Habitability: from stars to cells
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- Javaux, E.J. & Dehant, V. Astron Astrophys Rev (2010) 18: 383. doi:10.1007/s00159-010-0030-4
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To determine where to search for life in our solar system or in other extrasolar systems, the concept of habitability has been developed, based on the only sample we have of a biological planet—the Earth. Habitability can be defined as the set of the necessary conditions for an active life to exist, even if it does not exist. In astronomy, a habitable zone (HZ) is the zone defined around a sun/star, where the temperature conditions allow liquid water to exist on its surface. This habitability concept can be considered from different scientific perspectives and on different spatial and time scales. Characterizing habitability at these various scales requires interdisciplinary research. In this article, we have chosen to develop the geophysical, geological, and biological aspects and to insist on the need to integrate them, with a particular focus on our neighboring planets, Mars and Venus. Important geodynamic processes may affect the habitability conditions of a planet. The dynamic processes, e.g., internal dynamo, magnetic field, atmosphere, plate tectonics, mantle convection, volcanism, thermo-tectonic evolution, meteorite impacts, and erosion, modify the planetary surface, the possibility to have liquid water, the thermal state, the energy budget, and the availability of nutrients. They thus play a role in the persistence of life on a planet. Earth had a liquid water ocean and some continental crust in the Hadean between 4.4 and 4.0 Ga (Ga: billions years ago), and may have been habitable very early on. The origin of life is not understood yet; but the oldest putative traces of life are early Archean (~3.5 Ga). Studies of early Earth habitats documented in the rock record hosting fossil life traces provide information about possible habitats suitable for life beyond Earth. The extreme values of environmental conditions in which life thrives today can also be used to characterize the “envelope” of the existence of life and the range of potential extraterrestrial habitats. The requirement of nutrients by life for biosynthesis of cellular constituents and for growth, reproduction, transport, and motility may suggest that a dynamic and rocky planet with hydrothermal activity and formation of relief, liquid water alteration, erosion, and runoff is required to replenish nutrients and to sustain life (as we know it). The concept of habitability is very Earth-centric, as we have only one biological planet to study. However, life elsewhere would most probably be based on organic chemistry and leave traces of its past or recent presence and metabolism by modifying microscopically or macroscopically the physico-chemical characteristics of its environment. The extent to which these modifications occur will determine our ability to detect them in astrobiological exploration. Looking at major steps in the evolution of life may help determining the probability of detecting life (as we know it) beyond Earth and the technology needed to detect its traces, be they morphological, chemical, isotopic, or spectral.