Can life arise on a planet without a sun? “There are many places in the universe that seem suitable for the origin of life.” | Science and the planet

A planet floating in space separated from a star. It seems the least likely place where life could originate. Or maybe not… with the right circumstances. But what are they exactly?

Although only about 100 solitary planets have been observed, astronomers suspect that there are at least as many of them as there are stars. These planets have been expelled from their solar system after the gravitational pull of another planet or passing star. It seems like an unexpected home for life, but it’s totally possible according to science.

Because just like the regular planets in the solar system, they can have moons. And if such a planet had a moon, with the right orbit and atmosphere, it could theoretically provide conditions suitable for life for more than a billion years.

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A group of stars as seen by the Hubble Telescope. Among the floats are countless planets that do not revolve around their star. © French Space Agency, NASA

Even without a star it can be warm enough

On such a moon it can be unpredictably warm. This is the conclusion reached by Chilean astronomer Patricio Javier Avila in 2021. If its orbit is not perfectly circular, but an ellipse, then the tidal movement of the planet is constantly distorting the rocks that make up the moon. This results in friction and therefore heat. Planetary scientists see the same thing happening closer to home, with the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

If such a moon also had sufficiently dense carbon dioxide2The atmosphere – so with a strong greenhouse effect – can get warm enough for water to become liquid. The water can get there thanks to chemical reactions initiated by cosmic ray particles colliding with molecules in the atmosphere. This already satisfies an important condition for the origin of life.

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What are the really important factors?

This already satisfies an important condition for the origin of life. Another scientist, Giulia Rocchetti, went even further.

She simulated it complete scenario using computer models. At first it developed a small solar system of 3 planets, the size of Jupiter. Then one planet took off. In doing so, I calculated the number of times the Moon of this planet, and the size of the Earth, remained attached to it. Then I went on a journey with the two of them to see if the condition Avila had calculated in 2021 occurred and how long it lasted.

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Whether life could easily arise on a dark but warmer moon than on a planet lit by a star, no one knows yet.
Whether life could easily arise on a dark but warmer moon than on a planet lit by a star, no one knows yet. © Getty Images

The latter is important because the Moon’s orbit will begin to become more and more semi-circular. Since the frictional heat on the Moon is caused by a non-circular orbit around its planet, this means that the heat valve will gradually stop. “There may be many places in the universe that seem suitable for the emergence of life,” said Rochetti. “What we’re looking for are places where these conditions can persist for hundreds of millions or even billions of years.”

In her study, she concluded that the moon of an orphan planet can meet this requirement. Only under the right circumstances, of course. For example, if the Moon had an atmosphere as thick as Earth’s, then according to her calculations, it would stay warm enough for at most 52 million years. With an atmosphere 10 times denser, that already means 276 million years, and 100 times 1.6 billion years. It is not impossible, for example, that Venus has such an atmosphere.

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Whether life could easily arise on a dark but warmer moon than on a planet lit by a star, no one knows yet. But Roccetti sees the benefits. “There is water, but not much. All sorts of places are likely to experience alternating periods of dryness and wetness. This is conducive to the formation of the long molecules that life must begin with. A star produces solar flares as well as heat. They can steal a planet that would otherwise be just the distance.” suitable to be suitable for life, from its atmosphere.” Lonely Planet Moon is not affected by this.

The search for extraterrestrial life is back in full swing. But how do scientists start such a thing? “Maybe our point of view is too narrow.”

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Winton Frazier

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