According to a new study, the key to finding life on other planets may be in the dust. In order to determine whether or not a planet could harbor life, scientists looked at several key variables such as its temperature as well as what it is composed of. But apparently dust is a very important factor that scientists have previously overlooked.
Researchers from the University of Exeter in the U.K., the Met Office (the U.K.'s national weather service), and the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, suggested that planets with a large amount of mineral dust in the air may indicate that life could possibly be present.
The team studied M-dwarf planets which are exoplanets that orbit in close proximity to cooler stars that are smaller than our own sun. When they orbit, they normally only have one side of the planet facing their host star at all times. This causes one side of the planet to be in permanent daylight and the dark side being continuous night time. By conducting several simulations of terrestrial planets with airborne mineral dust, they noticed that the dust would actually help to cool down the hot day side and aid in warming up the cooler night side.
Ian Boutle, who is from the Met Office and the University of Exeter as well as the lead author of the study (which can be read here), said in a statement, “On Earth and Mars, dust storms have both cooling and warming effects on the surface, with the cooling effect typically winning out.” He went on to explain, “But these ‘synchronized orbit’ planets are very different. Here, the dark sides of these planets are in perpetual night, and the warming effect wins out, whereas on the day side, the cooling effect wins out. The effect is to moderate the temperature extremes, thus making the planet more habitable.”
Manoj Joshi, who is a professor at the University of East Anglia as well as one of the co-authors of the study, explained that while dust could be a very important factor in finding life on other planets, it also causes problems for scientists to actually determine whether or not life is present there, “Airborne dust is something that might keep planets habitable, but also obscures our ability to find signs of life on these planets. These effects need to be considered in future research.”
Since dust is a key factor here on Earth and on Mars, it could very well be the secret ingredient that allows distant planets to harbor life. Now let’s find that alien life!