Could Aliens Know We Are Here?

While an alien could not see us without coming here, why pick here as opposed to all the other stars? We see exoplanets and speculate on whether they could hold life, but how many exoplanets could see our planet, if they held life with technology like ours or a little better? When I wrote the first edition of my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I listed a few techniques to find planets. Then, the most had been found through detecting the wobble of stars through the frequency changes of their line spectra to which a Doppler shift was added. The wobble is caused by the gravity of the planets. Earth would be very difficult to see that way because it is too small. This works best with very large planets very close to stars.

While there are several methods for discovering planets that work occasionally, one is particularly productive, and that is to measure the light intensity coming from the star. If a planet crosses our line of sight, the light dims. Maybe not a lot, but it dims. If you have seen an eclipse of the sun you will get the idea, but if you have seen a transit of Venus or of Mercury you will know the effect is not strong. This is very geometry specific because you have to be able to draw a straight line between your eye, the planet and part of the star and the further the planet is from the star, the smaller the necessary angle. To give an idea of the problem, our planetary system was created more or less on the equatorial plane of the accretion disk that formed the sun, so we should at least see transits of our inner planets, right? Well, not exactly because the various orbits do not lie on one plane. My phrase “more or less” indicates the problem – we have to be exactly edge-on to the plane unless the planet is really close to the star, when geometry lends a hand because the star is so big that something small crossing in front can be seen from wider angles.

Nevertheless, the Kepler telescope has seen many such exoplanets. Interestingly, the Kepler telescope, besides finding a number of stars with multiple planets close to the star has also found a number of stars with only one planet at a good distance from the star. That does not mean there are no other planets; it may mean nothing more than that one is accidentally the only one whose orbital plane lies on our line of sight. The others may, like Venus, be on slightly different planes. When I wrote that ebook, it was obvious that suitable stars were not that common, and since we were looking at stars one at a time over an extended period, not many planets would be discovered. The Kepler telescope changed that because when it came into operation, it could view hundreds of thousands of stars simultaneously.

All of which raises the interesting question, how many aliens, if they had good astronomical techniques, could see us by this method, assuming they looked at our sun? Should we try to remain hidden or not? Can we, if we so desired?

In a recent paper from Nature (594, pp505 – 507 2021) it appears that 1,715 stars within 100 parsecs of the sun (i.e. our “nearest neighbours”) would have been in a position to spot us over the last 5,000 years, while an additional 319 stars will have the opportunity over the next 5,000 years. Stars might look as if they are fixed in position, but actually they are speedily moving, and not all in the same direction. 

Among this set of stars are seven known to have exoplanets, including Ross 128, which could have seen us in the past but no longer, and Teegarden’s star and Trappist-1, which will start to have the opportunity in 29 years and 1642 years respectively. Most of these are Red Dwarfs, and if you accept my analysis in my ebook, then they will not have technological life. The reason is the planets with composition suitable to generate biogenesis will be too close to the star so will be far too hot, and yet probably receive insufficient higher frequency light to drive anything like photosynthesis.

Currently, an Earth transit could be seen from 1402 stars, and this includes 128 G-type stars, like our sun. There are 73 K stars, which may also be suitable to house life. There are also 63 F-type stars. These stars are larger than the sun, from 1.07 to 1.4 times the size, and are much hotter than the sun. Accordingly, they turn out more UV, which might be problematical for life, although the smaller ones may be suitable and the Earth-equivalent planet will be a lot further from the star. However, they are also shorter-lived, so the bigger ones may not have had time. About 2/3 of these stars are in a more restricted transit zone, and could, from geometry, observe an Earth transit for ten hours. So there are a number of stars from which we cannot hide. Ten hours would give a dedicated astronomer with the correct equipment plenty of time to work out we have oxygen and an ozone layer, and that means life must be here.

Another option is to record our radio waves. We have been sending them out for about 100 years, and about 75 of our 1402 stars identified above are within that distance that could give visual confirmation via observing a transit. We cannot hide. However, that does not mean any of those stars could do anything about it. Even if planets around them have life, that does not mean it is technological, and even if it were, that does not mean they can travel through interstellar space. After all, we cannot. Nevertheless, it is an interesting matter to speculate about.

Where to Look for Alien Life?

One intriguing question is what is the probability of life elsewhere in the Universe? In my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argue that if you need the sort of chemistry I outline to form the appropriate precursors, then to get the appropriate planet in the habitable zone your best bet is to have a G-type or heavy K-type star. Our sun is a G-type. While that eliminates most stars such as red dwarfs, there are still plenty of possible candidates and on that criterion alone the universe should be full of life, albeit possibly well spread out, and there may be other issues. Thus, of the close stars to Earth, Alpha Centauri has two of the right stars, but being a double star, we don’t know whether it might have spat out its planets when it was getting rid of giants, as the two stars come as close as Saturn is to our sun. Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti are K-type, but it is not known whether the first has rocky planets, and further it is only about 900 million years old so any life would be extremely primitive. Tau Ceti has claims to about 8 planets, but only four have been confirmed, and for two of these, one gets about 1.7 times Earth’s light (Venus get about 1.9 times as much) while the other gets about 29%. They are also “super Earths”. Interestingly, if you apply the relationship I had in my ebook, the planet that gets the most light, is the more likely to be similar geologically to Earth (apart from its size) and is far more likely than Venus to have accreted plenty of water, so just maybe it is possible.

