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”

This Planet is so Metal. Iron and Titanium Vapour Found in the Atmosphere of an “Ultra-Hot Jupiter”

In the course of discovering planets beyond our Solar System, astronomers have found some truly interesting customers! In addition to “Super-Jupiters” (exoplanets that are many times Jupiter’s mass) a number of “Hot Jupiters” have also been observed. These are gas giants that orbit closely to their stars, and in some cases, these planets have been found to be so hot that they could melt stone or metal.

This has led to the designation “ultra-hot Jupiter”, the hottest of which was discovered last year. But now, according to a recent study made by an international team of astronomers, this planet is hot enough to turn metal into vapor. It is known as KELT-9b, a gas giant located 650 light-years from Earth that has atmospheric temperatures so hot – over 4,000 °C (7,232 °F) – it can vaporize iron and titanium!

The international team was led by Jens Hoeijmakers, a postdoctoral student at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the the University of Bern (UNIBE). The team included members from the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS group and UNIGE’s Future of Upper Atmospheric Characterization of Exoplanets with Spectroscopy (FOUR ACES1) team.

Artist’s impression of KELT-9b, an ultra-hot Jupiter that orbits a hot, young star about 650 light years from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These groups, which are dedicated to characterizing exoplanets, are made up of researchers from UNIGE, UNIBE, the University of Zurich (UZH) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL). Additional support came from researchers from Cambridge University’s Cavendish Astrophysics and MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the Cagliari Observatory, and the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory.

The study which describes their findings – “Atomic iron and titanium in the atmosphere of the exoplanet KELT-9b” – recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. For the sake of their study, the team sought to place constraints on the chemical composition of an ultra-hot Jupiter since these planets straddle the boundary between gas giants and stars and could help astronomers learn more about exoplanet formation history.

To do this, they selected KELT-9b, which was originally discovered in 2017 by astronomers using the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope(s) (KELT) survey. Like all ultra-hot Jupiters, this planet orbits very close to its star – 30 times closer than the Earth’s distance from the Sun – and has a orbital period of 36 hours. As a result, it experiences surface temperatures in excess of 4,000 °C (7,232 °F), making it hotter than many stars.

Based on this, Dr. Hoeijmakers and his colleagues conducted a theoretical study that predicted the presence of iron vapor in the planet’s atmosphere. As Kevin Heng, a professor at the UNIBE and a co-author on the study, explained in a recent UNIGE press release:

“The results of these simulations show that most of the molecules found there should be in atomic form, because the bonds that hold them together are broken by collisions between particles that occur at these extremely high temperatures.”

By examining KELT-9b during a transit, the team was able to observe spectra from its atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To test this prediction, the team relied on data from the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher for the Northern hemisphere (HARPS-North or HARPS-N) spectrograph during a single transit of the exoplanet. During a transit, light from the star can been seen filtering through the atmosphere, and examining this light with a spectrometer can reveal things about the atmosphere’s chemical composition.

What they found were strong indications of not only singly-ionized atomic iron but singly-ionized atomic titanium, which has a significantly higher melting point – 1670 °C (3040 °F) compared to 1250 °C (2282 °F). As Hoeijmakers explained, “With the theoretical predictions in hand, it was like following a treasure map, and when we dug deeper into the data, we found even more.”

In addition to revealing the composition of a new class of ultra-hot Jupiter, this study has also presented astronomers with something of a mystery. For example, scientists believe that many planets have evaporated due to being in a tight orbit with a bright star in the same way that KELT-9b is. And, as their study indicates, the star’s radiation is breaking down heavy transition metals like iron and titanium.

Although KELT-9b is probably too massive to ever totally evaporate, this new study demonstrates the strong impact that stellar radiation has on the composition of a planet’s atmosphere. On cooler gas giants, elements like iron and titanium are believed to take the form of gaseous oxides or dust particles, which are difficult to detect. But in the case of KELT-9b, the fact that these elements are in atomized form makes them highly detectable.

Artist impression of a sunset over KELT-9b, where the planet’s atmosphere is hot enough to vaporize heavy metals such as iron and titanium. Credit and ©: Denis Bajram

As David Ehrenreich, the principal investigator with the UNIGE’s FOUR ACES team and a co-author on the study, concluded,“This planet is a unique laboratory to analyze how atmospheres can evolve under intense stellar radiation.” Looking ahead, the team’s study also predicts that it should be possible to observe gaseous atomic iron in the planet’s atmosphere using current telescopes.

