Hubble Finds 3 (Relatively) Dry Exoplanets, Raising Questions About Water Outside The Solar System

Artist's conception of gas giant planet HD 209458b in the constellation Pegasus, which has less water vapor in its atmosphere than expected. Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Bacon (STScI) and N. Madhusudhan (UC)

Surprise! Three planets believed to be good candidates for having water vapor in their atmosphere actually have much lower quantities than expected.

The planets (HD 189733b, HD 209458b, and WASP-12b) are “hot Jupiters” that are orbiting very close to their parent star, at a distance where it was expected the extreme temperatures would turn water into a vapor that could be seen from afar.

But observations of the planets with the Hubble Space Telescope, who have temperatures between 816 and 2,204 degrees Celsius (1,500 and 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit), show only a tenth to a thousandth of the water astronomers expected.

“Our water measurement in one of the planets, HD 209458b, is the highest-precision measurement of any chemical compound in a planet outside our solar system, and we can now say with much greater certainty than ever before that we’ve found water in an exoplanet,” stated Nikku Madhusudhan, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, England who led the research. “However, the low water abundance we have found so far is quite astonishing.”

This finding, if confirmed by other observations, could force exoplanet formation theory to be revised and could even have implications for how much water is available in so-called “super-Earths”, rocky planets that are somewhat larger than our own, the astronomers said.

Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It's located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It’s located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

That theory states that planets form over time as small dust particles stick to each other and grow into larger bodies. As it becomes a planet and takes on an atmosphere from surrounding gas bits, it’s believed that those elements should be “enhanced” in proportion to its star, especially in the case of oxygen. That oxygen in turn should be filled with water.

“We should be prepared for much lower water abundances than predicted when looking at super-Earths (rocky planets that are several times the mass of Earth),” Madhusudhan stated.

The research will be published today (July 24) in the Astrophysical Journal.

Source: NASA

First Exoplanet Discovered Beyond the “Snow Line”

This artist's conception shows the Uranus-sized exoplanet Kepler-421b, which orbits an orange, type K star about 1,000 light-years from Earth. Kepler-421b is the transiting exoplanet with the longest known year, circling its star once every 704 days. It is located beyond the "snow line" – the dividing line between rocky and gaseous planets – and might have formed in place rather than migrating from a different orbit. David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Data from NASA’s crippled Kepler space telescope has unleashed a windfall of hot Jupiters — sizzling gas giants that circle their host star within days — and only a handful of Earth-like planets. A quick analysis might make it seem as though hot Jupiters are far more common than their smaller and more distant counterparts.

But in large surveys, astronomers have to be careful of the observational biases introduced into their data. Kepler, for example, mainly finds broiling furnace worlds close to their host stars. These are easier to spot than small exoplanets that take hundreds of days to transit.

New data, however, shows a transiting exoplanet, Kepler-421b, with the longest known year, clocking in at 704 days.

“Finding Kepler-421b was a stroke of luck,” said lead author David Kipping from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in a press release. “The farther a planet is from its star, the less likely it is to transit the star from Earth’s point of view. It has to line up just right.”

Kepler-416b's folded light curve. Image Credit:
Kepler-421b’s folded light curve. Blue points are data from the first transit observed, and red points are the second transit.  Image Credit: Kipping et al.

Kepler-421b is roughly 4 times Earth’s girth and at least 60 times Earth’s mass. It circles its host star at about 1.2 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. But because its host star is much smaller than our Sun, this places its orbit beyond the snow line — the dividing line between rocky and gas planets.

On Earth, snow lines typically form at high elevations where falling temperatures turn atmospheric moisture to snow. Similarly, in planetary systems, snow lines are thought to form in the distant, colder reaches of the stars’ disk.

Depending on the distance from the star, however, other more exotic molecules — such as carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide — can freeze and turn to snow. This forms a frost on dust grains: the building blocks of planets and comets.

“The snow line is a crucial distance in planet formation theory. We think all gas giants must have formed beyond this distance,” said Kipping.

