Within our Solar Systems, there are several moons where astronomers believe life could be found. This includes Ceres, Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, and maybe Dione, Mimas, Triton, and the dwarf planet Pluto. These “ocean worlds” are believed to have abundant liquid water in their interiors, as well as organic molecules and tidal heating – the basic ingredients for life.
Which raises the all-important question: are similar moons to be found in other star systems? This is the question NASA planetary scientist Dr. Lynnae C. Quick and her team from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center sought to address. In a recent study, Quick and her colleagues examined a sample of exoplanet systems and found that ocean worlds are likely to be very common in our galaxy.
In 1961, famed astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake formulated an equation for estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy at any given time. Known as the “Drake Equation“, this formula was a probabilistic argument meant to establish some context for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Of course, the equation was theoretical in nature and most of its variables are still not well-constrained.
For instance, while astronomers today can speak with confidence about the rate at which new stars form, and the likely number of stars that have exoplanets, they can’t begin to say how many of these planets are likely to support life. Luckily, Professor David Kipping of Columbia University recently performed a statistical analysis that indicates that a Universe teeming with life is “the favored bet.”
In the past few decades, astronomers have confirmed the existence of thousands of planets beyond our Solar System. Over time, the process has shifted from discovery to characterization in the hopes of finding which of these planets are capable of supporting life. For the time being, these methods are indirect in nature, which means that astronomers can only infer if a planet is inhabitable based on how closely it resembles Earth.
To aid in the hunt for “potentially habitable” exoplanets, a team of Cornell researchers recently created five models that represent key points in Earth’s evolution. These “snapshots” of what Earth looked like during various geological epochs could greatly enhance the search for extra-terrestrial life by providing a more complete picture of what a life-bearing planet could look like.
Saturn’s moon Enceladus has captivating scientists ever since the Voyager 2 mission passed through the system in 1981. The mystery has only deepened since the arrival of the Cassiniprobe in 2004, which included the discovery of four parallel, linear fissures around the southern polar region. These features were nicknamed “Tiger Stripes” because of their appearance and the way they stand out from the rest of the surface.
Since their discovery, scientists have attempted to answer what these are and what created them in the first place. Thankfully, new research led by the Carnegie Institute of Science has revealed the physics governing these fissures. This includes how they are related to the moon’s plume activity, why they appear around Enceladus’ south pole, and why other bodies don’t have similar features.
In recent years research into extremophiles has captured the interest of astrobiologists. The discovery of lifeforms in some of Earth’s most extreme environments has helped shape our thinking about extraterrestrial life. Life on other worlds may not need the kind of temperate, balanced environment that most life on Earth is adapted to.
The study of exoplanets has matured considerably in the last ten years. During this time, the majority of the over 4000 exoplanets that are currently known to us were discovered. It was also during this time that the process has started to shift from the process of discovery to characterization. What’s more, next-generation instruments will allow for studies that will reveal a great deal about the surfaces and atmospheres of exoplanets.
This naturally raises the question: what would a sufficiently-advanced species see if they were studying our planet? Using multi-wavelength data of Earth, a team of Caltech scientists was able to construct a map of what Earth would look like to distant alien observers. Aside from addressing the itch of curiosity, this study could also help astronomers reconstruct the surface features of “Earth-like” exoplanets in the future.
In 2023, NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper mission, a robotic explorer that will study Jupiter’s enigmatic moon Europa. The purpose of this mission is to explore Europa’s ice shell and interior to learn more about the moon’s composition, geology, and interactions between the surface and subsurface. Most of all, the purpose of this mission is to shed light on whether or not life could exist within Europa’s interior ocean.
This presents numerous challenges, many of which arise from the fact that the Europa Clipper will be very far from Earth when it conducts its science operations. To address this, a team of researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Arizona State University (ASU) designed a series of machine-learning algorithms that will allow the mission to explore Europa with a degree of autonom.
According to widely-accepted theories, the Solar System formed roughly 4.6 billion years ago from a massive cloud of dust and gas (aka. Nebular Theory). This process began when the nebula experienced a gravitational collapse in the center that became our Sun. The remaining dust and gas formed a protoplanetary disk that (over time) accreted to form the planets.
However, scientists remain unsure about when organic molecules first appeared in our Solar System. Luckily, a new study by an international team of astronomers may be able to help answer that question. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array (ALMA), the team detected complex organic molecules around the young star V883 Ori, which could someday lead to the emergence of life in that system.
For decades, scientists have believed that there could be life beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Since that time, multiple lines of evidence have emerged that suggest that it is not alone. Indeed, within the Solar System, there are many “ocean worlds” that could potentially host life, including Ceres, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, Dione, Triton, and maybe even Pluto.
But what if the elements for life as we know it are not abundant enough on these worlds? In a new study, two researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics (CfA) sought to determine if there could in fact be a scarcity of bioessential elements on ocean worlds. Their conclusions could have wide-ranging implications for the existence of life in the Solar System and beyond, not to mention our ability to study it.