In short, astronomers need not wait for next-generation telescopes in order to study this unique planetary laboratory, which can teach astronomers much about the process of exoplanet formation. And in by learning more about the formation of gas giants in other star systems, astronomers are likely to gain vital clues as to how our own Solar System formed and evolved.

Who knows? Perhaps our own Jupiter was hot at one time, and lost mass before it migrating to its current position. Or perhaps Mercury is the burnt-out husk of a once giant planet that lost its gaseous layers. As the study of exoplanets is teaching us, such strange things are known to happen in this Universe!

Further Reading: University of Geneva, Nature

Using Atmospheric Beacons to Search for Signs of Extra-Terrestrial Life

Despite the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered by astronomers in recent years, determining whether or not any of them are habitable is a major challenge. Since we cannot study these planets directly, scientists are forced to look for indirect indications. These are known as biosignatures, which consist of the chemical byproducts we associate with organic life showing up in a planet’s atmosphere.

A new study by a team of NASA scientists proposes a new method to search for potential signs of life beyond our Solar System. The key, they recommend, is to takes advantage of frequent stellar storms from cool, young dwarf stars. These storms hurl huge clouds of stellar material and radiation into space, interacting with exoplanet atmospheres and producing biosignatures that could be detected.

The study, titled “Atmospheric Beacons of Life from Exoplanets Around G and K Stars“, recently appeared in Nature Scientific Reports. Led by Vladimir S. Airapetian, a senior astrophysicist with the Heliophysics Science Division (HSD) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the team included members from NASA’s Langley Research Center, the Science Systems and Applications Incorporated (SSAI), and the American University.

Beacons of life could help researchers identify potentially habitable worlds. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk

Traditionally, researchers have searched for signs of oxygen and methane in exoplanet atmospheres, since these are well-known byproducts of organic processes. Over time, these gases accumulate, reaching amounts that could be detected using spectroscopy. However, this approach is time-consuming and requires that astronomers spend days trying to observe spectra from a distant planet.

But according to Airapetian and his colleagues, it is possible to search for cruder signatures on potentially habitable worlds. This approach would rely on existing technology and resources and would take considerably less time. As Airapetian explained in a NASA press release:

“We’re in search of molecules formed from fundamental prerequisites to life — specifically molecular nitrogen, which is 78 percent of our atmosphere. These are basic molecules that are biologically friendly and have strong infrared emitting power, increasing our chance of detecting them.”

Using life on Earth as a template, Airapetian and his team designed a new method to look or signs of water vapor, nitrogen and oxygen gas byproducts in exoplanets atmospheres. The real trick, however, is to take advantage of the kinds of extreme space weather events that occur with active dwarf stars. These events, which expose planetary atmospheres to bursts of radiation, cause chemical reactions that astronomers can pick on.

Artist’s impression of the cool red star above a distant exoplanet. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick.

When it comes to stars like our Sun, a G-type yellow dwarf, such weather events are common when they are still young. However, other yellow and orange stars are known to remain active for billions of years, producing storms of energetic, charged particles. And M-type (red dwarf) stars, the most common type in the Universe, remain active throughout their long-lives, periodically subjecting their planets to mini-flares.

When these reach an exoplanet, they react with the atmosphere and cause the chemical dissociation of nitrogen (N²) and oxygen (O²) gas into single atoms, and water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen. The broken down nitrogen and oxygen atoms then cause a cascade of chemical reactions which produce hydroxyl (OH), more molecular oxygen (O), and nitric oxide (NO) – what scientists refer to as “atmospheric beacons”.

When starlight hits a planet’s atmosphere, these beacon molecules absorb the energy and emit infrared radiation. By examining the particular wavelengths of this radiation, scientists are able to determine what chemical elements are present. The signal strength of these elements is also an indication of atmospheric pressure. Taken together, these readings allow scientist’s to determine an atmosphere’s density and composition.

For decades, astronomers have also used a model to calculate how ozone (O³) is formed in Earth’s atmosphere from oxygen that is exposed to solar radiation. Using this same model – and pairing it with space weather events that are expected from cool, active stars – Airapetian and his colleagues sought to calculate just how much nitric oxide and hydroxyl would form in an Earth-like atmosphere and how much ozone would be destroyed.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s TIMED spacecraft, which has been observing Earth’s upper atmosphere for 15 years. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL

To accomplish this, they consulted data from NASA’s Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics Dynamics (TIMED) mission, which has been studying the formation of beacons in Earth’s atmosphere for years. Specifically, they used data from its Sounding of the Atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry (SABER) instrument, which allowed them to simulate how infrared observations of these beacons might appear in exoplanet atmospheres.

