The field of exoplanet research continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Thanks to missions like the Kepler Space Telescope, over four-thousand planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System, with more being confirmed all the time. Thanks to these discoveries and all that we’ve learned from them, the focus has begun to transition from the process of discovery to characterization.
For instance, a group of astronomers was able to image the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star for the first time. Using data from the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, the team was able to provide a rare glimpse at the conditions on the planet’s surface. And while those conditions were rather inhospitable – akin to something like Hades, but with less air to breathe – this represents a major breakthrough in the study of exoplanets.
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.
One of the more interesting and rewarding aspects of astronomy and space exploration is seeing science fiction become science fact. While we are still many years away from colonizing the Solar System or reaching the nearest stars (if we ever do), there are still many rewarding discoveries being made that are fulfilling the fevered dreams of science fiction fans.
For instance, using the Dharma Planet Survey, an international team of scientists recently discovered a super-Earth orbiting a star just 16 light-years away. This super-Earth is not only the closest planet of its kind to the Solar System, it also happens to be located in the same star system as the fictional planet Vulcan from the Star Trek universe.
Humanity has long dreamed about sending humans to other planets, even before crewed spaceflight became a reality. And with the discovery of thousands exoplanets in recent decades, particularly those that orbit within neighboring star systems (like Proxima b), that dream seems closer than ever to becoming a reality. But of course, a lot of technical challenges need to be overcome before we can hope to mount such a mission.
In addition, a lot of questions need to be answered. For example, what kind of ship should we send to Proxima b or other nearby exoplanets? And how many people would we need to place aboard that ship? The latter question was the subject of a recent paper written by a team of French researchers who calculated the minimal number of people that would be needed in order to ensure that a healthy multi-generational crew could make the journey to Proxima b.
However, such missions are still a long way off and/or do not involve crewed spaceflight (which is the case with Starshot). As such, Dr. Marin and Dr. Beluffi also took into account missions that will be launching in the coming years like NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. This probe will reach record-breaking orbital velocities of up to 724,205 km/h, which works out to about 200 km/s-¹ (or 0.067% the speed of light).
As Dr. Marin told Universe Today via email:
“This purely and entirely rely on the technology available at the time of the mission. If we would create a spacecraft right now, we could only reach about 200 km/s, which translates into 6300 years of travel. Of course technology is getting better with time and by the time a real interstellar project will be created, we can expect to have improved the duration by one order of magnitude, i.e. 630 years. This is speculative as technology as yet to be invented.”
With their baseline for speed and travel time established – 200 km/s-¹ and 6300 years – Dr. Marin and Dr. Beluffi then set out to determine the minimum number of people needed to ensure that a healthy crew arrived at Proxima b. To do this, the pair conducted a series of Monte Carlo simulations using a new code created by Dr. Marin himself. This mathematical technique takes into account chance events in decision making to produce distributions of possible outcomes.
“We are using a new numerical software that I have created,” said Dr. Marin. “It is named HERITAGE, see the first paper of the series. It is a stochastic Monte Carlo code that accounts for all possible outcomes of space simulations by testing every randomized scenario for procreation, life and death. By looping the simulation thousands of times, we get statistical values that are representative of a real space travel for a multi-generational crew. The code accounts for as many biological factors as possible and is currently being developed to include more and more physics.”
These biological factors include things like the number of women vs. men, their respective ages, life expectancy, fertility rates, birth rates, and how long the crew would have to reproduce. It also took into account some extreme possibilities, which included accidents, disasters, catastrophic events, and the number of crew members likely to be effected by them.
They then averaged the results of these simulations over 100 interstellar journeys based on these various factors and different values to determine the size of the minimum crew. In the end, Dr. Marin and Dr. Beluffi concluded that under conservative conditions, a minimum of 98 crew members would be needed to sustain a multi-generational voyage to the nearest star system with a potentially-habitable exoplanet.
