Europan Space Whales Anyone? Planets Covered by Deep Oceans Can Still Have Life on Them

In recent decades, astronomers have discovered many planets that they believe are “Earth-like” in nature, meaning that they appear to be terrestrial (i.e. rocky) and orbit their stars at the right distance to support the existence of liquid water on their surfaces. Unfortunately, recent research has indicated that many of these planets may in fact be “water worlds“, where water makes up a significant proportion of the planet’s mass.
Continue reading “Europan Space Whales Anyone? Planets Covered by Deep Oceans Can Still Have Life on Them”

With All These New Planets Found in the Habitable Zone, Maybe it’s Time to Fine Tune the Habitable Zone

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.

The study, titled “A more comprehensive habitable zone for finding life on other planets“, recently appeared online. The study was conducted by Dr. Ramses M. Ramirez, a research scientist with the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. For years, Dr. Ramirez has been involved in the study of potentially-habitable worlds and built climate models to assess the processes that make planets habitable.

A diagram depicting the Habitable Zone (HZ) boundaries, and how the boundaries are affected by star type. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Chester Harman

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.

Diagram showing GJ 625’s habitable zone in comparison’s to the Sun’s. Credit: IAC

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 of volcanic activity – which would be discernible through the presence of hydrogen gas (H2) in their atmospheres.

Stellar temperature versus distance from the star compared to Earth for the classic habitable zone (shaded blue) and the volcanic habitable zone extension (shaded red). Credit: R. Ramirez, Carl Sagan Institute, Cornell

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.”

Further Reading: arXiv

If We’re Searching for Earth 2.0, Would We Know It When We Find It?

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.

Thanks to advances in technology and detection methods, astronomers have detected multiple Earth-like planets in our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

The “pale blue dot” of Earth captured by Voyager 1 spacecraft on Feb 14th, 1990. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

Ice ages are characterized by a drop in average global temperatures, resulting in the expansion of ice sheets globally. Credit: NASA

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.

Further Reading: arXiv

Astronomers Figure Out a New Way to Search for Planets at Alpha Centauri

At a distance of 4.37 light-years from Earth, Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system to our own. For generations, scientists and speculative thinkers have pondered whether it might have a planetary system like our own Sun, and whether or not life may also exist there. Unfortunately, recent efforts to locate extra-solar planets in this star system have failed, with potential detections later shown to be the result of artifacts in the data.

In response to these failed efforts, several more ambitious projects are being developed to find exoplanets around Alpha Centauri. These include direct-imaging space telescopes like Project Blue and the interstellar mission known as Breakthrough Starshot. But according to a new study led by researchers from Yale University, existing data can be used to determine the probability of planets in this system (and even which kind).

The study which detailed their findings recently appeared in The Astronomical Journal under the title “Planet Detectability in the Alpha Centauri System“. The study was led by Lily Zhao, a graduate student from Yale University and a fellow with the National Science Foundation (NSF), and was co-authored by Debora Fischer, John Brewer and Matt Giguere of Yale and Bárbara Rojas-Ayala of the Universidad Andrés Bello in Chile.

Artist’s impression of what the surface might look like on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri system. Credit: Michael S. Helfenbein

For the sake of their study, Zhao and her team considered why efforts to locate planets within the the closest star system to our own have so far failed. This is surprising when one considers how, statistically speaking, Alpha Centauri is very likely to have a system if its own. As Prof. Fischer indicated in a recent Yale News press release:

The universe has told us the most common types of planets are small planets, and our study shows these are exactly the ones that are most likely to be orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B… Because Alpha Centauri is so close, it is our first stop outside our solar system. There’s almost certain to be small, rocky planets around Alpha Centauri A and B.”

In addition to being a professor of astronomy at Yale University, Debora Fischer is also one of the leaders of the Yale Exoplanets Group. As an expert in her field, Fischer has devoted decades of her life to researching exoplanets and searching for Earth analogues beyond our Solar System. With partial funding provided by NASA and the National Science Foundation, the team relied on existing data collected by some of the latest exoplanet-hunting instruments.

These included CHIRON, a spectrograph mounted on the Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System (SMARTS) at the Cerro Telolo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. This instrument was built by Fischer’s team, and the data it provided was combined with the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) instruments on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

Using ten years of data collected by these instruments, Zhao and her colleagues then set up a grid system for the Alpha Centauri system. Rather than looking for signs of planets that did exist, they used the data to rule out what types of planets could not exist there. As Zhao told Universe Today via email:

“This study was special in that it used existing data of the Alpha Centauri system not to find planets, but to characterize what planets could not exist. By doing so, it returned more information about the system as a whole and provides guidance for future observations of this uniquely charismatic system. 

In addition, the team analyzed the chemical composition of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system to learn more about the kinds of material that would be available to form planets. Based on the different values obtained by observations campaigns conducted by different telescopes on Alpha Centauri’s three stars (Alpha, Beta and Proxima), they were able to place constraints on what kinds of planets could exist there. 

“We found that existing data rules out planets in the habitable zone above 53 Earth masses for alpha Centauri A, 8.4 Earth masses for Alpha Centauri B, and 0.47 Earth masses for Proxima Centauri,” said Zhao. “As for the chemical compositions, we found that the ratios of Carbon/Oxygen and Magnesium/Silicon for Alpha Centauri A and B are quite similar to that of the Sun.”

