Life in the Galaxy: Huge Simulations Find Some “Completely Unexpected” Results

Galaxy M51

Galaxy M51 is a spiral galaxy, about 30 million light-years away, that is in the process of merging with a smaller galaxy seen to its upper left. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Researchers have found that rocky exoplanets which formed early in the life of the galaxy seem to have had a greater chance of developing a magnetic field and plate tectonics than planets which formed later. As both these conditions are considered favorable to the development of life, this means that if life exists in the Galaxy, it may have developed earlier than later, and that planets formed more recently may have less chance of developing life.

As lead scientist, planetary researcher Craig O’Neill said, “Plate tectonics is important for habitability, and it looks like the optimum conditions plate tectonics existed for planets forming early in the galaxy’s lifespan, and may be unlikely to easily recur. For life, maybe that was as good as it gets.”

Exoplanets — planets in orbit around distant stars — have been attracting great interest because of the possibility that some of them may harbor life. Presenting the results at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference, Professor Craig O’Neill (Director of the Macquarie Planetary Research Centre, Macquarie University) continued:

“Because of the great distances involved, we have a limited amount of information on these exoplanets, but we can understand some factors, such as position, temperature, and some idea of the geochemistry of the exoplanets. This allows us to model how they develop.”

Using huge simulations involving hundreds of processors on the Australian National Computing Infrastructure, the team ran the parameters through the ASPECT geodynamics code, which simulates the development of the interior of planets. O’Neill’s group was able to show that many early planets would have tended to develop plate tectonics, which is favorable to the development of life.

He commented: “Plate tectonics act as a kind of thermostat for the Earth creating the conditions which allow life to evolve. The Earth has a lot of iron in its core, and we had assumed that this would be necessary for tectonic development. However, we found that even planets with little iron may develop plate tectonics if the timing is right. This was completely unexpected.”

The development of plate tectonics has a major knock-on effect. “Planets which formed later may not have developed plate tectonics, which means that they don’t have this built-in thermostat. This doesn’t just affect the surface temperature, this means that the core stays hot, which inhibits the development of a magnetic field. If there’s no magnetic field, the planet is not shielded from solar radiation, and will tend to lose its atmosphere. So life becomes difficult to sustain. A planet needs to be lucky to have the right position and the right geochemistry at the right time if it’s going to sustain life,” said Professor O’Neill.

Researchers know that the overall chemical balance of the Galaxy has changed over time for diverse reasons, such as material coalescing into stars and planetary bodies, or being expelled through supernova. This means that the interstellar material available to form planets is significantly different from that available in the early galaxy.

“So the planets which formed earlier did so in conditions favorable to allow the development of life,” said Craig O’Neill. “These conditions are becoming increasingly rarer in our galaxy.”

Commenting, Professor Sara Russell said:

“Over the last few years, amazing projects such as the NASA Kepler mission have located thousands of planets orbiting around other stars. However, these exoplanet observations alone provide very basic information. It is so important to combine observing campaigns with large simulation projects like this, that really tell us something about the geological evolution of planets formed at different stages of galactic evolution. This enables us to build a picture of what these strange worlds might look like, and how habitable they may be.”

Sara Russell is a member of the Scientific Committee of the Geochemical Society. She is Professor of Planetary Sciences and leader of the Planetary Materials Group at the Natural History Museum, London. She was not involved in this work, this is an independent comment.

As of June 5th, 2020, NASA has confirmed the detection of 4158 exoplanets in our galaxy. The closest exoplanets yet found orbit the star Proxima Centuri, which is about 4 light-years from Earth (the latest data indicates either 2 or 3 exoplanets).

The Goldschmidt Conference is the world’s main geochemistry conference, hosted by the Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry. Held annually, it covers such materials as climate change, astrobiology, planetary and stellar development and conditions, chemistry of Earth materials, pollution, the undersea environment, volcanoes, and many other subjects

14 Comments on "Life in the Galaxy: Huge Simulations Find Some “Completely Unexpected” Results"

  1. This is a new one, or rather, I learned a new thing and it did not make my head hurt trying to understand.
    Hot core equals less chance of life. Simple without overstatement.

  2. Richard Carrillo | June 23, 2020 at 2:53 am | Reply

    I believe having a magnetic field is more important than plate tectonics.

  3. shouldn’t the photo credit read?

    “Galaxy M51 is a spiral galaxy…that is in the process of merging with a smaller galaxy seen to its upper RIGHT.”

  4. Plate tectonics are caused by gravitational tides caused by large nearby planetary objects, correct? If over time the number of those is reduced by collisions with one another, perhaps that may be a contributory factor? And perhaps collisions also produce the iron core observed in some rocky planets…guess it’s back to Google!

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 30, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Reply

      Wrong. Plate tectonics is today thought to mostly be driven by ocean crust being subducted, dragging plates around.

