I wrote an article for the October edition of the Royal Statistical Society’s Significance magazine about statistics and exoplanets. You can download a .pdf copy here.
This the third in a series of posts by me at Things We Don’t Know about the many unknowns involved in the study of planets in the orbit of other stars across the galaxy.
In my last post I broadly covered the techniques for finding planets around other stars in the galaxy, as well as the role this technology plays in defining the current limits on our knowledge. We have discovered 885 other planets to date, but how many of them are like the Earth and why is this important?
As we live on a rather lovely watery planet ourselves, we seem to have a natural inclination to seek out others just like it because we consider them to be the most likely for hosting life. Why? Well, because our current sample of ‘inhabited planets’ stands at just one, we have a very limited understanding of where the boundaries for life lie as well as the important factors that affect habitability when considering the broad characteristics of life-bearing worlds. If other inhabited planets exist, is the Earth typical within the sample or an outlier? Are the furnaces of close-in gas giants the cradle of most flavours of life in the universe, or maybe the frigid surfaces of icy worlds in the far-flung outer regions of their star system?
It might be fun to speculate about all the various forms and shapes that other life might take, but this lies outside the remit of science. It seems obvious to us that only on a planet able to support life would organisms (like intelligent Homo Sapiens) eventually evolve, but this instils in us a fundamental bias towards planets like Earth: it remains beyond our perspective to consider the possibility that can life operate outside of the physical and biological boundaries that we are familiar with. It therefore seems unsurprising that the limits of life lie so perfectly within those experienced on Earth, and why we seek out other Earth-like planets as possible oases of biology. This bias is known as the anthropic principle and is an important philosophical consideration to bear in mind when considering the search for ‘habitable’ planets.
Nevertheless, many of the projects that exist to catalogue exoplanets are looking for ‘Earth-like’ planets: about the same size as Earth and at a similar distance from their star where the amount of incoming light produces temperatures that allow water to exist on the surface of these planets as a liquid. Liquid water plays a central role in the search for other Earth-like worlds because it is considered to be an essential requirement for life that is used as a solvent for biochemical reactions and is crucial to the operation of cells; no life exists on Earth that can survive without water. This water-centric distance is known as the habitable zone, or ‘Goldilocks zone’, because the temperature is ‘just right’! Different star-types have habitable zones that extend to different distances: the habitable zones of large, bright and young stars are further away than those of small, dim and cool stars.
Being within the habitable zone is important, but there are many, many other factors to consider before a planet can be labelled as ‘Earth-like’ or ‘habitable’. Planet size, age, density, orbital characteristics, atmospheric pressure and composition, the existence of an active geological cycle with volcanism and plate tectonics and the properties of the other members of the star system, to name a few. The habitability of planets is a complex and multifaceted property that we are only beginning to investigate, but it seems that a single measure (like residence the habitable zone) is insufficient to capture the true nature of the planet itself. This is why the growing catalogue of exoplanets has prompted the development of integrated ‘habitability indices’ that incorporate a number of factors into a single measure to determine how similar an exoplanet is to the Earth. One such measure, called the Earth Similarity Index (ESI) has been developed by researchers at the Arecibo observatory and attempts to rank planets discovered in the habitable zone on a scale from 0 (completely dissimilar to the Earth) to 1 (identical to the Earth) across a range of factors including size, density, atmospheric properties and temperature. According to this measure, the ‘Top 10’ most habitable planets we’ve discovered so far fall into a range between 0.50 and 0.82. For reference, our cold and dry neighbour Mars has a rating of 0.64, so it seems that none of these planets represent a suitable replacement for the Earth just yet.
The planet ranked most highly in this measure is called Kepler 62e and was discovered recently by the Kepler space telescope: the latest in a series of remarkable finds from this workhorse of planetary detection. This planet is orbiting within the habitable zone of an orange star slightly smaller and less bright than our own 1200 light years distant, but the planet itself is somewhat larger than the Earth and may be covered by a global ocean. At present, this distant world represents the pinnacle of exoplanetary habitability, yet it is far from being another Earth.
|Kepler 62e: An artist’s concept of the most ‘Earth-like’ planet found to date
Image Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Our occupation with the search for an ‘Earth analog’ masks the fact that there is still plenty about this planet we don’t know. For example, exoplanet researchers consider an active geological cycle to be essential for long-term habitability because the geochemical coupling between the oceans, atmosphere and planet interior is essential for ‘recycling’ nutrients through the Earth’s system. However, there are many unanswered questions about how this process operates on the Earth, and how it would function on planets that are different sizes. Modelling studies from different teams return seemingly contradictory results: some suggest that a similar mechanism to plate tectonics is inevitable, while others propose the opposite and infer a very different ‘lid’ type mode. These scenarios result in very different outcomes in terms of surface morphology and overall habitability, yet without direct observations it seems unlikely that this problem will be resolved soon.
