Scientist Says "Exotic" Life Could Exist in Pluto's Heart

Friday, 02 December 2016 - 5:05PM
Astrobiology
Solar System
Alien Life
Friday, 02 December 2016 - 5:05PM
Scientist Says "Exotic" Life Could Exist in Pluto's Heart
Recent studies have indicated that there is likely a subsurface ocean underneath Pluto's Sputnik Planitia. But does that mean there could be extraterrestrial life? Pluto is most definitely too cold to host any life that would be recognizably human-like, but according to researchers, there is a chance that there could be unrecognizably exotic life in Pluto's heart. 

According to William MacKinnon, professor of earth and planetary sciences in at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of two new Pluto studies published yesterday in Nature, there is a subsurface ocean underneath the Sputnik Planitia that is filled with ammonia, which is highly toxic to life as we know it. As a result, it's unlikely that we would find any multicellular life on Pluto, simply because the environment is too hostile to life. However, there could still be unicellular or even "pre-cellular" organisms in the ammonia-rich ocean:

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"Life can tolerate a lot of stuff: It can tolerate a lot of salt, extreme cold, extreme heat, etc. But I don't think it can tolerate the amount of ammonia Pluto needs to prevent its ocean from freezing," MacKinnon said in a statement. "If you're going to talk about life in an ocean that's completely covered with an ice shell, it seems most likely that the best you could hope for is some extremely primitive kind of organism. It might even be pre-cellular, like we think the earliest life on Earth was."
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Researchers who first proposed the subsurface ocean hypothesized that it was "slushy" in its icy texture, and MacKinnon agrees to an extent, although he amends it to "syrupy":

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"What I think is down there in the ocean is rather noxious, very cold, salty and very ammonia-rich - almost a syrup. It's no place for germs, much less fish or squid, or any life as we know it," he added. "But as with the methane seas on Titan - Saturn's main moon - it raises the question of whether some truly novel life forms could exist in these exotic, cold liquids."
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But of course, this entire theory rests on the notion that there is, in fact, a subsurface ocean on Pluto. And while MacKinnon's research supports this thesis, he emphasizes that we need another mission to Pluto to confirm any of this theoretical research:

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"All of these ideas about an ocean inside Pluto are credible, but they are inferences, not direct detections," McKinnon said, sounding the call. "If we want to confirm that such an ocean exists, we will need gravity measurements or subsurface radar sounding, all of which could be accomplished by a future orbiter mission to Pluto. It's up to the next generation to pick up where New Horizons left off!"
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