Artist’s impression of how the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star may appear. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

Basically, the results of their study effectively ruled out the possibility of any Jupiter-sized gas giants in the Alpha Centauri system. For Alpha Centauri A, they further found that planets that were less than 50 Earth masses could exist, while Alpha Centauri B might have planets smaller than 8 Earth masses. For Proxima Centauri, which we know to have at least one Earth-like planet, they determined that there might more that are less than half of Earth’s mass.

In addition to offering hope for exoplanet-hunters, this study carries with it some rather interesting implications for planetary habitability. Basically, the presence of rocky planets in the system is encouraging; but with no gas giants, a key ingredient in ensuring that planets remain habitable could be missing.

“[N]ot only could there still be habitable, Earth-mass planets around our closest stellar neighbors, but there also aren’t any gas giants that could endanger the survival of these potentially habitable, rocky planets,” said Zhao. “Furthermore, if these planets do exist, they are likely to have similar compositions to our very own Earth given the similarity in Alpha Cen A/B and our beloved Sun.”

At present, there are no instruments that have been able to confirm the existence of any exoplanets in Alpha Centauri. But as Zhao indicated, her and her teammates are optimistic that future surveys will have the necessary sensitivity to do it:

“[T]his very month has seen the commissioning of several next-generation instruments promising the precision necessary to discover these possible planets in the near future, and this analysis has shown that it is for sure worth it to keep looking!”

The ESO’s Paranal Observatory, located in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Credit: ESO

These include the ESO-built Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) – which was recently installed at the Paranal Observatory – and the EXtreme PREcision Spectrometer (EXPRES) built at Yale University. This latter instrument is currently conducting an observation run at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, which Zhao is participating in.

“These instruments are promising a precision of down to 10-30 cm/s and should be able to detect many more smaller, and further away planets – such as habitable planets around the Centauri stars,” said Zhao. “The field of view of these two instruments are slightly different (ESPRESSO has the southern hemisphere, where Alpha Centauri is, while EXPRES covers the northern hemisphere, for instance where the Kepler and many of the K2 fields are).”

With new instruments at their disposal, and methods like the one Zhao and her team developed, the closest star system to Earth is sure to become a veritable treasure trove for astronomers and exoplanet-hunters in the coming years. And anything we find there will surely become targets for direct studies by groups like Project Blue and Breakthrough Starshot. If ET resides next door, we’re sure to hear about it soon!

Further Reading: Yale News, The Astronomical Journal

Looking for Signs of Life on Distant Planets Just Got Easier

When it comes to searching for worlds that could support extra-terrestrial life, scientists currently rely on the “low-hanging fruit” approach. Since we only know of one set of conditions under which life can thrive – i.e. what we have here on Earth – it makes sense to look for worlds that have these same conditions. These include being located within a star’s habitable zone, having a stable atmosphere, and being able to maintain liquid water on the surface.

Until now, scientists have relied on methods that make it very difficult to detect water vapor in the atmosphere’s of terrestrial planets. But thanks to a new study led by Yuka Fujii of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), that may be about to change. Using a new three-dimensional model that takes into account global circulation patterns, this study also indicates that habitable exoplanets may be more common than we thought.

The study, titled “NIR-driven Moist Upper Atmospheres of Synchronously Rotating Temperate Terrestrial Exoplanets“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. In addition to Dr. Fujii, who is also a member of the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the research team included Anthony D. Del Genio (GISS) and David S. Amundsen (GISS and Columbia University).

Artist’s concept of the hot Jupiter WASP-121b, which presents the best evidence yet of a stratosphere on an exoplanet – generated using Engine House VFX. Credit: Bristol Science Centre/University of Exeter

To put it simply, liquid water is essential to life as we know it. If a planet does not have a warm enough atmosphere to maintain liquid water on its surface for a sufficient amount of time (on the order of billions of years), then it is unlikely that life will be able to emerge and evolve. If a planet is too distant from its star, its surface water will freeze; if it is too close, its surface water will evaporate and be lost to space.

While water has been detected in the atmospheres of exoplanets before, in all cases, the planets were massive gas giants that orbited very closely to their stars. (aka. “Hot Jupiters”). As Fujii and her colleagues state in their study:

“Although H2O signatures have been detected in the atmospheres of hot Jupiters, detecting molecular signatures, including H2O, on temperate terrestrial planets is exceedingly challenging, because of the small planetary radius and the small scale height (due to the lower temperature and presumably larger mean molecular weight).”

When it comes to terrestrial (i.e. rocky) exoplanets, previous studies were forced to rely on one-dimensional models to calculate the presence of water. This consisted of measuring hydrogen loss, where water vapor in the stratosphere is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. By measuring the rate at which hydrogen is lost to space, scientists would estimate the amount of liquid water still present on the surface.

Artist’s impression of the “Venus-like” exoplanet GJ 1132b. Credit: cfa.harvard.edu

However, as Dr. Fujii and her colleagues explain, such models rely on several assumptions that cannot be addressed, which include the global transport of heat and water vapor vapor, as well as the effects of clouds. Basically, previous models predicted that for water vapor to reach the stratosphere, long-term surface temperatures on these exoplanets would have to be more than 66 °C (150 °F) higher than what we experience here on Earth.

