Ocean Circulation Might Be the Key to Finding Habitable Exoplanets

Artist's depiction of a waterworld. A new study suggests that Earth is in a minority when it comes to planets, and that most habitable planets may be greater than 90% ocean. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

We’ve found thousands and thousands of exoplanets now. And spacecraft like TESS will likely find thousands and thousands more of them. But most exoplanets are gassy giants, molten hell-holes, or frozen wastes. How can we find those needles-in-the-haystack habitable worlds that may be out there? How can we narrow our search?

Well, first of all, we need to find water. Oceans, preferably, since that’s where life began on Earth. And according to a new study, those oceans need to circulate in particular ways to support life.

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Worlds With Hydrogen in Their Atmospheres Could Be the Perfect Place to Search for Life

We’re waiting patiently for telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope to see first light, and one of the reasons is its ability to study the atmospheres of exoplanets. The idea is to look for biosignatures: things like oxygen and methane. But a new study says that exoplanets with hydrogen in their atmospheres are a good place to seek out alien life.

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NASA’s Perseverance Rover is Going to Jezero Crater, Which is Looking Better and Better as a Place to Search for Evidence of Past Life on Mars

In 2018, NASA decided that the landing site for its Mars 2020 Perseverance rover would be the Jezero Crater. At the time, NASA said the Jezero Crater was one of the “oldest and most scientifically interesting landscapes Mars has to offer.” That assessment hasn’t changed; in fact it’s gotten stronger.

A new research paper says that the Jezero Crater was formed over time periods long enough to promote both habitability, and the preservation of evidence.

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Astronomers Define the “Really Habitable Zone”. Planets Capable of Producing Gin and Tonic

A hospitable star that doesn’t kill you with deadly flares. A rocky planet with liquid water and an agreeable climate. Absence of apocalyptic asteroid storms. No pantheon of angry, vengeful, and capricious gods. These are the things that define a habitable planet.

Now some scientists are adding one more criterion to the list: gin and tonic.

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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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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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