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Working towards a Digital Twin of Earth


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Luca Brocca presenting the Hydrology Digital Twin at Φ-week

How can a digital replica of Earth help us understand our planet’s past, present and future? As part of the fourth edition of Φ-week taking place this week, a group of European scientists have put forward their ideas on the practical implementation of Digital Twins and the potential application areas for a Digital Twin Earth in the real world.

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    • By NASA
      6 min read
      Preparations for Next Moonwalk Simulations Underway (and Underwater)
      The Arctic is captured in this 2010 visualization using data from NASA’s Aqua satellite. A new study quantifies how climate-related processes, including the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, are driving polar motion. Another study looks at how polar meltwater is speeding the lengthening of Earth’s day.NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio Researchers used more than 120 years of data to decipher how melting ice, dwindling groundwater, and rising seas are nudging the planet’s spin axis and lengthening days.
      Days on Earth are growing slightly longer, and that change is accelerating. The reason is connected to the same mechanisms that also have caused the planet’s axis to meander by about 30 feet (10 meters) in the past 120 years. The findings come from two recent NASA-funded studies focused on how the climate-related redistribution of ice and water has affected Earth’s rotation.
      This redistribution occurs when ice sheets and glaciers melt more than they grow from snowfall and when aquifers lose more groundwater than precipitation replenishes. These resulting shifts in mass cause the planet to wobble as it spins and its axis to shift location — a phenomenon called polar motion. They also cause Earth’s rotation to slow, measured by the lengthening of the day. Both have been recorded since 1900.
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      The animation, exaggerated for clarity, illustrates how Earth’s rotation wobbles as the location of its spin axis, shown in orange, moves away from its geographic axis, which is shown in blue and represents the imaginary line between the planet’s geographic North and South poles.NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio Analyzing polar motion across 12 decades, scientists attributed nearly all of the periodic oscillations in the axis’ position to changes in groundwater, ice sheets, glaciers, and sea levels. According to a paper published recently in Nature Geoscience, the mass variations during the 20th century mostly resulted from natural climate cycles.
      The same researchers teamed on a subsequent study that focused on day length. They found that, since 2000, days have been getting longer by about 1.33 milliseconds per 100 years, a faster pace than at any point in the prior century. The cause: the accelerated melting of glaciers and the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets due to human-caused greenhouse emissions. Their results were published July 15 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
      “The common thread between the two papers is that climate-related changes on Earth’s surface, whether human-caused or not, are strong drivers of the changes we’re seeing in the planet’s rotation,” said Surendra Adhikari, a co-author of both papers and a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
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      The location of Earth’s spin axis moved about 30 feet (10 meters) between 1900 and 2023, as shown in this animation. A recent study found that about 90% of the periodic oscillations in polar motion could be explained by melting ice sheets and glaciers, diminishing groundwater, and sea level rise.NASA/JPL-Caltech Decades of Polar Motion
      In the earliest days, scientists tracked polar motion by measuring the apparent movement of stars. They later switched to very long baseline interferometry, which analyzes radio signals from quasars, or satellite laser ranging, which points lasers at satellites.
      Researchers have long surmised that polar motion results from a combination of processes in Earth’s interior and at the surface. Less clear was how much each process shifts the axis and what kind of effect each exerts — whether cyclical movements that repeat in periods from weeks to decades, or sustained drift over the course of centuries or millennia.
      For their paper, researchers used machine-learning algorithms to dissect the 120-year record. They found that 90% of recurring fluctuations between 1900 and 2018 could be explained by changes in groundwater, ice sheets, glaciers, and sea level. The remainder mostly resulted from Earth’s interior dynamics, like the wobble from the tilt of the inner core with respect to the bulk of the planet.
      The patterns of polar motion linked to surface mass shifts repeated a few times about every 25 years during the 20th century, suggesting to the researchers that they were largely due to natural climate variations. Past papers have drawn connections between more recent polar motion and human activities, including one authored by Adhikari that attributed a sudden eastward drift of the axis (starting around 2000) to faster melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and groundwater depletion in Eurasia.
