SciCombinator

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Concept: Planetary habitability

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The lower cloud layer of Venus (47.5-50.5 km) is an exceptional target for exploration due to the favorable conditions for microbial life, including moderate temperatures and pressures (∼60°C and 1 atm), and the presence of micron-sized sulfuric acid aerosols. Nearly a century after the ultraviolet (UV) contrasts of Venus' cloud layer were discovered with Earth-based photographs, the substances and mechanisms responsible for the changes in Venus' contrasts and albedo are still unknown. While current models include sulfur dioxide and iron chloride as the UV absorbers, the temporal and spatial changes in contrasts, and albedo, between 330 and 500 nm, remain to be fully explained. Within this context, we present a discussion regarding the potential for microorganisms to survive in Venus' lower clouds and contribute to the observed bulk spectra. In this article, we provide an overview of relevant Venus observations, compare the spectral and physical properties of Venus' clouds to terrestrial biological materials, review the potential for an iron- and sulfur-centered metabolism in the clouds, discuss conceivable mechanisms of transport from the surface toward a more habitable zone in the clouds, and identify spectral and biological experiments that could measure the habitability of Venus' clouds and terrestrial analogues. Together, our lines of reasoning suggest that particles in Venus' lower clouds contain sufficient mass balance to harbor microorganisms, water, and solutes, and potentially sufficient biomass to be detected by optical methods. As such, the comparisons presented in this article warrant further investigations into the prospect of biosignatures in Venus' clouds. Key Words: Venus-Clouds-Life-Habitability-Microorganism-Albedo-Spectroscopy-Biosignatures-Aerosol-Sulfuric Acid. Astrobiology 18, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: Oxygen, Bacteria, Sulfur, Sulfuric acid, Microorganism, Sulfur dioxide, Venus, Planetary habitability

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Abstract Extrasolar Earth and super-Earth planets orbiting within the habitable zone of M dwarf host stars may play a significant role in the discovery of habitable environments beyond Earth. Spectroscopic characterization of these exoplanets with respect to habitability requires the determination of habitability parameters with respect to remote sensing. The habitable zone of dwarf stars is located in close proximity to the host star, such that exoplanets orbiting within this zone will likely be tidally locked. On terrestrial planets with an icy shell, this may produce a liquid water ocean at the substellar point, one particular “Eyeball Earth” state. In this research proposal, HABEBEE: exploring the HABitability of Eyeball-Exo-Earths, we define the parameters necessary to achieve a stable icy Eyeball Earth capable of supporting life. Astronomical and geochemical research will define parameters needed to simulate potentially habitable environments on an icy Eyeball Earth planet. Biological requirements will be based on detailed studies of microbial communities within Earth analog environments. Using the interdisciplinary results of both the physical and biological teams, we will set up a simulation chamber to expose a cold- and UV-tolerant microbial community to the theoretically derived Eyeball Earth climate states, simulating the composition, atmosphere, physical parameters, and stellar irradiation. Combining the results of both studies will enable us to derive observable parameters as well as target decision guidance and feasibility analysis for upcoming astronomical platforms. Key Words: Bioastronomy-Extrasolar planets-Extreme environments-Extremophiles-Habitable zone. Astrobiology 13, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: Earth, Planet, Star, Terrestrial planet, Extrasolar planet, Extraterrestrial life, Habitable zone, Planetary habitability

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Abstract Data from automated orbiters and landers have dashed humankind’s hopes of finding complex life-forms elsewhere in the Solar System. The focus of exobiological research was thus forced to shift from the detection of life through simple visual imaging to complex biochemical experiments aimed at the detection of microbial activity. Searching for biosignatures over interplanetary distances is a formidable task and poses the dilemma of what are the proper experiments that can be performed on-site to maximize the chances of success if extraterrestrial life is present but not evident. Despite their astonishing morphological diversity, all known organisms on Earth share the same basic molecular architecture; thus the vast majority of our detection and identification techniques are b(i)ased on Terran biochemistry. There is, however, a distinct possibility that life may have emerged elsewhere by using other molecular building blocks, a fact that is likely to make the outcome of most of the current molecular biological and biochemical life-detection protocols difficult to interpret if not completely ineffective. Nanopore-based sensing devices allow the analysis of single molecules, including the sequence of informational biopolymers such as DNA or RNA, by measuring current changes across an electrically resistant membrane when the analyte flows through an embedded transmembrane protein or a solid-state nanopore. Under certain basic assumptions about their physical properties, this technology has the potential to discriminate and possibly analyze biopolymers, in particular genetic information carriers, without prior detailed knowledge of their fundamental chemistry and is sufficiently portable to be used for automated analysis in planetary exploration, all of which makes it the ideal candidate for the search for life signatures in remote watery environments such as Mars, Europa, or Enceladus. Key Words: Astrobiology-Biopolymers-Biosignatures-Nucleic acids-Life detection. Astrobiology 14, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: DNA, Molecular biology, Chemistry, Solar System, Astrobiology, Extraterrestrial life, Planetary habitability, Europa

