Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Life came from dwarf planet Ceres?

Well, as Lee Pullen tells it at Space.com in "Dwarf planet may have survived early cataclysmic asteroid impacts", Joop Houtkooper from the University of Giessen argues that life could have originated on the dwarf planet Ceres:

"This idea came to me when I heard a talk about all the satellites in the solar system that consist of a large part of ice, much of which is probably still in a liquid state," says Houtkooper. "The total volume of all this water is something like 40 times greater than all the oceans on Earth."

This reminded Houtkooper of a theory about how life originated. Organisms may have first developed around hydrothermal vents, which lie at the bottom of oceans and spew hot chemicals. Many icy bodies in our solar system have rocky cores, so they may have had or still have hydrothermal vents. Houtkooper realized, "if life is not unique to the Earth and could exist elsewhere, then these icy bodies are the places where life may have originated."
If you can't place Ceres, don't worry. It's a dwarf planet (formerly thought of as an asteroid) somewhere in the asteroid belt.

This particular origin of life scenario sounds to me like publicity for the Dawn mission rather than a plausible scenario. The closest Ceres is likely to ever get to life is that Dawn flyby. But hey, it's not for me to break that guy's rice bowl. And surely not in these times.

Others have been more outspoken. Friend Rob Sheldon observes:

There are so many counter-factuals here, I hardly know where to begin.

1. Let's begin with "hydrogen peroxide" life. The theory starts with hydrogen peroxide being an antifreeze, and suggests that life built upon it could survive the cold. But then so is fuming sulfuric acid. This is hardly a place to start. And is contrary to all experience that says hydrogen peroxide is a potent oxidant and anti-biotic. I mean it destroys hydro-carbons extremely efficiently. The man who invented this theory, and amazingly got his paper published, was invited to the Astrobiology conference, where he was unable to answer any specific questions on his hypothesis. It is just another junk science PR.

2. Ceres is cold. There wont be any liquid water outside the orbit of Mars, simply because Mars average temperature is -60C. Ceres is colder by a factor 4.

3. Ceres has no atmosphere. So why would liquid water stay liquid? It would all boil off.

4. Ceres has no gravity to speak of. What would have ever held the atmosphere in place at any time in the past?

5. Ceres is made of stone, matching the stony meteorites observed on earth. Why would it have any water on it ever?

6. Ceres has no magnetic field. What is to keep the solar wind from removing any putative atmosphere it might never have had, just as solar wind denuded Mars?

7. Why would a cold, dry, stony, asteroid with no magnetic field be a better place for life to start than a wet, atmospheric, warm place like Earth?

He could go on, but it is only an e-mail, not a paper.

Another friend notes,

I think he is claiming the water is under an icy crust, like at Europa.

The rocky core might contain short-lived radionuclides that would heat the rock and produce hydrothermal vents. At least that is what planetologists surmise may be happening at Europa.

The whole hypothesis started when Houtkooper decided Earth was a dangerous place to live during the Late Heavy Bombardment (another one of their mythical tales of yore). Ceres would have been a smaller target for the life-prohibiting impacts.

These considerations don't make the hypothesis any less crazy.

I guess we would all like to believe that there is life on planets other than Earth. What we don't have is the evidence.

The skinny on Ceres, according to Solarviews,

With a diameter of about 975x909 km, Ceres is by far the largest and most massive (9.5 x1020 kg) body in the asteroid belt, and contains approximately a third of the mass (0.2 x1021 kg) of all the asteroids in the solar system. However, it is not the largest solar system object besides the Sun, planets, and their moons. Larger bodies have been found in the Kuiper belt including Pluto, 50000 Quaoar, 90482 Orcus, 90377 Sedna, and Eris. Recent observations have revealed that Ceres is nearly spherical in shape, unlike the irregular shapes of smaller bodies with less gravity. Having sufficient mass for self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces is one of the requirements for classification as a planet or dwarf planet.

[ ... ]

Ceres has a very primitive surface and like a young planet, contains water-bearing minerals, and possibly a very weak atmosphere and frost. Infrared observations show that the surface is warm with a possible maximum temperature of 235 K (-38°C). Ceres ranges in its visual brightness magnitude from +6.9 to +9.. At its brightest point it is just barely too dim to be seen with the naked eye.

[ ... ]

More will be know about Ceres when the Dawn spacecraft visits the dwarf planet in 2015. The Dawn mission is set for launch in September 2007. It will explore asteroid 4 Vesta in 2011 before arriving at Ceres.

Here's Ian O'Neill's view at Universe Today:

Although it is unknown whether or not Ceres has liquid water oceans, Joop Houtkooper believes that if it does, basic life forms may be thriving around hydrothermal vents in the hypothetical Ceres oceans. However, it is not clear how these proposed oceans can stay in a liquid state, as it seems unlikely there is significant tectonic activity (as it has very little mass to sustain a long-term molten core) and it is not orbiting a tidally disruptive body (like the icy moon Europa around Jupiter - extreme tidal forces maintain sub-surface oceans in a warm state). However, the idea remains as Ceres has a lower escape velocity than any other planetary body, meaning that microbes (hitch-hiking on fragments of Ceres) could have been kicked into space with more regularity than other planets, such as Mars.
He sees it as evidence for Panspermia (life was seeded from distant galaxies, in some versions by space aliens).

See also: Origin of life: Researchers claim life could have existed 4.4 billion years ago, before Earth cooled (and look at all the other scenarios there - only a small portion of the ones I have been collecting over the years).

(Note: The image shows Earth, the Moon and little Ceres.)