So where do we look for suitable planets? Very specifically how probable are rocky planets? One approach to address this came from Nibauer et al. (Astrophysical Journal, 906: 116, 2021). What they did was to look at the element concentration of stars and picked on 5 elements for which he had data. He then focused on the so-called refractory elements, i.e., those that make rocks, and by means of statistics he separated the stars into two groups: the “regular” stars, which have the proportion of refractory elements expected from the nebular clouds, or a “depleted” category, where the concentrations are less than expected. Our sun is in the “depleted” category, and oddly enough, only between 10 – 30% are “regular”. The concept here is the stars are depleted because these elements have been taken away to make rocky planets. Of course, there may be questions about the actual analysis of the data and the model, but if the data holds up, this might be indicative that rocky planets can form, at least around single stars. 

One of the puzzles of planetary formation is exemplified by Tau Ceti. The planet is actually rather short of the heavy elements that make up planets, yet it has so many planets that are so much bigger than Earth. How can this be? My answer in my ebook is that there are three stages of the accretion disk: the first when the star is busily accreting and there are huge inflows of matter; the second a transition when supply of matter declines, and a third period when stellar accretion slows by about four orders of magnitude. At the end of this third period, the star creates huge solar winds that clear out the accretion disk of gas and dust. However, in this third stage, planets continue accreting. This third stage can last from less than 1 million years to up to maybe forty. So, planets starting the same way will end up in a variety of sizes depending on how long the star takes to remove accretable material. The evidence is that our sun spat out its accretion disk very early, so we have smaller than average planets.

So, would the regular stars not have planets? No. If they formed giants, there would be no real selective depletion of specific elements, and a general depletion would register as the star not having as many in the first place. The amount of elements heavier than helium is called metallicity by astronomers, and this can vary by a factor of at least 40, and probably more. There may even be some first-generation stars out there with no heavy elements. It would be possible for a star to have giant planets but show no significant depletion of refractory elements. So while Nibauer’s analysis is interesting, and even encouraging, it does not really eliminate more than a minority of the stars. If you are on a voyage of discovery, it remains something of a guess which stars are of particular interest.

Why We Cannot Get Evidence of Alien Life Yet

We have a curiosity about whether there is life on exoplanets, but how could we tell? Obviously, we have to know that the planet is there, then we have to know something about it. We have discovered the presence of a number of planets through the Doppler effect, in which the star wobbles a bit due to the gravitational force from the planet. The problem, of course, is that all we see is the star, and that tells us nothing other than the mass of the planet and its distance from the star. A shade more is found from observing an eclipse, because we see the size of the star, and in principle we get clues as to what is in an atmosphere, although in practice that information is extremely limited.

If you wish to find evidence of life, you have to first be able to see the planet that is in the habitable zone, and presumably has Earth-like characteristics. Thus the chances of finding evidence of life on a gas giant are negligible because if there were such life it would be totally unlike anything we know. So what are the difficulties? If we have a star with the same mass as our sun, the planet should be approximately 1 AU from the star. Now, take the Alpha Centauri system, the nearest stars, and about 1.3 parsec, or about 4.24 light years. To see something 1 AU away from the star requires an angular separation of about one arc-second, which is achievable with an 8 meter telescope. (For a star x times away, the required angular resolution becomes 1/x arc-seconds, which requires a correspondingly larger telescope. Accordingly, we need close stars.) However, no planets are known around Alpha Centauri A or B, although there are two around Proxima Centauri. Radial velocity studies show there is no habitable planet around A greater than about 53 earth-masses, or about 8.4 earth-masses around B. However, that does not mean no habitable planet because planets at these limits are almost certainly too big to hold life. Their absence, with that method of detection, actually improves the possibility of a habitable planet.

The first requirement for observing whether is life would seem to be that we actually directly observe the planet. Some planets have been directly observed but they are usually super-Jupiters on wide orbits (greater than10 AU) that, being very young, have temperatures greater than 1000 degrees C. The problem of an Earth-like planet is it is too dim in the visible. The peak emission intensity occurs in the mid-infrared for temperate planets, but there are further difficulties. One is the background is higher in the infrared, and another is that as you look at longer wavelengths there is a 2 – 5 times coarser spatial resolution due to the diffraction limit scaling. Apparently the best telescopes now have the resolution to detect planets around roughly the ten nearest stars. Having the sensitivity is another question.

Anyway, this has been attempted, and a candidate for an exoplanet around A has been claimed (Nature Communications, 2021, 12:922 ) at about 1.1 AU from the star. It is claimed to be within 7 times Earth’s size, but this is based on relative light intensity. Coupled with that is the possibility that this may not even be a planet at all. Essentially, more work is required.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty, it appears we are coming closer to being able to directly image rocky planets around the very closest stars. Other possible stars include Epsilon Eridani, Epsilon Indi, and Tau Ceti. But even then, if we see them, because it is at the limit of technology, we will still have no evidence one way or the other relating to life. However, it is a start to look where at least the right sized planet is known to exist. My personal preference is Epsilon Eridani. The reason is, it is a rather young star, and if there are planets there, they will be roughly as old as Earth and Mars were when life started on Earth and the great river flows occurred on Mars. Infrared signals from such atmospheres would tell us what comprised the atmospheres. My prediction is reduced, with a good amount of methane, and ammonia dissolved in water. The reason is these are the gases that could be formed through the original accretion, with no requirements for a bombardment by chondrites or comets, which seemingly, based on other evidence, did not happen here. Older planets will have more oxidized atmospheres that do not give clues, apart possibly if there are signals from ozone. Ozone implies oxygen, and that suggests plants.What should we aim to detect? The overall signal should indicate the temperature if we can resolve it. Water gives a good signal in the infrared, and seeing signals of water vapour in the atmosphere would show that that key material is present. For a young planet, methane and ammonia give good signals, although resolution may be difficult and ammonia will mainly be in water. The problems are obvious: getting sufficient signal intensity, subtracting out background noise from around the planet while realizing the planet will block background, actually resolving lines, and finally, correcting for other factors such as the Doppler effect so the lines can be properly interpreted. Remember phosphine on Venus? Errors are easy to make.