As Martin Mlynczak, the SABER associate principal investigator at NASA’s Langley Research Center and a co-author of the paper, indicated:

“Taking what we know about infrared radiation emitted by Earth’s atmosphere, the idea is to look at exoplanets and see what sort of signals we can detect. If we find exoplanet signals in nearly the same proportion as Earth’s, we could say that planet is a good candidate for hosting life.”

What they found was that the frequency of intense stellar storms was directly related to the strength of the heat signals coming from the atmospheric beacons. The more storms occur, the more beacon molecules are created, generating a signal strong enough to be observed from Earth with a space telescope, and based on just two hours of observation time.

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

They also found that this kind of method can weed out exoplanets that do not possess an Earth-like magnetic field, which naturally interact with charged particles from the Sun. The presence of such a field is what ensures that a planet’s atmosphere is not stripped away, and is therefore essential to habitability. As Airapetian explained:

“A planet needs a magnetic field, which shields the atmosphere and protects the planet from stellar storms and radiation. If stellar winds aren’t so extreme as to compress an exoplanet’s magnetic field close to its surface, the magnetic field prevents atmospheric escape, so there are more particles in the atmosphere and a stronger resulting infrared signal.”

This new model is significant for several reasons. On the one hand, it shows how research that has enabled detailed studies of Earth’s atmosphere and how it interacts with space weather is now being put towards the study of exoplanets. It is also exciting because it could allow for new studies of exoplanet habitability around certain classes of stars – ranging from many types of yellow and orange stars to cool, red dwarf stars.

Red dwarfs are the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 70% of stars in spiral galaxies and 90% in elliptical galaxies. What’s more, based on recent discoveries, astronomers estimate that red dwarf stars are very likely to have systems of rocky planets. The research team also anticipates that next-generation space instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope will increase the likelihood of finding habitable planets using this model.

This artist’s impression shows the planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth. Credit: ESO

As William Danchi, a Goddard senior astrophysicist and co-author on the study, said:

“New insights on the potential for life on exoplanets depend critically on interdisciplinary research in which data, models and techniques are utilized from NASA Goddard’s four science divisions: heliophysics, astrophysics, planetary and Earth sciences. This mixture produces unique and powerful new pathways for exoplanet research.”

Until such time that we are able to study exoplanets directly, any development that makes biosignatures more discernible and easier to detect is incredibly valuable. In the coming years, Project Blue and Breakthrough Starshot are hoping to conduct the first direct studies of the Alpha Centauri system. But in the meantime, improved models that allow us to survey countless other stars for potentially habitable exoplanets are golden!

Not only will they vastly improve our understanding of just how common such planets are, they might just point us in the direction of one or more Earth 2.0s!

Further Reading: NASA, Nature Scientific Reports

New Exoplanet Research: Magnetic Fields Significantly Affect Hot Jupiter Atmospheres

Determining weather patterns in exoplanet atmospheres – hundreds to thousands of light years away – is extremely difficult. However, given that it may be one of our best ways to truly characterize these alien words, it’s a challenge astronomers have accepted willingly.

Most models have a very simple foundation, necessarily eliminating the complex physics that is difficult to incorporate and analyze.  Recently, a team led by Dr. Konstantin Batygin of Harvard University, added one more parameter to their models, drastically changing their results.

The punch line is this: the inclusion of magnetic fields significantly changes, and actually simplifies, the atmospheric circulation of hot Jupiters.

Hot Jupiters orbit dangerously close to their host stars, roasting in stellar radiation. But they are also tidally locked to their host stars – one hemisphere continually faces the star, while one continuously faces away – creating a permanent dayside and a permanent nightside.

One would expect the temperature gradient between the dayside and the nightside to be very high. However, various weather patterns play a role in strongly decreasing this temperature gradient. As an example, we now know that clouds may significantly decrease the temperature of the dayside.

Dr. Batygin’s team analyzed magnetic effects within atmospheric circulation. “The case of hot Jupiters is quite peculiar,” she told Universe Today. “The atmospheres of hot Jupiters have temperatures that reach up to 2000 Kelvin, which is hot enough to ionize trace Alkali metals such as potassium and sodium.  So the air on hot Jupiters is actually a weakly conducting plasma.”

