One of the more interesting and rewarding aspects of astronomy and space exploration is seeing science fiction become science fact. While we are still many years away from colonizing the Solar System or reaching the nearest stars (if we ever do), there are still many rewarding discoveries being made that are fulfilling the fevered dreams of science fiction fans.
For instance, using the Dharma Planet Survey, an international team of scientists recently discovered a super-Earth orbiting a star just 16 light-years away. This super-Earth is not only the closest planet of its kind to the Solar System, it also happens to be located in the same star system as the fictional planet Vulcan from the Star Trek universe.
In of August of 2016, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri – the closest star to our Solar System. In addition, they confirmed that this planet (Proxima b) orbited within its star’s habitable zone. Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine if Proxima b could in fact be habitable.
Unfortunately, most of this research has not been very encouraging. For instance, many studies have indicated that Proxima b’s sun experiences too much flare activity for the planet to sustain an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. However, in a new NASA-led study, a team of scientists has investigated various climate scenarios that indicate that Proxima b could still have enough water to support life.
Ever since the first exoplanet was confirmed in 1992, astronomers have found thousands of worlds beyond our Solar System. With more and more discoveries happening all the time, the focus of exoplanet research has begun to slowly shift from exoplanet discovery to exoplanet characterization. Essentially, scientists are now looking to determine the composition of exoplanets to determine whether or not they could support life.
In recent years, the number of confirmed extra-solar planets has risen exponentially. As of the penning of the article, a total of 3,777 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,817 star systems, with an additional 2,737 candidates awaiting confirmation. What’s more, the number of terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planets has increased steadily, increasing the likelihood that astronomers will find evidence of life beyond our Solar System.
Unfortunately, the technology does not yet exist to explore these planets directly. As a result, scientists are forced to look for what are known as “biosignatures”, a chemical or element that is associated with the existence of past or present life. According to a new study by an international team of researchers, one way to look for these signatures would be to examine material ejected from the surface of exoplanets during an impact event.
As they indicate in their study, most efforts to characterize exoplanet biospheres have focused on the planets’ atmospheres. This consists of looking for evidence of gases that are associated with life here on Earth – e.g. carbon dioxide, nitrogen, etc. – as well as water. As Cataldi told Universe Today via email:
“We know from Earth that life can have a strong impact on the composition of the atmosphere. For example, all the oxygen in our atmosphere is of biological origin. Also, oxygen and methane are strongly out of chemical equilibrium because of the presence of life. Currently, it is not yet possible to study the atmospheric composition of Earth-like exoplanets, however, such a measurement is expected to become possible in the foreseeable future. Thus, atmospheric biosignatures are the most promising way to search for extraterrestrial life.”
However, Cataldi and his colleagues considered the possibility of characterizing a planet’s habitability by looking for signs of impacts and examining the ejecta. One of the benefits of this approach is that ejecta escapes lower gravity bodies, such as rocky planets and moons, with the greatest ease. The atmospheres of these types of bodies are also very difficult to characterize, so this method would allow for characterizations that would not otherwise be possible.
And as Cataldi indicated, it would also be complimentary to the atmospheric approach in a number of ways:
“First, the smaller the exoplanet, the more difficult it is to study its atmosphere. On the contrary, smaller exoplanets produce larger amounts of escaping ejecta because their surface gravity is lower, making ejecta from smaller exoplanet easier to detect. Second, when thinking about biosignatures in impact ejecta, we think primarily of certain minerals. This is because life can influence the mineralogy of a planet either indirectly (e.g. by changing the composition of the atmosphere and thus allowing new minerals to form) or directly (by producing minerals, e.g. skeletons). Impact ejecta would thus allow us to study a different sort of biosignature, complementary to atmospheric signatures.”
Another benefit to this method is the fact that it takes advantage of existing studies that have examined the impacts of collisions between astronomical objects. For instance, multiple studies have been conducted that have attempted to place constraints on the giant impact that is believed to have formed the Earth-Moon system 4.5 billion years ago (aka. the Giant Impact Hypothesis).
While such giant collisions are thought to have been common during the final stage of terrestrial planet formation (lasting for approximately 100 million years), the team focused on impacts of asteroidal or cometary bodies, which are believed to occur over the entire lifetime of an exoplanetary system. Relying on these studies, Cataldi and his colleagues were able to create models for exoplanet ejecta.
