Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Solar Flares May Have Helped Originate Organic Basis For Life On Earth

One of the major reasons that I became interested in solar flares was on account of their pervasive terrestrial effects, including: capacity to adversely affect navigation controls on aircraft, ability to erode much of the then ozone layer, release of high energy particles and x-rays to knock out satellites and ability to disrupt telecommunications.

Those research efforts paid off in exposing novel ways to score flare frequency as well as to forecast geo-effective events such as sudden ionospheric disturbances (SIDs).  My work also exposed new aspects of solar physics, specifically the conditions for solar flares to develop near magnetically complex solar active regions if the right morphology was present, e.g.


Now, new research has revealed that solar flares may not always have been the deleterious phenomena we behold, but actually sparked the first ingredients for Earth life. Researchers at NASA, according to a report in EOS: Earth & Space Science News (July 1), have discovered that when the Sun was about a half billion years old (it is 4.5 billion yrs now) large solar flares could have changed the chemistry of Earth's atmosphere.  These flares, btw, would have dwarfed even the largest flares on record today - including the one that knocked out the Ottawa power grid in 1989.

Specifically, the work --led  by Vladirmir  Airapetian- proposed that bombardment of Earth by high energy particles at the time might have triggered existing inorganic molecules to form organic ones (considered the precursors to life). One of the other molecules that could have formed at the time is a potent Greenhouse gas, methane (CH4).

The authors, based at NASA's Greenbelt, MD  Goddard Space Flight center, published their work in Nature Geoscience:   http://bit.ly/super-flares-life

also noting how the Earth could have been a warm and hospitable place given the Sun was significantly less luminous than today, in spite of the large solar flares 

If their findings are confirmed, it would help illuminate the long-  standing mystery of how the original spark set off the chain leading to organic molecules, as illustrated in the Miller-Urey experiment.

The Miller -Urey experiment basically applied an electrical discharge to a chemical brew resembling the Earth’s primitive reducing atmosphere. This brew included ammonia and methane, as well as hydrogen and water vapor. The effect of the discharge transformed the mix into a diverse yield of organic compounds. These included amino acids, as well as substances such as formic acid and urea that normally occur in living organisms.

The very fact so many organic compounds could arise is remarkable in itself, given the vast number of possible compounds that might have emerged. And while it is true that the discharge didn’t produce actual living cells, there is no reason – given enough time,- that a primitive pre-biotic cell in the distant past could not have emerged given the building blocks left behind.

Thus, if validated, the Airapetian et al solar flare ("super flare")  finding also affects how researchers assess the prospects for life on assorted exoplanets - especially those orbiting young, active stars.

No comments: