— Professor Martha Minow, Former Dean of Harvard Law School

If red dwarf planets near us are shown to be devoid of life, we may eventually learn that life is rarer than we thought. But I return to my earlier sentiment — at heart, our goal in studying the universe isn’t to find life, but rather to find what is out there. If we were to learn that life is vanishingly rare, that would be a finding of immense significance for our stewardship of our own planet, teaching us how unusual it may in fact be. In any case, while we all have ideas about what we hope to find, the universe will surely keep forcing us to adjust our expectations.

I’m going to drop back to an earlier Lock and Stewart paper for an illustration here.

The paper is MacGregor et al., “Detection of a Millimeter Flare From Proxima Centauri,” accepted at Astrophysical Journal Letters (). The paper on dust belts is Anglada et al., “ALMA Discovery of Dust Belts Around Proxima Centauri,” accepted at Astrophysical Journal Letters ().

The 2018 paper describes a synestia as:

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Under the synestia model, Earth and Moon emerge from the same cloud of vaporized rock, explaining the isotopic similarity. In this scenario, a planetary satellite forms inside the planet it will orbit. Lock and Stewart explain the Moon’s lack of volatile elements by the same formation story, with the forming Moon surrounded by high-temperature material from the synestia. The paper adds:

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With New Horizons in hibernation as it pushes on toward MU69, it’s worth remembering how recently our knowledge of the Kuiper Belt has developed. Gerard Kuiper did not predict the belt’s existence, though he did believe that small planets or comets should have formed in the region beyond the orbit of Neptune (he also thought they would have been cleared by gravitational interactions long ago). And I always like to mention Kenneth Edgeworth’s work in a 1943 issue of the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, discussing the likelihood of small objects in the region. We could easily be calling the area the Edgeworth/Kuiper Belt, as I occasionally do in these pages.

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At the floor of the Enceladus ocean, temperatures above 0 degrees Celsius are likely to exist in a region abundant in rock and minerals. Enough molecular hydrogen could be produced by reactions involving the mineral olivine to sustain these lifeforms. The process is called serpentinization, involving interactions between seawater and rocks in the moon’s mantle that can also produce methane (CH4) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S). The experimental work shows that serpentinization reactions can support a rate of molecular hydrogen production high enough to sustain this kind of organism. As the paper notes:

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Which takes me back to the Voyager days. It wasn’t until 1992 that astronomers discovered 15760 Albion, the first trans-Neptunian object detected after Pluto and Charon. Back in 1980, when controllers were deciding on adjustments to the trajectory of Voyager 1, Pluto was an option, as New Horizons PI Alan Stern has . The spacecraft could have reached Pluto in the spring of 1986, not long after Voyager 2’s flyby of Uranus in January of that year. That spectacular double-header was ruled out when the Voyager team chose to study Titan instead.

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The choice to proceed with the Titan close pass occurred at a time when we simply didn’t have any information about the extent of what would soon be called the Kuiper Belt, or realize that Pluto itself could be considered a Kuiper Belt object. Interestingly, Pluto was almost exactly the same distance from the Sun in 1986 as Neptune was when Voyager 2 flew by it in 1989. Had it been sent Pluto’s way, Voyager 1’s encounter would probably have been a success.