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Astrobiology. 2005 Aug;5(4):497-514.

Lithopanspermia in star-forming clusters.

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  • 1Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics, Physics Department; and Astronomy Department, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA.


This paper considers the lithopanspermia hypothesis in star-forming groups and clusters, where the chances of biological material spreading from one solar system to another is greatly enhanced (relative to action in the field) because of the close proximity of the systems and lower relative velocities. These effects more than compensate for the reduced time spent in such crowded environments. This paper uses approximately 300,000 Monte Carlo scattering calculations to determine the cross sections <sigma(cap)> for rocks to be captured by binaries and provides fitting formulae for other applications. We assess the odds of transfer as a function of the ejection speed v (eject) and number N(.) of members in the birth aggregate. The odds of any given ejected meteoroid being recaptured by another solar system are relatively low, about 1:10(3)-10(6) over the expected range of ejection speeds and cluster sizes. Because the number of ejected rocks (with mass m > 10 kg) per system can be large, N (R) approximately 10(16), virtually all solar systems are likely to share rocky ejecta with all of the other solar systems in their birth cluster. The number of ejected rocks that carry living microorganisms is much smaller and less certain, but we estimate that N (B) approximately 10(7) rocks can be ejected from a biologically active solar system. For typical birth environments, the capture of life-bearing rocks is expected to occur N (bio) asymptotically equal to 10-16,000 times (per cluster), depending on the ejection speeds. Only a small fraction (f (imp) approximately 10(4)) of the captured rocks impact the surfaces of terrestrial planets, so that N (lps) asymptotically equal to 10(3)-1.6 lithopanspermia events are expected per cluster (under favorable conditions). Finally, we discuss the question of internal versus external seeding of clusters and the possibility of Earth seeding young clusters over its biologically active lifetime.

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