It Looks Like Plate Tectonics Aren’t Required to Support Life

When looking for potentially-habitable extra-solar planets, scientists are somewhat restricted by the fact that we know of only one planet where life exists (i.e. Earth). For this reason, scientists look for planets that are terrestrial (i.e. rocky), orbit within their star’s habitable zones, and show signs of biosignatures such as atmospheric carbon dioxide – which is essential to life as we know it.

This gas, which is the largely result of volcanic activity here on Earth, increases surface heat through the greenhouse effect and cycles between the subsurface and the atmosphere through natural processes. For this reason, scientists have long believed that plate tectonics are essential to habitability. However, according to a new study by a team from Pennsylvania State University, this may not be the case.

The study, titled “Carbon Cycling and Habitability of Earth-Sized Stagnant Lid Planets“, was recently published in the scientific journal Astrobiology. The study was conducted by Bradford J. Foley and Andrew J. Smye, two assistant professors from the department of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University.

The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

On Earth, volcanism is the result of plate tectonics and occurs where two plates collide. This causes subduction, where one plate is pushed beneath the other and deeper into the subsurface. This subduction changes the dense mantle into buoyant magma, which rises through the crust to the Earth’s surface and creates volcanoes. This process can also aid in carbon cycling by pushing carbon into the mantle.

Plate tectonics and volcanism are believe to have been central to the emergence of life here on Earth, as it ensured that our planet had sufficient heat to maintain liquid water on its surface. To test this theory, Professors Foley and Smye created models to determine how habitable an Earth-like planet would be without the presence of plate tectonics.

These models took into account the thermal evolution, crustal production and CO2 cycling to constrain the habitability of rocky, Earth-sized stagnant lid planets. These are planets where the crust consists of a single, giant spherical plate floating on mantle, rather than in separate pieces. Such planets are thought to be far more common than planets that experience plate tectonics, as no planets beyond Earth have been confirmed to have tectonic plates yet. As Prof. Foley explained in a Penn State News press release:

“Volcanism releases gases into the atmosphere, and then through weathering, carbon dioxide is pulled from the atmosphere and sequestered into surface rocks and sediment. Balancing those two processes keeps carbon dioxide at a certain level in the atmosphere, which is really important for whether the climate stays temperate and suitable for life.”

Map of the Earth showing fault lines (blue) and zones of volcanic activity (red). Credit: zmescience.com

Essentially, their models took into account how much heat a stagnant lid planet’s climate could retain based on the amount of heat and heat-producing elements present when the planet formed (aka. its initial heat budget). On Earth, these elements include uranium which produces thorium and heat when it decays, which then decays to produce potassium and heat.

After running hundreds of simulations, which varied the planet’s size and chemical composition, they found that stagnant lid planets would be able to maintain warm enough temperatures that liquid water could exist on their surfaces for billions of years. In extreme cases, they could sustain life-supporting temperatures for up to 4 billion years, which is almost the age of the Earth.

As Smye indicated, this is due in part to the fact that plate tectonics are not always necessary for volcanic activity:

“You still have volcanism on stagnant lid planets, but it’s much shorter lived than on planets with plate tectonics because there isn’t as much cycling. Volcanoes result in a succession of lava flows, which are buried like layers of a cake over time. Rocks and sediment heat up more the deeper they are buried.”

Image of the Sarychev volcano (in Russia’s Kuril Islands) caught during an early stage of eruption on June 12, 2009. Taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The researchers also found that without plate tectonics, stagnant lid planets could still have enough heat and pressure to experience degassing, where carbon dioxide gas can escape from rocks and make its way to the surface. On Earth, Smye said, the same process occurs with water in subduction fault zones. This process increases based on the quantity of heat-producing elements present in the planet. As Foley explained:

“There’s a sweet spot range where a planet is releasing enough carbon dioxide to keep the planet from freezing over, but not so much that the weathering can’t pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and keep the climate temperate.”

