Is there life on Pluto?

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Pluto, the controversial dwarf planet of our solar system, is a strange world. It’s far, small and cold. Yet nothing, it seems, is too extreme to harbor life in the Universe.

Recent discoveries announced by NASA suggests that the frozen “heart” of Pluto would house a gigantic underground ocean. Thousands of these dwarf planets in deep space could also contain this type of exotic ocean. But concretely, could they shelter life?

Pluto would hide in its heart a vast liquid ocean. If you could suck up all the contents of this ocean, you could model a sphere about 1,200 km wide that would encompass about 75% of the entire liquid water reservoir of the Earth according to data collected and then transmitted by the probe New Horizon in 2016 published in the journal Nature.

But the question today is to know what this “ocean” is made of. And could it support an extraterrestrial life?

NASA astrobiologist and geophysicist Steven Vance then explained that the Pluto ocean probably contained alcohols (methanol, ethanol), hydrocarbons (methane, ethane) and more complex molecules made from carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, which are in abundance on the dwarf planet.

These compounds could serve as a basis for the development of life, but according to another study, still in the journal Nature, the largest moon of Pluto, Charon, would house a huge amount of ammonia, a compound found in bottles of glass cleaner. William McKinnon, lead author of this study, suggests then that Pluto could also shelter a huge amount of it.

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According to the researcher, the presence of ammonia precludes the idea of being able to detect a life form on Pluto similar to that found on Earth. “You do not have room for germs on Pluto, much less for fish or any other life as we know it here on Earth,” he says. “But, as with the methane seas on Titan, Saturn’s main moon, this study raises the question of whether new life forms could exist in these cold, exotic liquids.”

“Life can tolerate many things,” says the researcher. “It can tolerate a lot of salt, extreme cold, extreme heat, and so on. But I do not think it can tolerate such a large amount of ammonia. If we were to imagine life in an ocean entirely covered with a layer of ice, the best we could hope for would be a kind of very primitive life, perhaps even precellular,” he explained.

There are millions of worlds like Pluto in the Universe. Dwarf planets could, in theory, harbor extraterrestrial life forms, even precellular ones. Yes, there could theoretically be life on Pluto. But the proof to it is yet to be found.

The answer is thus: we do not know… at least not yet.

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Carl Frantz

Polyglot, humanitarian, Carl was born in Germany but raised in the USA. He writes mostly on tech, science and culture.