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Where to find life in the blackest vacuum of outer space

When we think about whether or not aliens exist, we generally imagine them on a vaguely Earth-like planet circling a distant star. We do not normally think of them living out in space itself.


But maybe that is not such a ridiculous idea. In April 2016, researchers reported that some of the key building blocks of life can be produced from simple substances under harsh conditions mimicking those of interstellar space.

Cornelia Meinert at the University of Nice, France and colleagues showed that a mixture of frozen water, methanol and ammonia – all compounds known to exist in the vast "molecular clouds" from which stars form – can be transformed into a wide range of sugar molecules when exposed to ultraviolet rays, which pervade space. The sugars included ribose, which is a part of the DNA-like molecule RNA.

法国尼斯大学的科妮莉亚·迈纳尔特(Cornelia Meinert)和她的同事表明,冰冻的水、甲醇和氨组成的混合物,将其暴露在充斥外太空的紫外线下,可以转化为多种多样的糖类分子。这些糖类物质包括核糖,是类似脱氧核糖核酸(即DNA)的分子核糖核酸(molecule RNA)的一部分。我们知道水、甲醇和氨等物质都存在于浩瀚的“分子云”(molecular clouds)中,恒星就是从这样的分子云中形成的。

This suggests that the fundamental molecules of life might be formed in outer space, and then delivered to planets like Earth by icy comets and meteorites.

这意味着构成生命的基本分子有可能在外层空间形成,然后再由冰冻状态的彗星(icy comets)和陨石带到类似于地球的行星上。

The finding is actually not surprising. We have known for decades that other building blocks of life can be formed from chemical reactions like this, before being incorporated into comets, asteroids and planets.


However, there is a more intriguing possibility. Life itself might not have needed a warm and comfortable planet bathed in sunlight to get going. If the raw ingredients were already out there in interplanetary limbo, might life have started there too?


Ideas about the origins of life do not often consider this scenario. It is hard enough to figure out how life could have begun on the early Earth, let alone at temperatures close to absolute zero and the near vacuum of interstellar space.


Making the basic building blocks of life, like sugars and amino acids, is the easy part. There are lots of chemically-plausible ways to do that, starting with the simple molecules found in young solar systems.


The hard bit is persuading these complicated molecules to assemble into something capable of life-sustaining processes like replication and metabolism. Nobody has ever done this, or come up with a completely plausible way it might happen, in the nurturing environment of a warm, rocky planet – let alone in space.


Still, there is no fundamental reason why life might not arise far from any star, in what is often regarded as the barren desert of interstellar space. Here is how it might happen.


First, we had better agree on what counts as "life". It does not necessarily have to look like anything familiar.


As an extreme case, we can imagine something like the Black Cloud in astronomer Fred Hoyle's classic 1959 science-fiction novel of that name: a kind of sentient gas that floats around in interstellar space, and is surprised to discover life on a planet.

作为一个极端的例子,我们可以想象某种类似于天文学家弗莱德·霍伊尔(Fred Hoyle)1959年的同名经典科幻小说中所描绘的黑云(Black Cloud)一样的物质——某种漂浮于星际空间的智能气体,很惊讶地发现一个星球上有生命。

But Hoyle could not offer a plausible explanation for how a gas, with an unspecified chemical make-up, could become intelligent. We probably need to imagine something literally a bit more solid.


While we cannot be sure that all life is carbon-based, as it is on Earth, there are good reasons to think that it is likely. Carbon is much more versatile as a building block for complex molecules than, say, silicon, the favourite element for speculations about alternative alien biochemistries.


Astrobiologist Charles Cockell at the University of Edinburgh in the UK thinks that the broad basis of life on Earth – that it is carbon-based and requires water – "reflects a universal norm". He concedes that "I have a quite conservative view, which science generally proves is misguided." But still, for now let's stick with carbon-based life. How could it be generated in outer space?

英国爱丁堡大学的天体生物学家查尔斯·科克尔(Charles Cockell)认为地球上生命的广泛基础是基于碳,并且需要水,这“反映了一种普遍的准则”。他承认,“我有一种相当保守的观点,而科学往往证明这是错误的。”但是,现在让我们坚持碳基生命论。那么它又是如何外层空间产生呢?

The basic chemistry is not a problem. As well as sugars, life on Earth needed amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. But we know that these can be formed in outer space too, because they have been found in "primitive" meteorites that have never seen a planetary surface.