Any less than that, and the likelihood of success would drop off considerably. For instance, with an initial crew of 32, their simulations indicated that the chances for success would reach 0%, largely because such a small community would make inbreeding inevitable. While this crew might eventually arrive at Proxima b, they would not be a genetically healthy crew, and therefore not a very good way to start a colony! As Dr. Marin explained:
“Our simulations allows us to predict with great precision the minimum size of the initial crew that will leave for centuries-long space travels. By allowing the crew to evolve under a list of adaptive social engineering principles (namely, yearly evaluations of the vessel population, offspring restrictions and breeding constraints), we show in this paper that it is possible to create and maintain a healthy population virtually indefinitely.”
While the technology and resources needed to make an interstellar voyage is still generations away, studies of this kind could be of profound significance for those missions – if and when they occur. Knowing in advance the likelihood that such a mission will succeed, and what will increase that likelihood to the point that success is virtually guaranteed, will also increase the likelihood that such missions are mounted.
This study and the one that preceded it are also significant in that they are the first to take into account key biological factors (like procreation) and how they will affect a multi-generational crew. As Dr. Marin concluded:
“Our project aims to provide realistic simulations of multi-generational space ships in order to prepare future space exploration, in a multidisciplinary project that utilizes the expertise of physicists, astronomers, anthropologists, rocket engineers, sociologists and many others. HERITAGE is the first ever dedicated Monte Carlo code to compute the probabilistic evolution of a kin-based crew aboard an interstellar ship, which allows one to explore whether a crew of a proposed size could survive for multiple generations without any artificial stocks of additional genetic material. Determining the minimum size of the crew is an essential step in the preparation of any multi-generational mission, affecting the resources and budget required for such an endeavor but also with implications for sociological, ethical and political factors. Furthermore, these elements are essential in examining the creation of any self-sustaining colony – not only humans establishing planetary settlements, but also with more immediate impacts: for example, managing the genetic health of endangered species or resource allocation in restrictive environments.”
Dr. Marin was also quoted recently in an article in The Conversation about the goals of his and Dr. Beluffi’s project, which is all about determining what is needed to ensure the health and safety of future interstellar voyagers. As he said in the article:
“Of the 3757 exoplanets that have been detected, the closest Earth-like planet lies at 40 trillion kilometers from us. At 1% of the speed of light, which is far superior to the highest velocities achieved by state-of-the-art spacecraft, it would still take 422 years for ships to reach their destination. One of the immediate consequences of this is that interstellar voyages cannot be achieved within a human lifespan. It requires a long-duration space mission, which necessitates finding a solution whereby the crew survive hundreds of years in deep space. This is the goal of our project: to establish the minimum size of a self-sustaining, long duration space mission, in terms of both hardware and population. By doing so, we intend to obtain scientifically-accurate estimates of the requirements for multi-generational interstellar travel, unlocking the future of human space exploration, migration and habitation.”
In the coming decades, next-generation telescopes are expected to discover thousands more exoplanets. But more importantly, these high-resolution instruments are also expected to reveal things about exoplanets that will allow us to characterize them. These will include spectra from their atmospheres that will let scientists know with greater certainty if they are actually habitable.
With more candidates to choose from, we will be all the more prepared for the day when interstellar voyages can be launched. When that time comes, our scientists will be armed with the necessary information for ensuring that the people that arrive will be hail, hearty, and prepared to tackle the challenges of exploring a new world!
In February of 2017, the world was astounded to learn that astronomers – using data from the TRAPPIST telescope in Chile and the Spitzer Space Telescope – had identified a system of seven rocky exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. As if this wasn’t encouraging enough for exoplanet-enthusiasts, it was also indicated that three of the seven planets orbited within the stars’ circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”).
Since that time, this system has been the focus of considerable research and follow-up surveys to determine whether or not any of its planets could be habitable. Intrinsic to these studies has been the question whether or not the planets have liquid water on their surfaces. But according to a new study by a team of American astronomers, the TRAPPIST planets may actually have too much water to support life.