Planets Being Formed Now

An intriguing observation, recorded in Nature Astronomy3, 749 (2019) is that two planets are being formed around the star PDS 70, a star about 370 light years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus. The star is roughly 76% the mass of the sun. Its temperature is 3972 degrees K, so it is a bit cooler than our sun, and is about 1.26 time bigger. What that means is it has yet to collapse properly. Because at least some of the accretion disk is still there, gas is still falling towards the star, and towards any planets that are still forming. Because giants have to form quickly, the huge amount of gas falling into them gets very hot, the planets glow, and if they are far enough away from the star, we can see them through very large telescopes. The first such planet to be observed in this system (Labelled PDS 70 b) is about 7 times as big as Jupiter, and is about 23 AU away from the star, i.e. it is a little further away from its star as Uranus is from our star. (1 AU is the Earth-sun distance.)

We can detect the gas flowing into the planet by the spectral signal Hα at 656.28 nm, and by selecting such a signal much of the general light is filtered out and gas can be seen streaming into planetary objects. The planet PDS 70 b was confirmed in the cited reference, but there is an addition: PDS 70 c, which is about 38 AU from its star, also with about 4 AU uncertainty. This is a bit further away from its star as Neptune is from ours, which suggests an overall system that is a bit more expanded than ours.

These planets are interesting in terms of generating a theory on how planets form. The standard theory is that dust from the accretion disk somehow accretes to form bodies about the size of asteroids called planetesimals, and through gravity these collide to form larger bodies, which in turn through their stronger gravity collide to form what are called embryos or oligarchs, and these are about the size of Mars. These then collide to form Earth-sized planets, and in the outer regions collisions keep going until the cores get to about ten times the size of Earth, then these start accreting gas, until eventually they become giants. Getting rid of heat is a problem, and consequently newly formed giants are very hot and seem like mini-stars.

The problem with that theory is timing. The further away from the star, the dust density is much lower simply because there is more space for it and even if you can form planetesimals, and nobody has any idea how they formed, the space between them gets so big their weak gravity does not lead to useful collisions. There is a way out of this in what is called the Grand Tack model. What this postulates is that Uranus and Neptune both grew a little further out than Saturn, and as they grew to be giants their gravity attracted planetesimals from further out. However, now the model argues they did not accrete them, but instead effectively pulled them in and let them go further in towards the star. By giving them inwards momentum, they got “lift” and moved out. They kept going until Neptune ran out of planetesimals, which occurred at about 32 AU.

Now, momentum is mass times velocity, which means the bigger the planet that is moving, the more planetesimals it needs, although it gets a benefit of being able to throw the planetesimal faster through its stronger gravity. That effect is partly cancelled by the planetesimals being able to pass further away. Anyway, why does a star that is about ¾ the size of our star have more planetesimals that go out almost 20% further. In fairness, you might argue that is a rather weak conclusion because the distances are not that much different and you would not expect exact correspondence. Further, while the masses of the giants are so much bigger than ours, you might argue they travelled then accreted the gas.However, there is worse. Also very recently discovered by the same technique are two planets around the young star TYC 8998-760-1, which is about the same size as the sun. The inner planet has a mass of 14 times that of Jupiter and is 162 AU from the star, and the outer planet has a mass of 6 times that of Jupiter and is 320 AU from the star. It is difficult to believe that one star of the same size as another would inadvertently have a huge distribution of planetesimals scattered out over ten times further. Further, if it did, the star’s metallicity would have to be very much higher. Unfortunately, that has yet to be measured for this star. In my opinion, this strongly suggests that this Grand Tack model is wrong, but that leaves open the question, what is right? My usual answer would be what is outlined in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, although the outer planet of TYC 8998-760-1 may be a problem. However, that explanation will have to wait for a further post but those interested can make up their minds from the ebook.

The Fermi Paradox: Where are the Aliens?

This question, as much as anything, illustrates why people have trouble thinking through problems when they cannot put their own self-importance to one side. Let us look at this problem not from our point of view.