These temperatures could create powerful convective storms on the surface. However, these storms could not be the reason water reaches the stratosphere when it comes to slowly rotating planets entering a moist greenhouse state – where water vapor intensifies heat. Planets that orbit closely to their parent stars are known to either have a slow rotation or to be tidally-locked with their planets, thus making convective storms unlikely.

This occurs quite often for terrestrial planets that are located around low-mass, ultra cool, M-type (red dwarf) stars. For these planets, their proximity to their host star means that it’s gravitational influence will be strong enough to slow down or completely arrest their rotation. When this occurs, thick clouds form on the dayside of the planet, protecting it from much of the star’s light.

The team found that, while this could keep the dayside cool and prevent water vapor from rising, the amount of near-Infrared radiation (NIR) could provide enough heat to cause a planet to enter a moist greenhouse state. This is especially true of M-type and other cool dwarf stars, which are known to produce more in the way of NIR. As this radiation warms the clouds, water vapor will rise into the stratosphere.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to the Solar System. In the background, the binary system of Alpha Centauri can be seen. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

To address this, Fujii and her team relied on three-dimensional general circulation models (GCMs) which incorporate atmospheric circulation and climate heterogeneity. For the sake of their model, the team started with a planet that had an Earth-like atmosphere and was entirely covered by oceans. This allowed the team to clearly see how variations in distance from different types of stars would effect conditions on the planets surfaces.

These assumptions allowed the team to clearly see how changing the orbital distance and type of stellar radiation affected the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere. As Dr. Fujii explained in a NASA press release:

“Using a model that more realistically simulates atmospheric conditions, we discovered a new process that controls the habitability of exoplanets and will guide us in identifying candidates for further study… We found an important role for the type of radiation a star emits and the effect it has on the atmospheric circulation of an exoplanet in making the moist greenhouse state.”

In the end, the team’s new model demonstrated that since low-mass star emit the bulk of their light at NIR wavelengths, a moist greenhouse state will result for planets orbiting closely to them. This would result in conditions on their surfaces that comparable to what Earth experiences in the tropics, where conditions are hot and moist, instead of hot and dry.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

What’s more, their model indicated that NIR-driven processes increased moisture in the stratosphere gradually, to the point that exoplanets orbiting closer to their stars could remain habitable. This new approach to assessing potential habitability will allow astronomers to simulate circulation of planetary atmospheres and the special features of that circulation, which is something one-dimensional models cannot do.

In the future, the team plans to assess how variations in planetary characteristics -such as gravity, size, atmospheric composition, and surface pressure – could affect water vapor circulation and habitability. This will, along with their 3-dimensional model that takes planetary circulation patterns into account, allow astronomers to determine the potential habitability of distant planets with greater accuracy. As Anthony Del Genio indicated:

“As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state. Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state.”

Beyond offering astronomers a more comprehensive method for determining exoplanet habitability, this study is also good news for exoplanet-hunters hoping to find habitable planets around M-type stars. Low-mass, ultra-cool, M-type stars are the most common star in the Universe, accounting for roughly 75% of all stars in the Milky Way. Knowing that they could support habitable exoplanets greatly increases the odds of find one.

Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In addition, this study is VERY good news given the recent spate of research that has cast serious doubt on the ability of M-type stars to host habitable planets. This research was conducted in response to the many terrestrial planets that have been discovered around nearby red dwarfs in recent years. What they revealed was that, in general, red dwarf stars experience too much flare and could strip their respective planets of their atmospheres.

These include the 7-planet TRAPPIST-1 system (three of which are located in the star’s habitable zone) and the closest exoplanet to the Solar System, Proxima b. The sheer number of Earth-like planets discovered around M-type stars, coupled with this class of star’s natural longevity, has led many in the astrophysical community to venture that red dwarf stars might be the most likely place to find habitable exoplanets.

With this latest study, which indicates that these planets could be habitable after all, it would seem that the ball is effectively back in their court!

Further Reading: NASA, The Astrophysical Journal

 

The Orbit of Earth will be Hiding Earth 2.0

In the hunt for extra-solar planets, astronomers and enthusiasts can be forgiven for being a bit optimistic. In the course of discovering thousands of rocky planets, gas giants, and other celestial bodies, is it too much to hope that we might someday find a genuine Earth-analog? Not just an “Earth-like” planet (which implies a rocky body of comparable size) but an actual Earth 2.0?

This has certainly been one of the goals of exoplanet-hunters, who are searching nearby star systems for planets that are not only rocky, but orbit within their star’s habitable zone, show signs of an atmosphere and have water on their surfaces. But according to a new study by Alexey G. Butkevich – a astrophysicist from the Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg, Russia – our attempts to discover Earth 2.0 could be hindered by Earth itself!

Butkevich’s study, titled “Astrometric Exoplanet Detectability and the Earth Orbital Motion“, was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. For the sake of his study, Dr. Butkevich examined how changes in the Earth’s own orbital position could make it more difficult to conduct measurements of a star’s motion around its system’s barycenter.

Artist’s impression of how an Earth-like planet might look from space. Credit: ESO.

