A team of researchers just used the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) to discover a low-mass alien planet — also known as an “exoplanet” — orbiting the red dwarf star Ross 128. Notably, this planet has a mass that is similar to Earth’s.
In fact, it’s thought that the planet, formally known as Ross 128 b, could be similar to Earth in terms of both its size and surface temperature. And it is just 11 light-years from our solar system, making it the second-closest temperate planet to ever be detected. Ultimately, the little world comes in just after Proxima b.
“This discovery is based on more than a decade of HARPS intensive monitoring together with state-of-the-art data reduction and analysis techniques,” said Nicola Astudillo-Defru of the University of Geneva, who co-authored the paper outlining the exoplanet’s discovery, in a press release. “Only HARPS has demonstrated such a precision, and it remains the best planet hunter of its kind, 15 years after it began operations.”
The team behind the work notes that, while most red dwarf stars experience extreme solar flares — flares that bathe their planets in deadly radiation — Ross 128 is a “quiet star.” As a result, its planets are thought to be the closest comfortable locations for any possible alien life. Thus, the discovery of an Earth-mass world orbiting the star is significant.
“Proxima Centauri is particularly active, with frequent, powerful flares that may sterilize (if not stripped out) its atmosphere,” lead author Xavier Bonfils of Institut de Planétologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble told Futurism via email. “Ross 128 is one of the quietest stars of our sample, and although it is a little further away from us, it makes for an excellent alternative target.”
The orbit of Ross 128 b is 20 times more proximal (20 times closer) than the distance between the Earth and the Sun – but the planet receives only 1.38 times more irradiation, which keeps its equilibrium temperature between -60°C and 20°C (-76°F and 68°F). But while scientists do believe that it is, in fact, a temperate planet, there’s still no confirmation that it lies within the habitable zone, which is the zone surrounding a star in which liquid water is able to exist.
“Ten years from now, we will be capable, thanks to giant telescopes, to directly ‘see’ the planet and characterize its atmosphere,” Astudillo-Defru told Futurism via email. “In the meantime, we need to better constrain theoretical models to elucidate if liquid water can be found on Ross 128 b’s surface.”
As was previously noted, Ross 128 is currently 11 light-years from Earth, but it’s moving toward us and, as a result, it will one day be our nearest stellar neighbor…not for 79,000 years, but in cosmic terms, that is just the blink of an eye.
Red dwarf stars have proven very fruitful, as of late, for astronomers who are hunting for Earth-like exoplanets. In June, one was discovered in the orbit of GJ 625, around 21 light-years away, and in August, an exoplanet was spotted in a system that’s just 16 light-years away.
Ross 128 itself could even yield more Earth-like exoplanets. “It is common that stars harbor more than a single planet,” Astudillo-Defru told Futurism. “For now, we will continue to monitor the star to search for evidence of additional companions.”
Today’s technology is giving scientists a greater capacity to study these worlds, and even more advanced systems are just on the horizon.
“We have many instruments coming online to boost the search for planets around similar stars, notably SPIRou at the Canada-France-Hawai-Telescope and NIRPS to complement HARPS at the 3.6m telescope in La Silla,” Bonfils told Futurism.
“These two instruments will transpose to the infrared the precision of HARPS in the visible. Small stars like Ross 128 emit most of their light in the infrared, so infrared HARPS promise much more discoveries,” he added.
As for Ross 128 b, Bonfils told Futurism one forthcoming telescope in particular should prove useful for further study.
“To characterize the planet, we’ll have to wait for the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope around 2025,” said Bonfils. “Then, we shall be able to see the planet and search for an atmosphere.”
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A Three-Dimensional Approach
Living conditions in space can be treacherous. Consequently it’s equally difficult to spot potentially-habitable exoplanets. That’s not to say that the search has been futile, however, as NASA and other astronomers have found a good number of possible earth-like exoplanets in the past decade or so — thanks, in large part, to the two Kepler missions. To make things easier, a team of astronomers have devised a new method of gauging alien worlds for their potential habitability — or at the very least, refine the way we understand these candidate planets beyond our solar system.
In a paper recently published in The Astrophysical Journal, lead author Yuka Fujii of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and colleagues in New York proposed a model that calculates atmospheric conditions in exoplanets on three dimensions. Previously, astronomers would only simulate such conditions vertically, or along one dimension.
“Using a model that more realistically simulates atmospheric conditions, we discovered a new process that controls the habitability of exoplanets and will guide us in identifying candidates for further study,” Fujii said in a NASA press release. Concretely, the model will allow researchers to reevaluate the habitable zone in a planetary system — the so-called Goldilock’s zone, where an exoplanet’s distance from its parent star is roughly similar to the Earth’s from the Sun.
Redefining Goldilocks for Alien Worlds
Under previous assumptions, a planet too close to its star was deemed too hot to allow water to accumulate into oceans or even remain within its atmosphere. Conversely, a planet too distant from its star would be too cold for water to exist in a liquid state, causing it to freeze. This may be true for some exoplanets, but not for slow rotating planets found around low-mass stars. With the new model, the astronomers propose a Goldilocks zone a little bit closer to a parent star.
“We found an important role for the type of radiation a star emits and the effect it has on the atmospheric circulation of an exoplanet in making the moist greenhouse state,” Fujii explained, referring to what’s considered to be a habitable environment. Certain conditions that allow for water to be kept within an exoplanet’s atmosphere for longer periods of time could make it habitable, despite a relative closeness to its star.
This can actually save astronomers time when observing promising candidate exoplanets, like Gliese 667Cc, the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, and — perhaps the most intriguing of all — Proxima b, which is the closest potentially habitable exoplanet from Earth. “Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet’s atmosphere,” GISS astronomer and co-author of the study Anthony Del Genio said in the press release. “If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state.”
However, none of this advances our ability to actually further our presence in the universe. The nearest potential exoplanet, Proxima b, is 4.22 light-years away. If the fastest spacecraft to date, New Horizons, were to go to Alpha Centauri, it would take 78,000 years to get there. To really confirm what life is like on alien worlds, we’re going to have to invent revolutionary modes of propulsion. There are realistic efforts to send technology across the vast abyss, such as the laser-propelled sails on Project Starshot, a mini-spacecraft that could travel all the way to Alpha Centauri. However, alternative forms of interstellar travel like warp drive or ion thrusters or nuclear fission rockets are still only in their theoretical stages.
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Decades of Data
For decades, researchers at NASA have explored potential routes of planet formation by studying young debris disk systems — bright, thin outer rings made up of comet-like bodies at the furthest outskirts of star systems. The debris disks vary in composition from icy to carbon-rich and usually lie somewhere from 75 to 200 astronomical units from their parent stars, which is much further than Pluto is from our Sun.
Recently, these researchers have observed planet formation in three of these narrow but dense rings as comets merge with each other on the edges of star systems. They recently published their findings in the Astronomical Journal. These developing planets are each, as estimated from the light reflected from the rings, the size of a few Earths combined, said Carey Lisse, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), according to a press release.
The perhaps the most interesting of these planet-forming rings is red debris disk surrounding HR 4796A, which shows unusually tight form for an infant solar system.
“The narrow confines of these rings is still a great puzzle — you don’t typically see this kind of tight order in such a young system,” Lisse said in the press release. “Usually, material is moving every which way before an exoplanetary system gets cleaned out and settles down so that planetary bodies rarely cross each other’s path, like in our present-day solar system.”