We are also very limited by the detection limits of our instruments in this area: Kepler can only tell us the size of the planet – because it is proportional to the amount of light from the star that it blocks out to produce a detectable signal – but not the mass because we don’t know what it is the planet is made of. It is therefore very difficult to accurately model or estimate many of the surface or subsurface processes that may be occurring on these planets as mass is a very important factor in many aspects of planetary dynamics. Further to this, we are most likely decades away from being able to investigate the atmospheres of small, Earth-like planets in any detail.
We find ourselves poised at the very beginning of the search for another Earth, but the few results that we have at the moment are nevertheless very inspiring. The diversity of exoplanets discovered in the last decade is astounding, and small, rocky planets do not seem to be rare. My bold prediction is that Kepler will soon find a world that is seemingly like our own in size, temperature and orbital characteristics, but even so there are still very many unknowns that need to be addressed before any planet could be labelled as ‘another Earth’.
When viewed from space, the Earth glows like a blue marble under the light of the distant Sun. Azure oceans lap against the jagged coastlines and pale clouds swirl gracefully across its face, temporarily obscuring from view the brown-green landmasses beneath. From this vantage point, there is little to suggest that intelligent bipedal apes are scuttling around the coasts; confident of their centrality to all the workings of the cosmos, yet mostly unaware of the intricate complexities of its operation.
With the exception of five hundred operational satellites amidst a sea of orbital debris, one permanently occupied space station in low Earth orbit and two intrepid robotic explorers on the planet next door (Opportunity and Curiosity), humans have little visible presence outside of the Earth. In spite of our delusions of grandeur, we assume that no evidence of our global civilisation could be detected from light-year distances.
However, if we imagine that somewhere in the menagerie of stars that make up our local neighbourhood in the Milky Way, on a planet not too dissimilar from ours, an alien astronomer was perched at his (or her) telescope one night staring out into the dark when our Solar System happened into view. What would they see? Just another star on their survey, if relatively young and brighter than most, but perhaps one of many observed that evening. Initially, the blinding glare of the Sun would obscure our family of planets from direct view. Luckily, there are a number of ways to circumvent this problem. Using indirect planet detection techniques familiar to us such as radial velocity measurements or transit timings, the planetary companions of this curious yellow dwarf star are revealed: four gas giants and four smaller worlds. If the exo-astronomer ran their observations through their superior spectrometer however, chances are they may be intrigued by the results from one tiny blue planet in the orbit of this humdrum star.
Spectrometers measure the properties of light, first emitted by stars but then altered by the constituent gases of the planetary atmospheres through which the beam passes on the way to the receiving instrument. Different gases absorb light at different wavelengths to produce characteristic spectra and the composition of the atmosphere mirrored in the light can be teased out of the noise with sufficient skill. The high levels of water vapour, oxygen, methane and other gases associated with biological activity discovered in the atmosphere of this planet should result in the alien equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Methane is a ‘reduced’ gas and is usually rapidly destroyed in the presence of oxygen, meaning that detecting an appreciable amount of both may suggest that a biological mechanism is responsible for their continual replenishment. This mismatch is identified as a ‘biosignature‘ – a sign that this planet may harbour life.
Planetary atmospheres are something we are all intimately familiar with. The Earth’s is flush with life-giving oxygen, greenhouse gases essential (in the right balance) to maintaining a clement climate and an ozone layer that shields us from the Sun’s harmful rays. Most of us will never leave its gaseous embrace, and without it life would be extremely difficult. However, we take for granted the atmosphere’s ability to act as a mirror of our activities detectable from astronomical distances, able to reflect the unique signatures of the gases injected into it and hold them there for those with the correct instruments to see.