As Cataldi explained, they used the results from the impact cratering literature to estimate the amount of ejecta created. To estimate the signal strength of circumstellar dust disks created by the ejecta, they used the results from debris disk (i.e. extrasolar analogues of the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt) literature. In the end, the results proved rather interesting:
“We found that an impact of a 20 km diameter body produces enough dust to be detectable with current telescopes (for comparison, the size of the impactor that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is though to be around 10 km). However, studying the composition of the ejected dust (e.g. search for biosignatures) is not in the reach of current telescopes. In other words, with current telescopes, we could confirm the presence of ejected dust, but not study its composition.”
In short, studying material ejected from exoplanets is within our reach and the ability to study its composition someday will allow astronomers to be able to characterize the geology of an exoplanet – and thus place more accurate constraints on its potential habitability. At present, astronomers are forced to make educated guesses about a planet’s composition based on its apparent size and mass.
Unfortunately, a more detailed study that could determine the presence of biosignatures in ejecta is not currently possible, and will be very difficult for even next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWSB) or Darwin. In the meantime, the study of ejecta from exoplanets presents some very interesting possibilities when it comes to exoplanet studies and characterization. As Cataldi indicated:
“By studying the ejecta from an impact event, we could learn something about the geology and habitability of the exoplanet and potentially detect a biosphere. The method is the only way I know to access the subsurface of an exoplanet. In this sense, the impact can be seen as a drilling experiment provided by nature. Our study shows that dust produced in an impact event is in principle detectable, and future telescopes might be able to constrain the composition of the dust, and therefore the composition of the planet.”
In the coming decades, astronomers will be studying extra-solar planets with instruments of increasing sensitivity and power in the hopes of finding indications of life. Given time, searching for biosignatures in the debris around exoplanets created by asteroid impacts could be done in tandem with searchers for atmospheric biosignatures.
With these two methods combined, scientists will be able to say with greater certainty that distant planets are not only capable of supporting life, but are actively doing so!
In the course of discovering planets beyond our Solar System, astronomers have found some truly interesting customers! In addition to “Super-Jupiters” (exoplanets that are many times Jupiter’s mass) a number of “Hot Jupiters” have also been observed. These are gas giants that orbit closely to their stars, and in some cases, these planets have been found to be so hot that they could melt stone or metal.
This has led to the designation “ultra-hot Jupiter”, the hottest of which was discovered last year. But now, according to a recent study made by an international team of astronomers, this planet is hot enough to turn metal into vapor. It is known as KELT-9b, a gas giant located 650 light-years from Earth that has atmospheric temperatures so hot – over 4,000 °C (7,232 °F) – it can vaporize iron and titanium!
The study which describes their findings – “Atomic iron and titanium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet KELT-9b” – recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. For the sake of their study, the team sought to place constraints on the chemical composition of an ultra-hot Jupiter since these planets straddle the boundary between gas giants and stars and could help astronomers learn more about exoplanet formation history.
To do this, they selected KELT-9b, which was originally discovered in 2017 by astronomers using the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope(s) (KELT) survey. Like all ultra-hot Jupiters, this planet orbits very close to its star – 30 times closer than the Earth’s distance from the Sun – and has a orbital period of 36 hours. As a result, it experiences surface temperatures in excess of 4,000 °C (7,232 °F), making it hotter than many stars.
Based on this, Dr. Hoeijmakers and his colleagues conducted a theoretical study that predicted the presence of iron vapor in the planet’s atmosphere. As Kevin Heng, a professor at the UNIBE and a co-author on the study, explained in a recent UNIGE press release:
“The results of these simulations show that most of the molecules found there should be in atomic form, because the bonds that hold them together are broken by collisions between particles that occur at these extremely high temperatures.”
To test this prediction, the team relied on data from the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher for the Northern hemisphere (HARPS-North or HARPS-N) spectrograph during a single transit of the exoplanet. During a transit, light from the star can been seen filtering through the atmosphere, and examining this light with a spectrometer can reveal things about the atmosphere’s chemical composition.
What they found were strong indications of not only singly-ionized atomic iron but singly-ionized atomic titanium, which has a significantly higher melting point – 1670 °C (3040 °F) compared to 1250 °C (2282 °F). As Hoeijmakers explained, “With the theoretical predictions in hand, it was like following a treasure map, and when we dug deeper into the data, we found even more.”
In addition to revealing the composition of a new class of ultra-hot Jupiter, this study has also presented astronomers with something of a mystery. For example, scientists believe that many planets have evaporated due to being in a tight orbit with a bright star in the same way that KELT-9b is. And, as their study indicates, the star’s radiation is breaking down heavy transition metals like iron and titanium.
