The search for potentially habitable planets is focused on exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—for good reason. The only planet we know of with life is Earth and sunlight fuels life here. But some estimates say there are many more rogue planets roaming through space, not bound to or warmed by any star.
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.
A remarkable microbe named Deinococcus radiodurans (the name comes from the Greek deinos meaning terrible, kokkos meaning grain or berry, radius meaning radiation, and durare meaning surviving or withstanding) has survived a full year in the harsh environment of outer space aboard (but NOT inside) the International Space Station. This plucky prokaryote is affectionately known by fans as Conan the Bacterium, as seen in this classic 1990s NASA article.
The JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) ISS moduleKib? has an unusual feature for spacecraft, a front porch! This exterior portion of the space station is fitted with robotic equipment to complete various experiments in outer space’s brutal conditions. One of these experiments was to expose cells of D. radiodurans for a year and then test the cells to see if they not only would survive but could reproduce effectively afterward. D. radiodurans proved to be up to the challenge, and what a challenge it was!
‘Oumuamua caused quite a stir when it visited our Solar System in 2017. It didn’t stay long, however, and when it was spotted with the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii on October 19th, it was already leaving. But its appearance in our part of the Universe spawned a lot of conjecture on its nature and its origins.
From the study of meteorite fragments that have fallen to Earth, scientists have confirmed that bacteria can not only survive the harsh conditions of space but can transport biological material between planets. Because of how common meteorite impacts were when life emerged on Earth (ca. 4 billion years ago), scientists have been pondering whether they may have delivered the necessary ingredients for life to thrive.
In a recent study, an international team led by astrobiologist Tetyana Milojevic from the University of Vienna examined a specific type of ancient bacteria that are known to thrive on extraterrestrial meteorites. By examining a meteorite that contained traces of this bacteria, the team determined that these bacteria prefer to feed on meteors – a find which could provide insight into how life emerged on Earth.
For over a century, proponents of Panspermia have argued that life is distributed throughout our galaxy by comets, asteroids, space dust, and planetoids. But in recent years, scientists have argued that this type of distribution may go beyond star systems and be intergalactic in scale. Some have even proposed intriguing new mechanisms for how this distribution could take place.
For instance, it is generally argued that meteorite and asteroid impacts are responsible for kicking up the material that would transport microbes to other planets. However, in a recent study, two Harvard astronomers examine the challenges that this would present and suggest another means – Earth-grazing objects that collect microbes from our atmosphere and then get flung into deep-space.
For almost two centuries, scientists have theorized that life may be distributed throughout the Universe by meteoroids, asteroids, planetoids, and other astronomical objects. This theory, known as Panspermia, is based on the idea that microorganisms and the chemical precursors of life are able to survive being transported from one star system to the next.
Expanding on this theory, a team of researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) conducted a study that considered whether panspermia could be possible on a galactic scale. According to the model they created, they determined that the entire Milky Way (and even other galaxies) could be exchanging the components necessary for life.
On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally thought to be a comet, this interstellar visitor quickly became the focus of follow-up studies that sought to determine its origin, structure, composition, and rule out the possibility that it was an alien spacecraft!
While ‘Oumuamua is the first known example of an interstellar asteroid reaching our Solar System, scientists have long suspected that such visitors are a regular occurrence. Aiming to determine just how common, a team of researchers from Harvard University conducted a study to measure the capture rate of interstellar asteroids and comets, and what role they may play in the spread of life throughout the Universe.
For the sake of their study, Lingam and Loeb constructed a three-body gravitational model, where the physics of three bodies are used to compute their respective trajectories and interactions with one another. In Lingam and Loeb’s model, Jupiter and the Sun served as the two massive bodies while a far less massive interstellar object served as the third. As Dr. Loeb explained to Universe Today via email:
“The combined gravity of the Sun and Jupiter acts as a ‘fishing net’. We suggest a new approach to searching for life, which is to examine the interstellar objects captured by this fishing net instead of the traditional approach of looking through telescope or traveling with spacecrafts to distant environments to do the same.”
Using this model, the pair then began calculating the rate at which objects comparable in size to ‘Oumuamua would be captured by the Solar System, and how often such objects would collide with the Earth over the course of its entire history. They also considered the Alpha Centauri system as a separate case for the sake of comparison. In this binary system, Alpha Centauri A and B serve as the two massive bodies and an interstellar asteroid as the third.
As Dr. Lingam indicated:
“The frequency of these objects is determined from the number density of such objects, which has been recently updated based on the discovery of ‘Oumuamua. The size distribution of these objects is unknown (and serves as a free parameter in our model), but for the sake of obtaining quantitative results, we assumed that it was similar to that of comets within our Solar System.”
