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.
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.
In the past few decades, there has been an explosion in the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System. With over 4,000 confirmed exoplanets to date, the process has gradually shifted from discovery towards characterization. This consists of using refined techniques to determine just how likely a planet is to be habitable.
At the same time, astronomers continue to make discoveries regularly, some of which are right in our cosmic backyard. For instance, an international team of researchers recently detected two new Earth-like planets orbiting Teegarden’s Star, an M-type (red dwarf) star located just 12.5 light-years from the Solar System in the direction of the Aries constellation.
Since the Kepler Space Telescope was launched into space, the number of known planets beyond our Solar System (exoplanets) has grown exponentially. At present, 3,917 planets have been confirmed in 2,918 star systems, while 3,368 await confirmation. Of these, about 50 orbit within their star’s circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”) , the distance at which liquid water can exist on a planets’ surface.
However, recent research has raised the possibility that we consider to be a habitable zone is too optimistic. According to a new study that recently appeared online, titled “A Limited Habitable Zone for Complex Life“, habitable zones could be much narrower than originally thought. These finds could have a drastic impact on the number of planets scientists consider to be “potentially habitable”.
Our newest planet-hunting telescope is up and running at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Desert in Chile. SPECULOOS, which stands for Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars, is actually four 1-meter telescopes working together. The first images from the ‘scopes are in, and though it hasn’t found any other Earths yet, the images are still impressive.
When it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial life, scientists have a tendency to be a bit geocentric – i.e. they look for planets that resemble our own. This is understandable, seeing as how Earth is the only planet that we know of that supports life. As result, those searching for extra-terrestrial life have been looking for planets that are terrestrial (rocky) in nature, orbit within their stars habitable zones, and have enough water on their surfaces.
In the course of discovering several thousand exoplanets, scientists have found that many may in fact be “water worlds” (planets where up to 50% of their mass is water). This naturally raises some questions, like how much water is too much, and could too much land be a problem as well? To address these, a pair of researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) conducted a study to determine how the ratio between water and land masses can contribute to life.
And now, after nine years of service, NASA has officially announced that the Kepler Space Telescope will be retiring. With no fuel remaining to conduct its science observations, NASA has decided to leave the telescope in its current safe orbit (well away from Earth). Far from being a sad occasion, Kepler’s retirement is an opportunity to reflect upon the immense accomplishments of this telescope and how it revolutionized the study of exoplanets.
In the past few decades, thousands of extra-solar planets have been discovered within our galaxy. As of July 28th, 2018, a total of 3,374 extra-solar planets have been confirmed in 2,814 planetary systems. While the majority of these planets have been gas giants, an increasing number have been terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature and were found to be orbiting within their stars’ respective habitable zones (HZ).
However, as the case of the Solar System shows, HZs do not necessary mean a planet can support life. Even though Venus and Mars are at the inner and the outer edge of the Sun’s HZ (respectively), neither is capable of supporting life on its surface. And with more potentially-habitable planets being discovered all the time, a new study suggests that it might be time to refine our definition of habitable zones.
As Dr. Ramirez indicated in his study, the most generic definition of a habitable zone is the circular region around a star where surface temperatures on an orbiting body would be sufficient to maintain water in a liquid state. However, this alone does not mean a planet is habitable, and additional considerations need to be taken into account to determine if life could truly exist there. As Dr. Ramirez told Universe Today via email:
“The most popular incarnation of the HZ is the classical HZ. This classical definition assumes that the most important greenhouse gases in potentially habitable planets are carbon dioxide and water vapor. It also assumes that habitability on such planets is sustained by the carbonate-silicate cycle, as is the case for the Earth. On our planet, the carbonate-silicate cycle is powered by plate tectonics.
“The carbonate-silicate cycle regulates the transfer of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere, surface, and interior of the Earth. It acts as a planetary thermostat over long timescales and ensures that there is not too much CO2 in the atmosphere (the planet gets too hot) or too little (the planet gets too cold). The classical HZ also (typically) assumes that habitable planets possess total water inventories (e.g. total water in the oceans and seas) similar in size to that on the Earth.”
This is what can be referred to as the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where scientists have looked for signs of habitability based on what we as humans are most familiar with. Given that the only example we have of habitability is planet Earth, exoplanet studies have been focused on finding planets that are “Earth-like” in composition (i.e. rocky), orbit, and size.
