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1. LIFE IN SPACE
Stephen Jay Gould was an aggressive proponent of the concept of pre-adaptation,
leading to evolutionary changes. In this article I have considered how life could evolve to
live, thrive, and disperse in space. I offer descriptive theories of how this can happen, right
here in our solar system.
(This is tied in somewhat with my other notion to be further described in another article,
that the solar system is awash with life/spores, all of them deriving from the cast-off detritus
of earth. I think this is much more practical concept then the idea of panspermy from
distant starts and galaxies.)
LIFE IN SPACE
Can Life Evolve to Live in Space?
by Gerald A. Krulik
Science fiction stories often posit life forms living freely in space. Sometimes they are
exotic beasties, made of plasma bottles, electromagnetic webs, sentient matter clouds, or
even dark matter beings. Such organisms have no parallel in earth-based life, so the
viability of such conceptual organisms is hard to evaluate.
Often stories that use space based life, assume that it is an engineered life form based on
planetary life. It has not evolved by itself, though especially when machine-based life is
discussed, it can eventually evolve by its own efforts. I believe that such concepts, both for
free living machine life, and gene engineered biological life, are both reasonable for
But what of the true, evolving, space-based life that is not dependent on the initial
guidance of an intelligent race? Is there any feasible scenario in which this can occur? I
think it can, and fairly easily.
We have examples of such space-life spawning beds right here in the solar system. One
set of examples concerns meteorites that have been blasted off the surface of the moon,
mars, various asteroids and other moons and planets, and even earth itself. This is
possible evidence in support of at least a local theory of panspermia, the belief that life’s
origins are to be found in such special spacial debris. There is still an on-going
controversy as to whether certain structures found in some Martian meteorites that landed
on earth, are fossilized bacteria, which would highly support this theory.
Let us turn this theory around and examine it from the opposite viewpoint. We know that
Earth has organic based life, and has had it for almost 4 billion years. It is entirely possible
that over this vast span of time, terrestrial microorganisms and biological remains have
polluted the relatively confined volume of the solar system. Each and every other planet,
moon, asteroid, comet, and meteor has been potentially exposed to the seeds of life. We
have no idea at present how many spores or biological structures ride right up to the edge
of the atmosphere, and whether they can be ionized and energized by auroral storms and
solar flares, or propelled away by light waves or shock waves from vaporizing meteors high
in the atmosphere. Earth likely is surrounded by a dilute cloud of organic structures, with
transit time to the rest of the solar system of only years or centuries or millennia, versus
many millions of years in transit time from even the nearest other solar system.
Interstellar panspermia is an interesting concept, but consider the vanishingly tiny amounts
of distant life forms that could make it through the vast stretches of space to our solar
system. The long times needed for passive mass transport between solar systems also
means that any ordered biological structures have an excellent chance of become
disordered by cosmic radiations.
It should be simple to show that all solar system life is descended from a common source,
or not; all we need is a sample of life from off of Earth. We could quickly determine how
chemically similar the novel life forms are to earthly life using modern biochemical
techniques. Regardless, let us go back to the central idea of this discussion. Can planet
based life spontaneously evolve to life in space?
I think that our solar system provides the idea potential proving ground for this concept.
There is an evolutionary concept called pre-adaptation, in which randomly evolved
structures may be used for progressive evolution under changing conditions. The start for
space based life forms could very likely be the moons of Jupiter. Europa is covered by a
thick ice mantle overlying a liquid salty water ocean. Many scientists believe that this is the
best place to look for non-terrestrial life in the solar system. But that life may not be
confined deep under the ice crust. The figure shows that the surface is very complex,
offering many possible ecological niches.
The surface of Europa is a complex, non-static environment.
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Colorado
The high radiation fields surrounding Jupiter provide both a potential energy source, and a
driving force to evolve radiation resistant genetic codes. Let us assume that life has
evolved in the deep dark oceans of Europa. It may be quite lively, perhaps surrounding
deep sea hydrothermal vents fueled by the gravitational flexing of Jupiter. This same force
repeatedly cracks the icy crust, forcing sea life to higher and higher levels, and eventually
to the surface. Life may grow within the ice, even at the surface. Rare meteoric rock falls
may be a catalyst to provide essential other elements for the growth of these life forms.