For the sake of their study, the team used data from prior surveys that attempted to place constraints on the mass and diameter of the TRAPPIST-1 planets in order to calculate their densities. Much of this came from a dataset called the Hypatia Catalog (developed by contributing author Hinkel), which merges data from over 150 literary sources to determine the stellar abundances of stars near to our Sun.
Using this data, the team constructed mass-radius-composition models to determine the volatile contents of each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets. What they noticed is that the TRAPPIST planets are traditionally light for rocky bodies, indicating a high content of volatile elements (such as water). On similarly low-density worlds, the volatile component is usually thought to take the form of atmospheric gases.
But as Unterborn explained in a recent SESE news article, the TRAPPIST-1 planets are a different matter:
“[T]he TRAPPIST-1 planets are too small in mass to hold onto enough gas to make up the density deficit. Even if they were able to hold onto the gas, the amount needed to make up the density deficit would make the planet much puffier than we see.”
Because of this, Unterborn and his colleagues determined that the low-density component in this planetary system had to be water. To determine just how much water was there, the team used a unique software package developed known as ExoPlex. This software uses state-of-the-art mineral physics calculators that allowed the team to combine all of the available information about the TRAPPIST-1 system – not just the mass and radius of individual planets.
What they found was that the inner planets (b and c) were “drier” – having less than 15% water by mass – while the outer planets (f and g) had more than 50% water by mass. By comparison, Earth has only 0.02% water by mass, which means that these worlds have the equivalent of hundreds of Earth-sized oceans in their volume. Basically, this means that the TRAPPIST-1 planets may have too much water to support life. As Hinkel explained:
“We typically think having liquid water on a planet as a way to start life, since life, as we know it on Earth, is composed mostly of water and requires it to live. However, a planet that is a water world, or one that doesn’t have any surface above the water, does not have the important geochemical or elemental cycles that are absolutely necessary for life.”
These findings do not bode well for those who believe that M-type stars are the most likely place to have habitable planets in our galaxy. Not only are red dwarfs the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 75% of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, several that are relatively close to our Solar System have been found to have one or more rocky planets orbiting them.
Unfortunately, these latest findings indicate that the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system are not favorable for life. What’s more, there would probably not be enough life on them to produce biosignatures that would be observable in their atmospheres. In addition, the team also concluded that the TRAPPIST-1 planets must have formed father away from their star and migrated inward over time.
This was based on the fact that the ice-rich TRAPPIST-1 planets were far closer to their star’s respective “ice line” than the drier ones. In any solar system, planets that lie within this line will be rockier since their water will vaporize, or condense to form oceans on their surfaces (if a sufficient atmosphere is present). Beyond this line, water will take the form of ice and can be accreted to form planets.
From their analyses, the team determined that the TRAPPIST-1 planets must have formed beyond the ice line and migrated towards their host star to assume their current orbits. However, since M-type (red dwarf) stars are known to be brightest after the first form and dim over time, the ice line would have also moved inward. As co-author Steven Desch explained, how far the planets migrated would therefore depend on when they had formed.
“The earlier the planets formed, the farther away from the star they needed to have formed to have so much ice,” he said. Based on how long it takes for rocky planets to form, the team estimated that the planets must have originally been twice as far from their star as they are now. While there are other indications that the planets in this system migrated over time, this study is the first to quantify the migration and use composition data to show it.
This study is not the first to indicate that planets orbiting red dwarf stars may in fact be “water worlds“, which would mean that rocky planets with continents on their surfaces are a relatively rare thing. At the same time, other studies have been conducted that indicate that such planets are likely to have a hard time holding onto their atmospheres, indicating that they would not remain water worlds for very long.
However, until we can get a better look at these planets – which will be possible with the deployment of next-generation instruments (like the James Webb Space Telescope) – we will be forced to theorize about what we don’t know based what we do. By slowly learning more about these and other exoplanets, our ability to determine where we should be looking for life beyond our Solar System will be refined.
The study of exoplanets has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past few decades. Between ground-based observatories and spacecraft like the Kepler mission, a total of 3,726 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,792 systems, with 622 systems having more than one planet (as of Jan. 1st, 2018). And in the coming years, scientists expect that many more discoveries will be possible thanks to the deployment of next-generation missions.
