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.

Some Unanswered Questions from the Lunar Rocks

In the previous post I hinted that some of what we found from our study of moon rocks raises issues of self-consistency when viewed in terms of the standard paradigm. To summarize the relevant points of that paradigm, the argument goes that the dust in the accretion disk that was left behind after the star formed accreted into Mars-sized bodies that we shall call embryos, and these moved around in highly elliptical orbits and eventually collided to form planets. While these were all mixed up – simulations suggest what made Earth included bodies from outside Mars’ current orbit, and closer to the star than Mercury’s current orbit. These collisions were extraordinarily violent, and the Earth formed from a cloud of silicate vapours that condensed to a ball of boiling silicates at a little under 3000 degrees C. Metallic iron boils at 2862 degrees C, so it was effectively refluxing, and under these conditions it would extract elements such as tungsten and gold that dissolve in iron and take them with it to the core. About sixty million years after Earth formed, one remaining embryo struck Earth, a huge amount of silicates were sent into space, and the Moon condensed from this. The core of this embryo was supposedly iron, and it migrated into the Earth to join our core, leaving the Moon a ball of silicate vapour that had originated from Earth and condensed from something like 10,000 degrees C. You may now see a minor problem for Earth: if this iron took out all the gold, tungsten, etc, how come we can find it? One possibility is the metals formed chemical compounds. That is unlikely because at those temperatures elements that form only moderate-strength chemical bonds would not survive, and since gold is remarkably unreactive, that explanation won’t work. Another problem is that the Moon has very little water and no nitrogen. This easily explained through their being lost to space from the silicate vapours, but where did the Earth get its volatiles? And if the Moon did condense from such high temperatures, the last silicate to condense would be fayalite, but that was not included in the Apollo rocks, or if it were, nothing was made of that. This alone is not necessarily indicative, though, because fayalite is denser than the other olivines, and if there were liquid silicates for long enough it would presumably sink.

The standard paradigm invokes what is called “the late veneer”; after everything was over, Earth got bombarded with carbonaceous asteroids, which contain water, nitrogen, and some of these otherwise awkward metals. It is now that we enter one of the less endearing aspects of modern science: everything tends to be compartmentalised, and the little sub-disciplines all adhere to the paradigm and add small findings that support their view, even if they do not do so particularly well, and there is a reluctance to look at the overall picture. The net result is that while many of the findings can be made to seemingly provide answers to their isolated problems, there is an overall problem with self-consistency. Further, clues that the fundamental proposition might be wrong are carefully shelved.

The first problem was noted at the beginning of the century: the isotope ratios of metals like osmium from such chondrites are different from our osmium. There are various hand-waving argument to the extent that it could just manage if it were mixed with enough of our mantle, but leaving whether the maths are right aside, nobody seems to have noticed the only reason we are postulating this late veneer is that originally the iron stripped all the osmium from the mantle. You cannot dilute A with B if B is not there. There are a number of other reasons, one of which is the nitrogen of such chondrites has more 15N than our nitrogen. Another is to get the amounts of material here we need a huge amount of carbonaceous asteroids, but they have to come through the ordinary asteroids without perturbing them. That takes some believing.

But there is worse. All the rocks found by the Apollo program have none of the required materials and none of the asteroidal isotope signatures. The argument seems to be, they “bounced off” the Moon. But the Moon also has some fairly ferocious craters, so why did the impactors that caused them not bounce off? Let’s suppose they did bounce off, but they did not bounce off the Earth (because the only reason we argue for this is that we need them, so it is said, to account for our supply of certain metals). Now the isotope ratios of the oxygen atoms on the Moon have a value, and that value is constant over rocks that come from deep within the Moon, thanks to volcanism, and for the rocks from the highlands, so that is a lunar value. How can that be the same as Earth’s if Earth subsequently got heavily bombarded with asteroids that we know have different values? My answer, in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” is simple: there were no embryo impacts in forming Earth therefore the iron vapours did not extract out the heavy elements, and there were no significant number asteroid impacts. Almost everything came here when Earth accreted, and while there have been impacts, they made a trivial contribution to Earth’s supply of matter.

