In February of 2017, a team of European astronomers announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. Aside from the fact that all seven planets were rocky, there was the added bonus of three of them orbiting within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. As such, multiple studies have been conducted that have sought to determine whether or not any planets in the system could be habitable.
When it comes to habitability studies, one of the key factors to consider is the age of the star system. Basically, young stars have a tendency to flare up and release harmful bursts of radiation while planets that orbit older stars have been subject to radiation for longer periods of time. Thanks to a new study by a pair of astronomers, it is now known that the TRAPPIST-1 system is twice as old as the Solar System.
Thanks to some rather profound discoveries, red dwarf stars (aka. M-type stars) have been a popular target for exoplanet hunters lately. While small, cool, and relatively dim compared to our Sun, red dwarf star systems are where many of the most recent and promising exoplanet finds have been made. These include Proxima b, the seven rocky planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1, and the super-Earth discovered around LHS 1140b.
Unfortunately, red dwarf stars pose a bit of a problem when it comes to habitability. In addition to being variable in terms of the light they put out, they also known for being unstable. According to a new study by a team of scientists – which was presented the this week at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society – red dwarfs also experience mini-flares that could have a cumulative effect, thus rendering their orbiting planets uninhabitable.
For the sake of their study, titled “gPhoton: The GALEX Photon Data Archive“, the team relied on the ten years of ultraviolet observations made by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) spacecraft. During its mission, which ran from 2003 to 2013, GALEX monitored stars to detect rapid increases in brightness – i.e. signs of solar flare activity. These flares emit radiation across many wavelengths, but a significant amount is released in the UV band.
Though not originally intended for exoplanet hunting, GALEX’s data proved very useful since red dwarfs are usually relatively dim in the ultraviolet band (a trait which makes flares particularly noticeable). Using this data, the team was able to measure events that were less intense than many previously detected flares. This was important, since red dwarf flares are known to be greater in frequency, but weaker in intensity.
It was also important from a habitability standpoint, since it is possible that frequent flaring could add up over time to create an inhospitable environment on orbiting planets. If planets like Proxima b are subject to radiation from smaller (but more frequent) flares, could there be a cumulative effect that could ultimately prevent life from emerging over time?
Such is the question that the team sought to address. To do this, they sorted through the ten years of GALEX data, which is held at the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). Led by Chase Million of Million Concepts at State College in Pennsylvania, their efforts led to the creation of gPhoton – a 130 terabyte database with millisecond-timing resolution.
This database was then examined with custom software developed by Million and Clara Brasseur of the STScI, which enabled them to analyze the UV data at the photon level. As Million indicated, the results were quite interesting. “We have found dwarf star flares in the whole range that we expected GALEX to be sensitive to,” he said, “from itty bitty baby flares that last a few seconds, to monster flares that make a star hundreds of times brighter for a few minutes.”
While many of the flares that GALEX noticed were similar in strength to those generated by our Sun, the dynamics of red dwarf star systems are quite different. Since they are cooler and less bright, rocky planets need to orbit closer to red dwarfs in order to be warm enough to maintain liquid water on their surfaces (i.e. be habitable). This proximity means that they would be subject to more of the energy produced by these flares.
Such flares would be capable of stripping away a planet’s atmosphere, and could also prevent life from arising on the surface. And over time, smaller flares could poison an environment, making it impossible for organic life to thrive. At present, team members Brasseur and Rachel Osten (also from the STScI) are examining other stars observed by GALEX and also Kepler to look for similar flares.
The team expects to find examples of hundreds of thousands of these flares, which could help shed additional light on just what effect they could have on planetary habitability in red dwarf star systems. But for the time being, the case for red dwarf habitability appears to have been weakened. And once again, it has to do with the instability and radiation produced by these cool customers.
In the future, next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (which is scheduled to launch in 2018) are expected to reveal vital information on the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets. Most of these reside in red dwarf star systems, where questions about their composition and ability to support life are waiting to be resolved. In addition, the mission can also expected to shed light on these planet’s ability to retain atmospheres.
