Astronomers Have a New Way to Find Exoplanets in Cataclysmic Binary Systems

Artist’s impression of a cataclysmic variable system as seen from the surface of an orbiting planet Credit Departamento de Imagen y Difusion FIME-UANL/ Lic. Debahni Selene Lopez Morales D.R. 2022 Licence type Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Have you heard of LU Camelopardalis, QZ Serpentis, V1007 Herculis and BK Lyncis? No, they’re not members of a boy band in ancient Rome. They’re Cataclysmic Variables, binary stars that are so close together one star draws material from its sibling. This causes the pair to vary wildly in brightness.

Can planets exist in this chaotic environment? Can we spot them? A new study answers yes to both.

Continue reading “Astronomers Have a New Way to Find Exoplanets in Cataclysmic Binary Systems”

An Ambitious Plan to Find Earth 2.0

When it comes to astronomy, the more instruments watching the sky, the better. Which is why it has been so frustrating that the world’s rising superpower – China – has long lacked focus on space-science missions. In recent years, with some notable exceptions, China’s space agency has focused on lunar exploration and human spaceflight, as well as some remote monitoring capabilities, leaving the technical know-how of arguably the world’s second more capable country on the sidelines when it comes to collecting space science data. Now, a team led by Jian Ge of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory has suggested the most ambitious Chinese-led space science mission to date. And it plans to search for one of the holy grails of current astronomy research – an exoplanet like Earth.

Continue reading “An Ambitious Plan to Find Earth 2.0”

Earth has Clouds of Water. Hot Exoplanets Have Clouds of Sand

Artist's impression of a Lava World. The exoplanet K2-141b is so close to its host star that it likely has magma oceans and surface temperatures over 3000 degrees. c. ESO

A team of astronomers studied brown dwarfs to figure out how hot exoplanets form clouds of sand. They found that sand clouds can only exist in a narrow range of temperatures.

Continue reading “Earth has Clouds of Water. Hot Exoplanets Have Clouds of Sand”

Water Worlds Could Have Plumes of Nutrients Carried up From Down Below

This reprocessed colour view of Jupiter’s moon Europa was made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s.

Earth’s oceans are one huge, uniform electrolyte solution. They contain salt (sodium chloride) and other nutrients like magnesium, sulphate, and calcium. We can’t survive without electrolytes, and life on Earth might look very different without the oceans’ electrolyte content. It might even be non-existent.

On Earth, electrolytes are released into the oceans from rock by different processes like volcanism and hydrothermal activity.

Are these life-enabling nutrients available on water worlds?

Continue reading “Water Worlds Could Have Plumes of Nutrients Carried up From Down Below”

Using the Sun as a Gravitational Lens Would Let Us See Exoplanets With Incredible Resolution

An artist view of countless exoplanets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Have you ever seen wispy arcs and rings in astronomical images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories? These unusual features are caused by a quirk of nature called gravitational lensing, which occurs when light from a distant object is distorted by a closer massive object along the same line of sight. This distortion effectively creates a giant lens which magnifies the background light source, allowing astronomers to observe objects embedded within those lens-created arcs and rings that are otherwise be too far and too dim to see.

A group of researchers are working on plans to build a spacecraft that could apply this quirk by using our Sun as a gravitational lens. Their goal is to see distant exoplanets orbiting other stars, and to image an Earth-like exoplanet, seeing it in exquisite detail, at a resolution even better than the well-known Apollo 8 Earthrise photo.

Continue reading “Using the Sun as a Gravitational Lens Would Let Us See Exoplanets With Incredible Resolution”

Two New Rocky Planets Discovered Close to the Solar System

An artist's illustration of two newly-discovered super-Earths. They're only 33 light years away and they orbit a red dwarf named HD 260655. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

TESS has struck paydirt again. NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft has found two new super-Earths orbiting a star only 33 light-years away. These are two of the closest rocky planets ever found.

Continue reading “Two New Rocky Planets Discovered Close to the Solar System”

How Do Hot Jupiters Get So Close to Their Stars?

An illustration of a Hot Jupiter orbiting close to its star. Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

In this age of exoplanet discovery, we’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets of different types. The hot Jupiter is one of the most unusual types. There’s nothing like it in our Solar System.

Hot Jupiters are massive gas planets, and they attract a lot of attention because they’re so close to their stars and reach blistering temperatures. Their existence spawns a lot of questions about their formation and evolution. A new study is trying to answer some of those questions by determining hot Jupiters’ ages.

Continue reading “How Do Hot Jupiters Get So Close to Their Stars?”

Objects That Share the Same Orbit are Common in the Solar System. But we’ve Never Seen co-Orbital Exoplanets. Why?

“Where are all the Trojans” is a question valid in both the study of ancient history and the study of exoplanets. Trojan bodies, which share orbital paths with other, larger planets, are prevalent in our solar system – most obviously in the Trojan asteroids that follow Jupiter around on its orbital path. However, they seem absent from any star system found with exoplanets. Now, a team of researchers from the SETI Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center thinks they have found a reason why.

Continue reading “Objects That Share the Same Orbit are Common in the Solar System. But we’ve Never Seen co-Orbital Exoplanets. Why?”

“Wind-Ruffled Waves, Foam and Wave Shadows, Above Natural Blue Seawater.” This is how we’ll Spot Exoplanets With Oceans

Artist's depiction of a waterworld. A new study suggests that Earth is in a minority when it comes to planets, and that most habitable planets may be greater than 90% ocean. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
Artist's depiction of a waterworld. A new study suggests that Earth is in a minority when it comes to planets, and that most habitable planets may be greater than 90% ocean. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Our planet’s oceans generate tell-tale light signatures when sunlight reflects off them. Exoplanets with significant ocean coverage may do the same. Can we use the Earth’s reflectance signatures to identify other Earth-like worlds with large oceans?

We should be able to, eventually.

Continue reading ““Wind-Ruffled Waves, Foam and Wave Shadows, Above Natural Blue Seawater.” This is how we’ll Spot Exoplanets With Oceans”

These are the Best Places to Search for Habitable Exomoons

An artist's conception of a habitable exomoon. Credit: NASA

Our Solar System contains eight planets and more than 200 moons. The large majority of those moons have no chance of being habitable, but some of them—Europa and Enceladus, for example—are strong candidates in the search for life.

Is it the same in other solar systems?

Continue reading “These are the Best Places to Search for Habitable Exomoons”