Archives For astrobiology

alien astronaut

Looking for aliens is hard, we all know that. Considering just how much space we need to scan while knowing full well that we’re looking for the equivalent of a needle in all the hay on Earth, a lot of proposals have been put forward to try and narrow down the slice of the sky on which we need to focus to make the task a little more manageable. We’ve tried looking for a planet-sized semaphore and think we might have found one, evidence of asteroid mining, and even gravity waves from relativistic rockets, but the amount of effort is still immense. Now, two researchers from a Canadian university say they have a much better plan to find aliens. Simply assume that distant alien species is looking for us in much the same way we are looking for them and would want to contact us with lasers and radio broadcasts when they detect Earth. This means we will only need to focus on planets from which we know extraterrestrial astronomers could spot us in the middle of a transit event, much like Kepler spots exoplanets transiting their stars. Seems to be fairly straightforward, right? Yes, it does. Actually, it seems way, way too straightforward.

First and foremost, this approach limits us to a sliver of the sky and pins its hopes on a curious, intelligent species interested in its place in the cosmos and looking for other intelligent life. It’s a huge leap which involves so many coincidences and good luck to pan out in our favor that we’d have to raise at least a few heckles on the subject. After all, even if intelligent life is plentiful and there are countless aliens that want to explore space and talk to other alien life forms, there’s a matter of when these species evolve and develop the technology to act on their curiosity as well as when other species will evolve and develop theirs. A thousand year mismatch seems virtually inevitable because on cosmic and evolutionary time scales, it’s a blink of an eye, and that’s the amount of time in which an entire civilization can rise and fall to be replaced by another. There are societies that lasted far longer than that, true, but they’re the exception rather than the rule and as civilizations rise and fall, their priorities change. There may be a long window for a guild of alien astronomers to scan the skies and a very short one for another species to respond.

Another big problem with this assumption is the idea that aliens would be curious, or care that another intelligent species is out there. We often project our aspirations to hypothetical species and picture them as hyper-literate space-faring explorers seeking out other life. In reality, quick surveys right here on Earth will show you that even a supposedly curious species like us places an extremely low priority on SETI research. In fact, countless people think it’s just a huge waste of time and money, and to assume that there will be no aliens who could find us and contact us but choose not to because they honestly don’t give a damn, would be a big mistake. Hell, they may be religious zealots who believe that looking for other intelligent life is a mortal sin. Waiting for them to send a signal to us from a narrow patch of the cosmos would be a fruitless exercise in wishful thinking. And that’s kind of what this proposal really is. Wishful thinking when it comes to alien life, hoping that they’re out there, watching, listening, and trying to reach us because it’s what we’d really like them to do. As nice as it would be if that was truly the case, the universe is not known for coddling our personal desires. If we want to find alien life, it’ll take a while…

alien liftoff

Imagine a relatively ordinary white star much like our own, because despite appearing yellow in our skies, it’s actually bright white. Now, increase its size by half and add a pattern of dimming when observed by planet-hunting telescopes which blocks up to a fifth of its light in uneven and eyebrow-raising events. Whatever is causing them can’t be a planet, but it can’t exactly be dust clouds from early planetary formation because this star is is a mature one. Believe it or not, this star exists and it has a name of sorts: KIC 8462852. It’s the talk of the Planet Hunters forums, a collection of people who volunteered to analyze data on some 150,000 stars to help find transit events, that is, the dimming of a star’s light when a planet passes in front of it. For six years, no one has been able to figure out its patterns of irregular dimming every two years until a team of astronomers finally came up with the idea of alien comets being pulverized after the star pulled them into its orbit, releasing vast clouds of gas and dust able to produce these dips in light.

