months ago, Andrea Rossi demonstrated what he claims was a one-megawatt "Energy Catalyser" -- or E-Cat -- which produces power by cold fusion. This technology, also known as Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR), had been consigned to the deepest cellar of fringe science.

Now it's hammering on the cellar door, and Nasa, MIT, Darpa and Cern are among those peering through the keyhole, wondering if it should be allowed back in with respectable science. As part of Wired.co.uk's continued coverage of progress in this controversial field, we have investigated recent developments.


Nasa has started giving very mixed signals on cold fusion. After years of silence on the issue, a piece appeared on its website stating that LENR tests carried out at Nasa's Glenn Research Centre "consistently show evidence of anomalous heat," indicating that cold fusion was taking place. There is also a link to a paper given at an LENR Workshop held at Glenn in September 2011. However, when questioned, a Nasa spokesman stated out that there was no Nasa cold fusion project, and no budget for it. The work appears to be carried out on the side by interested Nasa scientists.

Even more dramatically, on 16 January a video appeared on Nasa's Technology Gateway site, essentially a marketplace for commercialising technology developed at Nasa. This featured Dr Joseph Zawodny talking about his "Method for Enhancement of Surface Plasmon Polaritons to Initiate & Sustain LENR." In this Dr Zawodny says the technology has the potential to provide home heating and electricity, cleanly and without nuclear waste.

The video release was quickly followed by a long post on Dr Zawodny's blog explaining that he was expressing his own views on LENR and not those of Nasa. In response to the clamour from Rossi's fans, he stressed that he was not yet convinced the E-Cat works: "I am unaware of any clear and convincing demonstrations of any viable commercial device producing useful amounts of net energy."
Steven Krivit of New Energy Times used the Freedom of Information Act to get details of more Nasa LENR presentations and clearly there's quite a fan club there.


Meanwhile Cern is holding a colloquium on LENR, scheduled for 22 March. This will be available live via webcast, and will be given by Francesco Celani from the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics.
Cern is of course a major bastion of mainstream science; a search of Cern's site shows just eight papers on cold fusion compared to over 8,000 on conventional hot fusion. The colloquium seems like inviting a heretic to preach in a cathedral. A recent presentation shows that Celani is a strong advocate for LENR, suggesting that the challenge now is understanding exactly how it works. (He also states that Rossi's claims, though not impossible, need independent verification)


MIT, which played a key role in discrediting the original cold fusion studies in 1989, might also be shifting its position a little. This January for the first time there was a short course called "Cold Fusion 101." This was taught by Peter Hagelstein, who has been working on LENR for many years. According to a report in Cold Fusion Times, the course included a working demonstration of LENR showing measurable excess of heat.


Darpa, the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been quietly pursuing LENR for some years. Its budget plans for next year, released earlier this month, listed some significant achievements: "Continued quantification of material parameters that control degree of increase in excess heat generation and life expectancy of power cells in collaboration with the Italian Department of Energy. Established ability to extend active heat generation time from minutes to 2.5 days for pressure-activated power cells."
However, when contacted Darpa were unable to comment on this work.
But what of Andrea Rossi and Defkalion?

Andrea Rossi

In the meantime, Andrea Rossi has been playing the tightrope walker, always appearing to be a whisker from tumbling into the abyss. The University of Bologna terminated an agreement to explore the E-Cat after he failed to make a progress payment; but a later statement indicated it was still keen to work with him.
As New Energy Times noted, the original one-megawatt device which was supposedly sold to a mystery customer months ago has not moved. When he has free heating, why is his Bologna factory so cold that Rossi needs an overcoat in one video? Rossi responded in terms of the size of the space and the available E-Cats.
More digging by New Energy Times suggested that Rossi was not in fact working in partnership with National Instruments as he has claimed. However, a later statement by the company confirmed that Rossi's account was substantially correct, even if he was not an actual customer.


If Rossi has not produced anything tangible in the last few months, he has certainly come up with plenty of vapourware. The entire E-Cat design has been revamped and upgraded. Instead of costing thousands, the price of a ten-kilowatt domestic E-Cat will now be between 500-700 Euros. It will be the size of a desktop PC and able to directly replace existing boilers, and will be refuelled by changing a simple cartridge every six months. In a year or two's time, Rossi says it will also be possible to generate electricity from an E-Cat.
Rossi claims that almost 100,000 people have signed up to express interest in ordering an E-Cat: "You will be put in the waiting list and in Autumn you will receive a precise offer: at that point you will be free to cancel the order or confirm it. The deliveries could start within one year (could, not will)."

Rossi also claims that he will have a completely robotised production line which will churn out a million E-Cats in the first year alone. However, the very existence of the factory remains unproven, along with his mystery customer, mystery business partners, mystery suppliers and the mystery investors who now apparently control his company, Leonardo Corp.
Perhaps Rossi's "precise offer" might ask customers to make a deposit. It would take a very trusting soul to hand over cash without the sort of evidence that Zawodny and Celani seek.

Defkalion Green

While Rossi has declined to give any further public or scientific demonstrations, saying that he wants to leave it to the market, his rival Defkalion Green technologies has seemingly taken a much bolder approach. It has invited independent testers to carry out trials on its Hyperion LENR reactor.

We know that seven independent test groups will be involved, but there things get a bit murky. Non-disclosure agreements are in place, and it is not certain what information will be released or when: if the Very Big Oil Corporation finds the Hyperion works, it might prefer to talk to Defkalion itself rather than publicising it. (And big oil might just be interested -- the indefatigable Steven Krivit found that Royal Dutch Shell has started looking for opportunities to work with LENR experts.)

What we do know is that according to the test protocol, one live and one inert Hyperion will be tested side by side for 48 hours, with the inert machine acting as a control. Then the active component will be removed from the live and placed in the inert one, and the test will be run again, so the complete test will take a minimum of four days.
Defkalion has confirmed that the tests will start on 24 February. According to Sterling Allan of Peswiki, who visited Defkalion a couple of weeks ago, the first round of tests will be carried out by a Greek government organisation. Defkalion has not released anything about the identity of the testers.
So perhaps the Greek government will soon announce a fantastic new energy source, one that will solve the country's economic problems at a stroke and provide the world with unlimited cheap energy. No doubt they would love to do that… and the rest of us will also await test results with interest.

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