Exoplanet Could be an Enormous Version of Europa

Certain exoplanets pique scientists’ interest more than others. Some of the most interesting are those that lie in the habitable zone of their stars. However, not all of those planets would be similar to Earth – in fact, finding a planet about the size of Earth is already stretching the limits of most exoplanet-hunting telescopes. So the scientific community rejoiced when researchers at the Université de Montréal announced they found an exoplanet in the size range of the Earth. However, it appears to be almost entirely covered in water, making it more similar to a giant version of Europa, the ice-covered moon of Jupiter. 

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Webb Detects the Smell of Rotten Eggs in an Exoplanet’s Atmosphere

Studying the atmospheres of exoplanets is helpful for several reasons. Sometimes, it helps in understanding their formation. Sometimes, it helps define whether the planet might be habitable. And sometimes, you allow a press officer to write the headline “Stench of a gas giant? Nearby exoplanet reeks of rotten eggs.” That headline was released by John Hopkins University’s (JHU) press department after a study describing the atmosphere of one of the nearest known “hot Jupiters” was recently published in Nature.

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Alpha Centauri Could Have a Super Jupiter in Orbit

This image of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri AB also shows the much fainter red dwarf star, Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The picture was created from pictures forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The blue halo around Alpha Centauri AB is an artifact of the photographic process, the star is really pale yellow in colour like the Sun. Image Credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2 Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Mahdi Zamani

The three-body problem is one of Nature’s thorniest problems. The gravitational interactions and resulting movements of three bodies are notoriously difficult to predict because of instability. A planet orbiting two stars is an example of the three-body problem, but it’s sometimes called a “restricted three-body problem.” In that case, there are some potential stable orbits for a planet.

A new study shows that the nearby Alpha Centauri AB pair could host a Super Jupiter in a stable orbit.

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Exomoons: Why study them? What can they teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Artist's depiction of an exomoon orbiting a gas giant within the star's habitable zone. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Universe Today has had the recent privilege of investigating a multitude of scientific disciplines, including impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, astrobiology, solar physics, comets, planetary atmospheres, planetary geophysics, cosmochemistry, meteorites, radio astronomy, extremophiles, organic chemistry, black holes, cryovolcanism, planetary protection, dark matter, supernovae, and neutron stars, and how they both individually and collectively contribute to our greater understanding of our place in the universe.

Here, Universe Today discusses the growing field of exomoons with Dr. David Kipping, who is an assistant professor in the Astronomy Department at Columbia University, along with his PhD students, Benjamin Cassese and Daniel Yahalomi, regarding the importance of studying exomoons, the benefits and challenges, potential exomoon candidates, how exomoons can teach us about finding life beyond Earth, and advice for upcoming students who wish to pursue studying exomoons. Therefore, what is the importance of studying exomoons?

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Which Stars are Lethal to their Planets?

Many years ago, there was a viral YouTube video called “History of the entire world, i guess,” which has been an endless source of internet memes since its release. One of the most prominent is also scientifically accurate—when describing why animals couldn’t start living on land, the video’s creator, Bill Wurtz, intones, “The Sun is a deadly laser.” 

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Sulphur Makes A Surprise Appearance in this Exoplanet’s Atmosphere

This artist's illustration shows the Neptune-like exoplanet GJ 3470b, which has an atmosphere rich in sulphur. The planet's atmosphere holds clues to how it and other similar planets formed. Image Credit: Department of Astronomy, UW–Madison

At our current level of knowledge, many exoplanet findings take us by surprise. The only atmospheric chemistry we can see with clarity is Earth’s, and we still have many unanswered questions about how our planet and its atmosphere developed. With Earth as our primary reference point, many things about exoplanet atmospheres seem puzzling in comparison and generate excitement and deeper questions.

That’s what’s happened with GJ-3470 b, a Neptune-like exoplanet about 96 light-years away.

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An Earth-sized Exoplanet Found Orbiting a Jupiter-Sized Star

This artist's illustration shows the exoplanet SPECULOOS-3 b orbiting its red dwarf star. The planet is as big around as Earth, while its star is slightly bigger than Jupiter – but much more massive. The planet is a prime candidate for follow-up studies with the JWST. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Red dwarf stars, also known as M-dwarfs, dominate the Milky Way’s stellar population. They can last for 100 billion years or longer. Since these long-lived stars make up the bulk of the stars in our galaxy, it stands to reason that they host the most planets.

Astronomers examined one red dwarf star named SPECULOOS-3, a Jupiter-sized star about 55 light-years away, and found an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting it. It’s an excellent candidate for further study with the James Webb Space Telescope.

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Research Work Begins on the Habitable Worlds Observatory

This artist’s concept features one of multiple initial possible design options for NASA’s Habitable Worlds Observatory. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

NASA are planning on building a telescope to hunt for habitable worlds. The imaginatively named ‘Habitable Worlds Observatory’ is at least a decade away but NASA have started to develop the underlying technology needed. The contracts have been awarded to three companies to research the next-generation optics, mission designs and telescope features at a cost of $17.5 million. Work should begin late summer 2024.

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Suppressing Starlight: How to Find Other Earths

One underappreciated aspect of the current flood of exoplanet discoveries is the technical marvels that enable it. Scientists and engineers must capture and detect minute signals from stars and planets light years away. With the technologies of even a few decades ago, that would have been impossible – now it seems commonplace. However, there are still some technical hurdles to overcome before finding the “holy grail” of exoplanet hunting – an Earth analog. To help that discussion, a team of researchers led by Bertrand Mennesson at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has released a paper detailing the current experimental and theoretical work around one of the most critical technical aspects of researching exoplanet atmospheres – starshades.

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What Impact Does Ozone Have on an Exoplanet?

Artist's illustration of Proxima Centauri b. ESO/M. Kornmesser

As we discover more and more exoplanets – and the current total is in excess of 5,200 – we continue to try to learn more about them. Astrobiologists busy themselves analysing their atmospheres searching for anything that provides a sign of life. It is quite conceivable of course that the Universe is teeming with life based on very different chemistry to ours but we often look to life on Earth to know what to look for. On Earth for example, ozone forms through photolysis of molecular oxygen and is an indicator of life. Using the James Webb Space Telescope astronomers are searching stars in the habitable zone of their star for the presence of ozone and how it impacts their climate.

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