Never mind the atmosphere: Scientists look for oceans in search of alien life

Determining if a newly discovered planet has an ocean is vital to establishing whether it could develop and sustain life, according to research announced today.

Traditionally scientists have relied on the presence of an atmosphere as the central focus of computer simulations to determine if a planet is hospitable to life.

However, researchers from the UK’s University of East Anglia (UEA) have determined that the presence of an ocean is a better focus for computer models.

They have developed a simulation based on this information that provides far more accurate information about a planet’s life-sustaining possibilities that previous approaches, giving humanity a better idea of possible sources of life outside of Earth than we have ever had before.

“This new model will help us to understand what the climates of other planets might be like with more accurate detail than ever before,” explained Professor David Stevens, of UEA’s school of Mathematics.


Oceans are so important because of their impact on the way heat is transported.

“Oceans have an immense capacity to control climate,” said Stevens. ”They are beneficial because they cause the surface temperature to respond very slowly to seasonal changes in solar heating.

“And they help ensure that temperature swings across a planet are kept to tolerable levels.”

The team discovered this importance by creating a computer simulation of a fictional Earth-like planet, and considering how factoring in oceans affected the results.

“We found that heat transported by oceans would have a major impact on the temperature distribution across a planet, and would potentially allow a greater area of a planet to be habitable,” explained Stevens.


Previously research has relied on the fabled Goldilocks Zone – the pocket of distance away from the sun where life can flourish due to the ability for a planet to have liquid water.

“We know that many planets are completely uninhabitable because they are either too close or too far from their sun,” said Stevens. “But until now, most habitability models have neglected the impact of oceans on climate.”

The importance of oceans can be seen in our neighbour Mars, which is the right distance from the sun but shows no signs of life.

“Mars for example is in the sun’s habitable zone, but it has no oceans – causing air temperatures to swing over a range of 100°C,” said Stevens.

“Oceans help to make a planet’s climate more stable so factoring them into climate models is vital for knowing whether the planet could develop and sustain life.”

Scientists reveal plans for largest dark matter detector in the world

While the idea of dark matter has long fascinated scientists and amateur astronomers alike, no one has ever come close to understanding it, much less detecting and containing it. However, an international physics collaboration has planned an experiment to change that.

The second generation Large Underground Xenon experiment, called the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ), is being led by University of California, Santa Barbara physicists.

The team will construct the largest dark matter detector in the world at a site a below ground in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Since it was first hypothesized in 1932, dark matter has eluded characterisation. It makes up most of the matter in the universe, is void of light and affects the gravity of galaxies, but beyond that little else is known.


Scientists have theorized that dark matter is comprised of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPS). To detect dark matter, scientists will focus on finding WIMPS.

The LZ detector will contain seven tonnes of active liquid xenon, a chemical element naturally occurring in small amounts in Earth’s atmosphere.

When WIMPS collide with xenon atoms, they produce photons (light) and electrons, and these signals are precisely mapped by measuring their brightness.

However, these WIMP collisions do not happen frequently. Scientists hope that with this new, highly sensitive technology they will be able to record up to five events in three years.

“Our dream would be after about a year’s worth of data that there would be a signal of dark matter,” said UC Santa Barbara physics professor Harry Nelson, the leader of the LZ collaboration. “That’s how rare a dark matter event is.”


The assembly of the detector is no easy task, either. In addition to the liquid xenon, the outer part will contain 27 tonnes of scintillator liquid, a type of oil that becomes illuminated in the presence of neutrons and gamma rays. The detector will then be contained within a tank of water.

The experiment must be conducted deep underground to keep the detectors from exposure to cosmic rays, but radiation from the decay of elements in the detectors’ surroundings can still affect the accuracy of the results. The LZ detector will be equipped with extra layers of particle detection outside the liquid xenon to ensure reliability.

The LZ project will be funded by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. Equipment building could begin in 2015, based on when the funding becomes available, with experiment operations beginning in 2018.

Perhaps by LZ’s conclusion, scientists will have shed some light on the seemingly unsolvable mystery of dark matter.

First body image courtesy of Matthew Kapust, Sanford Lab, second body image courtesy of the UC Santa Barbara Current.