Study shows how radioactive decay could support extraterrestrial life

May 22, 2017, Southwest Research Institute
A University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) team modeled a natural water-cracking process called radiolysis. They applied the model to the icy bodies around our solar system to show how radiation emitted from rocky cores could break up water molecules and support hydrogen-eating microbes. Credit: Southwest Research Institute

In the icy bodies around our solar system, radiation emitted from rocky cores could break up water molecules and support hydrogen-eating microbes. To address this cosmic possibility, a University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) team modeled a natural water-cracking process called radiolysis. They then applied the model to several worlds with known or suspected interior oceans, including Saturn's moon Enceladus, Jupiter's moon Europa, Pluto and its moon Charon, as well as the dwarf planet Ceres.

"The physical and chemical processes that follow radiolysis release molecular hydrogen (H2), which is a molecule of astrobiological interest," said Alexis Bouquet, lead author of the study published in the May edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters. Radioactive isotopes of elements such as uranium, potassium, and thorium are found in a class of rocky meteorites known as chondrites. The cores of the worlds studied by Bouquet and his co-authors are thought to have chondrite-like compositions. Ocean water permeating the porous rock of the core could be exposed to ionizing radiation and undergo radiolysis, producing molecular hydrogen and reactive oxygen compounds.

Bouquet, a student in the joint doctoral program between UTSA's Department of Physics and Astronomy and SwRI's Space Science and Engineering Division, explained that microbial communities sustained by H2 have been found in extreme environments on Earth. These include a groundwater sample found nearly 2 miles deep in a South African gold mine and at hydrothermal vents on the floor. That raises interesting possibilities for the potential existence of analogous microbes at the water-rock interfaces of ocean worlds such as Enceladus or Europa.

"We know that these radioactive elements exist within , but this is the first systematic look across the solar system to estimate radiolysis. The results suggest that there are many potential targets for exploration out there, and that's exciting," says co-author Dr. Danielle Wyrick, a principal scientist in SwRI's Space Science and Engineering Division.

One frequently suggested source of molecular hydrogen on ocean worlds is serpentinization. This chemical reaction between rock and water occurs, for example, in on the ocean floor.

In the icy bodies around our solar system, radiation emitted from rocky cores could break up water molecules and support hydrogen-eating microbes. A University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) team modeled a natural water-cracking process called radiolysis and applied the model to Europa (pictured) and several other worlds with known or suspected interior oceans. Credit: Southwest Research Institute

The key finding of the study is that radiolysis represents a potentially important additional source of molecular hydrogen. While hydrothermal activity can produce considerable quantities of hydrogen, in porous rocks often found under seafloors, radiolysis could produce copious amounts as well.

Radiolysis may also contribute to the potential habitability of ocean worlds in another way. In addition to , it produces oxygen compounds that can react with certain minerals in the core to create sulfates, a food source for some kinds of microorganisms.

"Radiolysis in an ocean world's outer core could be fundamental in supporting life. Because mixtures of water and rock are everywhere in the outer solar system, this insight increases the odds of abundant habitable real estate out there," Bouquet said.

Co-authors of the article, "Alternative Energy: Production of H2 by Radiolysis of Water in the Rocky Cores of Icy Bodies," are SwRI's Dr. Christopher R. Glein, Wyrick, and Dr. J. Hunter Waite, who also serves as a UTSA adjoint professor. 

Explore further: Scientists discover evidence for a habitable region within Saturn's moon Enceladus

Related Stories

All that life needs on Enceladus

April 17, 2017

If chemical energy is life's coin and water is life's marketplace, there may be a swift economy alive and well beneath the icy shell of Saturn's brightest moon. Such was the announcement during NASA's April 13th press conference: ...

How friendly is Enceladus' ocean to life?

February 5, 2016

How acidic is the ocean on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus? It's a fundamental question to understanding if this geyser-spouting moon could support life.

Recommended for you

Lyman-alpha emission detected around quasar J1605-0112

February 20, 2018

Using the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument astronomers have discovered an extended and broad Lyman-alpha emission in the form of a nebula around the quasar J1605-0112. The finding is reported February 9 ...

'Ultramassive' black holes discovered in far-off galaxies

February 20, 2018

Thanks to data collected by NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope on galaxies up to 3.5 billion light years away from Earth, an international team of astrophysicists has detected what are likely to be the most massive black holes ...

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jeffhans1
not rated yet May 22, 2017
If Mars ever had life, it would still be hanging around underground where conditions are still viable due to radiation and water both being present.
zave
not rated yet May 23, 2017
That is where nasa should look for it.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet May 23, 2017
The key finding of the study is that radiolysis represents a potentially important additional source of molecular hydrogen.

So can we please finally drop all this 'habitable zone' crap? Thanks.

Life could be anywhere where there's a source of energy (and maybe some hydrogen...which is basically everywhere). It need not be limited to surfaces warmed by a close-by star.
zave
not rated yet May 23, 2017
Most people want to find large animals and plant life not microbes.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.