      That research focused on the past two decades, during which groundwater and ice mass loss as well as sea level rise — all measured via satellites — have had strong connections to human-caused climate change.
      “It’s true to a certain degree” that human activities factor into polar motion, said Mostafa Kiani Shahvandi, lead author of both papers and a doctoral student at the Swiss university ETH Zurich. “But there are natural modes in the climate system that have the main effect on polar motion oscillations.”
      Longer Days
      For the second paper, the authors used satellite observations of mass change from the GRACE mission (short for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) and its follow-on GRACE-FO, as well as previous mass-balance studies that analyzed the contributions of changes in groundwater, ice sheets, and glaciers to sea level rise in the 20th century to reconstruct changes in the length of days due to those factors from 1900 to 2018.
      Scientists have known through historical eclipse records that length of day has been growing for millennia. While almost imperceptible to humans, the lag must be accounted for because many modern technologies, including GPS, rely on precise timekeeping.
      In recent decades, the faster melting of ice sheets has shifted mass from the poles toward the equatorial ocean. This flattening causes Earth to decelerate and the day to lengthen, similar to when an ice skater lowers and spreads their arms to slow a spin.
      The authors noticed an uptick just after 2000 in how fast the day was lengthening, a change closely correlated with independent observations of the flattening. For the period from 2000 to 2018, the rate of length-of-day increase due to movement of ice and groundwater was 1.33 milliseconds per century — faster than at any period in the prior 100 years, when it varied from 0.3 to 1.0 milliseconds per century.
      The lengthening due to ice and groundwater changes could decelerate by 2100 under a climate scenario of severely reduced emissions, the researchers note. (Even if emissions were to stop today, previously released gases — particularly carbon dioxide — would linger for decades longer.)
      If emissions continue to rise, lengthening of day from climate change could reach as high as 2.62 milliseconds per century, overtaking the effect of the Moon’s pull on tides, which has been increasing Earth’s length of day by 2.4 milliseconds per century, on average. Called lunar tidal friction, the effect has been the primary cause of Earth’s day-length increase for billions for years.
      “In barely 100 years, human beings have altered the climate system to such a degree that we’re seeing the impact on the very way the planet spins,” Adhikari said.
      News Media Contacts
      Andrew Wang / Jane J. Lee
      Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
      626-379-6874 / 818-354-0307
      andrew.wang@jpl.nasa.gov / jane.j.lee@jpl.nasa.gov
      2024-101
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      Last Updated Jul 19, 2024 Related Terms
      Earth Science Earth Earth Science Division Earth's Moon GRACE (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment) GRACE-FO (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on) Jet Propulsion Laboratory Explore More
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    • By NASA
      Earth Observer Earth Home Earth Observer Home Editor’s Corner Feature Articles Meeting Summaries News Science in the News Calendars In Memoriam More Archives 8 min read
      The Earth Observer Editor’s Corner: Summer 2024
      Welcome to a new era for The Earth Observer newsletter! This communication marks the official public release of our new website. While this release moves us into a new online future, the newsletter team has worked to ensure the new website also allows for continuity with our publication’s robust 35-year history.  The Executive Editor has written a more detailed overview of our new site that is posted separately.
      I am happy to report on the success of several recent launches. The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite–U (GOES-U) successfully launched at 5:26 PM Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on June 25 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
      GOES-U (renamed GOES-19 after reaching geostationary orbit on July 8) is the fourth and final satellite in the GOES-R Series, providing advanced imagery and atmospheric measurements, real-time mapping of lightning activity, and space weather observations. Once the checkout phase is complete, NASA will hand operational control to NOAA. After checkout, the plan is for GOES-19 to replace GOES-16 (originally GOES–R) as GOES-East. GOES-19 will work in tandem with GOES-18 (GOES–T), NOAA’s GOES-West satellite, to enable observations from the west coast of Africa to New Zealand.