The fact that this gas giant is still beyond this distance, roughly 4 billion years after formation, suggests that it’s the first non-migrating gas giant in a transiting system found.

Astronomers currently think gas giants form by small rocky cores that glom together until the body is massive enough to accrete a gaseous envelope. As they grow, they migrate inward, sometimes moving as close to their host star as Mercury is to the Sun.

Kepler-421b may be the first exoplanet discovered to have formed in situ. But further observations, especially those of its atmosphere, will help shed light on its formation history. Unfortunately given its long year, it won’t transit again until February, 2016.

The research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

Distant Stellar Atmospheres Shed Light on How Jupiter-like Planets Form

Interior of Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA / R. J. Hall

It’s likely that Jupiter-like planets’ origins root back to either the rapid collapse of a dense cloud or small rocky cores that glom together until the body is massive enough to accrete a gaseous envelope.

Although these two competing theories are both viable, astronomers have, for the first time, seen the latter “core accretion” theory in action. By studying the exoplanet’s host star they’ve shed light on the composition of the planet’s rocky core.

“Our results show that the formation of giant planets, as well as terrestrial planets like our own Earth, leaves subtle signatures in stellar atmospheres”, said lead author and PhD student Marcelo Tucci Maia from University of São Paulo, Brazil, in a press release.

Maia and colleagues pointed the 3.5-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope toward the constellation Cygnus, in order to take a closer look at two Sun-like stars in the distant 16 Cyg triple-star system. Both stars, having formed together from the same gaseous disk over 10 billion years ago and having reached the same mass, are nearly solar twins.

But only one star, 16 Cygni B, hosts a giant planet. By decomposing the light from the two stars into their wavelengths and looking at the difference between the two stars, the team was able to detect signatures left from the planet formation process on 16 Cygni B.

It’s the perfect laboratory to study the formation of giant planets.

Difference in chemical composition between the stars 16 Cyg A and 16 Cyg B, versus the condensation temperature of the elements in the proto-planetary nebula. If the stars had identical chemical compositions then the difference (A-B) would be zero. The star 16 Cyg A is richer in all elements relative to star 16 Cyg B. In other words, star 16 Cyg B, the host star of a giant planet, is deficient in all chemical elements, especially in the refractory elements (those with high condensation temperatures and that form dust grains more easily), suggesting evidence of a rocky core in the giant planet 16 Cyg Bb. Credits: M. Tucci Maia, J. Meléndez, I. Ramírez.
Difference in chemical composition between the stars 16 Cyg A and 16 Cyg B, versus the condensation temperature of the elements in the proto-planetary nebula. Image Credit: M. Tucci Maia, J. Meléndez, I. Ramírez.

Maia and colleagues found that the star 16 Cygni A is enhanced in all chemical elements relative to 16 Cygni B. Hence, the metals removed from 16 Cygni B were most likely removed from the protoplanetary disk in order to form the planet.

On top of the overall deficiency in all elements, 16 Cygni B has an added deficiency in the refractory elements — those with high condensation temperatures that form dust grains more easily — such as iron, aluminum, nickel, magnesium, scandium, and silicon. This helps verify what astronomers have expected all along: rocky cores are rich in refractory elements.

The team was able to decipher that these missing elements likely created a rocky core with a mass of about 1.5 to 6 Earth masses, which is similar to the estimate of Jupiter’s core.

“16 Cyg is a remarkable system, but certainly not unique,” said coauthor Ivan Ramírez from the University of Texas. “It is special because it is nearby; however, there are many other binary stars with twin components on which this experiment could be performed. This could help us find planet-host stars in binaries in a much more straightforward manner compared to all other planet-finding techniques we have available today.”

The results were accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available online.

The Search for Alien Life Could Get A Boost From NASA’s Next-Generation Rocket

Artist's conception of NASA's Space Launch System with Orion crewed deep space capsule. Credit: NASA

In three years, NASA is planning to light the fuse on a huge rocket designed to bring humans further out into the solar system.

