Stormy Alien Atmospheres May Spark Seeds of Life

Exoplanets Life Atmospheres Formation

As our catalog of discoveries of planets orbiting other stars spiral well over 1,000 confirmed exoplanets, the question of their life-giving qualities becomes more and more intriguing. Although astronomers are primarily hunting down Earth-sized worlds orbiting their stars in Earth-like orbits, other factors influence whether or not a given extrasolar planet has the “right stuff” for life to thrive.

GALLERY: Top Exoplanets for Alien Life

In research presented at the Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London on Friday, astronomers discussed the dusty, stormy atmospheres of exoplanets and brown dwarfs and how they could be hothouses for the formation of prebiotic molecules. These are organic molecules that are known to form the building blocks for life as we know it.

“The atmospheres around exoplanets and brown dwarfs form exotic clouds that, instead of being composed of water droplets, are made of dust particles made of minerals,” said astronomer Craig Stark, of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

The idea is that lightning storms generate copious amounts of highly charged ions and electrons, which then get stuck to dust particles, using them as miniature prebiotic chemistry factories. Of particular interest is the formation of formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide and the amino acid glycine, all of which underpin Earth’s biosphere.

“These charged gases are called plasmas — like those found in fluorescent lights and plasma televisions,” said Stark ( via ).

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