Help a Universe Today Writer Share Stories About Our Search For Earth-like Planets

Since 1995, astronomers have detected thousands of worlds orbiting nearby stars, sparking a race to find the one that most resembles Earth. The discovery of habitable exoplanets and even extraterrestrial life is often referred to as the Holy Grail of science. So with the gold rush of exoplanet discoveries these days, it’s pretty tempting in news articles to lose readers in a fantastical narrative.

This month I’m launching a project on Beacon — a new independent platform for journalism — that will go behind the sensational headlines covering the search for Earth 2.0.

But I can’t do it without your help. In order to commit to writing about this on a regular basis, I need to raise $4,000 from subscribers who are willing to support my work over this month. Don’t worry, subscriptions are available for only $5 per month. This will supply the funding necessary to write for six months.

By Kepler’s definition, to be Earth-like a planet must be both Earth-size (less than 1.25 times Earth’s radius and less than twice Earth’s mass) and must circle its host star within the habitable zone: the band where liquid water can exist.

Image Credit: xkcd
Image Credit: xkcd

This simple, and yet variant, definition is a crucial starting point. But one glance at our Solar System (namely Venus and Mars) demonstrates that just because a planet is Earth-like doesn’t mean it’s an Earth twin.

So even if we do find Earth-like planets, we still don’t have the ability to know if they’re water worlds with luscious green planets and civilizations peering back at us.

But should we scale our definition of Earth-like planets up or down? Examples in the Solar System suggest that we should scale it down. Maybe planets located nearer to the center of the habitable zone are more congenial to life.

But can we base our definition on a single example — even if it’s the only example we know — alone? Theoretical astronomers suggest the picture is much more complicated. Life might arise on larger worlds, ones up to three times as massive as Earth, because they’re more likely to have an atmosphere due to more volcanic activity. Or life might arise on older worlds, where there’s simply more time for life to evolve.

It’s a crucial debate in astronomy research today, and it’s one that the media needs to handle with care. I am proud to be a part of Universe Today’s team, bringing readers up-to-date with the on goings in our local Universe. And Beacon will allow me to spend even more time, focusing on such a critical topic.

For each article, I will gather news, opinions and commentary from astronomers in the field. Not only do I have training as an astronomer, but my graduate school research focused on detecting exoplanet atmospheres from ground-based telescopes. With this deep-rooted understanding of the field at hand, I am able to parse complex information by directly reading peer-reviewed journal articles and interviewing astronomers I’ve met through my previous research.

But I really do need your help. Subscriptions are available for only $5 per month, and there are special rewards — such as gorgeous astronomy photos printed on canvas and gift subscriptions for friends — for people who subscribe at higher levels. You can directly subscribe here.

But here’s the best part: when you subscribe to my work, you’ll get access not only to all the stories I write, but the work of over 100 additional writers, based all over the world. This month Beacon is launching a series of astronomy projects, including one by Universe Today writer Elizabeth Howell.

Please help me write about our exciting search for Earth-like planets.

Planetary Habitability Index Proposes A Less “Earth-Centric” View In Search Of Life

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It’s a given. It won’t be long until human technology will expand our repertoire of cataloged exoplanets to astronomical levels. Of these, a huge number will be considered within the “habitable zone”. However, isn’t it a bit egotistical of mankind to assume that life should be “as we know it”? Now astrobiologists/scientists like Dirk Schulze-Makuch with the Washington State University School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Abel Mendez from the University of Puerto Rico at Aricebo are suggesting we take a less limited point of view.

“In the next few years, the number of catalogued exoplanets will be counted in the thousands. This will vastly expand the number of potentially habitable worlds and lead to a systematic assessment of their astrobiological potential. Here, we suggest a two-tiered classification scheme of exoplanet habitability.” says Schulze-Makuch (et al). “The first tier consists of an Earth Similarity Index (ESI), which allows worlds to be screened with regard to their similarity to Earth, the only known inhabited planet at this time.”

Right now, an international science team representing NASA, SETI,the German Aerospace Center, and four universities are ready to propose two major questions dealing with our quest for life – both as we assume and and alternate. According to the WSU news release:

“The first question is whether Earth-like conditions can be found on other worlds, since we know empirically that those conditions could harbor life,” Schulze-Makuch said. “The second question is whether conditions exist on exoplanets that suggest the possibility of other forms of life, whether known to us or not.”

Within the next couple of weeks, Schulze-Makuch and his nine co-authors will publish a paper in the Astrobiology journal outlining their future plans for exoplanet classification. The double approach will consist of an Earth Similarity Index (ESI), which will place these newly found worlds within our known parameters – and a Planetary Habitability Index (PHI), that will account for more extreme conditions which could support surrogate subsistence.

“The ESI is based on data available or potentially available for most exoplanets such as mass, radius, and temperature.” explains the team. “For the second tier of the classification scheme we propose a Planetary Habitability Index (PHI) based on the presence of a stable substrate, available energy, appropriate chemistry, and the potential for holding a liquid solvent. The PHI has been designed to minimize the biased search for life as we know it and to take into account life that might exist under more exotic conditions.”

Assuming that life could only exist on Earth-like planets is simply narrow-minded thinking, and the team’s proposal and modeling efforts will allow them to judiciously filter new discoveries with speed and high level of probability. It will allow science to take a broader look at what’s out there – without being confined to assumptions.