Once the alkali metals have been ionized – stripped of their electrons – the upper atmosphere contains all of those charged particles and becomes a plasma. It is then electrically conductive and magnetic effects must be taken into account.

While the underlying physics is pretty complex (with nearly 40 multi-lined equations in the paper alone), the introduction of magnetic effects actually simplified the model’s outcome.

In the absence of magnetic fields, the upper and lower atmospheres feature two distinct patterns of circulation. The upper atmosphere consists of winds blowing away from the dayside in all directions. And the lower atmosphere consists of zonal flows – the bands of color on Jupiter.  The zonal flows move parallel to lines of latitude in an east-west fashion. Each moves in a different direction than the one above and below it.

“Upon introducing magnetic fields, fancy dayside-to-nightside flows are quenched and the entire atmosphere circulates in an exclusively east-west fashion,” explains Dr. Batygin. The upper atmosphere resembles the lower atmosphere – zonal flows dominate.

Throughout these models, Dr. Batygin et al. assumed a magnetic field aligned with the rotation axis of the planet. Future work will include a closer look at the effect of a more complicated geometry. The team also intends to extend these results to hotter atmospheres, where magnetic fields will slow the rate of these zonal flows. According to Dr. Batygin, “this has potentially observable consequences and we hope to elucidate them in the future.”

These results will be published in the astrophysical journal (preprint available here).

How Well Can Astronomers Study Exoplanet Atmospheres?

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Exoplanet discoveries are happening at a frenetic pace, and some of the latest newly discovered worlds are sometimes described as “Earth-Like” and “potentially habitable.”

The basis of this comparison is, in many cases, based on the distance between the exoplanet and its host star. Unfortunately the distance between a planet and its host star is only half the picture. The other half is determining if an exoplanet has an atmosphere, and what the contents of said atmosphere may be.

Basically, just because an exoplanet is in the “habitable zone” around its host star, it may not necessarily be habitable. If an exoplanet has a thick, crushing, Venus-Like atmosphere, it would most likely be too hot for surface water. The opposite holds true as well, as it could be entirely possible for an exoplanet to have a thin, wispy Mars-like atmosphere where any water would be locked up as ice.

At this point, how well can astronomers study the atmosphere around an exoplanet?

The spectrum from a giant exoplanet, orbiting around the bright, young, star HR 8799. Image Credit: ESO/M. Janson
Currently, there are only a handful of methods researchers can use to make estimates of exoplanet atmospheres. Interestingly enough, one method makes use of the light coming from the host star. The basic principle is that the light from a star can be analyzed both before and after an exoplanet crosses in front of the star. By comparing the spectrum from the host star, and the spectrum of an exoplanet, the tell-tale signs of atmospheric contents can be detected.

Methods to detect the atmospheric composition of such distant worlds are fairly new, as shown by work done with the Spitzer Space Telescope and ESO’s Very Large Telescope

Recently, astronomers from The Sternberg Astronomical Institute at Moscow State University used data from the Hubble Space Telescope in an attempt to better detect atmospheres around exoplanets. Abubekerov and team created mathematical models to analyze light curves from distant stars. In the case of Abubekerov’s research, the selected star was HD 189733 – a K-class star a bit cooler and smaller than our Sun.

About 60 light-years from Earth, HD 189733 also happens to have a binary companion orbiting it at a radius of about 200 A.U. So far, one exoplanet is known to orbit HD 189733. Discovered in 2005, HD 189733 b is a roughly Jupiter-size exoplanet which orbits its host star in just over two days. While not mentioned directly in Abubekerov’s paper, other studies have detected methane, carbon monoxide, water vapor and sodium in HD 189733 b’s atmosphere.

Light curve from HD 189733 in 5500 - 6000 angstrom range.
By applying their models to the light curves from HD 189733, Abubekerov’s team was able to better understand how light at different wavelengths behaves when an exoplanet crosses in front of its host star.

According to Abubekerov and team, the end result of their research was unsuccessful. The team suspects dark spot activity on HD 189733 was a contributing factor to their models not agreeing with actual observations.

The team stressed that additional observational data from HD 189733 when spot activity is negligible would be required to further refine their work. Despite their models not being successful, the team is confident that exoplanet radius increases with decreasing wavelength, which may imply the presence of an atmosphere.