Far Far Away
Not only is the tight order of this system so extraordinary, its red color also stands out. Lisse believes this color to be caused by the burnt-out rocky organic remains of comets which have boiled off because of how close the system’s ring is to its star. However, the most exciting aspect of HR 4796A is what could be causing the debris disk to be so thin and dense instead of thick and diffused, as would be expected.
“Comets crashing down onto these growing planet surfaces would kick up huge clouds of fast-moving, ejected ‘construction dust,’ which would spread over the system in huge clouds,” Lisse said in the press release. “The only apparent solution to these issues is that multiple mini-planets are coalescing in these rings, and these small bodies, with low kick-up velocities, are shepherding the rings into narrow structures — much in the same way many of the narrow rings of Saturn are focused and sharpened.”
This sharpened ring could one day result in massive planets. “These systems appear to be building planets we don’t see in our solar system — large multi-Earth mass ones with variable amounts of ice, rock, and refractory organics,” Lisse said. “This is very much like the predicted recipe for the super-Earths seen in abundance in the Kepler planet survey.”
While these rings are fascinatingly different from other equally young systems, “much still has to happen, though, before these rings could become planets the size of the gas giants,” Lisse continued. “Why it’s taking so long to make outer planets in these systems — after their primordial gas disks have been stripped away — is a big mystery.”
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A new revolutionary telescope is in the works that would lessen the cost of studying exoplanets, but it needs more funding to come to fruition.
Enter the ExoLife Finder (ELF) telescope from The PLANETS Foundation, which will be capable of viewing exoplanets 24 light years (120 trillion miles) away from Earth, detecting the energy signatures of life, and imaging oceans and continents. So far we’ve only been able to estimate the likelihood of oceans and continents’ presence, which is still hypothetical. This easily goes far beyond the aspirations of any other exoplanet-hunting telescope yet in service, and could thus move our search for life out there a few terms further in the Drake Equation.
After ELF’s construction, its first target will be Proxima b, an exoplanet in the Proxima Centauri star system discovered last year by the European Space Observatory — the Alpha Centauri A and B star systems will also be investigated for other Earth-like planets.
ELF isn’t the first telescope The PLANETS Foundation has worked on. There’s the Colossus telescope — set to be the world’s largest optical and infrared telescope designed to detect extrasolar and extraterrestrial life; then there’s the PLANETS telescope — a telescope designed to study faint environments such as the atmosphere of bright exoplanets, bio-signatures on potentially habitable exoplanets, and exo-atmospheres of planets in our solar system.
The ExoLife Finder telescope has 19 days remaining before its fundraising campaign ends. Should it meet its goal, it will be built in the Atacama Desert in Chile alongside the Colossus. The PLANETS telescope, meanwhile, will be built atop the Haleakala volcano in Maui, Hawaii.
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Analyzing an Inferno World
For the first time, astronomers have detected titanium oxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. The observation was made using the FORS2 instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), and it provides unique insight into the chemical composition of the exoplanet WASP-19b, as well as valuable information about the pressure and temperature structure of its atmosphere.
WASP-19b is a very warm and truly unusual “Hot Jupiter” about 1,000 light-years from Earth. It has about the same mass as Jupiter, but because it is so close to its parent star, it completes an orbit in just 19 hours. This also makes it very hot — the temperature of its atmosphere is estimated at about 2,000 degrees Celsius (3,632 degrees Fahrenheit).
When WASP-19b passes in front of its star, some starlight passes through its atmosphere, leaving “fingerprints” in the light that reach Earth eventually. The team of astronomers was able to analyze these “fingerprints” with the FORS2 instrument on the VLT and deduce that along with a strongly scattering global haze, the atmosphere contained small amounts of water, sodium, and titanium oxide.
Rarely seen on Earth, titanium oxide is known to exist in the atmospheres of cool stars. In the atmospheres of a hot planet like WASP-19b, it absorbs heat. In fact, if enough titanium oxide is in an atmosphere, it will prevent heat from escaping or entering. This causes thermal inversion, with the upper atmosphere warmer than the lower atmosphere. Ozone has a similar effect on Earth’s atmosphere, causing inversion in the stratosphere.
Diversity of Alien Planets
The researchers spent more than a year collecting their data on WASP-19b, comparing their observations with atmospheric models to extrapolate the different properties of the exoplanet’s atmosphere. Now, this new data about the presence of titanium oxide, other metal oxides, and other substances can be used to develop improved models of exoplanet atmospheres.
Once astronomers are able to observe the atmospheres of planets that show a higher potential for habitability, these improved models can help them interpret those observations more effectively. These findings also confirm that the refurbished FORS2 instrument is the best tool to handle these kinds of studies from Earth.
As of July 2017, researchers have confirmed the existence of 3,500 exoplanets, with the tally of Earth-like candidates just under 300. But the search for planets that are potentially habitable for humans is far different than the search for alien life in any form.
Over the past two and a half decades, we’ve discovered an incredible array of diverse exoplanets, and the more we find, the more we see the potential that alien life may be so foreign to us that it’s practically unrecognizable. It may be microbic, in subterranean oceans, or buried deep underground.
The very diversity of the exoplanets we have discovered simply reinforces the likelihood that alien life may be nothing like life on Earth — even if it does exist on a rocky planet not so different from ours. For example, what life might inhabit rocky exoplanets whose atmospheres are dominated by some other biosignature gas or gases instead of oxygen and nitrogen?
NASA is searching for signs of such planets right now, and as long as we remain open-minded in our observations, we’ll have the best chance of finding what we’re looking for.
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There’s a vital human desire to discover and explore other planets like Earth, so the plenum of candidate Earth-like planets is fitting. As of July 2017, there are 3,500 confirmed exoplanets, with the tally of Earth-like candidates just under 300. Once the fringe-dream of groups like SETI, the 21st century has seen world-shattering (literally) progress towards the ultimate goal of confirming the existence of another rocky planet hospitable to human life. We know their distances from Earth, their respective masses, we’ve come close to determining their surface temperature, and even used cutting-edge chemistry to interpolate their elemental composition and age.
Before diving in, it’s worth noting we’ve yet to find a ride capable of transporting us hundreds of light-years through interstellar space, sans the decades-(if not centuries)-long transit. Nevertheless, finding an extra-solar home-away-from-home has become one of the most popular scientific fields in the world. The first exoplanet in stellar orbit was discovered in 1995. And, there seems to be no end to the dozens of Earth-like exoplanets discovered over the years since NASA’s Kepler program began in 2009. Indeed, a collaboration between the European Southern Observatory and NASA led to the discovery of TRAPPIST-1, a star system hosting an astonishing seven Earth-size exoplanets.
In order to qualify for the coveted habitable list, these planets have to be located within the “habitable zone” – the differential diameter around a star wherein the range of surface temperatures allow liquid water to subsist. So without further delay, here are some of the closest candidates for humanity’s next home.
Gliese 667Cc (Discovered in 2011)
Source Image: Wikimedia Commons
Gliese 667 Cc is an exoplanet of the red dwarf star called Gliese 667 C. At 23.62 light-years away, it can be found in the Scorpius constellation, and was found to have a mass that is over three-and-a-half times that of Earth. It was found to be over two billion years old, with a surface temperature of 277 K (4.3 Celsius).
Since it’s tidally locked, one side of Gliese 667 Cc receives no sunlight, while the other lives in permanent day under its parent star, Gliese 667 C. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the exoplanet receives 90 percent of the energy from its star compared to what Earth gets from the Sun, making it theoretically suitable for human life, although not enough is known about its atmosphere to be certain.
