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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Researchers Think They Know Why Venus Doesn’t Have as Many Volcanoes as Earth

The surface of Venus has been a mystery to scientists ever since the Space Age began. Thanks to its dense atmosphere, its surface is inaccessible to direct observations. In terms of exploration, the only missions to penetrate the atmosphere or reach the surface were only able to transmit data back for a matter of hours. And what we have managed to learn over the years has served to deepen its mysteries as well.

For instance, for years, scientists have been aware of the fact that Venus experiences volcanic activity similar to Earth (as evidenced by lighting storms in its atmosphere), but very few volcanoes have been detected on its surface. But thanks to a new study from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES) at the University of St. Andrews, we may be ready to put that particular mystery to bed.

The study was conducted by Dr. Sami Mikhail, a lecturer with the SEES, with the assistance of researchers from the University of Strasbourg. In examining Venus’ geological past, Mikhail and his colleagues sought to understand how it is that the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System could be considerably less geologically-active than Earth. According to their findings, the answer lies in the nature of Venus’ crust, which has a much higher plasticity.

Image of the “pancake volcanoes” located in the Eistla region, taken by the Magellan space probe. Credit: NASA/JPL

This is due to the intense heat on Venus’ surface, which averages at 737 K (462 °C; 864 °F) with very little variation between day and night or over the course of a year. Given that this heat is enough to melt lead, it has the effect of keeping Venus’ silicate crust in a softened and semi-viscous state. This prevents lava magmas from being able to move through cracks in the planets’ crust and form volcanoes (as they do on Earth).

In fact, since the crust is not particularly solid, cracks are unable to form in the crust at all, which causes magma to get stuck in the soft, malleable crust. This is also what prevents Venus from experiencing tectonic activity similar to what Earth experiences, where plates drift across the surface and collide, occasionally forcing magma up through vents. This cycle, it should be noted, is crucial to Earth’s carbon cycle and plays a vital role in Earth’s climate.

Not only do these findings explain one of the larger mysteries about Venus’ geological past, but they also are an important step towards differentiating between Earth and it’s “sister planet”. The implications of this goes far beyond the Solar System. As Dr. Mikhail said in a St. Andrews University press release:

“If we can understand how and why two, almost identical, planets became so very different, then we as geologists, can inform astronomers how humanity could find other habitable Earth-like planets, and avoid uninhabitable Earth-like planets that turn out to be more Venus-like which is a barren, hot, and hellish wasteland.”

Volcanoes and lava flows on Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL

In terms of size, composition, structure, chemistry, and its position within the Solar System (i.e. within the Sun’s habitable zone), Venus is the most-Earth like planet discovered to date. And yet, the fact that it is slightly closer to our Sun has resulted in it having a vastly different atmosphere and geological history. And these differences are what make it the hellish, uninhabitable place that is today.

Beyond our Solar System, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets orbiting various types of stars. In some cases, where the planets exist close to their sun and are in possession of an atmosphere, the planets have been designated as being “Venus-like“. This naturally sets them apart from the planets that are of particular interest to exoplanet hunters – i.e. the “Earth-like” ones.

Knowing how and why these two very similar planets can differ so dramatically in terms of their geological and environmental conditions is therefore key to being able to tell the difference between planets that are conducive to life and hostile to life. That can only come in handy when we begin to study multiple-planet systems (such as the seven-planet system of TRAPPIST-1) more closely.

Further Reading: University of St. Andrews

Was This Ridge Habitable? Mars Curiosity Eyes Nearby Mountain

So Curiosity has been on Mars for an Earth year and is now, slowly, making its way over to that ginormous mountain — Mount Sharp, or Aeolis Mons — in the distance. The trek is expected to take at least until mid-2014, if not longer, because the rover will make pit stops at interesting science sites along the way. But far-thinking scientists are already thinking about what areas they would like to examine when it gets there.

One of those is an area that appears to have formed in water. There’s a low ridge on the bottom of the mountain that likely includes hematite, a mineral that other Mars rovers have found. (Remember the “blueberries” spotted a few years ago?) Hematite is an iron mineral that comes to be “in association with water”, a new study reports, and could point the way to the habitable conditions Curiosity is seeking.

The rub is scientists can’t say for sure how the hematite formed until the rover is practically right next to the ridge. There are plenty of pictures from orbit, but not high-resolution enough for the team to make definitive answers.

Colors map percentages of hematite in the surface materials in Meridiani Planum on Mars from 5 percent (aqua) to 25 percent (red). Opportunity landed within the black oval.  MER scientists say the rocks there had once been drenched in water.  Credit: NASA
Colors map percentages of hematite in the surface materials in Meridiani Planum on Mars from 5 percent (aqua) to 25 percent (red). Opportunity landed within the black oval. MER scientists say the rocks there had once been drenched in water. Credit: NASA

“Two alternatives are likely: chemical precipitation within the rocks by underground water that became exposed to an oxidizing environment — or weathering by neutral to slightly acidic water,” wrote Arizona State University’s Red Planet Report. Either way, it shows the ridge likely hosted iron oxidation. Earth’s experience with this type of oxidation shows that it happens “almost exclusively” with microorganisms, but that’s not a guarantee on Mars.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images show that the ridge is about 660 feet (200 meters) wide and four miles (6.5 kilometers) long, with strata or layers in the ridge appearing to be similar to those of layers in Mount Sharp.

While Curiosity is not designed to seek life, it can ferret out details of the environment. Just a few weeks ago, for example, it uncovered pebbles that likely formed in the presence of water. Other Mars missions have also found evidence of that liquid, with perhaps some of it once arising from the subsurface. Where the water came from, and why the environment of Mars changed so much in the last few billion years, are ongoing scientific questions.

Check out more details on the study in Geology.

Source: Red Planet Report