A team of scientists from Japan are suggesting that the asteroid impact that killed dinosaurs may have also spread life from Earth throughout the galaxy.
65 million years ago, a 10km-wide asteroid smashed into the Earth and brought the 165 million-year reign of the dinosaurs to an end. It also spewed billions of tonnes of (potentially) life-bearing rock out into space.
The Japanese team of physicists has calculated what happened to it all.
The immediate effects of a trillion-tonne rock smashing to the Earth are well documented – global wildfires, mega-tsunamis and mass extinctions – but the impact would have also thrown out billions of tonnes of water and rock that could have carried microbial life with it.
Researchers from Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan believe they know where some of these rocks went.
The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs would have thrown billions of tonnes of rock and water out into space. Credit: NASA
They have focused their efforts on the chunks of rock that may have landed in areas of the galaxy where life could potentially prosper. On the shortlist were moons and planets thought to possess water, such as Jupiter’s moon, Europa; Saturn’s moon, Enceladus and Earth-like exoplanets orbiting other stars.
Surprisingly, they have calculated that almost as much ejecta (rock and ice) would have landed on Enceladus as on the Moon – around a hundred million individual rocks.
But the largest proportion of these rocks are thought to have ended up interstellar space.
The team has estimated that about 1,000 pieces of “Earth rock” would have reached the red dwarf star, Gliese 581, where at least six planets have been identified as candidates for life.
Gliese 581 is located 20.3 light years from Earth, so it would have taken the rocks about a million years to make the journey. Scientists don’t know if microbial life could survive such an extended journey through the cold vacuum of space, but the possibility that some sort of life from Earth could have made its home there is something the paper considers.
Based on this premise, the team have calculated how long it would take for ejecta from Earth to seed the entire galaxy with life. They suggest that it would take about a trillion years (1,000 billion) to spread through a volume of space the size of our galaxy (the Milky Way is only 10-13 billion years old).
Jupiter's moon Europa is thought to be one of the most likely places to find microscopic life in our solar system. Credit: NASA
Microorganisms: the ultimate space traveller?
Although it might seem unlikely that microbes could survive for thousands of years in the vacuum of space, there are some members of this tiny community quite well suited to the task.
One group of microorganisms, called extremophiles, are capable of surviving in conditions of extreme heat, cold, acidity and radiation – some have even been found living entirely inside rock.
Even less hardy species of bacteria have the ability to dry themselves out and generate spores that are resistant to cold, heat and radiation and can lie dormant for many years – some spores have found to be 40 million years old.