We usually talk about SLS here in the context of the astronauts it will carry inside the Orion spacecraft, which will have its own test flight later in 2014. But today, NASA advertised a possible other use for the rocket: trying to find life beyond Earth.

At a symposium in Washington on the search for life, NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld said SLS could serve two major functions: launching bigger telescopes, and sending a mission on an express route to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The James Webb Space Telescope, with a mirror of 6.5 meters (21 feet), will in part search for exoplanets after its launch in 2018. Next-generation telescopes of 10 to 20 meters (33 to 66 feet) could pick out more, if SLS could bring them up into space.

“This will be a multi-generational search,” said Sara Seager, a planetary scientist and physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She added that the big challenge is trying to distinguish a planet like Earth from the light of its parent star; the difference between the two is a magnitude of 10 billion. “Our Earth is actually extremely hard to find,” she said.

Much like our solar system, Kepler-62 is home to two habitable zone worlds. The small shining object seen to the right of Kepler-62f is Kepler-62e. Orbiting on the inner edge of the habitable zone, Kepler-62e is roughly 60 percent larger than Earth. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.
Much like our solar system, Kepler-62 is home to two habitable zone worlds. The small shining object seen to the right of Kepler-62f is Kepler-62e. Orbiting on the inner edge of the habitable zone, Kepler-62e is roughly 60 percent larger than Earth. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.

While the symposium was not talking much about life in the solar system, Europa is considered one of the top candidates due to the presence of a possible subsurface ocean beneath its ice. NASA is now seeking ideas for a mission to this moon, following news that water plumes were spotted spewing from the moon’s icy south pole. A mission to Europa would take seven years with the technology currently in NASA’s hands, but the SLS would be powerful enough to speed up the trip to only three years, Grunsfeld said.

And that’s not all that SLS could do. If it does bring astronauts deeper in space as NASA hopes it will, this opens up a range of destinations for them to go to. Usually NASA talks about this in terms of its human asteroid mission, an idea it has been working on and pitching for the past year to a skeptical, budget-conscious Congress.

But in passing, John Mather (NASA’s senior project scientist for Webb) said it’s possible astronauts could be sent to maintain the telescope. Webb is supposed to be parked in a Lagrange point (gravitationally stable location) in the exact opposite direction of the sun, almost a million miles away. It’s a big contrast to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was conveniently parked in low Earth orbit for astronauts to fix every so often with the space shuttle.

An Artist's Conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA.
An Artist’s Conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA.

While NASA works on the funding and design for larger telescope mirrors, Webb is one of the two new space telescopes it is focusing on in the search for life. Webb’s infrared eyes will be able to peer at solar systems being born, once it is launched in 2018. Complementary to that will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will fly in 2017 and examine planets that pass in front of their parent stars to find elements in their atmospheres.

The usual cautions apply when talking about this article: NASA is talking about several missions under development, and it is unclear yet what the success of SLS or any of these will be until they are battle-tested in space.

But what this discussion does show is the agency is trying to find many purposes for its next-generation rocket, and working to align it to astrophysics goals as well as its desire to send humans further out in the solar system.

NameExoWorlds, an IAU Worldwide Contest to Name Alien Planets, Continues Controversy

This artist’s view shows an extrasolar planet orbiting a star (the white spot in the right).
This artist’s view shows an extrasolar planet orbiting a star (the white spot in the right). Image Credit: IAU/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

The International Astronomical Union has unveiled a worldwide contest, NameExoWorlds, which gives the public a role in naming planets and their host stars beyond the solar system.

It’s the latest chapter in a years-long controversy over how celestial objects, including exoplanets, are classified and named.

Although the IAU has presided over the long process of naming astronomical objects for nearly a century, until last year they didn’t feel the need to include exoplanets on this long list.

As late as March 2013, the IAU’s official word on naming exoplanets was: “The IAU sees no need and has no plan to assign names to these objects at the present stage of our knowledge.” Since there was seemingly going to be so many exoplanets, the IAU saw it too difficult to name them all.