In previous studies, questions on the habitability of moons and other planets have tended to focus on the existence of water. This has been true when it comes to the study of planets and moons within the Solar System, and especially true when it comes the study of extra-solar planets. When they have found new exoplanets, astronomers have paid close attention to whether or not the planet in question orbits within its star’s habitable zone.
This is key to determining whether or not the planet can support liquid water on its surface. In addition, astronomers have attempted to obtain spectra from around rocky exoplanets to determine if water loss is taking place from its atmosphere, as evidenced by the presence of hydrogen gas. Meanwhile, other studies have attempted to determine the presence of energy sources, since this is also essential to life as we know it.
In contrast, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered how the existence of life on ocean planets could be dependent on the availability of limiting nutrients (LN). For some time, there has been considerable debate as to which nutrients would be essential to extra-terrestrial life, since these elements could vary from place to place and over timescales. As Lingam told Universe Today via email:
“The mostly commonly accepted list of elements necessary for life as we know it comprises of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. In addition, certain trace metals (e.g. iron and molybdenum) may also be valuable for life as we know it, but the list of bioessential trace metals is subject to a higher degree of uncertainty and variability.”
For their purposes, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb created a model using Earth’s oceans to determine how the sources and sinks – i.e. the factors that add or deplete LN elements into oceans, respectively – could be similar to those on ocean worlds. On Earth, the sources of these nutrients include fluvial (from rivers), atmospheric and glacial sources, with energy being provided by sunlight.
Of these nutrients, they determined that the most important would be phosphorus, and examined how abundant this and other elements could be on ocean worlds, where conditions as vastly different. As Dr. Lingam explained, it is reasonable to assume that on these worlds, the potential existence of life would also come down to a balance between the net inflow (sources) and net outflow (sinks).
“If the sinks are much more dominant than the sources, it could indicate that the elements would be depleted relatively quickly. In other to estimate the magnitudes of the sources and sinks, we drew upon our knowledge of the Earth and coupled it with other basic parameters of these ocean worlds such as the pH of the ocean, the size of the world, etc. known from observations/theoretical models.”
While atmospheric sources would not be available to interior oceans, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered the contribution played by hydrothermal vents. Already, there is abundant evidence that these exist on Europa, Enceladus, and other ocean worlds. They also considered abiotic sources, which consist of minerals leached from rocks by rain on Earth, but would consist of the weathering of rocks by these moons’ interior oceans.
Ultimately, what they found was that, unlike water and energy, limiting nutrients might be in limited supply when it comes to ocean worlds in our Solar System:
“We found that, as per the assumptions in our model, phosphorus, which is one of the bioessential elements, is depleted over fast timescales (by geological standards) on ocean worlds whose oceans are neutral or alkaline in nature, and which possess hydrothermal activity (i.e. hydrothermal vent systems at the ocean floor). Hence, our work suggests that life may exist in low concentrations globally in these ocean worlds (or be present only in local patches), and may therefore not be easily detectable.”
This naturally has implications for missions destined for Europa and other moons in the outer Solar System. These include the NASA Europa Clipper mission, which is currently scheduled to launch between 2022 and 2025. Through a series of flybys of Europa, this probe will attempt to measure biomarkers in the plume activity coming from the moon’s surface.
Similar missions have been proposed for Enceladus, and NASA is also considering a “Dragonfly” mission to explore Titan’s atmosphere, surface and methane lakes. However, if Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb’s study is correct, then the chances of these missions finding any signs of life on an ocean world in the Solar System are rather slim. Nevertheless, as Lingam indicated, they still believe that such missions should be mounted.
“Although our model predicts that future space missions to these worlds might have low chances of success in terms of detecting extraterrestrial life, we believe that such missions are still worthy of being pursued,” he said. “This is because they will offer an excellent opportunity to: (i) test and/or falsify the key predictions of our model, and (ii) collect more data and improve our understanding of ocean worlds and their biogeochemical cycles.”
In addition, as Prof. Loeb indicated via email, this study was focused on “life as we know it”. If a mission to these worlds did find sources of extra-terrestrial life, then it would indicate that life can arise from conditions and elements that we are not familiar with. As such, the exploration of Europa and other ocean worlds is not only advisable, but necessary.
“Our paper shows that elements that are essential for the ‘chemistry-of-life-as-we-know-it’, such as phosphorous, are depleted in subsurface oceans,” he said. “As a result, life would be challenging in the oceans suspected to exist under the surface ice of Europa or Enceladus. If future missions confirm the depleted level of phosphorous but nevertheless find life in these oceans, then we would know of a new chemical path for life other than the one on Earth.”
In the end, scientists are forced to take the “low-hanging fruit” approach when it comes to searching for life in the Universe . Until such time that we find life beyond Earth, all of our educated guesses will be based on life as it exists here. I can’t imagine a better reason to get out there and explore the Universe than this!
