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The Search for Life On Habitable Exoplanets 69

Posted by Soulskill
from the don't-poke-the-klingons-until-we-have-warp-drives dept.
New submitter Benzainload895 writes "The Verge has an article about why life on other worlds would be far stranger than we might expect. They also interview some astronomers who are trying to narrow down the most likely locations for life. Quoting: 'As it turns out, the small planets with long orbits that Kepler was finding were the ones it was least disposed to find. [After estimating how often red dwarf stars have planets and taking into account their expanded habitable zones, they] came up with an estimate Cowan says is "starting to get really close to a hundred percent, where for every [red dwarf] out there you should expect there to be a habitable rocky planet." Furthermore, research exploring these planets suggests weirdness — and lots of it — in what life they might harbor. For instance, the dim light coming from a red dwarf may not be enough for plant photosynthesis like on Earth. This may lead plants to be black instead of green in order to absorb more available light. Even weirder, these planets likely don't spin as they orbit. Since red dwarfs are smaller and cooler than the sun, planets circle them at close range, creating greater tidal forces than on our planet. While the tidal force on Earth moves the ocean up and down a few meters, that force on a red dwarf planet would be so strong it'd gradually slow down the rotation of planet completely. The result? One side of the planet would face its star in a permanently sunny day, while the other side would face the stars in an endless night."
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The Search for Life On Habitable Exoplanets

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  • Cats... (Score:4, Funny)

    by JoeMerchant (803320) on Friday February 14, 2014 @01:27PM (#46247503) Homepage

    Higher life form evolved from cats.... as any BBC viewer of Red Dwarf knows.

    • by l0ungeb0y (442022)

      Actually everyone that has read Venus on the Halfshell knows that humansand cats alike evolved from cockroach shit

    • And, as any Doctor Who fan will attest to, they make excellent nurses. Though exactly WHY is a dark secret.

  • Always looking for water looking for life, or where the 6 building blocks for life as we know it could form.

    That's what we know and it makes sense, but there are surely other types of life that have different building blocks.

    • by gstoddart (321705) on Friday February 14, 2014 @01:36PM (#46247611) Homepage

      Always looking for water looking for life, or where the 6 building blocks for life as we know it could form.

      That's what we know and it makes sense, but there are surely other types of life that have different building blocks.

      You know, someone asks more or less this exact question every time this topic comes up -- "why not look for other forms of life unlike our own?".

      And the answer is always the same -- how do you look for something you don't know the first thing about? What do you look for? How do you look for a lifeform which has completely different biology from us? How will you know if you've found it?

      If you're physically there, you can look and see. If you're doing inference from spectroscopy and the like, what, exactly, do you look for to find a bit of life which is so alien from our own that we don't have any idea of what to look for or what processes would be involved?

      You can't just take random chemicals and decide that they do, or do not, suggest a lifeform we can't even imagine.

      It's simply not possible to look for signs of something when you have no basis on which to even speculate what those signs would be -- because you could look at anything and say "gee, maybe that's alien life".

      But you'll never know, and can never make any hypotheses or predictions. At which point, you're well outside of what can be called Science, and straight back to speculative fiction. There's really no point in trying to look for life built around other building blocks, because we don't know anything about what that hypothetical lifeform would look like or how to spot it.

      I'm not saying it couldn't exist. I'm saying that until we know about it and how it works, there's no basis to look for it.

      • by cusco (717999)

        Carl Sagan took a look at what an alien spacecraft could sense as it approached our Solar System, to see at what distance life could be deduced. His conclusion was that as soon as the spacecraft could detect molecular oxygen and methane in the same atmosphere (an inherently unstable and unmaintainable combination) it would know that something unusual was happening on the third planet out from the Sun. Detecting light on what should be the dark side of the planet would be the confirmation.

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          Right, but it's entirely based on understanding the biology as it exists on planet Earth. And is how we would try to identify life similar to ours on other planets.

          Now, tell me, what do we look for with, say, silicon based life forms or anything which has a completely different chemistry than ours?

          The answer ... we haven't got the faintest idea, and therefore we can't look for it, because it would be pure speculation, and therefore not 'science'.

          Unless you can tell us the chemical signatures/indicators of

          • by cusco (717999) <brian.bixby@gma i l .com> on Friday February 14, 2014 @02:55PM (#46248509)

            No, Sagan wasn't looking at oxygen as a product of life, he was looking at molecular atmospheric oxygen as something that was inherently unstable, especially in the presence of methane, and very especially in the concentrations that we breathe. That meant something unusual was happening. An atmosphere rich in helium and xenon would attract attention as well, and prompt investigation. The default hypothesis would be complex radioactive processes, just like the default hypothesis for atmospheric O2 would be complex chemical processes. The discovery of artificially concentrated radioactive elements (for example) would be analogous to artificial light sources on Earth. We don't have to know what kind of things life produces, we just need to have a handle on what typical planetary evolution produces and look for variances from this norm. We'll probably end up with situations where investigators ask, "Is that life, or just an obscenely complex self-maintaining chemical process?"

