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30.3: Searching for Life beyond Earth

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Outline what we have learned from exploration of the environment on Mars
  • Identify where in the solar system life is most likely sustainable and why
  • Describe some key missions and their findings in our search for life beyond our solar system
  • Explain the use of biomarkers in the search for evidence of life beyond our solar system

Astronomers and planetary scientists continue to search for life in the solar system and the universe at large. In this section, we discuss two kinds of searches. First is the direct exploration of planets within our own solar system, especially Mars and some of the icy moons of the outer solar system. Second is the even more difficult task of searching for evidence of life—a biomarker—on planets circling other stars. In the next section, we will examine SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. As you will see, the approaches taken in these three cases are very different, even though the goal of each is the same: to determine if life on Earth is unique in the universe.

Life on Mars

The possibility that Mars hosts, or has hosted, life has a rich history dating back to the “canals” that some people claimed to see on the martian surface toward the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. With the dawn of the space age came the possibility to address this question up close through a progression of missions to Mars that began with the first successful flyby of a robotic spacecraft in 1964 and have led to the deployment of NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars’ surface in 2012.

The earliest missions to Mars provided some hints that liquid water—one of life’s primary requirements—may once have flowed on the surface, and later missions have strengthened this conclusion. The NASA Viking landers, whose purpose was to search directly for evidence of life on Mars, arrived on Mars in 1976. Viking’s onboard instruments found no organic molecules (the stuff of which life is made), and no evidence of biological activity in the martian soils it analyzed.

This result is not particularly surprising because, despite the evidence of flowing liquid water in the past, liquid water on the surface of Mars is generally not stable today. Over much of Mars, temperatures and pressures at the surface are so low that pure water would either freeze or boil away (under very low pressures, water will boil at a much lower temperature than usual). To make matters worse, unlike Earth, Mars does not have a magnetic field and ozone layer to protect the surface from harmful solar ultraviolet radiation and energetic particles. However, Viking’s analyses of the soil said nothing about whether life may have existed in Mars’ distant past, when liquid water was more abundant. We do know that water in the form of ice exists in abundance on Mars, not so deep beneath its surface. Water vapor is also a constituent of the atmosphere of Mars.

Since the visit of Viking, our understanding of Mars has deepened spectacularly. Orbiting spacecraft have provided ever-more detailed images of the surface and detected the presence of minerals that could have formed only in the presence of liquid water. Two bold surface missions, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity (2004), followed by the much larger Curiosity Rover (2012), confirmed these remote-sensing data. All three rovers found abundant evidence for a past history of liquid water, revealed not only from the mineralogy of rocks they analyzed, but also from the unique layering of rock formations.

Curiosity has gone a step beyond evidence for water and confirmed the existence of habitable environments on ancient Mars. “Habitable” means not only that liquid water was present, but that life’s requirements for energy and elemental raw materials could also have been met. The strongest evidence of an ancient habitable environment came from analyzing a very fine-grained rock called a mudstone—a rock type that is widespread on Earth but was unknown on Mars until Curiosity found it (see Figure). The mudstone can tell us a great deal about the wet environments in which they formed.

 

Mudstone.

Shown are the first holes drilled by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover into a mudstone, with “fresh” drill-pilings around the holes. Notice the difference in color between the red ancient martian surface and the gray newly exposed rock powder that came from the drill holes. Each drill hole is about 0.6 inch (1.6 cm) in diameter.

Five decades of robotic exploration have allowed us to develop a picture of how Mars evolved through time. Early Mars had epochs of warmer and wetter conditions that would have been conducive to life at the surface. However, Mars eventually lost much of its early atmosphere and the surface water began to dry up. As that happened, the ever-shrinking reservoirs of liquid water on the martian surface became saltier and more acidic, until the surface finally had no significant liquid water and was bathed in harsh solar radiation. The surface thus became uninhabitable, but this might not be the case for the planet overall.

Reservoirs of ice and liquid water could still exist underground, where pressure and temperature conditions make it stable. There is recent evidence to suggest that liquid water (probably very salty water) can occasionally (and briefly) flow on the surface even today. Thus, Mars might even have habitable conditions in the present day, but of a much different sort than we normally think of on Earth.

Our study of Mars reveals a planet with a fascinating history—one that saw its ability to host surface life dwindle billions of years ago, but perhaps allowing life to adapt and survive in favorable environmental niches. Even if life did not survive, we expect that we might find evidence of life if it ever took hold on Mars. If it is there, it is hidden in the crust, and we are still learning how best to decipher that evidence.

