Water Vapor Found in the Atmosphere of a Small Exoplanet

Artist's impression of GJ 9827 d, which is the smallest exoplanet ever found to potentially possess water in its atmosphere. (Credit: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak and Ralf Crawford (STScI))

A recent study published in The Astrophysucal Journal Letters discusses the detection of water within the atmosphere of GJ 9827 d, which is a Neptune-like exoplanet located approximately 97 light-years from Earth, using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and is the smallest exoplanet to date where water has been detected in its atmosphere. This study was conducted by an international team of researchers and holds the potential to identify exoplanets throughout the Milky Way Galaxy which possess water within their atmospheres, along with highlighting the most accurate methods to identify the water, as well.

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Exoplanets: Why study them? What are the challenges? What can they teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Credit: NASA/W. Stenzel

Universe Today has explored the importance of studying impact craters and planetary surfaces and what these scientific disciplines can teach us about finding life beyond Earth. We learned that impact craters are caused by massive rocks that can either create or destroy life, and planetary surfaces can help us better understand the geologic processes on other worlds, including the conditions necessary for life. Here, we will venture far beyond the confines of our solar system to the many stars that populate our Milky Way Galaxy and the worlds they orbit them, also known as exoplanets. We will discuss why astronomers study exoplanets, challenges of studying exoplanets, what exoplanets can teach us about finding life beyond Earth, and how upcoming students can pursue studying exoplanets, as well. So, why is it so important to study exoplanets?

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Big Planets Don’t Necessarily Mean Big Moons

Artist's illustration of a large exomoon orbiting a large exoplanet. (Credit: NASA/ESA/L. Hustak)

Does the size of an exomoon help determine if life could form on an exoplanet it’s orbiting? This is something a February 2022 study published in Nature Communications hopes to address as a team of researchers investigated the potential for large exomoons to form around large exoplanets (Earth-sized and larger) like how our Moon was formed around the Earth. Despite this study being published almost two years ago, its findings still hold strong regarding the search for exomoons, as astronomers have yet to confirm the existence of any exomoons anywhere in the cosmos. But why is it so important to better understand the potential for large exomoons orbiting large exoplanets?

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Where are All the Double Planets?

Image comparing the sizes of Earth and its Moon (top right) and Pluto and its largest moon, Charon (bottom right). (Credit: NASA, JHUAPL, SWRI, Gregory H. Revera)

A recent study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society examines formation mechanisms for how binary planets—two large planetary bodies orbiting each other—can be produced from a type of tidal heating known as tidal dissipation, or the energy that is shared between two planetary bodies as the orbit close to each other, which the Earth and our Moon experiences. This study comes as the hunt for exomoons and other satellites orbiting exoplanets continues to expand and holds the potential to help astronomers better understand the formation and evolution of exoplanets and their systems. So, why is studying binary planets specifically important?

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Exo-Jupiters’ Commonality and Exclusivity Highlighted in Two New Studies

Image of Jupiter taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Two recent studies explore how Exo-Jupiters might be more common than previously thought along with entire systems being exclusively comprised of them. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill)

A pair of recent studies conduct in-depth analyses of Jupiter-sized exoplanets, also known as Exo-Jupiters, and were published in Nature Communications and The Astronomical Journal, respectively. The study published in Nature Communications was conducted by an international team of researchers and examines how Exo-Jupiters could be more common than previously thought, while the study published in The Astronomical Journal was conducted by one researcher and examines exoplanetary system, HD 141399, and how it is comprised entirely of Exo-Jupiters with no additional planets.

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Here are Four Ways JWST Could Detect Alien Life

Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

Less than a year after it went to space, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has already demonstrated its worth many times over. The images it has acquired of distant galaxies, nebulae, exoplanet atmospheres, and deep fields are the most detailed and sensitive ever taken. And yet, one of the most exciting aspects of its mission is just getting started: the search for evidence of life beyond Earth. This will consist of Webb using its powerful infrared instruments to look for chemical signatures associated with life and biological processes (aka. biosignatures).

The chemical signatures vary, each representing a different pathway toward the potential discovery of life. According to The Conversation’s Joanna Barstow, a planetary scientist and an Ernest Rutherford Fellow at The Open University specializing in the study of exoplanet atmospheres, there are four ways that Webb could do this. These include looking for chemicals that lifeforms depend on, chemical byproducts produced by living organisms, chemicals essential to maintaining a stable climate, and chemicals that shouldn’t coexist.

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Astronomers Measure the Atmosphere on a Planet Hundreds of Light-Years Away

An artist's conception of the hot Jupiter WASP-79b. (Image credit: NASA)

The field of extrasolar planet research has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years. To date, astronomers have relied on space-based and ground-based telescopes to confirm the existence of 4,566 exoplanets in 3,385 systems, with another 7,913 candidates awaiting confirmation. More importantly, in the past few years, the focus of exoplanet studies has slowly shifted from the process of discovery towards characterization.

In particular, astronomers are making great strides when it comes to the characterization of exoplanet atmospheres. Using the Gemini South Telescope (GST) in Chile, an international team led by Arizona State University (ASU) was able to characterize the atmosphere of a “hot Jupiter” located 340 light-years away. This makes them the first team to directly measure the chemical composition of a distant exoplanet’s atmosphere, a significant milestone in the hunt for habitable planets beyond our Solar System.

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If Astronomers see Isoprene in the Atmosphere of an Alien World, There’s a Good Chance There’s Life There

Artists’s impression of the rocky super-Earth HD 85512 b. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

It is no exaggeration to say that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded in recent decades. To date, 4,375 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,247 systems, with another 5,856 candidates awaiting confirmation. In recent years, exoplanet studies have started to transition from the process of discovery to one of characterization. This process is expected to accelerate once next-generation telescopes become operational.

As a result, astrobiologists are working to create comprehensive lists of potential “biosignatures,” which refers to chemical compounds and processes that are associated with life (oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, etc.) But according to new research by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), another potential biosignature we should be on the lookout for is a hydrocarbon called isoprene (C5H8).

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What Are Some Clues to the Climates of Exoplanets?

Credit: Cornell Chronicle

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.

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Two Newly-Discovered Exoplanets are Probably the Result of a Catastrophic Collision

Simulation of a collision between two 10 Earth-mass planets. Image Credit: Zoe Leinhardt and Thomas Denman, University of Bristol
Simulation of a collision between two 10 Earth-mass planets. Image Credit: Zoe Leinhardt and Thomas Denman, University of Bristol

How can two planets so similar in some respects have such different densities? According to a new study, a catastrophic collision may be to blame.

In our Solar System, all the inner planets are small rocky worlds with similar densities, while the outer planets are gas giants with their own similar densities. But not all solar systems are like ours.

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