In the past few decades, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown exponentially. To date, a total of 4,158 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,081 systems, with an additional 5,144 candidates awaiting confirmation. Thanks to the abundance of discoveries, astronomers have been transitioning in recent years from the process of discovery to the process of characterization.
In particular, astronomers are developing tools to assess which of these planets could harbor life. Recently, a team of astronomers from the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) at Cornell University designed an environmental “decoder” based on the color of exoplanet surfaces and their hosts stars. In the future, this tool could be used by astronomers to determine which exoplanets are potentially-habitable and worthy of follow-up studies.
Astronomers using the Hubble space telescope have discovered water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet in its star’s habitable zone. If confirmed, it will be the first time we’ve detected water—a critical ingredient for life as we know it—on an exoplanet. The water was detected as vapour in the atmosphere, but the temperature of the planet means it could sustain liquid water on its surface, if it’s rocky.
A lot of the headlines and discussion around the habitability of exoplanets is focused on their proximity to their star and on the presence of water. It makes sense, because those are severely limiting factors. But those planetary characteristics are really just a starting point for the habitable/not habitable discussion. What happens in a planet’s interior is also important.
We’ve finally got our first optical look at an exoplanet and its atmosphere, and boy is it a strange place. The planet is called HR8799e, and its atmosphere is a complex one. HR8799e is in the grips of a global storm, dominated by swirling clouds of iron and silicates.
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 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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.