Life as an Outcast

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ScienceNOW: “Outcast Planets Could Support LifeJust a few weeks ago we reported that the continued search for habitable extrasolar planets has revealed just how special Earth is. So if aliens aren’t on planets orbiting other stars, where else could they be?

Years ago, the idea that Mars was inhabited by humanoid creatures seemed, at least to some, quite plausible. Today, of course, we know that Mars is lifeless (on the surface, anyway). Nonetheless, astronomers have turned their telescopes farther and farther away from Earth in hopes of finding a planet as “just right” for life as Earth is. The problem is, no matter where they look, Earth looks to be increasingly unique.

Where astronomers have been looking in the past decade are far-off stars that have their own planets. Called extrasolar planets or exoplanets, these bodies are identifiable by their gravitational effect on their host star or by the decrease in light detected from their host star as the planet passes between Earth and the star. Using these methods, scientists have located hundreds of these planets, with the vast majority harshly inhospitable. If scientists begin finding habitable extrasolar planets, does the evidence confirm that we’re alone?

Not so fast, University of Chicago planetary scientists Dorian Abbot and Eric Switzer insist, for the duo have a wild new idea about where aliens could be “hiding.” The scientists propose a “Steppenwolf planet,” which, in allusion to a Hermann Hesse novel, would ferry life “like a lone wolf wandering the galactic steppe.” A Steppenwolf planet would fly through interstellar space, far from a host star, having been “slingshotted” out of its original solar systems by the gravitational effects of a larger planet.

But even non-astronomers may quickly question how life could survive on a planet far from its star—given that our own solar system’s habitable zone does not exist so far past Earth. If life requires liquid water—and evolutionists agree that it does—then planets without a heat source cannot sustain life. But Abbot and Switzer ran simulations to show that a large enough planet, covered in any ice shell as a “blanket” but with significant geothermal activity on the inside, could generate sufficient heat to maintain a subsurface ocean.

Suggesting that life might exist on one is therefore among the wildest ideas we’ve ever reported on in News to Note—not because it’s outright impossible, but because it puts the faith of evolutionary astronomers into focus, showing how easily the evidence flies out the window when it gets in the way of the belief that life can appear wherever the conditions are right.

While a Steppenwolf planet is certainly an interesting idea, it’s only an idea, since none have been identified yet and, moreover, the odds of one even existing in range of our current telescopes is estimated at one in a billion. Suggesting that life might exist on one is therefore among the wildest ideas we’ve ever reported on in News to Note—not because it’s outright impossible, but because it puts the faith of evolutionary astronomers into focus, showing how easily the evidence flies out the window when it gets in the way of the belief that life can appear wherever the conditions are right.

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