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

Credit: NASA/W. Stenzel

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

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Life on Earth Uses Water as a Solvent. What are Some Other Options for Life as We Don't Know it?

A near-infrared view of Titan showing its glinting seas. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

There is a vast menagerie of potentially habitable worlds in the cosmos, which means the Universe could be home to a diversity of life beyond what we can imagine. Creatures built on silicon rather than carbon, or organisms that breathe hydrogen instead of oxygen. But regardless of how strange and wondrous alien life may be, it is still governed by the same chemistry as life on Earth, and that means it needs a chemical solvent.

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Big Planets Don’t Necessarily Mean Big Moons

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

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

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A Tiny Telescope is Revealing “Hot Jupiter” Secrets

CUTE spacecraft and an artist's impression of a hot Jupiter. (Credit: NASA/JPL, University of Colorado)
CUTE spacecraft and an artist's impression of a hot Jupiter. (Credit: NASA/JPL, University of Colorado)

A recent study presented this week at the 2023 meeting of the American Geophysical Union discusses observations of “hot Jupiters” from the NASA-funded CubeSat mission known as the Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE). Unlike most exoplanet-hunting telescopes, whose sizes are comparable to a small school bus, CUTE measures 36 centimeters (14 inches) in length, equivalent to the size of a cereal box. These findings come after members of the team, which consists of undergraduate and graduate students, published an overview paper about CUTE in The Astronomical Journal in January 2023 and results from CUTE observing WASP-189b in The Astrophysical Journal Letters in August 2023.

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Planets Orbiting Pulsars Should Have Strange and Beautiful Auroras. And We Could Detect Them

Artist's impression of auroras on a planet orbiting a pulsar
Artist's impression of auroras on a planet orbiting a pulsar

We have been treated to some amazing aurora displays over recent months. The enigmatic lights are caused by charged particles from the Sun rushing across space and on arrival, causing the gas in the atmosphere to glow. Now researchers believe that even on exoplanets around pulsars we may just find aurora, and they may even be detectable. 

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Where are All the Double Planets?

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

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

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

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

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

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An Exoplanet so Hot it has Clouds Made of Quartz

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

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

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An Ambitious New Technology Might be Needed to See Other Earths

How a starshade would reveal exoplanets. Credit: NASA/JPL

The race is on to discover truly habitable Earth-like worlds. While we are starting to observe the atmospheres of large potentially habitable planets such as Hycean worlds with the telescopes we currently have, the most significant breakthroughs will likely come with the development of advanced specialized telescopes. These new designs will likely use a starshade to hide the glare of a star and allow us to directly observe its exoplanets. But will that be enough to study distant terrestrial planets?

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

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

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

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