The Apollo Program – More Memories from Fifty Years Ago.

As most will know, it is fifty years ago since the first Moon landing. I was doing a post-doc in Australia at the time, and instead of doing any work that morning, when the word got around on that fateful day we all downed tools and headed to anyone with a TV set. The Parkes radio telescope had allowed what they received to be live-streamed to Australian TV stations. This was genuine reality TV. Leaving aside the set picture resolution, we were seeing what Houston was seeing, at exactly the same time. There was the Moon, in brilliant grey, and we could watch the terrain get better defined as the lander approached, then at some point it seemed as if the on-board computer crashed. (As computers go, it was primitive. A few years later I purchased a handheld calculator that would leave that computer for dead in processing power.) Anyway, Armstrong took control, and there was real tension amongst the viewers in that room because we all knew if anything else went wrong, those guys would be dead. There was no possible rescue. The ground got closer, Armstrong could not fix on a landing site, the fuel supply was getting lower, then, with little choice because of the fuel, the ground got closer faster, the velocity dropped, and to everyone’s relief the Eagle landed and stayed upright. Armstrong was clearly an excellent pilot with excellent nerves. Fortunately, the lander’s legs did not drop into a hole, and as far as we could tell, Armstrong chose a good site. Light relief somewhat later in the day to watch them bounce around on the lunar surface. (I think they were ordered to take a 4-hour rest. Why they hadn’t rested before trying to land I don’t know. I don’t know about you, but if I had just successfully landed on the Moon, and would be there for not very long, a four-hour rest would not seem desirable.)

In some ways that was one of America’s finest moments. The average person probably has no idea how much difficult engineering went into that, and how everything had to go right. This was followed up by six further successful landings, and the ill-fated Apollo 13, which nevertheless was a triumph in a different way in that despite a near-catastrophic situation, the astronauts returned to Earth.

According to the NASA website, the objectives of the Apollo program were:

  • Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space.
  • Achieving preeminence in space for the United States.
  • Carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
  • Developing human capability to work in the lunar environment.

The first two appear to have been met, but obviously there is an element of opinion there. It is debatable that the last one achieved much because there has been no effort to return to the Moon or to use it in any way, although that may well change now. Charles Duke turns 84 this year and he still claims the title of “youngest person to walk on the Moon”.

So how successful was the scientific program? In some ways, remarkably, yet in others there is a surprising reluctance to notice the significance of what was found. The astronauts brought back a large amount of lunar rocks, but there were some difficulties here in that until Apollo 17, the samples were collected by astronauts with no particular geological training. Apollo 17 changed that, but it was still one site, albeit with a remarkably varied geological variety. Of course, they did their best and selected for variety, but we do not know what was overlooked.

Perhaps the most fundamental discovery was that the isotopes from lunar rocks are essentially equivalent to earth rocks, and that means they came from the same place. To put this in context, the ratio of isotopes of oxygen, 16O/17O/18O varies in bodies seemingly according to distance from the star, although this cannot easily be represented as a function. The usual interpretation is that the Moon was formed when a small planet, maybe up to the size of Mars, called Theia crashed into Earth and sent a deluge of matter into space at a temperature well over ten thousand degrees Centigrade, and some of this eventually aggregated into the Moon. Mathematical modelling has some success at showing how this happened, but I for one am far from convinced. One of the big advantages of this scenario is that it shows why the Moon has no significant water, no atmosphere, and never had any, apart from some water and other volatiles frozen in deep craters at the South Pole that almost certainly arrived from comets and condensed there thanks to the cold. As an aside, you will often read that the lunar gravity is too weak to hold air. That is not exactly true; it cannot hold it indefinitely, but if it started with carbon dioxide proportional in mass, or even better in cross-sectional area, to what Earth has, it would still have an atmosphere.

