Institute of Astronomy

 

Ask an Astronomer - Extraterrestrial Life

What kind of alien life to look for?

Published on 10/04/2014 
Question: 

I've been wondering about this for some years now, scientists have been trying to find alien life in paces similar to Earth, they're trying to find a place with water, decent temp, etc.
   It's as if they're trying to look for humans :O, but what really confuses me is that 90% if not all of astronomers believe in evolution, so they'll agree to the fact that we (humans) are the way we are because of our environment and the way we've adapted to our surroundings in the last 100,000 years if there was no water, would that mean that we wouldn't be here right now? Through evolution we would've adapted to our surroundings and not needed water to live, wouldn't it be the something with Aliens? If there life started in a place that had no oxygen and no water, they would've just not need oxygen and water to live, so shouldn't we be looking EVERYWHERE? We are searching for places that would support us, and maybe only us, which is probably why we haven't found something yet

The argument that looking for 'Earth-like' life might blind us to finding potentially dramatically different kinds of life that might even be more common from a universal perspective is one that people have put a considerable amount of thought into.

Essentially the issue boils down this - if lifeforms arise that are completely unlike any on Earth today, then what would they be like and how would we detect their presence?  Without an example of a non-Earth-like lifeform that question is pretty much unanswerable. We can (and people have) come up with rough ideas of how organisms with completely alien biochemistries might operate, but there is no real way of testing how accurate those ideas might be.  What we do know however is what life on Earth is like, and one thing that every living thing on Earth needs is water, which only exists in a usable, liquid, form in a fairly narrow temperature range.  Since Earth-like life is the only thing we know how to look for, that is what we are looking for.  If we discover life somewhere else, such as on Jupiter's moon Europa, then we will have a better idea whether all life shares certain basic requirements or whether there are forms of life that are dramatically different from Earth-like life.

Habitable planets

Published on 08/11/2013 
Question: 

Two questions, which are linked.

Occasionally there is some coverage in the media about the continuing discovery of planets around other star systems in the Milky Way, through the work of the Kepler telescope, and other initiatives. Is there a place on the web I can go to, to check what the latest thinking on all of this work is? I'm thinking of an up to date receod of things like numbers of candidate habitable planets discovered, where they are, stuff like that.

Second question, is there any work being done to try to identify such planets around either Alpha Centauri A or B? Is there somewhere I can go to on the web to see what the current thinking and evidence is from any work on these stars and their surrounding planets, and whether any might be in the 'goldilocks' zone for these stars?

There are several websites that maintain catalogues of exoplanet discoveries, with the two most well known being the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia (www.exoplanet.eu) run by Jean Schneider at the Paris Observatory, and the Exoplanet Data explorer (www.exoplanets.org) run by NASA, both of which provide facilities for plotting some of the basic parameters of the planets.  Both of those catalogues also have links to other pages about exoplanets, including things like discussion of potential habitable zone planets (though on that particular point be warned that there is no definitive agreement about the location of the habitable zone so you will likely find significant differences between different sources).

Alpha Centauri, as you can imagine being the nearest star system to our own Sun, has been extensively studied for many years to determine whether it has planets.  Last year a roughly Earth-mass planet was reported around Alpha Cen. B orbiting at 0.04AU (about a tenth of the orbital distance of Mercury), however there is considerable controversy surrounding this discovery and it has yet to be confirmed.  The existence of any planets larger than around Neptune has already been ruled out in the Alpha Centauri system, however finding, or ruling out, small, Earth-size, planets at Earth-like orbital distances is exceptionally difficult.  The Wikipedia article on Alpha Centauri Bb actually does a very good job of summarising the current situation.

Microscopic life on other planets

Published on 27/08/2013 
Question: 

I was reading lots on the planets and the atmosphere around them. We have detected creatures in the icy lakes and in very hot areas. I was wondering can there be life on other planets. They may not be aliens but some sort of creatures living on other planets. And if so yes, how could they live on other planets?

The most likely kind of 'aliens' are indeed bacteria and other small micro-organisms similar to the ones that we have found in extreme environments on Earth, such as frozen lakes, hot springs and thermal vents.  There are long term plans to send a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa to search for just this kind of life.  We know that Europa has a liquid ocean beneath it's icy surface, and the geological activity induced by the tides from Jupiter may well result in thermal vents very similar to those found on the ocean floor near mid-ocean ridges on Earth.

Pretty much everywhere we look on Earth we find life that has adapted to living there, and we can see places elsewhere in the solar system that look like they may have environments similar to ones we have found life in on Earth.  Sending missions to these places and finding out whether they also have life will tell us a lot about how common life is in the universe, and how life evolved on Earth.  Missions like that are very complicated, and expensive, however, partly as we need to make sure that they don't accidentally take any Earth life with them.  It would be rather annoying to have sent a mission millions of kilometres only to detect bacteria that have hitch-hiked from Earth!

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.

How many solar systems are there?

Published on 24/09/2012 
Question: 

How many solar systems are present in the Universe and what is the possibility of finding a solar system similar to ours?

Those are very good questions, and ones to which we don't quite know the answer.  There are a number of projects running at the moment that hope to try and provide some answers, such as NASA's Kepler mission and the European CoRoT, as well as various ground-based efforts.  So far they are suggesting that a reasonable fraction of stars (around 10 per cent or even more) have planets, but so far we have not really able to find systems quite like our own.

In terms of the number of solar systems present in the universe, there are something like 300 billion stars in the Milky Way, so if 10 per cent of them have planets there are around 30 billion planets in our galaxy alone, and there are over 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe for a total of something in the order of 10^21 (that's 1 then 21 zeros) planets in the observable Universe.  There is still quite a bit of uncertainty in that number however, and we don't yet know how many of them would look like our solar system.