Research such as Abubekerov’s will help astronomers build better models and pave the way for “sniffing” exoplanet atmospheres. Newer technology such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope will also provide better data. In the not-too-distant future, astronomers and astrobiologists should be able to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets in the habitable zone.

If you’d like to read the full research paper, you can access a pre-print version at: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1201.4043v1.pdf

Source(s): Analysis of Light Curves of Eclipsing Systems with Exoplanets:
HD 189733. M. K. Abubekerov, N. Yu. Gostev, and A. M. Cherepashchuk
, Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia

Exoplanet May Have Metal-Rich Atmosphere

Artist’s impression of GJ 1214b

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At first glance, GJ 1214b is just another of the growing number of the super-Earth class of exoplanets. Discovered by the MEarth Project in 2009, it orbits an M dwarf in Ophiuchus in a tight orbit, swinging the planet around every 1.6 days. Late last year, GJ 1214b became the first super-Earth to have a component of its atmosphere detected when astronomers compared its spectra to models finding broad agreement with water vapor present. New work, done by the same team, further refines the atmosphere’s potential characteristics.

Previously, the team suggested that their observations could potentially fit with two hypothetical planet models. In the first, the planet could be covered in hydrogen and helium, but the lack of absorption features in the atmosphere’s spectra suggested that this were not the case unless this layer were hidden by thick clouds. However, from the data available, they could not conclusively rule out this possibility.

Combining their old observations with more recent ones from the MEarth Observatory, the team now reports that they have been able to rule out this scenario with a 4.5 σ confidence (over 99.99%). The result of this is that the remaining model, which contains higher amounts of “metals” (astronomy speak meaning all elements with atomic numbers higher than helium). The team also continues to support their earlier conclusion that the atmosphere is most likely at least 10% water vapor by volume, stating this with a 3 σ (or 99.7%) confidence based on the new observations. While water vapor may sound give the impression of being an inviting place for a tropical jungle, the team predicts the close orbiting planet would be a sweltering 535 degrees Fahrenheit.

While these findings are interesting stories of the atmosphere, the prevalence of such heavy elements may also give information relating to the structure and history of the planet itself. Models of planetary atmosphere suggest that, for planets of the mass and temperature expected for GJ 1214b, there are two primary formation scenarios. In the first, the atmosphere is directly accreted during the planet’s formation. However, this would indicate a hydrogen rich atmosphere and has been ruled out. The second is that the planet formed further out, beyond the “snow line”, as an icy body, but moved in after formation, creating the atmosphere from sublimated ices.

Although outside of the scope of their atmospheric research, the team also used the timing of the transits to search for wobbles in the orbit that could be caused by additional planets in the system. Ultimately, none were discovered.

Plausibility Check – Habitable Planets around Red Giants

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While planets orbiting twin stars are a staple of science fiction, another is having humans live on planets orbiting red giant stars. The majority of the story of Planet of the Apes takes place on a planet around Betelgeuse. Planets around Arcturus in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series make up the capital of his Sirius Sector. Superman’s home planet was said to orbit a the fictional red giant, Rao. Races on these planets are often depicted as being old and wise since their stars are aged, and nearing the end of their lives. But is it really plausible to have such planets?

Stars don’t last forever. Our own Sun has an expiration date in about 5 billion years. At that time, the amount of hydrogen fuel in the core of the Sun will have run out. Currently, the fusion of that hydrogen into helium is giving rise to a pressure which keeps the star from collapsing in on itself due to gravity. But, when it runs out, that support mechanism will be gone and the Sun will start to shrink. This shrinking causes the star to heat up again, increasing the temperature until a shell of hydrogen around the now exhausted core becomes hot enough to take up the job of the core and begins fusing hydrogen to helium. This new energy source pushes the outer layers of the star back out causing it to swell to thousands of times its previous size. Meanwhile, the hotter temperature to ignite this form of fusion will mean that the star will give off 1,000 to 10,000 times as much light overall, but since this energy is spread out over such a large surface area, the star will appear red, hence the name.

So this is a red giant: A dying star that is swollen up and very bright.

Now to take a look at the other half of the equation, namely, what determines the habitability of a planet? Since these sci-fi stories inevitably have humans walking around on the surface, there’s some pretty strict criteria this will have to follow.