The Fermi paradox is a statement that since there are so many stars, most of which probably have planets, and a reasonable number of them have life, more than half of those are likely to have been around longer than us and so should be more technically advanced, but we have seen no clue as to their presence. Why not? That question begs the obvious counter: why should we? First, while the number of planets is huge, most of them are in other galaxies, and of those in the Milky Way, stars are very well-separated. The nearest, Alpha Centauri, is a three star system: two rather close stars (A G-type star like our sun and a K1 star) and a more distant red dwarf, and these are 4.37 light years away. The two have distances that vary between 35.6 AU to 11.2 AU, i.e. on closest approach they come a little further apart than Saturn and the sun.  That close approach means that planets corresponding to our giants could not exist in stable orbits, and astronomers are fairly confident there are no giants closer to the star. Proxima Centauri has one planet in the habitable zone, but for those familiar with my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” will know that in my opinion, the prospect for life originating there, or around most Red Dwarfs, is extremely low. So, could there be Earth-like planets around the two larger stars? Maybe, but our technology cannot find them. As it happens, if there were aliens there, they could not detect Earth with technology at our level either.  Since most stars are immensely further away, rocky planets are difficult to discover. We have found exoplanets, but they are generally giants, planets around M stars, or planets that inadvertently have their orbital planes aligned so we can see eclipses.

This is relevant, because if we are seeking a signal from another civilization, as Seti seeks, then either the signal is deliberate or accidental. An example of accidental is the electromagnetic radiation we send into space through radio and TV signals. According to tvtechnology.com “An average large transmitter transmits about 8kW per multiplex.” That will give “acceptable signal strength” over, say, 50 km. The signal strength attenuates according to the square of the distance, so while the signals will get to Alpha Centauri, they will be extremely weak, and because of bandwidth issues, broadcasts from well separated transmitters will interfere with each other. Weak signals can be amplified, but aliens at Alpha Centauri would get extremely faint noise that might be assignable to technology. 

Suppose you want to send a deliberate signal? Now, you want to boost the power, and the easiest way to get over the inverse square attenuation is to focus the signal. Now, however, you need to know exactly where the intended recipient will be. You might do this for one of your space ships, in which case you would send a slightly broader signal on a very high power level at an agreed frequency but as a short burst. To accidentally detect this, because you have a huge range of frequencies to monitor, you have to accidentally be on that frequency at the time of the burst. There is some chance of Seti detecting such a signal if the space ship was heading to Earth, but then why listen for such a signal, as opposed to waiting for the ship.

The next possible deliberate signal would be aimed at us. To do that, they would need to know we had potential, but let us suppose they did. Suppose it takes something like 4.5 billion years to get technological life, and at that nice round number, they peppered Earth with signals. Oops! We are still in the Cretaceous. Such a move would require a huge power output so as to flood whatever we were using, a guess as to what frequencies we would find of interest, and big costs. Why would they do that, when it may take hundreds or thousands of years for a response? It makes little sense for any “person” to go to all that trouble and know they could never know whether it worked or not. We take the cheap option of listening with telescopes, but if everyone is listening, nobody is sending.

How do they choose a planet? My “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” concludes you need a rocky planet with major felsic deposits, which is most probable around the G type star (but still much less than 50% of them). So you would need some composition data, and in principle you can get that from spectroscopy (but with much better technology than we have). What could you possibly see? Oxygen is obvious, except it gives poor signals. In the infrared spectra, you might detect ozone, and that would be definitive. You often see statements that methane should be detectable. Yes, but Titan has methane and no life. Very low levels of carbon dioxide is a strong indication, as it suggests large amounts of water to fix it, and plate tectonics to renew it. Obviously, signals from chlorophyll would be proof, but they are not exactly strong. So if they are at anything but the very closest stars they would not know whether we are here, so why waste that expense. The Government accountants would never fund such a project with such a low probability of getting a return on investment. Finally, suppose you decided a planet might have technology, why would you send a signal? As Hawking remarked, an alien species might decide this would be a good planet to eradicate all life and transform it suitable for the aliens to settle. You say that is unlikely, but with all those planets, it only needs one such race. So simple game theory suggests “Don’t do it!” If we assume they are more intelligent than us, they won’t transmit because there is no benefit for those transmitting.

A Planet Here Today and Gone Tomorrow

Or, a record for the biggest thing lost! Or, to loose your car keys is careless, but to lose a planet??

As some readers will know, I have my own theory of how planets form from the dust of the accretion disk around stars. The dust is actually micron sized, and finer than an average smoke distribution, and as the gas falls into the star, it gets hot, its potential energy lost being converted to heat, and when it gets hot enough it glows. Of course, it also glows by scattering light emitted by the forming star hence we observe those disks. Standard theory assumes planets form through gravity. The problem here is gravity is far too weak to aggregate this dust, so the standard theory assumes that somehow it forms planetesimals and there is an even distribution of these out to about 32 A.U. (one A.U. is the Earth-Sun distance) where their density falls off dramatically for some unknown reason, although it is necessary they do to prevent more planets being formed further than Neptune. While this is needed to make the theory fit the facts, it is not exactly enlightening, and it is far from clear why Neptune has far more mass than Uranus.

Anyway, I find all this unsatisfactory on many counts. My concept is that getting started involved chemistry, or physical chemistry, in which case what you get depends on the local temperature during accretion. In principle this is quite predictive; in practice not so much because we do not know what the temperatures were for a given system because all evidence of the disk for all systems older than 40 My is long gone. The temperatures depend on the potential energy converted, but that depends on how fast the star is accreting, i.e. the rate of conversion, and for a given size of star, this can vary by a factor of ten. However, there are proportional predictions, i.e. if you have a distribution of planets, it predicts how they should be spaced and what their relative properties should be. Thus besides explaining why Neptune is more massive than Uranus, and there are no planets further out (actually, it does predict the possibility of more, but very far out). It also predicts no life under ice at Europa because the theory predicts there are no significant amounts of nitrogen or carbon, which is verified by observation.