Although the explanation isn’t airtight, the general consensus is that it’s the best we can do for now with the information we have and that more observations will be needed to confirm this. At the same time, however, science editor and writer Ross Andersen decided to get a tad creative and talked to the paper’s lead author, Tabetha Boyajian, to see if the team had any other ideas to explain these odd dimming patterns, then followed up with an astronomer at Penn State who shares her opinion that as big of a leap as it sounds, we couldn’t completely rule out aliens. It’s really a matter of timing. Despite swarms of comets colliding and depositing gas and dust into a solar system being a fairly normal event, the odds of it happening exactly at a time when we will spot it around a particular star is quite low because the debris would be quickly consolidated by both its orbital motion and the gravity of the star. And this means that KIC 8462852 could be an interesting test for an idea long floated by SETI that advanced alien civilizations could be using space solar with a modified Dyson Sphere to efficiently power their orbital infrastructure.

Now, while this is intriguing, there’s still the question of just how likely this explanation is since it requires a few major assumptions the exocomet hypothesis doesn’t. Lucky timing is not exactly the same as positing that a currently unseen planet is home to an intelligent alien species that’s centuries ahead of us from a technological standpoint to build a space solar grid, or could have instead built a kind of semaphore to attract the attention of nearby species. This species would have to be space-faring, fairly mature, resource rich, and not mind that another intelligent alien race would be able to figure out that it exists and where, certainly realizing that anyone looking for intelligent life would find seemingly unnatural dimming patterns of their home star a point of interest just like we have. By contrast, comets careening across the cosmos being drawn into a solar system in the last few thousand years just by chance is very likely, especially considering that if volunteers at home didn’t notice the data anomaly, we’d have missed this oddity. Maybe we are staring right at the proof of intelligent aliens we long sought, and it would be great if that was the case. But if I were gambling on the outcome, I’d put my money on exocomets…

pop culture aliens

If you don’t remember Chandra Wickramasinghe, here’s a quick refresher. Back in the day, the scientist worked with Fred Hoyle, the brilliant astronomer whose really poorly supported notions about the origins of life inspired many a creationist, and led him and a few of his colleagues on a hunt for evidence of panspermia, the idea that life originated somewhere in deep space and as our planet was finally settling down after its turbulent infancy, it settled here and evolved into all the species we know, and numerous ones we don’t. On the face of it, it’s not an inherently bad, or even wrong idea. It has actually been around since Darwin started wondering about the very same questions, and despite being occasionally criticized, it’s still popular in astrobiology. There does appear to be plenty of interesting evidence in favor of at least some building blocks of life coming form space, especially from asteroids and comets. This is why finding complex organic structures in the carbon layer of 67P wasn’t a surprise at all. In fact it was widely expected.

Yet according to Wickramasinghe, it’s proof that comet 67P is actually teeming with life and the scientific community at large needs to step up and announce that we found aliens. Despite how generously he’s treated by The Guardian’s staff writer however, he’s not a top scientist and his claim to expertise in astrobiology comes from declaring pretty much every newsworthy event in any way related to viral and microbial life as undeniable proof of aliens. He’s done this with mad cow, polio outbreaks, SARS, AIDS, and one of his fans recently declared that Ebola could have come from outer space. His proof of all this? Pretty much none. What papers he published to at least clear up how he thought life actually got its start and how it can travel across billions upon billions of light years so easily were in a vanity journal which was basically mocked into shutting down after failing to include a single entry of real scientific merit, and are absolutely inane. Hey, personally, I’m a huge fan of the panspermia hypothesis myself, but even in my very generous approach to reviewing astrobiology papers, what Wickramasinghe produced was absurd.

But of course, as all cranks eventually do, Wickramasinghe cried conspiracy after his work was battered by other scientists, declaring that astrobiology was a discipline under assault from the conservative geocentric cabal made up of old scientists hell bent on shutting down research on possible alien life forms in the wild. This came as a surprise to the flourishing researchers who had been studying extremophiles, theoretical alien biochemistry, and discovering more proof of organic molecules and water floating in space. You see, astrobiology is doing great and keeps advancing every day. Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, is not doing well because he doesn’t actually conduct any rigorous scientific experiments while desperately aspiring to be the person who goes into the history books as the scientist who discovered alien life. His constant attempts to stay in the media spotlight with his out-of-left-field proclamations and conspiracy theories are the typical self-serving machinations of a vain elder past his prime jealous that someone else is going to do what he aspired to accomplish. Honestly, it’s a sad way to end one’s career, to just chase after those doing the real work with outlandish soundbites and wallowing in self-pity.