However, in recent years this definition has come to be challenged by newer studies. As exoplanet research has moved away from merely detecting and confirming the existence of bodies around other stars and moved into characterization, newer formulations of HZs have emerged that have attempted to capture the diversity of potentially-habitable worlds.
As Dr. Ramirez explained, these newer formulations have complimented traditional notions of HZs by considering that habitable planets may have different atmospheric compositions:
“For instance, they consider the influence of additional greenhouses gases, like CH4 and H2, both of which have been considered important for early conditions on both Earth and Mars. The addition of these gases makes the habitable zone wider than what would be predicted by the classical HZ definition. This is great, because planets thought to be outside the HZ, like TRAPPIST-1h, may now be within it. It has also been argued that planets with dense CO2-CH4 atmospheres near the outer edge of the HZ of hotter stars may be inhabited because it is hard to sustain such atmospheres without the presence of life.”
One such study was conducted by Dr. Ramirez and Lisa Kaltenegger, an associate professor with the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University. According to a paper they produced in 2017, which appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, exoplanet-hunters could find planets that would one day become habitable based on the presence ofvolcanic activity – which would be discernible through the presence of hydrogen gas (H2) in their atmospheres.
This theory is a natural extension of the search for “Earth-like” conditions, which considers that Earth’s atmosphere was not always as it is today. Basically, planetary scientists theorize that billions of years ago, Earth’s early atmosphere had an abundant supply of hydrogen gas (H2) due to volcanic outgassing and interaction between hydrogen and nitrogen molecules in this atmosphere is what kept the Earth warm long enough for life to develop.
In Earth’s case, this hydrogen eventually escaped into space, which is believed to be the case for all terrestrial planets. However, on a planet where there is sufficient levels of volcanic activity, the presence of hydrogen gas in the atmosphere could be maintained, thus allowing for a greenhouse effect that would keep their surfaces warm. In this respect, the presence of hydrogen gas in a planet’s atmosphere could extend a star’s HZ.
According to Ramirez, there is also the factor of time, which is not typically taken into account when assessing HZs. In short, stars evolve over time and put out varying levels of radiation based on their age. This has the effect of altering where a star’s HZ reaches, which may not encompass a planet that is currently being studied. As Ramirez explained:
“[I]t has been shown that M-dwarfs (really cool stars) are so bright and hot when they first form that they can desiccate any young planets that are later determined to be in the classical HZ. This underscores the point that just because a planet is currently located in the habitable zone, it doesn’t mean that it is actually habitable (let alone inhabited). We should be able to watch out for these cases.
Finally, there is the issue of what kinds of star system astronomers have been observing in the hunt for exoplanets. Whereas many surveys have examined G-type yellow dwarf star (which is what our Sun is), much research has been focused on M-type (red dwarf) stars of late because of their longevity and the fact that they believed to be the most likely place to find rocky planets that orbit within their stars’ HZs.
“Whereas most previous studies have focused on single star systems, recent work suggests that habitable planets may be found in binary star systems or even red giant or white dwarf systems, potentially habitable planets may also take the form of desert worlds or even ocean worlds that are much wetter than the Earth,” says Ramirez. “Such formulations not only greatly expand the parameter space of potentially habitable planets to search for, but they allow us to filter out the worlds that are most (and least) likely to host life.”
In the end, this study shows that the classical HZ is not the only tool that can be used to asses the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. As such, Ramirez recommends that in the future, astronomers and exoplanet-hunters should supplement the classical HZ with the additional considerations raised by these newer formulations. In so doing, they just may be able to maximize their chances for finding life someday.
“I recommend that scientists pay real special attention to the early stages of planetary systems because that helps determine the likelihood that a planet that is currently located in the present day habitable zone is actually worth studying further for more evidence of life,” he said. “I also recommend that the various HZ definitions are used in conjunction so that we can best determine which planets are most likely to host life. That way we can rank these planets and determine which ones to spend most of our telescope time and energy on. Along the way we would also be testing how valid the HZ concept is, including determining how universal the carbonate-silicate cycle is on a cosmic scale.”
In the past few decades, there has been an explosion in the number of extra-solar planets that have been discovered. As of April 1st, 2018, a total of 3,758 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,808 systems, with 627 systems having more than one planet. In addition to expanding our knowledge of the Universe, the purpose of this search has been to find evidence of life beyond our Solar System.