This method of exoplanet detection, where the motion of a star around the star system’s center of mass (barycenter), is known as the Astrometic Method. Essentially, astronomers attempt to determine if the presence of gravitational fields around a star (i.e. planets) are causing the star to wobble back and forth. This is certainly true of the Solar System, where our Sun is pulled back and forth around a common center by the pull of all its planets.

In the past, this technique has been used to identify binary stars with a high degree of precision. In recent decades, it has been considered as a viable method for exoplanet hunting. This is no easy task since the wobbles are rather difficult to detect at the distances involved. And until recently, the level of precision required to detect these shifts was at the very edge of instrument sensitivity.

This is rapidly changing, thanks to improved instruments that allow for accuracy down to the microarcsecond. A good example of this is the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft, which was deployed in 2013 to catalog and measure the relative motions of billions of stars in our galaxy. Given that it can conduct measurements at 10 microarcseconds, it is believed that this mission could conduct astrometric measurements for the sake of finding exoplanets.

But as Butkevich explained, there are other problems when it comes to this method. “The standard astrometric model is based on the assumption that stars move uniformly relative to the solar system barycentre,” he states. But as he goes on to explain, when examining the effects of Earth’s orbital motion on astrometric detection, there is a correlation between the Earth’s orbit and the position of a star relative to its system barycenter.

Kepler-22b, an exoplanet with an Earth-like radius that was discovery within the habitable zone of its host star. Credit: NASA

To put it another way, Dr. Butkevich examined whether or not the motion of our planet around the Sun, and the Sun’s motion around its center of mass, could have a cancelling effect on parallax measurements of other stars. This would effectively make any measurements of a star’s motion, designed to see if there were any planets orbiting it, effectively useless. Or as Dr. Butkevich stated in his study:

“It is clear from simple geometrical considerations that in such systems the orbital motion of the host star, under certain conditions, may be observationally close to the parallactic effect or even indistinguishable from it. It means that the orbital motion may be partially or fully absorbed by the parallax parameters.”

This would be especially true of systems where the orbital period of a planet was one year, and which had an orbit that placed it close to the Sun’s ecliptic – i.e. like Earth’s own orbit! So basically, astronomers would not be able to detect Earth 2.0 using astrometric measurements, because Earth’s own orbit and the Sun’s own wobble would make detection close to impossible.

As Dr. Butkevich states in his conclusions:

“We present an analysis of effects of the Earth orbital motion on astrometric detectability of exoplanetary systems. We demonstrated that, if period of a planet is close to one year and its orbital plane is nearly parallel to the ecliptic, orbital motion of the host may be entirely or partially absorbed by the parallax parameter. If full absorption occurs, the planet is astrometrically undetectable.”
Future surveys for exoplanets could be complicated by the Sun’s own motion around its barycenter. Credit: NASA

Luckily, exoplanet-hunters have a myriad of other methods too choose from, including direct and indirect measurements. And when it comes to spotting planets around neighboring stars, two of the most effective involve measuring Doppler shifts in stars (aka. the Radial Velocity Method) and dips in a star’s brightness (aka. the Transit Method).

Nevertheless, these methods suffer from their own share of drawbacks, and knowing their limitations is the first step in refining them. In that respect, Dr. Butkevich’s study has echoes of heliocentrism and relativity, where we are reminded that our own reference point is not fixed in space, and can influence our observations.

The hunt for exoplanets is also expected to benefit greatly from deployment of next-generation instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and others.

Further Reading: arXiv

Scientists Discover TRAPPIST-1 is Older Than Our Solar System

In February of 2017, a team of European astronomers announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. Aside from the fact that all seven planets were rocky, there was the added bonus of three of them orbiting within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. As such, multiple studies have been conducted that have sought to determine whether or not any planets in the system could be habitable.

When it comes to habitability studies, one of the key factors to consider is the age of the star system. Basically, young stars have a tendency to flare up and release harmful bursts of radiation while planets that orbit older stars have been subject to radiation for longer periods of time. Thanks to a new study by a pair of astronomers, it is now known that the TRAPPIST-1 system is twice as old as the Solar System.

The study, which will be published in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “On The Age Of The TRAPPIST-1 System“, was led by Adam Burgasser, an astronomer at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). He was joined by Eric Mamajek, the deputy program scientist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program (EEP) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Together, they consulted data on TRAPPIST-1s kinematics (i.e. the speed at which it orbits the center of the galaxy), its age, magnetic activity, density, absorption lines, surface gravity, metallicity, and the rate at which it experiences stellar flares. From all this, they determined that TRAPPIST-1 is quite old, somewhere between 5.4 and 9.8 billion years of age. This is up to twice as old as our own Solar System, which formed some 4.5 billion years ago.

These results contradict previously-held estimates, which were that the TRAPPIST-1 system was about 500 millions yeas old. This was based on the fact that it would have taken this long for a low-mass star like TRAPPIST-1 (which has roughly 8% the mass of our Sun) to contract to its minimum size. But with an upper age limit that is just under 10 billion years, this star system could be almost as old as the Universe itself!

As Dr. Burgasser explained in a recent NASA press statement:

“Our results really help constrain the evolution of the TRAPPIST-1 system, because the system has to have persisted for billions of years. This means the planets had to evolve together, otherwise the system would have fallen apart long ago.”