With more mass, the gravitational pull is be 60% higher than on Earth, plus a thick atmosphere, causing atmospheric pressure to be several hundred times greater. But could there be life? According to the institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo, only species that tolerate extreme conditions like the tardigrade could survive.
Kepler-22b (Discovered in 2011)
Source Image: NASA/Ames JPL-Caltech
620 light-years away, Kepler-22b orbits the habitable zone of the Kepler-22 system — a star system that shares a lot of similarities with ours. It has an orbital period of 290 days, and a surface temperature of -12 C, assuming it has no atmosphere. The radius is 2.4 times that of Earth, but its composition is still unknown.
Kepler-186f (Discovered in 2014)
Image Source: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope discovered its first Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of another star in 2014. Unlike the other planets, exoplanets and stars, Kepler-186f is roughly the same size as Earth (only about 10% larger), although its exact composition and mass are not yet known. It is 558 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus and has an orbital length of 130 days. It only receives one third of the energy from its star than what Earth receives from the Sun, making it considerably colder.
Kepler 452-b (Discovered in 2015)
Image Source: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
It orbits its host star in 385 days, is 60% bigger than Earth (often dubbed “super-Earth”) and receives roughly the same amount of energy from its star compared to Earth and the Sun. But considering its age (estimated at 1-3 billion years older than the Sun), its surface temperature is assumed to be too high for human habitation.
As for the possibility of surface-dwelling life, Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA’s Ames Research Center says: “It’s awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”
The TRAPPIST-1 System (Discovered in 2017)
Image Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s only 40 light-years away, but the exoplanet system called TRAPPIST-1 remains a pretty big mystery. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope made the announcement in February of 2017, stating that they have found the most Earth-size planets (seven to be precise) orbiting a single star to have ever been discovered. They are all within the habitable zone of the TRAPPIST-1 star, allowing for the existence of liquid water.
Although their densities remain unknown, these exoplanets are so close to each other that — with feet firmly planted on one of their surfaces — you might see geographical features of a neighboring planets simply by looking up at the sky. However, all the TRAPPIST-1’s planets are tidally locked, creating weather systems and temperature fluctuations very difficult, if not impossible, to live in.
Proxima Centauri b (Discovered in 2016)
Image Source: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Roughly the size of Earth and only four light-years away, there’s still much to learn about Proxima Centauri b, a new planet orbiting one of three stars that make up the greater Proxima Centauri system. At 1.3 times the mass of Earth, Proxima b’s year lasts a mere 11 Earth-days.
Since its atmosphere is still unknown, we don’t know if it can have liquid water. But its exceptional status as the closest, Earth-like planet remains for now unchallenged.
The More to Come
Image Source: Gabriel Pérez/SMM (IAC)
In June 0f 2017, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope team officially added another 219 newly discovered planets to its catalog, ten of which were found within the habitable zone. About 50 of them are about the size of Earth, substantially extending the list of potentially habitable exoplanets.
One of these ten planets potentially-habitable planets is a super-Earth that orbits around GJ 625 — a red dwarf 21 light-years away. GJ 625 b mass is 2.82 times Earth’s. Though the surface is likely Earth-like and rocky, we’ve yet to gather the sufficient data to determine its status on this growing list of candidates for extraterrestrial life.
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The chemical processes which govern combustion, cloud formation, and climate change are extremely complex. And it appears that some new research has shown that these reactions (in addition to others) are entirely more complex than we ever thought. Researchers from Columbia University, led by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael P. Burke, have discovered a fourth class of chemical reaction known as “chemically termolecular reactions.” This involves the breaking and forming of chemical bonds between three molecules, when the collision of two molecules collides again, with a third. Their work was published in the journal Nature Chemistry.
The reaction was actually first hypothesized in the 1920s, but was at thought at the time to be unimportant or nonexistent, so no one managed to properly study them until now. The research used computer simulations to observe chemical reactions in a way that is difficult, if not impossible, in the traditional lab setting. According to Burke, “The power of these state-of-the-art computational methods is that they can provide a unique lens into harsh chemical environments ill-suited for experimental techniques for studying individual reaction dynamics.”Image credit: Michael P. Burke/Columbia Engineering
This means a new kind of chemical reaction does in fact exist, one that may have a profound impact on our comprehensive understanding of chemical reactions. This marks a fundamental shift in the way that these types of reactions are viewed. Consequently, the extent of its implications are not fully known, but what’s clear is that we may have a small revolution on our hands.
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In the Zone
Earth’s location in space is perfect: not too close to but not too far from the Sun, it gives our planet the balmy temperature that helps supports life. However, a new study suggests that it might be even more difficult than previously expected to find a celestial body that falls within this ‘Goldilocks zone.’
The habitable zone of any given star is the area where planets can maintain a temperature that allows liquid water to be found on its surface. Too close to the star, and that water will turn to vapor — too far away, and it’ll turn to ice.
However, stars like our sun gradually get more luminous over time, which changes the parameters of their habitable zone. This means that icy planets can feasibly reach a point where their conditions are warm enough to support life — but according to a recent study in Nature Geoscience, that’s not always the way the situation will pan out.
Too Hot to Handle
A planet’s ability to support life-sustaining temperatures hinges on at least two factors: the amount of ice on the surface, and the amount of greenhouse gases being released into its atmosphere. Yet many icy planets don’t have the volcanic activity needed to contain any greenhouse gases besides water vapor.
So this study’s team, led by Jun Yang of Peking University, developed a model that could simulate how the climate of an ice-covered planet with only water vapor in the atmosphere would change over time. The results suggested it would take 10 to 40 percent more energy than the Earth receives from the sun before they began to melt.
Without ice to reflect incoming heat, this heat-intensive process was often followed by a speedy uptick in temperature that caused the planet’s oceans to boil off. And without water, these worlds wouldn’t be able to support life after all.
This isn’t necessarily bad news. Thanks to increasingly sharp-eyed instruments, the number of known exoplanets has skyrocketed in the past two decades, from a mere handful in the mid-90s to nearly 2000 today. In February 2014 alone, NASA announced a “planet bonanza” discovery of 715 new planets, found by the Kepler satellite. But identifying which of these distant worlds might be friendly to life is still tricky.
Scientists are able to infer the atmospheric content of a planet based on the way light passes through it, a process that’s already been used to detect water on a distant Earth-sized planet. However, this method doesn’t tell scientists what else is happening on the planet — such as whether it’s in the runaway, ocean-boiling cycle Yang’s team identified.
If we’re on the search for a planet that humans can live on, having this information at hand gives us more insight into which worlds are in contention.
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An Earth-Like Venus
We tend to think of Mars as one of the few planets that, like Earth, may have (or have had) the potential to hold life, but our infernal sister-planet Venus may have also once had oceans. New simulations from the Journal of Geological Research: Planets found that the planet oft-touted as exemplar of a runaway greenhouse effect, may have once formed an ocean. These findings, published online July 18, hypothesize that an optimal blend of cloud cover, carbon dioxide and water early in Venus’ lifetime would have been hospitable to life.
Venus in Autumn
Although Michael Way, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, wasn’t involved in the study himself, last year he and his colleagues surmised that Venus’ ultra-slow rotation — consisting of 116 Earth days — may have aided in the build-up of cloud cover such that the average temperature roughly 715 million years ago would have been a cool 15°C (59°F). Compared to Venus’ present-day explosive 460°C (860°F), these conditions are truly astounding and worthy of further exploration.