One of the biggest disadvantages of this scenario is where did Theia come from? The models show that if the collision, which happened about 60 million years after the Earth formed, occurred from Theia having a velocity much above the escape velocity from Earth, the Moon cannot form. It gets the escape velocity from falling down the Earth’s gravitational field, but if it started far enough further out that would have permitted Theia to have lasted 60 million years, then its velocity would be increased by falling down the solar gravitational field, and that would be enhanced by the eccentricity of its trajectory (needed to collide). Then there is the question of why are the isotopes the same as on Earth when the models show that most of the Moon came from Theia. There has been one neat alternative: Theia accreted at the Earth-Sun fourth or fifth Lagrange point, which gives it indefinite stability as long as it is small. That Theia might have grown just too big to stay there explains why it took so long and starting at the same radial distance as Earth explains why the isotope ratios are the same.

So why did the missions stop? In part, the cost, but that is not a primary reason because most of the costs were already paid: the rockets had already been manufactured, the infrastructure was there and the astronauts had been trained. In my opinion, it was two-fold. First, the public no longer cared, and second, as far as science was concerned, all the easy stuff had been done. They had brought back rocks, and they had done some other experiments. There was nothing further to do that was original. This program had been a politically inspired race, the race was run, let’s find something more exciting. That eventually led to the shuttle program, which was supposed to be cheap but ended up being hideously expensive. There were also the deep space probes, and they were remarkably successful.

So overall? In my opinion, the Apollo program was an incredible technological program, bearing in mind from where it started. It established the US as firmly the leading scientific and engineering centre on Earth, at least at the time. Also, it got where it did because of a huge budget dedicated to one task. As for the science, more on that later.

Earth’s Twin: Venus

Leaving aside the Moon and the Sun, Venus is the brightest object in the sky, and at times the closest. Further, Venus is the only planet that is comparable to Earth; its mass is about 81.5%, its size is about 95%, and its gravity is about 90.5% that of Earth. The orbit of Venus has only 1/3 of Earth’s eccentricity, and while Earth has an axial tilt of 23.5 degrees (which results in right now I am embedded in winter and many of the readers will be enjoying a pleasant summer, or maybe a heat wave) Venus has a tilt of only 2.6 degrees. That means that Venus has a more or less uniform temperature and no seasons. At first sight, that would make it an attractive target for space probes, but while NASA has sent eleven orbiters and eight landers to Mars, it has only sent two orbiters to Venus. Why the lack? Not for lack of interest since from 1990 NASA has considered nearly thirty proposals, but it approved none. The dead hand of the committee strikes again. The reason is that Venus, up close, is strangely unattractive.

The first problem is atmospheric pressure, which is about 90 bar over most of the planet, and it has an average surface temperature of about 460 degrees C but this can vary by +160 degrees C. The second problem is the nature of the atmosphere. Most of it is carbon dioxide. Venus also has about four times the amount of nitrogen than Earth has, and all of that is relatively harmless. What is less harmless is the atmosphere has clouds of sulphuric acid, together with hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride. Hydrogen fluoride is particularly nasty, because it reacts with glass, and while the sulphuric acid will attack all the basic electronics, etc, the hydrogen fluoride will attack lenses. Very shortly, photography, or seeing where a rover is going, will no longer be possible. And, of course, if it can survive, the heat soon kills it. The first lander to return data was Venera 7, a 1970 Soviet lander that survived for 23 minutes. In 1975, Venera 9 sent back the first pictures from the surface, but it too did not last very long. Funding committees do not encourage very expensive rovers with a very short life.

This may change. NASA is designing a “station” that should last at least sixty days, and operate at the ambient temperature. The electronics would be made of silicon carbide, a substance that conducts electricity and melts somewhere above 2,800 degrees C. No danger of that melting, although all the metals in the craft would have to be resistant to the ambient heat and the corrosion. Titanium would probably manage reasonably well. So maybe we shall get to know more about the planet.