We’ve long known that there was an ocean or something very much like it under the icy crust of the Jovian moon Europa, and that this icy wasteland offers one of the best chances to find life in our solar system despite living in a very turbulent and radioactive neighborhood. And now, the same astronomer who stunned Pluto before the IAU’s planetary double-tap, Mike Brown, found strong evidence that Europa’s ocean is leaking to the surface and is salty like ours. Basically, a short summary of the elegant details I encourage you to read from Dr. Brown himself is that the chemical residues on the moon’s surface match up with exactly what we’d expect if it had a thick, salty, liquid ocean which periodically rises through the cracks in the ice and leaves deposits as it recedes with the tides. We could learn even more, but radiation scatters other compounds we could measure from our post right here on the blue marble. So far, though, so good for bacteria and multicellular colonies that could potentially call Europa home.

Now it’s very important to know that organic chemical signatures do not always mean life and a distinct lack of experience with alien organisms on our part means that until we actually see one with our probes and run several hundred tests and a few thousand reviews of the data from all those tests, we won’t know if we found alien organisms. Well, unless an alien fish just wiggles to the camera and waves hello. That would speed up the announcement. But in all seriousness, as far as cases for promising habitats go, everything we find about Europa makes it look better and better for exploration. The only problem is that the ocean where so much life could exist lies so far down, in some cases under several miles of ice. Drilling through it is complicated and really dangerous for robotic probes, so the focus has been on trying to get access to the ocean with a minimum of digging, using something like a rover with a tiny submarine to explore the shallows. If what Brown has found is any indication, we might find even more about Europa’s chemistry this way since some of the more scientifically interesting chemicals could just float up to us.

However, keep in mind that the moon’s surface is bathed by radiation and microorganisms that evolve under several miles of ice and meters of water would be instantly fried to a crisp if they’re exposed to it, leaving promising but ambiguous residue on the surface. For anything more alien and complex than extremophiles that may have even survived the trip from Earth, we will need to be ready to dive deep and look far and wide. It’s actually another reason for human exploration of the outer solar system. Robots can only be made so clever in space, and they’re not good at dealing with the unknown and the uncertain, having no instinct or useful previous experiences from which to make decisions about new environments. Having humans guide them as they look for alien life on an unknown, largely unfamiliar world would be a terrific fusion of our brainpower and machine endurance that could lead to something as big as proof that we’re not alone. That knowledge alone should justify the effort of making the trip.

[ illustration by Guillermo Krieger ]


Another day, another study identifying more potentially habitable worlds in the Kepler data, this time by professional astronomers and volunteers called the Planet Hunters who discussed their planet detections on a specialized message board system called Talk. What they found was that more gas giants orbited stars in their habitable zones than initially thought, giving real evidence for the hypothesis that while alien Earths could be somewhat rare, moons orbiting alien Jupiters and Saturns may be a fairly common habitat for extraterrestrial life. Trouble is that we can’t see these moons or detect the wobble of the planets they orbit, so we don’t know how many of them there are, how big they are on average, and their likely composition. However, we do have very good reasons to assume that they could be there since gas giants in our own solar system are swarmed by moons of all shapes and sizes, and some are very possible hosts to life.