Further studies by the inquisitive alien astronomer would reveal a soup of exotic chemicals in the atmosphere of this distant little planet: increasing levels of carbon dioxide along with a suite of destructive, industrially produced compounds like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). There is no known biological pathway for producing CFCs, so their detection in the atmosphere of this planet is a strong indication of the activities of industry. They have struck gold (or the equivalently rare element on their planet) by discovering compelling evidence for the existence of another technologically advanced species. In doing so, they may have forever altered the way their civilisation views itself – one of perhaps many in a vast, galactic family.
Cloaked in an imaginative example, this is the theory that lies behind using spectroscopy as a method of detecting life, and perhaps even advanced civilisations, across the depths of space. Two promising space telescopes, TPF (NASA) and Darwin (ESA), were cancelled due to budgetary constraints, so for now at least interstellar planetary spectroscopy remains out of our grasp. However, the hope is that instruments of the near-future will be able to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets to search for these signs of life. Until they can, it might be worth remembering that we might not be the only ones able to gaze into the Earth’s atmospheric mirror.
Perhaps we should try to keep it clean?
Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 5th UK Astrobiology Society of Britain Conference in the lovely city of Edinburgh. It was a very enjoyable and well organised few days of interdisciplinary science and good whisky, friendly folk and an obligatory bagpipe recital. However, upon reflection sometime in-between the well-lubricated poster session and the céilidh — replete with some fine displays of motility I should add — it seemed to me that astrobiology in the UK has a potentially serious image problem.
Views are shifting, but at present the public perception is that astrobiology is the study of little green men from Mars. However, the reality is very different, as anyone working in the field will tell you. I’ve always seen it as an organic extension and interdisciplinary marriage of the natural sciences, with solid scientific foundations firmly laid by the likes of Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis. Astrobiology carries significant intellectual clout and I am convinced that contributions made by those working in the field will likely produce some of, if not the most, fantastic discoveries of this century.
This is why outspoken minority opinions that come to dominate discussion can be detrimental to both the public perception of the field, and also the direction and coherence of the discipline itself. When the press is seeking an ‘astrobiologist’ to comment on the latest Curiosity announcement or claim of life from outer space, there is a chance that they will go to the person who shouts loudest, regardless of whether that person represents the broad consensus of others in the field.
Don’t get me wrong, every discipline tends to attract their fair share of eccentrics and contrarians, but if that field is relatively young and already struggling to find a foothold amongst mainstream science in the UK, this can prove a bit of problem. To make matters worse, this field, unlike others, lies on the rational border of the fertile pseudoscientific pastures of aliens and UFOs and associated guff.
So, what to do?
Exclude the relevant parties from the forum and proceed as normal? This strategy risks alienation (ahem), and could end up backfiring as the troublemakers shout from the rooftops about systematic silencing by the ‘academy’ and the existence of an overarching conspiracy to keep their fantastical research from the public, thereby further accentuating the stereotype of the paranoid alien hunter to the public and other academics,and providing them with the attention they originally sought from their peers.
I think the answer is more integration, not less. Yes, these individuals may have made fundamental flaws at nearly every stage of their research, which itself was based on significant misapplication of the scientific method, but that is all the more reason to give them access to the ears and opinions of members in the field. This way, their methods can be improved and some of the more unscientific claims can be weeded out prior to steering any potential publication towards a peer-reviewed journal where its merits can objectively assessed by the wider community.
The organisers of the conference had a difficult decision to make, and made the right one I think by including the research in the schedule. It was then up to the attendees to highlight major errors, foster discussion and debate and attempt to reduce the isolation of this group from the community and the higher standards required to publish good work in this field.
It would have been easy to do this in Edinburgh. Firstly, when given the opportunity, challenge their claims! This could be done after their talk, during a poster session, or in the literature. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a bit reluctant to do this. It might be that I’m an early career scientist, or because of my inherently British fear of confrontation and misguided diplomatic aspirations toward a plurality of opinions, but there should be a limit. When a claim impinges on that limit the immediate repercussions should take the form of an erudite and impassioned, yet polite, rebuttal. Insist on hard evidence, critically scrutinise methodologies and deconstruct their results – this is science in action and it’s how progress is made.