Large meteor strikes may also splash liquid water plumes on the surface but are unlikely to
promote, at this stage, adaptation to growth on the surface. Ice cracks, over hundreds of
millions of years, could provide a stable but changeable environment for evolution. There
is even a very thin, oxygen atmosphere on Europa.
On earth, we have two basic forms of life: macroscopic, and microscopic. Space life will not
have liquid water available, except internally. I envision the first step, to be the growth of
macroscopic forms, anchored in ice, on the surface of Europa. These would be followed by
further adaptation to the rare rocky deposits on the surface. I can see these organisms, at
the beginning, to be composed of resistant shells of silica or chitin, containing liquids and
symbiotic microorganisms. Nutrients can be uploaded into the parent organism by direct
absorption within a rock-hugging airlock type structure, or by a root structure deep in the
ice. More evolved versions of these organisms could eat debris directly, again taking it
within either an airlock, or by phagocytosis through a rubbery pseudopod.
There is the major problem of energy production. Life exists by capturing the energy (as
energetic electrons) released during reduction/oxidation couples. Plants reduce carbon
dioxide to oxygen and sugars; animals reverse the process. Many other chemical cycles
are used by bacteria, involving iron, sulfur, nitrogen, and other compounds. It is
reasonable to expect that any symbiotic life forms within the ice surface organism, would
have similar capabilities. With analogy to earth life, it seems far more efficient to have a
large suite of adaptable microorganisms to perform these different chemical tasks, than to
have one large organism contain all the genetic pathways to do it by itself. Very few earth
organisms seem to be totally able to flourish in pure inorganic culture. Most need at least a
few other chemicals made by microbes, such as trace vitamins.
Photosynthesis is a possible approach to energy production. It does need an input of raw
materials to work, and a sufficient light intensity. Space organisms likely would be largely
built of silica, so it would seem simple to grow lenses and mirrors to increase the faint light
intensity in deep space. Also, direct light to energy conversion using silicon photocells is
perhaps even easier. Extruded arrays of silicon photocells could look like leaves, and be
moved to follow the sunlight. Electrons are electrons, whether they originate from chemical
reduction or solar cells. For space organisms, electrons may be a better potential energy
storage medium than our fats and starches. They can be bled off from capacitors and
used whenever their chemical life processes need them.
These organisms will have a central cell with an aqueous interior for its life processes, and
those of its symbiotic microorganisms. The ‘water’ could be water, spiked with chemicals to
lower the freezing point, such as ammonia or glycerol. Other high dielectric organic or
inorganic chemicals might be possibly used, but since the organism would start in a water
ocean, water is the likely basis for life. All these life forms would be resistant to freezing
damage, like terrestrial organisms as large as arctic char, a salmon-type fish that can be
revived after being frozen in blocks of ice. I expect that they would also be heavily
insulated, using silica foams.
The Europa organisms which colonize the planetary surface are already pretty well
adapted for life in space, since they live on a nearly airless surface and colonize rock when
they can find it. But what about sex? Cloning, by budding or division, will be common. I
expect that for sexual selection, hermaphroditic species should predominate, to maximize
the rare chances for reproduction. The most primitive forms likely would need water for
reproduction, perhaps warming a bubble in the ice for the babies. Terrestrial
hermaphroditic barnacles give one way sessile organisms can impregnate each other,
having penises many times the length of their bodies. Other modifications are easily made,
such as independent mobile penises that would search out the adult sex partners. Some
earth organisms in resource poor environments like the abyssal sea, have tiny males that
attach as permanent parasites to the female. Another possibility well suited for vacuum is
directed cannon shots, to adhere to the outside of the organism and bore inside. Similar
species could call to each other by means of radio evolved from simple spark-gap signals,
piezoelectric vibratory signals produced from quartz crystals (like the ones used in
watches), optical diode light flashes or heat discharges or even volatile chemical releases
like terrestrial pheromones, to attract motile forms.
It is hard to imagine life forms as being only non-motile, plant types. There should be
animals too, which would attack the plant types. The animals may actually look much like
the plants except for organs of mobility, sensory input, and nutrient acquisition. Live birth
of young nurtured within the parent should easily evolve, due to the harshness of the
environment. Matured young could be shot from the parents like ripe seeds.
