Skip to comments.The Growing Habitable Zone: Locations for Life Abound
Posted on 02/07/2006 1:59:24 PM PST by tricky_k_1972
The Growing Habitable Zone: Locations for Life Abound
In a galaxy filled with billions of stars, scientists searching for alien life need some way to pick out those which are most likely to harbor habitable planets and moons. For more than 150 years, an important tool in this screening process has been the concept of a "circumstellar habitable zone."
Traditionally, this zone has been defined as a narrow disk around a star where temperatures are moderate enough that water on the surface of a planet can exist in a liquid form. The idea is that where liquid water exists, life might arise.
Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, new information began to emerge that challenged the traditional view. Scientists on Earth began finding rugged organisms thriving in harsh conditions that were off-limits to most other creatures. Meanwhile, images beamed back by robotic probes in space revealed that other moons within our solar system were much more interesting geologicallyand perhaps biologicallythan our own.
However, beginning a decade ago, planets discovered around other stars began to reveal a diversity of planetary systems that was beyond expectations.
More recently, scientists have gone back and reexamined their ideas about the possibility of habitable planet forming around red dwarf stars. Despite being the most abundant stars in the galaxy, red dwarfs have traditionally been shunned by scientists as being too small and too dim to support life. Those prejudices are beginning to fade and the recent discovery of a small, rocky world in orbit around a red dwarf 28,000 light-years from our corner of the solar system has refueled speculations that these stars might harbor planets with life.
Extremophiles are a diverse group of organisms that thrive in harsh environments intolerable to virtually all other creatures. Since the late 1960s, scientists have discovered hundreds of different extremophile species, most of them bacteria.
This hardy group includes members that can survive scalding waters, subzero temperatures, bone-crushing pressures, corrosive acid, extreme salt and arid conditions. Extremophiles have been found that can withstand massive doses of radiation, breath rust, eat sulfur, belch methane and live without oxygen or sunlight.
"Finding extremophiles on Earth has just been mind-blowing," said Carol Tang, a researcher from the California Academy of Sciences who studies extremophiles. "If you think about how there's very few places on Earth where there isn't life, you can't think about the solar system and the universe in a very limited way anymore."
In 1979, NASA's two Voyager spacecrafts shocked scientists with images they beamed back of Jupiter's moon Europa. The images showed a shiny world covered in water ice, but what was really remarkable was how smooth its surface was.
Unlike our own moon, Europa has relatively few impact craters. Because it doesn't have an atmosphere to burn up incoming objects like asteroids, scientists concluded that Europa had an internal heat source that kept its waters fluid, allowing the moon to periodically repave its icy shell and erase away the craters that must routinely be carved.
"Before the Voyager missions, scientists used to think that the moons of the other planets were old, rocky, battered bodies like our moons," said Cynthia Phillips, a SETI planetary scientist.
Scientists think Europa stays warm by a process called tidal heating. All moons, including our own, are stretched and pulled by the planet they orbit. Jupiter is so massive and its gravity so strong that it actually causes Europas surface to bulge and shrink as it circles around in its orbit. This constant motion generates friction and heat.
Saturn's cloud-covered moon, Titan, is thought to be warmed by the same process. Other moons generate heat through different means. Scientists recently discovered that Saturn's moon Enceladus, for example, contains a mysterious hot spot in its southern hemisphere that might be caused by radioactive material left over from the moon's formation billions of years ago.
This revelation, that not all the moons in our solar system are as dead and barren as our own, meant that places outside the traditional habitable zone might sustain liquid water and support life.
"If you have a fairly sizable planet with plenty of internal energy to keep warm it might not need to be close to the Sun," said biologist Ken Nealson from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California."It might have plenty of energy to support a perfectly good biomass without having a lighted surface."
Scientists believe that beneath Europas icy shell lies an ocean vaster than Earths. For this reason, many scientists figure the Jovian moon may be a better bet for finding alien life than Mars.
"There might have been liquid water on Mars in the past and there could have been life then, but it's pretty unlikely that we'll find life living there today," Phillips said. "But on places like Europa, there could be and probably is water there today. Instead of looking at an extinct biosphere, we could be looking at a currently active one." Red dwarfs
Last fall, a group of about 30 scientists from different fields got together in Mountain View, California for a workshop sponsored by the SETI Institute. The workshop was convened to answer a single question: are the planets orbiting red dwarfs habitable?
