Habitable Epoch...


Artist's conception of GN-z11, the earliest known galaxy in the universe. Credit: Pablo Carlos Budassi Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Topics: Astrobiology, Evolution, Existentialism, Exoplanets

About 15 million years after the big bang, the entire universe had cooled to the point where the electromagnetic radiation left over from its hot beginning was at about room temperature. In a 2013 paper, I labeled this phase as the “habitable epoch of the early universe.” If we had lived at that time, we wouldn’t have needed the sun to keep us warm; that cosmic radiation background would have sufficed.

Did life start that early? Probably not. The hot, dense conditions in the first 20 minutes after the big bang produced only hydrogen and helium along with a tiny trace of lithium (one in 10 billion atoms) and a negligible abundance of heavier elements. But life as we know it requires water and organic compounds, whose existence had to wait until the first stars fused hydrogen and helium into oxygen and carbon in their interiors about 50 million years later. The initial bottleneck for life was not a suitable temperature, as it is today, but rather the production of the essential elements.

Given the limited initial supply of heavy elements, how early did life actually start? Most stars in the universe formed billions of years before the sun. Based on the cosmic star formation history, I showed in collaboration with Rafael Batista and David Sloan that life near sunlike stars most likely began over the most recent few billion years in cosmic history. In the future, however, it might continue to emerge on planets orbiting dwarf stars, like our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, which will endure hundreds of times longer than the sun. Ultimately, it would be desirable for humanity to relocate to a habitable planet around a dwarf star like Proxima Centauri b, where it could keep itself warm near a natural nuclear furnace for up to 10 trillion years into the future (stars are merely fusion reactors confined by gravity, with the benefit of being more stable and durable than the magnetically confined versions that we produce in our laboratories).

When Did Life First Emerge in the Universe? Avi Loeb, Scientific American

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