Habitability of natural satellites
Natural satellite habitability is the measure of a natural satellite's potential to sustain life. It is an emerging study which is considered important to astrobiology for several reasons, foremost being that natural satellites are predicted to greatly outnumber planets and that it is hypothesized that habitability factors are likely to be similar to those of planets. There are, however, key environmental differences which have a bearing on moons as potential sites for extraterrestrial life.
The strongest candidates for natural satellite habitability are currently icy satellites such as those of Jupiter and Saturn—Europa and Enceladus respectively, although if life exists in either place, it would probably be confined to subsurface habitats. Historically, life on Earth was thought to be strictly a surface phenomenon, but recent studies have shown that up to half of Earth life could live below the surface. Europa and Enceladus exist outside the circumstellar habitable zone which has historically defined the limits of life within the Solar System as the zone in which water can exist as liquid at the surface. In the Solar System's habitable zone there are only three natural satellites—the Moon, and Mars's moons Phobos and Deimos (although some estimates show Mars and its moons to be slightly outside the habitable zone)—none of which sustain an atmosphere or water in liquid form. Tidal forces are likely to play as significant a role as stellar radiation in the potential habitability of natural satellites.
Extrasolar moons are not yet confirmed to exist. Detecting them is extremely difficult, because current methods are limited to transit timing. It is possible that some of their attributes could be determined by similar methods as those of transiting planets. Despite this some scientists estimate that there are as many habitable exomoons as habitable exoplanets.
The conditions of habitability for natural satellites are similar to those of planetary habitability. However, there are several factors which differentiate natural satellite habitability and additionally extend their habitability outside the planetary habitable zone.
Liquid water is suggested by many astrobiologists as a prerequisite for extraterrestrial life. There is growing evidence of subsurface liquid water on several moons in the Solar System orbiting the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. However, none of these subsurface bodies of water has received final confirmation to date.
For a stable orbit the ratio between the moon's orbital period Ps around its primary and that of the primary around its star Pp must be < 1/9, e.g. if a planet takes 90 days to orbit its star, the maximum stable orbit for a moon of that planet is less than 10 days. Simulations suggest that a moon with an orbital period less than about 45 to 60 days will remain safely bound to a massive giant planet or brown dwarf that orbits 1 AU from a Sun-like star.
An atmosphere is considered by astrobiologists to be important in developing primal biochemistry, sustaining life and for surface water to exist. Most natural satellites in the Solar System lack significant atmospheres, the sole exception being Saturn's moon, Titan.
Sputtering, a process whereby atoms are ejected from a solid target material due to bombardment of the target by energetic particles, presents a significant problem for natural satellites. All the gas giants in the Solar System, and likely those orbiting other stars, have magnetospheres with radiation belts potent enough to completely erode an atmosphere of an Earth-like moon in just a few hundred million years. Strong stellar winds can also strip gas atoms from the top of an atmosphere causing them to be lost to space.
To support an Earth-like atmosphere for around 4.6 billion years (Earth's current age), a moon with a Mars-like density is estimated to need at least 7% of Earth's mass. One way to decrease loss from sputtering is for the moon to have strong magnetic field which can deflect stellar wind and radiation belts. NASA's Galileo's measurements hints large moons can have magnetic fields; it found Ganymede has its own magnetosphere, even though its mass is only 2.5% of Earth's. An exception is if the moon's atmosphere is constantly replenished by gases from subsurface sources (as believed by some scientists to be the case with Titan).
While the effects of tidal acceleration are relatively modest on planets, it can be a significant source of energy for natural satellites and an alternative energy source for sustaining life.
Moons orbiting gas giants or brown dwarfs are likely to be tidally locked to their primary: that is, their days are as long as their orbits. While tidal locking may adversely affect planets within habitable zones by interfering with the distribution of stellar radiation, it may work in favour of satellite habitability by allowing tidal heating. Monoj Joshi and Robert Haberle (NASA/Ames Research Center) and their colleagues modelled the temperature on tide-locked exoplanets in the habitability zone of red dwarfs. They found that an atmosphere with a carbon-dioxide pressure of only 1 to 1.5 atmospheres not only allows habitable temperatures but allows liquid water on the dark side. The temperature range of a moon that is tidally locked to a gas giant could be less extreme than with a planet locked to a sun. Even though no studies have been done on the subject, modest amounts of CO2 would make the temperature habitable.
