December 8, 2023

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The oldest continents in the Milky Way may be older than Earth

The oldest continents in the Milky Way may be older than Earth

This artist’s rendering shows the possible appearance of planet HD 219134b, the closest confirmed rocky exoplanet yet found outside our solar system.

Image: NASA

A new study by Cardiff University in the United Kingdom suggests that the oldest continents in our galaxy may have formed 5 billion years before the Earth. Scientists say this would expand the possibilities for other forms of life to exist.

Astrobiologists believe that a planet needs certain properties to support life: oxygen in its atmosphere, something to protect organisms from dangerous radiation, and liquid water. Although large land masses are not absolutely necessary for living things to arise, Earth’s history shows that they are important for life to flourish and exist for long periods of time. So, if an exoplanet had continents before Earth, it means there could be older, more advanced life on that world.

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Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University in the UK, used levels of elements such as uranium-238 and potassium found in nearby stars, as well as measurements made using the Gaia satellite, to discover that the first continents formed around nearby stars. Sun-like stars up to 2 billion years before plate tectonics began.

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More specifically, the oldest continents of a nearby star are located around an exoplanet called HD 4614, about 20 light-years from Earth. However, Earth’s beginning time is average relative to our cosmic neighborhood.

However, the two-star planets stand out from the rest: HD 76932 and HD 201891, located between 70 and 110 light-years from Earth in a region known as the “thick disk.” There, according to scientists, continents could have appeared 5 billion years before ours. “There could be two systems in this sample with biospheres more advanced than here on Earth,” Greaves wrote, based on his sample of just 29 stars and astronomers’ current best estimates of the planet’s likelihood of being habitable.

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Identifying interesting, potentially habitable planets, like those identified by Greaves, is crucial preparation for NASA’s future Observatory of Habitable Worlds, which astronomers will use to monitor Earth-like planets (and, hopefully, signs of life) in the 2040s.

Greaves hopes that future work will analyze more stars to determine whether they are likely to have planets with tectonic plates, which, he wrote, “could help reveal more ancient systems where life on Earth could have predated that on Earth.” “.

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