Although KELT-9b is probably too massive to ever totally evaporate, this new study demonstrates the strong impact that stellar radiation has on the composition of a planet’s atmosphere. On cooler gas giants, elements like iron and titanium are believed to take the form of gaseous oxides or dust particles, which are difficult to detect. But in the case of KELT-9b, the fact that these elements are in atomized form makes them highly detectable.
As David Ehrenreich, the principal investigator with the UNIGE’s FOUR ACES team and a co-author on the study, concluded,“This planet is a unique laboratory to analyze how atmospheres can evolve under intense stellar radiation.” Looking ahead, the team’s study also predicts that it should be possible to observe gaseous atomic iron in the planet’s atmosphere using current telescopes.
In short, astronomers need not wait for next-generation telescopes in order to study this unique planetary laboratory, which can teach astronomers much about the process of exoplanet formation. And in by learning more about the formation of gas giants in other star systems, astronomers are likely to gain vital clues as to how our own Solar System formed and evolved.
Who knows? Perhaps our own Jupiter was hot at one time, and lost mass before it migrating to its current position. Or perhaps Mercury is the burnt-out husk of a once giant planet that lost its gaseous layers. As the study of exoplanets is teaching us, such strange things are known to happen in this Universe!
The mission recently started science operations (on July 25th, 2018) and is expected to transmit its first collection of data back to Earth this month. But before that, the planet-hunting telescope took a series of images that featured a recently-discovered comet known as C/2018 N1. These images helped demonstrate the satellite’s ability to collect images over a broad region of the sky – which will be critical when it comes to finding exoplanets.
As the name would suggest, the TESS mission is designed to search for planets around distant stars using the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry). For this method, distant stars are monitored for periodic dips in brightness, which are indications that a planet is passing in front of the star (aka. transiting) relative to the observer. From these dips, astronomers are able to estimate a planet’s size and orbital period.
This method remains the most effective and popular means for finding exoplanets, accounting for 2,951 of the 3,774 confirmed discoveries made to date. To test its instruments before it began science operations, TESS took images of C/2018 N1 over a short period near the end of the mission’s commissioning phase – which occurred over the course of 17 hours on July 25th.
The comet that it managed to capture, C/2018 N1, was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite on June 29th. This comet is located about 48 million km (29 million mi) from Earth in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus. In these pictures, which were compiled into a video (shown below), the comet is seen as a bright dot against a background of stars and other objects.
As it moves across the frame (from right to left), the comet’s tail can be seen extending to the top of the frame, and gradually changes direction as the comet glides across the field of view. The images also reveal a considerable amount of astronomical activity in the background. For instance, image processing causes the stars to shift between white and black, which highlights some variable stars visible in the images.
These are stars that change brightness as a result of pulsation, rapid rotation, or being eclipsed by a binary neighbor. A number of Solar System asteroids are also visible as small white dots moving across the field of view. Last, but not least, some stray light that was reflected from Mars is also visible near the end of the video. This light appears as a faint broad arc that moves across the middle section of the frame, from left to right.
This effect was due to the fact that Mars was at its brightest at the time since it was near opposition (i.e. at the closest point in its orbit to Earth). These images showcase the capabilities of the TESS mission, even though they only show a fraction of the instrument’s active field of view.
In the coming weeks and months, TESS science team will continue to fine-tune the spacecraft’s performance as it searches for extra-solar planets. As noted, it is expected that TESS will find thousands of planets in our galaxy, vastly increasing our knowledge of exoplanets and the kinds of worlds that exist beyond our Solar System!
And be sure to check out the video of the images TESS captured, courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:
When looking for potentially-habitable extra-solar planets, scientists are somewhat restricted by the fact that we know of only one planet where life exists (i.e. Earth). For this reason, scientists look for planets that are terrestrial (i.e. rocky), orbit within their star’s habitable zones, and show signs of biosignatures such as atmospheric carbon dioxide – which is essential to life as we know it.
This gas, which is the largely result of volcanic activity here on Earth, increases surface heat through the greenhouse effect and cycles between the subsurface and the atmosphere through natural processes. For this reason, scientists have long believed that plate tectonics are essential to habitability. However, according to a new study by a team from Pennsylvania State University, this may not be the case.
On Earth, volcanism is the result of plate tectonics and occurs where two plates collide. This causes subduction, where one plate is pushed beneath the other and deeper into the subsurface. This subduction changes the dense mantle into buoyant magma, which rises through the crust to the Earth’s surface and creates volcanoes. This process can also aid in carbon cycling by pushing carbon into the mantle.
