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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: NASA, Nature Scientific Reports

“Monster Planet” Discovered, Makes Scientists Rethink Theories of Planetary Formation

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 study, titled “NGTS-1b: A hot Jupiter transiting an M-dwarf“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team was led by Dr Daniel Bayliss and Professor Peter Wheatley from the University of Warwick and included members from the of the Geneva Observatory, the Cavendish Laboratory, the German Aerospace Center, the Leicester Institute of Space and Earth Observation, the TU Berlin Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and multiple universities and research institutes.

Artist’s impression of the cool red star above NGTS-1b. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick.

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.

Artist’s concept of Jupiter-sized exoplanet that orbits relatively close to its star (aka. a “hot Jupiter”). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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.

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

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?

Further Reading: UofWarwick, RAS, MNRAS

Could We Marsiform Ourselves?

Could We Marsiform Ourselves?

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.

Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

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.

It would still look like a desolate wasteland, but there would be life on Mars even if we have to put it there ourselves. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

What’s not to lichen about this plan? Credit: Roantrum (CC BY 2.0)

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.

Engineering concept of a plant growth module. Credit: NASA/Langley

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.

A NASA artist’s concept of a vehicle which could provide an artificial-gravity environment of Mars exploration crews. The piloted vehicle rotates around the axis that contains the solar panels. Levels of artificial gravity vary according to the tether length and the rate at which the vehicle spins. Credit: NASA

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.

Here’s a link to an awesome video from Kurzgesagt about the state of genetic engineering, and the amazing technology that’s just around the corner.

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.

New Study Says Proxima b Could Support Life

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.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

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.”
This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the Sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result it lies well within the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.
This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO

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.”

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl
An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

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!

Further Reading: MNRASL

What If We Do Find Aliens?


Time to talk about my favorite topic: aliens.

We’ve covered the Fermi Paradox many times over several articles on Universe Today. This is the idea that the Universe is huge, and old, and the ingredients of life are everywhere. Life could and should have have appeared many times across the galaxy, but it’s really strange that we haven’t found any evidence for them yet.

Continue reading “What If We Do Find Aliens?”

Discovery Of A Nearby Super Earth With Only 5 Times Our Mass

Red dwarf stars have proven to be a treasure trove for exoplanet hunters in recent years. In addition to multiple exoplanets candidates being detected around stars like TRAPPIST-1, Gliese 581, Gliese 667C, and Kepler 296, there was also the ESO’s recent discovery of a planet orbiting within the habitable zone of our Sun’s closest neighbor – Proxima Centauri.

And it seems the trend is likely to continue, with the latest discovery comes from a team of European scientists. Using data from the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and HARPS-N instruments, they detected an exoplanet candidate orbiting around GJ 536 – an M-class red dwarf star located about 32.7 light years (10.03 parsecs) from Earth.

According to their study, “A super-Earth Orbiting the Nearby M-dwarf GJ 536“, this planet is a super-Earth – a class of exoplanet that has between more than one, but less than 15, times the mass of Earth. In this case, the planet boasts a minimum of 5.36 ± 0.69 Earth masses, has an orbital period of 8.7076 ± 0.0025 days, and orbits its sun at a distance of 0.06661 AU.

Artist's impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL

The team was led by Dr. Alejandro Suárez Mascareño of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC). The discovery of the planet was part of his thesis work, which was conducted under Dr Rafael Rebolo – who is also a member of the IAC, the Spanish National Research Council and a professor at the University of Laguna. And while the planet is not a potentially habitable world, it does present some interesting opportunities for exoplanet research.

As Dr. Mascareño shared with Universe Today via email:

“GJ 536 b is a small super Earth discovered in a very nearby star. It is part of the group of the smallest planets with measured mass. It is not in the habitable zone of its star, but its relatively close orbit and the brightness of its star makes it a promising target for transmission spectroscopy IF we can detect the transit. With a star so bright (V 9.7) it would be possible to obtain good quality spectra during the hypothetical transit to try to detect elements in the  atmosphere of the planet. We are already designing a campaign for next  year, but I guess we won’t be the only ones.”

The survey that found this planet was part of a  joint effort between the IAC (Spain) and the Geneva Observatory (Switzerland). The data came from the HARPS and HARPS-N instruments, which are mounted on the ESO’s 3.6 meter telescope at the La Silla Observstory in Chile and the 3.6 meter telescope at the La Palma Observatory in Spain. This was combined with photometric data from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS), which has observatories in Chile and Maui.

