A Key Factor in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life


Researchers from the University of Cambridge have explored the possibility of comets delivering molecular building blocks for life to planets within a galaxy. The study suggests that, under specific conditions, comets could slow down and deposit intact prebiotic molecules on planets, potentially influencing the origins of life. The researchers emphasize the importance of ‘peas in a pod’ systems, where closely orbiting planets facilitate the transfer of comets, slowing them to speeds suitable for molecule survival upon impact. The findings, detailed in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, propose that such systems may be promising targets in the search for life beyond our solar system.

The study focused on the Kuiper Belt, where most solar system comets reside, and examined scenarios where comets from this region could reach Earth-like planets. Mathematical modelling indicated that low-mass planets in close proximity to each other enhance the likelihood of successful cometary delivery. The researchers acknowledge that comets may not be necessary for life’s origin but aim to define the planetary conditions suitable for complex molecule delivery by comets.

The researchers stress the potential significance of their results in guiding the search for extraterrestrial life. By identifying specific planetary systems where cometary delivery could occur, astronomers gain valuable insights into the conditions conducive to the development of prebiotic molecules. This novel approach combines advancements in astronomy and chemistry to address fundamental questions about life’s diverse origins, both on Earth and potentially on planets throughout the galaxy.

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