Plate tectonics and volcanism are believe to have been central to the emergence of life here on Earth, as it ensured that our planet had sufficient heat to maintain liquid water on its surface. To test this theory, Professors Foley and Smye created models to determine how habitable an Earth-like planet would be without the presence of plate tectonics.
These models took into account the thermal evolution, crustal production and CO2 cycling to constrain the habitability of rocky, Earth-sized stagnant lid planets. These are planets where the crust consists of a single, giant spherical plate floating on mantle, rather than in separate pieces. Such planets are thought to be far more common than planets that experience plate tectonics, as no planets beyond Earth have been confirmed to have tectonic plates yet. As Prof. Foley explained in a Penn State News press release:
“Volcanism releases gases into the atmosphere, and then through weathering, carbon dioxide is pulled from the atmosphere and sequestered into surface rocks and sediment. Balancing those two processes keeps carbon dioxide at a certain level in the atmosphere, which is really important for whether the climate stays temperate and suitable for life.”
Essentially, their models took into account how much heat a stagnant lid planet’s climate could retain based on the amount of heat and heat-producing elements present when the planet formed (aka. its initial heat budget). On Earth, these elements include uranium which produces thorium and heat when it decays, which then decays to produce potassium and heat.
After running hundreds of simulations, which varied the planet’s size and chemical composition, they found that stagnant lid planets would be able to maintain warm enough temperatures that liquid water could exist on their surfaces for billions of years. In extreme cases, they could sustain life-supporting temperatures for up to 4 billion years, which is almost the age of the Earth.
As Smye indicated, this is due in part to the fact that plate tectonics are not always necessary for volcanic activity:
“You still have volcanism on stagnant lid planets, but it’s much shorter lived than on planets with plate tectonics because there isn’t as much cycling. Volcanoes result in a succession of lava flows, which are buried like layers of a cake over time. Rocks and sediment heat up more the deeper they are buried.”
The researchers also found that without plate tectonics, stagnant lid planets could still have enough heat and pressure to experience degassing, where carbon dioxide gas can escape from rocks and make its way to the surface. On Earth, Smye said, the same process occurs with water in subduction fault zones. This process increases based on the quantity of heat-producing elements present in the planet. As Foley explained:
“There’s a sweet spot range where a planet is releasing enough carbon dioxide to keep the planet from freezing over, but not so much that the weathering can’t pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and keep the climate temperate.”
According to the researchers’ model, the presence and amount of heat-producing elements were far better indicators for a planet’s potential to sustain life. Based on their simulations, they found that the initial composition or size of a planet is very important for determining whether or not it will become habitable. Or as they put it, the potential habitability of a planet is determined at birth.
By demonstrating that stagnant lid planets could still support life, this study has the potential for greatly extending the range of what scientists consider to be potentially-habitable. When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is deployed in 2021, examining the atmospheres of stagnant lid planets to determine the presence of biosignatures (like CO2) will be a major scientific objective.
Knowing that more of these worlds could sustain life is certainly good news for those who are hoping that we find evidence of extra-terrestrial life in our lifetimes.
In the past few decades, thousands of extra-solar planets have been discovered within our galaxy. As of July 28th, 2018, a total of 3,374 extra-solar planets have been confirmed in 2,814 planetary systems. While the majority of these planets have been gas giants, an increasing number have been terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature and were found to be orbiting within their stars’ respective habitable zones (HZ).
However, as the case of the Solar System shows, HZs do not necessary mean a planet can support life. Even though Venus and Mars are at the inner and the outer edge of the Sun’s HZ (respectively), neither is capable of supporting life on its surface. And with more potentially-habitable planets being discovered all the time, a new study suggests that it might be time to refine our definition of habitable zones.
As Dr. Ramirez indicated in his study, the most generic definition of a habitable zone is the circular region around a star where surface temperatures on an orbiting body would be sufficient to maintain water in a liquid state. However, this alone does not mean a planet is habitable, and additional considerations need to be taken into account to determine if life could truly exist there. As Dr. Ramirez told Universe Today via email:
“The most popular incarnation of the HZ is the classical HZ. This classical definition assumes that the most important greenhouse gases in potentially habitable planets are carbon dioxide and water vapor. It also assumes that habitability on such planets is sustained by the carbonate-silicate cycle, as is the case for the Earth. On our planet, the carbonate-silicate cycle is powered by plate tectonics.