Life in the Outer Solar System

The massive gas and ice giant planets of the outer solar system—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—are almost certainly not habitable for life as we know it, but some of their moons might be (see Figure). Although these worlds in the outer solar system contain abundant water, they receive so little warming sunlight in their distant orbits that it was long believed they would be “geologically dead” balls of hard-frozen ice and rock. But, as we saw in the chapter on Rings, Moons, and Pluto, missions to the outer solar system have found something much more interesting.

Jupiter’s moon Europa revealed itself to the Voyager and Galileo missions as an active world whose icy surface apparently conceals an ocean with a depth of tens to perhaps a hundred kilometers. As the moon orbits Jupiter, the planet’s massive gravity creates tides on Europa—just as our own Moon’s gravity creates our ocean tides—and the friction of all that pushing and pulling generates enough heat to keep the water in liquid form (Figure). Similar tides act upon other moons if they orbit close to the planet. Scientists now think that six or more of the outer solar system’s icy moons may harbor liquid water oceans for the same reason. Among these, Europa and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, have thus far been of greatest interest to astrobiologists.

 

Jupiter’s Moons.

The Galilean moons of Jupiter are shown to relative scale and arranged in order of their orbital distance from Jupiter. At far left, Io orbits closest to Jupiter and so experiences the strongest tidal heating by Jupiter’s massive gravity. This effect is so strong that Io is thought to be the most volcanically active body in our solar system. At far right, Callisto shows a surface scarred by billions of years’ worth of craters—an indication that the moon’s surface is old and that Callisto may be far less active than its sibling moons. Between these hot and cold extremes, Europa, second from left, orbits at a distance where Jupiter’s tidal heating may be “just right” to sustain a liquid water ocean beneath its icy crust.

Europa has probably had an ocean for most or all of its history, but habitability requires more than just liquid water. Life also requires energy, and because sunlight does not penetrate below the kilometers-thick ice crust of Europa, this would have to be chemical energy. One of Europa’s key attributes from an astrobiology perspective is that its ocean is most likely in direct contact with an underlying rocky mantle, and the interaction of water and rocks—especially at high temperatures, as within Earth’s hydrothermal vent systems—yields a reducing chemistry (where molecules tend to give up electrons readily) that is like one half of a chemical battery. To complete the battery and provide energy that could be used by life requires that an oxidizing chemistry(where molecules tend to accept electrons readily) also be available. On Earth, when chemically reducing vent fluids meet oxygen-containing seawater, the energy that becomes available often supports thriving communities of microorganisms and animals on the sea floor, far from the light of the Sun.

The Galileo mission found that Europa’s icy surface does contain an abundance of oxidizing chemicals. This means that availability of energy to support life depends very much on whether the chemistry of the surface and the ocean can mix, despite the kilometers of ice in between. That Europa’s ice crust appears geologically “young” (only tens of millions of years old, on average) and that it is active makes it tantalizing to think that such mixing might indeed occur. Understanding whether and how much exchange occurs between the surface and ocean of Europa will be a key science objective of future missions to Europa, and a major step forward in understanding whether this moon could be a cradle of life.

 

Jupiter’s Moon Europa, as Imaged by NASA’s Galileo Mission.

The relative scarcity of craters on Europa suggests a surface that is “geologically young,” and the network of colored ridges and cracks suggests constant activity and motion. Galileo’s instruments also strongly suggested the presence of a massive ocean of salty liquid water beneath the icy crust.

In 2005, the Cassini mission performed a close flyby of a small (500-kilometer diameter) moon of Saturn, Enceladus (Figure), and made a remarkable discovery. Plumes of gas and icy material were venting from the moon’s south polar region at a collective rate of about 250 kilograms of material per second. Several observations, including the discovery of salts associated with the icy material, suggest that their source is a liquid water ocean beneath tens of kilometers of ice. Although it remains to be shown definitively whether the ocean is local or global, transient or long-lived, it does appear to be in contact, and to have reacted, with a rocky interior. As on Europa, this is probably a necessary—though not sufficient—condition for habitability. What makes Enceladus so enticing to planetary scientists, though, are those plumes of material that seem to come directly from its ocean: samples of the interior are there for the taking by any spacecraft sent flying through. For a future mission, such samples could yield evidence not only of whether Enceladus is habitable but, indeed, of whether it is home to life.

 

Image of Saturn’s Moon Enceladus from NASA’s Cassini Mission.

The south polar region was found to have multiple plumes of ice and gas that, combined, are venting about 250 kilograms of material per second into space. Such features suggest that Enceladus, like Europa, has a sub-ice ocean.