When I published my ebook on planetary formation in 2012, by and large the known observed data matched predicted data surprisingly well, although there was not that much respectable data on multiple systems and for single exoplanets, variation up to an order of magnitude was “tolerable”. However, much of what was generally predicted appeared right, thus red dwarfs, because they had much less material, were expected to have planets closer to the star, and they were. But there was one annoying feature. The star Fomalhaut has a rather odd accretion disk around it, and it appears with the brightest part as a ring very distant from the star. My guess is the star is in the process of ejecting the disk, but maybe that is wrong. Anyway, the disk had a planet that could be seen in a telescope. The problem was, it was somewhere between 100 – 250 A.U. from the star. That by itself was no problem; the star is huge, so planets will be well spread. The problem was, if it were that bright, you should be able to see others, and there were no others. As it happens, this week the problem has gone away because the planet has gone away. More specifically, it was never there. Maybe that should have been suspected. Its light distribution was quite odd, being surprisingly bright in the visible, but seemingly less so in the infrared, which was indicative of surprising heat. Newly formed gas giants can be very hot, due to the energy of the gas falling onto them, so nobody took much notice. However, after a very short time it faded, and now it cannot be seen. What we now think happened was that a collision took place between two objects about 250 km long, and we saw the extreme heat so generated. A very rare occurrence indeed.

Can you Think like a Scientist?

Ever wondered how science works? Feel you know? If so, read this slowly. There is a puzzle to solve so don’t cheat and read past the question before trying to answer. 

WASP 76b is a planet circulating the star known as WASP 76. (WASP stands for “wide angle search for planets” and is an international consortium searching for exoplanets by using robotic telescopes in both hemispheres, hence wide angle. It searches by looking for transits, i.e. a planet passing in front of the star and dimming it. The 76 presumably means the 76th star of interest, and the b means the first planet to be discovered around that particular star.) The star is an F7 class, with a mass of about 1.46 that of the sun, and an effective temperature of about 6,000 oC. So it is bigger, brighter and hotter than the sun.

This planet is weird, by any standards. It is about 0.92 times the size of Jupiter, which means it is a gas giant, and it is 0.033 AU from the centre of the star. (The Earth-Sun distance is defined as 1 AU.) That is close, especially since the star is bigger than the sun. The time taken to go around the star is 1.809886 days. That means a birthday every second day our time, not that there will be anyone having birthdays. The news media has got hold of this because being so close it is expected that the planet is tidally locked. That means, like the Moon going around the Earth, one side is always facing the star and the other side is always facing away. This means that if that is correct and it is tidally locked, the side facing the star will have a temperature of about 2,400 oC, but the side facing away would have a temperature about 1,000 degrees cooler.

When a planet transits in front of the star, the material in the atmosphere absorbs starlight, which gives slightly darker spectral lines, and these give clues as to what is in the atmosphere. In this case, lines corresponding to iron were seen in the gas. At first sight, that is not surprising at 2,400 C. The melting point of iron is 1538 oC, while the boiling point, at our atmospheric pressure, is 2862 oC.  It is not hot enough to boil iron, but then again Earth has temperatures that are nowhere near hot enough to boil water, but plenty of water gets into the atmosphere as clouds, and comes down as rain.

This is where the media have sat up and taken notice: it appears it might be raining iron on that planet. That is weird. More evidence was cited for the rain in that the iron signal was unevenly distributed. Recall the light has to go through the atmosphere, so what we see is the signal from the edges. That signal is not evenly distributed, and apparently present on the evening side, but not in the transition edge from night to day. This was interpreted as due to the iron condensing out as it entered the cold side, and there would be liquid iron droplets as rain during the night. Now, here is your test as a potential scientist. Stop reading and think, and answer this question: do you see anything inconsistent in the above description? This is a test for potential theorists. Theories are not developed by brilliant insights, but rather by thinking that something we think is right has an inconsistency.

Anyway, what struck me is the planet allegedly has a morning and an evening. It cannot have that if it is tidally locked, because the same parts always face the star the same way. The planet must be rotating. As an aside, it is hard to see how it could be tidally locked because the gas in the atmosphere will be travelling extremely fast – the winds and storms will be ferocious if there is a thousand degree difference between night and day. But if it is rotating, maybe the difference is not that much. We cannot measure the dayside from transits. Also, if it were tidally locked, we might expect the iron to rain out on the dark side, but then what? How would it get back to the dayside? After a while it would all be on the night side. There has to be some rotation somewhere.Another interesting point is how do you tidally lock gas? And what does rotation of a gas giant mean? In the case of Jupiter we know it rotates because characteristic storms mark the rotation, but Jupiter is far enough from the star that the temperature differences between night and day are trivial. The hot gas around WASP 76b must move. If it is always going the same way, is the planet rotating or merely the gas has a uniform wind?

Where to Find Life? Not Europa

Now that we have found so many exoplanets, we might start to wonder whether they have life. It so happens I am going to give a presentation on this at a conference in about three weeks time, hence the temptation to focus attention on the topic. My argument is that whether a place could support life is irrelevant; the question is, could it get started? For the present, I am not considering panspermia, i.e. it came from somewhere else on the grounds that if it did, the necessities to reproduce still had to be present and if they were, life would probably evolve anyway. 

