As the hunt for life on other planets spins ever more out of hand, there’s a group of people working to figure out where you should look first if you find evidence of it.
Sounds simple. Except it’s an engineering problem. Specifically, trying to find where the purest water exists — places far from home. Finding new locations of free-floating water in space is not only important for understanding how planetary systems formed — but is key to figuring out exactly how much there is.
If there’s enough of it, you might get a whiff of life.
Finding the most accessible places to detect free-floating water should be a top priority for astronomers who want to search for life beyond Earth, according to a group of researchers and engineers who are poring over the science to find the best places to hunt.
“After the century’s worth of work, we now have deep and profound insights into how solar systems form, what planets look like and what conditions are likely to allow life to exist,” said Karl Kluge, a post-doctoral fellow at the Arizona Institute of Science and Technology, in a statement. “Yet we still don’t know a whole lot about where liquid water is. That’s where we need to focus our efforts.”
If there is enough of it, you might get a whiff of life. If not, you might even be able to track some of the changes it has caused to a planet over time.
Kluge and his colleagues are joining thousands of other astronomers who are searching for signs of life in alien places this year.
The push for finding places to detect life will continue during the course of the last decade, researchers say. It was prompted by a landmark discovery by Australia’s Kepler space telescope that found that an Earth-like planet was discovered within the so-called “habitable zone” of a star. That, in a nutshell, is the region around a star where water can be liquid. The hope is that life might be brewing somewhere in that region.
The problem is, finding planets and testing the conventional wisdom on how they formed might be harder than it seems. Finding the optimal places to look for water is tricky, experts say. Water is fundamental to life, but is ubiquitous and hard to come by. And finding as much as the scientists need is harder still. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
That’s where the engineers come in.
Many pieces are needed for finding planets. The search for simple, near-perfect Earth-like planets gets science moving forward. But to get a good picture of what makes a planet suitable for life requires getting enough sunlight to produce water, which takes energy. So many factors will need to fall into place for life to develop: Heat, gravity, strong magnetic fields, co-evolution between Earth and other planets and the ability to form water from rock.
And then, to find free-floating water.
But those three — identifying and finding life-friendly environments for water, finding places for researchers to observe them and analyzing the data to figure out where to find them, and coordinating the work among many different scientists — are harder than they seem.
“I’m hoping to be able to do something that will uncover some spots like Chile or the Pacific rim that’s water and far from the center of the solar system,” said Jay Elkins, an astronomer at the University of Arizona and the research team’s principal investigator.
I’m hoping to be able to do something that will uncover some spots like Chile or the Pacific rim that’s water and far from the center of the solar system.
Clustering of ocean-bottom water in a specific area of space would provide the best indication of where life might be spotted, Elkins said. And the scientists on the team say they are taking some unconventional approaches in their search.
Many scientists believe active volcanoes, earthquakes or other natural events can act as atmospheric signatures that water is free-floating. This process is called exoplanet formation, and being able to demonstrate it would be a key to answering the questions of where life may exist.
The team is actually modeling what happens in a scenario involving a whole lot of water. When an exoplanet is going to form, its shallow water can boil away if there’s a strike by a heavy rock.
“For the first time, we will actually show that water can eventually boil off an entire planet,” said Kenneth Suggs, a co-author of the paper that reported the discovery of Kepler-186f. “It’s a neat way to look at the far