Saturn’s big moon Titan is very different from both Enceladus and Europa (see Figure). Although it may host a liquid water layer deep within its interior, it is the surface of Titan and its unusual chemistry that makes this moon such an interesting place. Titan’s thick atmosphere—the only one among moons in the solar system—is composed mostly of nitrogen but also of about 5% methane. In the upper atmosphere, the Sun’s ultraviolet light breaks apart and recombines these molecules into more complex organic compounds that are collectively known as tholins. The tholins shroud Titan in an orange haze, and imagery from Cassini and from the Huygens probe that descended to Titan’s surface show that heavier particles appear to accumulate on the surface, even forming “dunes” that are cut and sculpted by flows of liquid hydrocarbons (such as liquid methane). Some scientists see this organic chemical factory as a natural laboratory that may yield some clues about the solar system’s early chemistry—perhaps even chemistry that could support the origin of life.

 

Image of Saturn’s Moon Titan from NASA’s Cassini Mission.

(a) The hazy orange glow comes from Titan’s thick atmosphere (the only one known among the moons of the solar system). That atmosphere is mostly nitrogen but also contains methane and potentially a variety of complex organic compounds. The bright spot near the top of the image is sunlight reflected from a very flat surface—almost certainly a liquid. We see this effect, called “glint,” when sunlight reflects off the surface of a lake or ocean. (b) Cassini radar imagery shows what look very much like landforms and lakes on the surface of Titan. But the surface lakes and oceans of Titan are not water; they are probably made of liquid hydrocarbons like methane and ethane.

In January 2005, the Huygens probe descended to the surface of Titan and relayed data, including imagery of the landing site, for about 90 minutes. You can watch a video about the descent of Huygens to Titan’s surface.

Habitable Planets Orbiting Other Stars

One of the most exciting developments in astronomy during the last two decades is the ability to detect exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars. As we saw in the chapter on the formation of stars and planets, since the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1995, there have been thousands of confirmed detections, and many more candidates that are not yet confirmed. These include several dozen possibly habitable exoplanets. Such numbers finally allow us to make some predictions about exoplanets and their life-hosting potential. The majority of stars with mass similar to the Sun appear to host at least one planet, with multi-planet systems like our own not unusual. How many of these planets might be habitable, and how could we search for life there?

The NASA Exoplanet Archive is an up-to-date searchable online source of data and tools on everything to do with exoplanets. Explore stellar and exoplanet parameters and characteristics, find the latest news on exoplanet discoveries, plot your own data interactively, and link to other related resources.

In evaluating the prospect for life in distant planetary systems, astrobiologists have developed the idea of a habitable zone—a region around a star where suitable conditions might exist for life. This concept focuses on life’s requirement for liquid water, and the habitable zone is generally thought of as the range of distances from the central star in which water could be present in liquid form at a planet’s surface. In our own solar system, for example, Venus has surface temperatures far above the boiling point of water and Mars has surface temperatures that are almost always below the freezing point of water. Earth, which orbits between the two, has a surface temperature that is “just right” to keep much of our surface water in liquid form.

Whether surface temperatures are suitable for maintaining liquid water depends on a planet’s “radiation budget” —how much starlight energy it absorbs and retains—and whether or how processes like winds and ocean circulation distribute that energy around the planet. How much stellar energy a planet receives, in turn, depends on how much and what sort of light the star emits and how far the planet is from that star,1 how much it reflects back to space, and how effectively the planet’s atmosphere can retain heat through the greenhouse effect (see Earth as a Planet). All of these can vary substantially, and all matter a lot. For example, Venus receives about twice as much starlight per square meter as Earth but, because of its dense cloud cover, also reflects about twice as much of that light back to space as Earth does. Mars receives only about half as much starlight as Earth, but also reflects only about half as much. Thus, despite their differing orbital distances, the three planets actually absorb comparable amounts of sunlight energy. Why, then, are they so dramatically different?

As we learned in several chapters about the planets, some of the gases that make up planetary atmospheres are very effective at trapping infrared light—the very range of wavelengths at which planets radiate thermal energy back out to space—and this can raise the planet’s surface temperature quite a bit more than would otherwise be the case. This is the same “greenhouse effect” that is of such concern for global warming on our planet. Earth’s natural greenhouse effect, which comes mostly from water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, raises our average surface temperature by about 33 °C over the value it would have if there were no greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Mars has a very thin atmosphere and thus very little greenhouse warming (about 2 °C worth), while Venus has a massive carbon dioxide atmosphere that creates very strong greenhouse warming (about 510 °C worth). These worlds are much colder and much hotter, respectively, than Earth would be if moved into their orbits. Thus, we must consider the nature of any atmosphere as well as the distance from the star in evaluating the range of habitability.