In the end, they determined that a few thousands captured objects might be found within the Solar system at any time – the largest of which would be tens of km in radius. For the Alpha Centauri system, the results were even more interesting. Based on the likely rate of capture, and the maximum size of a captured object, they determined that even Earth-sized objects could have been captured in the course of the system’s history.
In other words, Alpha Centauri may have picked up some rogue planets over time, which would have had drastic impact on the evolution of the system. In this vein, the authors also explored how objects like ‘Oumuamua could have played a role in the distribution of life throughout the Universe via rocky bodies. This is a variation on the theory of lithopanspermia, where microbial life is shared between planets thanks to asteroids, comets and meteors.
In this scenario, interstellar asteroids, which originate in distant star systems, would be the be carriers of microbial life from one system to another. If such asteroids collided with Earth in the past, they could be responsible for seeding our planet and leading to the emergence of life as we know it. As Lingam explained:
“These interstellar objects could either crash directly into a planet and thus seed it with life, or be captured into the planetary system and undergo further collisions within that system to yield interplanetary panspermia (the second scenario is more likely when the captured object is large, for e.g. a fraction of the Earth’s radius).”
In addition, Lingam and Loeb offered suggestions on how future visitors to our Solar System could be studied. As Lingam summarized, the key would be to look for specific kinds of spectra from objects in our Solar Systems:
“It may be possible to look for interstellar objects (captured/unbound) in our Solar system by looking at their trajectories in detail. Alternatively, since many objects within the Solar system have similar ratios of oxygen isotopes, finding objects with very different isotopic ratios could indicate their interstellar origin. The isotope ratios can be determined through high-resolution spectroscopy if and when interstellar comets approach close to the Sun.”
“The simplest way to single out the objects who originated outside the Solar System, is to examine the abundance ratio of oxygen isotopes in the water vapor that makes their cometary tails,” added Loeb. “This can be done through high resolution spectroscopy. After identifying a trapped interstellar object, we could launch a probe that will search on its surface for signatures of primitive life or artifacts of a technological civilization.”
It would be no exaggeration to say that the discovery of ‘Oumuamua has set off something of a revolution in astronomy. In addition to validating something astronomers have long suspected, it has also provided new opportunities for research and the testing of scientific theories (such as lithopanspermia).
In the future, with any luck, robotic missions will be dispatched to these bodies to conduct direct studies and maybe even sample return missions. What these reveal about our Universe, and maybe even the spread of life throughout, is sure to be very illuminating!
The theory of Panspermia states that life exists through the cosmos, and is distributed between planets, stars and even galaxies by asteroids, comets, meteors and planetoids. In this respect, life began on Earth about 4 billion years ago after microorganisms hitching a ride on space rocks landed on the surface. Over the years, considerable research has been devoted towards demonstrating that the various aspects of this theory work.
The latest comes from the University of Edinburgh, where Professor Arjun Berera offers another possible method for the transport of life-bearing molecules. According to his recent study, space dust that periodically comes into contact with Earth’s atmosphere could be what brought life to our world billions of years ago. If true, this same mechanism could be responsible for the distribution of life throughout the Universe.
For the sake of his study, which was recently published in Astrobiology under the title “Space Dust Collisions as a Planetary Escape Mechanism“, Prof. Berera examined the possibility that space dust could facilitate the escape of particles from Earth’s atmosphere. These include molecules that indicate the presence of life on Earth (aka. biosignatures), but also microbial life and molecules that are essential to life.
Fast-moving flows of interplanetary dust impact our atmosphere on a regular basis, at a rate of about 100,000 kg (110 tons) a day. This dust ranges in mass from 10-18 to 1 gram, and can reach speeds of 10 to 70 km/s (6.21 to 43.49 mps). As a result, this dust is capable of impacting Earth with enough energy to knock molecules out of the atmosphere and into space.
These molecules would consist largely of those that are present in the thermosphere. At this level, those particles would consist largely of chemically disassociated elements, such as molecular nitrogen and oxygen. But even at this high altitude, larger particles – such as those that are capable of harboring bacteria or organic molecules – have also been known to exist. As Dr. Berera states in his study:
“For particles that form the thermosphere or above or reach there from the ground, if they collide with this space dust, they can be displaced, altered in form or carried off by incoming space dust. This may have consequences for weather and wind, but most intriguing and the focus of this paper, is the possibility that such collisions can give particles in the atmosphere the necessary escape velocity and upward trajectory to escape Earth’s gravity.”
