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The best places to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system, ranked

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triton


Unlike the myriad of new exoplanets we’re identifying every year, when it comes to worlds in the solar system, we have the ability to send probes to these places and study them directly. “We can measure things that would be impossible to measure with telescopes,” says David Catling, an astrobiologist at the University of Washington. They could study things up close, maybe fly into the atmosphere or land on the surface, and perhaps one day even bring back samples that could reveal whether these planets and moons are home to materials or fossils that are evidence of life—or perhaps life itself. 

Here are the 10 best places in the solar system to look for extraterrestrial life, subjectively ranked by yours truly for how likely we are to find life—and how easy it would be to find it if it’s there. 

NASA

10. Triton

Triton is the largest moon of Neptune, and one of the most exotic worlds in the solar system. It’s one of only five moons in the solar system known to be geologically active, as evidenced by its active geysers that spew sublimated nitrogen gas. Its surface is mostly frozen nitrogen, and its crust is made of water ice, and it has an icy mantle. Yes, this is a cold, cold world. But in spite of that, it seems to get some heat generated by tidal forces (gravitational friction between Triton and Neptune), and that could help warm up the waters and give rise to life through any organics that might exist on the moon. 

But actually finding life on Triton seems like a very distant possibility. The only mission to ever visit the world was Voyager 2 in 1989. The window for such a mission opens up only every 13 years. The best opportunity to visit Triton would be the proposed Trident mission (which seems unlikely to get launched after NASA just greenlighted two new missions to Venus later this decade). And lastly, the horrendous cold tempers hopes that life could stay unfrozen for long enough to make a home for itself.  

ceres

NASA / JPL-CALTECH / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / JUSTIN COWART

9. Ceres

The largest asteroid and smallest dwarf planet in the solar system could be home to liquid water, sitting deep underground. Ceres, a dwarf planet that sits between Mars and Jupiter, was studied by NASA’s Dawn probe from orbit from 2015 to 2018. Scientists are still unpacking and analyzing that data, but tantalizing studies in the past few years suggest there’s an ocean sitting 25 miles below the surface, and could stretch for hundreds of miles. It would almost certainly be extremely salty—which would keep the water from freezing even well below 0°C. Dawn even found evidence of organic compounds on Ceres that could act as raw materials for life. 

But Ceres ranks second-to-last on our list because its habitability has too many questions attached. The evidence of subsurface water and the organic materials is still very new. Even if those things are there, it would need some source of heat and energy that could actually help encourage that water and organic material to react in such a way that it leads to life. And even if that occurred, finding that life means we have to drill at least two-dozen miles into the ground to access that water and study it. Lastly, Ceres is tiny—more than 13 times smaller than Earth. It’s not yet clear how that fraction of gravity could affect life on the dwarf planet, but if Earth is our compass for what’s habitable, Ceres’s small size is probably not an asset. There’s no shortage of new proposals for future missions to study the dwarf planet, including ones that would even attempt a sample return mission. But nothing is going up soon.

io

NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

8. Io

Boasting over 400 active volcanoes, Io is the most geologically active world in the solar system. All of that activity is thought to be caused by tidal heating created as Io’s interior is gravitationally pulled between Jupiter and the other Jovian moons. The volcanism results in a huge coating of sulfur and sulfur dioxide frost (yes, that’s a thing!) across the globe, along with a super thin sulfur dioxide atmosphere. There might even be a subsurface ocean on Io, but it would be made of magma, not water.

Life on Io is very unlikely. But all that heat is a bit of an encouraging sign. There may be locations on the surface or underground that aren’t overwhelmed by the volcanic activity—more temperate places where hardy forms of life have found a way to survive. We wouldn’t be able to study those spots directly, but a probe might be able to find evidence of life if it gets lucky. 

That’s easier said than done. The best chance of studying Io is through a proposed NASA mission called Io Volcano Observer (IVO), which if approved would launch in 2029 and do ten flybys of Io. But like Trident, IVO was vying for the same mission spots that were snatched by two upcoming Venus missions. 

callisto

NASA/JPL/ DLR (GERMAN AEROSPACE CENTER)

7. Calisto

Calisto’s claim to fame is that it has the oldest surface in the solar system. That doesn’t really mean much in terms of habitability though. Where Calisto shines for our purposes is that it’s another moon that’s thought to have a vast subsurface ocean, 155 miles underground. It also retains a thin atmosphere of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen, which is more diverse and Earth-like than most of the other solar system moons that could be habitable. 

Still, Callisto’s chances of hosting life are not as favorable as other worlds, namely because it’s still pretty damn cold. Our next best chance of really exploring it will be the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), launching next year and set to explore three of Jupiter’s moons. JUICE will make several close flybys of Callisto during its mission. 

ganymede

NASA/JPL

6. Ganymede

The largest moon to orbit Jupiter, and simply the largest moon in the solar system, is covered up in an icy shell. But underneath that surface is home to a global underground saltwater ocean that might contain more water than all of Earth’s own oceans combined. Naturally, all that water has scientists hopeful that some kind of life could exist on the moon. The moon even has a very thin oxygen atmosphere—nothing to write home about, but it’s something neat. And Ganymede has something else no other moon in the solar system has: a magnetic field. A magnetic field is critical for protecting worlds from harmful radiation spewed by the sun.