I consider the ability to reproduce to be critical because, from the chemistry point of view, it is the hardest to get right. One critical problem is reproduction itself is not enough; it is no use using all resources to make something that reproduces a brown sludge. It has to guess right, and the only way to do that is to make lots of guesses. The only way to do that is to tear to bits that which is a wrong guess and try again and re-use the bits. But then, when you get something useful that might eventually work, you have to keep the good bits. So reproduction and evolution have opposite requirements, but they have to go through the same entity. Reproduction requires the faithful transmission of information; evolution requires the information to change on transmission, but eventually not by much. Keep what is necessary, reject that which is bad. But how?

Information transfer requires a choice of entities to be attached to some polymer, and which can form specific links with either the same entity only (positive reproduction) or through a specific complementary entity (to make a negative copy). To be specific they have to have a strongly preferred attachment, but to separate them later, the attachment has to be able to be converted to near zero energy. This can be done with hydrogen bonds, because solvent water can make up the energy during separation. One hydrogen bond is insufficient; there are too many other things that could get in the road. Adenine forms two hydrogen bonds with uracil, guanine three with cytosine, and most importantly, guanine and uracil both have N-H bonds while adenine and cytosine have none; the wrong pairing either leads to a steric clash that pushes them apart or ends up with only one hydrogen bond that is not strong enough. Accordingly we have the condition for reliable information transfer. Further good news is these bases form themselves from ammonium cyanide, urea and cyanoacetylene, all of which are expected on an earth-like planet from my concept of planetary formation.

The next problem is to form two polymer strands that can separate in water. First, to link them something must have two links. For evolution to work, these have to be strong, but breakable under the right conditions. To separate, they need to have a solubilizing agent, which means an ionic bond. In turn, this means three functional valence electrons. Phosphate alone can do this. The next task is to link the phosphate to the bases that carries the information code. That something must also determine a fixed shape for the strands, and for this nature chose ribose. If we link adenine, ribose and phosphate at the 5 position of ribose we get adenosine monophosphate (AMP); if we do he same for uracil we get uridine monophosphate (UMP). If we put dilute solutions of AMP and UMP into vesicles (made by a long chain hydrocarbon-based surfactant) and let them lie on a flat rock in the sun and splash them from time to time with water, we end with what is effectively random “RNA” strands with over eighty units in a few hours. At this point, useful information is unlikely, but we are on the way.

Why ribose? Because the only laboratory synthesis of AMP from only the three constituents involves shining ultraviolet light on the mixture, and to me, this shows why ribose was chosen, even though ribose is one of the least likely sugars to be formed. As I see it, the reason is we have to form a phosphate ester specifically on the 5-hydroxyl. That means there has to be something unique about the 5-hydroxyl of ribose compared with all other sugar hydroxyl groups. To form such an ester, a hydroxyl has to hit the phosphate with an energy equivalent to the vibrations it would have at about 200 degrees C. Also, if any water is around at that temperature, it would immediately destroy the ester, so black smokers are out. The point about a furanose is it is a flexible molecule and when it receives energy (indirectly) from the UV light it will vibrate vigorously, and UV light has energy to spare for this task. Those vibrations will, from geometry, focus on the 5-hydroxyl. Ribose is the only sugar that has a reasonable amount of furanose; the rest are all in the rigid pyranose form. Now, an interesting point about ribose is that while it is usually only present in microscopic amounts in a non-specific sugar synthesis, it is much more common if the sugar synthesis occurs in the presence of soluble silica/silicic acid. That suggests life actually started at geothermal vents.

Now, back to evolution. RNA has a rather unique property amongst polymers in that the strands, when they get to a certain length and can be bent into a certain configuration and presumably held there with magnesium ions, they can catalyse the hydrolysis of other strands. It does that seemingly by first attacking the O2 of ribose, which breaks the polymer by hydrolysing the adjacent phosphate ester. The next interesting point is that if the RNA can form a double helix, the O2 is more protected. DNA is, of course, much better protected because it has no O2. So the RNA can build itself, and it can reorganise itself.

If the above is correct, then it places strong restrictions on where life can form. There will be no life in under-ice oceans on Europa (if they exist) for several reasons. First, Europa seemingly has no (or extremely small amounts of) nitrogen or carbon. In the very thin atmosphere of Europa (lower pressures than most vacuum pumps can get on Earth) the major gas is the hydroxyl radical, which is made by sunlight acting on ice. It is extremely reactive, which is why there is not much of it. There is 100,000 times less sodium it the atmosphere. Nitrogen was undetected. The next reason is the formation of the nucleic acid appears to require sunlight, and the ice will stop that. The next reason is that there is no geothermal activity that will make the surfactants, and no agitation to convert them to the vesicles needed to contain the condensation products, the ice effectively preventing that. There is no sign of hydrocarbon residues on the surface. Next, phosphates are essentially insoluble in water and would sink to the bottom of an ocean. (The phosphate for life in oceans on Earth tends to come from water washed down from erosion.) Finally, there is no obvious way to make ribose if there is no silicic acid to orient the formation of the sugar.

All of which suggests that life essentially requires an earth-like planet. To get the silicic acid you need geothermal activity, and that may mean you need felsic continents. Can you get silica deposits from volcanism/geothermal activity when the land is solely basalt? I don’t know, but if you cannot, this proposed mechanism makes it somewhat unlikely there was ever life on Mars because there would be no way to form nucleic acids.