First off, the temperature must be not to hot and not to cold. In other words, the planet must be in the Habitable zone also known as the “Goldilocks zone”. This is generally a pretty good sized swath of celestial real estate. In our own solar system, it extends from roughly the orbit of Venus to the orbit of Mars. But what makes Mars and Venus inhospitable and Earth relatively cozy is our atmosphere. Unlike Mars, it’s thick enough to keep much of the heat we receive from the sun, but not too much of it like Venus.

This diagram shows the distances of the planets in the Solar System (upper row) and in the Gliese 581 system (lower row), from their respective stars (left). The habitable zone is indicated as the blue area, showing that Gliese 581 d is located inside the habitable zone around its low-mass red star. Based on a diagram by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO

The atmosphere is crucial in other ways too. Obviously it’s what the intrepid explorers are going to be breathing. If there’s too much CO2, it’s not only going to trap too much heat, but make it hard to breathe. Also, CO2 doesn’t block UV light from the Sun and cancer rates would go up. So we need an oxygen rich atmosphere, but not too oxygen rich or there won’t be enough greenhouse gasses to keep the planet warm.

The problem here is that oxygen rich atmospheres just don’t exist without some assistance. Oxygen is actually very reactive. It likes to form bonds, making it unavailable to be free in the atmosphere like we want. It forms things like H2O, CO2, oxides, etc… This is why Mars and Venus have virtually no free oxygen in their atmospheres. What little they do comes from UV light striking the atmosphere and causing the bonded forms to disassociate, temporarily freeing the oxygen.

Earth only has as much free oxygen as it does because of photosynthesis. This gives us another criteria that we’ll need to determine habitability: the ability to produce photosynthesis.

So let’s start putting this all together.

Firstly, the evolution of the star as it leaves the main sequence, swelling up as it becomes a red giant and getting brighter and hotter will mean that the “Goldilocks zone” will be sweeping outwards. Planets that were formerly habitable like the Earth will be roasted if they aren’t entirely swallowed by the Sun as it grows. Instead, the habitable zone will be further out, more where Jupiter is now.

However, even if a planet were in this new habitable zone, this doesn’t mean its habitable under the condition that it also have an oxygen rich atmosphere. For that, we need to convert the atmosphere from an oxygen starved one, to an oxygen rich one via photosynthesis.

So the question is how quickly can this occur? Too slow and the habitable zone may have already swept by or the star may have run out of hydrogen in the shell and started contracting again only to ignite helium fusion in the core, once again freezing the planet.

The only example we have so far is on our own planet. For the first three billion years of life, there was little free oxygen until photosynthetic organisms arose and started converting it to levels near that of today. However, this process took several hundred million years. While this could probably be increased by an order of magnitude to tens of millions of years with genetically engineered bacteria seeded on the planet, we still need to make sure the timescales will work out.

It turns out the timescales will be different for different masses of stars. More massive stars burn through their fuel faster and will thus be shorter. For stars like the Sun, the red giant phase can last about 1.5 billion years, so ~100x longer than is necessary to develop an oxygen rich atmosphere. For stars twice as massive as the Sun, that timescale drops to a mere 40 million years, approaching the lower limit of what we’ll need. More massive stars will evolve even more quickly. So for this to be plausible, we’ll need lower mass stars that evolve slower. A rough upper limit here would be a two solar mass star.

However, there’s one more effect we need to worry about: Can we have enough CO2 in the atmosphere to even have photosynthesis? While not nearly as reactive as oxygen, carbon dioxide is also subject to being removed from the atmosphere. This is due to effects like silicate weathering such as CO2 + CaSiO3 –> CaCO3 + SiO2. While these effects are slow they build up with geological timescales. This means we can’t have old planets since they would have had all their free CO2 locked away into the surface. This balance was explored in a paper published in 2009 and determined that, for an Earth mass planet, the free CO2 would be exhausted long before the parent star even reached the red giant phase!

So we’re required to have low mass stars that evolve slowly to have enough time to develop the right atmosphere, but if they evolve that slowly, then there’s not enough CO2 left to get the atmosphere anyway! We’re stuck with a real Catch 22. The only way to make this feasible again is to find a way to introduce sufficient amounts of new CO2 into the atmosphere just as the habitable zone starts sweeping by.

Fortunately, there are some pretty large repositories of CO2 just flying around! Comets are composed mostly of frozen carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Crashing a few of them into a planet would introduce sufficient CO2 to potentially get photosynthesis started (once the dust settled down). Do that a few hundred thousand years before the planet would enter the habitable zone, wait ten million years, and then the planet could potentially be habitable for as much as an additional billion years more.