Other organizations, however, such as the SETI institute and the space company Uwingu leapt at the opportunity to engage the public in providing names for exoplanets. Their endeavors have been widely popular with the general public, but generated discussion about how ‘official’ the names would be.

The IAU issued a later statement in April 2014 (which Universe Today covered with vigor) and claimed that these two campaigns had no bearing on the official naming process. By August 2014, the IAU had introduced new rules for naming exoplanets, drastically changing their stance and surprising many.

Now in partnership with Zooniverse, a citizen-science organization, the IAU has drawn up a list of 305 well-characterized exoplanets in 206 solar systems. Starting in September, astronomy organizations can register for the opportunity to select planets for naming.

In October, the IAU plans to ask the registered organizations to vote for the 20 to 30 worlds on the list that they want to name. The exact number will depend on the number of registered groups. In December, those groups can propose names for the worlds that get the most votes. Groups can only propose names in accordance with the following set of rules. A name must be:

—   16 characters or less in length

—   Preferably one word

—   Pronounceable (in some language)

—   Non-offensive

—   Not too similar to an existing name of an astronomical object

Starting in March 2015, the list of proposed names will be put up to an Internet vote. The winners will be validated by the IAU, and announced during a ceremony at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu in August 2015.

The popular name for a given exoplanet won’t replace the scientific name. But it will carry the IAU seal of approval.

Astronomer Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and CEO of Uwingu told Universe Today’s Senior Editor, Nancy Atkinson, that he was not surprised by the IAU’s new statement. “To my eye though, it’s just more IAU elitism, they can’t seem to get out of their elitist rut thinking they own the Universe.”

“Uwingu’s model is in our view far superior — people can directly name planets around other stars, with no one having to approve the choices,” Stern continued. “With 100 billion plus planets in the galaxy, why bother with committees of elites telling people what they do and don’t approve of?”

If nothing else, the controversy has sparked multiple venues to name exoplanets and more importantly learn about these alien worlds.

‘Vulnerable’ Earth-Like Planets Could Survive With Friction: Study

Flexible planets: NASA is studying how planets in eccentric orbits flex due to tidal forces. At left is a planet with a thick ice shell, and at right a terrestrial-type planet. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

If you’re a potentially habitable world orbiting in a zone where liquid water can exist — and then a rude gas giant planet happens to disturb your orbit — that could make it difficult or impossible for life to survive.

But even in the newly eccentric state, a new study based on simulations shows that the orbit can be made more circular again quite quickly, taking only a few hundred thousand years to accomplish. The key is the tidal forces the parent star exerts on the planet as it moves in its orbit, flexing the interior and slowing the planet down to a circular orbit.

“We found some unexpected good news for planets in vulnerable orbits,” stated Wade Henning, a University of Maryland scientist who led the work and who is working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “It turns out these planets will often experience just enough friction to move them out of harm’s way and into safer, more-circular orbits more quickly than previously predicted.

The transition period wouldn’t be pretty, since NASA states the planets “would be driven close to the point of melting” or have a “nearly melted layer” on them. The interior could also host magma oceans, depending on how intense the friction is. But a softer planet flexes more easily, allowing it to generate heat, bleed that energy off into space and gradually settle into a circular orbit. When tidal heating ceases, then life could possibly take hold.

This artists' rendition shows a super-Earth, or low mass exoplanet, orbiting close to its parent star. Credit:  Keck Observatory
This artists’ rendition shows a super-Earth, or low mass exoplanet, orbiting close to its parent star. Credit: Keck Observatory

Another possibility is the eccentric orbit itself may be enough to keep life happy, at least for a while. If the planet is colder and stiffer, and orbiting far from its star, it’s possible the tidal flexing would serve as an energy source for life to survive.

Think of a situation like Europa near Jupiter, where some scientists believe the moon could have a subsurface ocean heated by interactions with the gas giant.

The model covers planets that are between the size of Earth and 2.5 times larger, and future studies will aim to see how layers in the planet change over time.