These include NASA’sJames Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and several next-generation ground based observatories. With their advanced instruments, these and other observatories are not only expected to find many more exoplanets, but to reveal new and fascinating things about them. For instance, a recent study from Columbia University indicated that it will be possible, using the Transit Method, to study surface elevations on exoplanets.
The study, which recently appeared online under the title “Finding Mountains with Molehills: The Detectability of Exotopography“, was conducted by Moiya McTier and David Kipping – and graduate student and an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, respectively. Based on models they created using bodies in our Solar System, the team considered whether transit surveys might be able to reveal topographical data on exoplanets.
To recap, the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry) is currently the most popular and reliable means for detecting exoplanets. It consists of astronomers measuring the light curve of distant stars over time and looking for periodic dips in brightness. These dips are the result of exoplanets passing in front of the star (i.e. transiting) relative to the observer.
By measuring the rate at which the star’s light dips, and the period with which the dimming occurs, astronomer are not only able to determine the presence of exoplanets, but also place accurate constraints on their size and orbital periods. According to McTier and Kipping, this same method could also reveal the presence of geographical features – for instance, mountain ranges, volcanoes, trenches, and craters.
As they indicate in their study, in lieu of direct imaging, indirect methods are the only means astronomers have for revealing data on an exoplanet’s surface. Unfortunately, there is no conceivable way that the radial velocity, microlensing, astrometry, and timing methods could reveal exotopography. This leaves the transit method, which has some potential in this respect. As they state:
“The transit method directly measures the sky-projected area of a planet’s silhouette relative to that of a star, under the assumption that the planet is not luminous itself… This fact implies that there is indeed some potential for transits to reveal surface features, since the planet’s silhouette is certainly distorted from a circular profile due to the presence of topography.”
In other words, as a planet transits in front of its host star, the light passing around the planet itself could be measured for small variations. These could indicate the presence of mountain ranges and other large-scale features like massive chasms. To test this theory, they considered planets in the Solar System as templates for how the scattering of light during a transit could reveal large-scale features.
As an example, they consider what an Earth analog planet would reveal if the Himalayan mountain range ran from north to south and was wide enough to span 1° in longitude:
“Now assume that the planet completes half of one rotation as it transits its parent star from our point of view, which is all that is necessary to see all of the planet’s features appear on its silhouette without repeating. As our hypothetical planet rotates and the Himalayan block moves into and out of view, the change in silhouette will result in different transit depths…”
Ultimately, they consider that Mars would be the ideal test case due to its combination of small size, low surface gravity, and active internal volcanism, which has caused it become what they describe as the “bumpiest body in the Solar System”. When paired with a white dwarf star, this presents the optimal case for using light curves to determine exotopography.
At a distance of about 0.01 AU (which would be within a white dwarf’s habitable zone), they calculate that a Mars-sized planet would have an orbital period of 11.3 hours. This would allow for many transits to be observed in a relatively short viewing period, thus ensuring a greater degree of accuracy. At the same time, the team admits that their proposed methods suffers from drawbacks.
For instance, due to the presence of astrophysical and instrumental noise, they determined that their method would be unproductive when it comes to studying exoplanets around Sun-like stars and M-type (red dwarf) stars. But for Mars-like planets orbiting low mass, white dwarf stars, the method could produce some highly valuable scientific returns.
While this might sound rather limited, it would present some rather fascinating opportunities to learn more about planets beyond our Solar System. As they explain:
“Finding the first evidence of mountains on planets outside our solar system would be exciting in its own right, but we can also infer planet characteristics from the presence and distribution of surface features. For example, a detection of bumpiness could lead to constraints on a planet’s internal processes.”
In short, planets with a high degree of bumpiness would indicate tectonic activity or the buildup of lava caused by internal heating sources. Those with the highest bumpiness (i.e. like Mars) would indicate that they too experience a combination internal processes, low surface gravity, volcanism, and a lack of tectonic plate movement. Meanwhile, low-bumpiness planets are less likely to have any of these internal processes and their surfaces are more likely to be shaped by external factors – like asteroid bombardment.