Ultimately this scenario would be plausible, but not exactly a good personal investment since you’d be dead long before you’d be able to reap the benefits. A long term strategy for the survival of a space faring species perhaps, but not a quick fix to toss down colonies and outposts.

First Super-Earth Atmosphere Observed

Artist’s impression of GJ 1214b

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With the recent milestone of the discovery of the 500th extra solar planet the future of planetary astronomy is promising. As the number of known planets increases so does our knowledge. With the addition of observations of atmospheres of transiting planets, astronomers are gaining a fuller picture of how planets form and live.

Thus far, the observations of atmospheres have been limited to the “Hot-Jupiter” type of planets which often puff up, extending their atmospheres and making them easier to observe. However, a recent set of observations, to be published in the December 2nd issue of Nature, have pushed the lower limit and extended observations of exoplanetary atmospheres to a super-Earth.

The planet in question, GJ 1214b passes in front of its parent star when viewed from Earth allowing for minor eclipses which help astronomers determine features of the system such as its radius and also its density. Earlier work, published in the Astrophysical Journal in August of this year, noted that the planet had an unusually low density (1.87 g/cm3). This ruled out an entirely rocky or iron based planet as well as even a giant snowball composed entirely of water ice. The conclusion was that the planet was surrounded by a thick gaseous atmosphere and the three possible atmospheres were proposed that could satisfy the observations.

The first was that the atmosphere was accreted directly from the protoplanetary nebula during formation. In this instance, the atmosphere would likely retain much of the primordial composition of hydrogen and helium since the mass would be sufficient to keep it from escaping readily. The second was that the planet itself is composed mostly of ices of water, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other compounds. If such a planet formed, sublimation could result in the formation of an atmosphere that would be unable to escape. Lastly, if a strong component of rocky material formed the planet, outgassings could produce an atmosphere of water steam from geysers, as well as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and other gasses.

The challenge for following astronomers would be to match the spectra of the atmosphere to one of these models, or possibly a new one. The new team is composed of Jacob Bean, Eliza Kempton, and Derek Homeier, working from the University of Göttingen and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Their spectra of the planet’s atmosphere was largely featureless, showing no strong absorption lines. This largely rules out the first of the cases in which the atmosphere is mostly hydrogen unless there is a thick layer of clouds obscuring the signal from it. However, the team notes that this finding is consistent with an atmosphere composed largely of vapors from ices. The authors are careful to note that “the planet would not harbor any liquid water due to the high temperatures present throughout its atmosphere.”

These findings don’t conclusively demonstrate that nature of the atmosphere, but narrow down the degeneracy to either a steam filled atmosphere or one with thick clouds and haze. Despite not completely narrowing down the possibilities, Bean notes that the application of transit spectroscopy to a super-Earth has “reached a real milestone on the road toward characterizing these worlds.” For further study, Bean suggests that “[f]ollow-up observations in longer wavelength infrared light are now needed to determine which of these atmospheres exists on GJ 1214b.”

Missing Molecules in Exoplanet Atmospheres

Artist's View of Extrasolar Planet HD 189733b

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Every day, I wake up and flip through the titles and abstracts of recent articles posted to arXiv. With increasing regularity, papers pop up announcing the discovery of a new extra-solar planet. At this point, I keep scrolling. How many more hot Jupiters do you really want to hear about? If it’s a record setter in some way, I’ll read it. Another way I’ll pay attention is if there’s reports of detections of spectroscopic detection of components of the atmosphere. While a fistful of transiting planets have had spectral lines discovered, they’re still pretty rare and new discoveries will help constrain our understanding of how planets form.

The holy grail in this field would be to discover elemental signatures of molecules that don’t form naturally and are characteristic of life (as we know it). In 2008, a paper announced the first detection of CO2 in an exoplanet atmosphere (that of HD 189733b), which, although not exclusively, is one of the tracer molecules for life. While HD 189733b isn’t a candidate for searches for ET, it was still a notable first.

Then again, perhaps not. A new study casts doubt on the discovery as well as the report of various molecules in the atmospheres of another exoplanet.

Thus far there have been two methods by which astronomers have attempted to identify molecular species in the atmosphere of exoplanets. The first is by using starlight, filtered by the planet’s atmosphere to search for spectral lines that are only present during transit. The difficulty with this method is that, spreading the light out to detect the spectra weakens the signal, sometimes down to the very point that it’s lost in systematic noise from the telescope itself. The alternative is to use photometric observations, which look at the change in light in different color ranges, to characterize the molecules. Since the ranges are all lumped together, this can improve the signal, but this is a relatively new technique and statistical methodology for this technique is still shaky. Additionally, since only one filter can be used at a time, the observations must generally be taken on different transits, which allow the characteristics of the star to change due to star spots.

