If you had to choose, which planetary system would you gauge most likely to house a life-bearing planet: Proxima Centauri or TRAPPIST-1? The question is a bit loaded given that there are seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, hence a much higher chance for success there than in a system that (so far) has produced evidence for only two worlds. But there are other factors having to do with the delivery of prebiotic materials by comet, which is the subject of a new paper from Richard Anslow (Cambridge Institute of Astronomy). “It’s possible that the molecules that led to life on Earth came from comets,’’ Anslow reminds us, “so the same could be true for planets elsewhere in the galaxy.”

So let’s untangle this a bit. We don’t know whether comets are vital to the origin of life on Earth or any other world, and Anslow (working with Cambridge colleagues Amy Bonsor and Paul B. Rimmer) does not argue that they are. What their paper does is to examine the environments most likely to be affected by cometary delivery of organics, which in turn could be useful as we begin to study exo-atmospheres for biosignatures. If we can narrow the kind of systems where cometary delivery is likely, that could explain future findings of life signs as opposed to systems without such mechanisms, ultimately supporting the comet delivery model.

Image: Comets contain elements such as water, ammonia, methanol and carbon dioxide that could have supplied the raw materials that upon impact on early Earth would have yielded an abundant supply of energy to produce amino acids and jump start life. Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.

The idea of delivering life-promoting materials by impacts is hardly new. We’ve learned from asteroid return samples like those from Ryugu and now Bennu that the inventory of prebiotic molecules is rich. We’ve also found intact amino acids in meteorite samples, showing the survival of these materials from their entry into the atmosphere. The authors point out that comets contain what they call ‘prebiotic feedstock molecules’ like hydrogen cyanide (HCN) along with basic amino acids, and some studies suggest that by way of comparison with asteroids, comets have delivered two orders of magnitude more organic materials than meteorites because of their high carbon content. But survival is the key, and that involves impact velocity upon arrival.

HCN is particularly useful to consider because its strong carbon-nitrogen bonds may make it more likely to survive the high temperatures of atmospheric entry. What Anslow and team call the ‘warm comet pond’ scenario demands a relatively soft landing. This is interesting, so let me quote the paper on it. A ‘soft landing’:

…excavates the impact point and forms a dirty pond from the cometary components. Climatic variations are thought to cause the episodic drying of these ponds, promoting the rapid polymerisation of constituent prebiotic molecules. It is thought this wet-dry cycling will effectively drive the required biogeochemical reactions crucial for RNA production on the early-Earth, and therefore play an important role in the initial emergence of life… Relatively high concentrations of prebiotic molecules are required for there to be sufficient polymerisation, and so this scenario still requires low-velocity impacts. Specific prebiotic molecules are more (or less) susceptible to thermal decomposition by virtue of their molecular structure, and so the inventory of molecules that can be effectively delivered to a planet is very sensitive to impact velocity.

The question that emerges, once we’ve examined the delivery of molecules like HCN, is what kind of stellar system is most likely to benefit from a cometary delivery mechanism? To address this, the authors construct an idealized planetary system with planets of equal mass that are equally spaced to study the minimum impact velocity that can emerge on the innermost habitable planet. They then use N-body simulations to model the necessary interactions between comets and planets in terms of their position and velocity through time. The snowline marks the boundary between rocky and volatile-rich materials in the disk, as below:

Image: This is Figure 1 from the paper. Caption: Schematic diagram of the idealised planetary system considered in this work with equally spaced planets (brown circles, semi-major axis ai ) scattering comets (small dark blue circles) from the snow-line. The blue region represents the volatile-rich region of the disc where comets occur, and the green region represents the habitable zone. Low velocity cometary impacts onto habitable planets will follow the lower arrows, which sketch the dynamically cold scattering between adjacent planets. The dynamically hot scattering as shown by the upper arrows, will result in high velocity impacts.

That equal spacing of planets is interesting. The authors call it a ‘peas in a pod’ system and note what other astronomers have observed, that “…individual exoplanet systems have much smaller dispersion in mass, radius, and orbital period in comparison to the system-to-system variation of the exoplanet population as a whole.” And indeed, tightly packed systems with equal and low-mass planets have been shown to be highly efficient at scattering comets into the inner system and hence into the habitable zone. Giant outer planets, it’s worth noting, may form in these tight systems, their effects helping to scatter comets inward, but they are not assumed in the author’s model.

The impactor’s size and velocity tell the tale. What we’d like to see is a minimum impact velocity below 15 kilometers per second to ensure the survival of the interesting prebiotic molecules like HCN. The simulations show that the impact velocity around stars like the Sun is reduced for lower mass planets, the effect being enhanced if there are planets in nearby orbits. Impact velocities drop even more for planets around low mass stars in tightly-packed systems (here again, think TRAPPIST-1), for here the comets tend to be delivered on low eccentricity orbits, a significant factor because impact speeds around low-mass stars are typically high. From the paper:

…the results of our N-body simulations demonstrate that the overall velocity distribution of impactors onto habitable planets is very sensitive to both the stellar-mass and planetary architecture, with the fraction of low-velocity impacts increasing significantly for planets around Solar-mass stars, and in tightly-packed systems. It will be these populations of exoplanets where cometary delivery of prebiotic molecules is most likely to be successful, with significant implications for the resulting prebiotic inventories due to the exponential decrease in survivability with impact velocity.

We learn from all this that we have to be attuned to the mass of the host star and the nature of planetary distribution there to be able to predict whether or not comets can effectively deliver prebiotic materials to worlds in the habitable zone. If this seems purely theoretical, consider that telescope time on future missions to study exoplanet atmospheres will be a precious commodity, and these factors may emerge as an important filter for observation. But we’ll also find out whether the correlations the authors have uncovered re lower mass, tightly packed planets are demonstrated in the presence of the biosignatures we are looking for. That may tell us whether comets are a significant factor for life’s emergence on distant worlds as well as our own.

The paper is Anslow, Bonsor & Rimmer. “Can comets deliver prebiotic molecules to rocky exoplanets?” Proceedings of the Royal Society A (2023). Full text. Thanks to my friend Antonio Tavani for the pointer to this work.