            • by Anonymous Coward

              Is that life, or just an obscenely complex self-maintaining chemical process?

              po-TAY-to...po-TAH-to...

              - T

            • by Nivag064 (904744)

              "Is that life, or just an obscenely complex self-maintaining chemical process?"

              Referring to "Life" on Earth??? :-)

            • by mcgrew (92797) *

              We'll probably end up with situations where investigators ask, "Is that life, or just an obscenely complex self-maintaining chemical process?"

              Life IS just an obscenely complex self-maintaining chemical process. It isn't like bacteria are sentient.

          • They would notice whatever gas your Star Trek rock monsters exhaled is unusual in an atmosphere.

            A lifeless world is going to have an undisturbed atmospheric composition.

            Like: hydrogen, helium, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, methane, water, ammonia, sulfur dioxide. The type of gases common in the universe for raw gas giants and rocky planets.

            Detecting anything else in unusual quantities means something worth examining is altering the atmosphere.

            On Earth, the oxygen and nitrogen would arouse suspicion -
      • by khallow (566160)

        If you're doing inference from spectroscopy and the like, what, exactly, do you look for to find a bit of life which is so alien from our own that we don't have any idea of what to look for or what processes would be involved?

        It's worth noting that it would be glaringly obvious from spectroscopy that Earth had life. The atmosphere is inherently unstable. You wouldn't have an oxygen rich atmosphere in the absence of life.

        Any similarly prolific ecosystem will have similar, observable chemical instabilities. It's far harder when life is marginal (say on a very cold, dark, or mostly inhospitable world). Then any chemical imbalances it creates could be swamped by nonliving processes.

        So I think we could with sufficiently sensiti

      • You know, someone asks more or less this exact question every time this topic comes up -- "why not look for other forms of life unlike our own?".... There's really no point in trying to look for life built around other building blocks, because we don't know anything about what that hypothetical lifeform would look like or how to spot it.

        I'm not saying it couldn't exist. I'm saying that until we know about it and how it works, there's no basis to look for it.

        Look around, human. There are currently around 8.7 million different kinds of life on Earth. Only a handful of them look like YOU, and yet they are as alive as you are. Some of them are in your gut right now ensuring you can digest the dinner you will have tonight.

        Out there in the vast universe, the odds are whatever life is there almost certainly looks even less like you than the 8.7 million kinds that are actually from the same planet. And yet there is this persistence to look only for life we know.

        • by rubycodez (864176)

          all the life on this planet looks the same, carbon based and needing liquid water, using RNA and/or DNA.

          we look for favorable places for this kind of life. it makes sense.

      • "I'm saying that until we know about it and how it works, there's no basis to look for it."

        Why?

        Astronomers, biologists, people at NASA have been considering many possibilities for life for 60+ years.
    • by the gnat (153162)

      Always looking for water looking for life, or where the 6 building blocks for life as we know it could form.

      I'll summarize the standard reply to this: we're looking for these signs because that's all that we know enough to look for. Every life form we've encountered is carbon-based and requires liquid water and a certain temperature range. We also know that O2 in the atmosphere indicates photosynthetic activity. Now, it's theoretically possible that somewhere, there exist silicon-based, chlorine-breathin

      • Plus a place like that might support us.

        • by Kjella (173770)

          Plus a place like that might support us.

          This. If we can't find inhabited planets, inhabitable planets are the second most interesting. Perhaps the most interesting for those that look at Earth as a single point of failure. What are the essentials?

          1. Temperature, we only need the warmest spot to be arctic range or the coldest spot to be desert range.
          2. Gravity, not sure exactly how far from 1G we could sustain but almost certainly a good range.
          3. Magnetosphere, both to shield from radiation and sustain an atmosphere, including water vapor.
          4. Water

    • If you think about Conway's game of Life - there are many equation forms that make some kind of "Life" but only a few that make anything interesting.

      I suspect that Earth provided a robust environment for many forms of life and Carbon-Water came out dominant, as it probably will in similar environments.

      You'd have to have a robust (temperatures supporting a liquid solvent, capable of forming complex molecules without destroying them quickly, etc.) non-Earthlike environment for "other" life to evolve, and many

      • by Kjella (173770)

        I think that once you have life, the incentive to fill every niche in the available biosphere is huge, which is why you find life in the most inhospitable places from ice bears to desert scorpions despite a tropical rain forest being much nicer. Maybe it's deep underwater or in deep caves or other places shielded from the normal environment where advanced life can begin. But even there it will be competition and resource pressure, so being able to survive exposure is an advantage meaning they'll progressive

        • Based on where we stand today, if we were relatively slow, I'd expect to have been visited by "others".

