A new study has determined that, despite the coldness of the outer reaches of the Solar System, conditions exist that could be quite receptive to the emergence of alien life. The research, which involves the radioactive breakdown into its constituent elements, is important in that it identifies new parameters for the possible existence of life, in particular the frozen moons and dwarf planets, and it helps scientists establish probable locations to look for extraterrestrials.
As reported this week by the Daily Mail, researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Southwest Research Institute put together models that tracked the process of radiolysis, which is a breakdown of water molecules by radioactive emissions from the core of planetary objects into hydrogen and oxygen. The subsequent elements are then, on their own and when combined with other molecules, able to support the existence of life in the form of microbes.
“The physical and chemical processes that follow radiolysis release molecular hydrogen,” Dr. Alexis Bouquet, lead author of the study, said, “which is a molecule of astrobiological interest.” And since the process produced oxygen compounds, Bouquet added, “Radiolysis in an ocean world’s outer core could be fundamental in supporting life.
“Because mixtures of water and rock are everywhere in the outer solar system, this insight increases the odds of abundant habitable real estate out there.”
Hydrogen has been found to support microbes in various extreme conditions (hence the name for such microbes: extremophiles), from hydrothermal vents in the crushing depths of the Earth’s oceans to highly pressurized environments in subterranean mines.
As for oxygen compounds, scientists believe that in the right conditions, they can react with various minerals to produce sustenance for alien life.
“We know that these radioactive elements exist within icy bodies, but this is the first systematic look across the Solar System to estimate radiolysis,” Dr. Danielle Wyrick, a co-author of the study, said.
“The results suggest that there are many potential targets for exploration out there, and that’s exciting.”
Those potential targets or “habitable real estate” exist in the form of icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus, Jupiter’s Europa, and Pluto’s Charon, all believed to be predominantly waterworlds with an ice shell. And then there are the dwarf planets, Ceres and Pluto, to consider as well.
Because space exploration is such a costly and time-consuming undertaking, with years separating planning and the actual launch coupled with the subsequent years the exploratory vehicle spends traveling to its target, it is of utmost importance that scientists can consider the strongest candidate locations for alien life. Not only does this increase the overall chances of detecting life elsewhere in the Solar System (and, by extension, the universe), it should help in optimizing said chances with each pre-selected target (as opposed to simply searching in a random fashion).
Besides the aforementioned University of Texas at San Antonio research, a couple of recent studies have produced data that indicate the search for alien life within our Solar System may require some creative thinking. Both studies suggested that microbes might exist in harsh environments with the aid of some type of protection. One study proposed that microbes might exist in the atmosphere of Venus if combined with molecules to effect a protective coating. Another suggested that hematite, a mineral found in abundance on Mars, might act as a “sunscreen” to protect microbial life still extant on the Red Planet.
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