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Now that you know what kinds of stars would be good to explore further and
what criteria should be used for distinguishing lifeforms from other physical
processes, let us hone in on the right kind of planet to support life.
Unfortunately, our information about life is limited to one planet, the Earth,
so the Earth-bias is there. However, scientists do know of the basics of what life
needs and what sort of conditions would probably destroy life. With these
cautionary notes, let's move forward.
The habitable planet should have:
- a stable temperature regime provided by an energy source external to the life forms such as the star the planet orbits or planetary heating from some sort of geological activity and
- a liquid mileau. Liquid water is best for biochemical reactions
and could be very abundant but liquid methane and/or ethane, like what is found
on Saturn's moon Titan might work. Since liquid water dissolves other compounds better than liquid methane/ethane and biochemical
sort of reactions work better in liquid water than liquid methane/ethane, liquid
water will probably be a requirement for a habitable planet. Water is liquid at a wide temperature range. Bio-chemical reactions will not happen in solids and they would be very inefficient in a gas. Water is liquid at a higher temperature than methane, ethane, and ammonia so chemical reactions will happen more quickly in the liquid water than in the other liquids. Also, frozen water floats! The hydrogen bonds of water make water less dense when it freezes. The frozen water ice could form a protective layer insulating the liquid water below it. The other types of liquids sink when they freeze and could lead to a runaway freezing process where all of the liquid freezes. Finally, water in
some form (mostly either gas or solid) is actually quite abundant in the Galaxy
so we are not limiting ourselves too much with the water bias. The liquid mileau
is needed to mix...
- the essential building block elements together (carbon, hydrogen,
nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur, and transition metals like iron,
chromium, and nickel). Since the building block elements are only created in
the stars, the best places to look for life is around stars formed from
processed gas, ie., look at metal-rich stars. Carbon will probably be the base of life because its great versatility to form compounds with other elements and even with itself. Carbon is more likely to share its electrons with other atoms rather than donate its electrons to other atoms or steal electrons from other atoms. Carbon has the highest degree of "catenation" (ability to form chemical bonds to itself) of all the elements. There are far more types of organic compounds (molecules containing carbon and usually also hydrogen) known than all the other types of compounds combined. On a planet with carbon-based life and life using carbon's closest competitor, silicon, as a base, the carbon-based chemical reactions would be far more efficient than the silicon-based ones, so the carbon-based life would quickly overrun any silicon-based life present on the planet. For more on silicon as a base for life, see the Scientific American "Ask the Experts" answer written by Raymond Dessy (link appears in a new window).
- The planet should have a solid surface to concentrate the building block
elements together in the liquid on top. The more concentrated the
solution of water and molecules is, the more likely the molecules will react with
each other. If the
molecules were fixed in a solid, they would not be able to get close to each
other and react with each other. If the molecules were in a gaseous state, they
would be too far apart from each other to react efficiently. Though the reactions
could conceivably take place, they would be rare!
- The planet should also have
gravity to keep an atmosphere. An atmosphere would shield lifeforms on the surface
from harmful radiation (charged particles and high-energy photons) and moderate
the changes in temperatures between night and day to maintain a stable temperature regime. The atmosphere would also provide the surface pressure needed for the liquid (most likely liquid water) to exist on the surface.
- A relatively large moon nearby may be needed to keep the planet's
rotation axis from tilting too much and too quickly. This prevents large
differences in temperatures over short timescales (life needs sufficient time to
adapt to temperature changes).
- Plate tectonics may be needed to: 1) regulate the surface temperature
of the planet via its crucial
role in the carbon cycle;
2) create a magnetic field to shield the planet from the deadly stellar winds;
3) create dry land on a water-covered world; and 4) promote a high level of
biodiversity across the planet by creating new environments that organisms
would have to adapt to.
On planets or moons without an atmosphere and/or that are far from their parent star, it may be possible to have life existing below the surface if the planet or moon have a planetary heating source. An example of this would be Jupiter's moon Europa.
It has a water ice crust and a liquid water ocean below and is kept warm despite its great distance from the Sun because of tidal heating from Jupiter's large gravity.
While it may be possible for life to exist on a planet or moon below its surface, we will not be able to detect its presence from a great distance away (e.g., if it is another star system beyond our solar system). In our fastest rocket-propelled spacecraft, it would take us over 70,000 years to travel to the next star system (Alpha Centauri). The type of inhabited planet we will be able to detect outside of our solar system is life that has changed the chemistry of the planet's atmosphere, i.e., the life will have to be on the surface. By analyzing the spectrum of the planet's atmosphere, we may be able to detect bio-markers---spectral signatures of certain compounds in certain proportions that could not be produced by non-biological processes.
Spectral lines from water would
say that a planet has a vital ingredient for life. If oxygen, particularly ozone (a molecule of three oxygen atoms), is found
in the atmosphere, then it would be very likely that life is indeed
on the planet. Recall from the solar system chapter that molecular oxygen
quickly disappears if it is not continually replenished by the
photosynthesis process of plants and algae. However, it is conceivably possible for a few non-biological processes (e.g., the runaway greenhouse effect with the photodissociation of carbon dioxide and water) to create an atmosphere rich in molecular oxygen and molecular oxygen does not produce absorption lines in the preferred infrared band that would be used in the future Terrestrial
Planet Finder mission. Ozone does. Ozone existing along with nitrous oxide and methane in particular ratios with carbon dioxide and water, all of which produce absorption lines in the infrared, would be very strong evidence for an inhabited world.
One recent test of this concept was when the Venus Express spacecraft pointed its spectrometer at Earth in August 2007 while the spacecraft was orbiting Venus 78 million kilometers from the Earth. The near-infrared spectra of the Earth is shown for two different observing sessions. Earth was just the size of a single pixel in its camera. The part of the Earth facing the Venus Express spacecraft is shown in the simulated image above the spectra.
Could life exist on a planet without oxygen? Yes. Photosynthesis might be able to use another element such as sulfur instead of oxygen. The planet's life might use another liquid besides water. Maybe the planet's life would use a different element besides carbon as its base (such as silicon). The first missions that will hunt will for life beyond the Earth will focus on biochemical processes that we are more familiar with (carbon-based life using liquid water) because it makes sense to start with what we know (or think we know) and then branch out to finding more exotic life after we have had some practice with the "ordinary" life.
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May 3, 2013
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