This is where the attendees of ASB5 may have faltered. We all had multiple opportunities to address the relevant parties and their claims, but instead hid behind a passive-aggressive tut and endured comment after comment of rambling through gritted teeth. I understand that any learned society cannot make assertions and give direct answers to difficult questions, but they can take stewardship of the conversation and advance the discussion in a democratic forum, the rest is up to the audience. We owe it to the hard work conducted by researchers in astrobiology to ensure that we adhere to only the highest standards of scientific investigation and scrutiny as a community because the future of this discipline as a viable and respected avenue for research and funding is at stake.
This the second in a series of posts by me at Things We Don’t Know about the many unknowns involved in the study of planets in the orbit of other stars across the galaxy.
The first planet discovered orbiting another star was detected by astronomers at an observatory in France in 1995. The planet is an enormous gas giant, half the mass of Jupiter, orbiting very close to the Sun-like star 51 Pegasi in the constellation Pegasus, 50 light-years from Earth. The existence of other planetary systems had been predicted by astronomers for centuries and the discovery marked a monumental breakthrough in astronomical research. Since then, rapid improvements in technology and observational techniques have resulted in the discovery of 863 confirmed ‘exoplanets’ to date.
Unlike the direct observation of stars, the detection of planetary bodies requires astronomers to use a number of indirect methods to infer their existence. Due to the immense distances involved, the distance between any planet and their host star when viewed from Earth is tiny, and the brightness of the star itself effectively blinds instruments and obscures any planets in their orbit, which are much less bright by comparison. Therefore, astronomers have devised a number of ingenious methods to tease out planet data from their observations, but they require a great deal of skill, a generous helping of statistical analysis and a pinch of luck.
The most successful means of planet detection to date, yielding roughly 58% of all discoveries, is called the radial velocity method. This technique exploits the fact that the host star and its planets orbit a common centre of mass, and the planets exert a tiny ‘tug’ on the star that results in a very slight wobble – a signature that can be detected and used to infer the existence of one or more planets. Another successful indirect method of detection, responsible for a third of exoplanet discoveries, is called the transit method. When viewed from the Earth, a planet orbiting a star periodically passes in front of the star (‘transits’) and obscures a very small amount of its light, resulting in a tiny but consistent reduction in the amount of light received by Earth-based instruments. The amount of light that is blocked out provides some information about the size of planet, as larger planets will obscure relatively more light, and the frequency and duration of the transit can be used to infer the distance from the star that the planet orbits. NASA’s Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, uses this method and it has proved extremely fruitful, resulting in the discovery of 105 confirmed exoplanets to date. Additionally, there are a further 2,740 potential planets (called ‘planet candidates’) detected by Kepler awaiting confirmation.
However, the science of exoplanet detection is by no means certain; many teams use different statistical methods to isolate exoplanet signals, and the lack of consistency means that many discoveries are initially met with scepticism. With little means of directly imaging these planets, debate continues about the existence of a number of exoplanet candidates, and the finer details of many confirmed planetary systems. Also, the methods mentioned above tend to favour large planets as their effect on their star (either by increased ‘wobble’ or by concealing more light during transit) is proportionally greater.
We find ourselves at an exciting, but also frustrating, juncture at the birth of exoplanet detection. Our 862 planet sample is impressive and the effort and skill of the astronomers responsible for their detection should be applauded. However, we have only begun to scratch the surface of planet discovery. Kepler can survey an impressive 100,000 stars, but that is only one millionth of the total stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Many, many more stars and planets remain out of reach of our telescopes, at least for the foreseeable future.
Admittedly, to say that no planet has been directly imaged would not be quite accurate. Some extremely large planets, in most cases 5 or 10 times the mass of Jupiter, orbiting at great distances from their stars have been directly imaged. These first pictures represent great steps forward for exoplanet research, but technological constraints impose limits on the size and orbital distance of planets able to be imaged in this way, and the direct imaging of small, Earth-like planets orbiting relatively near to their host stars is not yet possible.
In my next post, I hope to take a more detailed tour through the current exoplanet catalogue to highlight some of the interesting and exotic planets that inhabit our galactic neighbourhood, and illustrate what the diversity of these planets can tell us about the Earth and our Solar System.