“Habitability in a wider sense is not necessarily restricted to water as a solvent or to a planet circling a star,” the paper’s authors write. “For example, the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan could host a different form of life. Analog studies in hydrocarbon environments on Earth, in fact, clearly indicate that these environments are habitable in principle. Orphan planets wandering free of any central star could likewise conceivably feature conditions suitable for some form of life.”

Of course, the team admits an alien diversity is surely a questionable endeavor – but why risk the chance of discovery simply on the basis that it might not happen? Why put a choke-hold on creative thinking?

“Our proposed PHI is informed by chemical and physical parameters that are conducive to life in general,” they write. “It relies on factors that, in principle, could be detected at the distance of exoplanets from Earth, given currently planned future (space) instrumentation.”

Original News Source: WSU News. For Further Reading: A Two-Tiered Approach to Assessing the Habitability of Exoplanets.

White Dwarf Stars Consume Rocky Bodies

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“I love rocky road… So won’t you buy another gallon, baby…” Yeah. We all love rocky road ice cream, but what do stars like to snack on? In the case of the white dwarf star it would appear that a rocky body – similar to Earth – could be a preferred blend. At one time astronomers thought the dense, elderly stars were just gathering dust… but apparently it’s the “bones” left-over from a planetary knosh.

Using the Keck I telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, astronomer and study coauthor Ben Zuckerman of UCLA and his team have been studying two helium-dominated white dwarfs – stars PG1225-079 and HS2253+8023. About the size of Earth, but as massive as the Sun, these stars have a zone of “pollution” around them that’s around equal in mass to asteroid Ceres.

“This means that planet-like rocky material is forming at Earth-like distances or temperatures from these stars,” says Zuckerman. He also notes that it’s still unclear whether the material is from a planet, planet-like bodies or an asteroid, but it is clear that there’s a lot of it.

Because looking at a white dwarf star for evidence of solar systems wasn’t really a high priority consideration, these new findings could lend researchers some new clues. It’s not just dust – it’s dust with a signature. Because the white dwarf has a “clean” atmosphere of hydrogen or helium, finding other components in its spectra could point to a one-time presence of Earth-like planets. Zuckerman says that between 25 and 30 percent of white dwarfs have orbital systems that contain both large planets and smaller rocky bodies. After the dwarf forms, larger, Jupiter-mass planets can perturb the orbits of smaller bodies and bounce them toward the star.

“This is the first hint that despite all the oddball planetary systems we see, some of them must be more like our own,” says astronomer John Debes of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who was not involved in the study. “We think that most of these systems that show pollution must in some way approximate ours.”

How do they know if they have a candidate? Star PG1225-079 has a mix of elements, including magnesium, iron and nickel (along with others). These were found in ratios very similar in overall content of Earth. Star HS2253+8023 contains more than 85 percent oxygen, magnesium, silicon and iron. Not only are these assessments also similar to our planet, but found in the correct range where this type of rocky body should have formed.

“I’ve never seen so much detail in spectra,” says astronomer Jay Holberg of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who was not involved in the study. “People have seen iron and calcium and other things in these stars, but [this group has] gone off and found a whole slew of other elements.”

Pass the spoon… Before it melts.

Original Story Source: Science News Release.

The Milky Way Could have Billions of Earths

With the upcoming launch in March of the Kepler mission to find extrasolar planets, there is quite a lot of buzz about the possibility of finding habitable planets outside of our Solar System. Kepler will be the first satellite telescope with the capability to find Earth-size and smaller planets. At the most recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago, Dr. Alan Boss is quoted by numerous media outlets as saying that there could be billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone, and that we may find an Earth-like planet orbiting a large proportion of the stars in the Universe.

“There are something like a few dozen solar-type stars within something like 30 light years of the sun, and I would think that a good number of those — perhaps half of them would have Earth-like planets. So, I think there’s a very good chance that we’ll find some Earth-like planets within 10, 20, or 30 light years of the Sun,” Dr. Boss said in an AAAS podcast interview.

Dr. Boss is an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, and is the author of The Crowded Universe, a book on the likelihood of finding life and habitable planets outside of our Solar System.

“Not only are they probably habitable but they probably are also going to be inhabited. But I think that most likely the nearby ‘Earths’ are going to be inhabited with things which are perhaps more common to what Earth was like three or four billion years ago,” Dr. Boss told the BBC. In other words, it’s more likely that bacteria-like lifeforms abound, rather than more advanced alien life.

This sort of postulation about the existence of extraterrestrial life (and intelligence) falls under the paradigm of the Drake Equation, named after the astronomer Frank Drake. The Drake Equation incorporates all of the variables one should take into account when trying to calculate the number of technologically advanced civilizations elsewhere in the Universe. Depending on what numbers you put into the equation, the answer ranges from zero to trillions. There is wide speculation about the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe.

To date, the closest thing to an Earth-sized planet discovered outside of our Solar System is CoRoT-Exo-7b, with a diameter of less than twice that of the Earth.

The speculation by Dr. Boss and others will be put to the test later this year when the Kepler satellite gets up and running. Set to launch on March 9th, 2009, the Kepler mission will utilize a 0.95 meter telescope to view one section of the sky containing over 100,000 stars for the entirety of the mission, which will last at least 3.5 years.

The prospect of life existing elsewhere is exciting, to be sure, and we’ll be keeping you posted here on Universe Today when any of the potentially billions of Earth-like planets are discovered!

Source: BBC, EurekAlert