Continuing this investigation, planetary scientist Emmanuel Marcq, of the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in Guyancourt, France, and his colleagues used computer simulations to see how the cooling rocky planet’s molten lava surface might mix with sunlight streaming through a developing atmosphere. Even at its current carbon dioxide levels, Venus requires only 10 percent of Earth’s water-mass to form a surface ocean.
Advancing the Search for Habitable Exoplanets
“This work plays into a much bigger puzzle of understanding the habitability of exoplanets,” Way said in an interview with Science News.
Marcq was quick to say that whether Venus actually ever had an ocean or not is “very much a hotly debated, open question.” But, with the increasingly frustrated hopes of hospitable conditions on TRAPPIST-1, any tips we can cadge from our next-door neighbor are a bargain.
Searching For Tectonic Plates
Tectonic plates — which divide Earth’s crust and reshape our planet in an ongoing, dynamic process — may be the key to supporting life. In fact, because Earth is the only planet known to be home to both life and plate tectonics, researchers are now wondering if there is a relationship between the two. Some researchers believe that life is made possible only through the temperature regulation that is imparted to a planet through shifting plates.
If tectonic plates are essential to life, finding life elsewhere — or worlds that can support it — may depend on finding planets with tectonic activity. Cayman Unterborn, an Arizona State University astronomer, has published research that indicates few exoplanets could sustain plate tectonics for long periods of time.
The results that Unterborn and his team compiled suggest that not only are plate tectonics rare, but they may also be difficult to sustain even when they do occur. Still, if astronomers are correct that up to 40 billion potentially habitable planets exist in our galaxy, even if the study’s findings are correct, about 13 billion planets may yet be habitable worlds.
The Field Of Exogeology
How critical to life are plate tectonics? They seem to have been vital here on Earth, keeping the planet from freezing. And while there is evidence of geological activity on planets without plate tectonics such as Mars, it is past activity. This suggests that such activity can’t be sustained without plate tectonics. In other words, plate tectonics may not be the key to all geological activity — but could the key to sustaining geological activity and stabilizing temperature.
This latest research contradicts earlier work which theorized that plate tectonics would be almost inevitable on larger rocky planets. Unterborn’s work takes into account not only a planet’s size, but also its composition. Obviously there was no way to peer inside the core of other planets (at least not yet), so Unterborn and his team used computer models to predict what the mantle and crust of planets studied would look like based on the composition of their host stars.
The results highlight that the habitability of a planet cannot be determined by the “Goldilocks zone,” or its orbital distance from its star, alone. Density alone is also insufficient to determine potential habitability. Unterborn sees his work as the next step in a new field: exogeology — the marriage of geology and astronomy.
Unterborn and his colleagues have proposed studying how different materials react under high temperatures and pressures to the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The goal would be to explore how plate tectonics begin on a planet, as changing materials crack the lithosphere. “I think it’s definitely the future,” Unterborn said to Scientific American. “I’m glad to be at the forefront of it.”
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The discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, which is around 40 light years away from our solar system, has piqued the interest of astronomers and alien hunters alike. What’s even more interesting is that three of these exoplanets are located within the star’s habitable zone. That must indicate there’s a high possibility of life there, right?
Well, not necessarily: two recent studies show that being located in the TRAPPIST-1 system’s habitable zone, isn’t enough to secure life. One study published in the International Journal of Astrobiology points out that these exoplanets are constantly bombarded by radiation. “Because of the onslaught by the star’s radiation, our results suggest the atmosphere on planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system would largely be destroyed,” researcher Abraham Loeb said in a press release. “This would hurt the chances of life forming or persisting.”
The exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are also closer to their star compared to the distance between planets in our solar system and the Sun. For example, the farthest TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet is only about 9 million kilometers (5.6 million miles) away from the star — while Mercury is about 58 million km (36 million miles) from the Sun.
According to the second study, published in the The Astrophysical Journal Letters, this relatively small distance could have connected the exoplanets to TRAPPIST-1’s magnetic field and allowed for stellar winds to hit their surfaces. “These conditions could result in strong atmospheric stripping and evaporation and should be taken into account for any realistic assessment of the evolution and habitability of the TRAPPIST-1 planets,” the study said.
Life on TRAPPIST-1, it seems, is more difficult that we previously imagined.
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James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), heir to Hubble’s throne, is set to launch in October of 2018. The massive new telescope will hopefully continue Hubble’s legacy and push the boundaries of what has before been possible in space imaging. And, in exciting new news, the first targets of the JWST have been announced — and the list is long.
The Webb will observe the three largest low-albedo asteroids, as well as the Trojan asteroids, allowing us to peer into the origins of our solar system. It will also explore near-Earth objects, which could expand our knowledge and even protect the Earth.
It will also investigate Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, Neptune’s south polar vortex, geological phenomena on Saturn’s moons, and the atmosphere on the planet itself. What is especially exciting to many is the Webb’s plans to explore exoplanets. By observing these far-off exoplanets passing across their parent star, researchers can determine if a planet has an atmosphere and then use that information to infer more about its composition — and potential for life.
Quest for Knowledge
The implications of the knowledge to be gained with the JWST are immense. The further exploration of exoplanets alone could reveal information about the potential for alien life and which worlds would be the best candidates for human colonization. Other observations that researchers plan to make with the telescope will help us to better understand the beginnings of our solar system.
This is all, of course, significant scientifically. But better understanding of how objects and life in the universe form could, in turn, help us to better understand the laws of nature on Earth. The further we explore the distant corners of the universe, the more we will be able to make sense of the world around us. It will be exciting to follow the Webb’s journey as it slowly trades place with the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.
The post The First Targets of the James Webb Telescope Have Been Announced appeared first on Futurism.
A Universe of Earths
Planet hunters and science enthusiasts are rejoicing over NASA’s latest announcement. Today, a team of astronomers working with data from the K2 mission released a new catalog of potential alien planets. In a press conference held at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the team stated that they had identified 219 planet candidates, 10 of which are said to be rocky worlds that are in the habitable zones of stars that are similar to the Sun—which is a yellow dwarf or G dwarf.
In short, it seems that we have 10 new planets that are Earth-like.
In science, “Earth-like” worlds are loosely defined as terrestrial worlds that have a chemical composition that is similar to our own planet and orbit in a relatively young star’s habitable zone (the “habitable zone” is defined as the orbit around a star where liquid water could theoretically exist on a planet’s surface).
The team was composed of Kepler research scientists Mario Perez, from the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, Susan Thompson, from the SETI Institute in California, Benjamin Fulton, from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Courtney Dressing, a NASA Sagan Fellow at Caltech.
To date, there are already 4,034 exoplanet candidates identified by Kepler and 2,335 of these have been confirmed. The 10 new exoplanets add to the 49 Earth-like exoplanets in habitable zones that were previously detected by Kepler, more than 30 of which have been verified.
Perhaps the most interesting of these new finds is KY 7711, which Thompson said is located near its star in an orbit that is very similar to the path that Earth takes around the Sun, meaning that it receives the same amount of heat, although it is approximately 1.3 times larger than our planet.
Typically, exoplanets fall in one of two categories: super-Earths, which have a radius that is 1.5 times that of the Earth, rocky surfaces, and often little to no atmosphere; and those that are like mini-Neptunes, which are about twice the Earth’s radius with thick atmospheres and no rocky surface. Exoplanets falling in between these two categories (i.e. worlds that are Earth-like) are smaller and, thus, much harder to identify. But as this latest find reveals, they are out there.