The discovery of alien life is one of those things that everyone thinks about at some point. Hollywood has made their version of first contact very clear: huge alien vessels appear over Earth’s cities, panic ensues, and Will Smith saves the day with a Windows 3.1 virus. It’s lots of fun—and who knows?—it may end up being accurate. (Not the Windows 3.1 part.) But sci-fi books and movies aside, what do we really know about our attitude to the discovery of alien life?
We have an organization (SETI) dedicated to detecting the presence of alien civilizations, and we have a prominent scientist (Stephen Hawking) warning against advertising our own presence. Those represent the extremes—actively seeking out alien life vs. hiding from it—but what is the collective attitude towards the discovery of alien life? Scientists at Arizona State University (ASU) have studied that issue and detailed their results in a new study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology.
The team of scientists tried to gauge people’s reactions to the discovery of alien life in three separate parts of their study. In the first case, they examined media reports of past announcements about the discovery of alien life, for example the announcement in 1996 that evidence of microbial life had been found in a Martian metorite.
Secondly, they asked a sample of over 500 people what their own reactions, and the reactions of the rest of humanity, would be to the hypothetical announcement of alien life.
Thirdly, the 500 people were split into two groups. Half were asked to read and respond to a real newspaper story announcing the discovery of fossilized Martian microbial life. The other half were asked to read and respond to a newspaper article announcing the creation of synthetic life by Craig Venter.
In all three cases the life was microbial in nature. Microbial life is the simplest life form, so it should be what we expect to find. This is certainly true in our own Solar System, since the existence of any other intelligent life has been ruled out here, while microbial life has not.
Also, in all three cases, the language of the respondents and the language in the media reports was analyzed for positive and negative words. A specialized piece of software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) was used. It’s text-analysis software that scans written language and identifies instances of words that reflect positive affect, negative affect, reward, or risk. (You can try LIWC here for fun, if you like.)
Analyzing Media Reports
The media reports used in the study were all from what the team considers reputable journalism outlets like The New York Times and Science Magazine. The reports were about things like unidentified signals from space that could have been alien in nature, fossilized microbial remains in meteorites, and the discovery of exoplanets in the habitable zones of other solar systems. There were 15 articles in total.
Overall, the study showed that language in media reports about alien life was more positive than negative, and emphasized reward rather than risk. So people generally find the potential of alien life to be a positive thing and something to be looked forward to. However, this part of the study showed something else: People were more positively disposed towards news of alien life that was microbial than they were towards alien life that could be present on exoplanets, where, presumably, it might be more than merely microbial. So, microbes we can handle, but something more advanced and a little doubt starts to creep in.
Reactions to Hypothetical Announcements of Alien Life
This part of the study aimed to assess people’s beliefs regarding how both they as individuals—and humanity as a whole—might react to the discovery of alien microbial life. The same LIWC software was used to analyze the written responses of the 500 people in the sample group.
The results were similar to the first part of the study, at least for the individuals themselves. Positive affect was more predominant than negative aspect, and words reflecting reward were more predominant than words reflecting risk. This probably isn’t surprising, but the study did show something more interesting.
When participants were asked about how the rest of humanity would respond to the announcement of alien life, the response was different. While positive language still outweighed negative language, and reward still outweighed risk, the differences weren’t as pronounced as they were for individuals. So people seem to think that others won’t be looking forward to the discovery of alien life as much as they themselves do.
Actual Reactions to the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life
This is hard to measure since we haven’t actually discovered any yet. But there have been times when we thought we might have.
In this part of the study, the group of 500 respondents was split into two groups of 250. The first was asked to read an actual 1996 New York Times article announcing the discovery of fossilized microbes in the Martian meteorite. The second group was asked to read a New York Times article from 2010 announcing the creation of life by Craig Venter. The goal was to find out if the positive bias towards the discovery of microbial life was specific to microbial life, or to scientific advancements overall.
This part of the study found the same emphasis on positive affect over negative affect, and reward over risk. This held true in both cases: the Martian microbial life article, and the artificially created life article. The type of article played a minor role in people’s responses. Results were slightly more positive towards the Martian life story than the artificial life story.
Overall, this study shows that people seem positively disposed towards the discovery of alien life. This is reflected in media coverage, people’s personal responses, and people’s expectations of how others would react.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg, though. As the authors say in their study, this is the first empirical attempt to understand any of this. And the study was only 500 people, all Americans.
How different the results might be in other countries and cultures is still an open question. Would populations whose attitudes are more strongly shaped by religion respond differently? Would the populations of countries that have been invaded and dominated by other countries be more nervous about alien life or habitable exoplanets? There’s only conjecture at this point.
Maybe we’re novelty-seekers and we thrive on new discoveries. Or maybe we’re truth-seekers, and that’s reflected in the study. Maybe some of the positivity reflects our fear of being alone. If Earth is the only life-supporting world, that’s a very lonely proposition. Not only that, but it’s an awesome responsibility: we better not screw it up!
Still, the results are encouraging for humanity. We seem, at least according to this first study, open to the discovery of alien life.
But that might change when the first alien ship casts its shadow over Los Angeles.