According to the researchers’ model, the presence and amount of heat-producing elements were far better indicators for a planet’s potential to sustain life. Based on their simulations, they found that the initial composition or size of a planet is very important for determining whether or not it will become habitable. Or as they put it, the potential habitability of a planet is determined at birth.

By demonstrating that stagnant lid planets could still support life, this study has the potential for greatly extending the range of what scientists consider to be potentially-habitable. When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is deployed in 2021, examining the atmospheres of stagnant lid planets to determine the presence of biosignatures (like CO2) will be a major scientific objective.

Knowing that more of these worlds could sustain life is certainly good news for those who are hoping that we find evidence of extra-terrestrial life in our lifetimes.

Further Reading: PennState, Astrobiology

Kepler Mission Placed in Hibernation to Download Data Before its Last Campaign

Artist's concept of the Kepler mission with Earth in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Kepler space telescope has had a relatively brief but distinguished career of service with NASA. Having launched in 2009, the space telescope has spent the past nine years observing distant stars for signs of planetary transits (i.e. the Transit Method). In that time, it has been responsible for the detection of 2,650 confirmed exoplanets, which constitutes the majority of the more than 38oo planets discovered so far.

Earlier this week, the Kepler team was notified that the space telescope’s fuel tank is running very low. NASA responded by placing the spacecraft in hibernation in preparation for a download of its scientific data, which it collected during its latest observation campaign. Once the data is downloaded, the team expects to start its last observation campaign using whatever fuel it has left.

Since 2013, Kepler has been conducting its “Second Light” (aka. K2) campaign, where the telescope has continued conducting observations despite the loss of two of its reaction wheels. Since May 12th, 2018, Kepler has been on its 18th observation campaign, which has consisted of it studying a patch of sky in the vicinity of the Cancer constellation – which it previously studied in 2015.

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has been on an extended mission called K2 after two of its four reaction wheels failed in 2013. Credit: NASA

In order to send the data back home, the spacecraft will point is large antenna back towards Earth and transmit it via the Deep Space Network. However, the DSN is responsible for transmitting data from multiple missions and time needs to be allotted in advance. Kepler is scheduled to send data from its 18th campaign back in August, and will remain in a stable orbit and safe mode in order to conserve fuel until then.

On August 2nd, the Kepler team will command the spacecraft to awaken and will maneuver the craft to the correct orientation to transmit the data. If all goes well, they will begin Kepler’s 19th observation campaign on August 6th with what fuel the spacecraft still has. At present, NASA expects that the spacecraft will run out of fuel in the next few months.

However, even after the Kepler mission ends, scientists and engineers will continue to mine the data that has already been sent back for discoveries. According to a recent study by an international team of scientists, 24 new exoplanets were discovered using data from the 10th observation campaign, which has brought the total number of Kepler discoveries to 2,650 confirmed exoplanets.

An artist’s conception of how common exoplanets are throughout the Milky Way Galaxy. Image Credit: Wikipedia

In the coming years, many more exoplanet discoveries are anticipated as the next-generation of space telescopes begin collecting their first light or are deployed to space. These include the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched this past April, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – which is currently scheduled to launch sometime in 2021.

However, it will be many years before any mission can rival the accomplishments and contributions made by Kepler! Long after she is retired, her legacy will live on in the form of her discoveries.

Further Reading: NASA

Does Climate Change Explain Why We Don’t See Any Aliens Out There?

In the 1950s, famed physicist Enrico Fermi posed the question that encapsulated one of the toughest questions in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI): “Where the heck is everybody?” What he meant was, given the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years), the sheer number of galaxies (between 1 and 2 trillion), and the overall number of planets, why has humanity still not found evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence?

This question, which has come to be known as the “Fermi Paradox”, is something scientists continue to ponder. In a new study, a team from the University of Rochester considered that perhaps Climate Change is the reason. Using a mathematical model based on the Anthropocene, they considered how civilizations and planet systems co-evolve and whether or not intelligent species are capable of living sustainability with their environment.