In the course of looking for habitable planets, astronomers have used Earth as a guiding example. But would we recognize a truly “Earth-like” planet if we saw one? This question was addressed in a recent paper by two professors, one of whom is an exoplanet-hunter and the other, an Earth science and astrobiology expert. Together, they consider what advances (past and future) will be key to the search for Earth 2.0.
The paper, titled “Earth as an Exoplanet“, recently appeared online. The study was conducted by Tyler D. Robinson, a former NASA Postdoctoral Fellow and an assistant professor from Northern Arizona University, and Christopher T. Reinhard – an assistant professor from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of of Earth and Atmospheric Studies.
For the sake of their study, Robinson and Reinhard focus on how the hunt for habitable and inhabited planets beyond our Solar System commonly focuses on Earth analogs. This is to be expected, since Earth is the only planet that we know of that can support life. As Professor Robinson told Universe Today via email:
“Earth is – currently! – our only example of a habitable and an inhabited world. Thus, when someone asks, “What will a habitable exoplanet look like?” or “What will a life-bearing exoplanet look like?”, our best option is to point to Earth and say, “Maybe it will look a lot like this.” While many studies have hypothesized other habitable planets (e.g., water-covered super-Earths), our leading example of a fully-functioning habitable planet will always be Earth.”
The authors therefore consider how observations made by spacecraft of the Solar System have led to the development of approaches for detecting signatures of habitability and life on other worlds. These include the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions and Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which conducted flybys of many Solar System bodies during the 1970s.
These missions, which conducted studies on the planets and moons of the Solar System using photometry and spectroscopy allowed scientists to learn a great deal about these bodies’ atmospheric chemistry and composition, as well as meteorlogical patterns and chemistry. Subsequent missions have added to this by revealing key details about the surface details and geological evolution of the Solar planets and moons.
In addition, the Galileo probe conducted flybys of Earth in December of 1990 and 1992, which provided planetary scientists with the first opportunity to analyze our planet using the same tools and techniques that had previously been applied throughout the Solar System. It was also the Voyager 1 probe that took a distant image of Earth, which Carl Sagan referred to as the “Pale Blue Dot” photo.
However, they also note that Earth’s atmosphere and surface environment has evolved considerably over the past 4.5 billion years ago. In fact, according to various atmospheric and geological models, Earth has resembled many environments in the past that would be considered quite “alien” by today’s standards. These include Earth’s many ice ages and the earliest epochs, when Earth’s primordial atmosphere was the product of volcanic outgassing.
As Professor Robinson explained, this presents some complications when it comes to finding other examples of “Pale Blue Dots”:
“The key complication is being careful to not fall into the trap of thinking that Earth has always appeared the way it does today. So, our planet actually presents a huge array of options for what a habitable and/or inhabited planet might look like.”
In other words, our hunt for Earth analogs could reveal a plethora of worlds which are “Earth-like”, in the sense that they resemble a previous (or future) geological period of Earth. These include “Snowball Earth’s”, which would be covered by glacial sheets (but could still be life-bearing), or even what Earth looked like during the Hadean or Archean Eons, when oxygenic photosynthesis had not yet taken place.
This would also have implications when it comes to what kinds of life would be able to exist there. For instance, if the planet is still young and its atmosphere was still in its primordial state, life could be strictly in microbial form. However, if the planet was billions of years old and in an interglacial period, more complex life forms may have evolved and be roaming the Earth.
Robinson and Reinhard go on to consider what future developments will aid in the spotting of “Pale Blue Dots”. These include next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – scheduled for deployment in 2020 – and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is currently under development. Other technologies include concepts like Starshade, which is intended to eliminate the glare of stars so that exoplanets can be directly imaged.
“Spotting true Pale Blue Dots – water-covered terrestrial worlds in the habitable zone of Sun-like stars – will require advancements in our ability to “directly image” exoplanets,” said Robinson. “Here, you use either optics inside the telescope or a futuristic-sounding “starshade” flying beyond the telescope to cancel out the light of a bright star thereby enabling you to see a faint planet orbiting that star. A number of different research groups, including some at NASA centers, are working to perfect these technologies.”
Once astronomers are able to image rocky exoplanets directly, they will at last be able to study their atmospheres in detail and place more accurate constraints on their potential habitability. Beyond that, there may come a day when we will be able to image the surfaces of these planets, either through extremely sensitive telescopes or spacecraft missions (such as Project Starshot).
Whether or not we find another “Pale Blue Dot” remains to be seen. But in the coming years, we may finally get a good idea of just how common (or rare) our world truly is.