Astrobiology, The Search For Life In The Universe


by

Arnold Hanslmeier

DOI: 10.2174/97816080547321130101
eISBN: 978-1-60805-473-2, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-60805-599-9



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Indexed in: Scopus

Astrobiology refers to the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This encompasses extrater...[view complete introduction]

Table of Contents

Foreword

- Pp. i-ii (2)

Joseph Seckbach

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Preface

- Pp. iii-iv (2)

Arnold Hanslmeier

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What is life?

- Pp. 3-20 (18)

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Life on Earth

- Pp. 21-39 (19)

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How Earth Protects Life

- Pp. 40-50 (11)

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The Solar System

- Pp. 51-81 (31)

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Life in the Solar System

- Pp. 82-107 (26)

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Search for Extrasolar Planets

- Pp. 108-134 (27)

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Host Stars of Planetary Systems

- Pp. 135-155 (21)

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Habitable Zones about Stars and Planets

- Pp. 156-167 (12)

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Origin of Elements

- Pp. 168-178 (11)

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In Situ and Remote Sensing for Life

- Pp. 179-198 (20)

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Bibliography

- Pp. 199-207 (9)

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Index

- Pp. 208-214 (7)

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Foreword

Astrobiology is a relatively new science focusing on the study of the Origin of Life, evolution, biodiversity, and the future of life in the universe. This domain gathers scientists from various fields (microbiology, ecology, geology, chemistry, biochemistry, astronomy, astrophysics and paleontology). Astrobiology tries to answer the questions of what is life? Are we alone in the Universe? In addition, this science devotes deep analysis to the extraterrestrial worlds and where does life possibly exists. This volume deals with several aspects of the astrobiological questions about ”life” on our planet and elsewhere in the Universe. The activities toward searching for and finding life in the Universe is a fascinating topic, albeit not an easy one. Life exists almost all over our Earth, in very diversified ranges of habitats, from ”normal” fields to extreme environments. The subdivisions in the ten main chapters of this book allow the subjects to be examined in depth., from the first chapter with ”what is life” to the last, with ”Search of Life”. The author has penetrated deeply into the range of Astrobiology topics, so the reader gains a thorough grounding in each of them-the author has composed a veritable encyclopedia for this field.. The Earth position embedded in the solar system, its distance from the sun and its surrounding with the encircling atmosphere is similar to the fairy tale of Goldilocks case. These factors (position in space and the atmosphere of Earth) protect life by providing ambient temperature and by avoiding the penetration of energy particles, energy radiation, UV radiation (via the ozone screen), and by keeping the temperature in a normal level, and irradiating with the right wavelengths of visible light and save our planet from other negative factors. From the solar system’s eight planets and several satellites (or moons), some of might be candidates for habitable places. The prerequisites for signs of life are the presence of liquid water, an energy source, and complex carbon-based structure. There is currently indeed an active search for habitable zones among the Solar System and extrasolar planets. The assumption is that in the huge cosmos, there must be civilizations similar to what we have on Earth. Furthermore, among the celestial bodies of the solar system are promising chances to detect Life, mainly in the subsurface of places such as Mars, Europa, Titan and other extraterrestrial places. Mars itself was once warm and wet with lakes, rivers, canyons and gullies where water used to run (based on the photos of the flyby space crafts and rovers on the surface). NASA (2006) reported that water has been flowing at the gullies on crater walls in the southern Martian pole. In Vostok station in Antarctica, there exists an ocean four km under the ice layer. A similar but much larger subsurface ocean exists in Europa (moon of Jupiter). This Europa Sea is found at a depth of a few kilometers under the frozen icy cover and is estimated to be a 100-kilometer-thick layer of water. Titan, the large satellite of Saturn, has dense atmosphere (pressure of 1.5 Bar) of nitrogen and methane and lakes of liquid ethane and methane; the surface temperature is - 179C. Our information about Venus does not let us consider it as habitable body. In the past, however, Libby (1968) built a model where ice caps are at the poles and in a certain region, this planet may carry life (Sagan, 1967: Seckbach and Libby, 1970, 1971). The extremophiles (organisms thriving in very severe environments) might be good analogues or models for extraterrestrial life. Among these extremophiles are hyperthermophiles (tolerating very high temperature levels, up to 160C in deep sea hydrothermal vents), cryophyles/psychrophiles (microbial growing in very cold temperatures, of ?20), acidophiles (microbes living in pH 0 to 4), alkaliphiles (thriving at pH 8-11), barophiles (organisms under high pressures), xerophiles (adapted to grow under limited supply of water), halophiles (microorganisms that need high salt concentration to grow) (see Seckbach, 2007; Seckbach, et al. 2013). These terrestrial extremophiles might be in active metabolism or at rest in a dormant stage even for million years in isolated subsurface, mines, salt crystals, under glaciers or at the bottom of the oceans. An active search for celestial life would be for life types that are characteristic of ”life as we know it” and the passive search, for ”life as we do not know it.” Using huge antenna dishes the SETI group is searching for intelligent civilizations with radio message broadcast into the huge galaxy neighborhood. Since the target distance toward exosolar systems is many light years away from us, the hope is to receive a reply during the next years. The reading audience of this book should include graduate students and scientists (in the fields of astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology, geology, biology) as well as interested ”open-minded” readers. Each chapter provides many references for further elucidation presented of the topics offered. The astrophysicist author of this book assembled collections of updated scientific data which complement his publications of other books in related areas. It is hoped that the readers will gainfully extract astrobiological information from this work and also enjoy the colorful figures and illustrations accompanying the text.

