A team of researchers led by University of Chicago astronomer Rafael Luque analyzed data acquired by both NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and ESA’s CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite (Cheops) and found a unique planetary system. Orbiting a star cataloged as HD110067, this system contains six sub-Neptune planets. Incredibly, all six planets are orbiting in direct resonance with each other. The results of the work were published on November 29 in Nature.Continue reading “A Planetary System With Six Sub-Neptunes Locked in Perfect Resonance”
Observing distant objects is no easy task, thanks to our planet’s thick and fluffy atmosphere. As light passes through the upper reaches of our atmosphere, it is refracted and distorted, making it much harder to discern objects at cosmological distances (billions of light years away) and small objects in adjacent star systems like exoplanets. For astronomers, there are only two ways to overcome this problem: send telescopes to space or equip telescopes with mirrors that can adjust to compensate for atmospheric distortion.
Since 1970, NASA and the ESA have launched more than 90 space telescopes into orbit, and 29 of these are still active, so it’s safe to say we’ve got that covered! But in the coming years, a growing number of ground-based telescopes will incorporate adaptive optics (AOs) that will allow them to perform cutting-edge astronomy. This includes the study of exoplanets, which next-generation telescopes will be able to observe directly using coronographs and self-adjusting mirrors. This will allow astronomers to obtain spectra directly from their atmospheres and characterize them to see if they are habitable.Continue reading “Next Generation Space Telescopes Could Use Deformable Mirrors to Image Earth-Sized Worlds”
In searching for life in the Universe, a field known as astrobiology, scientists rely on Earth as a template for biological and evolutionary processes. This includes searching for Earth analogs, rocky planets that orbit within their parent star’s habitable zone (HZ) and have atmospheres composed of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. However, Earth’s atmosphere has evolved considerably over time from a toxic plume of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and traces of volcanic gas. Over time, the emergence of photosynthetic organisms caused a transition, leading to the atmosphere we see today.
The last 500 million years, known as the Phanerozoic Eon, have been particularly significant for the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere and terrestrial species. This period saw a significant rise in oxygen content and the emergence of animals, dinosaurs, and embryophyta (land plants). Unfortunately, the resulting transmission spectra are missing in our search for signs of life in exoplanet atmospheres. To address this gap, a team of Cornell researchers created a simulation of the atmosphere during the Phanerozoic Eon, which could have significant implications in the search for life on extrasolar planets.Continue reading “The Combination of Oxygen and Methane Could Reveal the Presence of Life on Another World”
Solar panel technology has advanced significantly in recent years, to the point where solar energy is the fastest-growing renewable power source. The solar panels we have today are a by-product of those used in space. If you want to power a satellite or crewed spacecraft, there are only two ways: solar energy or nuclear power. Of the two, only solar energy isn’t limited by the amount of fuel you bring on board. As we contemplate traveling to other star systems, this raises the question: will solar panels work near other stars?Continue reading “Will Solar Panels Work at Proxima Centauri?”
In the past two and a half years, two next-generation telescopes have been sent to space: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the ESA’s Euclid Observatory. Before the decade is over, they will be joined by NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST), Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx), and the ESA’s PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) and ARIEL telescopes. These observatories will rely on advanced optics and instruments to aid in the search and characterization of exoplanets with the ultimate goal of finding habitable planets.
Along with still operational missions, these observatories will gather massive volumes of high-resolution spectroscopic data. Sorting through this data will require cutting-edge machine-learning techniques to look for indications of life and biological processes (aka. biosignatures). In a recent paper, a team of scientists from the Institute for Fundamental Theory at the University of Florida (UF-IFL) recommended that future surveys use machine learning to look for anomalies in the spectra, which could reveal unusual chemical signatures and unknown biosignatures.Continue reading “The Most Compelling Places to Search for Life Will Look Like “Anomalies””
In 2026, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch its next-generation exoplanet-hunting mission, the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO). This mission will scan over 245,000 main-sequence F, G, and K-type (yellow-white, yellow, and orange) stars using the Transit Method to look for possible Earth-like planets orbiting Solar analogs. In keeping with the “low-hanging fruit” approach (aka. follow the water), these planets are considered strong candidates for habitability since they are most likely to have all the conditions that gave rise to life here on Earth.
