Maybe There’s No Way to Tell if Habitable Planets Orbit Proxima Centauri… Yet!

Our closest stellar neighbor is Proxima Centauri, an M-type (red dwarf) star located over 4.24 light-years away (part of the Alpha Centauri trinary system). In 2016, the astronomical community was astounded to learn that an Earth-like planet orbited within this star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ). In addition to being the closest exoplanet to Earth, Proxima b was also considered the most promising place to look for extraterrestrial life for a time.

Unfortunately, the scientific community has been divided on whether or not life could even be possible on this planet. All of these studies indicate that this question cannot be answered until astronomers characterize Proxima b’s atmosphere, ideally by observing it as it passes in front (aka. transited) of its host star. But in a new NASA-supported study, a team led by astrophysicists at the University of Chicago determined that this is an unlikely possibility.

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Astronomers Measure the Atmosphere on a Planet Hundreds of Light-Years Away

The field of extrasolar planet research has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years. To date, astronomers have relied on space-based and ground-based telescopes to confirm the existence of 4,566 exoplanets in 3,385 systems, with another 7,913 candidates awaiting confirmation. More importantly, in the past few years, the focus of exoplanet studies has slowly shifted from the process of discovery towards characterization.

In particular, astronomers are making great strides when it comes to the characterization of exoplanet atmospheres. Using the Gemini South Telescope (GST) in Chile, an international team led by Arizona State University (ASU) was able to characterize the atmosphere of a “hot Jupiter” located 340 light-years away. This makes them the first team to directly measure the chemical composition of a distant exoplanet’s atmosphere, a significant milestone in the hunt for habitable planets beyond our Solar System.

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Rocky Planets Might Need to be the Right age to Support Life

Extrasolar planets are being discovered at a rapid rate, with 4,531 planets in 3,363 systems (with another 7,798 candidates awaiting confirmation). Of these, 166 have been identified as rocky planets (aka. “Earth-like”), while another 1,389 have been rocky planets that are several times the size of Earth (“Super-Earths). As more and more discoveries are made, the focus is shifting from the discovery process towards characterization.

In order to place tighter constraints on whether any of these exoplanets are habitable, astronomers and astrobiologists are looking for ways to detect biomarkers and other signs of biological processes. According to a new study, astronomers and astrobiologists should look for indications of a carbon-silicate cycle. On Earth, this cycle ensures that our climate remains stable for eons and could be the key to finding life on other planets.

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A Technique to Find Oceans on Other Worlds

You could say that the study of extrasolar planets is in a phase of transition of late. To date, 4,525 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,357 systems, with another 7,761 candidates awaiting confirmation. As a result, exoplanet studies have been moving away from the discovery process and towards characterization, where follow-up observations of exoplanets are conducted to learn more about their atmospheres and environments.

In the process, exoplanet researchers hope to see if any of these planets possess the necessary ingredients for life as we know it. Recently, a pair of researchers from Northern Arizona University, with support from the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), developed a technique for finding oceans on exoplanets. The ability to find water on other planets, a key ingredient in life on Earth, will go a long way towards finding extraterrestrial life.

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Astronomers Look at Super-Earths That had Their Atmospheres Stripped Away by Their Stars

As the planets of our Solar System demonstrate, understanding the solar dynamics of a system is a crucial aspect of determining habitability. Because of its protective magnetic field, Earth has maintained a fluffy atmosphere for billions of years, ensuring a stable climate for life to evolve. In contrast, other rocky planets that orbit our Sun are either airless, have super-dense (Venus), or have very thin atmospheres (Mars) due to their interactions with the Sun.

In recent years, astronomers have been on the lookout for this same process when studying extrasolar planets. For instance, an international team of astronomers led by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) recently conducted follow-up observations of two Super-Earths that orbit very closely to their respective stars. These planets, which have no thick primordial atmospheres, represent a chance to investigate the evolution of atmospheres on hot rocky planets.

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Astronomers Detect Clouds on an Exoplanet, and Even Measure Their Altitude

The search for planets beyond our Solar System has grown immensely during the past few decades. To date, 4,521 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,353 systems, with an additional 7,761 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many distant worlds available for study (and improved instruments and methods), the process of exoplanet studies has been slowly transitioning away from discovery towards characterization.

For example, a team of international scientists recently showed how combining data from multiple observatories allowed them to reveal the structure and composition of an exoplanet’s upper atmosphere. The exoplanet in question is WASP-127b, a “hot Saturn” that orbits a Sun-like star located about 525 light-years away. These findings preview how astronomers will characterize exoplanet atmospheres and determine if they are conducive to life as we know it.

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Ocean Worlds With Hydrogen-Rich Atmospheres Could be the Perfect Spots for Life

The search for planets beyond our Solar System (extrasolar planets) has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade. A total of 4,514 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,346 planetary systems, with another 7,721 candidates awaiting confirmation. At present, astrobiologists are largely focused on the “low hanging fruit” approach of looking for exoplanets that are similar in size, mass, and atmospheric composition to Earth (aka. “Earth-like.”)

However, astrobiologists are also interested in finding examples of “exotic life,” the kind that emerged under conditions that are not “Earth-like.” For example, a team of astronomers from the University of Cambridge recently conducted a study that showed how life could emerge on ocean-covered planets with hydrogen-rich atmospheres (aka. “Hycean” planets). These findings could have significant implications for exoplanet studies and the field of astrobiology.

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We’ll Have to Wait About 3,000 Years for a Reply From Intelligent Civilizations

As a field, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence suffers from some rather significant constraints. Aside from the uncertainty involved (e.g., is there life beyond Earth we can actually communicate with?), there are the limitations imposed by technology and the very nature of space and time. For instance, scientists are forced to contend with the possibility that by the time a message is received by an intelligent species, the civilization that sent it will be long dead.

Harvard astronomers Amir Siraj and Abraham Loeb tackle this very question in a new study that recently appeared online. Taking their cue from the Copernican Principle, which states that humanity and Earth are representative of the norm (and not an outlier), they calculated that if any transmissions from Earth were heard by an extraterrestrial technological civilization (ETC), it would take about 3000 years to get a reply.

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There are Probably Many More Earth-Sized Worlds Than Previously Believed

In the past decade, the discovery of extrasolar planets has accelerated immensely. To date, 4,424 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,280 star systems, with another 7,453 awaiting confirmation. So far, most of these planets have been gas giants, with about 66% being similar to Jupiter or Neptune, while another 30% have been giant rocky planets (aka. “Super-Earths). Only a small fraction of confirmed exoplanets (less than 4%) have been similar in size to Earth.

However, according to new research by astronomers working at NASA Ames Research Center, it is possible that Earth-sized exoplanets are more common than previously thought. As they indicated in a recent study, there could be twice as many rocky exoplanets in binary systems that are obscured by the glare of their parent stars. These findings could have drastic implications in the search for potentially habitable worlds since roughly half of all stars are binary systems.

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To Take the Best Direct Images of Exoplanets With Space Telescopes, we’re Going to Want Starshades

Between 2021 and 2024, the James Webb (JWST) and Nancy Grace Roman (RST) space telescopes will be launched to space. As the successors to multiple observatories (like Hubble, Kepler, Spitzer, and others), these missions will carry out some of the most ambitious astronomical surveys ever mounted. This will range from the discovery and characterization of extrasolar planets to investigating the mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

In addition to advanced imaging capabilities and high sensitivity, both instruments also carry coronagraphs – instruments that suppress obscuring starlight so exoplanets can be detected and observed directly. According to a selection of papers recently published by the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems (JATIS), we’re going to need more of these instruments if we truly want to really study exoplanets in detail.

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