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?
Mars’ surface is a harsh environment for life. But life on Earth is notoriously resilient as well. No one is quite sure yet how microbes from Earth would fare on the Martian surface. However, the impact of a potential transmigration of microbes to the red planet could be immense. Not only could it skew any findings of potential real Martian life we might find, it could also completely disrupt any nascent biosphere that Mars might have.
To understand whether that much disruption is really possible, first we must understand whether any Earthly life can survive on Mars itself. According to a new study recently published in Frontiers in Microbiology, the answer to that is yes.
To date, all attempts to find evidence of life on the surface have yielded nothing, owing to the fact that the Martian environment is extremely cold, desiccated, and irradiated. According to a new study by an international team of researchers led by Cornell University and the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid, the Atacama desert in the mountains of Chile could hold the answer.
In the search for life beyond Earth, scientists have turned up some very interesting possibilities and clues. On Mars, there are currently eight functioning robotic missions on the surface of or in orbit investigating the possibility of past (and possibly present) microbial life. Multiple missions are also being planned to explore moons like Titan, Europa, and Enceladus for signs of methanogenic or extreme life.
But what about Earth’s closest neighboring planet, Venus? While conditions on its surface are far too hostile for life as we know it there are those who think it could exist in its atmosphere. In a new study, a team of international researchers addressed the possibility that microbial life could be found in Venus’ cloud tops. This study could answer an enduring mystery about Venus’ atmosphere and lead to future missions to Earth’s “Sister Planet”.
For the sake of their study, the team considered the presence of UV contrasts in Venus’ upper atmosphere. These dark patches have been a mystery since they were first observered nearly a century ago by ground-based telescopes. Since then, scientists have learned that they are made up of concentrated sulfuric acid and other unknown light-absorbing particles, which the team argues could be microbial life.
As Limaye indicated in a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison press statement:
“Venus shows some episodic dark, sulfuric rich patches, with contrasts up to 30 – 40 percent in the ultraviolet, and muted in longer wavelengths. These patches persist for days, changing their shape and contrasts continuously and appear to be scale dependent.”
To illustrate the possibility that these streaks are the result of microbial life, the team considered whether or not extreme bacteria could survive in Venus’ cloud tops. For instance, the lower cloud tops of Venus (47.5 to 50.5 km above the surface) are known to have moderate temperature conditions (~60 °C; 140 °F) and pressure conditions that are similar to that of Earth at sea level (101.325 kPa).
This is far more hospitable than conditions on the surface, where temperatures reach 737 K (462 C; 860 F) and atmospheric pressure is 9200 kPa (92 times that of Earth at sea level). In addition, they considered how on Earth, bacteria has been found at altitudes as high as 41 km (25 mi). On top of that, there are many cases where extreme bacteria here on Earth that could survive in an acidic environment.
As Rakesh Mogul, a professor of biological chemistry at California State Polytechnic University and a co-author on the study, indicated, “On Earth, we know that life can thrive in very acidic conditions, can feed on carbon dioxide, and produce sulfuric acid.” This is consistent with the presence of micron-sized sulfuric acid aerosols in Venus upper atmosphere, which could be a metabolic by-product.
In addition, the team also noted that according to some models, Venus had a habitable climate with liquid water on its surface for as long as two billion years – which is much longer than what is believed to have occurred on Mars. In short, they speculate that life could have evolved on the surface of Venus and been swept up into the atmosphere, where it survived as the planet experienced its runaway greenhouse effect.
This study expands on a proposal originally made by Harold Morowitz and famed astronomer Carl Sagan in 1967 and which was investigated by a series of probes sent to Venus between 1962 and 1978. While these missions indicated that surface conditions on Venus ruled out the possibility of life, they also noted that conditions in the lower and middle portions of Venus’ atmosphere – 40 to 60 km (25 – 27 mi) altitude – did not preclude the possibility of microbial life.
For years, Limaye has been revisiting the idea of exploring Venus’ atmosphere for signs of life. The inspiration came in part from a chance meeting at a teachers workshop with Grzegorz Slowik – from the University of Zielona Góra in Poland and a co-author on the study – who told him of how bacteria on Earth have light-absorbing properties similar to the particles that make up the dark patches observed in Venus’ clouds.
While no probe that has sampled Venus’ atmosphere has been capable of distinguishing between organic and inorganic particles, the ones that make up Venus’ dark patches do have comparable dimensions to some bacteria on Earth. According to Limaye and Mogul, these patches could therefore be similar to algae blooms on Earth, consisting of bacteria that metabolizes the carbon dioxide in Venus’ atmosphere and produces sulfuric acid aerosols.
In the coming years, Venus’ atmosphere could be explored for signs of microbial life by a lighter than air aircraft. One possibility is the Venus Aerial Mobil Platform (VAMP), a concept currently being researched by Northrop Grumman (shown above). Much like lighter-than-air concepts being developed to explore Titan, this vehicle would float and fly around in Venus’ atmosphere and search the cloud tops for biosignatures.
Another possibility is NASA’s possible participation in the Russian Venera-D mission, which is currently scheduled to explore Venus during the late 2020s. This mission would consist of a Russian orbiter and lander to explore Venus’ atmosphere and surface while NASA would contribute a surface station and maneuverable aerial platform.
Another mystery that such a mission could explore, which has a direct bearing on whether or not life may still exist on Venus, is when Venus’ liquid water evaporated. In the last billion years or so, the extensive lava flows that cover the surface have either destroyed or covered up evidence of the planet’s early history. By sampling Venus’ clouds, scientists could determine when all of the planet’s liquid water disappeared, triggering the runaway greenhouse effect that turned it into a hellish landscape.
NASA is currently investigating other concepts to explore Venus’ hostile surface and atmosphere, including an analog robot and a lander that would use a Sterling engine to turn Venus’ atmosphere into a source of power. And with enough time and resources, we might even begin contemplating building floating cities in Venus atmosphere, complete with research facilities.
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.