From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published November 3, 2012 02:51 PM

Asteroids and Life

Asteroid belts such as between Mars and Jupiter do not seem to have any obvious planetary system purpose. Solar systems with life-bearing planets may be affected by asteroids according to a study by Rebecca Martin, a NASA Sagan Fellow from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and astronomer Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. They suggest that the size and location of an asteroid belt, shaped by the evolution of the sun's planet-forming disk and by the gravitational influence of a nearby giant Jupiter-like planet, may determine whether complex life will evolve on an Earth-like plane.

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This might sound surprising because asteroids are considered a nuisance due to their potential to impact Earth and trigger mass extinctions. But an emerging view proposes that asteroid collisions with planets may provide a boost to the birth and evolution of complex life.

Asteroids may have delivered water and organic compounds to the early Earth. According to the theory of punctuated equilibrium, occasional asteroid impacts might accelerate the rate of biological evolution by disrupting a planet's environment to the point where species must try new adaptation strategies.

The astronomers based their conclusion on an analysis of theoretical models and archival observations, including infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

"Our study shows that only a tiny fraction of planetary systems observed to date seem to have giant planets in the right location to produce an asteroid belt of the appropriate size, offering the potential for life on a nearby rocky planet," said Martin, the study's lead author. "Our study suggests that our solar system may be rather special."

The findings will appear today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.

Martin and Livio suggest that the location of an asteroid belt relative to a Jupiter-like planet is not an accident. The asteroid belt in our solar system, located between Mars and Jupiter, is a region of millions of space rocks that sits near the snow line, which marks the border of a cold region where volatile material such as water ice is far enough from the sun to remain intact.

When Jupiter formed just beyond the snow line, its powerful gravity prevented nearby material inside its orbit from coalescing and building planets.

In astronomy or planetary science, the frost line, also known as the snow line or ice line, refers to a particular distance in the solar nebula from the central protosun where it is cool enough for hydrogen compounds such as water, ammonia, and methane to condense into solid ice grains. Depending on density, that temperature is estimated to be about 150K. The frost line of the Solar System is around 4.2 AU

Jupiter's influence caused the material between Mars and Jupiter to collide and break apart. These fragmented rocks settled into an asteroid belt around the sun.

"To have such ideal conditions you need a giant planet like Jupiter that is just outside the asteroid belt [and] that migrated a little bit, but not through the belt," Livio explained. "If a large planet like Jupiter migrates through the belt, it would scatter the material. If, on the other hand, a large planet did not migrate at all, that, too, is not good because the asteroid belt would be too massive. There would be so much bombardment from asteroids that life may never evolve."

Using our solar system as a model, Martin and Livio proposed that asteroid belts in other solar systems would always be located approximately at the snow line. To test their proposal, Martin and Livio created models of planet-forming disks around young stars and calculated the location of the snow line in those disks based on the mass of the central star.

They then looked at all the existing space-based infrared observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope of 90 stars having warm dust, which could indicate the presence of an asteroid belt-like structure. The temperature of the warm dust was consistent with that of the snow line. "The warm dust falls right onto our calculated snow lines, so the observations are consistent with our predictions," Martin said.

The duo then studied observations of the 520 giant planets found outside our solar system. Only 19 of them reside outside the snow line. This suggests that most of the giant planets that may have formed outside the snowline have migrated too far inward to preserve the kind of slightly dispersed asteroid belt needed to foster enhanced evolution of life on an Earth-like planet near the belt. Apparently, less than four percent of the observed systems may actually harbor such a compact asteroid belt.

"Based on our scenario, we should concentrate our efforts to look for complex life in systems that have a giant planet outside of the snow line," Livio said.

For further information see Asteroids.

Asteroid Belt image via NASA.

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