The research team relied on radial velocity measurements from the star to discern the presence of the planet, as well as spectroscopic observations of the star that were taken over a 8.6 year period. For all this, they not only detected an exoplanet candidate with 5 times the mass of Earth, but also derived information on the star itself – which showed that it has a rotational period of about 44 days, and magnetic cycle that lasts less than three years.

Artist's depiction of the interior of a low-mass star, such as the one seen in an X-ray image from Chandra in the inset. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Artist’s depiction of the interior of a low-mass star, such as the one seen in an X-ray image from Chandra in the inset. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

By comparison, our Sun has a rotational period of 25 days and a magnetic cycle of 11 years, which is characterized by changes in the levels of solar radiation it emits, the ejection of solar material and in the appearance of sunspots. In addition, a recent study from the the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) showed that Proxima Centauri has a stellar magnetic cycle that lasts for 7 years.

This detection is just the latest in a long line of exoplanets being discovered around low-mass, low-luminosity, M-class (red dwarf) stars. And looking ahead, the team hopes to continue surveying GJ 536 to see if there is a planetary system, which could include some Earth-like planets, and maybe even a few gas giants.

“For now we have detected only one planet, but we plan to continue monitoring the star to search for other companions at larger orbital separations,” said Dr. Mascareño. “We estimate there is still room for other low-mass or even Neptune-mass planets at orbits from a hundred of days to a few years.”

The research also included scientists from the Astronomical Observatory at the University of Geneva, the University of Grenoble, The Astrophysical and Planetological Insitute of Grenoble, Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences in Portugal, and the University of Porto, Portugal.

Further Reading: arXiv

An Exoplanet With Huge Rings Intrigues

Back in 2007, astronomers observed a series of unusual eclipses coming from a star 420 light years from Earth. In 2012, a team from Japan and the Netherlands reasoned that this phenomena was due to the presence of a large exoplanet – designated J1407b – with a massive ring system orbiting the star. Since then, several surprising finds have been made.

For example, in 2015, the same team concluded that the ring system is one-hundred times larger and heavier than Saturn’s (and may be similarly sculpted by exomoons). And in their most recent study, they have shown that these giant rings may last for over 100,000 years, assuming they have a rare and unusual orbit around their planet.

In their previous work, Rieder and Kenworth determined that the ring system around J1407b consisted about 37 rings that extend to a distance of 0.6 AU (90 million km) from the planet. They also estimated that these rings are 100 times as massive as our Moon – 7342 trillion trillion metric tons. What’s more, while J1407b’s existence is yet to be confirmed, they were able to rule out the possibility of it having a circular orbit around the star.

Giant Rings. The rings around J1407b are so large that we could see in the dusk from the earth when they were placed around the planet Saturn. The rings can be seen above the Old Leiden Observatory. Credit: M. Kenworthy / Leiden University
Artist’s impression of what the rings around J1407b would look like from Earth if they were placed around Saturn. The rings can be seen above the Old Leiden Observatory. Credit: M. Kenworthy / Leiden University

As a result, there were doubts that such a ring system could exist. Given the fact that the planet periodically gets closer to its star, the ring system would experience gravitational disruption. Therefore, Steven Rieder (of the RIKEN institute in Japan) and Matthew Kenworth (of Leiden University in the Netherlands) set out to assess how long such a ring system could remain stable for.

For the sake of their study, titled “Constraints on the Size and Dynamics of the J1407b Ring System“, they conducted a series of simulations using the Astrophysical Multi-purpose Software Environment (AMUSE) framework. In the end, their results showed that a ring structure with an 11 year orbital period and a retrograde orbit could survive for at least 10,000 orbits.

In other words, the ring system that they hypothesized back in 2012 could endure for 110,000 years. As Rieder (the lead author on the paper) explained in a statement, the results were surprising, but happened to fit the facts:

“The system is only stable when the rings rotate opposite to how the planet orbits the star. It might be far-fetched: massive rings that rotate in opposite direction, but we now have calculated that a ‘normal’ ring system cannot survive.”

How such a ring system could have come about is a mystery, as retrograde ring systems are quite uncommon. But Rieder and Kenworth have stated that they think it might be the result of a catastrophic event – such as a massive collision – that caused the rings (or the planet) to change the direction of their rotation.