      In addition to its critical role in terrestrial weather prediction, the GOES constellation of satellites helps forecasters predict near Earth space weather that can interfere with satellite and terrestrial electronics and communication. The GOES-U satellite goes beyond the capabilities of its predecessors with a new space weather instrument, the Compact Coronagraph-1 (CCOR-1), which blocks light from the solar disk to allow imagery of the faint solar corona, providing low latency observations for detecting coronal mass ejections.
      Speaking of space weather, Solar Cycle 25 is nearing its peak, which typically results in an increase in solar activity and geomagnetic storms. A particularly intense geomagnetic storm took place in mid-May 2024—the strongest in over two decades The G5 storm culminated in a remarkable display of the aurora overnight—in both hemispheres—on May 10–11, visible from many areas worldwide—including latitudes where sightings of auroras are uncommon. It also caused concerns for the safety of some of NASA’s Earth science satellite missions, although fortunately there was no lasting impact.
      The aurora produced by the storm could be observed from the day-night band on the NASA–NOAA Suomi NPP Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) that is sensitive enough to detect nighttime light across a broad band of wavelengths (green to near-infrared) to observe signals such as city lights, reflected moonlight, and auroras. VIIRS captured the image shown below on the night of May 11, 2024. 
      Figure. The day-night band on Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) captured this image of the aurora borealis that occurred on the night of May 11, 2024, as the culminating event of a particularly intense geomagnetic storm that occurred in May 2024. In this view, the northern lights appear as a bright white strip across parts of Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan.  Figure credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory There were two deployments from the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office (ESTO) In-Space Validation of Earth Science Technologies (InVEST) program. The SigNals Of Opportunity: P-band Investigation (SNOOPI) was launched on March 21 from NASA’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft (CRS-30) as part of the company’s thirtieth commercial resupply mission. On April 21, the instrument was released into orbit from the station. The SNOOPI mission will demonstrate and validate the in-space use of P-band (~300 MHz) signals of opportunity to measure root zone soil moisture and snow water equivalent, reducing the risk of utilizing this technique on future space missions. SNOOPI will also verify important assumptions about reflected signal coherence, robustness to the RFI environment, and the ability to capture and process the transmitted signal in space. James Garrison [Purdue University] is PI for SNOOPI, with co-investigators from GSFC.
      The Hyperspectral Thermal Imager (HyTI) CubeSat was also flown aboard CRS-30 and deployed from the ISS. HyTI is a technology demonstration mission by the University of Hawaiiʻi at Mānoa designed to demonstrate how high spatial resolution (60-m ground resolution), high spectral resolution (25 bands), and long-wave infrared image data can be acquired to monitor water resources using a 6U CubeSat. Robert Wright [University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa] is principal investigator for HyTI.
      NASA is conducting the Arctic Radiation Cloud Aerosol Surface Interaction Experiment (ARCSIX) over the Arctic Ocean north of Greenland this spring and summer. Altogether, about 75 scientists (including sea ice surface researchers, aerosol researchers, and cloud researchers), along with instrument operators and flight crew, are participating in ARCSIX’s two phases based out of Pituffik Space Base in northwest Greenland. The first three-week deployment, from late May to mid-June of this year, was timed to document the start of the ice melt season. The second deployment will occur in late July and August to monitor late summer conditions leading up to the freeze-up period.
      As part of ARCSIX, NASA is flying two of its aircraft, with the first flights having occurred on May 28, 2024. The P-3 Orion aircraft from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility flies at relatively low altitudes to characterize sea ice surface properties, the optical and microphysical properties of cloud and aerosol particles, atmospheric chemistry, radiative fluxes, and other lower atmospheric properties. At the same time, a Gulfstream III aircraft, managed by NASA’s Langley Research Center, flies at higher altitudes to provide hyperspectral imagery and obtain atmospheric profiles, adding a perspective similar to those of orbiting satellites.