Based on their estimates, they conclude that the various super telescopes that are scheduled to be commissioned in the coming years would be up to task. These include the ESO’s OverWhelmingly Large (OWL) Telescope, a 100-meter proposed optical and near-infrared telescope that would build on the success of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).
Another example is the Colossus Telescope, a 74-meter optical and infrared telescope that is currently being commissioned by an international consortium. Once operational, it will be the largest telescope optimized for detecting extrasolar life and extraterrestrial civilizations.
In the past, the success of exoplanet hunters has come down to a combination of factors. In addition to greater levels of cooperation between institutions, amateur astronomers and citizen scientists, there has also been the way in which improved technology has coincided with new theoretical models. As more data become available, scientists are able to produce more educated estimates on what we might be able to learn once new instruments come online.
When the next-generation telescopes take to space or are finished construction here on Earth, we can anticipate that thousands more exoplanets will be found. At the same time, we can anticipate that important details will be also discovered about these planets that were not possible before. Do they have atmospheres? Do they have oceans? Do they have mountain ranges and chasms? We hope to find out!
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!
When it comes to how and where planetary systems form, astronomers thought they had a pretty good handle on things. The predominant theory, known as the Nebular Hypothesis, states that stars and planets form from massive clouds of dust and gas (i.e. nebulae). Once this cloud experiences gravitational collapse at the center, its remaining dust and gas forms a protoplanetary disk that eventually accretes to form planets.
However, when studying the distant star NGTS-1 – an M-type (red dwarf) located about 600 light-years away – an international team led by astronomers from the University of Warwick discovered a massive “hot Jupiter” that appeared far too large to be orbiting such a small star. The discovery of this “monster planet” has naturally challenged some previously-held notions about planetary formation.
The discovery was made using data obtained by the ESO’s Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) facility, which is located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. This facility is run by an international consortium of astronomers who come from the Universities of Warwick, Leicester, Cambridge, Queen’s University Belfast, the Geneva Observatory, the German Aerospace Center, and the University of Chile.
Using a full array of fully-robotic compact telescopes, this photometric survey is one of several projects meant to compliment the Kepler Space Telescope. Like Kepler, it monitors distant stars for signs of sudden dips in brightness, which are an indication of a planet passing in front of (aka. “transiting”) the star, relative to the observer. When examining data obtained from NGTS-1, the first star to be found by the survey, they made a surprising discovery.
Based on the signal produced by its exoplanet (NGTS-1b), they determined that it was a gas giant roughly the same size as Jupiter and almost as massive (0.812 Jupiter masses). Its orbital period of 2.6 days also indicated that it orbits very close to its star – about 0.0326 AU – which makes it a “hot Jupiter”. Based on these parameters, the team also estimated that NGTS-1b experiences temperatures of approximately 800 K (530°C; 986 °F).
The discovery threw the team for a loop, as it was believed to be impossible for planets of this size to form around small, M-type stars. In accordance with current theories about planet formation, red dwarf stars are believed to be able to form rocky planets – as evidenced by the many that have been discovered around red dwarfs of late – but are unable to gather enough material to create Jupiter-sized planets.
As Dr. Daniel Bayliss, an astronomer with the University of Geneva and the lead-author on the paper, commented in University of Warwick press release:
“The discovery of NGTS-1b was a complete surprise to us – such massive planets were not thought to exist around such small stars. This is the first exoplanet we have found with our new NGTS facility and we are already challenging the received wisdom of how planets form. Our challenge is to now find out how common these types of planets are in the Galaxy, and with the new NGTS facility we are well-placed to do just that.”
What is also impressive is the fact that the astronomers noticed the transit at all. Compared to other classes of stars, M-type stars are the smallest, coolest and dimmest. In the past, rocky bodies have been detected around them by measuring shifts in their position relative to Earth (aka. the Radial Velocity Method). These shifts are caused by the gravitational tug of one or more planets that cause the planet to “wobble” back and forth.