This the first in a series of posts by me at Things We Don’t Know about the many unknowns involved in the study of planets in the orbit of other stars across the galaxy.
Since the middle of the last century, against the backdrop of greatly expanding space technology and understanding, scientists have wondered about our place in the vast universe and whether we are alone or not. When it comes down to it, why would we be? There is no reason, be it physical or chemical, life couldn’t exist elsewhere. At first glance it seems that we live on a relatively normal planet, our parent star is of a fairly common variety and our corner of the galaxy isn’t all that extraordinary. Water and other ‘building block’ organic compounds, thought crucial for life in any imaginable form, are relatively abundant throughout the galaxy.
There are at least 100 billion (that’s a 1 followed by eleven zeroes) stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone; many we now know come complete with a family of planets in their orbit. On top of that, several of these newly-discovered ‘exoplanets’ are not that different from the Earth in mass or orbital distance from their parent stars. In fact, a recent study calculated that a staggering 17 billion Earth-like planets are likely to exist in the Milky Way alone! Surely, more than one of those worlds would have life of some kind or the other clinging to its surface? And if there was life, even if it was almost vanishingly rare, could another species with a similar level of intelligence to humans exist on another one of those billions of planets out there in the reaches of space?Given that a multitude of habitable worlds exist, many covered in a primordial cocktail of complex, biologically useful compounds, it seems that the Milky Way should be teeming with life. So, where is everyone? This question has proved tricky, paradoxical even. Accordingly, it’s known as the Fermi Paradox after the Italian astronomer who first posited the riddle to the wider scientific community, where it was met with unexpected consternation. Over 50 years on and it remains a question without an answer. SETI pioneer Frank Drake devised an equation to address the problem, called the Drake Equation, which attempts to provide an estimate of the likely number of other civilisations in the Milky Way. However, the huge uncertainties involved in each stage of the calculation limits its predictive powers to more of interesting thought exercise than a robust scientific methodology.
What does this apparent silence say about us and our planet? Are we the product of an extremely fortunate evolutionary accident resulting from the interplay between our astronomical and planetary environment? On some distinguishable level, the search for other intelligent species is a thinly veiled search for our own place, both physically and philosophically and convincing proof of a co-existent alien civilisation would most likely have significant scientific, social, political and religious ramifications.
Today, researchers in the burgeoning scientific field of astrobiology attempt to tackle these kinds of open questions, as well as many others in disciplines spanning chemistry and geology, astronomy, biology and even economics and the social sciences. In my completely biased opinion, studying exoplanets is one of the most exciting areas of science to be working in right now, and the rate of new advances and discoveries are progressing at breakneck speed (for science, anyway). However, even despite these recent findings, our understanding of the processes operating on these planets remains regrettably threadbare. Given the immense distances involved and sensitivity required, only limited data is available for a given planet and some large uncertainties remain even when information has been collected. We have yet to image an exoplanet directly, and it may be decades before the technology is available to do so.
Over the course of several posts, I’ll do my best to illuminate the cunning techniques that are being used to tease exoplanet data out of the noise, and explain how the limitations of contemporary technology are driving the development of new methods of remote planetary investigation. Despite the difficulties involved, a picture of our planetary neighbours is beginning to emerge and the results have been surprising and exciting in equal measure.
-Carl Sagan. Cosmos
In my last post I discussed how it was possible to make tentative estimates about the total amount of time that a planet spends in the habitable zone, also known as its habitable period, and why this is important. In this post, I’d like to put numbers to those estimates.
This simple model, the results of which are outlined in the image above, estimates the Earth’s total habitable period to be approximately 4.91 billion years, meaning that it will end about 370 million years from now. That sounds like a long time, and in the context of human time-scales, it certainly is. Even geologically, the world of 370 million years ago was a very different place. It was the height of the Late Devonian period, and a full 172 million years after the Cambrian explosion saw the rapid diversification and speciation of some the earliest complex eukaryote life. The first forests were in the process of transforming the landscape of the supercontinent Gondwana, unconstrained by the lack of large herbivorous animals, and the first tetrapods were appearing in the fossil record. Who knows what transformations the world and life will undergo during the next 370 million years?