So one would think that a moon big enough to hold on to an atmosphere that’s not too dense or composed mainly of greenhouse gases in an alien star’s habitable zone would have liquid water in significant quantities. Even better, it would feel the gravitational tides of a gas giant that would in effect knead its interior, promoting volcanism, circulating rich organic matter that could either kick start living things or fuel them. Think of Io but more subdued and covered with oceans and small continents, or Titan without the mind-numbing cold. It could be a perfect habitat, and given billions of years, maybe even evolve intelligent life. But there’s a potential problem here. Typical solar system formation models dictate that rocky worlds form closer to a star than gas giants, so to be in the habitable zone of the vast majority of stars out there, alien Jupiters had to drift into these orbits, pushing out rocky worlds and reshuffling their siblings. What would that do to their moons? Would they be collateral damage in the upheaval of the solar system?

Ideally, the immense gravity of these gas giants would push planets aside as they spiral into the habitable zone and their clutches of icy rocks would slowly thaw to host oceans and fertile land for life to start taking hold. But again, the only way we’ll know this is if we build bigger and more powerful telescopes to detect their presence and hopefully one day resolve them as pixels for a quick spectrographic sniff of their atmospheres. Maybe, just maybe, decades from now, a future astronomer and a crew of enthusiastic volunteers will be looking through a data set collected by the latest planet hunting telescope and find a little bluish pixel next to a gas giant, or readings of a gas pointing to a stable biosphere, like oxygen from a recently discovered alien moon. It won’t be Earth 2.0, but it will be just as important, and we’ll be able to look up at the night sky knowing that we’re not alone because somewhere, a weird world with a killer view of a turbulent gas giant is home to something that can look back at Earth, even if it won’t wonder about us…

See: Wang, J., et al. (2013). Planet Hunters. V. A Confirmed Jupiter-Size Planet in the Habitable Zone and 42 Planet Candidates from the Kepler Archive Data arXiv: 1301.0644v1

alien bacteria

One of the topics that’s been prominently featured on Weird Things has been panspermia, the hypothesis that life can originate somewhere in the galaxy and spread though asteroid or comet impacts, or even forward contamination by alien spacecraft. We know that amino acids can form all on their own when certain molecules are irradiated, that some creatures can easily survive a trip though space, and there’s evidence that molecules crucial for life here may have a strong link with primordial impacts. Now, true, the theory has been abused by those who either do not understand what it actually entails, or by those who just refuse to keep up with the science and spend most of their time accusing some secret anti-panspermia cabal trying to keep them down, but overall, it’s quite sound which is why it’s still being kept in mind by astrobiologists. Or so you would think unless you go by a Scientific American blog post which says the following…

In some ways the motivation for proposing this kind of cosmic panspermia is a little dated. It comes from a time when we felt that the origin of life of on Earth was such a mystery, and such an unlikely event, that it was convenient to outsource it. Although this didn’t actually solve the real question of life’s origins, it meant that a specific origin ‘event’ could be extremely rare among the 200 billion stars of the Milky Way yet life would still show up in other places.

These days I think our discoveries about the remarkable abundance and diversity of so-called pre-biotic chemistry […] in every nook and cranny of our solar system, and even in the proto-stellar nebula of other stars and the wilds of interstellar space – swings the pendulum back to Earth. Nature seems adept at making all the pieces for life, apparently raising the odds of local bio-genesis.

How are these two thoughts connected again? I’m not exactly sure how life being very adaptable would mean that it raises the odds of Earth being its origin because we’re talking about evolution rather than abiogenesis. Caleb Scharf, the scientist who wrote the post, seems to be making the same kind of mistake many creationists do when trying to ridicule evolutionary theory by asking how life would’ve come from non-life and nothing that evolution fails to answer this question. So it’s little wonder that whatever life gets here or starts here would fill every available nook, cranny, and environmental niche since natural selection would favor their reproduction. But whether the origin of these species is on Earth or in space is more or less a toss-up if we’re considering just how well they adapted to their current environments.