In short, the low light of an M-type star has made monitoring them for dips in brightness (aka. the Transit Method) highly impractical. However, using the NGTS’s red-sensitive cameras, the team was able to monitored patches of the night sky for many months. Over time, they noticed dips coming from NGTS-1 every 2.6 days, which indicated that a planet with a short orbital period was periodically passing in front of it.
They then tracked the planet’s orbit around the star and combined the transit data with Radial Velocity measurements to determine its size, position and mass. As Professor Peter Wheatley (who leads NGTS) indicated, finding the planet was painstaking work. But in the end, its discovery could lead to the detection of many more gas giants around low-mass stars:
“NGTS-1b was difficult to find, despite being a monster of a planet, because its parent star is small and faint. Small stars are actually the most common in the universe, so it is possible that there are many of these giant planets waiting to found. Having worked for almost a decade to develop the NGTS telescope array, it is thrilling to see it picking out new and unexpected types of planets. I’m looking forward to seeing what other kinds of exciting new planets we can turn up.”
Within the known Universe, M-type stars are by far the most common, accounting for 75% of all stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. In the past, the discovery of rocky bodies around stars like Proxima Centauri, LHS 1140, GJ 625, and the seven rocky planets around TRAPPIST-1, led many in the astronomical community to conclude that red dwarf stars were the best place to look for Earth-like planets.
The discovery of a Hot Jupiter orbiting NGTS-1 is therefore seen as an indication that other red dwarf stars could have orbiting gas giants as well. Above all, this latest find once again demonstrates the importance of exoplanet research. With every find we make beyond our Solar System, the more we learn about the ways in which planets form and evolve.
Every discovery we make also advances our understanding of how likely we may be to discover life out there somewhere. For in the end, what greater scientific goal is there than determining whether or not we are alone in the Universe?
As soon as people learn how inhospitable Mars, Venus, and really the entire Solar System are, they want to know how we can fix it. There’s a word for fixing a planet to make it more like Earth: terraforming.
If you want to fix Mars, all you have to do is thicken and warm up its atmosphere to the point that Earth life could survive. You’d need to do the opposite with Venus, cooling it down and reducing the atmospheric pressure.
But it’s hard to wrap your brain around the scale it would take to do such a thing. We’re talking about an incomprehensible amount of atmosphere to try and modify. The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is 90 times the pressure of Earth. It’s carbon dioxide, so you need some chemical, like magnesium or calcium to lock it away. If you can mine, for example, 4 times the mass of asteroid Vesta, it should be possible.
No, from our perspective, that’s practically impossible. In fact, it’s kind of ironic, when you consider the fact that we’re making our own planet less habitable to human civilization every day.
There’s another path to making another world habitable, however, and that’s changing life itself to be more adaptable to surviving on another world.
Instead of terraforming a planet, what if we terraformed ourselves?
Actually, that’s a really bad term. We’d really be changing ourselves to be better adapted to living on Mars. So we’d be Marsiforming ourselves? Venisfying ourselves? Okay, I’ll need to work on the terminology. But you get the gist.
Life, of course, has been evolving and adapting on Earth for at least 4.1 billion years. Pretty much as soon as life could arise on Earth, it did. And those early lifeforms went on to modify and change, adapting to every environment on our planet, from the deepest oceans, to the mountains. From the deserts to the icy tundra.
But in the last few thousand years, we’ve taken a driving role in the evolution of life for the domesticated plants and animals we eat and care for. Your pet dog looks vastly different from the wolf ancestor it evolved from. We’ve increased the yield of corn and wheat, adapted fruit and vegetables, and turned chickens into flightless mobile breast meat.
And in the last few decades, we’ve gained the most powerful new tools for adapting life to our needs: genetic modification. Instead of waiting for evolution and selective breeding to get the results we need, we can rewrite the genetic code of lifeforms, borrowing beneficial traits from life over here, and jamming it into the code of life over there. What doesn’t get cooler when it glows in the dark? Nothing, that’s what.
