Who’s Out There—Floaters Around the Gas Giants?3 min read

Were Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter right? In 1976 they suggested that the warm layers of Jupiter’s hydrogen/helium outer layers of gas could be home to huge living “…gas-filled balloons…”, sinkers, and hunters. Is there enough methan there to act as a carbon source? Isn’t it a bit windy up there? Where is life going to get a foothold . . .er . . . balloon hold to get started?

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where the atmosphere is at a comfortable room temperature, there is a pressure ten times higher than Earth’s at sea level, and the radiation is horrendous. The better news is that there are hydrocarbons beneath the ammonia clouds. However, there is so little water that any life would likely be based on something else.

Solvents are to be expected in order to allow the self-organization of huge molecules that can do the energetic reactions needed to power life, even the kind of simple life that started it all on Earth—the algae. (Recently, it has been discovered that we are built under the direction of ancient genes we inherited from the algae. Nature has a way of “not fixin’ what ain’t broke.”)

The problems with Jupiter are its horrendous forces. We’ve mentioned too much atmospheric pressure, radiation, and too little water. Add to that the fact that the planet is rotating at a nasty speed of 110 meters per second. It puts out hurricanes like the Great Red Spot, which is so large it could swallow several Earths. Its lovely zones and belts move in opposite directions, adding to its nasty history.

The planet’s history is simply implausible as a life startup, with its rapid transition from extreme cold in a vacuum to extreme heat in high pressure. It provided a habitat with no place to land and collect its hydrocarbon bits into something we could call life. Other chemical possibilities are not promising.

Considering other gas giants in our solar system—Saturn isn’t much better that Jupiter, but Neptune and Uranus offer a bit more hope with their larger concentration of methane (providing a nice blue look). Ammonia and water form a distinct smoggy layer, but the small quantities of water and oxygen are probably the game changers there.

Energy sources on all of our gas giants are available. They include solar radiation and heat at various altitudes, high pressure, and the kinetic energy of the high winds, which blow at higher speeds than our cyclones in the upper atmospheres.

There may be more hope for gas giants in other solar systems. We are finding out there “. . . chemical precursors for biomolecules. . . “ (See Cosmic Biology by Irwin and Schulz-Makuch. www.abebooks.com/book-search/title/cosmic-biology/free-shipping/page-1/) Also, there are comfortable temperatures and pressures formacromolecular biology , in addition to enough water to get life going.

Of course life may be nothing like the life we know, for many of the gas giants of exoplanets are very different from ours. Some are much larger or too close to their suns, but some may be closer to planets in habitable zones so that panspermia becomes an option. Meanwhile, it looks as if the more interesting possibilities for life could be out there and not on the gas giants here.


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Cary Neeper is an avid student of complexity theory, sustainability, steady-state economics, and the impact of cosmology on issues of science and religion. She grew up in the foothills of Hayward, California, where she helped rack dried fruit on her father’s 40-acre apricot ranch. After studying zoology/chemistry and religion at Pomona College and medical microbiology at the University of Wisconsin, she moved with her husband to northern New Mexico, where they raised their family. The Neepers still live in the Southwest with a friendly menagerie of dogs, fish, chickens, geese, ducks and a turkey called Little Bear. Cary plays string bass with local folk, symphony and jazz groups and tennis with local retired physicists. She paints landscapes in acrylics, including the cover art for her first Penscript title, The Webs of Varok. Cary's first novel and Webs of Varok prequel A Place Beyond Man was originally published in 1975 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, Dell, and Millington, London. Cary re-released A Place Beyond Man as an Author’s Guild Backinprint edition, now available from online booksellers. Its themes of sustainability and interspecies cooperation have now grown into new adventures for its human, elll and varok family as they travel the alternate 21st century Solar System in the five-volume Archives of Varok, coming from Penscript Publishing House in 2012–2014. Cary’s other works include two musical science fiction comedies “U.F.F.D.A.!” and “Petra and the Jay,” as well as newspaper and magazine articles, essays, short stories, and book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor.

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