Saturn moon a step closer to hosting life

Image of a white ice moon with blue lines streaked across its surface and a small cluster of cratersImage copyrightNASA

Scientists have found complex carbon-based molecules in the waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Compounds like this have only previously been found on Earth, and in some meteorites.

They are thought to have formed in reactions between water and warm rock at the base of the moon’s subsurface ocean.

Though not a sign of life, their presence suggests Enceladus could play host to living organisms.

The discovery came from data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft.

An image of Enceladus next to a satellite map of Great Britain. The moon spans from the top of Scotland to YorkImage copyright PRESS ASSOCIATION
Image captionSmall neighbourhood: Enceladus is just 500km wide

A new pale blue dot?

“These huge molecules contain a complex network often built from hundreds of atoms,” explains study author Dr Frank Postberg.

“This is the first ever detection of such complex organics coming from an extraterrestrial water-world.”

On Earth, these molecules are usually biologically created, but this does not have to be the case.

“They are a necessary precursor to life,” says Dr Postberg, “[but] we currently cannot tell if these organics are biologically irrelevant or signs of prebiotic chemistry or even life.”

What does life need?

  • Liquid water
  • Energy
  • Organics (compounds containing carbon)
  • A group of particular elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur)

Phosphorus and sulphur have not yet been measured on the moon, but it has all of the other ingredients.

What next?

The Cassini mission, which ended by plunging into Saturn’s cloud-tops last September, was never designed to detect life.

In fact, it was dispatched before scientists even knew about the peculiar jets of water emerging from the south pole of Enceladus.

Cassini first observed them in 2005, after its arrival in the Saturn system.

The technology to distinguish whether molecules like those detected are biological in origin already exists on Earth.

“The next logical step,” says Dr Postberg, “is to go back to Enceladus soon with a dedicated payload and see if there is extraterrestrial life.”

Eleanor Cobham, a seductive royal duchess, was found guilty of witchcraft in 15th century and forced to walk through London in penance

Featured image
The Duchess of Gloucester forced to walk through the streets as punishment for necromancy. Carnegie Museum of Art – Pittsburgh, PA (United States) Dates: 1900

On November 13th, 1441, the curious people of London lined the streets to observe an act of public penance. The criminal was a woman, perhaps 40 years of age, bare-headed, plainly dressed, who was rowed in a barge to Temple Stairs off the Thames. She would then proceed to walk all the way to St. Paul’s Cathedral, carrying before her a wax taper of two pounds and showing the entire time a “meek and demure countenance.”

She was no ordinary woman and hers was no ordinary crime. The condemned woman was Eleanor Cobham, the wife to a royal prince: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, only surviving uncle to the childless Henry VI and the the heir to the throne. The duchess had been tried and condemned for heresy and witchcraft. This was the first of three days of ordered pilgrimages to churches. Afterward, she would be forced to separate from her husband and live in prison for the rest of her life.

The downfall of Eleanor Cobham was a shocking event in the 15th century, and it’s disturbing today. Certain elements of her life echo Katherine Swynford’s, the longtime mistress of John of Gaunt who eventually became his third wife. A bold beauty manages to marry a royal–it was seen again, and much more famously, in the following centuries with Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Boleyn. But while rumors of witchcraft swirled around both of those queens, the accusations were, historians now agree, not based in reality. While Eleanor Cobham most probably did dabble in the black arts. The most serious of such crimes was to seek to know–or perhaps even alter–the future, through the practice of necromancy.

Ever since the age of Homer, necromancers have hovered in the darkest shadows of society. They were believed to possess the secrets to unlocking the power of the underworld to divine the future. No matter the results—or lack thereof—necromancers did a brisk business in the Greek and Roman world. It was only by following their secret and ornate rituals, they said, could the boundaries be dissolved between the living and the dead.

After Rome fell, the early popes struggled to extinguish the pagan practices of not only necromancy but witchcraft, astrology, and alchemy. But these practices survived through the Middle Ages, in one form or another, and in the Renaissance, as scholars pored through ancient texts, experienced a rebirth. Some popes even  employed their own astrologers. The Munich Manual of Demonic Magic, a textbook in Latin, was compiled in the 15th century. Necromancy became, if anything, more common. After drawing a series of magic circles, saying conjurings, and making sacrifices, necromancers claimed a demon would appear to assist: see the future, drive a man to love or hatred, discern where secret things were hidden, such as treasure.

During the 15th century, England was a kingdom of devout Catholics–and yet superstition ran amok. In 1456, 12 men petitioned Henry VI for permission to practice alchemy, among them two of the king’s own physicians. Some courtiers owned astrological books. What was heresy and what was knowledge linked to the fashionable pursuit of ancient texts? It was hard to know what was forbidden–until you made a mistake. And then you could lose your life.

The stage was set for Eleanor Cobham and her ambitious play for love, power, and glory.

The daughter of Sir Reginald Cobham, Eleanor in her early twenties entered the service of the illustrious Jacqueline, Countess of Hanault. Jacqueline repudiated her husband, John of Brabant, and fled to England in search of champions, marrying the youngest brother of Henry V: Humphrey, duke of Gloucester.

At some point over the next five years, Eleanor herself became the mistress of the duke, the husband of her employer. Humphrey abandoned his wife; the pope annulled the marriage because of legalities to do with her first husband. Humphrey married her lady in waiting, Eleanor.

His nickname of “Good Duke Humphrey” notwithstanding, Gloucester was a complex man. Well educated, he supported learning more than most aristocrats and was a devoted patron of the arts. An enthusiastic soldier, he was devoted to his oldest brother, the famous warrior Henry V. But Humphrey was also impulsive and vengeful. There is little doubt he was, in addition, a womanizer. After the death of his brother the king, he claimed the right to be regent for his infant nephew. His claims were supported in the dead king’s will. But Cardinal Henry Beaufort and the rest of the Beauforts opposed Gloucester. The two branches of the Lancaster family fought for power for the rest of Humphrey’s life.

