Half of this Exoplanet is Covered in Lava

Like Kepler-10 b, illustrated above, the exoplanet HD 63433 d is a small, rocky planet in a tight orbit of its star. HD 63433 d is the smallest confirmed exoplanet younger than 500 million years old. It's also the closest discovered Earth-sized planet this young, at about 400 million years old. NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Astronomers working with TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) have discovered a planet that’s been left out in the Sun too long. Or at least half of it has. The newly discovered planet is tidally locked to its star, and one side is completely molten.

Continue reading “Half of this Exoplanet is Covered in Lava”

GJ 367b is Another Dead World Orbiting a Red Dwarf

This artist's concept illustrates a young, red dwarf star surrounded by three planets. There's growing evidence that red dwarfs place serious limits on exoplanet habitability. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech - NASA Image of the Day, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17104843

Red dwarf exoplanet habitability is a hot topic in space science. These small dim stars host lots of exoplanets, including small rocky ones the size of Earth. But the little stars emit extremely powerful flares that can damage and strip away atmospheres.

If we’re ever going to understand red dwarf habitability, we need to understand the atmospheres of the exoplanets that orbit them.

Continue reading “GJ 367b is Another Dead World Orbiting a Red Dwarf”

Millions of Satellites Could Have a Profound Effect on the Earth’s Ionosphere

Mega-constellations of satellites. Credit: ESA-Science Office

Hardly a day goes by where a story hits the headlines about our abuse of the Earth’s precious environment be that the atmosphere or the oceans, forests or desert. When it comes to the atmosphere we all tend to immediately turn our attention to pollution, to gasses being released and disturbing the delicate balance. Yet a paper recently published points to a new demon, megaconstellations of satellites damaging the ionosphere – the ionised part of the upper atmosphere.

Continue reading “Millions of Satellites Could Have a Profound Effect on the Earth’s Ionosphere”

ESA’s Ariel Mission is Approved to Begin Construction

An artist's impression of the ESA's Ariel space telescope. It'll examine 1,000 exoplanet atmospheres. Image Credit: ESA

We’re about to learn a lot more about exoplanets. The ESA has just approved the construction of its Ariel mission, which will give us our first large survey of exoplanet atmospheres. The space telescope will help us answer fundamental questions about how planets form and evolve.

Continue reading “ESA’s Ariel Mission is Approved to Begin Construction”

Wow. JWST Just Found Methane in an Exoplanet Atmosphere

This artist’s rendering shows the warm exoplanet WASP-80 b. When viewed with human eyes, the colour may appear bluish due to the lack of high-altitude clouds and the presence of atmospheric methane identified by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. That makes it similar to the planets Uranus and Neptune in our own solar system. Image credit: NASA.

If there’s one chemical that causes excitement in the search for biosignatures on other worlds, it’s methane. It’s not a slam dunk because it has both biotic and abiotic sources. But finding it in an exoplanet’s atmosphere means that planet deserves a closer look.

Continue reading “Wow. JWST Just Found Methane in an Exoplanet Atmosphere”

Take a Plunge Into the Ice Giants

The unique atmospheric compositions of ‘ice giant’ planets Uranus and Neptune were recreated to simulate a plunge deep within them. These simulations are part of preparation for eventual atmospheric probes the ESA intends to send. Image Credit: University of Stuttgart’s High Enthalpy Flow Diagnostics Group

Our Solar System’s ice giants, Uranus and Neptune, have been largely left out of the planetary probe game. While all of the other planets—including even the demoted Pluto—have been the subjects of dedicated missions, the ice giants have not. In fact, the only spacecraft to ever even fly by Uranus and Neptune was Voyager 2 in the late 1980s.

Continue reading “Take a Plunge Into the Ice Giants”

Life Might Be Easiest to Find on Planets that Match an Earlier Earth

Artist's impression of the "pale orange dot" - what early Earth would have looked like. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Francis Reddy

We’re inching closer and closer to reliably detecting biosignatures on distant planets. Much of the focus is on determining which chemicals indicate life’s presence.

But life can also create free energy in a system, and excess energy can create chemical disequilibrium. That’s what happened on Earth when life got going. Could chemical disequilibrium be a biosignature?

Continue reading “Life Might Be Easiest to Find on Planets that Match an Earlier Earth”

Spaceflight is Polluting the Atmosphere with Metal

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft launches on the Artemis I flight test, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Humans can’t seem to interact with the environment at all without fouling it in some way. From plastic bags in the ocean’s deepest regions to soot on Himalayan glaciers, our waste is finding its way into Earth’s most difficult-to-reach places.

Now, we can add metals in the stratosphere to this ignominious list.

Continue reading “Spaceflight is Polluting the Atmosphere with Metal”

Is it Life, or is it Volcanoes?

This artist's illustration shows an exoplanet with active volcanoes. But from a great distance we can't see the volcanoes, only the effect they have on their atmospheres, and that can muddy the waters when it comes to biosignatures. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KRBwyle)

Astronomers are working hard to understand biosignatures and how they indicate life’s presence on an exoplanet. But each planet we encounter is a unique puzzle. When it comes to planetary atmospheres, carbon is a big piece of the puzzle because it has a powerful effect on climate and biogeochemistry. If scientists can figure out how and where a planet’s carbon comes from and how it behaves in the atmosphere, they’ve made progress in solving the puzzle.

But one of the problems with carbon in exoplanet atmospheres is that it can send mixed signals.

Continue reading “Is it Life, or is it Volcanoes?”

Engineers Want to Make Methanol by Pulling Carbon Right Out of the Air

Researchers at Western Virginia University are working on a method of extracting carbon out of exhausted air from office buildings and using it to make methanol. Image Credit: WVU Illustration/Savanna Leech

Methanol is one of our most extensively used raw materials. It’s used as a solvent, a pesticide, and in combination with other chemicals in the manufacture of plastic, clothing, plywood, and in pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.

It’s also used as a fuel.

Continue reading “Engineers Want to Make Methanol by Pulling Carbon Right Out of the Air”