Source: NASA

Join the Live Discussion: The Hunt for Other Worlds Heats Up

Artist’s impression of a massive asteroid belt in orbit around a star. Earth's water may not have all come from asteroids and comets, so maybe that's true for exoplanets. Credit: NASA-JPL / Caltech / T. Pyle (SSC)
Artist’s impression of a massive asteroid belt in orbit around a star. Earth's water may not have all come from asteroids and comets, so maybe that's true for exoplanets. Credit: NASA-JPL / Caltech / T. Pyle (SSC)

As readers of Universe Today know, exoplanets are one of the hottest topics in astronomy today. In just the past six months, astronomers have announced the discovery of more than 700 planets orbiting other stars, bringing the total to more than 1700. These discoveries include the first Earth-size planet found in what’s called the habitable zone of a star, where liquid water could exist; the oldest known planet that could support life; and the first rocky “mega-Earth,” a planet that’s much like Earth except that it’s 17 times more massive.

On July 9, at 19:00 UTC (3 pm EDT, 12:00 pm PDT), three exoplanet hunters will come together discuss the discovery boom, consider the next steps in the hunt for habitable worlds, and debate whether we’re likely to find alien life in the next decade.

You can watch live (or watch the webcast later) below:

The panel includes MIT’s Zachory Berta-Thompson, Stanford’s Bruce Macintosh and Université de Montréal’s Marie-Eve Naud) will come together discuss the recent discovery boom, consider the next steps in the hunt for habitable worlds, and ponder the odds of finding life on another planet. The discussion will be moderated by journalist Kelen Tuttle.

To submit questions ahead of time or during the webcast, send an email to [email protected] or post on Twitter with hashtag #KavliLive. You can find additional information about the webcast and the Kavli Foundation here.

A Brief History Of Gliese 581d and 581g, The Planets That May Not Be

Goldilocks Zone
Artists impression of Gliese 581g. Credit: Lynette Cook/NSF

Two potentially habitable planets in the Gliese 581 system are just false signals arising out of starstuff, a new study said. Gliese 581d and 581g are (study authors said) instead indications of the star’s activity and rotation. It’s the latest twist in a long tale about the system as astronomers struggle to understand how many planets could be orbiting the star.

“Our improved detection of the real planets in this system gives us confidence that we are now beginning to sufficiently eliminate Doppler signals from stellar activity to discover new, habitable exoplanets, even when they are hidden beneath stellar noise,” stated Paul Robertson, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University, in a press release.

“While it is unfortunate to find that two such promising planets do not exist, we feel that the results of this study will ultimately lead to more Earth-like planets.”

Planets were first announced around the system in 2007 (by a research team led by Geneva’s Stephane Udry) including Gliese 581d. The system has been under heavy scrutiny since a team led by Steven Vogt of the University of Santa Cruz announced Gliese 581g in September 2010. Both 581d and 581g were considered to be in the “habitable” region around the dwarf star they orbited, meaning the spot that’s not too far or close to the star for liquid water to exist.

Potentially habitable exoplanets and exoplanet candidates as of July 3, 2014. Gliese 581d and 581g are crossed off in the catalog. Click for larger version. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo
Potentially habitable exoplanets and exoplanet candidates as of July 3, 2014. Gliese 581d and 581g are crossed off in the catalog. Click for larger version. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo

About two weeks after the discovery, another team led by Geneva University’s Francesco Pepe said it could not find indications of Gliese 581g in data from HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher), a telescope instrument frequently used at the European Southern Observatory to confirm exoplanets. It also cast doubt on the existence of Gliese 581f, announced by a team led by Geneva’s Michel Mayor in 2009. Other researchers examined the system, too, with mixed results.

Two years later, Vogt led another research team saying that analysis of an “extended dataset” from HARPS did show Gliese 581g. But in a press release at the time from the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo, its director (Abel Mendez) said the discovery would continue to be controversial. At the time he added the planet to the list of potentially habitable exoplanets the laboratory maintains. As of yesterday, both 581d and 581g are crossed off.