      Two members of NASA’s Earth observing fleet celebrate milestone anniversaries this summer. The third of NASA’s EOS Flagships—Aura—marks 20 years in orbit on July 15. During the 1990s and early 2000s, an international team of engineers and scientists worked together to design the first integrated observatory for studying atmospheric composition. This was a “bold endeavor” at the time, intended to provide unprecedented detail essential to understanding how Earth’s ozone layer and air quality respond to changes in atmospheric composition caused by both human activities and natural phenomena, a key NASA Earth science objective. The Aura spacecraft (Latin for “breeze” and “air”) was launched on July 15, 2004, with its four instruments.
      Twenty years later, the spacecraft and two of its instruments, the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) and Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI), are in remarkable shape, which is a testament to Aura’s solid engineering. MLS and OMI are remarkably stable, allowing for the continuation of their science- and trend-quality datasets. However, all good things must come to an end. Insufficient solar power generation will require that data collection end in mid-2026. In the meantime, MLS and OMI will continue to monitor the everchanging composition of Earth’s atmosphere. I extend my congratulations to Bryan Duncan [GSFC—Aura Project Scientist] and the entire Aura team, past and present, on this remarkable achievement.
      On July 2, 2024, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) celebrated ten years since its launch, marking a decade of gold-standard measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) from space. OCO-2 was originally designed as a pathfinder mission to measure CO2 with the precision and accuracy needed to quantify regional sources and sinks of this key greenhouse gas.
      OCO-2 has tracked the relentless rise of CO2 in our atmosphere and has provided unprecedented information on where, when, and how CO2 is released into and removed from the atmosphere. OCO-2 data have provided new insights into how CO2 emissions are offset by natural carbon sinks such as forests and oceans. The data have demonstrated that spaceborne measurements can be used to accurately quantify CO2 emissions from power plants and cities. The long-term, global record has also been used to examine the two-way interactions between CO2 and climate. As the length of the data record has increased, OCO-2 is beginning to be able to provide policy-relevant information and to address an ever more diverse range of carbon cycle science questions. Because of the mission’s success, NASA now has two instruments in space monitoring Earth’s carbon cycle. OCO-2’s spare parts were repurposed and nested as OCO-3 on the International Space Station in 2019. OCO-2 is unique among NASA missions in providing near-global sampling in combination with the spectral resolution and signal to noise needed to provide CO2 with the sensitivity required to inform studies of the natural carbon cycle as well as anthropogenic sources. The OCO-2 mission has been and will remain a key element of any U.S. or international greenhouse gas observational network to enhance our scientific understanding of the carbon cycle and inform climate mitigation efforts. Congratulations to Vivienne Payne [JPL—OCO-2 Principal Investigator] and the entire OCO-2 team on this noteworthy achievement.
      The Earth Observer plans more in-depth feature coverage of both these missions celebrating milestones in July over the coming months. Last but certainly not least, I would like to congratulate Sarah Ringerud [GSFC] on being chosen as the Deputy Project Scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission. Ringerud holds a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science with an emphasis on Remote Sensing from Colorado State University. Ringerud is a research meteorologist at GSFC, leading projects focused on GPM and future mission concepts. Her expertise lies in satellite algorithm development, particularly for microwave instruments, and she actively collaborates with government and academic partners to advance the field of precipitation remote sensing. Congratulations to Sarah and best wishes in her new role. 
      Steve Platnick
      EOS Senior Project Scientist
      steven.e.platnick@nasa.gov
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      Last Updated Jul 18, 2024 Related Terms
      Earth Science Uncategorized View the full article
    • By NASA
      Earth Observer Earth Home Earth Observer Home Editor’s Corner Feature Articles Meeting Summaries News Science in the News Calendars In Memoriam More Archives 3 min read
      The Earth Observer’s 35th Anniversary
      Welcome to a new era for The Earth Observer newsletter! Our 35th anniversary also marks the official public release of our new website. Over the past year and a half, The Earth Observer has migrated from a print publication (the last printed issue was November–December 2022) to publishing PDFs online only (final PDF issue published in May 2024) to publishing individual articles on our new site. While this move shifts The Earth Observer’s format to be more in line with that of other online publications, our intent is for the content to remain distinctive. Readers can expect to continue receiving the same quality reporting on NASA Earth Science activities that they have come to depend on from The Earth Observer for over 35 years.
