Categories: Astronomy

Exciting Exoplanet News from AAS: How Rocky Worlds are Made; Oceans on Super-Earths

Astronomers from around the world gathered in Seattle today for the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Although it’s just past noon on the West Coast, the discoveries are already beginning to unfurl. Here are some of the highlights from this morning’s exoplanet session. And the keyword seems to be “water.”

A Recipe for Earth-like Planets?

There’s no doubt that the term “Earth-like” is a bit of a misnomer. It requires only that a planet is both Earth-size and circles its host star within the habitable zone. It says nothing about the composition of that planet.

Now, Courtney Dressing from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and her colleagues have taken detailed observations of small exoplanets in order to nail down a digestible recipe.

Dressing and her colleagues focused on only a handful of exoplanets because they had to take painstakingly long, but accurate measurements. They used the HARPS-N instrument on the 3.6-meter Telescope in the Canary Islands to precisely determine the planets’ densities.

Most recently the team targeted Kepler-93b, a planet 1.5 times the size of Earth and 4.01 times the mass of Earth. Kepler 93-b, as well as all other exoplanets with sizes less than 1.6 times Earth’s size and six times Earth’s mass, show a tight relationship between size and mass. In other words, when plotted by size vs. mass, they fit onto the same line as Venus and the Earth, suggesting they’re all rocky planets.

Larger and more massive exoplanets do not follow the same trend. Nature simply doesn’t want to make rocky planets that are more massive than six Earth masses. Instead, their densities are significantly lower, meaning their recipes include a large fraction of water or hydrogen and helium.

“Today if you’re not too worn out from all the holiday baking, when you get back home, I’d encourage you to check out this new recipe for rocky planets” said Dressing at the AAS press conference. The playful recipe requires one cup of magnesium, one cup of silicon, two cups of iron, two cups of oxygen, ½ teaspoon aluminum, ½ teaspoon nickel, ½ teaspoon calcium, and ¼ teaspoon sulfur.

Now you have to be patient. “Bake this for a couple million years until you start to see a thin, light brown crust form on the surface of the planet,” said Dressing. Then season it with a dash of water. “If you check back in a couple million years, maybe you’ll see some intelligent life on your planet.”

Super-Earths Have Long Lasting Oceans

Another team of astronomers took a closer look at that dash of water. There’s no doubt that life, as we know it, needs liquid water. The Earth’s oceans cover about 70 percent of the surface and have for nearly the entire history of our world. So the next logical step suggests that for life to develop on other planets, those planets would also need oceans.

Water, however, isn’t just on Earth’s surface. Studies have shown that Earth’s mantle holds several oceans’ worth of water that was dragged underground. If water weren’t able to return to the surface via volcanism, it would disappear entirely.

Laura Schaefer, also from the CfA, used computer simulations to see if this so-called deep water cycle could take place on Earth-like planets and super-Earths.

She found that small Earth-like planets outgas their water quickly, while larger super-Earths form their oceans later on. The sweet spot seems to be for planets between two and four times the mass of Earth, which are even better at establishing and maintaining oceans than our Earth. Once started, these oceans could persist for at least 10 billion years.

“If you want to look for life, you should look at older super-Earths,” said Schaefer. It’s a statement that applies to both realms of research presented today.

The AAS will continue throughout the week. So stay tuned because Universe Today will continue bringing you the highlights.

Shannon Hall

Shannon Hall is a freelance science journalist. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. Currently, she is working toward a second M.S. from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. You can follow her on Twitter @ShannonWHall.

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