The Beginning of an Era
The Kepler space observatory was launched 8 years ago, in March 2009. Its singular mission was to search for planets orbiting other stars in the hopes of finding alien worlds that are similar to Earth. Fulton explained that, looking back, they wouldn’t have expected to identify roughly 50 Earth-like exoplanets so soon.
Both the original Kepler mission and K2 have significantly contributed in the mission to search for potentially habitable exoplanets. Although not part of the original mission, Kepler also provided the first images of the TRAPPIST-1 system, arguably the most notable exoplanet system recently discovered.
Now, as the K2 reaches the end of its four-year run, Kepler scientists think that we are closing in on the end of an era in exoplanet research. But it also marks the beginning of a new one, with missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) expected to launch soon. Both the TESS and the JWST would look into exoplanets in ways Kepler isn’t able to, identifying new information about their composition and habitability.
Undeniably, though, it was Kepler that made all of these future missions possible. “What’s exciting about today is we have taken our telescope and we have counted up how many planets are similar to the Earth in this part of the sky,” Thompson said at the press conference. “With the data I have, I can now make that count. From there, we’re going to determine how common other planets are. Are there places we could live in this galaxy besides what we call home?”
A Map of the Milky Way
Humanity has no shortage of irons in the fire when it comes to space exploration. Right now, several agencies are fine-tuning plans to send humans to Mars, an almost 20-year-old spacecraft is gearing up to crash land on a distant planet, and we’re remarkably close to ushering in the era of space tourism. Yet, one mission stands above all others in terms of its potential to advance the human race: Gaia.
Launched in 2013, the Gaia spacecraft is currently halfway through a five-year mission to map the Milky Way, and Brian Koberlein, astrophysicist and Senior Lecturer at Rochester Institute of Technology, expects the European Space Agency (ESA)-operated space observatory to lead to huge scientific breakthroughs.
“In the next year, I would say the Gaia spacecraft [will likely give way to humanity’s greatest advancements],” he tells Futurism.
Gaia is positioned roughly 1.5 million kilometers (932,056 miles) beyond the Earth in the direction away from the Sun. The craft measures only 3.5 meters (11.4 feet) across, though its sunshade increases that diameter to 10 meters (32.8 feet). It is equipped with two telescopes that incorporate an array of 10 mirrors of various shapes and sizes, and with a total of nearly 1 billion pixels, its focal plane is the largest ever flown in space.
More so than its equipment, the purpose of Gaia is what makes it special: gather data that can be sent back to Earth to generate the world’s largest, most detailed three-dimensional map of our galaxy. Over the course of its mission, the craft will survey 1 percent of the Milky Way’s stars. That might not seem like a lot until you consider how many stars are located in the Milky Way. “[Gaia] will map out a billion stars in our galaxy,” says Koberlein, quantifying the ambitious project’s scope.
New Discoveries on the Horizon
The most obvious benefit of Gaia’s observations will be a dramatic increase in our knowledge of the objects being targeted: stars. Not only will we learn more about stars that resemble our own, we’ll also learn new details about brown dwarfs, distant supernovae, and massive quasars.
Gaia won’t just offer a snapshot of these stars, either — it will observe each one 70 times over the course of the mission. By observing each star repeatedly, the craft will be able to record changes, such as increases in brightness or adjustments in position. This will “give us a much better understanding of stellar dynamics in the Milky Way,” explains Koberlein.
While observing these stars, Gaia is sure to directly discover other bodies in the galaxy as well, such as never-before-seen asteroids or icy bodies. By providing us with a glimpse into the “blind spot” between the Earth and the Sun, Gaia will also improve our understanding of our own celestial backyard.
Gaia has already led to several new discoveries, and research should really thrive once the final catalog is published in the early-2020s. As explained on the ESA website, “Huge databases of information will be compiled from the Gaia data, allowing astronomers to trawl the archives looking for similar celestial objects, or events and other correlations that might just provide the clue necessary to solve their particular, seemingly intractable, scientific puzzle.”
Koberlein points out one of the most exciting potential uses for these databases: “The data can also be used for…finding exoplanets.” The discovery of new exoplanets would mean new leads in the search for alien lifeforms or even Earth 2.0.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
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The Search for Life
From highly trained scientists toiling away at research institutes to amateur enthusiasts gazing upward from their backyards, humanity boasts no shortage of people looking for life beyond Earth. Add to that the massive size of the universe — estimates range in the trillions of galaxies — and probability dictates that we should have already encountered another species by now.
And yet, we still have no evidence that we aren’t alone in the universe.
However, according to astronomy researcher Chris Impey, this hunt for life beyond Earth may soon yield results. In an interview with Futurism, he revealed that he believes that we are less than two decades away from finding extraterrestrial life…but it may not be the kind of life we were hoping for: “I put my money on detecting microbial life in 10 to 15 years, but not at all detecting intelligent life.”
Hide and Seek on a Cosmic Level
While Impey is skeptical that intelligent life is within our sights, he does have a couple of suggestions as to where we should focus our search for extraterrestrial lifeforms, intelligent or not. The first is our own backyard, or, more accurately, our own solar system.
While Impey tells Futurism he doesn’t rule out the possibility that life still exists on Mars, he says that those lifeforms are likely below the surface and are, therefore, much harder to detect. As such, he asserts that we have a better chance of finding evidence of life that used to exist on the Red Planet: “If we actually get Mars rocks back here to Earth from a place that we think could have been habitable in the past, then we might find evidence of prior life.”
Other bodies in our solar system could potentially host life as well, according to Impey, including the water world Europa (one of Jupiter’s several moons). He thinks future missions targeting the satellite could yield helpful—if not entirely conclusive—results, asserting that they should at least give us “some better idea if that ocean could have life in it.”
Of course, our solar system is just one very small corner of a very massive universe, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t look beyond it for signs of life. To narrow down the scope of our search, Impey suggests targeting the many exo-Earths we’ve already uncovered. Instead of focusing on the planets’ surfaces, though, we should research their atmospheres.
In the next few years, we’ll be able to use the James Web Space Telescope and other detection devices to look for biomarkers such as oxygen and methane in the atmospheres of these Earth-like planets, says Impey. “This biomarker experiment…could find evidence of microbial life indirectly,” he explains. The research should help us pinpoint the planets that are “the closest to Earth as possible, not in distance, but in character,” he adds, and since Earth is the only place we know life exists, finding the most Earth-like planets is our best bet for finding life.
Any Life Is Better Than No Life
Even if Impey is right, and humanity is still decades away from finding intelligent alien life, the discovery of microbial life on Mars, Europa, or one of the thousands of exoplanets we’ve identified would still be a huge development. It would mean Earth isn’t unique, that something else living is out there.
We could use the knowledge we glean from studying this microbial life to narrow down our hunt for other, more complex organisms. By providing valuable insights into how other living beings are able to survive on worlds far different from our own, this microbial life could help in our quest to become a multi-planetary species. Even the discovery of past microbial life would be helpful, as it could serve as something of a cautionary tale, providing us with the opportunity to learn and ensure we don’t meet the same fate.
As Impey notes, thanks to dramatic advances in technology, we’ve never been better equipped to discover life beyond Earth than we are right now: “Every new SETI experiment done now is about as good as the sum of all previous SETI experiments put together.”