The study, titled “The Anthropocene Generalized: Evolution of Exo-Civilizations and Their Planetary Feedback“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Astrobiology. The study was led by Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, with the assistance of Jonathan Carroll-Nellenback (a senior computational scientist at Rochester) Marina Alberti of the University of Washington, and Axel Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry.

Today, Climate Change is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. Thanks to changes that have taken place in the past few centuries – i.e. the industrial revolution, population growth, the growth of urban centers and reliance on fossil fuels – humans have had a significant impact on the planet. In fact, many geologists refer to the current era as the “Anthropocene” because humanity has become the single greatest factor affecting planetary evolution.

In the future, populations are expected to grow even further, reaching about 10 billion by mid-century and over 11 billion by 2100. In that time, the number of people who live within urban centers will also increase dramatically, increasing from 54% to 66% by mid-century. As such, the quesiton of how billions of people can live sustainably has become an increasingly important one.

Prof. Frank, who is also the author of the new book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth (which draws on this study), conducted this study with his colleagues in order to address the issue Climate Change in an astrobiological context. As he explained in a University of Rochester press release:

“Astrobiology is the study of life and its possibilities in a planetary context. That includes ‘exo-civilizations’ or what we usually call aliens. If we’re not the universe’s first civilization, that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses.”

Using the Anthropocene as an example, one can see how civilization-planet systems co-evolve, and how a civilization can endanger itself through growth and expansion – in what is known as a “progress trap“. Basically, as civilizations grow, they consume more of the planet’s resources, which causes changes in the planet’s conditions. In this sense, the fate of a civilization comes down to how they use their planet’s resources.

In order to illustrate this process Frank and his collaborators developed a mathematical model that considers civilizations and planets as a whole. As Prof. Frank explained:

“The point is to recognize that driving climate change may be something generic. The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilization like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet. Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what’s happening to us now and how to deal with it.”

The model was also based on case studies of extinct civilizations, which included the famous example of what became of the inhabitants of Rapa Nui (aka. Easter Island). According to archaeological studies, the people of the South Pacific began colonizing this island between 400 and 700 CE and its population peaked at 10,000 sometime between 1200 and 1500 CE.

Professor Adam Frank, who led the study in how civilization-planet systems evolve. Credit: University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster

By the 18th century, however, the inhabitants had depleted their resources and the population declined to just 2000. This example raises the important concept known as “carrying capacity”, which is the maximum number of species an environment can support. As Frank explained, Climate Change is essentially how the Earth responds to the expansion of our civilization:

“If you go through really strong climate change, then your carrying capacity may drop, because, for example, large-scale agriculture might be strongly disrupted. Imagine if climate change caused rain to stop falling in the Midwest. We wouldn’t be able to grow food, and our population would diminish.”

Using their mathematical model, the team identified four potential scenarios that might occur on a planet. These include the Die-Off scenario, the Sustainability scenario, the Collapse Without Resource Change scenario, and the Collapse With Resource Change scenario. In the Die-Off scenario, the population and the planet’s state (for example, average temperatures) rise very quickly.

This would eventually lead to a population peak and then a rapid decline as changing planetary conditions make it harder for the majority of the population to survive. Eventually, a steady population level would be achieved, but it would only be a fraction of what the peak population was. This scenario occurs when civilizations are unwilling or unable to change from high-impact resources (i.e. oil, coal, clear-cutting) to sustainable ones (renewable energy).

Four scenarios for the fate of civilizations and their planets, based on mathematical models developed by Adam Frank and his collaborators. Credit: University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw

In the Sustainability scenario, the population and planetary conditions both rise, but eventually come to together with steady values, thus avoiding any catastrophic effects. This scenario occurs when civilizations recognize that environmental changes threaten their existence and successfully make the transition from high-impact resources to sustainable ones.