Yes, we could say that it’s more likely that life originated on Earth because space is vast and the odds of enough comets and asteroids hitting the planet at just the right conditions for life to take hold are astronomical, literally, so it makes sense to look for an explanation that makes life more likely to arise here. That explanation may not be right, but we don’t have a complete picture of how it came to be and so we’re still trying to find viable ideas that seem to fit the evidence we’ve observed so far. But an important part of the process is not to discard hypotheses without any evidence that they simply don’t fit with the observations, something that Scharf does with an odd certainty about the habitability of promising places in the solar system by hearty microorganisms that should dominate the universe based on the way natural selection works.

But the problem, and the potential paradox, is that if evolved galactic panspermia is real it’ll be capable of living just about everywhere. There should be [organisms] on the Moon, Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, minor planets and cometary nuclei. Every icy nook and cranny in our solar system should be a veritable paradise for these ultra-tough life forms, honed by natural selection to make the most of [the] appalling conditions. So if galactic panspermia exists why haven’t we noticed it yet?

He then goes on to answer his own question by saying that we probably haven’t looked all that hard in all these places, don’t know for what we’re really looking, or possibly both, and ponders would it would mean if we kept searching and found nothing. You can tell that he’s really pushing for the Earth-centric explanation and again, as elaborated above, I can see why, but his primary reason for pushing it seems to be based on a very strange confusion between abiogenesis and natural selection with no facts to back it up. The argument seems to be: we know more extreme organisms on Earth, natural selection seems to be doing it’s job, we haven’t explored all of the promising candidates for life in our solar system in sufficient detail and we don’t really know what we’re trying to find and how we’ll know we found it, therefore, life arose on Earth. Doesn’t seem like a scientific train of thought to me, especially with all the evidence that there was at least an important role being played by organic matter or microorganisms from space…

habitable world

According to results from Kepler, there’s another habitable planet just 49 light years away. Well, mostly habitable by something. Gliese 163c is on the higher end of the super-earth label, coming in at between 1.8 and 2.4 times the size of Earth and almost 7 times its mass, and orbiting a red dwarf star once every 26 days. It’s hot, about 60° C hot according to a baseline estimate, but it’s not too hot for a lot of living things. All sorts of extremophiles live in much hotter temperatures on our own world, considering boiling hot caves and toxic vents a cozy home. This is why the press releases from the discoverers of the solar system focused on the potential for microbial or rather simple animal life on Gliese 163c, pointing out that on Earth, no plants or animals can survive for extended periods of time when temperatures soar past 50° C, which would be a cool day on the alien world in question. However, with all due caution, we should consider that what seems to be extreme to us isn’t all that extreme to many other lifeforms and complex life that had billions and billions of years to evolve in very hot conditions could certainly find a way to thrive.

Even more importantly, we don’t know the composition of Gliese 163c’s air, and that could be a critical factor in deciding how habitable we deem it. If its atmosphere is primarily filled with water vapor or has huge concentrations of greenhouse gases, it may as well be another Venus and a hellish place for even the most primitive life. But on the other hand, only small quantities of any greenhouse gases would mean that the planet doesn’t retain very much heat. Water would be a great heat sink as well, and considering that it’s almost certainly tidally locked, the movement of air between the day side and the night side could bring down the overall global temperature and open up some very cool and cozy environments for complex, multicellular life. And as always, if you go deep enough into an ocean, there are bound to be places for life to find a niche, even if the planet is drifting though interstellar space with no sun to warm it. A few hundred meters under the seas of Gliese 163c it could be nice and cool for large aquatic animals to roam in search of food and a mate, though they might have to avoid choppy seas around any equatorial storms fueled by constant evaporation on the day side.