On the plus side, this study has shown that archival data from missions that are no longer in operation can still be incredibly useful. As Don Neill, a research scientist at Caltech and a member of the GALEX collaboration, explained:
“These results show the value of a survey mission like GALEX, which was instigated to study the evolution of galaxies across cosmic time and is now having an impact on the study of nearby habitable planets. We did not anticipate that GALEX would be used for exoplanets when the mission was designed.”
These results were presented in a press conference at the American Astronomical Society, which will be taking place from June 4th to June 8th in Austin, Texas.
The surface of Venus has been a mystery to scientists ever since the Space Age began. Thanks to its dense atmosphere, its surface is inaccessible to direct observations. In terms of exploration, the only missions to penetrate the atmosphere or reach the surface were only able to transmit data back for a matter of hours. And what we have managed to learn over the years has served to deepen its mysteries as well.
For instance, for years, scientists have been aware of the fact that Venus experiences volcanic activity similar to Earth (as evidenced by lighting storms in its atmosphere), but very few volcanoes have been detected on its surface. But thanks to a new study from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES) at the University of St. Andrews, we may be ready to put that particular mystery to bed.
The study was conducted by Dr. Sami Mikhail, a lecturer with the SEES, with the assistance of researchers from the University of Strasbourg. In examining Venus’ geological past, Mikhail and his colleagues sought to understand how it is that the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System could be considerably less geologically-active than Earth. According to their findings, the answer lies in the nature of Venus’ crust, which has a much higher plasticity.
This is due to the intense heat on Venus’ surface, which averages at 737 K (462 °C; 864 °F) with very little variation between day and night or over the course of a year. Given that this heat is enough to melt lead, it has the effect of keeping Venus’ silicate crust in a softened and semi-viscous state. This prevents lava magmas from being able to move through cracks in the planets’ crust and form volcanoes (as they do on Earth).
In fact, since the crust is not particularly solid, cracks are unable to form in the crust at all, which causes magma to get stuck in the soft, malleable crust. This is also what prevents Venus from experiencing tectonic activity similar to what Earth experiences, where plates drift across the surface and collide, occasionally forcing magma up through vents. This cycle, it should be noted, is crucial to Earth’s carbon cycle and plays a vital role in Earth’s climate.
Not only do these findings explain one of the larger mysteries about Venus’ geological past, but they also are an important step towards differentiating between Earth and it’s “sister planet”. The implications of this goes far beyond the Solar System. As Dr. Mikhail said in a St. Andrews University press release:
“If we can understand how and why two, almost identical, planets became so very different, then we as geologists, can inform astronomers how humanity could find other habitable Earth-like planets, and avoid uninhabitable Earth-like planets that turn out to be more Venus-like which is a barren, hot, and hellish wasteland.”
In terms of size, composition, structure, chemistry, and its position within the Solar System (i.e. within the Sun’s habitable zone), Venus is the most-Earth like planet discovered to date. And yet, the fact that it is slightly closer to our Sun has resulted in it having a vastly different atmosphere and geological history. And these differences are what make it the hellish, uninhabitable place that is today.
Beyond our Solar System, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets orbiting various types of stars. In some cases, where the planets exist close to their sun and are in possession of an atmosphere, the planets have been designated as being “Venus-like“. This naturally sets them apart from the planets that are of particular interest to exoplanet hunters – i.e. the “Earth-like” ones.
Knowing how and why these two very similar planets can differ so dramatically in terms of their geological and environmental conditions is therefore key to being able to tell the difference between planets that are conducive to life and hostile to life. That can only come in handy when we begin to study multiple-planet systems (such as the seven-planet system of TRAPPIST-1) more closely.
In what is surely the biggest news since the hunt for exoplanets began, NASA announced today the discovery of a system of seven exoplanets orbiting the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1. Discovered by a team of astronomers using data from the TRAPPIST telescope in Chile and the Spitzer Space Telescope, this find is especially exciting since all of these planets are believed to be Earth-sized and terrestrial (i.e. rocky).
But most exciting of all is the fact that three of these rocky exoplanets orbit within the star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). This means, in effect, that these planets are capable of having liquid water on their surfaces and could therefore support life. As far as extra-solar planet discoveries go, this is without precedent, and the discovery heralds a new age in the search for life beyond our Solar System.