The implications of this could be very significant as far as habitability studies are concerned. For one, older stars experience less in the way of flareups compared to younger ones. From their study, Burgasser and Mamajek confirmed that TRAPPIST-1 is relatively quiet compared to other ultra-cool dwarf stars. However, since the planets around TRAPPIST-1 orbit so close to their star, they have been exposed to billions of years of radiation at this point.

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

As such, it is possible that most of the planets which orbit TRAPPIST-1 – expect for the outermost two, g and h – would probably have had their atmospheres stripped away – similar to what happened to Mars billions of years ago when it lost its protective magnetic field. This is certainly consistent with many recent studies, which concluded that TRAPPIST-1’s solar activity would not be conducive to life on any of its planets.

Whereas some of these studies addressed TRAPPIST-1s level of stellar flare, others examined the role magnetic fields would play. In the end, they concluded that TRAPPIST-1 was too variable, and that its own magnetic field would likely be connected to the fields of its planets, allowing particles from the star to flow directly  onto the planets atmospheres (thus allowing them to be more easily stripped away).

However, the results were not entirely bad news. Since the TRAPPIST-1 planets have estimated densities that are lower than that of Earth, it is possible that they have large amounts of volatile elements (i.e. water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, etc). These could have led to the formation of thick atmospheres that protected the surfaces from a lot of harmful radiation and redistributed heat across the tidally-locked planets.

Then again, a thick atmosphere could also have an effect akin to Venus, creating a runaway greenhouse effect that would have resulted in incredibly thick atmospheres and extremely hot surfaces. Under the circumstances, then, any life that emerged on these planets would have had to be extremely hardy in order to survive for billions of years.

Artist’s impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Another positive thing to consider is TRAPPIST-1’s constant brightness and temperature, which are also typical of M-class (red dwarf) stars. Stars like our Sun have an estimated lifespan of 10 billion years (which it is almost halfway through) and grow steadily brighter and hotter with time. Red dwarfs, on the other hand, are believed to exist for as much as 10 trillion years – far longer than the Universe has existed – and do not change much in intensity.

Given the amount of time it took for complex life to have emerged on Earth (over 4.5 billion years), this longevity and consistency could make red dwarf star systems the best long-term bet for habitability. Such was the conclusion of one recent study, which was conducted by Prof. Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). And as Mamajek explained:

“Stars much more massive than the Sun consume their fuel quickly, brightening over millions of years and exploding as supernovae. But TRAPPIST-1 is like a slow-burning candle that will shine for about 900 times longer than the current age of the universe.”

NASA has also expressed excitement over these findings. “These new results provide useful context for future observations of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, which could give us great insight into how planetary atmospheres form and evolve, and persist or not,” said Tiffany Kataria, an exoplanet scientist at JPL. At the moment, habitability studies of TRAPPIST-1 and other nearby star systems are confined to indirect methods.

However, in the near future, next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope are expected to reveal additional information – such as whether or not these planets have atmospheres and what their compositions are. Future observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope are also expected to improve our understanding of these planets and possible conditions on their surface.

Further Reading: NASA, arXiv

Finally! A Low Mass Super-Earth With Some Funky Atmosphere

In 2015, astronomers discovered an intriguing extrasolar planet located in a star system some 39 light years from Earth. Despite orbiting very close to its parent star, this “Venus-like” planet – known as GJ 1138b – appeared to still be cool enough to have an atmosphere. In short order, a debate ensued as to what kind of atmosphere it might have, whether it was a “dry Venus” or a “wet Venus”.

And now, thanks to the efforts of an international team of researchers, the existence of an atmosphere has been confirmed around GJ 1138b. In addition to settling the debate about the nature of this planet, it also marks the first time that an atmosphere has been detected around a low-mass Super-Earth. On top of that, GJ 1138b is now the farthest Earth-like planet that is known to have an atmosphere.

Led by John Southworth (of Keele University) and Luigi Mancini (of the University of Rome Tor Vergata), the research team included members from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA), the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), the University of Cambridge and Stockholm University. Their study, titled “Detection of the atmosphere of the 1.6 Earth mass exoplanet GJ 1132b“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal.

Artist’s impression of the “Venus-like” exoplanet GJ 1132b. Credit: cfa.harvard.edu

Using the GROND imager on the La Silla Observatory’s 2.2m ESO/MPG telescope, the team monitored GJ 1132b in different wavelengths as it transited in front of its parent star. Given the planet’s orbital period (1.6 days), these transits happen quite often, which presented plenty of opportunities to view it pass in front of its star. In so doing, they monitored the star for slight decreases in its brightness.

As Dr. Southworth explained to Universe via email, these observations confirmed the existence of an atmosphere:

“What we did was to measure the amount of dimming at 7 different wavelengths in optical and near-infrared light. At one of these wavelengths (IR) the planet seemed to be slightly bigger. This indicated that the planet has a large atmosphere around it which allows most of the starlight to pass through, but is opaque at one wavelength.”

The team members from the University of Cambridge and the MPIA then conducted simulations to see what this atmosphere’s composition could be. Ultimately, they concluded that it most likely has a thick atmosphere that is rich in water and/or methane – which contradicted recent theories that the planet had a thin and tenuous atmosphere (i.e. a “dry Venus”).