There have apparently been proposals to “colonise” Venus through “settlements” floating above the cloud levels, i.e.presumably some ship-like structure supported by gigantic balloons. Personally, I feel this is unreal. The total weight must displace an equal weight of gas, and the idea is to get above the clouds. Up there, the gas is nowhere near as dense (the pressure is only about half that 90 bar at the top of the highest mountain) and to go higher the pressure really drops away. So to support sufficient mass you would need very large balloons, made of what? Any fabric or rubber would be broken down by the solar UV at that height. Metals would corrode. And what would the gas be? The obvious ones would be hydrogen and helium (no danger of fire because there is no air) but these gases leak like crazy. You may think you can hold it, but for centuries? Then there is another minor problem: at the top of the atmosphere winds can reach several hundred kilometres per hour.

So what is “wrong” with Venus, from our point of view? There are two things. The first is the very slow rotation, which happens to be retrograde. The direction is not so much a problem, but the slowness is. However, the main one is, no significant water. If Venus had the amount of water Earth has, it would have fixed all that carbon dioxide as limestone or dolomite, in which case the atmospheric pressure would be about 3 times our atmosphere (because it has four times the amount of nitrogen). If we wanted to have breathable air, we would have to add another atmosphere of oxygen.

So in theory we could terraform Venus. At the expense of much energy what we would have to do is bring in a number of Kuiper Belt objects, or maybe cometary material from around Jupiter would be better because they contain much less additional nitrogen and carbon monoxide, and make them hit Venus, preferably on the side in a way that the angular momentum of the incoming object was added to the current Venusian rotation, in other words, spin it up. Give it water, and chemistry would do the rest, although it would probably also be preferable to cool it by shading it from the sun at least to some extent. Yes, the temperatures would still be high, but as long as it can cool to 300 degrees C, the pressure will ensure there is some liquid, and the fixing of the gas will start, and initiate positive feedback

Suppose we could give Venus as much water as Earth, then the planet would be more like a water world. It is an interesting question whether Venus has any felsic/granitic material. This is the stuff that makes continents. The great bulk of the material on any rocky planet is basaltic, which in turn is because the oxides of silicon, magnesium and iron are the most commonly available rock-forming materials. Aluminium, as an element, is over an order of magnitude less common than silicon, which it replaces in aluminosilicates. Being less dense than basalt, granite floats on the basalt, provided it can separate itself from the basalt. In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, I propose that the separation essentially has to take place prior to and during planetary formation. Venus does have two minicontinents: Ishtar and Aphrodite Terrae.

The actual differentiation of the planet, when the granite moves from the deep and comes out on the surface occurs slowly (the small amounts of plagioclase on Mars apparently took about two billion years.) and the rate probably depends on the amount actually accreted. The evidence is that on Earth very large amounts erupted in massive pulses. In the absence of such granite, a large planet will be rather flat, apart from some volcanic peaks.

There would still be a problem in that Venus has no plate tectonics. They are needed to provide the recycling of carbon dioxide, as eventually if the lot were fixed, any life would presumably die. We don’t know what starts plate tectonics. One possibility is the presence of granitic continents, another is the forces arising from rotational motion.  It is just possible they could start if there were more rotational motion, but we don’t know. All in all, not an attractive planet in detail, so maybe we should look after our own better.

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.

The Ice Giants’ Magnetism

One interesting measurement made from NASA’S sole flyby of Uranus and Neptune is that they have complicated magnetic fields, and seemingly not the simple dipolar field as found on Earth. The puzzle then is, what causes this? One possible answer is ice.

You will probably consider ice as not particularly magnetic nor particularly good at conducting electric current, and you would be right with the ice you usually see. However, there is more than one form of ice. As far back as 1912, the American physicist Percy Bridgman discovered five solid phases of water, which were obtained by applying pressure to the ice. One of the unusual properties of ice is that as you add pressure, the ice melts because the triple point (the temperature where solid, liquid and gas are in equilibrium) is at a lower temperature than the melting point of ice at room pressure (which is 0.1 MPa. A pascal is a rather small unit of pressure; the M mean million, G would mean billion). So add pressure and it melts, which is why ice skates work. Ices II, III and V need 200 to 600 MPa of pressure to form. Interestingly, as you increase the pressure, Ice III forms at about 200 Mpa, and at about -22 degrees C, but then the melting point rises with extra pressure, and at 350 MPa, it switches to Ice V, which melts at – 18 degrees C, and if the pressure is increased to 632.4 MPa, the melting point is 0.16 degrees C. At 2,100 MPa, ice VI melts at just under 82 degrees C. Skates don’t work on these higher ices. As an aside, Ice II does not exist in the presence of liquid, and I have no idea what happened to Ice IV, but my guess is it was a mistake.