Can we adapt Earth life to live on Mars? It turns out, our toughest life isn’t that far off. During the American Society for Microbiology meeting in 2015, researchers presented how well tough bacteria would be able to handle the conditions on Mars. They found that 4 species of methanogens might actually be able to survive below the surface, consuming hydrogen and carbon dioxide and releasing methane.
In other words, under the right conditions, there are forms of Earth life that can survive on Mars right now. In fact, as we continue to explore Mars, and learn that it’s wetter than we ever thought, we risk infecting the planet with our own microbial life accidentally.
But when we imagine life on Mars, we’re not thinking about a few hardy methanogens, struggling for life beneath the briny regolith. No, we imagine plants, trees, and little animals scurrying about.
Do we have anything close there that we could adapt?
It turns out there are strains of lichen, the symbiosis of fungi and algae that could stand a chance. You’ve probably seen lichen on rocks and other places that suck for any other lifeform. But according to Jean-Pierre de Vera, with the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, Germany, there are Earth-based lichen which are tough enough.
They put lichen into a test environment that simulated the surface of Mars: low atmospheric pressure, carbon dioxide atmosphere, freezing cold temperatures and high radiation. The only things they couldn’t simulate were galactic radiation and low gravity.
In the harshest conditions, the lichen was barely able to hang on and survive, but in milder Mars conditions, protected within rock cracks, the lichen continued to carry out its regular photosynthesis.
It seems that lichen too is ready to go to Mars.
Methanogens and hardy lichen don’t make for the most thrilling forest canopy. In a second, I’m going to talk about what we can do to tweak life to survive and thrive on Mars. But first, I’d like to thank Zach Kanzler, Jeremy Payne, James Craver, Mike Janzen, and the rest of our 709 patrons for their generous support. If you love what we’re doing and want to help out, head over to patreon.com/universetoday.
If our current life isn’t going to get the job done, well then we’re just going to need to adapt it ourselves. Just like we’ve done in the past, with breeding and more recently with rewriting the DNA itself.
Without dramatically changing the environment of Mars to thicken its atmosphere and boost its temperatures, it’s inconceivable to think that we’ll ever adapt anything more complex than bacteria or lichen to survive outside on Mars. But if those give us a toehold, and other techniques can improve the environment, it’s possible to take incremental steps in that direction.
Even within the protected environments of Martian colonies, our current plants and animals probably aren’t up to the task.
The regolith on Mars, for example, contains toxic perchlorates that would kill any Earth-based plants that would try to grow in it. There are Earth-based lifeforms that love perchlorates and it should be possible to create organisms that will strip this toxin out of the regolith and turn it into something useful, like rocket fuel.
Earth-based plants and animals evolved in a 24-hour daily cycle, but a day on Mars is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. We could grow plants with artificial light, but if we want to use natural Martian light, some adaptation might be required.
Perhaps the biggest risk we face to living on Mars, the one that our technology really can’t help us with is the lower gravity. We don’t know if living in 38% gravity for generations is going to be good for us. We know we can run around on the surface for a few years, but can pregnancy carry to term in this lower gravity?
We just don’t know. In order to find out safely, we’ll need to create rotating space station colonies, where we vary the artificial gravity and see what happens with animals over multiple generations with lower gravity.
If there are health problems, we can take the results of these experiments, and modify genetic code to have better adaptation to this environment. And since humans are animals too, the lessons we learn will help us adapt ourselves to be better prepared to survive on Mars, forever.
If we are able to change humans to live on Mars, we can probably do the same with other worlds. Image a far future, where human colonies on different worlds are adapted to survive there, using a mixture of technology and genetic manipulation. This will be good and bad. On the good side, human colonies will be able to survive over many generations. On the bad side, they might never be able to live anywhere else in the Solar System without going through the whole adaptation process again.
Would you be willing to change your body permanently to be better adapted to live on another world? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Ever since the ESO announced the discovery of an extra-solar planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, scientists have been trying to determine what the conditions are like on this world. This has been especially important given the fact that while Proxima b orbits within the habitable zone of its sun, red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are known to be somewhat inhospitable.