The ESO’s Paranal Observatory, located in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Credit: ESO

It was also the first time that an atmosphere has been confirmed around a planet that is not significantly greater in size and mass to Earth. In the past, astronomers have detected atmospheres around many other exoplanets. But in these cases, the planets were either gas giants or planets that were many times Earth’s size and mass (aka. “Super-Earths”). GJ 1132b, however, is 1.6 times as massive as Earth, and measures 1.4 Earth radii.

In addition, these findings are a significant step in the search for life beyond our Solar System. At present, astronomers seek to determine the chemical composition of a planet’s atmosphere to determine if it could be habitable. Where the right combination of chemical imbalances exist, the presence of living organisms is seen as a possible cause.

By being able to determine that a planet at lower end of the super-Earth scale has an atmosphere, we are one step closer to being able to determine exoplanet habitability. The detection of an atmosphere-bearing planet around an M-type (red dwarf) star is also good news in and of itself. Low-mass red dwarf stars are the most common star in the galaxy, and recent findings have indicated that they might be our best shot for finding habitable worlds.

Besides detecting several terrestrial planets around red dwarf stars in recent years – including seven around a single star (TRAPPIST-1) – there is also research that suggests that these stars are capable of hosting large numbers of planets. At the same time, there have been concerns about whether red dwarfs are too variable and unstable to support habitable worlds.

Artist’s impression of Kepler-1649b, the “Venus-like” world orbiting an M-class star 219 light-years from Earth. Credit: Danielle Futselaar

As Southworth explained, spotting an atmosphere around a planet that closely orbits a red dwarf could help bolster the case for red dwarf habitability:

“One of the big issues has been that very-low-mass stars typically have strong magnetic fields and thus throw out a lot of X-ray and ultraviolet light. These high-energy photons tend to destroy molecules in atmospheres, and might also evaporate them completely. The fact that we have detected an atmosphere around GJ 1132b means that this kind of planet is indeed capable of retaining an atmosphere for billions of years, even whilst being bombarded by the high-energy photons from their host stars.

In the future, GJ 1132b is expected to be a high-priority target for study with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, and next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled for launch in 2018). Already, observations are being made, and the results are being eagerly anticipated.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to hear what astronomers discover as they set their sights on this nearby star system and it’s Venus-like world! In the meantime, be sure to check out this video about GJ 1132b, courtesy of MIT news:

Further Reading: Max Planck Institute for Astronomy

7 Questions For 7 New Planets

Artist's concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system, an ultra-cool dwarf that has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it. We're going to keep finding more and more solar systemsl like this, but we need observatories like WFIRST, with starshades, to understand the planets better. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s announcement last week of 7 new exoplanets is still causing great excitement. Any time you discover 7 “Earth-like” planets around a distant star, with 3 of them “potentially” in the habitable zone, it’s a big deal. But now that we’re over some of our initial excitement, let’s look at some of the questions that need to be answered before we can all get excited again.

What About That Star?

The star that the planets orbit, called Trappist-1, is a Red Dwarf star, much dimmer and cooler than our Sun. The three potentially habitable planets—TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g— get about the same amount of energy as Earth and Mars do from the Sun, because they’re so close to it. Red Dwarfs are very long-lasting stars, and their lifetimes are measured in the trillions of years, rather than billions of years, like our Sun is.

But Red Dwarfs themselves can have some unusual properties that are problematic when it comes to supporting life on nearby planets.

This illustration shows TRAPPIST-1 in relation to our Sun. Image: By ESO – http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1615e/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48532941

Red Dwarfs can be covered in starspots, or what we call sunspots when they appear on our Sun. On our Sun, they don’t have much affect on the amount of energy received by the Earth. But on a Red Dwarf, they can reduce the energy output by up to 40%. And this can go on for months at a time.

Other Red Dwarfs can emit powerful flares of energy, causing the star to double in brightness in mere minutes. Some Red Dwarfs constantly emit these flares, along with powerful magnetic fields.

Part of the excitement surrounding the Trappist planets is that they show multiple rocky planets in orbit around a Red Dwarf. And Red Dwarfs are the most common type of star in the Milky Way. So, the potential for life-supporting, rocky planets just grew in a huge way.

But we don’t know yet how the starspots and flaring of Red Dwarfs will affect the potential habitability of planets orbiting them. It could very well render them uninhabitable.

Will Tidal Locking Affect the Planets’ Habitability?

The planets orbiting Trappist-1 are very likely tidally locked to their star. This means that they don’t rotate, like Earth and the rest of the planets in our Solar System. This has huge implications for the potential habitability of these planets. With one side of the planet getting all the energy from the star, and the other side in perpetual darkness, these planets would be nothing like Earth.

Tidal locking is not rare. For example, Pluto and its moon Charon (above) are tidally locked to each other, as are the Earth and the Moon. But can life appear and survive on a planet tidally locked to its star? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

One side would be constantly roasted by the star, while the other would be frigid. It’s possible that some of these planets could have atmospheres. Depending on the type of atmosphere, the extreme temperature effects of tidal locking could be mitigated. But we just don’t know if or what type of atmosphere any of the planets have. Yet.

So, Do They Have Atmospheres?

We just don’t know yet. But we do have some constraints on what any atmospheres might be.