A Planet Destroyer

Probably everyone now knows that there are planets around other stars, and planet formation may very well be normal around developing stars. This, at least, takes such alien planets out of science fiction and into reality. In the standard theory of planetary formation, the assumption is that dust from the accretion disk somehow turns into planetesimals, which are objects of about asteroid size and then mutual gravity brings these together to form planets. A small industry has sprung up in the scientific community to do computerised simulations of this sort of thing, with the output of a very large number of scientific papers, which results in a number of grants to keep the industry going, lots of conferences to attend, and a strong “academic reputation”. The mere fact that nobody knows how to get to their initial position appears to be irrelevant and this is one of the things I believe is wrong with modern science. Because those who award prizes, grants, promotions, etc have no idea whether the work is right or wrong, they look for productivity. Lots of garbage usually easily defeats something novel that the establishment does not easily understand, or is prepared to give the time to try.

Initially, these simulations predicted solar systems similar to ours in that there were planets in circular orbits around their stars, although most simulations actually showed a different number of planets, usually more in the rocky planet zone. The outer zone has been strangely ignored, in part because simulations indicate that because of the greater separation of planetesimals, everything is extremely slow. The Grand Tack simulations indicate that planets cannot form further than about 10 A.U. from the star. That is actually demonstrably wrong, because giants larger than Jupiter and very much further out are observed. What some simulations have argued for is that there is planetary formation activity limited to around the ice point, where the disk was cold enough for water to form ice, and this led to Jupiter and Saturn. The idea behind the NICE model, or Grand Tack model (which is very close to being the same thing) is that Uranus and Neptune formed in this zone and moved out by throwing planetesimals inwards through gravity. However, all the models ended up with planets being in near circular motion around the star because whatever happened was more or less happening equally at all angles to some fixed background. The gas was spiralling into the star so there were models where the planets moved slightly inwards, and sometimes outwards, but with one exception there was never a directional preference. That one exception was when a star came by too close – a rather uncommon occurrence. 

Then, we started to see exoplanets, and there were three immediate problems. The first was the presence of “star-burners”; planets incredibly close to their star; so close they could not have formed there. Further, many of them were giants, and bigger than Jupiter. Models soon came out to accommodate this through density waves in the gas. On a personal level, I always found these difficult to swallow because the very earliest such models calculated the effects as minor and there were two such waves that tended to cancel out each other’s effects. That calculation was made to show why Jupiter did not move, which, for me, raises the problem, if it did not, why did others?

The next major problem was that giants started to appear in the middle of where you might expect the rocky planets to be. The obvious answer to that was, they moved in and stopped, but that begs the question, why did they stop? If we go back to the Grand Tack model, Jupiter was argued to migrate in towards Mars, and while doing so, throw a whole lot of planetesimals out, then Saturn did much the same, then for some reason Saturn turned around and began throwing planetesimals inwards, which Jupiter continued the act and moved out. One answer to our question might be that Jupiter ran out of planetesimals to throw out and stopped, although it is hard to see why. The reason Saturn began throwing planetesimals in was that Uranus and Neptune started life just beyond Saturn and moved out to where they are now by throwing planetesimals in, which fed Saturn’s and Jupiter’s outwards movement. Note that this does depend on a particular starting point, and it is not clear to me  that since planetesimals are supposed to collide and form planets, if there was an equivalent to the masses of Jupiter and Saturn, why did they not form a planet?

The final major problem was that we discovered that the great bulk of exoplanets, apart from those very close to the star, had quite significant elliptical orbits. If you draw a line through the major axis, on one side of the star the planet moves faster and closer to it than the other side. There is a directional preference. How did that come about? The answer appears to be simple. The circular orbit arises from a large number of small interactions that have no particular directional preference. Thus the planet might form from collecting a huge number of planetesimals, or a large amount of gas, and these occur more or less continuously as the planet orbits the star. The elliptical orbit occurs if there is on very big impact or interaction. What is believed to happen is when planets grow, if they get big enough their gravity alters their orbits and if they come quite close to another planet, they exchange energy and one goes outwards, usually leaving the system altogether, and the other moves towards the star, or even into the star. If it comes close enough to the star, the star’s tidal forces circularise the orbit and the planet remains close to the star, and if it is moving prograde, like our moon the tidal forces will push the planet out. Equally, if the orbit is highly elliptical, the planet might “flip”, and become circularised with a retrograde orbit. If so, eventually it is doomed because the tidal forces cause it to fall into the star.

All of which may seem somewhat speculative, but the more interesting point is we have now found evidence this happens, namely evidence that the star M67 Y2235 has ingested a “superearth”. The technique goes by the name “differential stellar spectroscopy”, and what happens is that provided you can realistically estimate what the composition should be, which can be done with reasonable confidence if stars have been formed in a cluster and can reasonably be assigned as having started from the same gas. M67 is a cluster with over 1200 known members and it is close enough that reasonable details can be obtained. Further, the stars have a metallicity (the amount of heavy elements) similar to the sun. A careful study has shown that when the stars are separated into subgroups, they all behave according to expectations, except for Y2235, which has far too high a metallicity. This enhancement corresponds to an amount of rocky planet 5.2 times the mass of the earth in the outer convective envelope. If a star swallows a planet, the impact will usually be tangential because the ingestion is a consequence of an elliptical orbit decaying through tidal interactions with the star such that the planet grazes the external region of the star a few times before its orbital energy is reduced enough for ingestion. If so, the planet should dissolve in the stellar medium and increase the metallicity of the outer envelope of the star. So, to the extent that these observations are correctly interpreted, we have the evidence that stars do ingest planets, at least sometimes.