      The release of the website coincides with a historical milestone for The Earth Observer. It was 35 years ago – in March 1989 – that the first print issue of the newsletter was produced. At that time, The Earth Observer was a crucial communication tool for the initial group of investigators for the Earth Observing System (EOS), which had been selected that same year. They depended on the periodic delivery of the newsletter to their physical mailboxes to keep them informed about decisions made at recent science team and payload panel meetings, and other activities related to the program.  
      As communication technologies have evolved, so has The Earth Observer. The interweaving tale of the evolution of EOS and The Earth Observer has been told in previous issues of our publication. (For example, see  The Earth Observer: Twenty-Five Years Telling NASA’s Earth Science Story in the March–April 2014 issue [Volume 26, Issue 2, pp. 4–13] and  A Thirtieth Anniversary Reflection by the Executive Editor in the March–April 2019 issue [Volume 31, Issue 2 – online version, pp. 1–4.) Publishing content online marks the next step in the evolution of The Earth Observer. 
      On the new website, readers will find overlapping content from our November–December 2023 and final PDF issues – as well as original content. To maintain a sense of continuity with our past, the content is organized much like previous issues. There are separate sections for Feature Articles, Meeting Summaries, News Content, and “The Editor’s Corner,” as well as Calendars for NASA and Global Science Community activities. 
      Given The Earth Observer’s focus on history, and in keeping with the organization of our previous website, the new site also includes an Archives section where readers can view PDFs of all previous issues of The Earth Observer. There is also a listicle in which our team has compiled links to many of our most popular historical articles. In addition to articles written to mark anniversaries of The Earth Observer (including the two referenced earlier), the page contains a link to the popular Perspectives on EOS Series. These articles originally ran in The Earth Observer from 2008–2011, with each article focusing on a particular aspect (or aspects) of the early history of EOS from the perspective of someone who lived it. There are also links to articles that have been written to mark milestone anniversaries for satellite missions and observing networks, and to summaries of several symposia that include historical information.
      We hope readers find this collection of historical information a useful link to the past as The Earth Observer moves full speed ahead into its digital future.
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      Last Updated Jul 18, 2024 Related Terms
      Earth Science View the full article
    • By NASA
      NASA-supported scientists have examined the long and intricately linked history of microbial life and the Earth’s environment. By reviewing the current state of knowledge across fields like microbiology, molecular biology, and geology, the study looks at how microorganisms have both shaped and been shaped by chemical properties of our planet’s oceans, land, and atmosphere. The study combines data across multiple fields of study and discusses how information on the complicated history of life on our planet from a single field cannot be viewed in isolation.
      An artist interpretation of the hazy atmosphere of Archean Earth – a pale orange dot. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Francis Reddy The first life on Earth was microbial. Today the vast majority of our planet’s biomass is still made up of tiny, single-celled microorganisms. Although they’re abundant, the history of microbes can be a challenge for astrobiologists to study. Microbes don’t leave bones, shells or other large fossils behind like dinosaurs, fish or other large organisms. Because of this, scientists must look at different evidence to understand the evolution of microbial life through time.
      In order to study ancient microbes on Earth, astrobiologists look for isotopic fingerprints in rocks that can be used to identify the metabolisms of ancient communities. Metabolism refers to the conversion of food into energy, and happens in all living things. Many elements (think carbon (C), nitrogen (N), Sulfur (S), iron (Fe)) are involved in microbial metabolism. As microbes process these elements, they cause isotopic changes that scientists can spot in the rock record. Microbes also help to control how these elements are deposited and cycled in the environment, affecting geology and chemistry at both local and global scales (consider the role of microbes in the carbon cycle on Earth today).