The final two scenarios  – Collapse Without Resource Change and Collapse With Resource Change – differ in one key respect. In the former, the population and temperature both rise rapidly until the population reaches a peak and begins to drop rapidly – though it is not clear if the species itself survives. In the latter, the population and temperature rise rapidly, but the populations recognizes the danger and makes the transition. Unfortunately, the change comes too late and the population collapses anyway.

At present, scientists cannot say with any confidence which of these fates will be the one humanity faces. Perhaps we will make the transition before it is too late, perhaps not. But in the meantime, Frank and his colleagues hope to use more detailed models to predict how planets will respond to civilizations and the different ways they consume energy and resources in order to grow.

From this, scientists may be able to refine their predictions of what awaits us in this century and the next. It is during this time that crucial changes will be taking place, which include the aforementioned population growth, and the steady rise in temperatures. For instance, based on two scenarios that measured CO2 increases by the year 2100, NASA indicated that global temperatures could rise by either 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) or  4.4 °C (8 °F).

In the former scenario, where CO2 levels reached 550 ppm by 2100, the changes would be sustainable. But in the latter scenario, where CO2 levels reached 800 ppm, the changes would cause widespread disruption to systems that billions of humans depends upon for their livelihood and survival. Worse than that, life would become untenable in certain areas of the world, leading to massive displacement and humanitarian crises.

In addition to offering a possible resolution for the Fermi Paradox, this study offers some helpful advice for human beings. By thinking of civilizations and planets as a whole – be they Earth or exoplanets – researchers will be able to better predict what changes will be necessary for human civilization to survive. As Frank warned, it is absolutely essential that humanity mobilize now to ensure that the worst-case scenario does not occur here on Earth:

“If you change the earth’s climate enough, you might not be able to change it back. Even if you backed off and started to use solar or other less impactful resources, it could be too late, because the planet has already been changing. These models show we can’t just think about a population evolving on its own. We have to think about our planets and civilizations co-evolving.”

And be sure to enjoy this video that addresses Prof. Frank and his team’s research, courtesy of the University of Rochester:

Further Reading: University of Rochester, Astrobiology

Chandra Observatory Checks to Make Sure Alpha Centauri is Safe, You Know, in Case We Decide to Visit

At distance of just 4.367 light years, the triple star system of Alpha Centauri (Alpha Centauri A+B and Proxima Centauri) is the closest star system to our own. In 2016, researchers from the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of Proxima b, a rocky planet located within the star’s habitable zone and the closest exoplanet to our Solar System. However, whether or not Alpha Centauri has any potentially habitable planets remains a mystery.

Between 2012 and 2015, three possible candidates were announced in this system, but follow-up studies cast doubt on their existence. Looking to resolve this mystery, Tom Ayres – a senior research associate and Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy – conducted a study of Alpha Centauri based on over a decade’s worth of observations, with encouraging results!

The results of this study were presented at the 232rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which took place in Denver, Colorado, from June 3rd to June 7th. The study was based on ten years worth of monitoring of Alpha Centauri, which was provided the Chandra X-ray Observatory. This data indicated that any planets that orbit Alpha Centauri A and B are not likely to be bombarded by large amounts of X-ray radiation.

The two brightest stars of the Centaurus constellation – (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Skatebiker

This is good news as far as Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability goes since X-rays and related Space Weather effects are harmful to unprotected life. Not only can high doses of radiation be lethal to living creatures, they can also strip away planetary atmospheres. According to data provided by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, this  is precisely what happened to Mars between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago.

As Tom Ayres explained in a recent Chandra press release:

“Because it is relatively close, the Alpha Centauri system is seen by many as the best candidate to explore for signs of life. The question is, will we find planets in an environment conducive to life as we know it?”

The stars in the Alpha Centauri system (A and B) are quite similar to our Sun and orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Centauri A, a G2 V (yellow dwarf) star, is the most Sun-like of the two, being 1.1 times the mass and 1.519 times the luminosity of the Sun. Alpha Centauri B is somewhat smaller and cooler, at 0.907 times the Sun’s mass and 0.445 times its visual luminosity.