Joseph Seckbach
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, IL.


Preface

The search for life in the universe is one of the most difficult but fascinating topics in science and perhaps one of the most challenging questions of humans. Are we alone in the huge universe? From theoretical arguments presented in the last chapters these seems to be quite unlikely. But before elucidating on such a complex problem we have to answer the much simpler question of what is life? The answer is given in the first chapter but it is not an easy one. Life is extremely complex. We are familiar only with the life on Earth. This life has certain properties, being based on the presence of liquid water and on complex carbon based structures. This is reviewed in the first two chapters, however, could life exist under completely different conditions not based either on water or on carbon? There are strong reasons to believe that this is unlikely but has not yet been proven.

In the first three chapters of this book we will first give some insight into how life functions on Earth, what are the basic properties and how life may have originated on Earth. Our Earth acts also as a protector for life. Its atmosphere prevents hazardous short wavelength radiation (X rays or UV) to reach the surface of Earth and the magnetic fields protects the Earth from energetic solar particles and other high energy charged particles from the cosmos. Moving further the chapter gives of the Solar System and the possibility for finding life on any of these bodies.

One of the great advances during the past two decades in astrophysics has been the discovery of planets outside the Solar System. Methods for finding such objects as well as their results, the central stars of these exoplanetary systems are discussed. Together with the intent to answer the question whether these objects might be habitable. This culminates in the discussion on habitability. What makes an object habitable? Several definitions of habitable zones are presented followed by a short review of the process of element synthesis in stellar cores and also the Big Bang theory according to which the two most abundant elements in the universe, hydrogen and helium, were formed during the first minutes of the evolution of the universe. The last chapter is about active and passive search for life with theoretical arguments given to estimate how many civilizations there might exist in our Galaxy. Passive search also includes the broadcasting of radio messages to possible civilizations and several attempts to focus closely on different stars.

The main intention of the book is to assist the reader to perform his/her own estimations and calculations applying several examples given throughout the text. At the end of each chapter a section called ”activities” is given answering more complex questions.

The book is written for scientists, students, interested readers with some background on science in general. Each chapter goes from a general point to details including more than 100 literature citations. These allow a deeper penetration into the subjects presented.

I want to thank my colleagues for the cooperation, especially Dr. H. Lammer and his group, most of them also being my students. I also thank my girl friend Anita for her continued support interest and patience. Wikipedia and the anonymous colleagues that provided are wonderful resources which are acknowledged in general as well as the NASA ADS system where a quick overview on Literature can be found.

Finally I want to thank my publisher and proofreaders for their extremely helpful comments and wish the reader many exciting and fascinating hours with this book. The cover image was taken from NASA/JPL.

The author confirms that this eBook content has no conflicts of interest.

Arnold Hanslmeier
Institute of Physics, Univ. Graz, Austria; Sep. 2012

List of Contributors

Author(s):
Arnold Hanslmeier
Institute of Physics
Univ. Graz
Austria




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