The uncertainty arises from the delicacy of looking for signals of small planets around much larger stars. Astronomers typically find planets through watching them pass across the face of a star, or measuring the tug that they exert on their parent star during their orbit. It is the nature of the tug on Gliese 581 that is so interesting astronomers.

Orbital Period
The orbits of planets in the Gliese 581 system are compared to those of our own solar system. The Gliese 581 star has about 30 percent the mass of our Sun, and the outermost planet is closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun. The 4th planet, G, is a planet that could sustain life. Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

“These ‘Doppler shifts’ can result from subtle changes in the star’s velocity caused by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets,” wrote Penn State in the press release yesterday.  “But Doppler shifts of a star’s ‘absorption lines’ also can result from magnetic events like sunspots originating within the star itself — giving false clues of a planet that does not actually exist.”

The researchers now say that only three planets exist around this star. It’s impossible to fully represent the debate in a single short news article, so we encourage you to look at some of the original literature. Here is a list of papers related to Gliese 581g and another for Gliese 581d. The new paper is available online in Science.

Also, here are some past Universe Today stories about the system:

Nearby Super-Earth is Best Habitable Candidate So Far, Astronomers Say

An artistic representation of Gliese 832 c against a stellar nebula background. A new paper says Gliese 832 might be home to another planet similar to this, but in the habitable zone. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo, NASA/Hubble, Stellarium.
An artistic representation of Gliese 832 c against a stellar nebula background. A new paper says Gliese 832 might be home to another planet similar to this, but in the habitable zone. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo, NASA/Hubble, Stellarium.

On a clear night, you might be able to spot the red dwarf star Gliese 832 through a backyard telescope, as it is just 16 light years away. Today, astronomers announced the discovery of super-Earth planet orbiting this nearby star and say it might be the best candidate yet for habitable world.

Gliese 832c was spotted by an international team of astronomers, led by Robert A. Wittenmyer from UNSW Australia. They used high-precision radial-velocity data from HARPS-TERRA, the Planet Finder Spectrograph and the UCLES echelle spectrograph. This star is already known to have one additional planet, a cold Jupiter-like planet, Gliese 832 b, discovered in 2009.

Orbital analysis of Gliese 832 c, a potentially habitable world around the nearby red-dwarf star Gliese 832. Gliese 832 c orbits near the inner edge of the conservative habitable zone. Its average equilibrium temperature (253 K) is similar to Earth (255 K) but with large shifts (up to 25K) due to its high eccentricity (assuming a similar 0.3 albedo). Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory.
Orbital analysis of Gliese 832 c, a potentially habitable world around the nearby red-dwarf star Gliese 832. Gliese 832 c orbits near the inner edge of the conservative habitable zone. Its average equilibrium temperature (253 K) is similar to Earth (255 K) but with large shifts (up to 25K) due to its high eccentricity (assuming a similar 0.3 albedo). Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory.

Since red dwarf stars shine dimly, the habitable zones around these stars would be very close in. Gliese 832c complies with an orbital period of 36 days (it’s orbital companion Gliese 832 b orbits the star in 9.4 years.)

The newly found super-Earth has a mass at least five times that of Earth’s and the astronomers estimate it receives about the same average energy as Earth does from the Sun. “The planet might have Earth-like temperatures, albeit with large seasonal shifts, given a similar terrestrial atmosphere,” says a press release from the Planetary Habitability Laboratory. “A denser atmosphere, something expected for Super-Earths, could easily make this planet too hot for life and a ‘Super-Venus’ instead.”

Using the Earth Similarity Index (ESI) — a measure of how physically similar a planetary mass object is to Earth, where 1 equals the same qualities as Earth — Gliese 832 c has an ESI of 0.81. This is comparable to Gliese 667C c (ESI = 0.84) and Kepler-62 e (ESI = 0.83).

“This makes Gliese 832c one of the top three most Earth-like planets according to the ESI (i.e. with respect to Earth’s stellar flux and mass) and the closest one to Earth of all three, a prime object for follow-up observations. However, other unknowns such as the bulk composition and atmosphere of the planet could make this world quite different to Earth and non-habitable.”