These are real pre-adaptations to living an actual life in space. The Europa organisms are
living in a relatively benign environment, even though the temperature is very low, there
only a trace of atmosphere with oxygen, and there are high levels of radiation. The next
step in evolving true space life forms means that they would actually have to reach space.
Meteoric impacts are the primary way that some of them would be flung into true space. Ice
volcanism is another possible method, possibly even sulfur volcanism as is seen on Io.
Both types of volcanoes have been observed to spew huge debris plumes, and some
fraction should escape the low gravitation into space. Some forms could cling to life on icy
rocky debris, until they impacted another moon, comet, or asteroid. These collisions should
often be of low velocity on smaller solar bodies, allowing survival.
Now there is a real incentive for the life forms to become true space going creatures. Solar
panels can easily be used to provide movement by means of ionized particle propulsion.
Or solar mirrors could be used for the same purpose.
Nutrient acquisition will be a regular problem. There is no convenient solvent (water)
containing dissolved chemicals to be absorbed. One method would be to glue an air-tight
barrier to a rock, then attack it from within by means of acids and water. Another way would
be to pick up particles using a tentacle, perhaps coated with a sticky silicone, and put them
into an airlock. Various organs for grinding and pulverizing solids would evolve. I can
envision a root-like drill tool tipped with silicon carbide or forms of diamond, produced by
semiconductor industry-like vacuum synthesis methods. Purely vacuum based methods
should evolve, such as charged webs to grab rare ionized dust, or even ion guns to charge
local particles otherwise out of reach. These roots could serve as the basis for thermionic
electrical generation, using the difference between the thermal sink inside the rock, and
One way to get large quantities of volatile elements, would be to bake it out of the
substrate using adherent transparent glassy domes. The heat would come from focused
solar panel arrays. Eventually these would evolve to the state of being able to do true
smelting, at least of lower melting point materials, to release liquids of crystallization and
liquids from volcanic inclusions. All space organisms must be highly efficient at recycling,
but no process is truly 100% efficient, and growth and reproduction require chemical inputs.
The organisms will be released from the effects of gravity, so will not necessarily look very
familiar. They will be composites of inorganic and organic modules, but will have little need
for structural strength or streamlining. Space ‘whales’ may grow huge, but would resemble
giant spider webs and mirrors, with tiny organic cores controlling everything. All organisms
would probably try to maximize energy absorbing surface areas, at least the ones that are
nominally plants. More active, animal analogues, may keep rudimentary or vestigial energy
absorbing structures. Animals could even cultivate colonies of plant analogues, tapping the
stored capacitors for energy and non-destructively siphoning out organic core materials.
But even our desire for symmetry is not absolute. Webs do not have to be circular, but
could be linear, tapestry-like, or random structures.
Another difference between space and earth life, will be in their metabolic rates. Space
entities will have much slower growth rates due to the more limited energy and chemical
resources. As they evolve, some will be more able to use habitats on near-earth asteroids
and sun grazing asteroids and comets, with their abundant solar and thermal energy.
Others will grow bigger and bigger solar mirrors and other energy generating structures,
and will be able to colonize more remote regions of the solar system. Free-living ones
should be able to control their movement with ion thrusters, light sails, or other means, to
target and harvest space dusts and to socialize with their kind.
Since evolution will be much slower than terrestrial evolution, it is entirely possible that they
will be still actively evolving on the fringes of the sun’s gravitation influence when the sun
balloons into a red giant five billion years from now. This might give a short lived boost to
their energy supplies before the sun collapses into a white dwarf for the remainder of
universal time. At any rate, the red giant conversion will destroy all planet-based life and
the closer planets, leaving only the remote solar descendants of the ancestral biosphere in
Once they reach the Oort cloud of trillions of comets, they will eventually swarm through
them and, through long term gravitational perturbation and cometary ejection from the
sun’s gravitation well, reach distant extra-solar reaches. Of course, this will have already
happened countless times in the 13.7 billion year life of the universe. Earth and earth life
are only 5 billion years old. I wonder how all these different space organisms would react
with and against each other?
ACANTHOCALYCIUM VIOLACIUM, LEFT
BABIANA RUBROCYANATA, RIGHT
All contents and ideas
2007 TO THE CURRENT
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