Preliminary data from the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that TRAPPIST 1b and 1c don’t have extended gas envelopes. All that really tells us is that they aren’t gaseous planets. In any case, those two planets are outside of the habitable zone. What we really need to know is if TRAPPIST 1e, 1f, and 1g have atmospheres. We also need to know if they have greenhouse gases in their atmospheres. Greenhouse gases could help make tidally locked planets hospitable to life.

On a tidally locked planet, the termination line between the sunlit side and the dark side is considered the most likely place for life to develop. The presence of greenhouse gases could expand the habitable band of the termination line and make more of the dark side warmer.

We won’t know much about any greenhouse gases in the atmospheres of these planets until the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) are operating. Those two ‘scopes will be able to analyze the atmospheres for greenhouse gases. They might also be able to detect biosignatures like ozone and methane in the atmospheres.

We’ll have to wait a while for that though. The JWST doesn’t launch until October 2018, and the EELT won’t see first light until 2024.

Do They Have Liquid Water?

We don’t know for sure if life requires liquid water. We only know that’s true on Earth. Until we find life somewhere else, we have to be guided by what we know of life on Earth. So we always start with liquid water.

A study published in 2016 looked at planets orbiting ultra-cool dwarfs like TRAPPIST-1. They determined that TRAPPIST 1b and 1c could have lost as much as 15 Earth oceans of water during the early hot phase of their solar system. TRAPPIST 1d might have lost as much as 1 Earth ocean of water. If they had any water initially, that is. But the study also shows that they may have retained some of that water. It’s not clear if the three habitable planets in the TRAPPIST system suffered the same loss of initial water. But if they did, they could have retained a similar amount of water.

Artist’s impression of an “eyeball” planet, a water world where the sun-facing side is able to maintain a liquid-water ocean. Credit and Copyright: eburacum45/ DeviantArt

There are still a lot of questions here. The word “habitable” only means that they are receiving enough energy from their star to keep water in liquid form. Since the planets are tidally locked, any water they did retain could be frozen on the planets’ dark side. To find out for sure, we’ll have to point other instruments at them.

Are Their Orbits Stable?

Planets require stable orbits over a biologically significant period of time in order for life to develop. Conditions that change too rapidly make it impossible for life to survive and adapt. A planet needs a stable amount of solar radiation, and a stable temperature, to support life. If the solar radiation, and the planet’s temperature, fluctuates too rapidly or too much due to orbital instability, then life would not be able to adapt to those changes.

Right now, there’s no indication that the orbits of the TRAPPIST 1 planets are unstable. But we are still in the preliminary stage of investigation. We need a longer sampling of their orbits to know for sure.

Pelted by Interlopers?

Our Solar System is a relatively placid place when it comes to meteors and asteroids. But it wasn’t always that way. Evidence from lunar rock samples show that it may have suffered through a period called the “Late Heavy Bombardment.” During this time, the inner Solar System was like a shooting gallery, with Earth, Venus, Mercury, Mars, and our Moon being struck continuously by asteroids.

The cause of this period of Bombardment, so the theory goes, was the migration of the giant planets through the solar system. Their gravity would have dislodged asteroids from the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt, and sent them into the path of the inner, terrestrial planets.

We know that Earth has been hit by meteorites multiple times, and that at least one of those times, a mass extinction was the result.

Computer generated simulation of an asteroid strike on the Earth. Credit: Don Davis/AFP/Getty Images

The TRAPPIST 1 system has no giant planets. But we don’t know if it has an asteroid belt, a Kuiper Belt, or any other organized, stable body of asteroids. It may be populated by asteroids and comets that are unstable. Perhaps the planets in the habitable zone are subjected to regular asteroid strikes which wipes out any life that gets started there. Admittedly, this is purely speculative, but so are a lot of other things about the TRAPPIST 1 system.

How Will We Find Out More?

We need more powerful telescopes to probe exoplanets like those in the TRAPPIST 1 system. It’s the only way to learn more about them. Sending some kind of probe to a solar system 40 light years away is something that might not happen for generations, if ever.

Luckily, more powerful telescopes are on the way. The James Webb Space Telescope should be in operation by April of 2019, and one of its objectives is to study exoplanets. It will tell us a lot more about the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, and whether or not they can support life.

Other telescopes, like the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), have the potential to capture images of large exoplanets, and possibly even Earth-sized exoplanets like the ones in the TRAPPIST system. These telescopes will see their first light within ten years.

This artist’s impression shows the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in its enclosure. The E-ELT will be a 39-metre aperture optical and infrared telescope. ESO/L. Calçada

What these questions show is that we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Yes, it’s exciting that the TRAPPIST planets have been discovered. It’s exciting that there are multiple terrestrial worlds there, and that 3 of them appear to be in the habitable zone.

It’s exciting that a Red Dwarf star—the most common type of star in our neighborhood—has been found with multiple rocky planets in the habitable zone. Maybe we’ll find a bunch more of them, and the prospect of finding life somewhere else will grow.

But it’s also possible that Earth, with all of its life supporting and sustaining characteristics, is an extremely unlikely occurrence. Special, rare, and unrepeatable.

Is Proxima Centauri b Basically Kevin Costner’s Waterworld?

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)

The discovery of an exoplanet candidate orbiting around nearby Proxima Centauri has certainly been exciting news. In addition to being the closest exoplanet to our Solar System yet discovered, all indications point to it being terrestrial and located within the stars’ circumstellar habitable zone. However, this announcement contained its share of bad news as well.

