The LIFE Telescope Passed its First Test: It Detected Biosignatures on Earth.

LIFE will have five separate space telescopes that fly in formation and work together to detect biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres. Image Credit: LIFE, ETH Zurich

We know that there are thousands of exoplanets out there, with many millions more waiting to be discovered. But the vast majority of exoplanets are simply uninhabitable. For the few that may be habitable, we can only determine if they are by examining their atmospheres. LIFE, the Large Interferometer for Exoplanets, can help.

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Planets in Binary Star Systems Could be Nice and Habitable

An AI-generated artist's concept of a planet in a binary star system where the orbits may not yet be in alignment. Credit: Michael S. Helfenbein.
An AI-generated artist's concept of a planet in a binary star system where the orbits may not yet be in alignment. Credit: Michael S. Helfenbein.

The Star Wars world Tatooine is one of the most recognizable planets in the realm of science fiction. It’s a harsh place, and its conditions shaped the hero Luke Skywalker in many ways. In the reality-based Universe, there may not be many worlds like it. That’s because, according to a new study out from Yale researchers, the Universe likes to be more orderly, and that affects planets and their environments.

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Some Intelligent Civilizations Will Be Trapped on their Worlds

With thousands of exoplanets discovered so far, astronomers are learning how different planets can be. What if intelligent alien civilizations arise on extremely different habitable worlds? Some civilizations could develop space exploration technologies, but others would be trapped underwater, under ice, or in enormous gravity wells. How could they escape? Image Credit: DALL-E

Evolution has produced a wondrously diverse variety of lifeforms here on Earth. It just so happens that talking primates with opposable thumbs rose to the top and are building a spacefaring civilization. And we’re land-dwellers. But what about other planets? If the dominant species on an ocean world builds a technological civilization of some sort, would they be able to escape their ocean home and explore space?

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If Exoplanets Have Lightning, it’ll Complicate the Search for Life

Lightning on exoplanets could mask some biosignatures and amplify others. Image Credit: NASA/T.Pyle

Discovering exoplanets is almost routine now. We’ve found over 5,500 exoplanets, and the next step is to study their atmospheres and look for biosignatures. The James Webb Space Telescope is leading the way in that effort. But in some exoplanet atmospheres, lightning could make the JWST’s job more difficult by obscuring some potential biosignatures while amplifying others.

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Dying Stars Could Have Completely New Habitable Zones

As stars like our Sun age, their habitable zones shift, and they can warm planets that were once frozen. Image Credit: ESO/L. Cal├žada

Aging stars that become red giants increase their luminosity and can wreak havoc on planets that were once in the star’s habitable zones. When the Sun becomes a red giant and expands, its habitable zone will move further outward, meaning Earth will likely lose its atmosphere, its water, and its life. But for planets further out, their time in the habitable zone will just begin.

Is there enough time for life to arise on these newly habitable planets?

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Did the Galileo Mission Find Life on Earth?

An image of Earth taken by the Galileo spacecraft in 1990. Credit: NASA/JPL

In the Fall of 1989, the Galileo spacecraft was launched into space, bound for Jupiter and its family of moons. Given the great distance to the king of planets, Galileo had to take a roundabout tour through the inner solar system, making a flyby of Venus in 1990 and Earth in 1990 and 1992 just to gain enough speed to reach Jupiter. During the flybys of Earth Galileo took several images of our planet, which astronomers have used to discover life on Earth.

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Some Young Planets Are Flattened Smarties, not Spheres.

This image from supercomputer simulations shows how some exoplanets form as 'flattened Smarties' rather than spheres. It shows the same planet from the top (left) and the side (right.) The images are from supercomputer simulations of planetary formation. Image Credit: Fenton and Stamatellos 2024.

One of contemporary astronomy’s most pressing questions concerns planet formation. We can see more deeply than ever into very young solar systems where planets are taking shape in the disks around young stars. But our view is still clouded by all the gas and dust in these young systems.

The picture of planet formation just got cloudier with the discovery that some young planets are shaped like flattened candies rather than spheres.

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Atmospheres in the TRAPPIST-1 System Should be Long Gone

Illustration of the Trappist-1 system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Trappist-1 is a fascinating exoplanetary system. Seven worlds orbiting a red dwarf star just 40 light-years away. All of the worlds are similar to Earth in mass and size, and 3 or 4 of them are potentially habitable. Imagine exploring a system of life-rich worlds within easy traveling distance of each other. It’s a wonderful dream, but as a new study shows it isn’t likely that life exists in the system. It’s more likely the planets are barren and stripped of their atmospheres.

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A Super-Earth (and Possible Earth-Sized) Exoplanet Found in the Habitable Zone

Artist depiction of the surface of a super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Astronomers have found a new Super-Earth orbiting an M-dwarf (red dwarf) star about 137 light-years away. The planet is named TOI-715b, and it’s about 1.55 Earth’s radius and is inside the star’s habitable zone. There’s also another planetary candidate in the system. It’s Earth-sized, and if it’s confirmed, it will be the smallest habitable zone planet TESS has discovered so far.

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Webb Directly Images Two Planets Orbiting White Dwarfs

Artist's rendition of a white dwarf from the surface of an orbiting exoplanet. Astronomers have found two giant planet candidates orbiting two white dwarfs. More proof that giant planets can surve their stars' red giant phases. Image Credit: Madden/Cornell University

In several billion years, our Sun will become a white dwarf. What will happen to Jupiter and Saturn when the Sun transitions to become a stellar remnant? Life could go on, though the giant planets will likely drift further away from the Sun.

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