‘Super-Earth’ could host alien life 84 billion years ago, study says

Deepak Gupta July 1, 2022
Updated 2022/07/01 at 9:12 PM

There are millions of stars, some of them with planets orbiting in a “habitable” zone. There is an immensity of the universe that we don’t know, which could be richer in a concept of life different from the one we know on Earth. According to a new study, a special class of planets could potentially host life for tens of billions of years. These are the Super-Earths, rocky planets more massive than our planet, but smaller than ice giants like Neptune.

These planets are abundant in star systems across the Milky Way; in fact, our own solar system may be somewhat older for not having this kind of world.

If water is an important condition for life, then we may not be alone

A group of scientists led by Marit Mol Lous, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Zurich, have presented new evidence that planets called "cold super-Earths", which orbit their stars at more than twice the distance between Earth and Earth Sun, "can maintain temperate surface conditions" for up to eight billion years, a time period that "suggests that the concept of planetary habitability should be revisited and made more inclusive," according to a study. published on monday in Nature Astronomy.

Researchers have found that some Super-Earths, ejected from their home star systems by gravitational perturbations, or other mechanisms, could potentially maintain liquid water habitats for 84 billion yearsbecause these "rogue" worlds would not be affected by the death of any host star.

The new study builds on theoretical models of these tempting worlds, rather than actual observations, because it's a challenge to see these cool super-Earths with current telescopes. Most exoplanets are detected when they pass in front of their star relative to our view of Earth, causing a slight dip in starlight.

As a result, all known Super-Earth planets have relatively short orbits that produce frequent dips in brightness, making them simpler for telescopes to locate.

However, scientists have suspected for years that Super-Earths in more distant orbits could be convincing targets in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Exoplanet discovered after passing in front of its Earth's preceptive star

Planets with atmosphere that have trapped water and may have alien life

Models suggest that these planets could retain their primordial atmospheres, which are dominated by hydrogen and helium gas, for billions of years. These atmospheres are distinct from those that surround some rocky planets in our own solar system, including Earth, which has evolved atmospheres with more complicated compounds, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen gases.

The hypothesis that there could be liquid water on a planet that has a primordial atmosphere has been around for over 20 years and since then more studies have been working on this idea.

We wanted to further investigate the evolutionary aspect, in other words, we calculated how long liquid water could be present and what it would take for a planet to have the longest possible life of liquid water.

Said researcher Mol Lous.

THE liquid water is the magic ingredient of life as we know it on Earthwhich is why scientists give it priority in the search for extraterrestrials in other parts of the universe.

To delve into the "potentially exotic habitability" of a cold Super-Earth with primordial atmospheres, in the study's words, Mol Lous and his colleagues ran more than 1,000 simulations of planets with different masses, atmospheres and orbital distances.

Illustrative exoplanet image

There may be planets with an atmosphere that traps water in the ground

Could there really be planets with better conditions for life than Earth?

The team found that planets between one to ten times the mass of Earth, with atmospheres 100 to 1,000 times thicker than Earth's skies, can occupy a hospitable sweet spot. Worlds orbiting too close to their stars are expected to lose their primordial atmospheres under the harsh starlight, but planets that are at distances beyond the orbit of Mars can become clinging to this hydrogen-helium envelope.

At this potentially safe distance, these atmospheres could act as greenhouse gases by absorbing infrared radiation, providing a heat source that could fuel life in liquid water oceans.

This class of planets could provide habitable conditions for five to eight billion years, but would eventually become inhospitable once their stars began to expand during their dying phases, the study reports.

In an astounding twist, researchers have found that rowdy planets ten times more massive than Earth, with atmospheres that are about one percent of Earth's mass, could be habitable for an astounding 84 billion yearsaccording to the models.

The study suggests that these boundless worlds would likely be too hot for life at this point in the universe's 13.8 billion-year-old life, but could become hospitable over the next billions of years.

Illustration of planets with alien life

There may be Super-Earths with better conditions for life than Earth

There could be life much more resilient than Earth

Any alien on these worlds would have to contend with very different conditions compared to Earth, including enormous surface pressures and a lack of direct sunlight as a result of thick atmospheres. However, the team notes that extreme life forms on Earth can handle high pressures in deep ocean trenches, while some organisms rely on chemical energy sources rather than taking fuel from the Sun.

The implications of the study are exciting, but Mol Lous and his colleagues cautioned that further investigation and, hopefully, direct observations will be needed to substantiate these early findings.

To that end, the team emphasized that these special exoplanets could be detectable by next-generation observatories such as the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope or NASA's upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.

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