Estimating When Life Could Have Arisen on Earth

The question how life began on Earth has always been a matter of profound interest to scientists. But just as important as how life emerged is the question of when it emerged. In addition to discerning how non-living elements came together to form the first living organisms (a process known as abiogenesis), scientists have also sought to determine when the first living organisms appeared on Earth.

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Bayesian Analysis Rains On Exoplanet Life Parade

An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist's impression). Via the IAU.

Is there life on other planets, somewhere in this enormous Universe? That’s probably the most compelling question we can ask. A lot of space science and space missions are pointed directly at that question.

The Kepler mission is designed to find exoplanets, which are planets orbiting other stars. More specifically, its aim is to find planets situated in the habitable zone around their star. And it’s done so. The Kepler mission has found 297 confirmed and candidate planets that are likely in the habitable zone of their star, and it’s only looked at a tiny patch of the sky.

But we don’t know if any of them harbour life, or if Mars ever did, or if anywhere ever did. We just don’t know. But since the question of life elsewhere in the Universe is so compelling, it’s driven people with intellectual curiosity to try and compute the likelihood of life on other planets.

One of the main ways people have tried to understand if life is prevalent in the Universe is through the Drake Equation, named after Dr. Frank Drake. He tried to come up with a way to compute the probability of the existence of other civilizations. The Drake Equation is a mainstay of the conversation around the existence of life in the Universe.

The Drake Equation is a way to calculate the probability of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way that were technologically advanced to communicate. When it was created in 1961, Drake himself explained that it was really just a way of starting a conversation about extraterrestrial civilizations, rather than a definitive calculation. Still, the equation is the starting point for a lot of conversations.

But the problem with the Drake equation, and with all of our attempts to understand the likelihood of life starting on other planets, is that we only have the Earth to go by. It seems like life on Earth started pretty early, and has been around for a long time. With that in mind, people have looked out into the Universe, estimated the number of planets in habitable zones, and concluded that life must be present, and even plentiful, in the Universe.

But we really only know two things: First, life on Earth began a few hundred million years after the planet was formed, when it was sufficiently cool and when there was liquid water. The second thing that we know is that a few billions of years after life started, creatures appeared which were sufficiently intelligent enough to wonder about life.

In 2012, two scientists published a paper which reminded us of this fact. David Spiegel, from Princeton University, and Edwin Turner, from the University of Tokyo, conducted what’s called a Bayesian analysis on how our understanding of the early emergence of life on Earth affects our understanding of the existence of life elsewhere.

A Bayesian analysis is a complicated matter for non-specialists, but in this paper it’s used to separate out the influence of data, and the influence of our prior beliefs, when estimating the probability of life on other worlds. What the two researchers concluded is that our prior beliefs about the existence of life elsewhere have a large effect on any probabilistic conclusions we make about life elsewhere. As the authors say in the paper, “Life arose on Earth sometime in the first few hundred million years after the young planet had cooled to the point that it could support water-based organisms on its surface. The early emergence of life on Earth has been taken as evidence that the probability of abiogenesis is high, if starting from young-Earth-like conditions.”

A key part of all this is that life may have had a head start on Earth. Since then, it’s taken about 3.5 billion years for creatures to evolve to the point where they can think about such things. So this is where we find ourselves; looking out into the Universe and searching and wondering. But it’s possible that life may take a lot longer to get going on other worlds. We just don’t know, but many of the guesses have assumed that abiogenesis on Earth is standard for other planets.

What it all boils down to, is that we only have one data point, which is life on Earth. And from that point, we have extrapolated outward, concluding hopefully that life is plentiful, and we will eventually find it. We’re certainly getting better at finding locations that should be suitable for life to arise.

What’s maddening about it all is that we just don’t know. We keep looking and searching, and developing technology to find habitable planets and identify bio-markers for life, but until we actually find life elsewhere, we still only have one data point: Earth. But Earth might be exceptional.

As Spiegel and Turner say in the conclusion of their paper, ” In short, if we should find evidence of life that arose wholly idependently of us – either via astronomical searches that reveal life on another planet or via geological and biological studies that find evidence of life on Earth with a different origin from us – we would have considerably stronger grounds to conclude that life is probably common in our galaxy.”

With our growing understanding of Mars, and with missions like the James Webb Space Telescope, we may one day soon have one more data point with which we can refine our probabilistic understanding of other life in the Universe.

Or, there could be a sadder outcome. Maybe life on Earth will perish before we ever find another living microbe on any other world.

Jupiter – Our Silent Guardian?

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We live in a cosmic shooting gallery. In Phil Plait’s Death From the Skies, he lays out the dangers of a massive impact: destructive shockwaves, tsunamis, flash fires, atmospheric darkening…. The scenario isn’t pretty should a big one come our way. Fortunately, we may have a silent guardian: Jupiter.


