Is alien life hiding in the aquatic worlds of our solar system?

Aquatic worlds are found in our own solar system, and life can hide among their layers of rock and ice, new studies suggest. Life could one day be found on worlds such as Europe, Enceladus, Titan, Mars and maybe even (Pluto).

The Inner Ocean Worlds (IWOW) are common in our solar system, and similar planets and moons are likely to exist in other planetary systems, greatly increasing the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

“As we now know, in our solar system, Earth is a rare type of ocean world because its oceans lie on the outside. In contrast, an increasing number of worlds in our solar system have … shown … probably contain oceans of inland water. As a result, it is now believed that oceanic worlds are common in our solar system… IWOWs appear to be particularly auspicious and perhaps of benefit to the development and maintenance of life ”, Dr Alan Stern, Southwest Planetologist. Research Institute (SwRI) writes in a letter from Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference 2021.

Shields to the max!

Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Stéphane Le Mouélic / University of Nantes / Virginia Pasek / University of Arizona
Titan’s oceans, normally hidden in an eternal cloud layer, can be seen in this infrared composite image, seen by the Cassini probe.

The search for alien life is often confined to planets in the habitable zone surrounding the stars – where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for life to develop. However, water-rich moons like Jupiter’s moon Europe could dramatically increase the number of worlds on which life could develop.

“Earth is not the only oceanic world in our solar system. Water on other worlds exists in various forms on moons, dwarf planets, and even comets. Ice, water vapor in the atmosphere and oceans of other worlds offer clues in the quest to discover life beyond our home planet ”, NASA describes.

Each of the most intriguing targets in the search for life in the solar system offers unique challenges and resources for life to take hold.

Mars, the planet most often associated with alien life, does not have large amounts of liquid water on the surface, although brackish deposits can be found in small packages the size of a thimble underground.

A look at how the same protective layer that could encourage life on ocean worlds could also make life harder to detect.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Southwest Research Institute
A look at how the same protective layer that might encourage life on ocean worlds might also make life harder to detect.

Europe is cold, but this massive moon of Jupiter is heated by tidal forces as it orbits its powerful parent. Titan has oceans of ethane and methane, and the thickest atmosphere by far of any moon in the solar system. What this might mean for the development of life there remains a mystery. On Earth, it was recently discovered that the ocean floor itself was the source of chemical reactions in primitive life forms.

The Earth (considered an EWOW, or outer oceanic world) and the other terrestrial planets in our solar system have been the target of bombardments from asteroids and comets, as well as strong radiation which may have led to extinction on earth. However, the aquatic worlds could be protected from these threats by thick envelopes of ice and water.

“Inner oceanic worlds are better suited to provide many types of environmental stability and are less likely to experience threats to the life of their own atmosphere, star, solar system, and galaxy, than are worlds like the Earth, which have their oceans on the outside ”, Stern explains.

Olly Olly Planet Free!

One challenge in finding such life is that the same oceans and ice that protect life can also make it difficult for us to detect life. If life forms primarily in the icy oceans of these worlds, Stern explains, it could help explain why we haven’t seen life on other worlds yet.
Considering the laws of chemistry and physics, life should be common throughout the galaxy. This might help answer the Fermi Paradox, which poses the question: if life is common, why haven’t we found life forms on other worlds yet? Stern believes that the very water and ice that protect life on these worlds could prevent us from seeing evidence of its existence.

“All these worlds are yours except Europe. Don’t try to land there. Use them together. Use them in peace. – Arthur C. Clarke, 2010: Odyssey Two

Hit the play button above to watch The Cosmic Companion’s interview with science writer David Brown, talking about the Europa Clipper mission.

The Ocean Worlds Exploration Program developed by NASA aims to explore the ocean worlds of our solar system. This program seeks to explore and understand places like Europa and Titan, where mighty oceans could teem with life.

“Tidal energy from Europe can also allow the ocean to interact with the rocks of the seabed in Europe. Chemical reactions between water and rock could help provide not only the building blocks for life, but also the energy for life, ”writes NASA on the Europa Clipper website.

The Europa Clipper aims to be launched on Jupiter’s water moon in October 2024. If the Ingenuity rover’s test flights to Mars are successful, the next interplanetary helicopter will (hopefully) fly to the mighty moon of Saturn, Titan.

Lessons learned from exploring the aquatic worlds of our solar system – perhaps even finding life itself – will provide us with the tools and experience to discover life around distant stars.

This article was originally published on The cosmic companion through James maynard, founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He’s a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the cat. You can read this original piece here.

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Arline J. Mercier

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