Why Destroyed Planets Could Be Promising Habitats for Alien Life

A new study has found that cosmic impacts could make planets and moons more porous than previously thought, potentially boosting their ability to host life.

The pockmarked surface of our Moon is a testament to how often cosmic impacts hit the planets, moons and other large bodies of the solar system. The cracks and pores resulting from such impacts could theoretically contain water and potentially even microbial life.

In 2012, NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft discovered that the Moon’s crust is much less dense, and therefore more porous, than previously thought. The mission found that the uppermost 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of the lunar rock crust is about 12% empty space, and down to about 12 miles (20 km) deep, the lunar crust still has about 4% porosity.

Related: GRAIL: NASA Mission to Study the Moon’s Gravity

It is difficult for scientists to explain this deep porosity. Most current models of the Moon can only explain the high porosity near the lunar surface or inside large craters.

In the new study, the researchers developed computer simulations of how cosmic impacts can erode and create porosity in the lunar and Martian crusts, as well as in the Earth’s crust. They found that giant collisions can have serious consequences for the surfaces and structures of these bodies, even very far from the point of impact and deep in planets or moons.

New results help unravel the mystery of lunar porosity discovered by GRAIL.

“This is the first work that actually shows that large impacts can crack the Moon’s crust and create this porosity,” said study co-author Brandon Johnson, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in Indiana. (will open in a new tab).

“Our simulations show impacts that produce from 100 to 1,000 kilometers. [60 to 660 miles] Large-scale basins alone are capable of creating all the observed porosity in the lunar crust, ”says the abstract of the new study, which you can find on the same site as the above statement. “Simulations under the higher surface gravity of Mars and Earth suggest the formation of impact basins may be a major source of porosity and fracture in ancient planetary crusts.”

The researchers say that by understanding where and why planets and moons split apart, scientists can better understand where to best look for life on distant worlds.

“This research has implications for the early Earth and for Mars,” study lead author Sean Wiggins, a Purdue research associate, said in the same statement.

“If life existed then, there would be periodic strong impacts that would sterilize the planet and evaporate the oceans,” Wiggins added. “But if you had life that could survive in pores and gaps a few hundred feet or even a few miles deep, it could survive. They could provide these shelters where life could hide from these kinds of blows.”

The scientists spoke in detail about their findings (will open in a new tab) online Aug. 16 in the journal Nature Communications.

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