Nearby Supernovae Were Essential to Life on Earth

It’s almost impossible to comprehend a supernova explosion’s violent, destructive power. An exploding supernova can outshine its host galaxy for a few weeks or even months. That seems almost impossible when considering that a galaxy can contain hundreds of billions of stars. Any planet too close to a supernova would be completely sterilized by all the energy released, its atmosphere would be stripped away, and it may even be shredded into pieces.

But like many things in nature, it all comes down to dose.

A certain amount of supernova activity might be necessary for life to exist.

Continue reading “Nearby Supernovae Were Essential to Life on Earth”

The Early Earth was Really Horrible for Life

Earth has had a long and complex history since its formation roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Initially, it was a molten ball, but eventually, it cooled and became differentiated. The Moon formed from a collision between Earth and a protoplanet named Theia (probably), the oceans formed, and at some point in time, about 4 billion years ago, simple life appeared.

Those are the broad strokes, and scientists have worked hard to fill in a detailed timeline of Earth’s history. But there are a host of significant and poorly-understood periods in the timeline, lined up like targets for the scientific method. One of them concerns UV radiation and its effects on early life.

A new study probes the effects of UV radiation on Earth’s early life-forms and how it might have shaped our world.

Continue reading “The Early Earth was Really Horrible for Life”

Life on Earth Needed Iron. Will it be the Same on Other Worlds?

A lot has to go right for a planet to support life. Some of the circumstances that allow life to bloom on any given planet stem from the planet’s initial formation. Here on Earth, circumstances meant Earth’s crust contains about 5% iron by weight.

A new paper looks at how Earth’s iron diminished over time and how that shaped the development of complex life here on Earth. Is iron necessary for complex life to develop on other worlds?

Continue reading “Life on Earth Needed Iron. Will it be the Same on Other Worlds?”

Did Cosmic Dust Deliver the Phosphorus Needed for Life?

Without phosphorus, there’s no life. It’s a necessary part of DNA, RNA, and other biological molecules like ATP, which helps cells transport energy. But any phosphorus that was present when Earth formed would’ve been sequestered in the center of the molten planet.

So where did phosphorus come from?

It might have come from cosmic dust.

Continue reading “Did Cosmic Dust Deliver the Phosphorus Needed for Life?”

Is That a Fossil on Mars? Non-Biological Deposits can Mimic Organic Structures

There’s nothing easy about searching for evidence of life on Mars. Not only do we somehow have to land a rover there, which is extraordinarily difficult. But the rover needs the right instruments, and it has to search in the right location. Right now, the Perseverance lander has checked those boxes as it pursues its mission in Jezero Crater.

But there’s another problem: there are structures that look like fossils but aren’t. Many natural chemical processes produce structures that mimic biological ones. How can we tell them apart? How can we prepare for these false positives?

Continue reading “Is That a Fossil on Mars? Non-Biological Deposits can Mimic Organic Structures”

Greenland’s Ice Sheet is Similar in Many Ways to the Solar System’s Icy Worlds and Can Teach Us How to Search for Life

Many regions on Earth are temperate, nutrient-rich, stable environments where life seems to thrive effortlessly. But not all of Earth. Some parts, like Greenland’s ice sheet, are inhospitable.

In our nascent search for life elsewhere in the Solar System, it stands to reason that we’ll be looking at worlds that are marginal and inhospitable. Icy worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are our most likely targets. These frozen worlds have warm oceans under layers of ice.

What can Greenland’s cryo-ecosystems tell us about searching for life on icy bodies like Europa and Enceladus?

Continue reading “Greenland’s Ice Sheet is Similar in Many Ways to the Solar System’s Icy Worlds and Can Teach Us How to Search for Life”

When Did Photosynthesis Begin?

Sometime around 2.4 billion years ago, a nascent planet Earth underwent one of the most dramatic changes in its history. Known as the Great Oxidation Event, this period saw Earth’s atmosphere suddenly bloom with (previously scarce) molecular oxygen. The rapid alteration of the atmosphere’s composition was nothing short of a cataclysm for some early lifeforms (at the time, mostly simple celled prokaryotes). Anaerobic species – those that dwell in oxygen-free environments – experienced a near extinction-level event. But the Great Oxidation was also an opportunity for other forms of life to thrive. Oxygen in the atmosphere tempered the planetary greenhouse effect, turning methane into the less potent carbon dioxide, and ushering in a series of ice ages known as the Huronian Glaciation. But oxygen is an energy-rich molecule, and it also bolstered diversity and activity on the planet, as a powerful new source of fuel for living organisms.

The cause of this dramatic event? The tiniest of creatures: little ocean-dwelling cyanobacteria (sometimes known as blue-green algae) that had developed a new super-power never before seen on planet Earth: photosynthesis. This unique ability – to gain energy from sunlight and release oxygen as a waste product – was a revolutionary step for so small a critter. It quite literally changed the world.

Continue reading “When Did Photosynthesis Begin?”

Galactic Panspermia. How far Could Life Spread Naturally in a Galaxy Like the Milky Way?

Can life spread throughout a galaxy like the Milky Way without technological intervention? That question is largely unanswered. A new study is taking a swing at that question by using a simulated galaxy that’s similar to the Milky Way. Then they investigated that model to see how organic compounds might move between its star systems.

Continue reading “Galactic Panspermia. How far Could Life Spread Naturally in a Galaxy Like the Milky Way?”

Did Asteroid Impacts Provide Both the Heat and Raw Ingredients to Enable Life?

An artist's conception of an asteroid collision, which leads to how "families" of these space rocks are made in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is our Great Question: How did life begin on Earth? Anyone who says they have the answer is telling tall tales. We just don’t know yet.

While a definitive answer may be a long way off—or may never be found—there are some clever ways to nibble at the edges of that Great Question. A group of researchers at Kobe University in Japan are taking their own bites out of that compelling question with a question of their own: Did the heat from asteroid impacts help life get started?

Continue reading “Did Asteroid Impacts Provide Both the Heat and Raw Ingredients to Enable Life?”