Their results also indicated that a retrograde ring system would allow for eclipses, like the one that was observed in 2007. While there was some chance of these being caused by another object, the results suggested otherwise. “The chance of that is minimal,” said Rieder. “Also, the velocity measured with previous observations may not be right, but that would be very strange, because those measurements are very accurate.”

In the future, Rieder and Kenswoth hope to investigate the mysteries of this ring formation more closely. This will include how it could have formed in the first place, and how it has evolved over time. Their study has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and be viewed online at arXiv.

Further Reading: astronomie.nl, arXiv

Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Confirmed Around Nearest Star!

For years, astronomers have been observing Proxima Centauri, hoping to see if this red dwarf has a planet or system of planets around it. As the closest stellar neighbor to our Solar System, a planet here would also be our closest planetary neighbor, which would present unique opportunities for research and exploration.

So there was much excitement when, earlier this month, an unnamed source claimed that the ESO had spotted an Earth-sized planet orbiting within the star’s habitable zone. And after weeks of speculation, with anticipation reaching its boiling point, the ESO has confirmed that they have found a rocky exoplanet around Proxima Centauri – known as Proxima b.

Located just 4.25 light years from our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star that is often considered to be part of a trinary star system – with Alpha Centauri A and B. For some time, astronomers at the ESO have been observing Proxima Centauri, primarily with telescopes at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Their interest in this star was partly due to recent research that has shown how other red dwarf stars have planets orbiting them. These include, but are not limited to, TRAPPIST-1, which was shown to have three exoplanets with sizes similar to Earth last year; and Gliese 581, which was shown to have at least three exoplanets in 2007.

The ESO also confirmed that the planet is potentially terrestrial in nature (i.e. rocky), similar in size and mass to Earth, and orbits its star with an orbital period of 11 days. But best of all are the indications that surface temperatures and conditions are likely suitable for the existence of liquid water.

It’s discovery was thanks to the Pale Red Dot campaign, a name which reflects Carl Sagan’s famous reference to the Earth as a “pale blue dot”. As part of this campaign, a team of astronomers led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé – from Queen Mary University of London – have been observing Proxima Centauri for signs of wobble (i.e. the Radial Velocity Method).

After combing the Pale Red Dot data with earlier observations made by the ESO and other observatories, they noted that Proxima Centauri was indeed moving. With a regular period of 11.2 days, the star would vary between approaching Earth at a speed of 5 km an hour (3.1 mph), and then receding from Earth at the same speed.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

This was certainly an exciting result, as it indicated a change in the star’s radial velocity that was consistent with the existence of a planet. Further analysis showed that the planet had a mass at least 1.3 times that of Earth, and that it orbited the star at a distance of about 7 million km (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

The discovery of the planet was made possible by the La Silla’s regular observation of the star, which took place star  between mid-January and April of 2016, using the 3.6-meter telescope‘s HARPS spectrograph. Other telescopes around the world conducted simultaneous observation in order to confirm the results.

One such observatory was the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory in Chile, which relied on its ASH2 telescope to monitor the changing brightness of the star during the campaign. This was essential, as red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars, and can vary in ways that would mimic the presence of the planet.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé described the excitement of the past few months in an ESO press release:

“I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot campaign. The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!”

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the Sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result it lies well within the habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.
Infographic comparing the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman

Two separate papers discuss the habitability of Proxima b and its climate, both of which will be appearing soon on the Institute of Space Sciences (ICE) website. These papers describe the research team’s findings and outline their conclusions on how the existence of liquid water cannot be ruled out, and discuss where it is likely to be distributed.

Though there has been plenty of excitement thanks to words like “Earth-like”, “habitable zone”, and “liquid water” being thrown around, some clarifications need to be made. For instance, Proxima b’s rotation, the strong radiation it receives from its star, and its formation history mean that its climate is sure to be very different from Earth’s.

For instance, as is indicated in the two papers, Proxima b is not likely to have seasons, and water may only be present in the sunniest regions of the planet. Where those sunny regions are located depends entirely on the planet’s rotation. If, for example, it has a synchronous rotation with its star, water will only be present on the sun-facing side. If it has a 3:2 resoncance rotation, then water is likely to exist only in the planet’s tropical belt.

In any case, the discovery of this planet will open the door to further observations, using both existing instruments and the next-generation of space telescopes. And as Anglada-Escudé states, Proxima Centauri is also likely to become the focal point in the search for extra-terrestrial life in the coming years.

