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The Conditions for Life in the Universe

By , Monday 7th October 2013 in Astrobiology

We talk a lot about exoplanets having the building blocks of life and that they orbit in the goldilocks zone, but what exactly are the building blocks of life and this goldilocks zone?

There is no absolute definition of life on Earth, so it is really difficult to define life on other planets. By "life" we mean simple bacterial life not ET as bacterial life is expected to be far more abundant and easier to find once we know where to look and what to look for.

Conditions for Life in the Universe
Conditions for Life in the Universe

Photo Source: NASA

Conditions for Life

Based on what we do know about life on Earth, simple life requires a few basics in order to appear.

1. Time

Basic life requires that enough time has passed for stars, planets and a suitable environment to form, including heat from within the core – but not too much, geological processes and an atmosphere to form. Also enough time must have passed for Darwinian evolution to create simple living organisms from the organic molecules.

2. Habitable Zone

The planet needs to be within the habitable zone of the solar system, a location where liquid water can exist. The position within the habitable zone and the planets mass give a good indication of its surface conditions. An Earth-mass like planet would not have enough mass to be a gas giant, and it would be too hot to be an icy body so chances are it has a rocky surface. The habitable zone (or Goldilocks zone) is explained later in this article.

3. Raw Materials

There must be enough raw materials such as Carbon, Hydrogen, Iron and Oxygen which have formed inside massive stars and been seeded to plants. These can then combine to form organic molecules or a "primordial soup" where the building blocks for life accumulate.

4. Catalyst

Finally a catalyst is required for the organic molecules to combine and form into organisms.

The Habitable Zone

The habitable zone refers to two areas - one within a solar system and the other within a galaxy. The circumstellar habitable zone is a distance range from a star where a planet can theoretically support life and is defined as "the range of distances from a star for which liquid water can exist on a planetary surface." This habitable zone is situated such that the temperature of the surface is not too hot, not too cold but just right (hence the Goldilocks name).

The range of distance will be affected by the energy output of the star, with hot supergiants having a habitable zone much further out than a red giant.

This diagram compares our own solar system to Kepler-47, a double-star system containing two planets, one orbiting in the so-called
This diagram compares our own solar system to Kepler-47, a double-star system containing two planets, one orbiting in the so-called "habitable zone."

Photo Source: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

The Habitable Zone can also refer to the galactic habitable zone, which is the area within a galaxy that has the correct balance of heavy elements and radiation. In general the outermost parts of a galaxy do not have enough heavy elements, whereas the central core contains too much radiation (x-ray, gamma and so on).

Galactic Habitable Zone and Circumstellar habitable zone
Galactic Habitable Zone and Circumstellar habitable zone

Photo Source: Wikipedia

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About the Author

Tim Trott

Tim is a professional software engineer, designer, photographer and astronomer from the United Kingdom. You can follow him on Twitter to get the latest updates.

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