Furthermore, tidal effects could also allow a moon to sustain plate tectonics, which would cause volcanic activity to regulate the moon's temperature and create a geodynamo effect which would give the satellite a strong magnetic field.
Axial tilt and climate
Provided gravitational interaction of a moon with other satellites can be neglected, moons tend to be tidally locked with their planets. In addition to the rotational locking mentioned above, there will also be a process termed 'tilt erosion', which has originally been coined for the tidal erosion of planetary obliquity against a planet's orbit around its host star. The final spin state of a moon then consists of a rotational period equal to its orbital period around the planet and a rotational axis that is perpendicular to the orbital plane.
If the moon's mass is not too low compared to the planet, it may in turn stabilize the planet's axial tilt, i.e. its obliquity against the orbit around the star. On Earth, the Moon has played an important role in stabilizing the axial tilt of the Earth, thereby reducing the impact of gravitational perturbations from the other planets and ensuring only moderate climate variations throughout the planet. On Mars, however, a planet without significant tidal effects from its relatively low-mass moons Phobos and Deimos, axial tilt can undergo extreme changes from 13° to 40° on timescales of 5 to 10 million years.
Being tidally locked to a giant planet or sub-brown dwarf would allow for more moderate climates on a moon than there would be if the moon were a similar-sized planet orbiting in locked rotation in the habitable zone of the star. This is especially true of red dwarf systems, where comparatively high gravitational forces and low luminosities leave the habitable zone in an area where tidal locking would occur. If tidally locked, one rotation about the axis may take a long time relative to a planet (for example, ignoring the slight axial tilt of earth's moon and topographical shadowing, any given point on it has two weeks – in Earth time – of sunshine and two weeks of night in its lunar day) but these long periods of light and darkness are not as challenging for habitability as the eternal days and eternal nights on a planet tidally locked to its star.
Complex conditions thought to be required for abiogenesis are not known to exist anywhere within the solar system. However several candidates beyond Sol's habitable zone have been identified that have some of the ingredients thought necessary for life to exist. The alternate theory of panspermia suggests life may have been introduced to such environments.
There is also the theoretical possibility of extraterrestrial biochemistries exotic beyond current human speculation.
Deliberate or accidental future forward-contamination by organisms originating from Earth is a distinct possibility in these potentially habitable environments. Such cases would make it difficult to determine where the origin of life was.
In the Solar System
The following is a list of natural satellites and environments in the Solar System with a possibility of harboring extraterrestrial life.
|Europa||Jupiter||Life on Europa||A subsurface ocean is maintained by geologic activity, tidal heating, and irradiation. The moon may have more water and oxygen than Earth and a thin oxygen atmosphere.|
|Enceladus||Saturn||Water could be liquid under the surface due to geothermal activity.|
|Titan||Saturn||Life on Titan||Its atmosphere is considered similar to the early Earth, although somewhat thicker. The surface is characterized by hydrocarbon lakes, cryovolcanos, and methane rain and snow. It has a remote possibility of an exotic methane-based biochemistry.|
|Callisto||Jupiter||Thought to have a subsurface ocean heated by tidal forces.|
|Io||Jupiter||Due to its proximity to Jupiter, it is subject to intense tidal heating which makes it the most volcanically active object in the Solar System. The outgassing generates a trace atmosphere.|
|Triton||Neptune||Its high orbital inclination with respect to Neptune's equator drives significant tidal heating, responsible for the dashing surface arrangements observed by Voyager 2. This heating suggests layer of liquid water or a subterranean ocean.|
|Charon||Pluto||Possible internal ocean of water and ammonia evidenced by possible cryovolcanic activity.|
No extrasolar natural satellites have yet been detected. Large planets in the Solar System like Jupiter and Saturn are known to have large moons with some of the conditions for life. Therefore some scientists speculate that large extrasolar planets (and double planets) may have similarly large moons that are potentially habitable. A moon with sufficient mass may support an atmosphere like Titan and may also sustain liquid water on the surface.