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Advances in planetary and space sciences, astrobiology, and life and cognitive sciences, combined with developments in communication theory, bioneural computing, machine learning, and big data analysis, create new opportunities to explore the probabilistic nature of alien life. Brought together in a multidisciplinary approach, they have the potential to support an integrated and expanded Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI (1) ), a search that includes looking for life as we do not know it. This approach will augment the odds of detecting a signal by broadening our understanding of the evolutionary and systemic components in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), provide more targets for radio and optical SETI, and identify new ways of decoding and coding messages using universal markers.

Concepts: Life, Fermi paradox, Extrasolar planet, Astrobiology, Extraterrestrial life, Planetary habitability, SETI, Panspermia

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Over the past few years, astronomers have detected thousands of planets and candidate planets by observing their periodic transits in front of their host stars. A related method, called transit spectroscopy, might soon allow studies of the chemical imprints of life in extrasolar planetary atmospheres. Here, we address the reciprocal question, namely, from where is Earth detectable by extrasolar observers using similar methods. We explore Earth’s transit zone (ETZ), the projection of a band around Earth’s ecliptic onto the celestial plane, where observers can detect Earth transits across the Sun. ETZ is between 0.520° and 0.537° wide due to the noncircular Earth orbit. The restricted Earth transit zone (rETZ), where Earth transits the Sun less than 0.5 solar radii from its center, is about 0.262° wide. We first compile a target list of 45 K and 37 G dwarf stars inside the rETZ and within 1 kpc (about 3260 light-years) using the Hipparcos catalogue. We then greatly enlarge the number of potential targets by constructing an analytic galactic disk model and find that about 10(5) K and G dwarf stars should reside within the rETZ. The ongoing Gaia space mission can potentially discover all G dwarfs among them (several 10(4)) within the next 5 years. Many more potentially habitable planets orbit dim, unknown M stars in ETZ and other stars that traversed ETZ thousands of years ago. If any of these planets host intelligent observers, they could have identified Earth as a habitable, or even as a living, world long ago, and we could be receiving their broadcasts today. The K2 mission, the Allen Telescope Array, the upcoming Square Kilometer Array, or the Green Bank Telescope might detect such deliberate extraterrestrial messages. Ultimately, ETZ would be an ideal region to be monitored by the Breakthrough Listen Initiatives, an upcoming survey that will constitute the most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence so far. Key Words: Astrobiology-Extraterrestrial life-Intelligence-Life detection-SETI. Astrobiology 16, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: Sun, Planet, Mars, Star, Jupiter, Extrasolar planet, Astronomical unit, Planetary habitability

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Previous studies of the galactic habitable zone have been concerned with identifying those regions of the Galaxy that may favor the emergence of complex life. A planet is deemed habitable if it meets a set of assumed criteria for supporting the emergence of such complex life. In this work, we extend the assessment of habitability to consider the potential for life to further evolve to the point of intelligence-termed the propensity for the emergence of intelligent life, φI. We assume φI is strongly influenced by the time durations available for evolutionary processes to proceed undisturbed by the sterilizing effects of nearby supernovae. The times between supernova events provide windows of opportunity for the evolution of intelligence. We developed a model that allows us to analyze these window times to generate a metric for φI, and we examine here the spatial and temporal variation of this metric. Even under the assumption that long time durations are required between sterilizations to allow for the emergence of intelligence, our model suggests that the inner Galaxy provides the greatest number of opportunities for intelligence to arise. This is due to the substantially higher number density of habitable planets in this region, which outweighs the effects of a higher supernova rate in the region. Our model also shows that φI is increasing with time. Intelligent life emerged at approximately the present time at Earth’s galactocentric radius, but a similar level of evolutionary opportunity was available in the inner Galaxy more than 2 Gyr ago. Our findings suggest that the inner Galaxy should logically be a prime target region for searches for extraterrestrial intelligence and that any civilizations that may have emerged there are potentially much older than our own. Key Words: Galactic habitable zone-Intelligent life-SETI. Astrobiology 15, 683-696.