This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Solar System and is orbited by the planet Proxima b, which was discovered using the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope.
A view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, showing the location of Proxima Centauri in the sky. Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO/ESA/NASA/M. Zamani

“Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us,” he said. “Many people’s stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next…”

As we noted in a previous article on the subject, Project Starshot is currently developing a nanocraft that will use a laser-driven sail to make the journey to Alpha Centauri in 20 years time. But a mission to Proxima Centuari would take even less time (19.45 years at the same speed), and could study this newly-found exoplanet up-close.

One can only hope they are planning on altering their destination to take advantage of this discovery. And one can only imagine what they might find if and when they get to Proxima b!

A paper describing this milestone finding will be published in the journal Nature on August 25th, 2016, titled “A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri“.

Further Reading: ESO

ESO Announcement To Address Reports Of Proxima Centauri Exoplanet

For years, exoplanet hunters have been busy searching for planets that are similar to Earth. And when earlier this month, an unnamed source indicated that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) had done just that – i.e. spotted a terrestrial planet orbiting within the star’s habitable zone – the response was predictably intense.

The unnamed source also indicated that the ESO would be confirming this news by the end of August. At the time, the ESO offered no comment. But on the morning of Monday, August 22nd, the ESO broke its silence and announced that it will be holding a press conference this Wednesday, August 24th.

No mention was made as to the subject of the press conference or who would be in attendance. However, it is safe to assume at this point that it’s main purpose will be to address the burning question that’s on everyone’s mind: is there an Earth-analog planet orbiting the nearest star to our own?

Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

For years, the ESO has been studying Proxima Centauri using the La Silla Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS). It was this same observatory that reported the discovery of a planet around Alpha Centauri B back in 2012 – which was the “closest planet to Earth” at the time – which has since been cast into doubt.

Relying on a technique known as the Radial Velocity (or Doppler) Method, they have been monitoring this star for signs of movement. Essentially, as planets orbit a star, they exert a gravitational influence of their own which causes the star to move in a small orbit around the system’s center of mass.

Ordinarily, a star would require multiple exoplanets, or a planet of significant size (i.e. a Super-Jupiter) in order for the signs to be visible. In the case of terrestrial planets, which are much smaller than gas giants, the effect on a star’s orbit would be rather negligible. But given that Proxima Centauri is the closest star system to Earth – at a distance of 4.25 light years – the odds of discerning its radial velocity are significantly better.

Artist's impression of the Earth-like exoplanet discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri B iby the European Southern Observatory on October 17, 2012. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the Earth-like exoplanet discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri B iby the European Southern Observatory on October 17th, 2012. Credit: ESO

According to the source cited by the German weekly Der Speigel, which was the first to report the story, the unconfirmed exoplanet is not only believed to be “Earth-like” (in the sense that it is a rocky body) but also orbits within it’s stars habitable zone (i.e. “Goldilocks Zone”).

Because of this, it would be possible for this planet to have liquid water on its surface, and an atmosphere capable of supporting life. However, we won’t know any of this for certain until we can direct the next-generation of telescopes – like the James Webb Space Telescope or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – to study it more thoroughly.

This is certainly an exciting development, as confirmation will mean that there is planet similar to Earth that is within our reach. Given time and the development of more advanced propulsion systems, we might even be able to mount a mission there to study it up close!

The press conference will start at 1 p.m. Central European Time (CET) – 1 p.m. EDT/10 a.m. PDT. And you bet that we will be reporting on the results shortly thereafter! Stay tuned!

Further Reading: Seeker

Astronomers Discover Exoplanet With Triple Sunrises and Sunsets

This graphic shows the orbit of the planet in the HD 131399 system (red line) and the orbits of the stars (blue lines). The planet orbits the brightest star in the system, HD 131399A. Credit: ESO
This graphic shows the orbit of the planet in the HD 131399 system (red oval) and the orbits of the stars (blue arcs). The planet orbits the brightest star in the triple system, HD 131399A with a period of about 550 years. Credit: ESO

In the famous scene from the Star Wars movie “A New Hope” we recall young Luke Skywalker contemplating his future in the light of a binary sunset on the planet Tatooine. Not so many years later in 2011, astronomers using the Kepler Space Telescope discovered Kepler-16b, the first Tatooine-like planet known to orbit two suns in a binary system. Now astronomers have found a planet in a triple star system where an observer would either experience constant daylight or enjoy triple sunrises and sunsets each day, depending on the seasons, which last longer than human lifetimes.