For one, the team behind the discovery indicated that given the nature of its orbit around Proxima Centauri, the planet likely in terms of how much water it actually had on its surface. But a recent research study by scientists from the University of Marseilles and the Carl Sagan Institute may contradict this assessment. According to their study, the exoplanet’s mass may consist of up to 50% water – making it an “ocean planet”.

According to the findings of the Pale Red Dot team, Proxima Centauri b orbits its star at an estimated distance of 7 million kilometers (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun. It also orbits Proxima Centauri with an orbital period of 11 days, and either has a synchronous rotation, or a 3:2 orbital resonance (i.e. three rotations for every two orbits).

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Because of this, liquid water is likely to be confined to either the sun-facing side of the planet (in the case of a synchronous rotation), or in its tropical zone (in the case of a 3:2 resonance). In addition, the radiation Proxima b receives from its red dwarf star would be significantly higher than what we are used to here on Earth.

However, according to a study led by Bastien Brugger of the Astrophysics Laboratory at the University of Marseilles, Proxima b may be wetter than we previously thought. For the sake of their study, titled “Possible Internal Structures and Compositions of Proxima Centauri b” (which was accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters), the research team used internal structure models to compute the radius and mass of Proxima b.

Their models were based on the assumptions that Proxima b is both a terrestrial planet (i.e. composed of rocky material and minerals) and did not have a massive atmosphere. Based on these assumptions, and mass estimates produced by the Pale Red Dot survey (~1.3 Earth masses), they concluded that Proxima b has a radius that is between 0.94 and 1.4 times that of Earth, and a mass that is roughly 1.1 to 1.46 times that of Earth.

As Brugger told Universe Today via email:

“We listed all compositions that Proxima b could have, and ran the model for each of them (that makes about 5000 simulations), giving us each time the corresponding planet radius. We finally excluded all the results that were not compatible with a planetary body, basing on the formation conditions of our solar system (since we do not know these conditions for the Proxima Centauri system). And thus, we obtained a range of possible planet radii for Proxima b, going from 0.94 to 1.40 times the radius of the Earth.”

Goldilocks Zone
Tidally-locked planets like Gliese 581 g (artist’s impression) are likely to be “eyeball” worlds, with a warm-water ocean on the sun-facing side surrounded by ice. Credit: Lynette Cook/NSF

This range in size allows for some very different planetary compositions. At the lower end, being slightly smaller but a bit more massive than Earth, Proxima b would likely be a Mercury-like planet with a 65% core mass fraction. However, at the higher end of the radii and mass estimates, Proxima b would likely be half water by mass.

“If the radius is 0.94 Earth radii, then Proxima b is fully rocky with a huge metallic core (like Mercury in the solar system),” said Brugger. “On the opposite, Proxima b can reach a radius of 1.40 only if it harbors a massive amount of water (50% of the total planet mass), and in this case it would be an ocean planet, with a 200 km deep liquid ocean! Below that, the pressure is so high that the water would turn into ice, forming a ~3000 km thick ice layer (Under which there would be a core made of rocks).”

In other words, Proxima b could be an “eyeball planet”, where the sun-facing side has a liquid ocean surface, while the dark side is covered in frozen ice. Recent studies have suggested that this may be the case with planet’s that orbit within the habitable zones of red dwarf stars, where tidal-locking ensures that only one side gets the heat necessary to maintain liquid water on the surface.

On the other hand, if it has an orbital resonance of 3:2, its likely to have a double-eyeball pattern – with liquid oceans in both the eastern and western hemispheres – while remaining frozen at the terminators and poles. However, if the lower estimates should be true, then Proxima b is likely to be a rocky, dense planet where liquid water is rare on one side, and frozen on the other.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. New research suggest the planet may be more watery than previously thought. Credit: ESO

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the the research is that it offers a glimpse into the likelihood of Proxima b being habitable. Ever since its discovery, the question of whether or not the planet can support life has remained contentious. But as Brugger explained:

“The interesting part is that all the cases we considered are compatible with a habitable planet. So if the planet radius is finally measured (in some months or years), two cases are possible: either (i) the measurement lies within the 0.94-1.40 range and we will be able to give the exact composition of the planet (and not only a range of possibilities), or (ii) the measured radius is out of this range, and we will know that the planet is not habitable. The case where Proxima b is an ocean planet is particularly interesting, because this kind of planet does not need an atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen (like on the Earth) to harbor life, since it can develop in its huge ocean.”

But of course, these scenarios are based on the assumption that Proxima b has a lot in common with the planets of our own Solar System. It’s also based on the assumption that the planet is indeed about 1.3 Earth masses. Until the planet can be observed making a transit of Proxima Centauri, astronomers won’t know for sure how massive it is.

Ultimately, we’re still a long ways away from determining Proxima b’s exact size, composition, and surface features – to say nothing about whether or not it can actually support life. Nevertheless, research like this is beneficial in that it helps us to come up with constrains on what kind of planetary conditions could exist there.

And who knows? Someday, we may be able to send probes or crewed missions to the planet, and perhaps they will beam back images of sentient beings navigating vast oceans, looking for some fabled parcel of land they heard about? God I hope not! Once was more than enough!

Further Reading: arXiv