Study on aqueous solutions reveals potential of extraterrestrial life

Photo of Europa
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI/Courtesy
The findings show the lowest temperature at which salty water can remain liquid at high pressures, and have potential applications for searching for extraterrestrial life.

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Researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Washington developed a method to determine the likelihood of extraterrestrial life on icy planets and moons.

The study was conducted by the Rubinsky BioThermal Lab and published in the Cell Reports Physical Science journal April 12, and focused on measuring the properties of salty water on these planets and the moon. The findings show the lowest temperature at which salty water can remain liquid at high pressures, according to Brooke Chang, co-author on the paper and a campus senior.

“These conditions determine if an icy planet can support life within its deep oceans,” Chang said in an email.

According to Matthew Powell-Palm, study co-author and campus postdoctoral scholar in the mechanical engineering department, the study measured a fundamental part of aqueous solutions known as the eutectic temperature.

Powell-Palm added that in binary solutions of water, the eutectic temperature determines the lowest temperature at which the liquid can remain thermodynamically stable, or in its lowest energy state.

Powell-Palm said one of the most surprising parts of the study was measuring fundamental aspects of a material that had never been measured previously. He noted many of the entities they studied had never been measured at pressures higher than atmospheric.

“We had the increasingly rare opportunity to measure fundamental aspects of a material that had never been measured previously, which was very exciting to us,” Powell-Palm said. “Finding untouched parameter spaces like this is relatively uncommon.”

According to Chang, because it was the first study she had done at the Rubinsky BioThermal Lab, she was “constantly learning” through the whole process.

Chang noted the study’s findings were consistent with her previous understanding of the subject, but the study took a different approach. She added that this perspective allowed the team to probe new aspects of the relevant systems.

According to Powell-Palm, the study took three months to complete, which he noted was an unusually short amount of time for scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals.

He cited the team’s unique background knowledge as the reason they were able to complete it in such a short period of time.

“This whole process was enabled by our incredible undergraduate researcher Brooke Chang, who is punching way above her level scientifically,” Powell-Palm said. “It would have been impossible without her acute dedication over the summer.”

According to Powell-Palm, the actual process was “unbelievably simple.” He added that the team used low-tech equipment to achieve high scientific goals.

Powell-Palm said the findings are important because they can be used by other scientists to calculate the eutectic temperatures for different solutions the team did not look at.

“The most pressing application is in the search for life amongst the stars,” said Powell-Palm. “Humans have been fascinated for millennia about this notion of extraterrestrial life.”

Contact Anna Armstrong at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @annavarmstrongg.