  5. Babu G. Ranganathan | June 23, 2020 at 5:07 pm | Reply

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    THE CELL could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.


    Just having the right materials, elements, and conditions do not mean that life can arise by chance.

    Miller, in his famous experiment in 1953 showed that individual amino acids (the building blocks of life) could come into existence by chance. But, it’s not enough just to have amino acids. The various amino acids that make-up life must link together in a precise sequence, just like the letters in a sentence, to form functioning protein molecules. If they’re not in the right sequence the protein molecules won’t work. It has never been shown that various amino acids can bind together into a sequence by chance to form protein molecules. Even the simplest cell is made up of many millions of various protein molecules.

    What many don’t realize is that although oxygen is necessary for life’s processes, the presence of oxygen would prevent life from coming into being. This is because oxygen is destructive unless there are mechanisms already in place to control, direct, and regulate it, such as what we find in already existing forms of life.

    RNA and DNA are made up of molecules (nucleic acids) that must also exist in the right sequence. Furthermore, none of these sequential molecules, proteins, DNA, RNA, can function outside of a complete and living cell and all are mutually dependent on one another. One cannot come into existence without the other.

    Mathematicians have said any event in the universe with odds of 10 to 50th power or greater is impossible! The probability of just a single average size protein molecule arising by chance is 10 to the 65th power. The late great British scientist Sir Frederick Hoyle calculated that the odds of even the simplest cell coming into existence by chance is 10 to the 40,000th power! How large is this? Consider that the total number of atoms in our universe is 10 to the 82nd power.

    The cell could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.

    Alien beings, even if they do exist, could not have evolved. How could they have survived millions of years while the very biological structures, organs, and systems necessary for their survival were supposedly still evolving? Life, in any form (even a single-celled organism), must be complete, fully integrated, and fully-functioning from the very start to be fit for survival.

    Of course, once there is a complete and living cell then the code and mechanisms exist to direct the formation of more cells. The problem for evolutionists is how did the cell originate when there were no directing code and mechanisms in nature. Natural laws may explain how a cell or airplane works but mere undirected natural laws could not have brought about the existence of either.

    What about synthetic life? Scientists didn’t create life itself. What they’ve done is, by using intelligent design and sophisticated technology, scientists built DNA code from scratch and then they implanted that man-made DNA into an already existing living cell and alter that cell. That’s what synthetic life is.

    Through genetic engineering scientists have been able to produce new forms of life by altering already existing forms of life, but they have never created life from non-living matter. Even if they do, it won’t be by chance but by intelligent design. That doesn’t help the theory of evolution.

    What about natural selection? Natural selection doesn’t create or produce anything. It can only “select” from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value. If a variation occurs that helps a species survive, that survival is called ” natural selection.” It’s a passive process. There’s no conscious selection by nature, and natural selection only operates in nature once there is life and reproduction and not before, so it would not be of assistance to the origin of life.

    Science can’t prove we’re here by chance or design. Neither was observed. Both are positions of faith. The issue is which faith is best supported by science. Let the scientific arguments of both sides be presented.

    Read my popular Internet articles:



    Author of the popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

  6. Supernovae.
    Since proxima centauri is closest star, exoplanet found there is closest possible, not closest found yet.
    Evolution is real.

  7. Babu G. Ranganathan, may I recommend you read the research over at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the have an entire Ph.D. track specifically dedicated to answering these elemental questions you have about RNA, abiogenesis or the transition from non-living biochemical processes to biochemically oriented protein synthesis and the (now observed to be multiple) ways RNA can form, and even form lipid rich shielding structures, in various media.

    And all the experiments seem to indicate a level of self-organizing at the protien level so there would appear to be observational science on the bench which refutes the core arguments you’ve made here.

    You have a great day, and remember to enjoy learning and advancing the human understanding of our universe.

  8. How can a meanie acids breeds with the the cells if the potions are made of letters!? I conclude that these lipid power shields are nothing but ancient witchcraft from the futures beginning.

  9. “. . . current understanding of prebiotic chemistry argues against the emergence of meaningful amounts of RNA molecules even a tenth [the length required for abiogenesis]”

    18 May 2001: Vol. 292. no. 5520, pp. 1319 – 1325 DOI: 10.1126 / science 1060786,

    Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 30, 2020 at 4:01 pm | Reply

      That’s a rather old reference (though Whitehead is a cool place).

      Well, whether or not RNA was self replicating from the beginning or – more likely- hot/cold catalytic cycles in hydrothermal vent structures first replicated RNA as experiments have shown is possible – that wasn’t a problem. Phylogenetics show that the universal common ancestor cell lineage evolved from hydrothermal vents [ ].

  10. Torbjörn Larsson | June 30, 2020 at 3:48 pm | Reply

    The effect is mostly on productivity of a planet – planet tectonics and a long lived atmosphere promotes complex life, which may be why we are late to the game – not primarily on evolution of life as such.

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