What’s the Connection Between the Chemistry of a Star and the Formation of its Planets?

Scientists seem to have come up with a new parlor game – how many ways can we potentially detect exoplanets?  The two most common methods, the transit method and the Doppler method, each have their own problems.  Alternative methods are starting to sprout up, and a new one was recently proposed by Jacob Nibauer, an undergraduate student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.  His suggestion: look at a star’s chemical composition. And his findings after analyzing data on some 1,500 stars hold some surprises.

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How To Search the Chemical Makeup of Exoplanet Atmospheres for Hints at Their History

Author’s note – this article was written with Dr. Vincent Kofman, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), working in the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration (SEEC), and the lead author on the research it discusses.

Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in the recent decades. Planet hunters like TESS and Kepler, as well as numerous ground-based efforts, have pushed the field and we are starting to get a total number of planets that will allow us to perform effective statistical analysis on some of them.

Not only do the detected number of planets show us how common they are; it exposes our lack of understanding about how planets form, what conditions are present, and when planets may be habitable. The transit detection of an exoplanet primarily yields the orbital period, or the length of a year on the planet, and the relative size of the planet with respect to the star. The next steps are to characterize the planet. This usually requires follow up studies, using different observational strategies and more powerful telescopes.

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The Moons of Rogue Planets Could Have Liquid Surface Water and Thick Atmospheres. They Could be Habitable

The search for life on exoplanets takes a fairly conservative approach. It focuses on life that is similar to that of Earth. Sure, it’s quite possible that life comes in many exotic forms, and scientists have speculated about all the strange forms life might take, but the simple fact is that Earth life is the only form we currently understand. So most research focuses on life forms that, like us, are carbon based with a biology that relies on liquid water. But even with that narrow view, life could still be hiding in places we don’t expect.

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Exoplanet Surveys are Leaning Towards the Possibility That our Solar System is… Normal

One of the unspoken caveats of most exoplanet discovery missions is that they only operate for a few years.  Such a short observing window means there are planets with longer orbital periods, usually further out from the star, that those surveys would completely miss.  Knowing this would be a problem, a team of astronomers arranged the California Legacy Survey three decades ago in order to monitor as many stars as possible for as long a time as possible.  Recently they released their first results, which show solar systems that are surprisingly like our own.

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Larger Rocky Planets Might be Rare Because They Shrunk

Researchers at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics published a paper last week that just might explain a mysterious gap in planet sizes beyond our solar system. Planets between 1.5 and 2 times Earth’s radius are strikingly rare. This new research suggests that the reason might be because planets slightly larger than this, called mini-Neptunes, lose their atmospheres over time, shrinking to become ‘super-Earths’ only slightly larger than our home planet. These changing planets only briefly have a radius the right size to fill the gap, quickly shrinking beyond it. The implication for planetary science is exciting, as it affirms that planets are not static objects, but evolving and dynamic worlds.

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Astronomers are Watching a gas Giant Grow, Right in Front of Their Eyes

In the vastness of space, astronomers are likely to find instances of almost every astronomical phenomena if they look hard enough.  Many planetary phenomena are starting to come into sharper focus as the astronomy community continues to focus on finding exoplanets.  Now a team led by Yifan Zhou at UT Austin has directly imaged a gas giant still in formation.

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A Recent Megaflare Shows that Proxima Centauri is not a Nice Place to Live

Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to our Solar System, has been a focal point of scientific study since it was first confirmed (in 2016). This terrestrial planet (aka. rocky) orbits Proxima Centauri, an M-type (red dwarf) star located 4.2 light-years beyond our Solar System – and is a part of the Alpha Centauri system. In addition to its proximity and rocky composition, it is also located within its parent star’s habitable zone (HZ).

Until a mission can be sent to this planet (such as Breakthrough Starshot), astrobiologists are forced to postulate about the possibility that life could exist there. Unfortunately, an international campaign that monitored Proxima Centauri for months using nine space- and ground-based telescopes recently spotted an extreme flare coming from the star, one which would have rendered Proxima b uninhabitable.

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Giant Planet is Found at an Extreme Distance From its Star

One of the best things about the sheer number of exoplanets that astronomers are currently finding is how some are just very different. Those differences can sometimes undermine standing theories, and prompt scientists to start considering new theories that account for the new information.  That is undoubtedly what will happen to accommodate a new massive planet found by a team led by Dutch scientists.  This planet is unique in one very special way – it is about 110 times farther away from its star than the Earth is from the sun.

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Finding Oxygen on an Alien World Doesn't Always Mean There's Life There

We now know the universe is filled with planets. By one estimate, there are more than 20 billion Earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone. But how many of them are likely to have life? And how would we know if they do? Unless they happen to send us a very clear message directly, the most likely way we’ll discover exoplanet life is by looking at their atmospheres.

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