Artistic representation of the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 832 c as compared with Earth. Gliese 832 c is represented here as a temperate world covered in clouds. The relative size of the planet in the figure assumes a rocky composition but could be larger for a ice/gas composition. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory.
Artistic representation of the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 832 c as compared with Earth. Gliese 832 c is represented here as a temperate world covered in clouds. The relative size of the planet in the figure assumes a rocky composition but could be larger for a ice/gas composition. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory.

In their paper, Wittenmyer and his colleagues noted that while Solar Systems like our own appear — so far — to be rare, the Gliese 832 system is like a scaled-down version of our own Solar System, with an inner potentially Earth-like planet and an outer Jupiter-like giant planet. They added that the giant outer planet may have played a similar dynamical role in the Gliese 832 system to that played by Jupiter in our Solar System.

Certainly, astronomers will be attempting to observe this system further to see if any additional planets can be found.

If you’re interested in trying to see this star, here’s our guide on red dwarf stars that are visible in backyard telescopes.

Space Seed: How To Spread Earth’s Life Across The Universe

A 'Blue Marble' image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA's most recently launched Earth-observing satellite - Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth's surface taken on January 4, 2012. Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring.

Earth’s lifespan for life is finite. In about five billion years, our Sun will transform into a red giant and make our planet uninhabitable, to put it lightly, as our closest star gets bigger and swallows up Mercury and Venus. But perhaps there is a way to help our life colonize other spots in the universe.

One researcher’s vision would see microbes from our planet being sent to distant planetary systems in formation and seeding the area with exports from Earth.

The idea is of course highly theoretical and requires careful thought of the ethics (what if our life destroys others?) and technology (how to get the microbes out there)? But it’s something that Michael Mautner, a chemistry researcher at the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences, is considering.

“I suggest we give life a chance,” he said in an interview with Universe Today.

These are the steps that Mautner suggests for those considering his method of spreading life into the universe.

Artist’s impression of a baby star still surrounded by a protoplanetary disc in which planets are forming.  Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of a baby star still surrounded by a protoplanetary disc in which planets are forming. Credit: ESO

1. Think long-term. Many planets or systems are under formation, dozens if not hundreds of light-years away from us. We can send hardy microorganisms to start new life there, but travelling will take many thousands of years. This new life can then take millions or perhaps billions of years to evolve, some to intelligent life that can spread life further in the galaxy. Planning on such time-scales is key to our cosmological future.

2. Find a habitable system. One idea could be to look for a habitable planet; he observed that the Kepler space telescope has made great strides in showing us potentially habitable worlds from afar. As telescope technology improves, finding these worlds will be easier. That said, there’s a risk that any Earth-borne life could obliterate any native life there. His solution is to find star systems under formation instead: “There hasn’t been enough time for life, especially advanced life-forms, to start there,” he says.

Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It's located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It’s located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

3. Aim carefully. A planet would take a very precise aiming system, he acknowledges, but aiming for larger star-forming interstellar clouds where a planetary systems are being formed, would be easier for current technology.

4. Freeze the microbes. Transit in cold interstellar space will put the microbes into deep hibernation and also make them more radiation-resistant: “the challenge is to maybe be able to bio- engineer microbes that can survive for that period,” Mautner points out. He added that there are plenty of examples on Earth of extremophiles surviving harsh environments, such as outside in satellites in or in hot vents near the bottom of the ocean. And microbes are also capable of hibernating. They could then be woken up when they get to a region near planetary systems that allows for liquid water, in conditions that could let them grow.

Could humans follow in their wake? Mautner says he would be happy for humans to go, but it could take thousands of years or more to make the journey. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of cryogenics making that trip more possible, and says there is a “fair chance” that it could work.

For more information on Mautner’s research and related concepts, consult this research paper, the Interstellar Panspermia Society, this page on “Astro Ecology” and this Q&A with Mautner at Victoria College’s website.

What do you think of the concept? Let us know in the comments.