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.

Is There a Planet 9?

Before I start, I should remind everyone of the solar system yardstick: the unit of measurement called the Astronomical Unit, or AU, which is the distance from Earth to the Sun. I am also going to define a mass unit, the emu, which is the mass of the Earth, or Earth mass unit.

As you know, there are eight planets, with the furthest out being Neptune, which is 30 AU from the Sun. Now the odd thing is, Neptune is a giant of 17 emu, Uranus is only about 14.5 emu, so there is more to Neptune than Uranus, even though it is about 12 AU further out. So, the obvious question is, why do the planets stop at Neptune, and that question can be coupled with, “Do they?” The first person to be convinced there had to be at least one more was Percival Lowell, he of Martian canal fame, and he built himself a telescope and searched but failed to find it. The justification was that Neptune’s orbit appeared to be perturbed by something. That was quite reasonable as Neptune had been found by perturbations in Uranus’ orbit that were explained by Neptune. So the search was on. Lowell calculated the approximate position of the ninth planet, and using Lowell’s telescope, Clyde Tombaugh discovered what he thought was planet 9.  Oddly, this was announced on the anniversary of Lowell’s birthday, Lowell now being dead. As it happened, this was an accidental coincidence. Pluto is far too small to affect Neptune, and it turns out Neptune’s orbit did not have the errors everyone thought it did – another mistake. Further, Neptune, as with the other planets has an almost circular obit but Pluto’s is highly elliptical, spending some time inside Neptune’s orbit and sometimes as far away as 49 AU from the Sun. Pluto is not the only modest object out there: besides a lot of smaller objects there is Quaoar (about half Pluto’s size) and Eris (about Pluto’s size). There is also Sedna, (about 40% Pluto’s size) that has an elliptical orbit that varies the distance to the sun from 76 AU to 900 AU.

This raises a number of questions. Why did planets stop at 30 AU here? Why is there no planet between Uranus and Neptune? We know HR 8977 has four giants like ours, and the Neptune equivalent is about 68 AU from the star, and that Neptune-equivalent is about 6 times the mass of Jupiter. The “Grand Tack” mechanism explains our system by arguing that cores can only grow by major bodies accreting what are called planetesimals, which are bodies about the size of asteroids, and cores cannot grow further out than Saturn. In this mechanism, Neptune and Uranus formed near Saturn and were thrown outwards and lifted by throwing a mass of planetesimals inwards, the “throwing”: being due to gravitational interactions. To do this there had to be a sufficient mass of planetesimals, which gets back to the question, why did they stop at 30 AU?

One of the advocates for Planet 9 argued that Planet 9, which was supposed to have a highly elliptical orbit itself, caused the elliptical orbits of Sedna and some other objects. However, this has also been argued to be due to an accidental selection of a small number of objects, and there are others that don’t fit. One possible cause of an elliptical orbit could be a close encounter with another star. This does happen. In 1.4 million years Gliese 710, which is about half the mass of the Sun, will be about 10,000 AU from the Sun, and being that close, it could well perturb orbits of bodies like Sedna.

Is there any reason to believe a planet 9 could be there? As it happens, the exoplanets encylopaedia lists several at distances greater that 100 AU, and in some case several thousand AU. That we see them is because they are much larger than Jupiter, and they have either been in a good configuration for gravitational lensing or they are very young. If they are very young, the release of gravitational energy raises them to temperatures where they emit yellow-white light. When they get older, they will fade away and if there were such a planet in our system, by now it would have to be seen by reflected light. Since objects at such great distances move relatively slowly they might be seen but not recognized as planets, and, of course, studies that are looking for something else usually encompass a wide sky, which is not suitable for planet searching.For me, there is another reason why there might be such a planet. In my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I outline a mechanism by which the giants form, which is similar to that of forming a snowball: if you press ices/snow together and it is suitably close to its melting point, it melt-fuses, so I predict the cores will form from ices known to be in space: Jupiter – water; Saturn – methanol/ammonia/water; Uranus – methane/argon; Neptune – carbon monoxide/nitrogen. If you assume Jupiter formed at the water ice temperature, the other giants are in the correct place to within an AU or so. However, there is one further ice not mentioned: neon. If it accreted a core then it would be somewhere greater than 100 AU.  I cannot be specific because the melting point of neon is so low that a number of other minor and ignorable effects are now significant, and cannot be ignored. So I am hoping there is such a planet there.