      This photograph shows a section of the Marble Bar formation in the Pilbara region of north-western Western Australia. The bands of color in the rock are the result of high amounts of certain minerals, including iron, that may have resulted from microbial activity on the ancient Earth. NASA Astrobiology/Mike Toillion For an example of geological evidence of microbial metabolism, we can consider the formation of banded iron formations (BIFs) on the ancient seafloor. These colorful layers of alternating iron- and silicon-rich sediment were formed from 3.8 billion to 1.8 billion years ago and are associated with some of the oldest rock formations on Earth. The red colors they exhibit are from their high iron content, showing us that the ocean of Earth was rich in iron during the 2 billion years in which these rocks were forming.
      Another way to study ancient microbial life is to look back along the evolutionary information contained in the genetics of life today. Combining this genetic information from molecular biology with geobiological information from the rock record can help astrobiologists understand the connections between the shared evolution of the early Earth and early life.
      In the new study, the team of researchers provide a review of current knowledge, gleaning information into the early metabolisms used by microbial life, the timing of when these metabolisms evolved, and how these processes are linked to major chemical and physical changes on Earth, such as the oxygenation of the oceans and atmosphere.
      Over time, the prevalence of oxygen on Earth has varied dramatically, in the ocean, in the atmosphere, and on land. These changes impacted both the evolution of the biosphere and the environment. For instance, as the activity of photosynthetic organisms raised oxygen levels in the atmosphere, creating new environments for microbial life to inhabit. Different nutrients were made accessible to life to fuel growth. At the same time, microbes that couldn’t survive in the presence of oxygen had to adapt, perish, or find a way to survive in environments where oxygen didn’t persist, such as deep in the Earth’s subsurface.
      Rocks along the shoreline of Lake Salda in Turkey were formed over time by microbes that trap minerals in the water. These microbialites were once a major form of life on Earth. The new study explains our understanding of how oxygen levels have changed over time and spatial scales. The authors map different types of microbial metabolism, such as photosynthesis, to this history to better understand the “cause-and-effect relationship” between oxygen and the evolution of life on Earth. The paper provides important context for major changes in the course of evolution for the biosphere and the planet.
      By carefully considering the history of different types of microbial metabolisms on Earth, the review paper shows how biogeochemical cycles on our planet are inextricably linked through time over both local and global scales. The authors also discuss significant gaps in our knowledge that limit interpretations. For instance, we do not know how large the young biosphere on Earth was, which limits our ability to estimate the global effects of various metabolisms during Earth’s earliest years. Similarly, when using genetic information to look back along the tree of life, scientists can estimate when certain genes first appeared (and thereby what types of metabolisms could have been used at the time in living cells). However, the evolution of a new type of metabolism at a point in history does not necessarily mean that that metabolism was common or had a large enough effect in the environment to leave evidence in the rock record.
      According to the authors, “The history of microbial life marched in step with the history of the
      oceans, land and atmosphere, and our understanding remains limited by how much we still do not know about the environments of the early Earth.”
      This is an illustration of exoplanet WASP-39 b, also known as Bocaprins. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope provided the most detailed analysis of an exoplanet atmosphere ever with WASP-39 b analysis released in November 2022. Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) showed unambiguous evidence for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, while previous observations from NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, as well as other telescopes, indicate the presence of water vapor, sodium, and potassium. The planet probably has clouds and some form of weather, but it may not have atmospheric bands like those of Jupiter and Saturn. This illustration is based on indirect transit observations from Webb as well as other space and ground-based telescopes. Webb has not captured a direct image of this planet. NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI) The study also has wider implications in the search for life beyond Earth. Understanding the co-evolution of life and the environment can help scientists better understand the conditions necessary for a planet to be habitable. The interconnections between life and the environment also provide important clues in the search for biosignature gases in the atmospheres of planets that orbit distant stars.
      The study, “Co‐evolution of early Earth environments and microbial life,” was published in the journal Nature Reviews. Additional information on the study is available from the University of California, Riverside.
      Click here to return to the NASA Astrobiology page.
      View the full article
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