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The outer solar system: Perspectives for exobiology

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The outer solar system contains many environments of interest for studies of the origin of life. Recent observations support the idea that Jupiter and Saturn have retained the mixture of elements originally present in the solar nebula. Subsequent low temperature chemistry has produced the expected array of simple molecules giving characteristic absorption bands in the spectra of these planets. Microwave and infrared observations show that the lower atmospheres are at temperatures above 300 K. Sources of energy for non-equilibrium chemistry seem available at least on Jupiter and the presence of an array of colored materials in the Jovian cloud belts has often been cited as evidence for the existence of complex abiogenic organic molecules. Further study of both planets in an exobiological context seems well worthwhile; potentially productive methods of investigation (including planned space missions) can be described and evaluated from this point of view. Uranus and Neptune are clearly deficient in light gases, but otherwise little is known with certainty about these distant planets. Again unusually high temperatures have been reported, but not above 273 K.

Pluto and many of the outer planet satellites appear to represent a class of small bodies very unlike our neighbors in the inner solar system. Titan, Saturn's largest satellite, is especially interesting for our purposes because of its atmosphere. Methane and hydrogen are both present, and Titan's unusually reddish color again suggests the presence of organic compounds. The hydrogen-methane ratio is likely to be more similar to that of a primitive reducing terrestrial atmosphere than the ratios for Jupiter and Saturn, suggesting that in some respects this satellite may provide an even better model for early organic synthesis on the Earth. The problem of Titan's heat balance and atmospheric composition are currently under active investigation.

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Owen, T. The outer solar system: Perspectives for exobiology. Origins Life Evol Biosphere 5, 41–55 (1974). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00927012

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  • Characteristic Absorption Band
  • Solar Nebula
  • Planet Satellite
  • Outer Planet
  • Large Satellite