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Looking for Life

March 28, 2017

The list of worlds in the solar system where life could exist keeps growing. Studies show that conditions could be right for microscopic life on Mars, some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and even in the clouds of Venus. And in recent months, one more world has been added to the list: Pluto.

When the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto in 2015, it found evidence of an ocean beneath an ice-filled basin. The ocean could cover an area as big as Texas, and be up to 50 miles deep. And it could be heavy enough to act as a gravitational counterweight to the moon Charon, which always stays on the opposite side of Pluto.

Recent studies suggest that the ocean could be kept liquid, slushy, or even syrupy by heat from radioactive elements deep inside Pluto, or by being mixed with ammonia.

According to William McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis, the ocean’s mixture of water, energy, and chemicals could be a good home for life. Not big life, like fish, or even relatively complex forms of microscopic life. Instead, it could be extremely simple organisms, much like the first life to appear on Earth.

So far, of course, talk about life on Pluto or any other world is just that — talk. We haven’t seen life of any kind beyond Earth. Right now, we really don’t have the technology to probe for life on any world other than perhaps Mars. But we can keep speculating — identifying places to begin looking for life elsewhere in the universe.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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