SETI scientists will soon begin looking for radio signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life using the Allen Telescope Array and they wanted to know whether red dwarfs should be included in the list of stars to search.
Red dwarfs are believed to make up about 85 percent of the stars in the universe, but they are so small and so dim that scientists have traditionally ignored them as possible havens for habitable planets.
One of the main objections was that the habitable zones of red dwarfs would be very narrow and very close to the stars. For a planet orbiting a red dwarf to be warm enough to have liquid water, it would need to be located closer to the star than Mercury is to our own Sun. At such a close distance, the planet would become tidally locked to the red dwarf the way our Moon is to Earth. Any water existing on such a planet would be boiled away on the side facing the star and frozen solid on the other.
In recent years, however, new computer models have suggested that the situation isnt as impossible as it might seem. The models predict that if an orbiting planet had a thick enough atmosphere, heat could be redistributed from the lit side of the planet to the side that was dark.
As for the criticism that a red dwarfs habitable zone is very narrow, Todd Henry, an astronomer at Georgia State University, has an interesting view. Because there are so many more red dwarfs than stars like our Sun, Henry has performed calculations suggesting that if the narrow habitable zones of all the red dwarfs in our galaxy were combined, they would equal the habitable zone of the all the Milky Ways Sun-like stars.
"You open up a lot more territories if you put [red dwarfs] back on the table," Henry said.
I don't know what "breath rust" is, but if you have it, I recomment lots of tic-tacs...
It does indeed. A keynote speaker at a USENIX convention shared a story of a split brain human subject. The subject's brain had been surgically split into left and right hemispheres with a slice through the corpus callosum. The brain performs different processing tasks on the left and right hemispheres. The surgical cut prevents the hemispheres from directly cooperating.
The subject was given tasks that normally require some left/right coordination. After a brief time, the subject was observed tracing out patterns in the palm of one hand with a finger from the opposite hand. The loss of direct communication via the corpus callosum was being replaced by a mechanical/tactile path with fingers and palms.
Count every single grain of sand on every beach surrounding every content on earth.
If those grains were stars, our Sun would represent one grain of sand. I am no UFO chaser by any means but the odds are too overwhelming....
We should have been off this backwater hole thirty years ago. What is the holdup?
"We should have been off this backwater hole thirty years ago. What is the holdup?"
And yes, I agree that we should have condos on Neptune by now. At the first manned moon launch, there was a crowd of about a dozen protesters that had signs saying that we should put the money for space exploration into social programs. They were ridiculed back then, but not any longer.
Look at the Russian Topaz nuclear rocket technology- we can't even begin to play with great tech like that without Whoopie Goldberg or Elton John types blowing whistles and halting production. And then there is the super collider being built in Europe, is it? That's shameful.
Yeah, social lefties are one of the sources of the anti-space sentiment. The general anti-science sentiment, however, is fueled from another stratum of our society.
Both groups are wrong.
Still thinking small. Compare the size of a grain of sand with the size of the earth. That is more or less the size of the Hubble volume compared with the entire universe.
Do you really think it's a growing trend, or do the willfully ignorant now just have a louder voice with today's technology? I've often wondered which is really the case and can't honestly say I know the answer.
Scientists can recover their stature with results.
"Twenty years to fusion..." I believe that mantra started in the fifties.
Dig into a mucky river bed and you find bacteria living on hydrogen sulfide. There are many obligate anaerobes on this planet.
If a race has the means to travel beyond it's solar system it certainly has the means to prosper without planets.
I thought this was about Michael Moore...
Neither do I, However, it is a sad trend. :-(
As an example, who knows what the Super Collider would have discovered. But the luddites saw fit to destroy it. Many of the "disappointing results" are from funding cuts and cancellations. I am paid by the Gov and I wonder if each year my projects will be re-funded.
And who knows- if you actually ran into a life form out there- you might even be confused to call it "life" in the first place- hence the term "alien." The idea that intelligent life breathes 02, speaks english and has to have metal clunky spaceships with engines is laughable. There are lots of ways to move around, and lots of ways to live.
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