Of course, as we have learned, stars also vary widely in the intensity and spectrum (the wavelengths of light) they emit. Some are much brighter and hotter (bluer), while others are significantly dimmer and cooler (redder), and the distance of the habitable zone varies accordingly. For example, the habitable zone around M-dwarf stars is 3 to 30 times closer in than for G-type (Sun-like) stars. There is a lot of interest in whether such systems could be habitable because—although they have some potential downsides for supporting life—M-dwarf stars are by far the most numerous and long-lived in our Galaxy.

The luminosity of stars like the Sun also increases over their main-sequence lifetime, and this means that the habitable zone migrates outward as a star system ages. Calculations indicate that the power output of the Sun, for example, has increased by at least 30% over the past 4 billion years. Thus, Venus was once within the habitable zone, while Earth received a level of solar energy insufficient to keep the modern Earth (with its present atmosphere) from freezing over. In spite of this, there is plenty of geological evidence that liquid water was present on Earth’s surface billions of years ago. The phenomenon of increasing stellar output and an outwardly migrating habitable zone has led to another concept: the continuously habitable zone is defined by the range of orbits that would remain within the habitable zone during the entire lifetime of the star system. As you might imagine, the continuously habitable zone is quite a bit narrower than the habitable zone is at any one time in a star’s history. The nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is an M star that has a planet with a mass of at least 1.3 Earth masses, taking about 11 days to orbit. At the distance for such a quick orbit (0.05 AU), the planet may be in the habitable zone of its star, although whether conditions on such a planet near such a star are hospitable for life is a matter of great scientific debate.

Even when planets orbit within the habitable zone of their star, it is no guarantee that they are habitable. For example, Venus today has virtually no water, so even if it were suddenly moved to a “just right” orbit within the habitable zone, a critical requirement for life would still be lacking.

Scientists are working to understand all the factors that define the habitable zone and the habitability of planets orbiting within that zone because this will be our primary guide in targeting exoplanets on which to seek evidence of life. As technology for detecting exoplanets has advanced, so too has our potential to find Earth-size worlds within the habitable zones of their parent stars. Of the confirmed or candidate exoplanets known at the time of writing, nearly 300 are considered to be orbiting within the habitable zone and more than 10% of those are roughly Earth-size.

Explore the habitable universe at the online Planetary Habitability Laboratory created by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. See the potentially habitable exoplanets and other interesting places in the universe, watch video clips, and link to numerous related resources on astrobiology.

Biomarkers

Our observations suggest increasingly that Earth-size planets orbiting within the habitable zone may be common in the Galaxy—current estimates suggest that more than 40% of stars have at least one. But are any of them inhabited? With no ability to send probes there to sample, we will have to derive the answer from the light and other radiation that come to us from these faraway systems (Figure). What types of observations might constitute good evidence for life?

 

Earth, as Seen by NASA’s Voyager 1.

In this image, taken from 4 billion miles away, Earth appears as a “pale blue dot” representing less than a pixel’s worth of light. Would this light reveal Earth as a habitable and inhabited world? Our search for life on exoplanets will depend on an ability to extract information about life from the faint light of faraway worlds.

To be sure, we need to look for robust biospheres (atmospheres, surfaces, and/or oceans) capable of creating planet-scale change. Earth hosts such a biosphere: the composition of our atmosphere and the spectrum of light reflected from our planet differ considerably from what would be expected in the absence of life. Presently, Earth is the only body in our solar system for which this is true, despite the possibility that habitable conditions might prevail in the subsurface of Mars or inside the icy moons of the outer solar system. Even if life exists on these worlds, it is very unlikely that it could yield planet-scale changes that are both telescopically observable and clearly biological in origin.

What makes Earth “special” among the potentially habitable worlds in our solar system is that it has a photosynthetic biosphere. This requires the presence of liquid water at the planet’s surface, where organisms have direct access to sunlight. The habitable zone concept focuses on this requirement for surface liquid water—even though we know that subsurface habitable conditions could prevail at more distant orbits—exactly because these worlds would have biospheres detectable at a distance.