For those who wish to go deeper, being biased I recommend my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis.” Besides showing what I think happened, it analyses over 600 scientific papers, most of which are about different aspects.

Where are the Planets that Might Host Life?

In the previous posts I showed why RNA was necessary for primitive life to reproduce, but the question then is, what sort of planets will have the necessary materials? For the rocky planets, once they reached a certain size they would attract gas gravitationally, but this would be lost after the accretion disk was removed by the extreme UV put out by the new star. Therefore all atmosphere and surface water would be emitted volcanically. (Again, for the purposes of discussion, volcanic emission includes all geothermal emissions, e.g. from fumaroles.) Gas could be adsorbed on dust as it was accreted, but if it were, because heats of adsorption of the gases other than water are very similar, the amount of nitrogen would roughly equal the amount of neon. It doesn’t. (Neon is approximately at the same level as nitrogen in interstellar gas.)

The standard explanation is that since the volatiles could not have been accreted, they were delivered by something else. The candidates: comets and carbonaceous asteroids. Comets are eliminated because their water contains more deuterium than Earth’s water, and if they were the source, there would be twenty thousand times more argon. Oops. Asteroids can also be eliminated. At the beginning of this century it was shown that various isotope ratios of these bodies meant they could not be a significant source. In desperation, it was argued they could, just, if they got subducted through plate tectonics and hence were mixed in the interior. The problem here is that neither the Moon nor Mars have subduction, and there is no sign of these objects there. Also, we find that the planets have different atmospheres. Thus compared to Earth, Venus has 50% more carbon dioxide (if you count what is buried as limestone on Earth), four times more nitrogen, and essentially no water, while Mars has far less volatiles, possibly the same ratio of carbon dioxide and water but it has far too little nitrogen. How do you get the different ratios if they all came from the same source? It is reasonably obvious that no single agent can deliver such a mix, but since it is not obvious what else could have led to this result, people stick with asteroids.

There is a reasonably obvious alternative, and I have discussed the giants, and why there can be no life under-ice on Europa https://wordpress.com/post/ianmillerblog.wordpress.com/855) and reinforced by requirement to join ribose to phosphate. The only mechanism produced so far involves the purine absorbing a photon, and the ribose transmitting the effect. Only furanose sugars work, and ribose is the only sugar with significant furanose form in aqueous solution. There is not sufficient light under the ice. There are other problems for Europa. Ribose is a rather difficult sugar to make, and the only mechanism that could reasonably occur naturally is in the presence of soluble silicic acid. This requires high-temperature water, and really only occurs around fumaroles or other geothermal sites. (The terrace formations are the silica once it comes out of solution on cooling.)

So, where will we find suitable planets? Assuming the model is correct, we definitely need the dust in the accretion disk to get hot enough to form carbides, nitrides, and silicates capable of binding water. Each of those form at about 1500 degrees C, and iron melts at a bit over this temperature, but it can be lower with impurities, thus grey cast is listed as possible at 1127 degrees C. More interesting, and more complicated, are the silicates. The calcium aluminosilicates have a variety of phases that should separate from other silicate phases. They are brittle and can be easily converted to dust in collisions, but their main feature is they absorb water from the gas stream and form cements. If aggregation starts with a rich calcium aluminosilicate and there is plenty of it, it will phase separate out and by cementing other rocks and thus form a planet with plenty of water and granitic material that floats to the surface. Under this scene, Earth is optimal. The problem then is to get this system in the habitable zone, and unfortunately, while both the temperatures of the accretion disk and the habitable zone depend on the mass of the star, they appear to depend on different functions. The net result is the more common red dwarfs have their initial high-temperature zone too close to the star, and the most likely place to look for life are the G- and heavy K-type stars. The function for the accretion disk temperature depends on the rate of stellar accretion, which is unknown for mature stars but is known to vary significantly for stars of the same mass, thus LkCa 15b is three times further away than Jupiter from an equivalent mass star. Further, the star must get rid of its accretion disk very early or the planets get too big. So while the type of star can be identified, the probability of life is still low.

How about Mars? Mars would have been marginal. The current supply of nitrogen, including what would be lost to space, is so low life could not emerge, but equally there may be a lot of nitrogen in the solid state buried under the surface. We do not know if we can make silicic acid from basalt under geochemical conditions and while there are no granitic/felsic continents there, there are extrusions of plagioclase, which might do. My guess is the intermittent periods of fluid flow would have been too short anyway, but it is possible there are chemical fossils there of what the path towards life actually looked like. For me, they would be of more interest than life itself.

To summarise what I have proposed:

  • Planets have compositions dependent on where they form
  • In turn, this depends on the temperatures reached in the accretion disk
  • Chemicals required for reproduction formed at greater than 1200 degrees C in the accretion disk, and possibly greater than 1400 degrees C
  • Nucleic acids can only form, as far as we know, through light
  • Accordingly, we need planets with reduced nitrogen, geothermal processing, and probably felsic/granitic continents that end in the habitable zone.
  • The most probable place is around near-earth-sized planets around a G or heavy K type star
  • Of those stars, only a modest proportion will have planets small enough

Thus life-bearing planets around single stars are likely to be well-separated. Double stars remain unknown quantities regarding planets. This series has given only a very slight look at the issues. For more details, my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis(http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007T0QE6I) has far more details.