Massive exoplanets known to be located within a habitable zone (such as Gliese 876 b, 55 Cancri f, Upsilon Andromedae d, 47 Ursae Majoris b, HD 28185 b and HD 37124 c) are of particular interest as they may potentially possess natural satellites with liquid water on the surface.
Habitability of extrasolar moons will depend on stellar and planetary illumination on moons as well as the effect of eclipses on their orbit-averaged surface illumination. Beyond that, tidal heating might play a role for a moon's habitability. In Section 4 in their paper, Heller & Barnes introduced a concept to define the habitable orbits of moons. Referring to the concept of the circumstellar habitable zone for planets, they define an inner border for a moon to be habitable around a certain planet and call it the circumplanetary "habitable edge". Moons closer to their planet than the habitable edge are uninhabitable. When effects of eclipses as well as constraints from a satellite's orbital stability are included into this concept, one finds that — depending on a moon's orbital eccentricity — there is a minimum mass of roughly 0.2 solar masses for stars to host habitable moons within the stellar HZ. The magnetic environment of exomoons, which is critically triggered by the intrinsic magnetic field of the host planet, has been identified as another effect on exomoon habitability. Most notably, it was found that moons at distances between about 5 and 20 planetary radii from a giant planet can be habitable from an illumination and tidal heating point of view, but still the planetary magnetosphere would critically influence their habitability.
- Dyches, Preston; Chou, Felcia (7 April 2015). "The Solar System and Beyond is Awash in Water". NASA. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
- Shriber, Michael (26 Oct 2009). "Detecting Life-Friendly Moons". Astrobiology Magazine. Retrieved 9 May 2013.
- Woo, Marcus (27 January 2015). "Why We’re Looking for Alien Life on Moons, Not Just Planets". Wired. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
- Castillo, Julie; Vance, Steve (2008). "Session 13. The Deep Cold Biosphere? Interior Processes of Icy Satellites and Dwarf Planets". Astrobiology 8 (2): 344–346. Bibcode:2008AsBio...8..344C. doi:10.1089/ast.2008.1237. ISSN 1531-1074.
- Greenberg, Richard (2011). "Exploration and Protection of Europa's Biosphere: Implications of Permeable Ice". Astrobiology 11 (2): 183–191. Bibcode:2011AsBio..11..183G. doi:10.1089/ast.2011.0608. ISSN 1531-1074.
- Parkinson, Christopher D.; Liang, Mao-Chang; Yung, Yuk L.; Kirschivnk, Joseph L. (2008). "Habitability of Enceladus: Planetary Conditions for Life". Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres 38 (4): 355–369. Bibcode:2008OLEB...38..355P. doi:10.1007/s11084-008-9135-4. ISSN 0169-6149.
- BOYD, ROBERT S.; . Buried alive: Half of Earth\'s life may lie below land, sea. McClatchy DC. 2014-04-24. URL:http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/03/08/90020/buried-alive-half-of-earths-life.html. Accessed: 2014-04-24.(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6P5GIqXem)
- University of Arizona; NASA; NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Phoenix Mars Mission – Habitability and Biology. University of Arizona. 2014-04-24. URL:http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/mars141.php#1. Accessed: 2014-04-24.(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6P58Tsw9q)
- Cowen, Ron (2008-06-07). "A Shifty Moon". Science News.
- Bryner, Jeanna (24 June 2009). "Ocean Hidden Inside Saturn's Moon". Space.com. TechMediaNetwork. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
- Kipping, David M.; Fossey, Stephen J.; Campanella, Giammarco (2009). "On the detectability of habitable exomoons withKepler-class photometry". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 400 (1): 398–405. arXiv:0907.3909. Bibcode:2009MNRAS.400..398K. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2966.2009.15472.x. ISSN 0035-8711.
- Kaltenegger, L. (2010). "CHARACTERIZING HABITABLE EXOMOONS". The Astrophysical Journal 712 (2): L125–L130. arXiv:0912.3484. Bibcode:2010ApJ...712L.125K. doi:10.1088/2041-8205/712/2/L125. ISSN 2041-8205.
