What is the Maximum Number of Moons that Earth Could Have?

In a recent study published in Earth and Planetary Astrophysics, a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington, Valdosta State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory estimated how many moons could theoretically orbit the Earth while maintaining present conditions such as orbital stability. This study opens the potential for better understanding planetary formation processes which could also be applied to identifying exomoons possibly orbiting Earth-like exoplanets, as well.

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A Fleet of Space Telescopes Flying in Formation Could Reveal Details on Exoplanets

An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist's impression). Via the IAU.
An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist's impression). Via the IAU.

We’ve found thousands of exoplanets in the last couple of decades. We’ve discovered exoplanets unlike anything in our own Solar System. But even with all we’ve found, it seems like there’s more and more to discover. Space scientists of all types are always working on the next generation of missions, which is certainly true for exoplanets.

Chinese researchers are developing an idea for an exoplanet-detecting array of space telescopes that acts as an interferometer. But it won’t only detect them. The array will use direct imaging to characterize distant exoplanets in more detail.

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

This artist’s impression shows the planet orbiting the Sun-like star HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is one of sixteen super-Earths discovered by the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth lis at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid water, and perhaps even life, could potentially exist. Credit: ESO

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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Future Telescopes Could be Seeing the Wrong Planets

NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is now named the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, after NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy. Credits: NASA

We have discovered thousands of exoplanets in recent years, including some that are Earth-sized and potentially habitable. But we haven’t seen many of those worlds. Most of the exoplanets we’ve found have been discovered using the transit method, which involves watching the brightness of a star dip as a planet passes in front of it. We can learn the size and sometimes the mass from these dips, but we have no idea what the world looks like, or whether it has a breathable atmosphere.

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

This illustration depicts a planet partially hidden in the glare of its host star and a nearby companion star. After examining a number of binary stars, astronomers have concluded that Earth-sized planets in many two-star systems might be going unnoticed by transit searches, which look for changes in the light from a star when a planet passes in front of it. The light from the second star makes it more difficult to detect the changes in the host star’s light when the planet passes in front of it. Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva (Spaceengine)

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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Most Exoplanets won’t Receive Enough Radiation to Support an Earth-Like Biosphere

The Juno spacecraft took this image of Earth during a gravity assist flyby of our planet in 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.

To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,422 extrasolar planets in 3,280 star systems, with an additional 7,445 candidates awaiting confirmation. Of these, only a small fraction (165) have been terrestrial (aka. rocky) in nature and comparable in size to Earth – i.e., not “Super-Earths.” And even less have been found that are orbiting within their parent star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ).

In the coming years, this is likely to change when next-generation instruments (like James Webb) are able to observe smaller planets that orbit closer to their stars (which is where Earth-like planets are more likely to reside). However, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Napoli and the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), Earth-like biospheres may be very rare for exoplanets.

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Super-Earth Conditions Simulated in the Lab to Discover if They’re Habitable

An artist’s conception of the magnetic fields of selected super-Earths as the Z machine, pictured at bottom, mimics the gravitational conditions on other planets. Credits: Eric Lundin; Z photo by Randy Montoya

Deep inside planet Earth, there is a liquid outer core and a solid inner core that counter-rotate with each other. This creates the dynamo effect that is responsible for generating Earth’s planetary magnetic field. Also known as a magnetosphere, this field keeps our climate stable by preventing Earth’s atmosphere from being lost to space. So when studying rocky exoplanets, scientists naturally wonder if they too have magnetospheres.

Unfortunately, until we can measure an exoplanet’s magnetic fields, we are forced to infer their existence from the available evidence. This is precisely what researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories did with its Z Pulsed Power Facility (PPF). Along with their partners at the Carnegie Institution for Science, they were able to replicate the gravitational pressures of “Super-Earths” to see if they could generate magnetic fields.

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Some Stars Could Support as Many as 7 Habitable Planets

Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In recent decades, over 4,000 extrasolar planets have been confirmed beyond our Solar System. With so many planets available for study, astronomers have learned a great deal about the types of planets that exist out there and what kind of conditions are prevalent. For instance, they have been able to get a better idea of just how common habitable planets are (at least by our standards).

As it turns out, a surprisingly high number of planets out there could support life. That is the conclusion reached by a team of astronomers and planetary scientists who conducted a study of the possible sizes of habitable zones (HZ) based on stellar classification. After considering many planets could stably orbit within them, they came to the conclusion that stars with no Jupiter-sized gas giants can have as many as seven habitable planets!

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Astronomers Estimate There Are 6 Billion Earth-Like Planets in the Milky Way

Meet Kepler-22b, an exoplanet with an Earth-like radius in the habitable zone of its host star. Unfortunately its mass remains unknown. Image Credit: NASA

Six billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way? If true, that’s astounding. But the number needs some context.

The Milky Way has up 400 billion stars. So even if there are six billion Earth-like planets, they’re still spread far and wide throughout our vast galaxy.

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