As you increase the pressure on ice VI the melting point increases, and sooner or later you expect perhaps another phase, or even more. Well, there are more, so let me jump to the latest: ice XVIII. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has produced this by compressing water to 100 to 400 GPa (1 to 4 million times atmospheric pressure) at temperatures of 2,000 to 3,000 degrees K (0 degrees centigrade is about 273 degrees K, and the scale is the same) to produce what they call superionic ice. What happens is the protons from the hydroxyl groups of water become free and they can diffuse through the empty sites of the oxygen lattice, with the result that the ice starts to conduct electricity almost as well as a metal, but instead of moving electrons around, as happens in metals, it is assumed that it is the protons that move.

These temperatures and pressures were reached by placing a very thin layer of water between two diamond disks, following which six very high power lasers generated a sequence of shock waves that heated and pressurised the water. They deduced what they got by firing 16 additional high powered lasers that delivered 8 kJ of energy in a  one-nanosecond burst on a tiny spot on a small piece of iron foil two centimeters away from the water a few billionths of a second after the shock waves. This generated Xrays, and from the way they diffracted off the water sample they could work out what they generated. This in itself is difficult enough because they would also get a pattern from the diamond, which they would have to subtract.

The important point is that this ice conducts electricity, and is a possible source of the magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune, which are rather odd. For Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, the magnetic poles are reasonably close to the rotational poles, and we think the magnetism arises from electrically conducting liquids rotating with the planet’s rotation. But Uranus and Neptune have quite odd magnetic fields. The field for Uranus is aligned at 60 degrees to the rotational axis, while that for Neptune is aligned at 46 degrees to the rotational axis. But even odder, the axes of the magnetic fields of each do not go through the centre of the planet, and are displaced quite significantly from it.

The structure of these planets is believed to be, from outside inwards, first an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, then a mantle of water, ammonia and methane ices, then interior to that a core of rock. My personal view is that there will also be carbon monoxide and nitrogen ices in the mantle, at least of Neptune. The usual explanation for the magnetism has been that magnetic fields are generated by local events in the icy mantles, and you see comments that the fields may be due to high concentrations of ammonia, which readily forms charged species. Such charges would produce magnetic fields due to the rapid rotation of the planets. This new ice is an additional possibility, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it might contribute to the other giants.

Jupiter is found from our spectroscopic analyses to be rather deficient in oxygen, and this is explained as being due to the water condensing out as ice. The fact that these ices form at such high temperatures is a good reason to believe there may be such layers of ice. This superionic ice is stable as a solid at 3000 degrees K, and that upper figure simply represents the highest temperature the equipment could stand. (Since water reacts with carbon, I am surprised it got that high.) So if there were a layer of such ice around Jupiter’s core, it too might contribute to the magnetism. Whatever else Jupiter lacks down there, pressure is not one of them.

Marsquakes

One of the more interesting aspects of the latest NASA landing on Mars is that the rover has dug into the surface, inserted a seismometer, and is looking for marsquakes. On Earth, earthquakes are fairly common, especially where I live, and they are generated through the fact that our continents are gigantic lumps of rock moving around over the mantle. They can slide past each other or pull themselves down under another plate, to disappear deep into the mantle, while at other places, new rock emerges to take their place, such as at the mid-Atlantic ridge. Apparently the edges of these plates move about 5 – 10 cm each year. You probably do not notice this because the topsoil, by and large, does not move with the underlying crust. However, every now and again these plates lock and stop moving there. The problem is, the rest of the rock is moving, so considerable strain energy is built up, the lock gives way, very large amounts of energy are released, and the rock moves, sometimes be several meters. The energy is given out as waves, similar in many ways as sound waves, through the rock. If you see waves in the sea, you will note that while the water itself stays more or less in the same place on average, in detail something on the surface, like a surfer, goes up and down, and in fact describes what is essentially a circle if far enough out. Earthquake waves do the same thing. The rock moves, and the shaking can be quite violent. Of course, the rock moves where the actual event occurred, and sometimes the waves trigger a further shift somewhere else.