They might be made on icy grains from some variation of a chemical reaction called the Strecker synthesis, after the 19th-Century German chemist who discovered it. The reaction involves simple organic molecules called ketones or aldehydes, which combine with hydrogen cyanide and ammonia. Alternatively, light-driven chemistry triggered by ultraviolet light will do the job.

他们可能是在冰粒上通过某种称为斯特克勒尔合成(Strecker synthesis)的化学反应的变体加以合成的,这种合成反应以19世纪发现该反应的德国化学家命名。该反应涉及酮(ketones)或乙醛(aldehydes)的简单有机分子与氰化氢(hydrogen cyanide)和氨化合。或者通过紫外光照射触发光化学反应加以实现。

It looks at first as though these reactions should not take place in deepest space, without a source of heat or light to drive them. Molecules encountering one another in frigid, dark conditions do not have enough energy to get a chemical reaction started. It is as if they run into a barrier that is too high for them to jump over.


However, in the 1970s the Soviet chemist Vitali Goldanski showed otherwise. Some chemicals could react even when chilled to just four degrees above absolute zero, which is about as cold as space gets. They just needed a bit of help from high-energy radiation such as gamma-rays or electron beams – like the cosmic rays that whizz through all of space.

然而,在上世纪70年代,苏联化学家维塔利·戈尔丹斯基(Vitali Goldanski)表明恰恰相反。一些化学物质即便冷冻至绝对零度之上四度也会发生化学反应,这一温度与太空环境的温度相近。他们只是需要一点伽玛射线(gamma-rays)或电子束(electron beams)助一臂之力——比如嗖嗖穿过太空的那些宇宙射线。

Under these conditions, Goldanski found that the carbon-based molecule formaldehyde, which is common in molecular clouds, could link up into polymer chains several hundred molecules long.

在这些条件下,戈尔丹斯基发现分子云中常见的碳基分子甲醛(formaldehyde)可以形成长达几百个分子的高分子聚合链(polymer chains)。

Goldanski believed that such space-based reactions might have helped the molecular building blocks of life assemble from simple ingredients like hydrogen cyanide, ammonia and water.


But it is far more difficult to coax such molecules to combine into more complex forms. The high-energy radiation that might help get the first reactions started then becomes a problem.


Ultraviolet and other forms of radiation can induce reactions like those Meinert demonstrated. But Cockell says they are just as likely to smash molecules as they are to form them. Potential biomolecules – progenitors of proteins and RNA, say – would be broken apart faster than they were being produced.


"Ultimately the question is whether other completely alien environments would give rise to self-replicating chemical systems that can evolve," says Cockell. "I don't see why that wouldn't happen in very cold environments or on the surfaces of ice grains, but generally I think these environments aren't very conducive to very complex molecules."


Planets offer two much gentler energy sources: heat and light. Life on Earth is largely powered by sunlight, and it is a fair bet that life on "exoplanets" around other stars would draw on the energy reserves of their own suns.


Vital heat can also come from elsewhere. Some scientists believe that the first life on Earth was not powered by sunlight, but by volcanic energy released from the planet's interior at hot vents in the deep sea. Even today, these vents still spew out a warm, mineral-rich brew.

重要的热量也来自其他地方。一些科学家认为,地球上最初的生命并不是由太阳提供能量,而是来自于深海热喷口(hot vent)释放出来的地球内部的火山能量。即使在今天,这些通风口还喷出温暖的,富含矿物的热液。

There is also heat in Jupiter's major moons. This comes from the huge tidal forces exerted by the giant planet, which squeeze the interiors of the moons and heat them up through friction. This tidal energy keeps the sub-surfaces of the icy moons Europa and Ganymede melted into oceans, and makes Io's surface fiery and volcanic.


It is hard to see how molecules clinging to icy grains in interstellar space could find any such nurturing energy. But that might not be the only option out there.


In 1999, planetary scientist David Stevenson of the California Institute of Technology proposed that galaxies might be full of "rogue planets" floating beyond the outermost reaches of a stellar neighbourhood, too far from their "parent" star to feel its gravity, heat or light.

1999年,美国加州理工学院的行星科学家戴维·史蒂文森(David Stevenson)提出,星系中可能充满了漂浮在一个恒星系最外层之外的“流浪行星”,这些行星距离“母星”太远,不受到其引力、热或光的影响。

These worlds, Stevenson said, could have formed like any other regular planet, close to a nascent star and within its surrounding nebula of gas and dust.


