Friday, April 20, 2012

News From Elsewhere

In December this year it will be forty years since human beings escaped low Earth orbit; forty years since the end of Apollo. But although there are no cities on the Moon, or expeditions to Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of Jupiter, it's a golden age for space science. Just about every day I'm excited by a new piece of research, a new discovery, a new image of some sublime extraterrestrial landscape.

A couple of days ago, for instance, there was advance publicity for an astrophysics paper describing the computer simulation of trajectories of free-floating planets in star clusters. The investigators discovered that if the number of planets equalled the number of stars in the cluster, then over time some 6 - 8 per cent of the planets were captured by stars. Given that ejection of planets appears to pretty common during formation of planetary systems, not only is the Galaxy teeming with rogue planets, but many star systems may contain captured planets, distinguished by distant and eccentric orbits.  Far-fetched? We have an example of a similar mechanism right here in the Solar System.The outermost moons of Saturn are almost certainly captured bodies that were ejected from the Kuiper belt, out beyond Pluto's orbit, and were captured by Saturn as they migrated inwards.  These little moons possess distant, inclined and often irregular orbits.  They cluster in three groups - Inuit, Gallic and Norse - and the members of each group may well be fragments of a parent body that broke up.  The best known and largest irregular moon is Phoebe, a couple of hundred kilometres in diameter, orbiting in the opposite direction to the inner moons, and the source of dark material that forms Saturn's largest ring (which was unknown until a few years ago) and darkens the leading hemisphere of the ying-yang moon, Iapetus.

That dark ring was discovered by examination of data and images collected by the Cassini spacecraft, still in orbit around Saturn, and still working hard after entering orbit around Saturn some eight years ago. One of the Cassini team's latest discoveries is that one of the hydrocarbon lakes in the south polar region of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, appears to behave like a salt pan in Namibia; both are depressions that drain in the dry season and refill from below, fed by groundwater (or ground hydrocarbons, in the case of Titan's lake). Titan and Earth are the only bodies in the Solar System known to possess hydrological cycles. Although Earth's cycle is based on water, and Titan's on methane, ethane and propane, there amazing similarities. Cassini's extended missions have allowed it to observe seasonal changes in Titan's rain patterns and the size of its lakes, something a human-crewed mission would be hard-pressed to do, given that Saturn takes 29.7 years to complete an orbit, and seasons on the gas giant and Titan are correspondingly longer than seasons on Earth. But maybe somewhere on Titan there are dry salt pans, old, large, and very flat, like the Bonneville salt pans in Nevada, but composed of something like asphalt. Imagine the drag-racing possibilities...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Life On The Drift

The New Scientist reports that Japanese scientists have calculated that microbes riding rocks knocked off Earth could not only have seeded bodies in the solar system which may be able to support life, but could have seeded Earth-like exoplanets like Gliese 581d, too. At first glance, it's a perfect example of science-journalism catnip: DINOSAUR-KILLING ASTEROIDS! EXOPLANETS! ALIEN LIFE!. But the paper it cites, by Tesuya Hara and colleagues, is a serious examination of the probability that life on one planet could seed other hospitable planets and moons; an attempt to pin down some of the factors that make the old idea of panspermia possible.

Hard panspermia theory suggests that life originated in just one stellar system in the Galaxy about ten billion years ago, and spread out to planets around other stars, including Earth.  It assumes that life is unlikely to arise more than once, that big whacks like the dinosaur-killing Chixulub impact could knock debris off Earth's surface and into interplanetary space, and that microbes could survive inside rocks for the million-odd years it would take to drift to another star system.  Hara et al's paper suggests that more than one fragment of debris could reach stellar systems within twenty light years of the sun, and microbes might survive if those fragments were embedded in icy material like comets, which would shelter it from cosmic radiation.

It's a neat idea.  Doughtly little microbes minding their own business when they're suddenly knocked off Earth by a fiery cataclysm, snoozing away a million years inside a centimetre-long spaceship of solid rock, plunging into an alien ocean and getting busy with the business of evolution.  But like all ideas associated with panspermia, it is based on the very big assumption that abiogenesis, the spontaneous generation of life, is a highly unlikely event; an assumption that tends to degrade into an argument about First Cause that is as yet is impossible to answer because we have only one example of a life-bearing planet.  (And it's possible that life on Earth arose more than once, but other forms were wiped out by catastrophic impacts, or were out-competed by our very early ancestors, leaving only fossils or refuge populations surviving in niche habitats.  In that context, discovery of microbes with characteristics radically different from all other known species would be as important as discovery of life on another world.  That's why NASA made a big noise about the possible (and now largely discredited) discovery of a microbe that appeared to substitute arsenic for phosphorous in its metabolism.)

If we found life on Mars, and that life closely resembled life on Earth, then we'd certainly have to take the idea of panspermia (or at least its weaker cousin, exogenesis) within the solar system seriously.  But given that one estimate puts the number of Earth-like planets in the Galaxy at around ten billion, abiogenesis would have to be an extremely rare event for it to have occurred only once.  Martians may be from Earth (or we may be Martians), but despite the calculations of Hara et al about the probability of the chain of steps required to transfer life from one stellar system to another, it still seems most likely that if ever do meet any aliens, they'll be genuinely alien, products of a creation utterly separate from our own.

(Thanks to James Bradley for pointing me towards the article.)
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