Although many astronomers have assumed that Jupiter would likely sweep out dangerous interlopers (an important feat if we want life to gain a toehold), little work has been done to actually test the idea. To explore the hypothesis, a recent series of papers by J. Horner and B. W. Jones explores the effects of Jupiter’s gravitational pull on three different types of objects: main belt asteroids (which orbit between Mars and Jupiter), short period comets, and in their newest publication, submitted to the International Journal of Astrobiology, the Oort cloud comets (long period comets with the most distant part of their orbits far out in the solar system). In each paper, they simulated the primitive solar systems with the bodies in question with an Earth like planet, and gas giants of varying masses to determine the effect on the impact rate.

Somewhat surprisingly, for main belt asteroids, they determined, “that the notion that any ‘Jupiter’ would provide more shielding than no ‘Jupiter’ at all is incorrect.” Even without the simulation, the astronomers say that this should be expected and explain it by noting that, although Jupiter may shepherd some asteroids, it is also the main gravitational force perturbing their orbits and causing them to move into the inner solar system, where they may collide with Earth.

Contrary to the popular wisdom (which expected that the more massive the planet, the better it would shield us), there were notably fewer asteroids pushed into our line of sight for lower masses of the test Jupiter. Also surprisingly, they found that the most dangerous scenario was an instance in which the test Jupiter had 20% in which the planet “is massive enough to efficiently inject objects to Earth-crossing orbits.” However, they note that this 20% mass is dependent on how they chose to model the primordial asteroid belt and would likely change had they chosen a different model.

When the simulation was redone for for short period comets, they again found that, although Jupiter (and the other gas giants) may be effective at removing these dangerous objects, quite often they did so by sending them our way. As such, they again concluded that, as with asteroids, Jupiter’s gravitational jiggling was more dangerous than it was helpful.

Their most recent treatise explored Oort cloud objects. These objects are generally considered the largest potential threat since they normally reside so far out in the solar system’s gravitational well and thus, will have a greater distance to fall in and pick up momentum. From this situation, the researchers determined that the more massive the planet in Jupiter’s orbit, the better it does protect us from Oort cloud comets. The attribute this to the fact that these objects are initially so far from the Sun, that they are scarcely bound to the solar system. Even a little bit of extra momentum gained if they swing by Jupiter will likely be sufficient to eject them from the solar system all together, preventing them from settling into a closed orbit that would endanger the Earth every time it passed.

So whether or not Jupiter truly defends us or surreptitiously nudges danger our way depends on the type of object. For asteroids and short period comets, Jupiter’s gravitational agitation shoves more our direction, but for the ones that would potentially hurt is the most, the long period comets, Jupiter does provide some relief.

Abiogenesis

What are Fossils

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How did life on Earth arise? Scientific efforts to answer that question are called abiogenesis. More formally, abiogenesis is a theory, or set of theories, concerning how life on Earth began (but excluding panspermia).

Note that while abiogenesis and evolution are related, they are distinct (evolution says nothing about how life began; abiogenesis says nothing about how life evolves).

Intensive study of the Earth’s rocks has turned up lots and lots of evidence that some kinds of prokaryotes lived happily on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago (and there’re also pointers to the existence of life on Earth in the oldest rocks). So, if life arose on Earth, it did so from the chemicals in the water, air, and rocks of the early Earth … and in no more than a few hundred million years.

Because there are no sedimentary rocks older than about 3.7 billion years (and no metamorphic ones older than about 3.9 billion years), and because the oldest such rocks already contain evidence that there was life on Earth then, testing abiogenesis theories must be done by means other than geological.

There is a long history of attempts to create various organic molecules – such as amino acids – from simple precursors such as carbon dioxide, ammonia, and water, in conditions which simulate those of the early Earth. Those of Miller and Urey, in 1953, are the most famous (and the first).

It turns out that it’s pretty easy to form many kinds of organic molecules, in a wide range of environments … so the focus of research today is on how life could arise from any particular brew. And the hard part is how reliable self-replication get going (if you can make some sort of primitive cell in a test tube, it isn’t a form of life if it can’t reproduce itself!). So far, it seems that RNA and DNA cannot have been involved (too hard to form and stay stable), but several simpler kinds of molecules may work.

Well, that’s one hard part; another is how can a stable bag of chemicals form? (There have been some exciting recent discoveries which may help answer at least part of this question).

A different approach – than reproduction – to finding the key to how life got started involves asking how metabolism arose; how can a bag of chemicals take in ‘food’, process it (to supply energy to all the other chemical processes going on in the bag), and get rid of the waste?

The TalkOrigins website has a summary of abiogenesis, though it is now somewhat dated (much has happened in just the last three years)!

Abiogenesis in its strict sense (origin of life on Earth) is a bit off the track for Universe Today; however, conditions under which life might spontaneously arise, on other planets (etc) is not. Some Universe Today stories on this are Sub-surface Oceans In Comets Suggest Possible Origin of Life, Add Heat, Then Tectonics: Narrowing the Hunt for Life in Space, and Has Liquid Water Been Detected on Mars?