Hypothesis: Does the Evolution of Complex Life Depend on the Star Type?

Earth is the only known example of a planet with life, so the history of life on Earth provides the only information regarding the timescale required for microscopic, single-celled life to evolve into bigger and more complex forms similar to plants, animals, or fungi. This process took about four billion years from the cooling of early Earth through today. But does this four billion year timescale apply when thinking about life on other planets?

It is certainly possible that complexity, on average, takes about four billion years to develop on any planet that already has life. If this were the case, then astronomers should search a wide range of stars (yellow dwarfs like our sun as well as cooler orange and red dwarf stars) because any of them might already have complex life. Although we really have no idea at all, this idea of “equal evolutionary time” is sometimes invoked by scientists as a default assumption: since we don’t know anything else, why not assume an average timescale of four billion years?

I suggest an alternative viewpoint to this assumption in a paper entitled “Does the evolution of complex life depend on the stellar spectral energy distribution?” and published in Astrobiology. In this paper, I present the hypothesis that the evolutionary timescale is constrained by the total energy that falls upon a planet and could actually be harnessed by life. Instead of assuming a fixed four billion year timescale, I calculate the amount of time it would take planets around different star types to accumulate the same amount of free energy that Earth received over its history. This assumption of “proportional evolutionary time” suggests that complex life on planets orbiting yellow dwarf stars like our sun might also take about four billion years to develop; however, planets around orange dwarf stars would take much longer, closer to five or ten billion years. And, following this hypothesis, planets orbiting red dwarfs would need a hundred billion years (longer than the present age of the universe) before they accumulated enough energy for complex life.

This idea remains a hypothesis until astronomers are able to search for signs of life around extrasolar planets. But this idea of proportional evolutionary time suggests that the coolest stars might not be the best places to look for complex life today.

Exomoon Atmospheres

As astronomers continue to search for potentially habitable planets orbiting other stars, some have also started to consider the possibility of habitable moons orbiting giant planets in such systems. Such exomoons could be the size of Mars, Earth, or even a few times larger, based on observations of similar large moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. A few scientific studies have demonstrated that exomoons should be expected in other planetary systems and could even be observable with the next generation of space telescopes.

I recently published a paper with RenĂ© Heller in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society titled “Exploring exomoon atmospheres with an idealized general circulation model.” This study presents the first three-dimensional climate modeling of exomoon atmospheres. Exomoon atmospheres receive daily instellation from the host star of the planetary system, which would make them similar in climate to an Earth-like planet. But exomoons are also in synchronous rotation with the host giant planet (similar to the synchronous rotation of our moon around Earth). Exomoons therefore receive additional thermal energy at the top of their atmospheres from their host planet, in addition to the star. This configuration leads to a climate with warmer poles (a phenomenon known as “polar amplification”) and stronger dynamical energy transport.

Some exomoons atmospheres could enter a runaway greenhouse from the additional thermal energy of the host planet, but others should be able to maintain stable and potentially habitable atmospheres. Exomoons remain viable prospects in the search for life, and future astronomical surveys will gradually reveal the frequency of such worlds.

More on Mars Climate Cycles

Fluvial features on Mars seem to indicate that liquid water once flowed on the surface, yet climate theorists remain divided among how the red planet was able to sustain warm enough conditions in the distant past when the sun was fainter. Popular ideas include a dense greenhouse atmosphere of carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and other gases permitted a lengthy period of warmth. Another option suggests that periodic impacts caused enough warming to carve the features in a shorter time.

My co-authors and I have argued in previous papers that climate cycles on early Mars could have been driven by oscillations in the carbonate-silicate cycle, which would have provided transient warming from the accumulation of greenhouse gases by volcanoes and subsequent loss by weathering. In a new paper, we respond to a critique of the limit cycle hypothesis in our “Reply to Shaw.”

We acknowledge that the biggest obstacle to any explanation for warming early Mars with carbon dioxide is their ultimate fate: are there carbonate rocks buried underneath the martian regolith? If not, where did all the carbon dioxide go? Even so, we maintain that the early Mars climate cycle hypothesis remains consistent with observable geologic evidence and could have played at least a partial role in providing warm conditions on early Mars.

Circulation States of Synchronous Rotators

Some planets around low mass stars are expected to be in synchronous rotation, so that the star is continually fixed upon one side. This not only causes one hemisphere to experience permanent day and the other to reside in permanent night (with perpetual twilight along the “terminator” at the edges), but this also drives the climate into a regime fundamentally unlike any seen in the atmosphere of Earth.

In a recent paper titled, “Demarcating circulation regimes of synchronously rotating terrestrial planets within the habitable zone,” my co-authors and I analyze a set of climate model calculations to examine the dependence upon stellar effective temperature of the atmospheric dynamics of planets as they move closer to the inner edge of the
habitable zone. These results show that the surface temperature contrast between day and night hemispheres decreases with an increase in incident stellar flux. This trend is opposite that seen on gas giants, where the same forcing shows an increase in the day-night atmosphere temperature contrast.

We define three dynamical regimes in terms of the dynamical quantities known as the Rossby deformation radius (the ratio of buoyancy to rotation) and the Rhines length (the maximum extent of turbulent structures). The slow rotation regime is characterized by a mean zonal circulation that spans from the day to night side. Slow rotation requires that both the Rossby deformation radius and the Rhines length exceed planetary radius, which occurs for planets with rotation rate > 20 days. Rapid rotators show a mean zonal circulation that only partially spans a hemisphere, with banded cloud formation beneath the substellar point. The rapid rotation regime is defined by the Rossby deformation radius being less than planetary radius, which occurs for planets with rotation rate < 5 days. In between is the Rhines rotation regime, which retains a mean zonal circulation from day to night side but also features midlatitude turbulence-driven zonal jets. Rhines rotators are expected for planets with rotation rate between 5 to 20 days, where the Rhines length is less than planetary radius but the Rossby deformation radius is greater than planetary radius. The dynamical state can be inferred from observations of orbital period and spectral type of the host star as well as from comparing the morphology of the thermal emission phase curves of synchronously rotating planets. Such phase curves will be potentially useful tools for characterizing planets with the next generation of space telescopes.