And while some research has cast doubt on the possibility that Proxima b could indeed support life, a new research study offers a more positive picture. The research comes from the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS) in Seattle, Washington, where astrobiologist Dimitra Atri has conducted simulations that show that Proxima b could indeed be habitable, assuming certain prerequisites were met.
Dr. Atri is a computational physicist whose work with the BMSIS includes the impacts of antiparticles and radiation on biological systems. For the sake of his study – “Modelling stellar proton event-induced particle radiation dose on close-in exoplanets“, which appeared recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters – he conducted simulations to measure the impact stellar flares from its sun would have on Proxima b.
To put this perspective, it is important to note how the Kepler mission has found a plethora of planets orbiting red dwarf stars in recent years, many of which are believed to be “Earth-like” and close enough to their suns to have liquid water on their surfaces. However, red dwarfs have a number of issues that do not bode well for habitability, which include their variable nature and the fact they are cooler and fainter than other classes of stars.
This means that any planet close enough to orbit within a red dwarf’s habitable zone would be subject to powerful solar flares – aka. Stellar Proton Events (SPEs) – and would likely be tidally-locked with the star. In other words, only one side would be getting the light and heat necessary to support life, but it would be exposed to a lot of solar protons, which would interact with its atmosphere to create harmful radiation.
As such, the astronomical community is interested in what kinds of conditions are there for planets like Proxima b so they might know if life has (or had) a shot at evolving there. For the sake of his study, Dr. Atri conducted a series of probability (aka. Monte Carlo) simulations that took into account three factors – the type and size of stellar flares, various thicknesses of the planet’s atmosphere and the strength of its magnetic field.
As Dr. Atri explained to Universe Today via email, the results were encouraging – as far as the implications for extra-terrestrial life are concerned:
“I used Monte Carlo simulations to study the radiation dose on the surface of the planet for different types of atmospheres and magnetic field configurations. The results are optimistic. If the planet has both a good magnetic field and a sizable atmosphere, the effects of stellar flares are insignificant even if the star is in an active phase.”
In other words, Atri found that the existence of a strong magnetic field, which would also ensure that the planet has a viable atmosphere, would lead to survivable conditions. While the planet would still experience a spike in radiation whenever a superflare took place, life could survive on a planet like Proxima b in the long run. On the other hand, a weak atmosphere or magnetic field would foretell doom.
“If the planet does not have a significant magnetic field, chances of having any atmosphere and moderate temperatures are negligible,” he said. “The planet would be bombarded with extinction level superflares. Although in case of Proxima b, the star is in a stable condition and does not have violent flaring activity any more – past activity in its history would make the planet a hostile place for a biosphere to originate/evolve.”
History is the key word here, since red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri have incredible longevity (as noted, up to 10 trillion years). According to some research, this makes red dwarf stars good candidates for finding habitable exoplanets, since it takes billions of years for complex life to evolve. But in order for life to be able to achieve complexity, planets need to maintain their atmospheres over these long periods of time.
Naturally, Atri admits that his study cannot definitively answer whether our closest exoplanet-neighbor is habitable, and that the debate on this is likely to continue for some time. “It is premature to think that Proxima b is habitable or otherwise,” he says. “We need more data about its atmosphere and the strength of its magnetic field.”
In the future, missions like the James Webb Space Telescope should tell us more about this system, its planet, and the kinds of conditions that are prevalent there. By aiming its extremely precise suite of instruments at this neighboring star, it is sure to detect transits of the planet around this faint sun. One can only hope that it finds evidence of a dense atmosphere, which will hint at the presence of a magnetic field and life-supporting conditions.
Hope is another key word here. Not only would a habitable Proxima b be good news for those of us hoping to find life beyond Earth, it would also be good news as far as the existence of life throughout the Universe is concerned. Red dwarf stars make up 70% of the stars in spiral galaxies and more than 90% of all stars in elliptical galaxies. Knowing that even a fraction of these could support life greatly increases the odds of finding intelligence out there!