But then the gravitational tug of large planets, like our own Jupiter and Saturn, could sling some planets on "escape trajectories", propelling them off beyond their solar system into the empty space between stars.


That might seem to consign them to a cold and barren future. Yet Stevenson argued that, on the contrary, these rogue planets might be "the most common sites of life in the Universe" – because they might stay warm enough to support liquid water under, as it were, their own steam.


All of the rocky planets in the inner solar system come with two internal heat sources.

内太阳系(inner solar system)所有的岩石行星都有两种内部热源。

First, each planet has a fiery core still hot from the primordial fury of its formation. On top of that, they contain radioactive elements. These warm up the interior of the planet with their decay, just as a lump of uranium is warm to the touch. On Earth, radioactive decay inside the mantle contributes about half of the total heating.


Primordial heat and radioactive decay inside rocky rogue planets could warm them for billions of years – perhaps enough to keep the planets volcanically active and provide the energy for life to start.


Rogue planets could also have dense, heat-retaining atmospheres. Compared with gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, Earth's atmosphere is thin and tenuous, because the Sun's heat and light have stripped away lighter gases like hydrogen. Mercury is so close to the Sun that it barely has any atmosphere at all.


Yet on an Earth-sized rogue planet, far beyond its parent star's influence, much of the original atmosphere might remain in place. Stevenson estimated that the resulting temperature and pressure could be enough to sustain liquid water at the surface, even without any sunlight.


What's more, rogue planets would not be plagued by giant meteorite impacts, as Earth has been. They might even be ejected from their native solar system with moons in tow, giving them the benefit of some heating by tidal forces.


Even if a rogue planet did not have a thick atmosphere, it could still be habitable.


In 2011, planetary scientist Dorian Abbot and astrophysicist Eric Switzer at the University of Chicago calculated that planets about three and a half times the size of the Earth could become covered over with a thick layer of ice. This would insulate an ocean of liquid water many kilometres below the surface, heated by its interior.

2011年,芝加哥大学的行星学家多利安·阿博特(Dorian Abbot)和天体物理学家埃里克·施伟策(Eric Switzer)计算出三个半地球大小的行星表面会覆盖一层厚厚的冰。这将使其表面以下数公里深处的液态海洋被隔离开来,通过其内部加热。

"The total biological activity would be lower than on a planet like Earth, but you should still be able to have something," says Abbot.


He hopes that when space probes investigate the subsurface oceans of Jupiter's icy moons in the coming decades, we will learn more about the possibilities of life on iced-over rogue planets.


Abbot and Switzer called these orphaned worlds "Steppenwolf planets", because, they say, "any life in this strange habitat would exist like a lone wolf wandering the galactic steppe". The habitable lifetime of such a planet could be up to ten billion years or so, similar to that of Earth, says Abbot.

阿博特和施伟策称这些孤儿世界为“荒原狼星球”(Steppenwolf planets),他们说,因为“在这个奇怪的栖息地里,任何生命都会像一只在银河草原上游荡的孤独的狼”。这样一个行星的可居住年限可以达到一百亿年左右,类似于地球。

If these ideas are right, then outside our solar system rogue planets in interstellar space could be the closest places where extraterrestrial life exists.


They would be very hard to spot at such a distance, being dark and relatively tiny.


But with luck, say Abbot and Switzer, such a planet passing within about a thousand times the Earth-Sun distance could just about be discerned from the small amount of sunlight it would reflect and the infrared radiation of its own warmth. We might hope to see it with the telescopes currently used to look for exoplanets around other stars.

但幸运的是,阿博特和施伟策说,这样的一颗行星在大约日地距离(Earth-Sun distance)的一千倍远处通过时,可以通过它反射的少量阳光和它自身热量散发的红外辐射而观测到。我们希望能够使用近来用于寻找环绕其它恒星运行的地外行星的专门望远镜观测到它。

If life can originate and survive on an interstellar Steppenwolf planet, say Abbot and Switzer, there is a profound implication: life "must be truly ubiquitous in the Universe".


It would be a strange kind of life on these interstellar worlds. Imagine bathing in warm volcanic springs under perpetual night, like a winter vacation in Iceland. But if that is all you had ever known, it would seem like home.

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