Of course, the process of molecules escaping our atmosphere presents certain difficulties. For starters, it requires that there be enough upward force that can accelerate these particles to escape velocity speeds. Second, if these particle are accelerated from too low an altitude (i.e. in the stratosphere or below), the atmospheric density will be high enough to create drag forces that will slow the upward-moving particles.
In addition, as a result of their fast upward travel, these particle would undergo immense heating to the point of evaporation. So while wind, lighting, volcanoes, etc. would be capable of imparting huge forces at lower altitudes, they would not be able to accelerate intact particles to the point where they could achieve escape velocity. On the other hand, in the upper part of the mesosphere and thermosphere, particles would not suffer much drag or heating.
As such, Berera concludes that only atoms and molecules that are already found in the higher atmosphere could be propelled into space by space dust collisions. The mechanism for propelling them there would likely consist of a double state approach, whereby they are first hurled into the lower thermosphere or higher by some mechanism and then propelled even harder by fast space dust collision.
After calculating the speed at which space dust impacts our atmosphere, Berera determined that molecules that exist at an altitude of 150 km (93 mi) or higher above Earth’s surface would be knocked beyond the limit of Earth’s gravity. These molecules would then be in near-Earth space, where they could be picked up by passing objects such as comets, asteroid or other Near-Earth Objects (NEO) and carried to other planets.
Naturally, this raises another all-important question, which is whether or not these organisms could survive in space. But as Berera notes, previous studies have borne out the ability of microbes to survive in space:
“Should some microbial particles manage the perilous journey upward and out of the Earth’s gravity, the question remains how well they will survive in the harsh environment of space. Bacterial spores have been left on the exterior of the International Space Station at altitude ~400km, in a near vacuum environment of space, where there is nearly no water, considerable radiation, and with temperatures ranging from 332K on the sun side to 252K on the shadow side, and have survived 1.5 years.”
Another thing Berera considers is the strange case of tardigrades, the eight-legged micro-animals that are also known as “water bears”. Previous experiments have shown that this species is capable of surviving in space, being both strongly resistant to radiation and desiccation. So it is possible that such organisms, if they were knocked out of Earth’s upper atmosphere, could survive long enough to hitch a ride to another planet
In the end, these finding suggests that large asteroid impacts may not be the only mechanism responsible for life being transferred between planets, which is what proponents of Panspermia previously thought. As Berera stated in a University of Edinburgh press statement:
“The proposition that space dust collisions could propel organisms over enormous distances between planets raises some exciting prospects of how life and the atmospheres of planets originated. The streaming of fast space dust is found throughout planetary systems and could be a common factor in proliferating life.”
In addition to offering a fresh take on Panspermia, Berera’s study is also significant when it comes to the study of how life evolved on Earth. If biological molecules and bacteria have been escaping Earth’s atmosphere continuously over the course of its existence, then this would suggest that it could still be floating out in the Solar System, possibly within comets and asteroids.
These biological samples, if they could be accessed and studied, would serve as a timeline for the evolution of microbial life on Earth. It’s also possible that Earth-borne bacteria survive today on other planets, possibly on Mars or other bodies where they locked away in permafrost or ice. These colonies would basically be time capsules, containing preserved life that could date back billions of years.
In 2015, then-NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan stated that, “I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definite evidence in the next 10 to 20 years.” With multiple missions scheduled to search foe evidence of life (past and present) on Mars and in the outer Solar System, this hardly seems like an unrealistic appraisal.
But of course, finding evidence of life is no easy task. In addition to concerns over contamination, there is also the and the hazards the comes with operating in extreme environments – which looking for life in the Solar System will certainly involve. All of these concerns were raised at a new FISO conference titled “Towards In-Situ Sequencing for Life Detection“, hosted by Christopher Carr of MIT.
Led by Dr. Maria T. Zuber – the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at MIT and the head of EAPS – the inter-disciplinary group behind SETG includes researchers and scientists from MIT, Caltech, Brown University, arvard, and Claremont Biosolutions. With support from NASA, the SETG team has been working towards the development of a system that can test for life in-situ.
Introducing the search for extra-terrestrial life, Carr described the basic approach as follows:
“We could look for life as we don’t know it. But I think it’s important to start from life as we know it – to extract both properties of life and features of life, and consider whether we should be looking for life as we know it as well, in the context of searching for life beyond Earth.”
Towards this end, the SETG team seeks to leverage recent developments in in-situ biological testing to create an instrument that can be used by robotic missions. These developments include the creation of portable DNA/RNA testing devices like the MinION, as well as the Biomolecule Sequencer investigation. Performed by astronaut Kate Rubin in 2016, this was first-ever DNA sequencing to take place aboard the International Space Station.