Knowing how many planets PLATO will likely detect and how many will conform to Earth-like characteristics is essential to determining how and where it should dedicate its observation time. According to a new study that will be published shortly in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the PLATO mission is likely to find tens of thousands of planets. Depending on several parameters, they further indicate that it could detect a minimum of 500 Earth-sized planets, about a dozen of which will have favorable orbits around G-type (Sun-like) stars.Continue reading “The PLATO Mission Could be the Most Successful Planet Hunter Ever”
Astronomers think they’ve found an extrasolar planet covered in volcanoes like Jupiter’s moon Io, but this world is about the same size as Earth. Designated LP 791-18 d, the planet is probably tidally locked around a small, red dwarf star about 90 light-years away in the constellation Crater. There are two other more massive planets in the system, and their tidal interactions could cause enough tidal flexing that it unleashes planet-wide volcanoes on LP 791-18 d.
Planet d is located within the habitable zone of the star, and with all the other conditions, astronomers think it might be temperate enough on the permanent night side of this world to allow water to exist.Continue reading “Astronomers Find an Earth-Sized World That May Be Carpeted in Volcanoes”
The number of known extrasolar planets has exploded in the past few decades, with 5,338 confirmed planets in 4,001 systems (and another 9,443 awaiting confirmation). When it comes to “Earth-like” planets (aka. rocky), the most likely place to find them is in orbit around M-type red dwarf stars. These account for between 75 and 80% of all stars in the known Universe, are several times smaller than the Sun and are quite cool and dim by comparison. They are also prone to flare activity and have very tight Habitable Zones (HZs), meaning that planets must orbit very closely to get enough heat and radiation.
In addition, red dwarfs are highly-active when they are young, exposing planets in their HZs to lots of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. As such, whether planets orbiting these stars can maintain or reestablish their atmospheres over time is an open question. Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), researchers from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) observed an exoplanet known as GJ 486 b. As they stated in a recent study, the team detected traces of water vapor, though it is unclear if the signal was coming from the planet or its parent star.Continue reading “JWST Tries to Untangle the Signals of Water. Is it Coming From the Planet or the Star?”
The field of astronomy is about to be revolutionized, thanks to the introduction of Extremely Large Telescopes that rely on primary mirrors measuring 30 meters (or more) in diameter, adaptive optics (AO), coronographs, and advanced spectrometers. This will include the eponymously-named Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). These telescopes will enable astronomers to study exoplanets using the Direct Imaging (DI) method, which will yield valuable data on the composition of their atmospheres.
According to a new study by a team of researchers from Ohio State University (OSU), these telescopes will also allow astronomers to study “ultracool objects,” like very low-mass stars (VLMs), brown dwarfs, and exoplanets. In addition to being able to visualize magnetic starspots and determine the chemical compositions of these objects, ELTs will be able to reveal details about atmospheric dynamics and cloud systems. These types of studies could reveal a wealth of information about some of the least-studied objects in our Universe and significantly aid in the search for life beyond our Solar System.Continue reading “The Next Generation of Telescopes Will Tell Us About the Weather on Other Worlds”
When looking for signs of life beyond the Solar System, astrobiologists are confined to looking for life as we understand it. For the most part, that means looking for rocky planets that orbit within their star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ), the distance at which liquid water can exist on its surface. In the coming years, next-generation telescopes and instruments will allow astronomers to characterize exoplanet atmospheres like never before. When that happens, they will look for the chemical signatures we associate with life, like nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia.
However, astrobiologists have theorized that life could exist in the outer Solar System beneath the surfaces of icy moons like Europa, Callisto, Titan, and other “Ocean Worlds.” Because of this, there is no shortage of astrobiologists who think that the search for extraterrestrial life should include exomoons, including those that orbit free-floating planets (FFPs). In a recent study, researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) determined the necessary properties that allow moons orbiting FFPs to retain enough liquid water to support life.Continue reading “Moons Orbiting Rogue Planets Could be Habitable”