Ideally, the center of the planet’s day side would be a bone dry, perpetual desert constantly in the blinding gaze of its parent star. With no water to evaporate, no cycles of cooling and heating because there would be no night, and nothing but barren rocks, the worst its sun can do is kick up massive dust storms around the equator. That would leave seas, lakes, or even oceans free of constant monsoons. Of course this is pure speculation, but the possibilities are there and we now have a nearby target to better investigate for signs of biology. Next, we can sample its air to better figure out its real average temperature, and try to take a snapshot of what it actually looks like. Its doubtful that we could make out seas or continents with what would most likely be a tiny fraction of a pixel on the screen, but the reflectivity of its clouds or lack thereof could tell us a bit about Gliese 163c’s composition. And that’s the exciting part of astronomy. Every peek we take, every survey we conduct has the potential to show us something new or overturn our notions of what can happen in the cosmos. After all, the world’s top experts thought that the universe was static and infinite until one of them took another look and made a few measurements…

Say that somewhere out there is a species of space-faring aliens which have relativistic rockets or warp drive technology that lets it travel between solar systems. Considering the sheer size of the universe, it’s probably a good bet that at least one exists. And as these aliens are tooling around, their spacecraft will likely leave what we could call a wake in the fabric of space and time, a wake that we could observe under the right conditions, when the stars align. This is the main gist of an arXiv paper which considers that despite the possibilities of a successful detection of an alien craft’s fly-by being almost nil, we could still try just in case we do get lucky. To start a long term survey, we just need to find star pairs close to each other and aligned with the Earth at about the right angle to give us a good view of the space between them. Then we just look and wait for something to show up, ideally a smear of light magnified by the relativistic wake of the spacecraft we’re trying to detect. It’s a neat idea and the authors readily acknowledge that we may just be too far away to notice alien travelers, or be in a region of space where there are no civilizations capable of interstellar travel, which keeps them grounded when discussing such a lofty SETI approach. But there is one thing they may want to explore a little further…

When we last discussed the Icarus project, did you notice the sheer size of the probe being considered? Go and have a look at that monstrosity and note that the Empire Stare Building does not look all that much bigger by comparison. That’s not because Icarus’ designers have a thing for really large spacecraft, it’s because this craft will have to carry so much fuel and have giant engines to accelerate. Any future interstellar craft designed to support humans, would be even bigger than Icarus to carry all the essentials across trillions and trillions of miles. Let’s say that at some point, we’ll actually decide to build a ship able to ferry humans between the Sun and Alpha Centauri at relativistic speeds, and equip it with a brand new, state of the art artificial black hole engine which should get us up to relativistic speeds very, nicely, shaving the travel time down to only a couple of years instead of several millennia. We’d need to build something much like the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai to house all the things necessary to comfortably support and house our crew, then get another pair of similar structures and devote them to being engines and fuel tanks, and at least another one to function as a backup tank and to securely house all the shuttle craft that will let the crew go down to the surface of their target world because that giant assembly is simply never going to be able to land. It’s far too huge and heavy. And keep in mind that these estimates are probably erring on the small side, relying on a radical propulsion system.

Now, our imaginary spaceship which we’ll call something inspiring, say, The Really, Really Huge, would have an approximate mass of 2 million tons empty and without the micro black hole suspended between the giant engines armed with nuclear lasers and fuel. The black hole would add at least another million tons and all of its fuel, all the relevant supplies, and supporting spacecraft would bring the total mass of our interstellar craft to something in the neighborhood of 4 million tons. Depending on its configuration, it could be close to 1,000 or so meters long which is just about two thirds of a mile, and about a quarter of a mile across. Sounds huge and very, very expensive, doesn’t it? And this baby goes from zero to ~0.5c in just 6.3 months! How could alien astronomers not notice something like that screaming through the voids of space, warping the photons from the sunlight behind it and leaving a high speed smear in the spectrum of our sun on its way out? Well, for the size and speed of this thing, you have to remember that its traveling through space and as such is tiny if we’re going to compare it to the kind of objects telescopes can actually resolve. We have trouble imaging gas giants in other solar systems, gas giants which are 50,000 times bigger than our hypothetical ship. Sure, its wake is going to affect how the spectrum of a star looks but the warping would be so tiny that it may not even be visible as an artifact of the imaging process, the tiniest fraction of a pixel across, smaller than an exomoon.