Building on these, and the upcoming Genes in Space program – which will allow ISS crews to sequence and research DNA samples on site – the SETG team is looking to create an instrument that can isolate, detect, and classify any DNA or RNA-based organisms in extra-terrestrial environments. In the process, it will allow scientists to test the hypothesis that life on Mars and other locations in the Solar System (if it exists) is related to life on Earth.
To break this hypothesis down, it is a widely accepted theory that the synthesis of complex organics – which includes nucleobases and ribose precursors – occurred early in the history of the Solar System and took place within the Solar nebula from which the planets all formed. These organics may have then been delivered by comets and meteorites to multiple potentially-habitable zones during the Late Heavy Bombardment period.
Known as lithopansermia, this theory is a slight twist on the idea that life is distributed throughout the cosmos by comets, asteroids and planetoids (aka. panspermia). In the case of Earth and Mars, evidence that life might be related is based in part on meteorite samples that are known to have come to Earth from the Red Planet. These were themselves the product of asteroids striking Mars and kicking up ejecta that was eventually captured by Earth.
By investigating locations like Mars, Europa and Enceladus, scientists will also be able to engage in a more direct approach when it comes to searching for life. As Carr explained:
“There’s a couple main approaches. We can take an indirect approach, looking at some of the recently identified exoplanets. And the hope is that with the James Webb Space Telescope and other ground-based telescopes and space-based telescopes, that we will be in a position to begin imaging the atmospheres of exoplanets in much greater detail than characterization of those exoplanets has [allowed for] to date. And that will give us high-end, it will give the ability to look at many different potential worlds. But it’s not going to allow us to go there. And we will only have indirect evidence through, for example, atmospheric spectra.”
Mars, Europa and Enceladus present a direct opportunity to find life since all have demonstrated conditions that are (or were) conducive to life. Whereas there is ample evidence that Mars once had liquid water on its surface, Europa and Enceladus both have subsurface oceans and have shown evidence of being geologically active. Hence, any mission to these worlds would be tasked with looking in the right locations to spot evidence of life.
On Mars, Carr notes, this will come down to looking in places there there is a water-cycle, and will likely involve some a little spelunking:
“I think our best bet is to access the subsurface. And this is very hard. We need to drill, or otherwise access regions below the reach of space radiation which could destroy organic materiel. And one possibility is to go to fresh impact craters. These impact craters could expose material that wasn’t radiation-processed. And maybe a region where we might want to go would be somewhere where a fresh impact crater could connect to a deeper subsurface network – where we could get access to material perhaps coming out of the subsurface. I think that is probably our best bet for finding life on Mars today at the moment. And one place we could look would be within caves; for example, a lava tube or some other kind of cave system that could offer UV-radiation shielding and maybe also provide some access to deeper regions within the Martian surface.”
As for “ocean worlds” like Enceladus, looking for signs of life would likely involve exploring around its southern polar region where tall plumes of water have been observed and studied in the past. On Europa, it would likely involve seeking out “chaos regions”, the spots where there may be interactions between the surface ice and the interior ocean.
Exploring these environments naturally presents some serious engineering challenges. For starters, it would require the extensive planetary protections to ensure that contamination was prevented. These protections would also be necessary to ensure that false positives were avoided. Nothing worse than discovering a strain of DNA on another astronomical body, only to realize that it was actually a skin flake that fell into the scanner before launch!
And then there are the difficulties posed by operating a robotic mission in an extreme environment. On Mars, there is always the issue of solar radiation and dust storms. But on Europa, there is the added danger posed by Jupiter’s intense magnetic environment. Exploring water plumes coming from Enceladus is also very challenging for an orbiter that would most likely be speeding past the planet at the time.
But given the potential for scientific breakthroughs, such a mission it is well worth the aches and pains. Not only would it allow astronomers to test theories about the evolution and distribution of life in our Solar System, it could also facilitate the development of crucial space exploration technologies, and result in some serious commercial applications.
Looking to the future, advances in synthetic biology are expected to lead to new treatments for diseases and the ability to 3-D print biological tissues (aka. “bioprinting”). It will also help ensure human health in space by addressing bone density loss, muscle atrophy, and diminished organ and immune-function. And then there’s the ability to grow organisms specially-designed for life on other planets (can you say terraforming?)
On top of all that, the ability to conduct in-situ searches for life on other Solar planets also presents scientists with the opportunity to answer a burning question, one which they’ve struggled with for decades. In short, is carbon-based life universal? So far, any and all attempts to answer this question have been largely theoretical and have involved the “low hanging fruit variety” – where we have looked for signs of life as we know it, using mainly indirect methods.
By finding examples that come from environments other than Earth, we would be taking some crucial steps towards preparing ourselves for the kinds of “close encounters” that could be happening down the road.