A new international research alliance will tackle the question of life on other planets and study conditions and factors that have an impact on its development. Coordinated by the Institute for
Planetary Research of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), the Helmholtz Alliance for Planetary Evolution and Life brings together several research institutes and universities from inside and
‘The search for life on other celestial bodies is surely one of the most exciting questions in current planetary research and astronomy,’ believes Professor Tilman Spohn, director of the DLR
Institute for Planetary Research and scientific coordinator of the alliance, ‘since the subject has philosophical dimensions, which go far beyond natural sciences.
‘However, in order to answer this question, we have to learn more about geological prerequisites for the evolution of life on Earth and possibly on other planets and moons. Furthermore, it is
important to know if and in what way the interplay of life and environment affects the development of life. It is perfectly conceivable that life’s biochemical processes exert influence on the
geological development of a planetary body,’ said Professor Spohn.
Initially, the focus of research will be on Earth’s neighbours, Venus and Mars. In the case of Venus, scientists will attempt to find out whether the planet, which is arid today, used to have
enough water to support primitive life. ‘We know that, billions of years ago, there was water on Mars and that the planet had a protective magnetic field,’ Professor Spohn summarises. ‘But have
conditions on Mars ever been sufficient to yield life? And if so, why is that no longer the case, or is it?’
However, there are planets in the outer solar system, such as the largest moon of Saturn, Titan, or the Jupiter satellite Europa, that could provide interesting insights. ‘There may be a mighty
ocean of 100 or more metres in depth underneath Europa’s ice crust – we cannot rule out that conditions there may have favoured the development of life,’ according to Professor Spohn.
The research alliance for Planetary Evolution and Life is intended to draw on results from various fields of research. For instance, geophysical modelling will be used to investigate how the
dynamo effect creates a planetary magnetic field in the iron core of a planet and thus protects life from cosmic radiation. Physical and chemical processes that occur when asteroids or comets
hit a planet shall help to determine whether the water found on Earth may have originated from those self-same processes. Moreover, the alliance will look into plate tectonics, the development
of planetary atmospheres and the role of carbon dioxide in the evolution of life.
‘Thanks to Helmholtz alliances, we reach critical mass with respect to financial support as well as the partners’ competences,’ says Professor Jürgen Mlynek, president of the Helmholtz
Association. The association recently awarded funding amounting to ?16.8 million to the alliance. Almost the same again will be contributed by participating research institutes and universities
from Germany, the UK, the USA, France, Austria and Russia.
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