          I am almost certain there are "others," and lots of them - but if any of them are even twice as fast developing as we have been, they'd be spreading something to other stars by now.

    • Our imagination does not give us "surely". The only thing they are sure about is how life works with water on Earth, which is why they are looking for water.

  • Part of the questions we were posing to the grad student from UC Santa Cruz: many of the planets they're identifying are about White Dwarfs - which means planets which have survived the exit of main sequence and a expelling of gas, at high velocity it could strip atmosphere and perhaps scour water from the surface - these are likely to be dead worlds, if not mostly frozen.

    Those in the Goldilocks are still very hard to detect, which is why so few have been. There's a couple hundred thousand candidates which Kepler identified, and these are still being evaluated and processed - no small task. Exciting times.

    Obligatory XKCD [xkcd.com]

  • by kanweg (771128)

    With tidal force locking, I'd expect the edges to be rather uninhabitable too, and the center that's facing the sun comparatively hot. There air will rise up, move towards the other side of the planet, cool down and drop. It would cool even further down, get even colder and move towards the lit side. When it enters that region, there is little light there, and the air is very cold. So, even though there is some light, it is uninhabitable. Then the air starts picking up heat when it moves back to the center.

    • by NEDHead (1651195)

      At least we know on which side to find the astronomers .

    • "With tidal force locking, I'd expect the edges to be rather uninhabitable too, and the center that's facing the sun comparatively hot."

      This is a point OP does not make sufficiently. While it says tidal forces would be stronger, that's only when the planet is young. Eventually, when it stops spinning ("sidereal rotation"), there would no longer be any oceanic "tide" at all, presuming an ocean in the first place.

      • by dryeo (100693)

        Assuming no large satellite or the inhabitable world being a satellite or twin planet system.

  • That is the trouble, science. We have billions of galaxies which contain billions of stars which most have planets.

    The issue starts with thinking as we are the only life form, then every thing else has to be like us.
    • The issue starts with thinking as we are the only life form, then every thing else has to be like us.

      When exhaustive exploration is not an option, you use what you know to prioritize your search, even though that knowledge is incomplete and imperfect. For SETI, it makes sense to use the profile of life as we know it to focus our efforts, even though there may exist lifeforms well outside that descriptive envelope. Doing so gives us (1) a much smaller area to examine, (2) concrete strategies for investigating such areas, and (3) better odds of successfully recognizing extraterrestrial life (should it fall u

    • Suppose you grew up only being able to speak English and not even knowing that other languages existed. One day, you find a stack of papers with weird writing on them. Some have familiar symbols, some don't. How do you differentiate between writing that is just random symbols and writing that is actually language? The low hanging fruit would be to look for English letters and words in a familiar sequence. This is what we are essentially doing: Looking for life using the "alphabet" that we know. Once

    • by khallow (566160)
      It's the drunk under the street light problem - looking for car keys there, because the light is better. Except that he's looking for any keys, not just a particular set half a block away in a gutter.
    • by Tablizer (95088)

      No, they have ridges on their foreheads.

  • Getting humans (and maybe even robots) to the next solar system might will be impossible in practical terms, and even harder for more distant solar systems. Finding habitable planets in our local group of stars will mean hear attently all of them to check if they were transmitting something in our direction N years ago, and to spam the close enough ones (10-20 light years away?) them with information in the hope that they might answer in some decades. And the answer will come back to a very different world,
  • magnetic field (Score:5, Interesting)

    by confused one (671304) on Friday February 14, 2014 @03:26PM (#46248853)
    If the planet is tide-locked, there might also be limitations on core circulation. No circulation, no magnet field. No magnet field, atmosphere gets stripped by solar wind and the planet surface gets blasted with protons. Therefore, No life.
    • by T.E.D. (34228)
      Who says you need an atmosphere for life? We've found life at the bottom of our oceans where there's no oxygen or light. Pretty much the only thing we know for sure to be a requirement is liquid water. Any other supposed "requirement" has either been proven wrong, or is conjecture.
      • by T.E.D. (34228)
        Actually, I take that back. We don't even know for sure liquid water is a requirement. But what we do know about liquid water is that everywhere we've looked at it so far, we've found life.
        • by khallow (566160)

          But what we do know about liquid water is that everywhere we've looked at it so far, we've found life.

          Mars, Europa, and Enceladus all have water somewhere, but we haven't seen life on any of them yet.

      • Actually my comment had more to do with the planet surface being blasted by protons and UV. As in high radiation flux. Cooked. Toasted. Fried. Nuked. Call it what you will, it equals death if you're on or close to the surface.
    • by Tablizer (95088)

      Venus has no real magnetic field, but has a thick cloud cover.

  • If these planets are tidally locked wouldn't that kill the dynamo process that produces a planets magnetic field? If that magnetic field is gone wouldn't they suffer the same fate as Mars and lose their atmosphere to the solar wind?

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