New Study Says Alien Worlds May Lack Enough Phosphorus to Create Extraterrestrial Life

Thursday, 05 April 2018 - 10:23AM
Alien Life
Space
Earth
Thursday, 05 April 2018 - 10:23AM
New Study Says Alien Worlds May Lack Enough Phosphorus to Create Extraterrestrial Life
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Image credit: Dr Jane Greaves/University of Cardiff/YouTube

Earth really is a special place.

Our world the exact right distance from the sun to be able to support life, and its watery environment is the perfect fertile ground for supporting carbon-based life forms. The Earth is also conveniently shielded from meteors by an abnormally large moon, and exists in a corner of space that's not torn apart by too many different gravitational forces.

These factors alone make Earth somewhat unique among the many planets we've been able to observe, but there's more—apparently, life on this planet is only possible because we're close enough to a certain kind of supernova that's pumping out plenty of phosphorus.


According to a study that has been presented at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science, the level of phosphorus on our world is somewhat uncommon. This is a shame, as this phosphorous is the only reason why life is possible in its present form on our planet.


A statement from NASA explains the importance of this element:

Opening quote
"[Phosphorus] helps form the backbone of the long chains of nucleotides that create RNA and DNA; it is part of the phospholipids in cell membranes; and is a building block of the coenzyme used as an energy carrier in cells, adenosine triphosphate (ATP)."
Closing quote


So phosphorus is necessary for the development of DNA and RNA? Fair enough, then in our quest for alien life forms, we should be looking specifically for other worlds that are as rich in the element as our own.

Except, it turns out that this is certainly a very rare occurrence. This new study looked at two different supernovae, the Crab Nebula and Cassiopeia A, before determining that Cassiopeia A is producing a lot more phosphorus than the Crab Nebula.

Apparently, it's unusual for a planet to get as much phosphorus as the Earth has, which means that it's going to be very, very rare for other planets in the universe to have enough materials on hand to be able to produce genetic information that looks anything like life on our planet.




This doesn't entirely rule out the possibility of aliens, but based on everything we've seen thus far among the stars, it looks like we're unlikely to see any aliens on many of the worlds that we've previously identified as potentially habitable—at least, as long as we're assuming that these aliens will be made of life that looks anything like the creatures found on our own planet.

Under different circumstances and with different mixes of chemicals available, it's still possible for aliens to develop, but they'd look far more alien than we'd expect. Life could take all kinds of wondrous forms in different parts of the galaxy, to the point that it might be hard to actually identify alien life if we ever come across some.

Perhaps it's finally time to give up hope of ever meeting a Vulcan - life on other planets probably doesn't even share a basic element with us, let alone five pointy fingers and a recognizable bowl cut hairstyle.

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