11 December 2013
Last updated at 12:30
The Chicxulub impact sparked a mass extinction – but did it send life hurtling into space?
The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs may have catapulted life to Mars and the moons of Jupiter, US researchers say.
They calculated how many Earth rocks big enough to shelter life were ejected by asteroids in the last 3.5bn years.
The Chicxulub impact was strong enough to fire chunks of debris all the way to Europa, they write in Astrobiology.
Thousands of potentially life-bearing rocks also made it to Mars, which may once have been habitable, they add.
“We find that rock capable of carrying life has likely transferred from both Earth and Mars to all of the terrestrial planets in the solar system and Jupiter,” says lead author Rachel Worth, of Penn State University.
“Any missions to search for life on Titan or the moons of Jupiter will have to consider whether biological material is of independent origin, or another branch in Earth’s family tree.”
Panspermia – the idea that organisms can “hitchhike” around the solar system on comets and debris from meteor strikes – has long fascinated astronomers.
But thanks to advances in computing, they are now able to simulate these journeys – and follow potential stowaways as they hitch around the Solar System.
In this new study, researchers first estimated the number of rocks bigger than 3m ejected from Earth by major impacts.
Could life be swimming in the oceans of Europa?
Three metres is the minimum they think necessary to shield microbes from the Sun’s radiation over a journey lasting up to 10 million years.
They then mapped the likely fate of these voyagers. Many simply hung around in Earth orbit, or were slowly drawn back down.
Others were pulled into the Sun, or sling-shotted out of the Solar System entirely.
Yet a small but significant number made it all the way to alien worlds which might welcome life. “Enough that it matters,” Ms Worth told BBC News.
About six rocks even made it as far as Europa, a satellite of Jupiter with a liquid ocean covered in an icy crust.
“Even using conservative, realistic estimates… it’s still possible that organisms could be swimming around out there in the oceans of Europa,” she said.
Travel to Mars was much more common. About 360,000 large rocks took a ride to the Red Planet, courtesy of historical asteroid impacts.
Continue reading the main story
I’d be surprised if life hasn’t gotten to Mars. It seems reasonable that at some point some Earth organisms made it”
Penn State University
Perhaps the most famous of these impacts was at Chicxulub in Mexico about 66 million years ago – when an object the size of a small city collided with Earth.
The impact has been blamed for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, triggering volcanic eruptions and wildfires which choked the planet with smoke and dust.
It also launched about 70 billion kg of rock into space – 20,000kg of which could have reached Europa. And the chances that a rock big enough to harbour life arrived are “better than 50/50”, researchers estimate.
But could living organisms actually survive these epic trips?
“I’d be surprised if life hasn’t gotten to Mars,” Ms Worth told BBC News.
“It’s beyond the scope of our study. But it seems reasonable that at some point some Earth organisms have made it over there.”
Early Mars is thought to have been a muddy, watery world
It has been shown that tiny creatures can withstand the harsh environment of space. And bacterial spores can be revived after hundreds of millions of years in a dormant state.
Continue reading the main story
I sometimes joke we might find ammonite shells on the Moon from the Chicxulub impact”
Prof Jay Melosh
But even if a hardy microbe did stow away for all those millennia, it might simply burn up on arrival, or land in inhospitable terrain.
The most habitable places in range of Earth are Europa, Mars and Titan – but while all three have likely held water, it may not have been on offer to visitors.
Europa’s oceans are capped by a crust of ice that may be impenetrably thick.
“But it appears regions of the ice sheet sometimes break into large chunks separated by liquid water, which later refreezes,” Ms Worth said.
“Any meteorites lying on top of the ice sheet in a region when this occurs would stand a chance of falling through.
“Additionally, the moons are thought to have been significantly warmer in the not-too-distant past.”
On Mars, there is little evidence of flowing water during the last 3.5bn years – the likeliest window for Earth life to arrive.
The first space travellers? Bacterial endospores can survive for millions of years
But what if the reverse trip took place?
The early Martian atmosphere appears to have been warm and wet – prime conditions for the development of life.
And if Martian microbes ever did exist, transfer to Earth is “highly probable” due to the heavy traffic of meteorites between our planets, Ms Worth told BBC News.
“Billions have fallen on Earth from Mars since the dawn of our planetary system. It is even possible that life on Earth originated on Mars.”
While her team are not the first to calculate that panspermia is possible, their 10-million-year simulation is the most extended yet, said astrobiologist Prof Jay Melosh, of Purdue University.
“The study strongly reinforces the conclusion that, once large impacts eject material from the surface of a planet such as the Earth or Mars, the ejected debris easily finds its way from one planet to another,” he told BBC News.
“The Chicxulub impact itself might not have been a good candidate because it occurred in the ocean (50 to 500m deep water) and, while it might have ejected a few sea-surface creatures, like ammonites, into space, it would not likely have ejected solid rocks.
“I sometimes joke that we might find ammonite shells on the Moon from that event.
“But other large impacts on the Earth may indeed have ejected rocks into interplanetary space.”