However, even if all of the currently planned experiments and missions came up short, Impey doesn’t envision humanity giving up the hunt for extraterrestrial life any time soon: “The first SETI experiment was in 1959, so obviously it has been going on for over half a century without any success. The people who do it don’t seem put off by failure.”
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
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Warm and Unusual
The easiest way to make sense of the various unfamiliar objects we find floating around in the cosmos is by thinking about them in the context of celestial bodies we are familiar with. Our Solar System has become the starting point for our analysis of other bodies, especially exoplanets.
That’s how the term “hot Neptune” came about — it’s our way of describing exoplanets as massive as Uranus or Neptune but that orbit closer to their stars. We’ve already come across a number of these hot Neptunes, but one of the most recently discovered defies all expectations astronomers have about the exoplanets.
Located about 437 light-years away from Earth, HAT-P-26b is a hot Neptune that has a primordial atmosphere composed mostly of hydrogen and helium — an unusual mixture for planets very close to their stars. “Astronomers have just begun to investigate the atmospheres of these distant Neptune-mass planets, and almost right away, we found an example that goes against the trend in our Solar System,” said researcher Hannah Wakeford from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in a news release.
Usually, massive planets have lower metallicities — a lower presence of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium in their atmosphere. For example, Jupiter and Saturn’s are five and ten times than that of the Sun, respectively. Smaller planets like Uranus and Neptune, on the other hand, have higher metallicities, about a hundred times greater than the Sun.
For hot Neptune HAT-P-26b, however, this standard fails. It’s metallicity is only about 4.8 times that of the Sun — much closer to Jupiter’s than to Neptune’s.
Such a discovery just confirms that there’s so much we don’t know about the universe and what’s in it. Assumptions that may be true for Earth or for the planets in our solar system may not necessarily be true for others out there. “This analysis shows that there is a lot more diversity in the atmospheres of these exoplanets than we were expecting, which is providing insight into how planets can form and evolve differently than in our solar system,” said University of Exeter’s David K. Sing, second author of the paper, which is published in Nature.
For Wakeford, it’s discoveries like this that make her work exciting. “This kind of unexpected result is why I really love exploring the atmospheres of alien planets,” she said.
The post Astronomers Just Found a Planet They Didn’t Know Was Possible appeared first on Futurism.
We have made significant strides in exploring the universe for potential exoplanets harboring life, while we also made several efforts in establishing first contact with an intelligent species. But when it comes to exploring our own solar system, we might need more than just large telescopes and fancy radios. Cue NASA’s Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot (PUFFER), a lightweight bot capable of adapting its shape to fit through tight spots and climbing steep slopes.
The origami-inspired miniature explorers have been in development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California for almost a year and a half. The PUFFER has been tested in several terrains, from the Mojave Desert to Antarctica, in severe conditions that they wouldn’t send normal rovers to in the first place. This is partly due to the fact that the PUFFER has a printed circuit board, enabling the placement of more electronics than normal in a space as compact at the PUFFER. The wheels on the little bot were 3D printed and gained treads to enable climbing at steeper slopes. The PUFFER also has a high-resolution micro-imager sensitive enough to see objects smaller than a fraction of the diameter of a single human hair, enabling it to “skitter walk,” which keeps the bot inching forward a wheel at a time in difficult terrain. These mini-rovers are hardcore.
Little Rover, Big Universe
The mini-rovers are designed to scale up 45-degree slopes, drop into craters and pits, and investigate overhangs. For this reason, NASA intends to send the PUFFERs with larger rover companions. The rovers can be flattened like cards and stacked on top one of another for optimized storage and mobility.
Therefore, data collection can be a multifaceted effort, with the PUFFERs working side-by-side with the larger companion in doing science. The PUFFER can travel 625 meters (2,050 feet) on a single charge and is outfitted for winter terrains, making data collection in all types of areas easier.
But we’re not done yet. The PUFFER is still in need of upgrades to sample organic material and study the chemical make-up of its environment. The scientists also feel that the PUFFER needs to be larger before it is sent off into space. PUFFER project manager Jaakko Karras said: “”Small robotic explorers like PUFFER could change the way we do science on Mars. Like Sojourner before it, we think it’s an exciting advance in robotic design.”
The post The Next Generation of Explorers Might be Tiny, Folding Robots appeared first on Futurism.
A Second Look
For those enthralled by the first images of TRAPPIST-1 system from NASA, here’s some good news: the space agency recently released even more photos. The raw images of the seven recently discovered Earth-like planets are a product of three months’ worth of snapshots taken by the Kepler telescope as part of its K2 mission.
“We were lucky that the K2 mission was able to observe TRAPPIST-1. The observing field for Campaign 12 was set when the discovery of the first planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 was announced, and the science community had already submitted proposals for specific targets of interest in that field,” explained Michael Haas, Kepler and K2 missions science office director at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “The unexpected opportunity to further study the TRAPPIST-1 system was quickly recognized and the agility of the K2 team and science community prevailed once again.”
Though the TRAPPIST-1 system’s discovery was only announced in February, Kepler started examining the system last December 15, 2016 and wrapped up their initial viewing on March 4, 2017.
Signs of Life?
“Scientists and enthusiasts around the world are invested in learning everything they can about these Earth-size worlds,” said Geert Barentsen, a K2 research scientist. “Providing the K2 raw data as quickly as possible was a priority to give investigators an early look so they could best define their follow-up research plans. We’re thrilled that this will also allow the public to witness the process of discovery.”
There’s no surprise that TRAPPIST-1 has captured our world’s fascination: three of the seven exoplanets could be orbiting in the dwarf star‘s habitable zone, and on top of that, it looks like the conditions for life are present. For now, scientists have to observe more closely — and the images form Kepler are a great place to start. In the coming months, our ability to study the TRAPPIST-1 system will be greatly enhanced by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is an infrared telescope like Kepler, but equipped with more powerful lenses and mirrors.
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You don’t have to wait to explore the seven Earth-sized exoplanets recently discovered in the TRAPPIST-1 system. You can do it right now.
Hours after the announcement on Wednesday, Vladimir Romanyuk released a downloadable pack for his universe simulator Space Engine, which contains all seven planets. All you have to do is download Space Engine, then the TRAPPIST-1 pack, then add the file to the addons/ folder. Once you’ve done that you can load up the simulator and get up close with each of the seven planets.
It should be noted that no one yet knows what the surface of these planets truly look like. NASA drew up an illustration with some scientific predictions but that’s all we have right now. As Space Engine is a simulator, it has also authored its own vision of these planets, based on their bulk density.
Space Engine renders the first planets as warm terras while the rest are cool deserts. A couple have oceans, many of them have huge cyclones rampaging across their rocky surfaces, but what’s missing are any signs of life.
Three of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are in the habitable zone, which means they could support life. Let’s hope Space Engine is off the mark there. In fact, its simulation of these planets is way off at the moment, to the point that Romanyuk is considering some manual tweaks. They would include increasing the temperature of the star and correcting the planet orientation in relation to the sun so they are no longer tidally locked.
If you’re unable to visit the planets for yourself in Space Engine then you can check out Imgur user DRMirage809’s photo gallery of their own trip to TRAPPIST-1. YouTuber Anton Petrov also gives a tour in his video, however, he hasn’t installed the new planet pack, so it only includes the three planets that were discovered previously and not the four new ones.
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In case you missed it, the science world was abuzz yesterday. NASA announced their latest exoplanet discovery—a potentially habitable solar system 40 light-years away from ours, complete with seven Earth-sized planets. These planets could hold the best chance of finding extraterrestrial life, as three of them rest firmly in the habitable zone of their parent star, which means that there is likely liquid water.