- Scharf, Caleb Exomoons Ever Closer Scientific American. October 4, 2011
- Kipping, David (2009). "Transit timing effects due to an exomoon". Monthly Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society 392: 181–189. arXiv:0810.2243. Bibcode:2009MNRAS.392..181K. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2966.2008.13999.x. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
- Heller, R. (2012). "Exomoon habitability constrained by energy flux and orbital stability". Astronomy & Astrophysics 545: L8. arXiv:1209.0050. Bibcode:2012A&A...545L...8H. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201220003. ISSN 0004-6361.
- Andrew J. LePage. "Habitable Moons:What does it take for a moon — or any world — to support life?". SkyandTelescope.com. Retrieved 2011-07-11.
- "In Search Of Habitable Moons". Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved 2011-07-11.
- Glatzmaier, Gary A. "How Volcanoes Work – Volcano Climate Effects". How Volcanoes Work. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
- "Solar System Exploration:Planets:Jupiter:Moons:Io". Solar System Exploration. NASA. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
- Nave, R. "Magnetic Field of the Earth". Retrieved 29 February 2012.
- Heller, René; Barnes, Rory; Leconte, Jérémy (April 2011). "Tidal obliquity evolution of potentially habitable planets". Astronomy and Astrophysics 528: A27. arXiv:1101.2156. Bibcode:2011A&A...528A..27H. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201015809.
- Henney, Paul. "How Earth and the Moon interact". Astronomy Today. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
- "Mars 101 – Overview". Mars 101. NASA. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
- Armstrong, John C.; Leovy, Conway B.; Quinn, Thomas (October 2004). "A 1 Gyr climate model for Mars: new orbital statistics and the importance of seasonally resolved polar processes". Icarus 171: 255–271. Bibcode:2004Icar..171..255A. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2004.05.007. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
- Choi, Charles Q. (27 December 2009). "Moons Like Avatar's Pandora Could Be Found". Space.com. Retrieved 16 January 2012.
- Greenberg, R.; Hoppa, G. V.; Tufts, B. R.; Geissler, P.; Riley, J.; Kadel, S. (October 1999). "Chaos on Europa". Icarus 141: 263–286. Bibcode:1999Icar..141..263G. doi:10.1006/icar.1999.6187.
- Schmidt, B. E.; Blankenship, D. D.; Patterson, G. W. (November 2011). "Active formation of 'chaos terrain' over shallow subsurface water on Europa". Nature 479: 502–505. Bibcode:2011Natur.479..502S. doi:10.1038/nature10608. PMID 22089135.
- "Moon of Jupiter could support life:Europa has a liquid ocean that lies beneath several miles of ice". msnbc.com. Retrieved 2011-07-10.
- "Liquid water on Saturn moon could support life:Cassini spacecraft sees signs of geysers on icy Enceladus". msnbc.com. Retrieved 2011-07-10.
- "Life On Titan? New Clues to What's Consuming Hydrogen, Acetylene On Saturn's Moon". Science Daily. 2010-06-07. Retrieved 2011-07-10.
- Phillips, T. (1998-10-23). "Callisto makes a big splash". Science@NASA.
- Charles Q. Choi (2010-06-07). "Chance For Life On Io". Science Daily. Retrieved 2011-07-10.
- Louis Neal Irwin; Dirk Schulze-Makuch (June 2001). "Assessing the Plausibility of Life on Other Worlds". Astrobiology 1 (2): 143–60. Bibcode:2001AsBio...1..143I. doi:10.1089/153110701753198918. PMID 12467118.
- "Water on Pluto moon". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2007-07-19.
- Heller, René; Rory Barnes (2012). "Exomoon habitability constrained by illumination and tidal heating". Astrobiology. arXiv:1209.5323. doi:10.1089/ast.2012.0859.
- Heller, René (September 2012). "Exomoon habitability constrained by energy flux and orbital stability". Astronomy and Astrophysics 545: L8. arXiv:1209.0050. Bibcode:2012A&A...545L...8H. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201220003.
- Heller, René (September 2013). "Magnetic shielding of exomoons beyond the circumplanetary habitable edge". The Astrophysical Journal Letters. arXiv:1309.0811. Bibcode:2013ApJ...776L..33H. doi:10.1088/2041-8205/776/2/L33.