But Ganymede isn’t perfect. A subsurface ocean is difficult to study, so if there’s life on the planet, we’re going to have a difficult time finding it. And so far, there has not yet been a dedicated mission to study Ganymede, although the JUICE will be the most in-depth investigation of Ganymede when it enters the moon’s orbit in 2032. It may have an opportunity to peer down at the surface and study the interior using radar, and clue scientists into Ganymede’s potential habitability. 

Venus

ESA – C. CARREAU

5. Venus

Here at the halfway point is where we start to get into the good stuff. Venus has surface temperatures that are hot enough to melt lead, and surface pressures that are more than 80 times as harsh as what we experience on Earth. And yet, maybe Venus is home to life! Those prospects ignited last year when researchers detected phosphine gas in very thick Venusian atmosphere. On Earth, phosphine is primarily produced naturally by life in oxygen-poor ecosystems, which raises the possibility that there might be life on Venus responsible for producing it as well. And the most likely scenario would be microbial life that’s hanging within the clouds—airborne life, basically. 

Now, the phosphine detections have come under scrutiny, and the idea of airborne life is certainly not something all scientists can get behind. But this and other work that’s explored Venus’s history of water have renewed a lot of great interest into the idea that Venus may have once been habitable, and might still be. The new DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions that NASA will launch late this decade won’t find life, but they will get us closer to answering that question more concretely.  

enceladus

NASA/JPL/SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE

4. Enceladus

Saturn’s sixth largest moon is completely covered in clean ice, making it one of the most reflective bodies in the solar system. Its surface is ice cold, but there’s quite a bit of activity going on underneath. The moon ejects plumes that contain a myriad of different compounds, including salt water, ammonia, and organic molecules like methane and propane. Enceladus is thought to have a global salty ocean. And NASA’s found evidence of hydrothermal activity deep underground, which could very well provide a source of heat that’s necessary to give life a chance to evolve and thrive. 

In some ways, Enceladus ought to be higher up my list than Titan, were it not for the fact that there just simply isn’t any mission on the books right now to study it. Plenty of proposals have been debated for the last several years, including several under NASA. All are geared toward an astrobiological investigation that would look more closely for signs that Enceladus is habitable to life. While digging underground into the ocean would be the most surefire way to determine whether the moon is home to life, we might also catch a lucky break and be able to detect biosignatures that have been spewed up by the moon’s cryovolcanoes (volcanos that erupt vaporized materials like water or ammonia rather than molten rock). But not for a long time.

titan

NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA/UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO

3. Titan

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is another world that sets itself apart from the rest of the solar system. It has one of the most robust atmospheres for a rocky world in the solar system outside of Earth and Venus. It’s teeming with different bodies of liquid:  lakes, rivers, and seas. But they’re not made of water—they’re made of methane and other hydrocarbons. Titan is extremely rich in organic materials, so it’s already rich in the raw materials needed for life. And it may also have a subsurface ocean of water as well, though this will need to be verified. 

Scientists have just the mission lined up: the NASA Dragonfly mission, which will send a drone helicopter to explore Titan’s atmosphere directly and give us a much needed sense of exactly how developed its prebiotic chemistry runs. That mission launches in 2027 and will arrive at Titan in 2034. 

europa

NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

2. Europa

Jupiter’s moon has an icy shell that’s 10 to 15 miles thick covering up a huge subsurface ocean that’s heated up by tidal forces. That heating is thought to help create an internal circulation system that keeps waters moving and replenishes the icy surface on a regular basis. This means the ocean floor is interacting with the surface—which means if we want to determine whether life exists in those subsurface oceans, we may not necessarily need to go all the way down there. Scientists have found deposits of clay-like minerals associated with organic materials on Europa. And it’s suspected that radiation hitting the icy surface could result in oxygen that might find its way into the subsurface oceans and be used by emerging life. All the ingredients for life are potentially here.

Luckily, we’re set to study Europa in great detail. JUICE will make two flybys of Europa during its time in the Jovian system. But the marquee mission on the books is Europa Clipper, a spacecraft that would conduct low-altitude flights that would attempt to study and characterize the surface, and investigate the subsurface environment as best it can. Clipper launches in 2024, and will reach Europa in 2030. 

mars nasa

NASA/JPL-CALTECH

1. Mars

Mars takes the top spot for several reasons. We know it was once habitable billions of years ago, when it had lakes and rivers of liquid water on its surface. We know it had a robust atmosphere back then to keep things warm and comfy. And we currently have a rover on the surface, Perseverance, whose express goal is to look for signs of ancient life. It will even secure samples that we’ll one day bring back to Earth to study in the lab. 

So what does that have to do with finding current life? Well, if there are signs of ancient life, it’s possible life on Mars still exists. Probably not on the surface, but maybe underground. There have already been a few big studies that have used radar observations to show that reservoirs of liquid water probably exist a couple kilometers below the surface. We’ve found bacteria on Earth surviving in similar conditions, so it’s entirely possible something is living in those parts of Mars as well. Getting down there will be insanely difficult, but if we have reason to believe something is lurking in these reservoirs, it’ll be all hands on deck to figure out how we can get there and see for ourselves. 

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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