If there were a massive solar storm that was going to strike Earth today, we'd have some major problems. Our technology would be wiped out and we'd probably have to rebuild everything. Luckily for us, it isn't probably that this will happen anytime soon. However, four billion years ago, it was a common occurrence. All of those storms that could take our lives away may be the things that kickstarted us way back when.
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This is the conclusion that has startled researchers. Published in Nature Geoscience, it builds on the discovery that young, sun-like stars may have had input into the formation of earth. Baby suns give out energy during "solar superflares" that are pretty violent and powerful.
NASA's Vladimir Airapetian has shown that if our sun was as active some 4 billion years ago, it could be that power that made Earth habitable. According to his models, as the solar superflares from the sun pounded our atmosphere, the started the chemical reactions that brought on greenhouse gases and other essential parts of human life.
“The Earth should have been in a deep freeze four billion years ago,” Airapetian said, referring to the “faint young sun paradox” first raised by Carl Sagan and George Mullen in 1972. The paradox came about when Sagan and Mullen realized that Earth had signs of liquid water as early as 4 billion years ago, while the sun was only 70 percent as bright as it is today. “The only way [to explain this] is to somehow incorporate a greenhouse effect,” Airapetian said.
The new study also solves another problem about how the first biological molecules, including proteins, DNA, and RNA, scavenged through nitrogen in order to form. Ancient Earth's atmosphere was composed of inert nitrogen gas (N2). Now specialized bacteria called "nitrogen fixers" can break N2 into ammonia, but that was possible with early biology.
This new study says that the solution to these problems comes from space weather. Airapetia discovered the stars like our sun are extremely explosive in their youth and then calm down as they age.
“It is a crazy amount of energy. I can hardly comprehend it myself,” Ramses Ramirez—an astrobiologist at Cornell University who was not involved with the study but collaborates with Airapetian—said to Gizmodo.
It occurred to Airapetian that he could use this to look at our early solar system. He calculated that around 4 billion year ago, our sun probably had dozens of superflares every day, with one or more grazing Earth's magnetic field per 24 hours. “Basically, the Earth was under constant attack from super Carrington-sized events,” he said.
He used models to show that there are solar superflares that are strong enough to compress Earth's magnetosphere, which encircles the planet. They would also be able to bust a hole into that magnetosphere near the poles, entering the atmosphere and colliding with carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen.
“So now you have these particles interacting with molecules in the atmosphere and creating new molecules—like a chain reaction,” Airapetian said.
All of these together form the building blocks of life.
“People have looked at lightning and falling meteorites as ways to initiate nitrogen chemistry,” Ramirez said. “I think the coolest thing about this paper is that nobody had really thought about looking at solar storms.”
It is still up for debate to see if this is really what was needed to jumpstart life and the investigation is already underway in Tokyo and elsewhere.
“Ultimately, this will inform us whether the energy from a star is available in a way that can create the chemistry to create biomolecules,” Airapetian said. “Without that, it would be a miracle to have life.”