As such, the odds that the system could support an Earth-like planet are pretty good, especially around Alpha Centauri A. According to the Chandra data, the prospects for life (based on X-ray bombardment) are actually better for any planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A than for the Sun, and Alpha Centauri B is only slightly worse. This is certainly good news for those who are hoping that a potentially habitable exoplanet is found in close proximity to the Solar System.

The respective habitable zones around Alpha Centauri A and B. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory

When the existence of Proxima b was first announced, there was naturally much excitement. Not only did this planet orbit within it’s star’s habitable zone, but it was the closest known exoplanet to Earth. Subsequent studies, however, revealed that Proxima Centauri is variable and unstable by nature, which makes it unlikely that Proxima b could maintain an atmosphere or life on its surface. As Ayers explained:

“This is very good news for Alpha Cen AB in terms of the ability of possible life on any of their planets to survive radiation bouts from the stars. Chandra shows us that life should have a fighting chance on planets around either of these stars.”

Meanwhile, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B, but without success. The problem with this system is the orbit of the pair, which has drawn the two bright stars close together in the sky over the past decade. To help determine if Alpha Centauri was hospitable to life, astronomers began conducting a long-term observation campaign with Chandra in 2005.

As the only X-ray observatory capable of resolving Alpha Centauri A and B during its current close orbital approach, Chandra observed these two main stars every six months for the past thirteen years. These long-term measurements captured a full cycle of increases and decreases in X-ray activity, in much the same way that the Sun has an 11-year sunspot cycle.

What these observations showed was that any planet orbiting within the habitable zone of A would receive (on average) a lower dose of X-rays compared to similar planets around the Sun. For planets orbiting withing the habitable zone of B, the X-ray dose they received would be about five times higher. Meanwhile, planets orbiting within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone would get an average of 500 times more X-rays, and 50,000 times more during a big flare.

In addition to providing encouraging hints about Alpha Centauri’s possible habitability, the X-ray observations provided by Chandra could also go a long way towards informing astronomers about our Sun’s X-ray activity. Understanding this is key to learning more about space weather and the threat they can pose to human infrastructure, as well as other technologically-advanced civilizations.

In the meantime, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B. Knowing that they have a good chance of supporting life will certainly make any future exploration of this system (like Project Starshot) all the more lucrative!

Some of the study’s results also appeared in the January issue in the Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society, titled “Alpha Centauri Beyond the Crossroads“. And be sure to enjoy this video about Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra X-ray Observatory

Are There Enough Chemicals on Icy Worlds to Support Life?

For decades, scientists have believed that there could be life beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Since that time, multiple lines of evidence have emerged that suggest that it is not alone. Indeed, within the Solar System, there are many “ocean worlds” that could potentially host life, including Ceres, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, Dione, Triton, and maybe even Pluto.

But what if the elements for life as we know it are not abundant enough on these worlds? In a new study, two researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics (CfA) sought to determine if there could in fact be a scarcity of bioessential elements on ocean worlds. Their conclusions could have wide-ranging implications for the existence of life in the Solar System and beyond, not to mention our ability to study it.

The study, titled “Is extraterrestrial life suppressed on subsurface ocean worlds due to the paucity of bioessential elements?” recently appeared online. The study was led by Manasvi Lingam, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) at Harvard University and the CfA, with the support of Abraham Loeb – the director of the ITC and the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard.

Artist’s depiction of a watery exoplanet orbiting a distant red dwarf star. Credit: CfA

In previous studies, questions on the habitability of moons and other planets have tended to focus on the existence of water. This has been true when it comes to the study of planets and moons within the Solar System, and especially true when it comes the study of extra-solar planets. When they have found new exoplanets, astronomers have paid close attention to whether or not the planet in question orbits within its star’s habitable zone.