And that’s the real gotcha in an otherwise interesting plan. Even if you’re lucky enough to catch an alien ship in the middle of crossing between two nearby solar systems and snap that one in a quadrillion shot, how exactly do you prove that this microscopic smudge in the spectrum is the trail of an extraterrestrial spacecraft? What says it wasn’t dust in the air or atmospheric fluctuations at the time of the shot? Even if you take a picture with an orbital telescope to avoid having a stray air particle from blotting out a snapshot of a relativistic craft, there’s still the potential of a microscopic speck of space debris or a wandering electron to mess with the shot. If the alien species in question build a ship the size of Mercury and flies past our solar system, we’d probably have some chance of catching their relativistic wake by happenstance. Otherwise, the ship will be just too small for a proper identification, if would even register in the image in the first place. Likewise, if we set our sights on a few dozen nearby stars floating close to each other, we wouldn’t necessarily boost our odds of seeing aliens traverse between them since we have no guarantee that they would evolve and thrive in those systems, just a vague estimate of probability that a planet supporting life in general may exist there. It seems that if we’ll ever catch ET mid-flight, it would’ve had to buzz our telescopes on its way to planets unknown…

See: Garcia-Escartin, J.C., et al. (2012). Scouting the spectrum for interstellar travelers arXiv: 1203.3980v1

Ever since Giovanni Schiaparelli saw what he termed canals on Mars, we’ve been expecting the red planet to be home to an advanced alien species, often presented as little green men and women encased in metallic, bulky suits in pop culture. Yes, the canal business may well have been a misunderstanding on the part of the translators since Schiaparelli may have meant completely natural gullies, but then again, he never corrected reports claiming evidence for life on Mars as evidenced by the blurry, waterway like features spanning across a good deal of the planet. Science fiction quickly seized on the news and many a novel about a dry and slowly dying world populated by a complex, intelligent civilization either waiting to be rescued, or decaying into chaos and war over dwindling resources were written, portraying the canals as either their last-ditch effort to save all that was still left, or the ruins of their heyday. You could say that we’re primed for the notion of life on Mars and every discovery of water in its past seems to hint at the chance of something living, even if it’s only microbes buried deep under the barren, inhospitably radioactive surface. But where are all these microbes hiding?

In the latest iteration of water without life cycle, the ESA reports that once upon a time, Mars had an enormous ocean if not two covering much of its northern hemisphere, one a billion years after the other. While Earth is still cooling down from its collision with Thea and giving birth to continents, Mars is developing vast oceans in which life can flourish. Unfortunately, in its smaller gravity and thin atmosphere, all that water would be frozen in just a million years if it hadn’t evaporated before that, too fast for life to form according to some. Just to add insult to injury, the oceans may have been extremely salty, so salty that some astrobiologists doubt that life could even survive in these conditions. And going by this train of thought, we have to conclude that life we can understand never even got a chance to take root on Mars, much less grow and diversify. Or do we? After all, a hypersalene lake is not exactly a dead zone for all living things and we find hearty bacteria living there almost all the time. Likewise, a million years in not exactly fast and for microbes with life spans of days if not hours, a few billion generations can come and go. Since evolution works by generation rather than by time, they would evolve at warp speed by comparison to macroscopic life and have a chance to adapt and survive.

