What Are Some Clues to the Climates of Exoplanets?

In the past few decades, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown exponentially. To date, a total of 4,158 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,081 systems, with an additional 5,144 candidates awaiting confirmation. Thanks to the abundance of discoveries, astronomers have been transitioning in recent years from the process of discovery to the process of characterization.

In particular, astronomers are developing tools to assess which of these planets could harbor life. Recently, a team of astronomers from the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) at Cornell University designed an environmental “decoder” based on the color of exoplanet surfaces and their hosts stars. In the future, this tool could be used by astronomers to determine which exoplanets are potentially-habitable and worthy of follow-up studies.

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Fomalhaut’s Planet Has Gone Missing, But it Might Have Been Something Even More Interesting

Planets don’t simply disappear. And yet, that appears to be what happened to Fomalhaut b (aka. Dagon), an exoplanet candidate located 25 light-years from Earth. Observed for the first time by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004, then confirmed by follow-up observations in 2008 and 2012, this exoplanet candidate was the first to be detected in visible wavelengths (i.e. the Direct Imaging Method.)

Over time, this candidate got fainter and wider until it disappeared from sight altogether. This led to all kinds of speculation, which included the possibility of a collision that reduced the planet to debris. Recently, a team of astronomers from the University of Arizona has suggested another possibility – Fomalhaut b was never a planet at all, but an expanding cloud of dust from two planetesimals that smashed together.

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Astronomers Find a Six-Planet System Which Orbit in Lockstep With Each Other

Artist's concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We're going to keep finding more and more solar systemsl like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST, with starshades, to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,152 extrasolar planets in 3,077 star systems. While the majority of these discoveries involved a single planet, several hundred star systems were found to be multi-planetary. Systems that contain six planets or more, however, appear to be rarer, with only a dozen or so cases discovered so far.

This is what astronomers found after observing HD 158259, a Sun-like star located about 88 light-years from Earth, for the past seven years using the SOPHIE spectrograph. Combined with new data from the Transiting Exoplanet Space Satellite (TESS), an international team reported the discovery of a six planet system where all were in near-perfect rhythm with each other.

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Astronomers Might Have Imaged a Second Planet Around Nearby Proxima Centauri – and it Might Have a Huge Set of Rings

In 2016, astronomers working for the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of a terrestrial planet around Earth’s closest stellar neighbor – Proxima Centauri. The discovery of this nearby extrasolar planet (Proxima b) caused no shortage of excitement because, in addition to being similar in size to Earth, it was found to orbit within the star’s habitable zone (HZ).

Thanks to an INAF-led team, a second exoplanet (a super-Earth) was found early this year around Proxima Centauri using the Radial Velocity Method. Based on the separation between the two planets, another INAF-led team attempted to observe this planet using the Direct Imaging Method. While not entirely successful, their observations raise the possibility that this planet has a system of rings around it, much like Saturn.

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An Earth-Sized World Orbiting in its Star’s Habitable Zone Was Found in Older Kepler Data

To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,144 extrasolar planets in 3,074 systems, with a further 5,094 candidates awaiting confirmation. The majority of these planets were found by the Kepler Space Telescope, which spent nine years (between May of 2009 and February of 2018) monitoring distant stars for transit signals – where a planet passing in front of a star causes a dip in brightness.

And yet, even though it is now defunct, the data that Kepler accumulated over the years continues to lead to new discoveries. For instance, a transatlantic team of researchers recently found a signal in Kepler‘s archival data that eluded detection before. This signal indicates that there is a second planet orbiting Kepler-1649, an M-type red dwarf star located 302 light-years away.

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Five Snapshots of how the Earth Looked at Key Points in its History Could Help us Find Habitable Exoplanets

In the past few decades, astronomers have confirmed the existence of thousands of planets beyond our Solar System. Over time, the process has shifted from discovery to characterization in the hopes of finding which of these planets are capable of supporting life. For the time being, these methods are indirect in nature, which means that astronomers can only infer if a planet is inhabitable based on how closely it resembles Earth.

To aid in the hunt for “potentially habitable” exoplanets, a team of Cornell researchers recently created five models that represent key points in Earth’s evolution. These “snapshots” of what Earth looked like during various geological epochs could greatly enhance the search for extra-terrestrial life by providing a more complete picture of what a life-bearing planet could look like.

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How Will Clouds Obscure the View of Exoplanet Surfaces?

In 2021, NASA’s next-generation observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will take to space. Once operational, this flagship mission will pick up where other space telescopes – like Hubble, Kepler, and Spitzer – left off. This means that in addition to investigating some of the greatest cosmic mysteries, it will also search for potentially habitable exoplanets and attempt to characterize their atmospheres.

This is part of what sets the JWST apart from its predecessors. Between its high sensitivity and infrared imaging capabilities, it will be able to gather data on exoplanet atmospheres like never before. However, as a NASA-supported study recently showed, planets that have dense atmospheres might also have extensive cloud cover, which could complicate attempts to gather some of the most important data of all.

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Gas and Dust Stop Planets From Eating Their Moons

Beyond Earth’s only satellite (the Moon), the Solar System is packed full of moons. In fact, Jupiter alone has 79 known natural satellites while Saturn has the most know moons of any astronomical body – a robust 82. For the longest time, astronomers have theorized that moons form from circumplanetary disks around a parent planet and that the moons and planet form alongside each other.

However, scientists have conducted multiple numerical simulations that have shown this theory to be flawed. What’s more, the results of these simulations are inconsistent with what we see throughout the Solar System. Thankfully, a team of Japanese researchers recently conducted a series of simulations that yielded a better model of how disks of gas and dust can form the kinds of moon systems that we see today.

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Detecting Exoplanets Through Their Exoauroras

At present, scientists can only look for planets beyond our Solar System using indirect means. Depending on the method, this will involve looking for signs of transits in front of a star (Transit Photometry), measuring a star for signs of wobble (Doppler Spectroscopy), looking for light reflected from a planet’s atmosphere (Direct Imaging), and a slew of other methods.

Based on certain parameters, astronomers are then able to determine whether a planet is potentially-habitable or not. However, a team of astronomers from the Netherlands recently released a study in which they describe a novel approach for exoplanet-hunting: looking for signs of aurorae. As these are the result of interaction between a planet’s magnetic field and a star, this method could be a shortcut to finding life!

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Here’s What the Climate Might Look Like on Proxima Centauri B

Located at the heart of the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) – part of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center – is the Discover supercomputer, a 129,000-core cluster of Linux-based processors. This supercomputer, which is capable of conducting 6.8 petaflops (6.8 trillion) operations per second, is tasked with running sophisticated climate models to predict what Earth’s climate will look like in the future.

However, the NCCS has also started to dedicate some of the Discover’s supercomputing power to predict what conditions might be like on any of the over 4,000 planets that have been discovered beyond our Solar System. Not only have these simulations shown that many of these planets could be habitable, they are further evidence that our very notions of “habitability” could use a rethink.

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