The differences between Earth and Venus are obvious to us. One is radiant with life and adorned with glittering seas, and the other is a scorching, glowering hellhole, its volcanic surface shrouded by thick clouds and visible only with radar. But the difference wasn’t always clear. In fact, we used to call Venus Earth’s sister planet.
Can astronomers tell exo-Earths and exo-Venuses apart from a great distance?
Astronomers have continued to watch this intriguing star system, and now, using observations from the last 12 years, astrophysicist Jason Wang has put together a time lapse video showing the orbital motions of the four planets.
Detecting exoplanets was frontier science not long ago. But now we’ve found over 5,000 of them, and we expect to find them around almost every star. The next step is to characterize these planets more fully in hopes of finding ones that might support life. Directly imaging them will be part of that effort.
But to do that, astronomers need to block out the light from the planets’ stars. That’s challenging in binary star systems.
While the Earth absorbs a lot of energy from the Sun, a lot of it is reflected back into space. The sunlight reflected from Earth is called Earthshine. We can see it on the dark portion of the Moon during a crescent Moon. The Farmer’s Almanac said it used to be called “the new Moon in the old Moon’s arms.”
Earthshine is one instance of planetshine, and when we look at the light from distant exoplanets, we’re looking directly at their planetshine without it bouncing off another object.
If distant astronomers were looking at Earthshine the way we look at exoplanet shine, would the light tell them our planet is rippling with life?
AU Microscopii is a small red dwarf star about 32 light-years away. It’s far too dim for the unaided human eye, but that doesn’t diminish its appeal. The star has at least two exoplanets and hosts a circumstellar debris disk.
It’s also young, only about 23 million years old, and it’s the second-closest pre-main sequence star to Earth. The JWST recently imaged the star and its surroundings and found something surprising.
Future historians might look back on this time and call it the ‘exoplanet age.’ We’ve found over 5,000 exoplanets, and we’ll keep finding more. Next, we’ll move beyond just finding them, and we’ll turn our efforts to finding biosignatures, the special chemical fingerprints that living processes imprint on exoplanet atmospheres.
But there’s more to biosignatures than atmospheric chemistry. On a planet with lots of plant life, light can be a biosignature, too.
For planet-hunters, finding an Earth-sized exoplanet must be special. NASA estimates there are about 100 billion planets in the Milky Way, but the large majority of the 5,000+ exoplanets we’ve found are extremely inhospitable. So finding one that’s similar to ours is kind of comforting.
In this case, it’s even more interesting because it’s the second Earth-sized planet orbiting the same star.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful telescope ever launched into space. That power has led to a string of observational successes: ancient galaxies, obscured star-forming regions, and an exoplanet atmosphere. Now the telescope has identified its first exoplanet, and it’s a rocky planet the same size as Earth.
“Death by star” is a fate awaiting most planets in star systems. That includes our Sun, Venus, and Mercury a few billion years from now. And, astronomers now see that same fate awaiting Kepler-1658b. It’s a hot Jupiter exoplanet orbiting an evolved F-type yellow-white dwarf star about 2600 light-years away from Earth.
Astronomers are keenly interested in red dwarfs and the planets that orbit them. Up to 85% of the stars in the Milky Way could be red dwarfs, and 40% of them might host Earth-like exoplanets in their habitable zones, according to some research.
But there are some problems with their potential habitability. One of those problems is tidal locking.