ESA’s Ariel Mission is Approved to Begin Construction

An artist's impression of the ESA's Ariel space telescope. It'll examine 1,000 exoplanet atmospheres. Image Credit: ESA

We’re about to learn a lot more about exoplanets. The ESA has just approved the construction of its Ariel mission, which will give us our first large survey of exoplanet atmospheres. The space telescope will help us answer fundamental questions about how planets form and evolve.

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JWST Sees Four Exoplanets in a Single System

This artist’s rendering shows the star HR 8799 and one of its four planets, HR 8799c. It illustrates the system at an early stage of evolution. It also shows the star's dusty disk and rocky inner planets. Credit: Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics

When the JWST activated its penetrating infrared eyes in July 2022, it faced a massive wish-list of targets compiled by an eager international astronomy community. Distant, early galaxies, nascent planets forming in dusty disks, and the end of the Universe’s dark ages and its first light were on the list. But exoplanets were also on the list, and there were thousands of them beckoning to be studied.

But one distant solar system stood out: HR 8799, a system about 133 light-years away.

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An Exoplanet so Hot it has Clouds Made of Quartz

Artist illustration showing what WASP-17 b could look like based on data obtained from a myriad of ground- and space-based telescopes, including NASA’s Hubble, Webb, and the retired Spitzer space telescopes. This most recent study used MIRI (Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument) to identify nanocrystals of quartz within the clouds WASP-17 b. (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and R. Crawford (STScI))

A recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters used data obtained by the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to identify the presence of quartz nanocrystals in the upper atmosphere of WASP-17 b, an exoplanet whose mass and radius are approximately 0.78 and 1.87 that of Jupiter, respectively, and is located approximately 1,324 light-years from Earth. WASP-17 b is classified as a “puffy” hot Jupiter due to its 3.7-day orbital period, meaning the extreme temperatures could cause unique chemical processes to occur within its atmosphere, but the astronomers were still surprised by the findings.

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Planning is Underway for NASA’s Next Big Flagship Space Telescope

Artist rendition of a starshade being used on a future space telescope. This example shows the proposed Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx), which the 2020 Astrophysics Decadal Survey decided to combine elements of this with the Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) for a new flagship telescope, which is now known as the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO). (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has only been operational for just over a year, but this isn’t stopping the world’s biggest space agency from discussing the next big space telescope that could serve as JWST’s successor sometime in the future. Enter the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO), which was first proposed as NASA’s next flagship Astrophysics mission during the National Academy of Sciences’ Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 (Astro2020). While its potential technological capabilities include studying exoplanets, stars, galaxies, and a myriad of other celestial objects for life beyond Earth, there’s a long way to go before HWO will be wowing both scientists and the public with breathtaking images and new datasets.

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Has the First Biosignature Been Found on an Exoplanet?

Artist's impression of Earth in the early Archean with a purplish hydrosphere and coastal regions. Credit: Oleg Kuznetsov

Recently I wrote about the discovery of a hycean world. A potentially habitable exoplanet with a deep warm ocean and thick, hydrogen-rich atmosphere. Such planets are thought to be somewhat common orbiting red dwarf stars, and they are an excellent candidate for life. While it’s an exciting discovery, buried in the research article was something even more exciting. Tentative evidence of a biosignature, hinting at the presence of life. You can guess which discovery started making headlines. But have astronomers really found life on another planet?

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If Earth Was an Exoplanet, JWST Would Know There's an Intelligent Civilization Here

Sunrise over the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory

Yesterday I presented a rather pessimistic view about our chances of finding evidence of alien civilizations. That work focused on detecting physical structures on an alien planet, which would take an optical telescope array the size of Saturn’s orbit. Today I’ll talk about a more optimistic view, one which focuses not on physical structures, but the fingerprint of molecules in an alien atmosphere. It’s a task that is not only much easier, it’s something we could do now using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

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Astronomers Confirm First Exoplanet “Thermometer Molecule” that is Typically Used to Study Brown Dwarfs

Artist impression of "hot Jupiter" exoplanet, WASP-31 b. (Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)

A recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters examines a rare alloy molecule known as chromium hydride (CrH) and its first-time confirmation on an exoplanet, in this case, WASP-31 b. Traditionally, CrH is only found in large quantities between 1,200 to 2,000 degrees Kelvin (926.85 to 1,726.85 degrees Celsius/1700 to 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit) and used to ascertain the temperature of cool stars and brown dwarfs. Therefore, astronomers like Dr. Laura Flagg in the Department of Astronomy and Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University refer to CrH as a “thermometer for stars”.

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How Will We the Find First Signs of Alien Life — and When?

Illustration: Assortment of exoplanets
Astronomers have detected thousands of planets, including dozens that are potentially habitable. (NASA Illustration)

When will we find evidence for life beyond Earth? And where will that evidence be found? University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey, the author of a book called “Worlds Without End,” is betting that the first evidence will come to light within the next decade or so.

But don’t expect to see little green men or pointy-eared Vulcans. And don’t expect to get radio signals from a far-off planetary system, as depicted in the 1992 movie “Contact.”

Instead, Impey expects that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope — or one of the giant Earth-based telescopes that’s gearing up for observations — will detect the spectroscopic signature of biological activity in the atmosphere of a planet that’s light-years away from us.

“Spectroscopic data is not as appealing to the general public,” Impey admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “People like pictures, and so spectroscopy never gets its fair due in the general talk about astronomy or science, because it’s slightly more esoteric. But it is the tool of choice here.”

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This Hot Jupiter is Leaving a Swirling Tail of Helium in its Wake

Image from the computer simulation of HAT-P-32 b (bright dot left of star) leaving a trail of helium during its 2.2-day, clockwise orbit (dashed line). (Credit: M. MacLeod (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and A. Oklopčić (Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam)

In a recent study published in Science Advances, a team of researchers commissioned the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), which is designed to study exoplanetary atmospheres, to examine how a “hot Jupiter” exoplanet is losing its helium atmosphere as it orbits its parent star, leaving tails of helium that extend approximately 25 times the diameter of the planet itself.

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JWST Scans an Ultra-Hot Jupiter’s Atmosphere

This artist's illustration shows WASP 18 b, a hot Super-Jupiter that orbits its star in less than one day. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

When astronomers discovered WASP-18b in 2009, they uncovered one of the most unusual planets ever found. It’s ten times as massive as Jupiter is, it’s tidally locked to its Sun-like star, and it completes an orbit in less than one Earth day, about 23 hours.

Now astronomers have pointed the JWST and its powerful NIRSS instrument at the ultra-Hot Jupiter and mapped its extraordinary atmosphere.

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