Institute of Astronomy

Formation of Earth and life

Published on 07/11/2012 
Question: 

Hello, I was talking to someone the other day and we got onto the subject of Space as it fascinates me, thinking about space and how life began on Earth is the one thing i can't get my head round, thats why it fascinates me. So anyways, I was wondering, is it possible that the planet we know as home, Earth, wasn't always where we are are now? What I mean is, when I try and think how life began on Earth, maybe Microscopic life to begin with yet life doesn't just start. it has to have something to begin with, you cant put a rock into space, leave it for a few million years and then come back and there will be life on it. What I am wondering is, was life on Earth, whatever it was in the start, frozen on a drifting Asteroid, that Asteroid being Earth, kind of like Pluto is at the moment, just a huge planet of ice and rock, though this huge drifting Asteroid of Ice and Rock was glancing past the sun and got pulled into the circular gravitational pull and now rotates. Obviously of Earth was going on a head on course with the Sun it couldn't be pulled into a a gravitational circle as it would be too sharp a turn, though if it was glancing past the sun it could maybee have got pulled into the gravitational pull, then with the heat of the Sun being just right over the years the Sun defrosted this huge block of ice and rock and slowly thawed out the life, almost like the life was in Cryostasis and now its being defrosted, this can happen as theres a certain moth that does this in the Arctic, gets frozen over winter and defrosts and comes back to life in Spring, just wondered if that has every been wondered and what the answer was, that mabye our Earth and life didn't begin where we think it did, instead Earth actually drifted in from another part of space and got caught in the Suns Gravitational pull and the heat defrosted it and allowed life to begin, well not begin, but carry on now its been thawed out, then over the years the speed of the earth rotating combined with it spinning on all axis sort of moulded into a circular shape planet, kind of like sanding it down. Long question I know but it was on my mind, it also seems a bit more plausable, that life didn't begin in the Milky Way, instead the Milky Way is where our planet ended up and thawed out the life that was on it. Just wondered. Btw I don't study Astronomy, just interests me as its the only thing I can't get my head around so I tend to thing about things, so excuse me if this has already been answered. Thanks for your time, all the best

Thanks for your question.  To answer it, it is useful to split it into two parts; 'did Earth form in the solar system?' and 'was Earth the birthplace of the living organisms that now populate it?'

The answer to the first part of that question is almost certainly yes, Earth did form in the solar system.  The process of planet formation involves quite a bit of jostling about so all of the components that went on to form the young Earth did not necessarily come from near the current orbit of Earth but it would be almost impossible to place a rocky planet into the current orbit of Earth by capturing it.  While it is possible for planets to be ejected during formation, space is really very empty and the probability of an ejected planet passing near to another star is very low.  Even if it did happen and the planet was captured it would end up in a very wide very eccentric orbit (similar to a comet) very different to the current orbit of Earth and although orbits do change over time it would be very difficult to change a comet-like orbit into an Earth-like one.

The question as to whether the genesis of life on Earth was indeed on Earth is a very different one and one that has had a great deal of discussion in one form or another for centuries.  If you look up panspermia you will be able to find far more information than I can give you here, though it is good to be aware that there are some rather crazy ideas out there.  It can be something of a controversial topic but as yet no one has come up with a complete theory explaining how life can arise from non-living material either so it is difficult to really say which is the more likely origin of life on Earth.  Anyway the basic idea of panspermia is that life is spread throughout the universe by asteroids and comets, rather like your suggestion.  As well as the suggestion that life first arrived in the solar system by such a mechanism there is the related suggestion that life could be spread throughout the solar system in the same way if it did first arise within the solar system.  As the only place we know of at the moment that has life is Earth it is difficult to make deductions.  Research is being done into investigating how long terrestrial microbes can survive in space, the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission had a small capsule on board that was designed to test whether the microbes contained within it could survive in space for the 3 year length of the mission, but unfortunately, as you may have heard on the news, that ended up in the Pacific.  When we have more experiments like that, or if life is found somewhere else in the solar system, like Mars or Europa, we can begin to answer the question of where life on Earth arose, and how widespread life is in the universe, in more detail.  All we have to go on at the moment is that pretty much anywhere you look on Earth, no matter how extreme, you find life.

Page last updated: 7 November 2012 at 15:30