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Did life’s building blocks fly to Earth and Mars on solar winds?


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New research out of the University of Hawaii suggests that both water and organic molecules travel the universe in tandem, seeding planets with “little reaction vessels” that could help provide dead planets with that first, all-important step in life’s development. This is another piece of evidence in favor of the panspermia hypothesis, which argues that life on Earth began thanks to an influx of molecules from outer space. Comets and meteorites are the typical carriers for this material, but this study suggests that even dust blown through the solar system on solar winds could provide a planet with both life’s most complex precursors and the water needed to allow those precursors to assemble into life.


The central finding of this paper relates largely to solar wind, the stream of charged particles — mostly naked protons called H+ ions — ejected from the sun. The paper shows that in an airless environment typical space rocks will react with impacting protons to create tiny vesicles of water. The process essentially knocks stable molecules apart, allowing some portion of the resulting molecular debris to reorganize as H2O. Interestingly, the paper comes soon after NASA released evidence that Mars once sported a fair amount of water, and that this water is sometimes found in unexpected places.

The finding that water can be generated within dry space rocks and solar wind was coupled with the fact that space rocks are known to deliver organic compounds to the surface of the Earth. Other recent papers have suggested that life’s important molecules arrived intact from Mars — a primitive version of RNA is one major proposed molecular stow-away — but these researchers claim only that “complex organic molecules” came from somewhere else in space. Complex organic compounds and liquid water, in conjunction, could theoretically provide the potential for non-living material to come alive.


Regolith, or “moon dust,” is a prime candidate for creating water when pelted with solar wind.

One important aspect of this idea is that it focuses on small particles of material, rather than whole objects, like comets. Prior research has looked to such large bodies as not just carriers but, through their violent impacts with the Earth, energetic drivers of the chemistry of early life. It’s been suggested that the earliest living things were cobbled together from high-energy molecules that couldn’t exist unless their synthesis was driven by massive astronomical impacts. This more passive, dust-based explanation seems to fit well with the known history of the Earth, which predicts high levels of dust flux (a lot dust falling on Earth) in the time directly preceding the historical outbreak of life.

Actually, this mechanism of forming water via proton-blasting could help explain more than just the origin of water in developing life. For instance, predominantly shadowed areas of the Moon, another airless silicate body, show unexpectedly high levels of water. NASA has plans to launch RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction) in 2018 to collect and analyze ice samples from the Moon, using it to look back into just that sort of astronomical history. Large quantities of water are thought to have arrived on the Moon via impacting comets, but this research suggests that at least some of it could have been created on the Moon itself. Earth’s atmosphere would make such a reaction impossible here, however.

Panspermia was in the news recently thanks to this study, which gained a lot of interest then fell out of the public eye. It claims to have found genuine fossils, the remnant of actual life in a crashed meteor! The only problem is that, according to follow-up research, the rock is probably not extraterrestrial at all, and was blown off of a larger rock by a lightning strike. The questionable nature of the team’s “algae” also call the research into question, being far too Earth-like in appearance to be credible alien life-forms.


Is this the world’s first alien? No.

Evolutionary theory can adequately explain how a bacterium becomes a protist that becomes an animal, but it cannot explain how a pile of non-living molecules ever became a living cell. Evidence seems to be mounting that, whether it was seeded with dust or fused into existence by huge asteroid impacts, life on Earth needed a kickstart in its earliest days. Interestingly, Earth’s atmosphere and the abundance of messy lifeforms on its surface could mean that Earth is the single worst place to search for such evidence; the origins of life on Earth might well be discovered on Mars or the Moon, even if the event happened right here on Earth.


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