Such waves travel out in all directions through the rock. Now another feature of all waves is that when they strike a medium through which they will travel with a different velocity, they undergo partial reflection and refraction. There is an angle of incidence when only reflection occurs, and of course, on a curved surface, the reflected waves start spreading as the angles of incidence vary. A second point is that the bigger the difference in wave speed between the two media, the more reflection there is. On Earth, this has permitted us to gather information on what is going on inside the Earth. Of course Earth has some big advantages. We can record seismic events from a number of different places, and even then the results are difficult to interpret.

The problem for Mars is there will be one seismometer that will measure wave frequency, amplitude, and the timing. The timing will give a good picture of the route taken by various waves. Thus the wave that is reflected off the core will come back much sooner than the wave that travels light through and is reflected off the other side, but it will have the same frequency pattern on arrival, so from such patterns and timing you can sort out, at least in principle, what route they took and from the reflection/refraction intensities, what different materials they passed through. It is like a CT scan of the planet. There are further complications because wave interference can spoil patterns, but waves are interesting that they only create that effect at the site where they interfere. Otherwise, they pass right through other waves and are unchanged when they emerge, apart from intensity changes if energy was absorbed by the medium. There is an obvious problem in that with only one seismometer it is much harder to work out where the source was but the scientists believe over the lifetime of the rover they will detect at least a couple of dozen quakes.

Which gets to the question, why do we expect quakes? Mars does not have plate tectonics, possibly because its high level of iron oxide means eclogite cannot form, and it is thought that the unusually high density of eclogite leads to pull subduction. Accordingly the absence of plate tectonics means we expect marsquakes to be of rather low amplitude. However, minor amplitude quakes are expected. One reason is that as the planet cools, there is contraction in volume. Accordingly, the crust becomes less well supported and tends to slip. A second cause could be magma moving below the surface. We know that Mars has a hot interior, thanks to nuclear decay going on inside, and while Mars will be cooler than Earth, the centre is thought to be only about 200 Centigrade degrees cooler than Earth’s centre. While Earth generates more heat, it also loses more through geothermal emissions. Finally, when meteors strike, they also generate shockwaves. Of course the amplitude of these waves is tiny compared with that of even modest earthquakes.

It is hard to know what we shall learn. The reliance on only one seismometer means the loss of directional analysis, and the origin of the quake will be unknown, unless it is possible to time reflections from various places. Thus if you get one isolated event, every wave that comes must have originated from that source, so from the various delays, paths can be assigned. The problem with this is that low energy events might not generate enough reflections of sufficient amplitude to be detected. The ideal method, of course, is to set off some very large explosions at known sites, but it is rather difficult to do that from here.

What do we expect? This is a bit of guesswork, but for me we believe the crust is fairly thick, so we would expect about 60 km of solid basalt. If we get significantly different amounts, this would mean we would have to adjust our thoughts on the Martian thermonuclear reactions. I expect a rather tiny (for a planet) iron core, the clue here being the overall density of Mars is 3.8, its surface is made of basalt, and basalt has a density of 3.1 – 3.8. There just is not room for a lot of iron in the form of the metal. It is what is in between that is of interest. Comments from some of the scientists say they think they will get clues on planetary formation, which could come from deep structures. Thus if planets really formed from the combination of planetesimals, which are objects of asteroid, size, then maybe we shall see the remains in the form of large objects of different sonic impedance. On the other hand, the major shocks to the system by events such as the Hellas impactor may mean that asymmetries were introduced by such shock waves melting parts. My guess is the observations will not be unambiguous in terms of their meaning, and it will be interesting to see how many different scenarios are considered.