This is key to determining whether or not the planet can support liquid water on its surface. In addition, astronomers have attempted to obtain spectra from around rocky exoplanets to determine if water loss is taking place from its atmosphere, as evidenced by the presence of hydrogen gas. Meanwhile, other studies have attempted to determine the presence of energy sources, since this is also essential to life as we know it.

In contrast, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered how the existence of life on ocean planets could be dependent on the availability of limiting nutrients (LN). For some time, there has been considerable debate as to which nutrients would be essential to extra-terrestrial life, since these elements could vary from place to place and over timescales. As Lingam told Universe Today via email:

“The mostly commonly accepted list of elements necessary for life as we know it comprises of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. In addition, certain trace metals (e.g. iron and molybdenum) may also be valuable for life as we know it, but the list of bioessential trace metals is subject to a higher degree of uncertainty and variability.”

Artist rendering showing an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface. Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

For their purposes, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb created a model using Earth’s oceans to determine how the sources and sinks – i.e. the factors that add or deplete LN elements into oceans, respectively – could be similar to those on ocean worlds. On Earth, the sources of these nutrients include fluvial (from rivers), atmospheric and glacial sources, with energy being provided by sunlight.

Of these nutrients, they determined that the most important would be phosphorus, and examined how abundant this and other elements could be on ocean worlds, where conditions as vastly different. As Dr. Lingam explained, it is reasonable to assume that on these worlds, the potential existence of life would also come down to a balance between the net inflow (sources) and net outflow (sinks).

“If the sinks are much more dominant than the sources, it could indicate that the elements would be depleted relatively quickly. In other to estimate the magnitudes of the sources and sinks, we drew upon our knowledge of the Earth and coupled it with other basic parameters of these ocean worlds such as the pH of the ocean, the size of the world, etc. known from observations/theoretical models.”

While atmospheric sources would not be available to interior oceans, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered the contribution played by hydrothermal vents. Already, there is abundant evidence that these exist on Europa, Enceladus, and other ocean worlds. They also considered abiotic sources, which consist of minerals leached from rocks by rain on Earth, but would consist of the weathering of rocks by these moons’ interior oceans.

Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Ultimately, what they found was that, unlike water and energy, limiting nutrients might be in limited supply when it comes to ocean worlds in our Solar System:

“We found that, as per the assumptions in our model, phosphorus, which is one of the bioessential elements, is depleted over fast timescales (by geological standards) on ocean worlds whose oceans are neutral or alkaline in nature, and which possess hydrothermal activity (i.e. hydrothermal vent systems at the ocean floor). Hence, our work suggests that life may exist in low concentrations globally in these ocean worlds (or be present only in local patches), and may therefore not be easily detectable.”

This naturally has implications for missions destined for Europa and other moons in the outer Solar System. These include the NASA Europa Clipper mission, which is currently scheduled to launch between 2022 and 2025. Through a series of flybys of Europa, this probe will attempt to measure biomarkers in the plume activity coming from the moon’s surface.

Similar missions have been proposed for Enceladus, and NASA is also considering a “Dragonfly” mission to explore Titan’s atmosphere, surface and methane lakes. However, if Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb’s study is correct, then the chances of these missions finding any signs of life on an ocean world in the Solar System are rather slim. Nevertheless, as Lingam indicated, they still believe that such missions should be mounted.

Artist’s concept of a Europa Clipper mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

“Although our model predicts that future space missions to these worlds might have low chances of success in terms of detecting extraterrestrial life, we believe that such missions are still worthy of being pursued,” he said. “This is because they will offer an excellent opportunity to: (i) test and/or falsify the key predictions of our model, and (ii) collect more data and improve our understanding of ocean worlds and their biogeochemical cycles.”

In addition, as Prof. Loeb indicated via email, this study was focused on “life as we know it”. If a mission to these worlds did find sources of extra-terrestrial life, then it would indicate that life can arise from conditions and elements that we are not familiar with. As such, the exploration of Europa and other ocean worlds is not only advisable, but necessary.