“The carbonate-silicate cycle regulates the transfer of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere, surface, and interior of the Earth. It acts as a planetary thermostat over long timescales and ensures that there is not too much CO2 in the atmosphere (the planet gets too hot) or too little (the planet gets too cold). The classical HZ also (typically) assumes that habitable planets possess total water inventories (e.g. total water in the oceans and seas) similar in size to that on the Earth.”
This is what can be referred to as the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where scientists have looked for signs of habitability based on what we as humans are most familiar with. Given that the only example we have of habitability is planet Earth, exoplanet studies have been focused on finding planets that are “Earth-like” in composition (i.e. rocky), orbit, and size.
However, in recent years this definition has come to be challenged by newer studies. As exoplanet research has moved away from merely detecting and confirming the existence of bodies around other stars and moved into characterization, newer formulations of HZs have emerged that have attempted to capture the diversity of potentially-habitable worlds.
As Dr. Ramirez explained, these newer formulations have complimented traditional notions of HZs by considering that habitable planets may have different atmospheric compositions:
“For instance, they consider the influence of additional greenhouses gases, like CH4 and H2, both of which have been considered important for early conditions on both Earth and Mars. The addition of these gases makes the habitable zone wider than what would be predicted by the classical HZ definition. This is great, because planets thought to be outside the HZ, like TRAPPIST-1h, may now be within it. It has also been argued that planets with dense CO2-CH4 atmospheres near the outer edge of the HZ of hotter stars may be inhabited because it is hard to sustain such atmospheres without the presence of life.”
One such study was conducted by Dr. Ramirez and Lisa Kaltenegger, an associate professor with the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University. According to a paper they produced in 2017, which appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, exoplanet-hunters could find planets that would one day become habitable based on the presence ofvolcanic activity – which would be discernible through the presence of hydrogen gas (H2) in their atmospheres.
This theory is a natural extension of the search for “Earth-like” conditions, which considers that Earth’s atmosphere was not always as it is today. Basically, planetary scientists theorize that billions of years ago, Earth’s early atmosphere had an abundant supply of hydrogen gas (H2) due to volcanic outgassing and interaction between hydrogen and nitrogen molecules in this atmosphere is what kept the Earth warm long enough for life to develop.
In Earth’s case, this hydrogen eventually escaped into space, which is believed to be the case for all terrestrial planets. However, on a planet where there is sufficient levels of volcanic activity, the presence of hydrogen gas in the atmosphere could be maintained, thus allowing for a greenhouse effect that would keep their surfaces warm. In this respect, the presence of hydrogen gas in a planet’s atmosphere could extend a star’s HZ.
According to Ramirez, there is also the factor of time, which is not typically taken into account when assessing HZs. In short, stars evolve over time and put out varying levels of radiation based on their age. This has the effect of altering where a star’s HZ reaches, which may not encompass a planet that is currently being studied. As Ramirez explained:
“[I]t has been shown that M-dwarfs (really cool stars) are so bright and hot when they first form that they can desiccate any young planets that are later determined to be in the classical HZ. This underscores the point that just because a planet is currently located in the habitable zone, it doesn’t mean that it is actually habitable (let alone inhabited). We should be able to watch out for these cases.
Finally, there is the issue of what kinds of star system astronomers have been observing in the hunt for exoplanets. Whereas many surveys have examined G-type yellow dwarf star (which is what our Sun is), much research has been focused on M-type (red dwarf) stars of late because of their longevity and the fact that they believed to be the most likely place to find rocky planets that orbit within their stars’ HZs.
“Whereas most previous studies have focused on single star systems, recent work suggests that habitable planets may be found in binary star systems or even red giant or white dwarf systems, potentially habitable planets may also take the form of desert worlds or even ocean worlds that are much wetter than the Earth,” says Ramirez. “Such formulations not only greatly expand the parameter space of potentially habitable planets to search for, but they allow us to filter out the worlds that are most (and least) likely to host life.”
In the end, this study shows that the classical HZ is not the only tool that can be used to asses the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. As such, Ramirez recommends that in the future, astronomers and exoplanet-hunters should supplement the classical HZ with the additional considerations raised by these newer formulations. In so doing, they just may be able to maximize their chances for finding life someday.
“I recommend that scientists pay real special attention to the early stages of planetary systems because that helps determine the likelihood that a planet that is currently located in the present day habitable zone is actually worth studying further for more evidence of life,” he said. “I also recommend that the various HZ definitions are used in conjunction so that we can best determine which planets are most likely to host life. That way we can rank these planets and determine which ones to spend most of our telescope time and energy on. Along the way we would also be testing how valid the HZ concept is, including determining how universal the carbonate-silicate cycle is on a cosmic scale.”