The 2008 study by Swain et al. that announced the presence of CO2 used the first of these methods. Their trouble started the following year when a followup study by Sing et al. failed to reproduce the results. In their paper, Sing’s team stated,”Either the planet’s transmission spectrum is variable, or residual systematic errors still plague the edges of the Swain et al. spectrum.”

The new study, by Gibson, Pont, and Aigrain (working from the Universities of Oxford and Exeter) suggests that the claims of Swain’s team were a result of the latter. They suggest that the signal is swamped with more noise than Swain et al. accounted for. This noise comes from the telescope itself (in this case Hubble since these observations would need to be made out of Earth’s atmosphere which would add its own spectral signature). Specifically, they report that since there’s changes in the state of the detector itself that are often hard to identify and correct for, Swain’s team underestimated the error, leading to a false positive. Gibson’s team was able to reproduce the results using Swain’s method, but when they applied a more complete method which didn’t assume that the detector could be calibrated so easily by using observations of the star outside the transit and on different Hubble orbits, the estimation of the errors increased significantly, swamping the signal Swain claimed to have observed.

Gibson’s team also reviewed the case of detections of molecules in the atmosphere of an extra solar planet around XO-1 (on which Tinetti et al. reported to have found methane, water, and CO2). In both cases, they again find that detections of were overstated and the ability to tease signal from the data was dependent on questionable methods.

This week seems to be a bad week for those hoping to find life on extra-solar planets. With this article casting doubt on our ability to detect molecules in distant atmospheres and the recent caution on the detection of Gliese 581g, one might worry about our ability to explore these new frontiers, but what this really underscores is the need to refine our techniques and keep taking deeper looks. This has been a frank reassessment of the current state of knowledge, but does not in any way claim to limit our future discoveries. Additionally, this is how science works; scientists review each others data and conclusions. So, looking on the bright side, science works, even if it’s not exactly telling us what we’d like to hear.

Extrasolar Volcanoes May Soon be Detectable

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We’ve all seen pictures of erupting terrestrial volcanoes from space, and even eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Io in the outer solar system, but would it be possible to detect an erupting volcano on an exoplanet? Astronomers say the answer is yes! (with a few caveats)

It’s going to be decades before telescopes will be able to resolve even the crudest surface features of rocky extrasolar planets, so don’t hold your breath for stunning photos of alien volcanoes outside our solar system. But astronomers have already been able to use spectroscopy to detect the composition of exoplanet atmospheres, and a group of theorists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics think a similar technique could detect the atmospheric signature of exo-eruptions.

By collecting spectra right before and right after the planet goes behind its star, astronomers can subtract out the star’s spectrum and isolate the signal from the planet’s atmosphere. Once this is done, they can look for evidence of molecules common in volcanic eruptions. Models suggest that sulfur dioxide is the best candidate for detection because volcanoes produce it in huge quantities and it lasts in a planet’s atmosphere for a long time.

Still, it won’t be easy.

“You would need something truly earthshaking, an eruption that dumped a lot of gases into the atmosphere,” said Smithsonian astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger. “Using the James Webb Space Telescope, we could spot an eruption 10 to 100 times the size of Pinatubo for the closest stars,” she added.

To be detected, exoplanet eruptions would have to be 10 to 100 times larger than the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo shown here. Image source: USGS

In 1991 Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines belched 17 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. Volcanic eruptions are ranked using the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). Pinatubo ranked ‘colossal’ (VEI of 6) and the largest eruption in recorded history was the ‘super-colossal’ Tambora event in 1815. With a VEI of 7 it was about 10 times as large as Pinatubo. Even larger eruptions (more than 100 times larger than Pinatubo) on Earth are not unheard of: geologic evidence suggests that there have been 47 such eruptions in the past 36 million years, including the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera about 600,000 years ago.

The best candidates for detecting extrasolar volcanoes are super-earths orbiting nearby, dim stars, but the Kaltenegger and her colleagues found that volcanic gases on any earth-like planet up to 30 light years away might be detectable. Now they just have to wait until the James Webb Space Telescope is launched 2014 to test their prediction.