Timothy Swindle
Timothy Swindle

When Renaissance scholars figured out that the other planets, like Earth, orbit the Sun, an immediate assumption was that they are inhabited worlds.

But over the past 50 years, spacecraft have determined that life on the surfaces of planets and moons in the Solar System is rare – if it exists at all. However, there are places where a search for life in the Solar System may still be fruitful.

Timothy Swindle, department head and director of the University of Arizona’s Department of Planetary Sciences and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory since 2012, will describe how we might search for life in such places in a lecture at the Arizona Senior Academy at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday (April 8).

Free and open to the public, Swindle’s talk is entitled “Searching for Life in the Solar System.” It is the Academy’s seventh and final encore presentation of this year’s UA College of Science Lecture Series, “Life in the Universe.”

Although the current surface of Mars is a hostile environment, Swindle will explain why scientists believe early Mars may have been much more hospitable to life. Jupiter’s moon Europa is almost certainly barren on the surface, but has an “ocean” of liquid water underneath a crust of ice, where some terrestrial organisms might be able to thrive.

Finally, Saturn’s moon Titan would not be suitable for life from Earth, but has rain and seas of liquid hydrocarbons, raising questions about whether life needs liquid water, or just needs some abundant liquid.

Swindle’s research uses measurements of the six so-called “noble gases” found in extraterrestrial materials (lunar samples and meteorites) to study the evolution of the solar system. These gases – helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon – have a lack of chemical activity in comparison to other elements which means they can preserve features of the early solar system that are obliterated by reactions among other elements.

Written by Mike Maharry, Academy Village Volunteer

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Life Elsewhere in Our Solar System? The Search Continues: April 2015