Indeed, plants and photosynthetic microorganisms are so abundant at Earth’s surface that they affect the color of the light that our planet reflects out into space—we appear greener in visible wavelengths and reflect more near-infrared light than we otherwise would. Moreover, photosynthesis has changed Earth’s atmosphere at a large scale—more than 20% of our atmosphere comes from the photosynthetic waste product, oxygen. Such high levels would be very difficult to explain in the absence of life. Other gases, such as nitrous oxide and methane, when found simultaneously with oxygen, have also been suggested as possible indicators of life. When sufficiently abundant in an atmosphere, such gases could be detected by their effect on the spectrum of light that a planet emits or reflects. (As we saw in the chapter on exoplanets, astronomers today are beginning to have the capability of detecting the spectrum of the atmospheres of some planets orbiting other stars.)

Astronomers have thus concluded that, at least initially, a search for life outside our solar system should focus on exoplanets that are as much like Earth as possible—roughly Earth-size planets orbiting in the habitable zone—and look for the presence of gases in the atmosphere or colors in the visible spectrum that are hard to explain except by the presence of biology. Simple, right? In reality, the search for exoplanet life poses many challenges.

As you might imagine, this task is more challenging for planetary systems that are farther away and, in practical terms, this will limit our search to the habitable worlds closest to our own. Should we become limited to a very small number of nearby targets, it will also become important to consider the habitability of planets orbiting the M-dwarfs we discussed above.

If we manage to separate out a clean signal from the planet and find some features in the light spectrum that might be indicative of life, we will need to work hard to think of any nonbiological process that might account for them. “Life is the hypothesis of last resort,” noted astronomer Carl Sagan—meaning that we must exhaust all other explanations for what we see before claiming to have found evidence of extraterrestrial biology. This requires some understanding of what processes might operate on worlds that we will know relatively little about; what we find on Earth can serve as a guide but also has potential to lead us astray (Figure).

Recall, for example, that it would be extremely difficult to account for the abundance of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere except by the presence of biology. But it has been hypothesized that oxygen could build up to substantial levels on planets orbiting M-dwarf stars through the action of ultraviolet radiation on the atmosphere—with no need for biology. It will be critical to understand where such “false positives” might exist in carrying out our search.

We need to understand that we might not be able to detect biospheres even if they exist. Life has flourished on Earth for perhaps 3.5 billion years, but the atmospheric “biosignatures” that, today, would supply good evidence for life to distant astronomers have not been present for all of that time. Oxygen, for example, accumulated to detectable levels in our atmosphere only a little over 2 billion years ago. Could life on Earth have been detected before that time? Scientists are working actively to understand what additional features might have provided evidence of life on Earth during that early history, and thereby help our chances of finding life beyond.

Spectrum of Light Transmitted through Earth’s Atmosphere.

This graph shows wavelengths ranging from ultraviolet (far left) to infrared. The many downward “spikes” come from absorption of particular wavelengths by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere. Some of these compounds, like water and the combination oxygen/ozone and methane, might reveal Earth as both habitable and inhabited. We will have to rely on this sort of information to seek life on exoplanets, but our spectra will be of much poorer quality than this one, in part because we will receive so little light from the planet.

Key Concepts and Summary

The search for life beyond Earth offers several intriguing targets. Mars appears to have been more similar to Earth during its early history than it is now, with evidence for liquid water on its ancient surface and perhaps even now below ground. The accessibility of the martian surface to our spacecraft offers the exciting potential to directly examine ancient and modern samples for evidence of life. In the outer solar system, the moons Europa and Enceladus likely host vast sub-ice oceans that may directly contact the underlying rocks—a good start in providing habitable conditions—while Titan offers a fascinating laboratory for understanding the sorts of organic chemistry that might ultimately provide materials for life. And the last decade of research on exoplanets leads us to believe that there may be billions of habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. Study of these worlds offers the potential to find biomarkers indicating the presence of life.

Footnotes

  1. 1 The amount of starlight received per unit area of a planet’s surface (per square meter, for example) decreases with the square of the distance from the star. Thus, when the orbital distance doubles, the illumination decreases by 4 times (22), and when the orbital distance increases tenfold, the illumination decreases by 100 times (102). Venus and Mars orbit the sun at about 72% and 152% of Earth’s orbital distance, respectively, so Venus receives about 1/(0.72)2 = 1.92 (about twice) and Mars about 1/(1.52)2 = 0.43 (about half) as much light per square meter of planet surface as Earth does.

Glossary

biomarker
evidence of the presence of life, especially a global indication of life on a planet that could be detected remotely (such as an unusual atmospheric composition)
habitable zone
the region around a star in which liquid water could exist on the surface of terrestrial-sized planets, hence the most probable place to look for life in a star’s planetary system

Contributors

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