Furthermore, since we’ve never seen an alien life form and don’t know how long it took for life to arise here on our own world, how can we be sure that for Martian microbes, a million years is too little time to develop? How do we know if they weren’t already there before the oceans formed, using another source of water? True, it’s a lot more likely than not that these mirobes would be restricted to water as a solvent in their chemical reactions in their bodies because Mars is just not cold enough to liquefy gases that could be a substitute, but any other assertion about them could still be questioned. And since we haven’t exactly explored all of the red planet with a very clear idea for what we’re looking, it’s hard to definitively rule out that it may still host life. Obviously, we’re going to need to temper out expectations but at the same time, it may be wise to hold off on pronouncements of how long was long enough for life to get started on Mars and which resources it will and will not have. We’re still finding life in amazing, seemingly utterly inhospitable and alien places on Earth, and our primeval world’s environment, which we know for a fact was crawling with life, would be so harsh and alien to us, we would die from exposure to toxic gases and unbearable heat if we ever went back there in a time machine. Why not give Mars the same benefit of the doubt that we give our caves, ocean depths, and subterranean lakes?

Quite a bit of scientific literature on astrobiology is filled with references to very exacting criteria for exoplanets capable of sustaining alien ecosystems. They have to be just the right distance from their suns, have the right kind of atmosphere, fall in the right temperature range, and hopefully, have a large stabilizing moon to counter their constant orbital wobbles from creating ice ages and migrating ice caps around the poles. But as we see more exoplanets out in the wild and do more accurate simulations, we’re finding that a lot of these constraints are starting to fall away. It seems that life could have a chemical basis in a liquid ethane lake, and might not even need a star to host a habitable ocean. And now, it looks like it might not even need a big moon to keep its axis more or less steady over the eons, allowing complex life to evolve without swift climate changes. It’s a nice to have for a flourishing ecosystem, certainly, kind of like having traction control in your car is a really nice and helpful feature, especially on ice and wet roads. But you can certainly get by without it if you had to, just as potential alien life on exoplanets without a big moon like ours could cope with an occasional climate shift.

It all started with a simulation in 1993 which showed that without the Moon, our planet could wobble as much as 85° on its axis which means that long term climate patterns humans enjoyed for many thousands of years just wouldn’t be possible. On geologic timescales, we’d be looking at mass extinctions on a far more frequent basis than we see in the fossil record as life would struggle to adapt. Planets are not exactly dainty things and all this would happen over tens of millions of years, but if we consider that Earth was home to living things for roughtly 3.5 billion years or so, these are fairly rapid and extreme changes which would test evolution’s ability to produce complex multicellular organisms when the selective pressure is to stay small and very efficient. So if an alien planet wants to be home to a massive, complex, and diverse ecosystem, it better be just as stable as we are, wobbling only by 2.6° at most thanks to our massive Moon, right? Turns out that that’s not the case at all because the range found in the original study is actually exaggerated by more than a factor of two. In fact, if the Moon was never formed, we would’ve wobbled between an axis of 10° and 50° over 4 billion years. Not a bad improvement on the originally predicted arc that could turn our planet sideways, then upright again.

And there’s another surprise. Within those 4 billion years without the Moon’s influence, there are stable cycles lasting for 500 million years. While the planet’s orbital wobble would be far more extreme than we have now, it wouldn’t be anywhere near 85° off axis. A more accurate figure seems to be 15° or so, which would entail the occasional massive ice age followed by rapid warming periods, but on timescales that would span almost all the evolutionary changes that lead from giant sea scorpions, to dinosaurs, to us. How can this kind of stability be possible if we didn’t have a lunar rudder? Well, generally a planet wobbles due to the very slight tugs from other objects in the solar system accumulating over millions and millions of years. But the same tugs that will send a planet wobbling could also be corrective and the occasional comet or asteroid impact could nudge the planet in another direction by countering a tug from a distant world or a passing comet. It all ads up to a slow, almost reluctant wobble rather than uncontrolled tumbling through space. And if the planet happens to be in a retrograde orbit (orbiting in the opposite direction of its siblings), their wobbles are in the same range as our current axial oscillations. That means we can bravely widen our search to include rocky worlds without large, stabilizing moons as a potential home for macroscopic aliens, if not other intelligent life.

See: Lissauer, J., Barnes, J., Chambers, J. (2012) Obliquity variations of a moonless Earth Icarus, 217 (1), 77- 87 DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2011.10.013