I should note that the error bars for these numbers are high, and I’m making no concrete predictions here for the inhabitants of the world 369 million years from now to call me out on. The habitable zone as a theory itself is fraught with assumptions that are, at this stage of understanding, regrettably necessary and regularly challenged and amended.
The Clock is Ticking
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet LX
It remains intrinsically unsettling to consider the fact that at some point our lovely blue-green home planet will eventually lose its ability to support life. It is certain that, whether after 4.91 billion years or not, the edge of the gradually advancing theoretical boundary of habitability will near planet Earth; now an apocalyptic world of blistering heat and desolation, unrecognisable from today’s lush, watery paradise. As Sol’s mass, radiative output and surface temperature steadily increase, the Earth’s climate will eventually become scorching. The fundamental biogeochemical mechanisms that help to regulate the Earth’s climate will break down, buckling under the strain of the ever encroaching Sun, and a ‘runaway greenhouse‘ crisis will result. Caused by the evaporation of the oceans and the initiation of a irreversible water vapour/temperature feedback mechanism, the runaway greenhouse is thought to be responsible for the of climate of Venus today. High temperatures result in more water vapour in the air and higher humidity, which in turns boosts the temperature further causing more evaporation and more humidity. Eventually the Earth will become enveloped in thick, impenetrable cloud, insulating the surface and acting like an planet-wide pressure cooker, undoubtedly heralding the end of life on the Earth as we know it.
As the Sun grows larger and hotter, high energy particles from the solar wind will eventually strip away this thick atmosphere which will be forever lost to space. The parched, molten husk of the Earth, former home to countless organisms and every human ever to exist, as well as the stage to every single event, from the minuscule to the revolutionary that took place for nearly 5 billion years, will probably be devoured by the Sun long after it has become inhospitable for life, an incomprehensibly distant 7 billion years from now.
The Earth, my friends, is lost. But fear not, perhaps we could move out to Mars? Our dusty neighbour will move into the habitable zone approximately 1.7 billion years from now, and stay there for the remainder of the Sun’s main sequence lifetime. The Sun in it’s death throes will make for an incredible sight in the Martian sky. However, Mars has a very chaotic orbit, making it difficult to determine exactly where it will be in the distant future. On top of all this, it’s hard to predict what conditions will be like around the ageing Sun.
Well, so much for the Earth and Mars. Let’s hope that in the preceding 370 million years our descendants make it to a better world.
The Lives of Planets
The Super-Earth Gliese 581d (top left of plot) has an approximate habitable period of over 50 billion years. I don’t know about you, but I have real difficultly grasping the truly unfathomable immensity of that amount of time. Research suggests that its star, red dwarf Gliese 581, is approximately 8 billion years old, and therefore the habitable zone has been home to Gliese 581d for 1.4 times as long as the Earth has existed for, yet it is only 13% of the way through its total habitable period. Still, this isn’t to say that it’s ‘habitable’; there are plenty of other factors (its large mass for example) that suggests that it’s not a place where life would thrive. Although, given 50 billion years who knows what evolution could throw up?
Gliese 667Cc, also orbiting a red dwarf star, will be in the habitable zone for 1.8 billion years because it formed straddling the inner edge – it won’t be (relatively) long until the heat of its star overwhelms its ability to maintain a habitable environment, if it has one at all. It’s a similar story for the Super-Earth HD 85512 b. Despite it’s location in the habitable zone, it’s still too close to be habitable for any considerable length of time – a mere 603 million years which, if we draw on Earth’s evolutionary history for comparison, is barely enough time for the denizens of the Cambrian to make themselves comfortable, if we extrapolate backwards (and ignore the ~3.5 billion years that it took to get to this stage in the first place).
Kepler 22b is another excellent candidate for a habitable planet, orbiting well within the habitable zone and remaining there for 3.4 billion years. On Earth, 3.4 billion years ago, it is thought that the first primitive organisms had emerged and were building reefs (stromatolites) and going about their daily business of dividing and multiplying – the kind of stuff that modern bacteria tend to fill their lives with. From these humble beginnings we emerged eons later; perhaps the same can be true on Kepler 22b?
In the End…
I realise this has been quite a long article, and I appreciate you sticking it out to the end. I hope that you found it as interesting to read as I did to write. The concept of habitability through time hasn’t been explored in great detail, and I hope to refine these numbers and tweak the model and its assumptions to improve the accuracy of the estimates in the future. Nevertheless, I found it an interesting, and rather humbling, thought experiment if nothing else.
