Thursday, February 19, 2015

Probability of Pre-Intelligent Life Seeding Between Solar Systems

That probability is increasing. Scholz's Star passed well within the outer edge of the Oort Cloud a mere 70,000 years ago. It's important to keep in mind that one theory for why we should expect to see life on Europa is that impacts on Earth must have thrown biological material into space, which must eventually impact on Europa. We shouldn't hold our breath for a whole giraffe to make it to Europa just yet, although it's worth recalling that the C. elegans worms (not giraffes, but at least metazoans!) on the Columbia survived re-entry and were found alive 3 weeks after impact (link here). While many outlets are covering the "Neanderthals must have seen this!" angle of the Scholz's Star near-miss, a more important take home is that if biological material can plausibly mix between bodies in the same solar system, it is not much less likely to mix between solar systems.

Scholz's Star is not unique. If this just happened 70,000 years ago, we can reasonably infer that this has happened frequently. 70,000 years is not a long time in astronomical terms. A number of known stars have come or will come within Oort-mixing distance in this 100,000 year period. In point of fact, the Stardust mission - which returned physical material from Wild-2 - showed based on isotope ratios that Wild-2 must have originated in a different solar system besides our own. We have classically thought about life moving between solar systems in terms of intelligent aliens building ships, but it may be more plausible to expect that something at the level of unicellular organisms or even simpler than that is what usually moves back and forth. The ideas is not new (probably Fred Hoyle articulated it first mid-20th century) but we now have more data to support the ideas as plausible.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Enceladus Ocean is Alkaline NaCl/Na2CO3 Solution

Similar to alkaline lakes on Earth; well within the pH range of extremophiles. Paper here.

Above: geysers at the south pole of Enceladus, credit Below: Soda Lake in the Carrizo Plain, California, USA, Earth, credit Wikipedia.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Modeling Gamma Ray Bursts as Causes of Mass Extinctions

One of the explanations for the apparent rarity of life in the universe is the frightening gamma ray burst - perhaps life is astonishingly rare, and Earth has just been lucky to be in a narrow slice of space that for the last five billion years. But (almost?) everywhere else the planetary Petri dishes have undergone regular GRB autoclaving, or at least they got autoclaved before complex nervous systems develop. Putting numbers to this based on the observed distribution of GRBs, a recent paper modeled frequency and distribution of GRBs to estimate the chance over time of a GRB happening close enough to Earth to be life-damaging. Among their conclusions:

1) There's a 50% chance that a life-damaging GRB took place in the last 500 million years. Permian-Triassic extinction anyone?

2) The probability of a system being exposed to life-damaging GRBs goes up as you move toward the center of the galaxy. Many of our SETI efforts focused on our own galaxy have focused coreward, on the reasoning that there are more stars in that direction, therefore more chance of finding life. The reflex to this paper's model is to worry that we're looking in the wrong direction - but if you assume galaxy-colonizers, looking coreward may still be the best strategy - the GRB survivors on the galactic rim would be able to colonize inward.

Paper here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Evidence for a Methane Source In Enceladus Oceans

Paper here. Hinges on the trapping of methane as clathrates, similar to subglacial lakes (i.e. Vostok) on Earth.