A scientist at the University of Edinburgh believes that humanity should be looking for a dead world
Astrobiologist Charles Cockell of the University of Edinburgh said, the biological study of lifelessness seems counterintuitive, because biology is the study of life. The main point is to not get too obsessed with looking for life and habitable environments. Lifeless worlds can tell us a lot.
According to a new research paper being published next month in the online journal Astrobiology, Cockell makes a convincing point that targeting only living worlds leaves out a significant percentage of feasible planets that might aid in our understanding of cosmic life. Locations such as our sun and moon have been largely ruled out for harboring life, but perhaps our focus should be shifted slightly to gain a new perspective.
Cockell said, even Earth, which we consider to be teeming with life, is largely uninhabitable, with a thin biosphere situated on the surface but a largely dead interior. While a number of astrobiologists consider the ice-blanketed oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s satellite Enceladus as promising targets to discover life, Cockell states that many environments can be hypothetically habitable yet remain uninhabited. But if we eventually rule them out as containing life, this pair could be a logical starting point to monitor over great swaths of time after seeding them with organisms.
Cockell believes barren worlds are fantastic candidates for scientists to conduct clean slate experiments where researchers could play cosmic gardeners and release tiny quantities of microbes into lifeless environments to see how fast organisms disseminate and adapt to co-evolve with a particular planet. This process might prove effective for Martian astronauts trying to find a suitable bacteria to introduce into its soil for agricultural production. It would be like the Star Trek Genesis experiment
He states in his upcoming paper, Astrobiology is focused on the study of life in the universe. However, lifeless planetary environments yield biological information on the variety of ways in which physical and chemical conditions in the universe preclude the possibility of the origin or persistence of life, and in turn this will help explain the distribution and abundance of life, or lack of it, in the universe. Furthermore, many places that humans wish to explore and settle in space are lifeless, and studying the fate of life in these environments will aid our own success in thriving in them. Per Cockell’s study, investigating these underrepresented, lifeless locations just might aid scientists in learning what percentage of the universe is uninhabitable, what segment is only potentially habitable but simply devoid of life, and if there are various worlds that remain largely empty yet are theoretically semi-fertile with life.
He said, one final reason to study lifeless environments might be to accidentally stumble across life. Few thought that volcanic hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean could be habitable until submarine exploration showed them to be bursting with organisms. Such places helped redefine our understanding of where living things can survive and show us life as we don’t know it.
Cockell admitted that such artificial meddling might contain major ethical concerns regarding whether or not we should be altering other planets beyond ours for our own devices. Under 1967’s Outer Space Treaty, off-Earth territories in our solar system are legally protected from any outside contamination and the astrobiologist insists it would be vital to first ensure that a world is truly lifeless before charging in.