They used the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to directly image the planet, the first ever found inside a triple-star system. The three stars are named HD 131399A, HD 131399B and HD 131399C in order of decreasing brightness; the planet orbits the brightest and goes by the chunky moniker HD 131399Ab.

This annotated composite image shows the newly discovered exoplanet HD 131399Ab in the triple-star system HD 131399. The image of the planet was obtained with the SPHERE imager on the ESO Very Large Telescope in Chile. This is the first exoplanet to be discovered by SPHERE and one of very few directly-imaged planets. With a temperature of around 580 degrees Celsius and an estimated mass of four Jupiter masses, it is also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets. This picture was created from two separate SPHERE observations: one to image the three stars and one to detect the faint planet. The planet appears vastly brighter in this image than in would in reality in comparison to the stars. Credit: ESO/K. Wagner et al.
This composite image shows the newly discovered exoplanet HD 131399Ab in the triple-star system HD 131399. The image of the planet was obtained with the SPHERE imager.  This is the first exoplanet to be discovered by SPHERE and one of very few directly-imaged planets. This picture was created from two separate SPHERE observations: one of the three stars and one to detect the faint planet. The planet appears vastly brighter in this image than in would in reality in comparison to the stars. Credit: ESO/K. Wagner et al.

Located about 320 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus the Centaur HD 131399Ab is about 16 million years old, making it also one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date, and one for which we have a direct image. With a temperature of around 1,075° F (580° C) and the mass about four times that of Jupiter, it’s also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets.

This infrared image of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument soon after it was installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in May 2014. This picture shows how effective the adaptive optics system is at revealing fine detail on this tiny disc (just 0.8 arc seconds across). Credit: ESO/J.-L. Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium
This infrared image of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument soon after it was installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in May 2014. This picture shows how effective the adaptive optics system is at revealing fine detail on this tiny disc (just 0.8 arc seconds across). Credit: ESO/J.-L. Beuzit et al./SPHERE Consortium

To pry it loose from the glare of its host suns, a team of astronomers led by the University of Arizona used a state of the art adaptive optics system to give razor-sharp images coupled with SPHERE, an instrument that blocks the light from the central star(s) similar to the way a coronagraph blocks the brilliant solar disk and allows study of the Sun’s corona. Finally, the region around the star is photographed in infrared polarized light to make any putative planets stand out more clearly against the remaining glare.

The planet, HD 131399Ab, is unlike any other known world — its orbit around the brightest of the three stars is by far the widest known within a multi-star system. It was once thought that planets orbiting a multi-star system would be unstable because of the changing gravitational tugs on the planet from the other two stars. Yet this planet remains in orbit instead of getting booted out of the system, leading astronomers to think that planets orbiting multiple stars might be more common that previously thought.

This artist's impression shows a view of the triple star system HD 131399 from close to the giant planet orbiting in the system. The planet is known as HD 131399Ab and appears at the lower-left of the picture. Credit: ESO / L. Calcada
This artist’s impression shows a view of the triple star system HD 131399 from close to the giant planet orbiting in the system. The planet is known appears at the lower-left of the picture. Credit: ESO / L. Calcada

HD 131399Ab orbits HD 131399A, estimated to be 80% more massive than the Sun. Its double-star companions orbit about 300 times the Earth-Sun distance away. For much of the planet’s 550 year orbit, all three stars would appear close together in the sky and set one after the other in unique triple sunsets and sunrises each day. But when the planet reached the other side of its orbit around its host sun, that star and the pair would lie in opposite parts of the sky. As the pair set, the host would rise, bathing HD 131399Ab in near-constant daytime for about one-quarter of its orbit, or roughly 140 Earth-years.


Click to see a wonderful simulation showing how the planet orbits within the trinary system

Planets in multi-star systems are of special interest to astronomers and planetary scientists because they provide an example of how the mechanism of planetary formation functions in these more extreme scenarios. Since multi-star systems are just as common as single stars, so planets may be too.

How would our perspective of the cosmos change I wonder if Earth orbited triple suns instead of a single star? Would the sight deepen our desire for adventure like the fictional Skywalker? Or would we suffer the unlucky accident of being born at the start of a multi-decade long stretch of constant daylight? Wonderful musings for the next clear night under the stars.