Perspective is important, and yet always in short supply. We’re currently 92% of the way through our planet’s habitable period, enjoying the twilight years of its habitable lifetime. We have to remember that the Earth isn’t going to be able to shelter us indefinitely and that all planets’ lives come to an end at some point. It’s worth bearing that mind when considering that despite our delusions of grandeur, our brief residence on this planet has been a fleeting blip in its long and tumultuous history. Our future may well be too.
As you may know if you frequent this blog often, I spend a fair amount of time writing about planets that astronomers spend a lot more time discovering. My main interest in these worlds lies with their ‘habitability’, a rather esoteric and loosely defined term that is primarily concerned with describing how broadly livable these planets are, in a very Earthcentric way. Planetary habitability is an extremely complex recipe that turns climatic, planetary and geological ingredients, added in just the right quantities, into a warm, salty, non-toxic broth. Perhaps life on other planets, if it exists, has completely different requirements, but without a good sample of inhabited planets teeming with life we can’t really be sure and have to make this assumption for now.
A reasonably good place to start looking for planets hosting these conditions is the ‘habitable zone‘ of stars, a concept that I’ve discussed before. The habitable zone describes an area around a star where a planet, if it was discovered to be orbiting within this area, could have liquid water on its surface. Stars of different masses and classifications have different habitable zone distances, and not all planets in the habitable zone are habitable: some may be too massive, others too small, many wouldn’t have the correct mix of atmospheric constituents, others may have no atmosphere at all. In fact, there are more reasons to think that planets, whether inside or outside the habitable zone, are more likely to be completely unsuitable for (Earth-like) life than there are to consider the opposite.
However, whilst habitability is variable in space, it is almost certainly variable in time as well. The habitable zone isn’t a fixed distance: its boundaries move outwards as the star undergoes main-sequence evolution, growing larger and hotter over time. More massive stars (classifications F, G and K) have the shortest main sequence lifetimes and therefore the habitable zone boundaries around these stars migrate outwards at a proportionally more rapid rate. Low mass stars, M-stars for example, have extensive lifetimes on the order of tens or hundreds of billions of (Earth) years, and therefore their habitable zones are relatively more static in time.
The Habitable Period: A Measure of Habitability Through Time
The time that a planet spends within the habitable zone can be considered its ‘habitable period‘. The habitable period of a planet is an important factor when considering the possibility of life on these worlds. A planet with a long habitable period is perhaps more likely to host complex organisms that require more time to evolve, if we make the assumption that evolution by natural selection is a universal constant, operating in a similar way in potential exobiological systems as it does on Earth. An alternative means of speciation has not been discovered on Earth, and natural selection has withstood 200 years of intense scientific scrutiny and analysis relatively unscathed. As before, with a sample of one assumptions have to be made.
Building on this idea, if it is possible to determine the extent of the habitable zone at the beginning and end of the star’s main sequence lifetime using modelling techniques, and estimate the approximate age of the star, then a rate of outward migration of the boundaries of the habitable zone can be derived and quantifying the habitable periods of these planets becomes a possibility.
The figures above go some what to illustrating this point: the image on the left shows the extent of the habitable zone of different stars at the stage at which the star enters the ‘main sequence‘ – the beginning of its hydrogen-burning life. I’ve included the Earth, Mars and the confirmed habitable zone exoplanets from the Habitable Exoplanet Catalog and plotted them at their semi-major axes. Note that the Earth and Kepler 22b are comfortably within the warming embrace of their respective suns’ habitable zone at this stage, whilst the other planets remain fairly peripheral. The figure on the right shows the same planets in the same relative orbital locations, but at the end of their star’s lives. Earth, Kepler 22b and most of the other planets, with the welcome exception of Mars (not likely to be at this location in the future anyway because of its chaotic orbit), have all been relegated to the dangerous and inhospitable ‘hot zone’ nearest the star as the boundaries of the habitable zone migrated past their positions at some point during stellar evolution. The rate at which the imaginary boundaries move outwards is proportional to the mass of the star, as discussed above.
I used a very simple model to estimate exactly how long these planets will spend in the habitable zone and I’ll post the results in the coming days.