To celebrate this momentous occasion, NASA had a mock travel poster commissioned to help drum up excitement.
They also released some surrealist artwork based on the discovery.
To round out their graphical exploration of the discovery, they also released some visual aids to help us fathom the size of the new system.
Size comparison to Earth:
Comparing the area of the system to our solar system:
Comparison of our section of the solar system compared to the TRAPPIST-1 system:
And finally, comparing the orbits of the respective systems:
You can get high-res versions of the posters by visiting here.
The post See NASA’s Posters For The Landmark Earth-Like Planet Discovery appeared first on Futurism.
NASA’s Kepler space telescope holds the record when it comes to candidate and confirmed exoplanets — to date, it has identified more than 5,000. To scan the universe for these alien planets, Kepler uses what’s called the “transit method.” Basically, Kepler watches out for the brightness dips that occur when a planet crosses the face of the star it orbits.
This isn’t the only method to catch exoplanets. The High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer (HIRES) instrument at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii detects radial velocity instead of brightness dips. This radial velocity method searches stars for signs of gravitational wobbles induced by orbiting planets. HIRES was part of a two-decade long radical velocity-planet hunting program and it has compiled almost 61,000 individual measurements made of more than 1,600 stars.
“HIRES was not specifically optimized to do this type of exoplanet detective work, but has turned out to be a workhorse instrument of the field,” said Steve Vogt, from the University of California Santa Cruz, who built the instrument. “I am very happy to contribute to science that is fundamentally changing how we view ourselves in the universe.”
From this huge amount of data, a team of researchers led by Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., identified more than 100 possible exoplanets. Specifically, the researchers identified 60 candidate planets, plus 54 more that require further examination. They published their study in the The Astronomical Journal.
“We were very conservative in this paper about what counts as an exoplanet candidate and what does not,” researcher Mikko Tuomi explained, “and even with our stringent criteria, we found over 100 new likely planet candidates.” Among the candidate exoplanets, one could be orbiting the fourth-closest star (GJ 411) to our Sun just about 8.3 light years away. It’s not an Earth-twin however, as this potential planet has an orbital period that’s equivalent to just 10 days.
There’s still a considerable amount of data to comb through. So, together with their findings, Butler’s team made the HIRES data set available to the public. “One of our key goals in this paper is to democratize the search for planets,” explained team member Greg Laughlin of Yale. “Anyone can download the velocities published on our website and use the open source Systemic software package and try fitting planets from the data.”
It’s certainly a noble idea and a timely one. “I think this paper sets a precedent for how the community can collaborate on exoplanet detection and follow-up”, said team-member Johanna Teske. “With NASA’s TESS mission on the horizon, which is expected to detect 1000+ planets orbiting bright, nearby stars, exoplanet scientists will soon have a whole new pool of planets to follow up.”
Other tools that can facilitate this search for exoplanets and potentially habitable ones include the recently completed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Its powerful array of lenses and mirrors will give our ability to scan the universe a much appreciated boost. Technological advances like the JWST, NASA’s TESS, and a couple of other interstellar eyes will allow us to see the universe like never before.
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Redefining the Habitable Zone
When Proxima b was discovered last year, it was deemed a potentially habitable planet. What made scientists much more hopeful was that the exoplanet is orbiting Proxima Centauri, a star that’s only four light-years away from our solar system.
What made Proxima b a likely candidate for organic life was that it was found to be located in a ‘habitable zone.’ The habitable zone is the area surrounding a star where an orbiting planet can host liquid water. Traditionally, it was calculated based on the amount of heat and light the star emits. More massive stars that produce more heat and light have a wider habitable zone, and vice versa.
But a team at NASA is redefining what is considered a habitable zone. They’ve taken into account space weather, which involves emissions and stellar activity coming from a star. This would include X-rays, ultraviolet radiation, solar flares, and coronal mass injections. This activity could rip apart an exoplanet’s atmosphere, removing hydrogen and oxygen, the two elements necessary for the formation of liquid water.
Scientists have mentioned that with exoplanets orbiting red dwarf stars such as Proxima Centauri, the space weather is typically more pronounced. Although they’re cooler than yellow dwarf stars such as our Sun, they’re usually more active with frequent stellar eruptions.
“When we look at young red dwarfs in our galaxy, we see they’re much less luminous than our sun today,” said Vladimir Airapetian, a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “By the classical definition, the habitable zone around red dwarfs must be 10 to 20 times closer-in than Earth is to the sun. Now we know these red dwarf stars generate a lot of X-ray and extreme ultraviolet emissions at the habitable zones of exoplanets through frequent flares and stellar storms.”
The Search Continues
These developments come with disconsolate news. The NASA team responsible for the new habitable zone definition had created a model to test the effects of solar weather on an exoplanet, where they found that a red dwarf star would render a close-in planet uninhabitable within just a few million years. The exoplanet’s hydrogen and oxygen atoms would be stripped away before any chance of life could persist.
Since Proxima b orbits Proxima Centauri 20 times closer than Earth orbits our Sun, there’s likely no chance that it could support life. Super flares occur every two hours on the red dwarf star, which would send extreme amounts of radiation to the exoplanet.
Although hope might be lost for Proxima b, scientists now have a better definition of what is considered ‘habitable.’ Exoplanets orbiting mature stars could produce milder space weather and would be more likely to sustain life. As the search continues, we might have to set our sights on stars and exoplanets that model the relationship between the Earth and our Sun.
The post Our Neighboring Sun May Actually Not Have Any Habitable Planets appeared first on Futurism.
Located about 129 light-years from Earth in the direction of the Pegasus constellation is the relatively young star system of HR 8799. Beginning in 2008, four orbiting exoplanets were discovered in this system which – alongside the exoplanet Formalhaut b – were the very first to be confirmed using the direct imaging technique. And over time, astronomers have come to believe that these four planets are in resonance with each other.
In this case, the four planets orbit their star with a 1:2:4:8 resonance, meaning that each planet’s orbital period is in a nearly precise ratio with the others in the system. This is a relatively unique phenomenon, one which inspired a Jason Wang – a graduate student from the Berkeley arm of the NASA-sponsored Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) – to produce a video that illustrates their orbital dance.
Using images obtained by the W.M. Keck Observatory over a seven-year period, Wang’s video provides a glimpse of these four exoplanets in motion. As you can see below, the central star is blacked out so that the light reflecting off of its planets can be seen. And while it does not show the planets completing a full orbital period (which would take decades and even centuries) it beautifully illustrates the resonance that exists between the star’s four planets.
As Jason Wang told Universe Today via email:
“The data was obtained over 7 years from one of the 10 meter Keck telescopes by a team of astronomers (Christian Marois, Quinn Konopacky, Bruce Macintosh, Travis Barman, and Ben Zuckerman). Christian reduced each of the 7 epochs of data, to make 7 frames of data. I then made a movie by using a motion interpolation to interpolate those 7 frames into 100 frames to get a smooth video so that it’s not choppy (as if we could observe them every month from Earth).”
The images of the four exoplanets were originally captured by Dr. Christian Marois of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. It was in 2008 that Marois and his colleagues discovered the first three of HR 8799’s planets – HR 8799 b, c and d – using direct imaging technique. At around the same time, a team from UC Berkeley announced the discovery of Fomalhaut b, also using direct imaging.
