The Atmosphere of an Exoplanet Reveals Secrets About Its Surface

An artist’s concept of active volcanoes on Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Peter Rubin

As astronomers have begun to gather data on the atmospheres of planets, we’re learning about their compositions and evolution. Thick atmospheres are the easiest to study, but these same thick atmospheres can hide the surface of a planet from view. A Venus-like world, for example, has such a thick atmosphere making it impossible to see the planet’s terrain. It seems the more likely we are to understand a planet’s atmosphere, the less likely we are to understand its surface. But that could change thanks to a new study in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astrophysical Society.

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How Do Lava Worlds Become Earth-Like, Living Planets?

This is an artist's illustration of Kepler-10 b, a suspected magma ocean planet about 560 light years away. Image Credit: NASA/Kepler Mission/Dana Berry

Earth was once entirely molten. Planetary scientists call this phase in a planet’s evolution a magma ocean, and Earth may have had more than one magma ocean phase. Earth cooled and, over 4.5 billion years, became the vibrant, life-supporting world it is today.

Can the same thing happen to exo-lava worlds? Can studying them shed light on Earth’s transition?

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Engineers Want to Make Methanol by Pulling Carbon Right Out of the Air

Researchers at Western Virginia University are working on a method of extracting carbon out of exhausted air from office buildings and using it to make methanol. Image Credit: WVU Illustration/Savanna Leech

Methanol is one of our most extensively used raw materials. It’s used as a solvent, a pesticide, and in combination with other chemicals in the manufacture of plastic, clothing, plywood, and in pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.

It’s also used as a fuel.

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Venus is Like an Exoplanet that’s Right Next Door

Venus' thick clouds mean that only radar imaging can reveal surface details. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We’re lucky to have a neighbour like Venus, even though it’s totally inhospitable, wildly different from the other rocky planets, and difficult to study. Its thick atmosphere obscures its surface, and only powerful radar can penetrate it. Its extreme atmospheric pressure and high temperatures are barriers to landers or rovers.

It’s like having a mysterious exoplanet next door.

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How Can We Know if We’re Looking at Habitable exo-Earths or Hellish exo-Venuses?

How can astronomers tell exo-Earths and exo-Venuses apart? Polarimetry might be the key. Image Credits: NASA

The differences between Earth and Venus are obvious to us. One is radiant with life and adorned with glittering seas, and the other is a scorching, glowering hellhole, its volcanic surface shrouded by thick clouds and visible only with radar. But the difference wasn’t always clear. In fact, we used to call Venus Earth’s sister planet.

Can astronomers tell exo-Earths and exo-Venuses apart from a great distance?

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Watch What Happens to Astronauts When the International Space Station Gets an Orbital Reboost

Astronauts on the International Space Station experience an orbital reboost. Credit: NASA/ESA

This is reminiscent of going down slide on the playground – and then immediately getting back in line to go down again. Except in space.

Here’s what it looks like on board the International Space Station when thrusters fire for an orbital reboost. While it seems like the astronauts are moving inside the station, in in reality it is the Space Station that is moving around them. And in actuality, the acceleration doesn’t happen this fast – the video is sped up eight times. But it still looks like fun!

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How did Earth go From Molten Hellscape to Habitable Planet?

An artist's impression of the Hadean eon. Image Credit: By Tim Bertelink - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48916334

Earth formed from the Sun’s protoplanetary disk about 4.6 billion years ago. In the beginning, it was a molten spheroid with scorching temperatures. Over time, it cooled, and a solid crust formed. Eventually, the atmosphere cooled, and life became a possibility.

But how did all of that happen? The atmosphere was rich in carbon, and that carbon had to be removed before the temperature could drop and Earth could become habitable.

Where did all the carbon go?

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With no Solid Surface, the Atmosphere of Jupiter Behaves Quite Differently Than Earth

Jupiter’s atmosphere has plenty of distinct features, including lightning and the Great Red Spot.  But the underlying processes that drive these features are less well understood, as the physics of the gases that make up Jupiter’s atmosphere is complicated.  A team of scientists from all over the globe has found a familiar process in all the chaos, though.  They think a process that happens here on Earth might be happening on a grander scale at Jupiter.

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An Exoplanet Reaches 2400 C in One Hemisphere. Does it Really Rain Iron?

This artist's illustration shows the fiery exoplanet WASP-76b. Previous study shows the planet rains iron it's so hot. Now astronomers have detected barium in its atmosphere. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

WASP-76b is an ultra-hot Jupiter about 640 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pisces. A few years ago it gained notoriety for being so hot that iron falls as rain. It’s tidally locked to its star, and the planet’s star-facing hemisphere can reach temperatures as high as 2400 Celsius, well above iron’s 1538 C melting point.

Scientists have been studying the planet since its discovery in 2013, and new evidence suggests that it’s even hotter than thought. But, almost disappointingly, there might be no iron rain after all.

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Astronomers Have Found the Perfect Exoplanet to Study Another World’s Atmosphere

An artist's rendering of TOI-1231 b, a Neptune-like planet about 90 light years away from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has found a new planet, and the discovery of this sub-Neptune exoplanet has scientists excited about atmospheres. The combination of the planet’s size, its thick atmosphere, and its orbit around a small M-class star close to Earth provides researchers with an opportunity to learn more about exoplanet atmospheres. We’re getting better and better at finding exoplanets, and studying their atmospheres is the next step in understanding them as a whole.

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