Concepts: Present, Time, Evolution, Planet, Extrasolar planet, Extraterrestrial life, Habitable zone, Planetary habitability

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Concepts underpinning the planetary boundaries framework are being incorporated into multilateral discussions on sustainability, influencing international environmental policy development. Research underlying the boundaries has primarily focused on terrestrial systems, despite the fundamental role of marine biomes for Earth system function and societal wellbeing, seriously hindering the efficacy of the boundary approach. We explore boundaries from a marine perspective. For each boundary, we show how improved integration of marine systems influences our understanding of the risk of crossing these limits. Better integration of marine systems is essential if planetary boundaries are to inform Earth system governance.

Concepts: Earth, Planet, Dwarf planet, Policy, Venus, Terrestrial planet, Governance, Planetary habitability

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Abstract To be habitable, a world (planet or moon) does not need to be located in the stellar habitable zone (HZ), and worlds in the HZ are not necessarily habitable. Here, we illustrate how tidal heating can render terrestrial or icy worlds habitable beyond the stellar HZ. Scientists have developed a language that neglects the possible existence of worlds that offer more benign environments to life than Earth does. We call these objects “superhabitable” and discuss in which contexts this term could be used, that is to say, which worlds tend to be more habitable than Earth. In an appendix, we show why the principle of mediocracy cannot be used to logically explain why Earth should be a particularly habitable planet or why other inhabited worlds should be Earth-like. Superhabitable worlds must be considered for future follow-up observations of signs of extraterrestrial life. Considering a range of physical effects, we conclude that they will tend to be slightly older and more massive than Earth and that their host stars will likely be K dwarfs. This makes Alpha Centauri B, which is a member of the closest stellar system to the Sun and is supposed to host an Earth-mass planet, an ideal target for searches for a superhabitable world. Key Words: Extrasolar terrestrial planets-Extraterrestrial life-Habitability-Planetary environments-Tides. Astrobiology 14, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Planet, Extrasolar planet, Alpha Centauri, Extraterrestrial life, Planetary habitability

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The presence of an atmosphere over sufficiently long timescales is widely perceived as one of the most prominent criteria associated with planetary surface habitability. We address the crucial question of whether the seven Earth-sized planets transiting the recently discovered ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 are capable of retaining their atmospheres. To this effect, we carry out numerical simulations to characterize the stellar wind of TRAPPIST-1 and the atmospheric ion escape rates for all of the seven planets. We also estimate the escape rates analytically and demonstrate that they are in good agreement with the numerical results. We conclude that the outer planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system are capable of retaining their atmospheres over billion-year timescales. The consequences arising from our results are also explored in the context of abiogenesis, biodiversity, and searches for future exoplanets. In light of the many unknowns and assumptions involved, we recommend that these conclusions must be interpreted with due caution.

Concepts: Earth, Planet, Atmosphere, Star, Venus, Gas giant, Terrestrial planet, Planetary habitability

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We show that terrestrial planets in the habitable zones of M dwarfs older than ∼1 Gyr could have been in runaway greenhouses for several hundred million years following their formation due to the star’s extended pre-main sequence phase, provided they form with abundant surface water. Such prolonged runaway greenhouses can lead to planetary evolution divergent from that of Earth. During this early runaway phase, photolysis of water vapor and hydrogen/oxygen escape to space can lead to the loss of several Earth oceans of water from planets throughout the habitable zone, regardless of whether the escape is energy-limited or diffusion-limited. We find that the amount of water lost scales with the planet mass, since the diffusion-limited hydrogen escape flux is proportional to the planet surface gravity. In addition to undergoing potential desiccation, planets with inefficient oxygen sinks at the surface may build up hundreds to thousands of bar of abiotically produced O2, resulting in potential false positives for life. The amount of O2 that builds up also scales with the planet mass; we find that O2 builds up at a constant rate that is controlled by diffusion: ∼5 bar/Myr on Earth-mass planets and up to ∼25 bar/Myr on super-Earths. As a result, some recently discovered super-Earths in the habitable zone such as GJ 667Cc could have built up as many as 2000 bar of O2 due to the loss of up to 10 Earth oceans of water. The fate of a given planet strongly depends on the extreme ultraviolet flux, the duration of the runaway regime, the initial water content, and the rate at which oxygen is absorbed by the surface. In general, we find that the initial phase of high luminosity may compromise the habitability of many terrestrial planets orbiting low-mass stars. Key Words: Astrobiology-Biosignatures-Extrasolar terrestrial planets-Habitability-Planetary atmospheres. Astrobiology 15, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: Water, Earth, Planet, Mars, Star, Terrestrial planet, Habitable zone, Planetary habitability