Super Earth gravity may prevent aliens from exploring space (research)

1
1672
Super Earth gravity may prevent aliens from exploring space (research)
Super Earth gravity may prevent aliens from exploring space (research)
Super Earth gravity may prevent aliens from exploring space (research)
Super Earth gravity may prevent aliens from exploring space (research)

Super Earth aliens may be trapped by gravity? As astronomers look out across unfathomable distances and observe other solar systems, they often see so-called “super-Earths.” These worlds are rocky like Earth, but they can be several times more massive. They might also be our best hope of finding life outside our solar system. We’ll have to go to them, though. A new analysis of these exoplanets suggests any intelligent beings on these worlds might be stuck there due to the massive gravity on a super-Earth.

There are no super-Earths in our solar system, so scientists are forced to speculate about the actual conditions on such worlds. The consensus is that super-Earths would make a suitable home for life because their greater mass would encourage the retention of a thick atmosphere. That’s essential for protecting life from harsh radiation. Any life that developed there would, however, find chemical propulsion insufficient to break the bonds of gravity.

A super-Earth can have a mass as much as ten times that of Earth, and the corresponding 10x increase in gravity would make it hugely difficult to reach orbit, according to study author Michael Hippke of the Sonneberg Observatory in Germany. Launching a large payload like the upcoming James Webb Telescope on a Falcon Heavy-like rocket would require 60,000 tons (120 million pounds or 54 million kilograms) of fuel, significantly more than we need here on Earth. A larger Apollo-style mission would end up with a total mass of 440,000 tons because of fuel requirements. The Saturn V itself only weighed 3,270 tons.

Hippke suggests an alien race evolving on a super-Earth would be unable to reach space unless it became much more advanced or reckless than we are. In the “advanced” category, a space elevator could facilitate more efficient transport to space. A super-Earth species might begin with a tiny payload dragging a cable and progressively build up an orbital facility. However, this would require incredibly strong materials because of the high gravity, and even the best theoretical designs we have (based on carbon nanotubes) wouldn’t cut it.

If an alien species were sufficiently reckless, it could skip chemical propulsion entirely and use nuclear pulse engines. This form of propulsion detonates small atomic bombs to catapult the craft forward. The lifting power would be vastly higher and may be the only way for a civilization on a ten-Earth-mass planet to leave it. However, the risk of failure is significant (Hippke estimates 1 percent). A failed atomic rocket launch would be no different than nuking your own spaceport.

Perhaps, humanity is lucky to live on a small planet like Earth. Reaching orbit is still plenty challenging, but we might have an unusually good view of the universe if super-Earths are as numerous as it seems.

1 COMMENT

  1. First of all are we right in assuming the astrophysicists are relating mass in terms of volume to these planets, rather than density, because otherwise the increased “g” force could result in a crushing atmospheric pressure, depending on what those mass densities are.
    So assuming that is what they refer to, there is just one other factor to consider, that of increased population size, due to probable increased land mass & area. As we know from experience here on Earth, increased population size usually facilitates exponentially higher technological progress & evolution than for smaller populations of similar intelligence & evolutionary potential. So is it safe to assume that if there were intelligent life on some of these planets, then chances are at least some of them are going to be vastly much more evolved than we are. If such an alien race were to exist, then wouldn’t this facilitate a much higher probability that they would find some way to overcome the much higher overall gravity & thus higher “escape velocity” that exists there (increased overall gravity does not necessarily mean an increase in the “g force” at a planets surface).

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.