Historically, the theory of panspermia (from the Greek pas meaning ‘all’ and sperma meaning ‘seed’) - that life exists throughout the Universe, and is distributed by asteroids, meteoroids and planetesimals - arose as an attempt to address fundamental concerns over the evolution of life on our planet, specifically the ability of life to evolve in the harsh conditions postulated to be present on the early Earth. The theory was re-popularised by Francis Crick (the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule) and Leslie Orgel in a 1973 paper that rather controversially suggested that life was intentionally sent to the Earth by an advanced civilisation on another planet.
Conditions on the early Earth were unlikely to have particularly conducive for life. A particularly unpleasant period of the Earth’s history, known as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), occurred at the Hadean-Archean boundary, roughly 4 Ga ago, and was characterised by extremely high cratering rates on inner Solar System planets, evident from petrological analysis of impact craters on the mostly undisturbed surface of the Moon. The LHB presents a conundrum when considering the evolution of life on Earth: a series of statistically plausible cataclysmic asteroid or meteorite impacts would have in effect sterilised the planet, boiling the oceans and obliterating vast swathes of terra firma. However, life arose rapidly after the LHB, recorded by carbon isotope analysis of sedimentary rocks to be possibly as early as ~3.8 Ga, in direct contention with our understanding of the probabilities of the critical evolutionary steps required for the evolution of life. Is it possible that the Earth was seeded with life during, or after, the Late Heavy Bombardment?
Approaching this problem methodically, organisms that survive interplanetary transfer would have to endure ejection from an impacted planet, transit in space and eventual re-entry and impact onto another world, thousands or perhaps millions of years later. Is this really feasible?
As it turns out, it is.
Studies analysing the factors associated with the ejection process considered the ability of bacteria to endure the associated extreme pressures, temperatures and acceleration likely to be experienced at the beginning of a trip to space. A study exposing spores of Bacillus subtilis to peak shock pressures of 32 GPa (gigapascals) and post-shock temperatures of 250 °C, similar to values expected to have been experienced by Martian ejecta, reported survival rates of 10-4, indicating that the high shock-pressures and heating associated with planetary escape may not be detrimental to bacterial survival in the long-term, providing that a significant fraction of the ejecta avoids being heated to > 100 °C. Similar research indicated that, even when Bacillus subtilis spores are subjected to acceleration 2.5 – 25 times greater than would be normally experienced by ejected material, survival rates remained between 40 and 100%.
Similarly, interplanetary space may not be as harsh an environment as initially thought, at least for bacteria encased in several metres of rock. However, there are still the issues of vacuum, long periods of thermal inactivation, desiccation, photolysis of volatiles, impacts with micrometeorites and most significantly ionising radiation, in the form of solar ultra-violet, solar particle events and galactic cosmic rays to deal with. Modelling studies suggest that organisms at the centre of objects greater than 100m in diameter receive a sterilising dose of radiation after 10 to 100 million years in space, whilst centimetre and smaller objects are sterilised in less than 10,000 years. For an estimate of transit duration, Monte-Carlo trajectory analysis used to estimate the likely duration of ejecta in space approximates that the vast majority of Martian meteorites reach the Earth within 10,000 to 100 million years; for approximately 0.1% of Martian meteorites the transit period is less than 10,000 years. On top of this, recent studies suggest that the space environment may actually be conducive to microorganism growth, providing adequate radiation defence is in place, due to a currently undiscovered mechanism disrupting the ability of antibiotics to inhibit the proliferation of bacteria.
Seems plausible so far, but what about landing? With no external evidence of lithopanspermic planetary colonisation as of yet this stage of the transfer process is perhaps the least well understood. The shock of a low angle (≤ 30°) impact is predicted to be less than those associated with ejection, so a viable population may be able to survive landing. Even large organisms, such as the worms recovered from the wreckage of the Columbia space shuttle, may be able to weather re-entry. However, environmental conditions such as nutrient availability and appropriate osmolarity, low toxicity and low predation will dictate the ability of surviving organisms to colonise the planet.
Considering the time scale of the evolution of the Solar System, the ejecta liberating LHB event and the results of empirical studies on Earth and in space, the possibility of panspermia may not as unfeasible as it first appears…