Eleanor did not make Humphrey more popular. She was criticized for her immoral history and for her greed. Historian Ralph Griffiths says, “One chronicler noted how she flaunted her pride and her position by riding through the streets of London, glitteringly dressed.”

The unmarried Henry VI, passive and easily led, was fond of his aunt and uncle.  Historians believe a decision was made in the Beaufort camp to permanently weaken the duke of Gloucester, and the key to the attack was his wife.

In late June 1441, word spread through London that two men had been arrested for conspiring against the king–divining the king’s future through the use of necromancy and concluding that he would soon suffer a serious illness.  The accused were two clerks, Roger Bolingbroke, an Oxford priest, and Thomas Southwell, a canon. (Those who practiced necromancy were often low-level clericals, because they possessed the knowledge of Latin necessary to read forbidden books and learn the rites.)

The men were sent to the Tower of London and possibly tortured. Bolingbroke told his interrogators that he had been prompted to look into the future of the king by the duchess of Gloucester.

Eleanor did not behave like someone innocent of all crime. She fled to Westminster, seeking sanctuary. Later, when she was set to appear before an ecclesiastical court, she tried to escape onto the Thames river, but she was caught. A witch was produced, Marjorie Jourdemayne, who said she procured love potions for the duchess to make Gloucester marry her. In her trial, Eleanor denied seeking to know the future of the king through necromancy, but she “did acknowledge recourse to the Black Art.” It is believed she turned to the necromancers and witch to try to bear a child.

Eleanor’s co-conspirators were condemned and executed–Margaret Jourdemayne was burned at Smithfield. One of the clerks was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Eleanor spent the rest of her life confined in various castles. She died in 1452. Her husband Humphrey, who, to the puzzlement of many, had done little publicly to free her—he “said little”—died five years before Eleanor. His wife’s disgrace had finished him as an important man of the kingdom.

Did Eleanor turn to the dark arts to try to bring about the death of Henry VI so that her husband could become king and she become queen? Most historians doubt she went that far; more likely, she dabbled in the same forbidden practices that other court ladies did. But in the tense and treacherous political climate of the Lancastrian court, where rivalries were soon to explode into the War of the Roses, a mistake in judgment could cost one everything. As was learned by Eleanor Cobham.


Surprising Footage Captures Arctic Jellyfish Lurking Under the Ice

In the midst of a frosty Arctic winter, marine biologist Andy Juhl led a team from Columbia University’s Earth Institute on snowmobiles out over the frozen Chukchi sea. There they drilled holes through the ice, several feet thick, and dropped a submersible down into the frigid environment and take a peek at what lies beneath.

As George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo, what they found delighted them: a jellyfish.

Until now, scientists believed that the creatures spent the winter in polyp form—bulbous masses that cling to surfaces and release bell-shaped jellies in the Spring. But the translucent critter, Chrysaora melanaster, shows that the jellies can overwinter in the waters off the coast of northern Alaska—an environment previously believed to be too harsh for adult jellies to survive. The scientists described their find in a new study, published in the journal Marine Ecology.

  1. melanaster, also known as the “northern sea nettle,” is one of the Arctic’s largest jellyfish. Their voluminous bells can grow up to a foot or more across and their tentacles and ruffle-like string of “lips” stretch behind them for nearly ten feet. The jellies thrive in the cold Arctic waters, but until this latest study, researchers had yet to find evidence that they could remain in this environment over the course of the harsh winters.

Though their presence might seem surprising, as the researchers write in their study, the sea ice might protect the jellyfish from turbulent storms while the cold would slow their metabolism, allowing them to survive on little food throughout the winter. According to the Census of Marine Life, Chrysaora melanaster jellies feed on large zooplankton, small fish, copepods, and even other jellies.

In the video, the creature can be seen dragging across the seafloor, which might not appear like a thriving environment in the peak of winter. But as the researchers note, the Arctic seas support a surprising amount of winter food, namely ice algae, which grow inside and along the bottom of sea ice and eventually sink to the bottom, providing a base for the food chain.

Even so, the researchers note that reduced food supplies don’t stop these resourceful creatures, which can regrow their gonads once food availability increases. This means that even if food is short, these overwintering jellies will likely still be capable of reproduction come spring.

“Thus, overwintering could be an effective strategy for individuals with the potential to mature to consume the abundant zooplankton food available in spring and increase their sexual reproductive output,” the researchers write.

Knowing that these creatures can survive the winter under sea ice will help scientists better understand jellyfish population dynamics, which greatly vary from year to year, Dvorsky writes. Some years there are hardly any, while other years they are so common that fishing nets are choked with them.

These swings in jellyfish populations don’t just plague Alaska. One particularly dramatic bloom in the Mediterranean this summer prompted a researcher from Italy’s Institute of Sciences of Food Production, Antonella Leone, to try to get locals to eat them. She hopes to curb their numbers as warmer waters spur populations to grow “gelatinous generation after gelatinous generation,” Jason Horowitz reported for The New York Times earlier this year.

The latest study is not necessarily an indicator of changes in climate, but suggests that the northern sea nettle could be sensitive to future shifts in sea ice—just like the polar bears and walruses we commonly think of struggling to adapt to the changing Arctic.

As Juhl and his colleagues write, it’s especially important to understand these dynamics now, “as coastal Arctic seas become more open to transportation, commercial fishing, oil and gas exploration, and other forms of commercial exploitation.” These ventures could affect not just the furry creatures roaming above the ice, but the gelatinous ones sliding along below.