These planets were all determined to be gas giants of similar size and mass, with between 1.2 and 1.3 times the size of Jupiter, and 7 to 10 times its mass. At the time of their discovery, HR 8799 d was believed to be the closest planet to its star, at a distance of about 27 Astronomical Units (AUs) – while the other two orbit at distances of about 42 and 68 AUs, respectively.
It was only afterward that the team realized the planets had already been observed in 1998. Back then, the Hubble Space Telescope’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) had obtained light from the system that indicated the presence of planets. However, this was not made clear until after a newly-developed image-processing technique had been installed. Hence, the “pre-discovery” went unnoticed.
Further observations in 2009 and 2010 revealed the existence of fourth planet – HR 8799 e – which had an orbit placing it inside the other three. Even so, this planet is fifteen times farther from its star than the Earth is from the Sun, which results in an orbital period of about 18,000 days (49 years). The others take around 112, 225, and 450 years (respectively) to complete an orbit of HR 8799.
Ultimately, Wang decided to produce the video (which was not his first), to illustrate how exciting the search for exoplanets can be. As he put it:
“I had written this motion interpolation algorithm for another exoplanet system, Beta Pictoris b, where we see one planet on an edge-on orbit looking like it’s diving into its star (it’s actually just circling in front of it). We wanted to do the same thing for HR 8799 to bring this system to life and share our excitement in directly imaging exoplanets. I think it’s quite amazing that we have the technology to watch other worlds orbit other stars.”
In addition, the video draws attention to a star system that presents some unique opportunities for exoplanet research. Since HR 8799 was the first multi-planetary system to be directly-imaged means that astronomers can directly observe the orbits of the four planets, observe their dynamical interactions, and determine how they came to their present-day configuration.
Astronomers will also be able to take spectra of these planet’s atmospheres to study their composition and compare this to our own Solar System’s gas giants. And since the system is really quite young (just 40 million years old), it can tell us much about the planet-formation process. Last, but not least, their wide orbits (a necessity given their size) could mean the system is less than stable.
In the future, according to Wang, astronomers will be watching to see if any planets get ejected from the system. I don’t know about you, but I would consider a video that illustrates one of HR 8799’s gas giants getting booted out of its system would be pretty inspiring too!
The post Scientists Release Incredible Image of a Four Planet System appeared first on Futurism.
Defining the Habitable Zone
It’s one of the most pressing questions in science: is there alien life somewhere out there within the great wide demesnes of the universe—beyond the homely, terrestrial sort that we’re all familiar with?
We’re still searching for the answer, but it seems that each day brings word of some new exoplanetary discovery that may at last resolve the issue—our technology has evolved to the point where we can now detect Earth-sized (note the distinction between “Earth-sized” and “Earth-like”) exoplanets residing in the habitable zones of their parent stars.
But are we restricting ourselves—unnecessarily—with the fetters of a geocentric prejudice? The circumstellar habitable zone (HZ) merely represents that part of a planetary system where temperatures are conducive to the existence of liquid water—in other words, precisely where the Earth currently resides in the Solar System. Certainly, with everything being equal, a planet with these conditions in a star’s HZ would be habitable to terrestrial life as we know it—but whoever said that’s all we’re looking for? Furthermore, we know that the HZ isn’t static in time; as a main sequence star evolves, its temperature increases, and the zone of habitability sweeps further outward—which is something to consider for highly-evolved, red giant stars, as a recent study has shown.
Putting aside the question of completely alien life, founded upon chemical organizations radically unlike anything we know, it’s not even clear that terrestrial-type life could only evolve upon an Earth-like planet within its star’s HZ. That’s where studying the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn becomes important.
Ever since the Voyager probes winged their way galaxy-ward, there’s been a great deal of speculation that Jupiter’s second moon, Europa, might harbor a warm, liquid ocean beneath its piebald shell of red-and-white ice; recent observations with the Hubble Space Telescope even suggest some of that water is escaping into space, in the form of geysers—akin to what we see on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
The Ice-Covered Ocean
The existence of such an ocean on Europa is attributable to the intricate celestial mechanics of the Galilean Moons; this remarkable dance—choreographed across billions of years between Io, Ganymede, Europa and the prodigious mass of Jupiter—has squeezed and warmed Europa’s mysterious innards through the action of tidal flexure. It’s a bit like what’s happened to twisted, volcanic little Io—only with a far happier and less Dantean result.
Now, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a motley assortment of marine monsters has evolved in Europa’s putative subglacial world-ocean—though we all prefer to believe that’s exactly the case. But there’s certainly reason enough to be hopeful.
Life on Earth, for instance, needs water and a source of energy—the Sun, in most cases. But it’s also true that certain organisms, particularly in the deep oceans, derive their energy from purely non-solar sources; it’s even possible that the earliest life on Earth was of just such a type, at a time when the Sun’s radiation was far weaker than it is today.
A recent study has shown that an exothermic chemical reaction known as “serpentinization,” whereby saltwater reacts with rocky minerals to produce heat and hydrogen, may be as common on Europa as in terrestrial oceans. Furthermore, the blistering radiation of Jupiter may be enough to separate oxygen atoms from water molecules in the moon’s icy mantle, with the oxygen then cycling deep into the interior. If correct, it means all the ingredients for a thriving ecosystem are theoretically in place; all that’s needed is the spark of life—unfortunately, ascertaining the likelihood of that happening is beyond our statistical models.
But plans are already afoot to loft a space probe toward distant Europa, this time equipped with a chemical tongue so the probe can pass through any water ice geysers the moon is discharging and “taste” the composition of its inner ocean.
“Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Regardless of what the probe discovers, it’s about time we start expanding our definition of what the “habitable zone” really means—in our own Solar System, as in the myriad exoplanetary systems swimming daily within our ken.
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Exoplanets and Superflares
The discovery of Proxima b orbiting the Earth’s closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, gave hope to a possible habitable exoplanet relatively near our system — just 4.2 light years away. Because Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star, it isn’t as hot as our Sun. This means Proxima b orbits nearer to its star than the Earth does the Sun in order to maintain a certain temperature.
It turns out this proximity could be a problem, according to researcher Dmitra Atri. Although Proxima b lies within the habitable (or goldilocks) zone, which raises its chances to have liquid water on its surface, Atri believes it isn’t enough to consider Proxima b habitable. As past studies have shown, exoplanets like Proxima b could be exposed to frequent superflares from their stars.
Atri, a scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, ran computer simulations to figure out just how much flares affect exoplanets. Specifically, the simulations modeled the possible interactions of protons released during flares to a planet’s atmosphere. The models considered the various factors that affect just how much radiation flares could deliver, including atmospheric thickness, magnetic field strengths, and the strength of the flares themselves.
Understanding the worlds around us
“I would say that it is too premature to call Proxima b habitable,” Atri explained to Space.com. “There are many factors that would decide whether such a planet can sustain a biosphere. More data will help clarify the situation.”
Atri’s models revealed that Proxima b could survive these superflares if its atmosphere and magnetic fields were similar to Earth’s. If, however, its atmosphere was even just slightly thinner or its magnetic fields were weaker, Proxima b would be exposed to extinction-level superflares. The survival of life on Proxima b depends, it would seem, on just how Earth-like this exoplanet really is. Atri’s work was published in the Monthly Notices Letters of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Studies like this reveal more detail about the worlds surrounding us. Recent technological developments and discoveries made by the various existing space exploration devices allow us to create more accurate computer models. With the coming of even better technology in the next couple of years, we may be able to finally confirm whether or not these so-called other Earths are truly habitable.
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