“Our paper shows that elements that are essential for the ‘chemistry-of-life-as-we-know-it’, such as phosphorous, are depleted in subsurface oceans,” he said. “As a result, life would be challenging in the oceans suspected to exist under the surface ice of Europa or Enceladus. If future missions confirm the depleted level of phosphorous but nevertheless find life in these oceans, then we would know of a new chemical path for life other than the one on Earth.”

In the end, scientists are forced to take the “low-hanging fruit” approach when it comes to searching for life in the Universe . Until such time that we find life beyond Earth, all of our educated guesses will be based on life as it exists here. I can’t imagine a better reason to get out there and explore the Universe than this!

Further Reading: arXiv

Pros and Cons of Various Methods of Interstellar Travel

It’s a staple of science fiction, and something many people have fantasized about at one time or another: the idea of sending out spaceships with colonists and transplanting the seed of humanity among the stars. Between discovering new worlds, becoming an interstellar species, and maybe even finding extra-terrestrial civilizations, the dream of  spreading beyond the Solar System is one that can’t become reality soon enough!

For decades, scientists have contemplated how humanity might one-day reach achieve this lofty goal. And the range of concepts they have come up with present a whole lot of pros and cons. These pros and cons were raised in a recent study by Martin Braddock, a member of the Mansfield and Sutton Astronomical Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology, and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The study, titled “Concepts for Deep Space Travel: From Warp Drives and Hibernation to World Ships and Cryogenics“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Current Trends in Biomedical Engineering and Biosciences (a Juniper Journals publication). As Braddock indicates in his study, the question of how human beings could explore neighboring star systems has become more relevant in recent years thanks to exoplanet discoveries.

A list of some of the recently-discovered potentially habitable exoplanets. Credit: hpcf.upr.edu

As we reviewed in a previous article, “How Long Would it Take to Travel to the Nearest Star?“, there are numerous proposed and theoretical ways to travel between our Solar System and other stars in the galaxy. However, beyond the technology involved, and the time it would take, there are also the biological and psychological implications for human crews that would need to be taken into account beforehand.

And thanks to the way public interest in space exploration has become renewed in recent years, cost-benefit analyses of all the possible methods is becoming increasingly necessary. As Dr. Braddock told Universe Today via email|:

“Interstellar travel has become more relevant because of the concerted effort to find ways across all of the space agencies to maintain human health in ‘short’ (2-3 yr) space travel. With Mars missions reasonably in sight, Stephen Hawking’s death highlighting one his many beliefs that we should colonize deep space and Elon Musk’s determination to minimize waste on space travel, together with reborn visions of ‘bolt-on’ accessories to the ISS (the Bigelow expandable module) conjures some imaginative concepts.”

All told, Dr. Braddock considers five principle means for mounting crewed missions to other star systems in his study. These include super-luminal (aka/ FTL) travel, hibernation or stasis regimes, negligible senescence (aka. anti-aging) engineering, world ships capable of supporting multiple generations of travellers (aka. generation ships), and cyogenic freezing technologies.

Artist’s concept of a spacecraft using an Alcubierre Warp Drive. Credit: NASA

For FTL travel, the advantages are obvious, and while it remains entirely theoretical at this point, there are concepts being investigated today. A notable FTL concept – known as the Alcubierre Warp Drive – is currently being researched by multiple organizations, which includes the Tau Zero Foundation and the Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory: Eagleworks (APPL:E) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

To break it down succinctly, this method of space travel involves stretching the fabric of space-time in a wave which would (in theory) cause the space ahead of a ship to contract and the space behind it to expand. The ship would then ride this region, known as a “warp bubble”, through space. Since the ship is not moving within the bubble, but is being carried along as the region itself moves, conventional relativistic effects such as time dilation would not apply.

As Dr. Brannock indicates, the advantages of such a propulsion system include being able to achieve “apparent” FTL travel without violating the laws of Relativity. In addition, a ship traveling in a warp bubble would not have to worry about colliding with space debris, and there would be no upper limit to the maximum speed attainable. Unfortunately, the downsides of this method of travel are equally obvious.