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.

Another Earth?

We just get used to seeing those magnificent images of Pluto, then we find an attempt to upstage it with the discovery from the Kepler space telescope of a planet circling a star (Kepler 452) of similar size to our sun at a similar distance to us. More specifically, it is 1.046 times as far from a star that is 1.037 times the mass of our sun. The star is approximately 6 Gy old (our sun is approximately 4.56 Gy old) and it has a moderately higher metallicity than our star. In the absence of a greenhouse effect, it would have an average temperature of about minus 8 degrees Centigrade, which is a little warmer than Earth would be. The orbital eccentricity is quite low, although because the discovery was by transiting, this is a little less certain. So far there is only one planet known, but we can draw little from that. Look up the number of times we see a transit of Venus, and that is in our system, and solar systems are more or less in a plane, at least for significant planets.

So, what do we know about such a planet? The short answer is, not much more than what is listed above. However, if I assume that my theory of planetary formation is correct, as outlined in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, this is most likely to be an Earth equivalent. The alternatives would be an ice-world, such as something dislodged from the Jupiter orbits, but this is less likely because the eccentricity would be expected to be higher. If it were a rocky planet, as an earth equivalent, it would have formed in the same way Earth did, and should have granitic continents, and a good layer of water. Here I have the first uncertainty. According to this theory, the first stage of the accretion of a rocky planet involves small rocky material being cemented together with material separated during the hot phase of stellar accretion, and it is this cement that separates early and forms the continents. When the planet gets big enough, it accretes everything by gravity, and this material mainly forms basalt. How much basalt depends on how much rock is around, how much water is available to set cement, and how long it grows. This latter length of time is dependent on how soon the star expels the accretion dust, and our star apparently did this rather quickly. This rocky planet is somewhat bigger than Earth, so it may have a greater fraction of basalt. Venus has a higher fraction of basalt, presumably because it grew later, in part because the temperatures were hotter and it is harder to set the cement, which is why it is smaller than Earth.

Materials such as nitrogen and carbon (essential for life) are accreted as solids, and become volatile on reaction with water within the planet. (In my view, it is because in reactions involving water, hydrogen reacts faster than deuterium, which explains why Venus has high levels of deuterium in the atmosphere.) So, what about this planet? Because we don’t know how long the star stayed accreting, I cannot predict how much water would be there, but there should be a reasonable amount, as apart from hydrogen and helium, water is one of the most common ingredients of the material that forms stars, and it accreted at a similar temperature. Similarly, the nitrogen and the carbon are dependent on the temperatures reached in forming the star, and since the star is about the same size as sol, the planet should have accreted similar amounts of carbon and nitrogen.

So, what would it be like? I would expect continents just like those on Earth but because the gravitational field on the surface would be stronger (because the planet has more mass, being roughly twice as big as Earth) the mountains would not be as tall. The climate would be similar, but perhaps a bit warmer (because the star is slightly hotter and bigger) and trees would be shorter and thicker. The distribution of continents is important, because if this is unsatisfactory, even if there are large seas, there can still be a lot of desert.

Accordingly, I think the prospects for life there are quite strong. So, why do we not see signs of intelligence, given that it has had a lot more time to evolve? There can be many reasons. If the star is 1.5 billion years older, it has possibly formed and died out. It could be there, but is somewhat disinterested in us. It could be studying us. There is no way of knowing, short of going there, and that is not going to happen any time soon.