Earthlings may be extreme latecomers to a universe full of life, with alien microbes possibly teeming on exoplanets beginning just 15 million years after the Big Bang, new research suggests.
Traditionally, astrobiologists keen on solving the mystery of the origin of life in the universe look for planets in habitable zones around stars. Also known as Goldilocks zones, these regions are considered to be just the right distance away from stars for liquid water, a pre-requisite for life as we know it, to exist.
But even exoplanets that orbit far beyond the habitable zone may have been able to support life in the distant past, warmed by the relic radiation left over from the Big Bang that created the universe 13.8 billion years ago, says Harvard astrophysicist Abraham Loeb. [The Big Bang to Now in 10 Easy Steps]
For comparison, the earliest evidence of life on Earth dates from 3.8 billion years ago, about 700 million years after our planet formed.
'Warm summer day'
Just after the Big Bang, the cosmos was a much hotter place. It was filled with sizzling plasma — superheated gas — that gradually cooled. The first light produced by this plasma is the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) that we observe today, which dates from about 389,000 years after the Big Bang.
Now the CMB is freezing cold — around minus 454 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 270 degrees Celsius; 3 degrees Kelvin). It cooled down gradually with the expansion of the universe, and at some point during the cooling process, for a brief period of seven million years or so, the temperature was just right for life to form — between 31 and 211 degrees Fahrenheit (0 and 100 degrees Celsius; 273 and 373 degrees Kelvin).
It is the CMB's heat that would have allowed water to remain liquid on ancient exoplanets, Loeb said.
"When the universe was 15 million years old, the cosmic microwave background had a temperature of a warm summer day on Earth," he said. "If rocky planets existed at that epoch, then the CMB could have kept their surface warm even if they did not reside in the habitable zone around their parent star." [Gallery: Planck Spacecraft Sees Big Bang Relics]
But the question is whether planets — and especially rocky planets — could already have formed at that early epoch.
According to the standard cosmological model, the very first stars started to form out of hydrogen and helium tens of millions of years after the Big Bang. No heavy elements, which are necessary for planet formation, were around yet.
But Loeb says that rare "islands" packed with denser matter may have existed in the early universe, and massive, short-lived stars could have formed in them earlier than expected. Explosions of these stars could have seeded the cosmos with heavy elements, and the very first rocky planets would have been born.
These first planets would have been bathed in the warm CMB radiation, and thus, Loeb argues, it would have been possible for them to have liquid water on their surface for several million years.
Loeb says that one way to test his theory is by searching in our Milky Way galaxy for planets around stars with almost no heavy elements. Such stars would be the nearby analogues of the early planets in the nascent universe.