When did the First Continents Appear in the Universe?

Continents might be necessary for life, especially complex life. This image shows super-continent Pangaea during the Permian period (300 - 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey

On Earth, continents are likely necessary to support life. Continents ‘float’ on top of the Earth’s viscous mantle, and heat from the planet’s core keeps the mantle from solidifying and locking the continents into place.

The core is hot because of the presence of radioactive elements that came from neutron star collisions. It should be possible to calculate when the first continents formed in the Universe.

So that’s what one researcher did.

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What Role do Radioactive Elements Play in a Planet’s Habitability?

Illustration of Kepler-186f, a recently-discovered, possibly Earthlike exoplanet that could be a host to life. (NASA Ames, SETI Institute, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle)

To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,301 extrasolar planets in 3,192 star systems, with another 5,650 candidates awaiting confirmation. In the coming years, next-generation telescopes will allow astronomers to directly observe many of these exoplanets and place tighter constraints on their potential habitability. In time, this could lead to the discovery of life beyond our Solar System!

The only problem is, finding evidence of life requires that we know what to look for. According to a new study by an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), radioactive elements might play a role in planetary habitability. Future studies of rocky exoplanets, they argue, should therefore look for specific isotopes that indicate the presence of long-lived elements like thorium and uranium.

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