These include the fact that there is currently no known methods for creating a warp bubble in a region of space that does not already contain one. In addition, extremely high energies would be required to create this effect, and there is no known way for a ship to exit a warp bubble once it has entered. In short, FTL is a purely theoretical concept for the time being and there are no indications that it will move from theory to practice in the near future.

“The first [strategy] is FTL travel, but the other strategies accept that FTL travel is very theoretical and that one option is to extend human life or to engage in multiple-generational voyages,” said Dr. Braddock. “The latter could be achieved in the future, given the willingness to design a large enough craft and the propulsion technology development to achieve 0.1 x c.”

In other words, the most plausible concepts for interstellar space travel are not likely to achieve speeds of more than ten percent the speed of light about 29,979,245.8 m / s (~107,925,285 km/h; 67,061,663 mph). This is still a very tall order considering that the fastest mission to date was the Helios 2 mission, which achieved a a maximum velocity of over 66,000 m/s (240,000 km/h; 150,000 mph). Still, this provides a more realistic framework to work within.

Where hibernation and stasis regiments are concerned, the advantages (and disadvantages) are more immediate. For starters, the technology is realizable and has been extensively studies on shorter timescales for both humans and animals. In the latter case, natural hibernation cycles provide the most compelling evidence that hibernation can last for months without incident.

The downsides, however, come down to all the unknowns. For example, there are the likely risks of tissue atrophy resulting from extended periods of time spent in a microgravity environment. This could be mitigated by artificial gravity or other means (such as electrostimulation of muscles), but considerable clinical research is needed before this could be attempted. This raises a whole slew of ethical issues, since such tests would pose their own risks.

Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) are another avenue, offering the potential for human beings to counter the effects of long-duration spaceflight by reversing the aging process. In addition to ensuring that the same generation that boarded the ship would be the one to make it to its destination, this technique also has the potential to drive stem cell therapy research here on Earth.

However, in the context of long-duration spaceflight, multiple treatments (or continuous ones throughout the travel process) would likely be necessary to achieve full rejuvenation. A considerable amount of research would also be needed beforehand in order to test the process and address the individual components of aging, once again leading to a number of ethical issues.

Then there’s worldships (aka. generation ships), where self-contained and self sustaining spacecraft large enough to accommodate several generations of space travelers would be used. These ships would rely on conventional propulsion and therefore take centuries (or millennia) to reach another star system. The immediate advantages of this concept is that it would fulfill two major goals of space exploration, which would be to maintain a human colony in space and to permit travel to a potentially-habitable exoplanet.

In addition, a generation ship would rely on propulsion concepts that are currently feasible, and a crew of thousands would multiply the chances of successfully colonizing another planet. Of course, the cost of constructing and maintaining such large spaceships would be prohibitive. There are also the moral and ethical challenges of sending human crews into deep space for such extended periods of time.

For instance, is there any guarantee that the crew wouldn’t all go insane and kill each other? And last, there is the fact that newer, more advanced ships would be developed on Earth in the meantime. This means that a faster ship, which would depart Earth later, would be able to overtake a generation ship before it reached another star system. Why spend so much on a ship when it’s likely to become obsolete before it even makes it to its destination?

A concept for a multi-generation ship being designed by the TU Delft Starship Team (DSTART), with support from the ESA. Credit and Copyright: Nils Faber & Angelo Vermeulen

Last, there is cryogenics, a concept that has been explored extensively in the past few decades as a possible means for life-extension and space travel. In many ways, this concept is an extension of hibernation technology, but benefits from a number of recent advancements. The immediate advantage of this method is that it accounts for all the current limitations imposed by technology and a relativistic Universe.

Basically, it doesn’t matter if FTL (or speeds beyond 0.10 c) are possible or how long a voyage will take since the crew will be asleep and perfectly preserved for the duration. On top of that, we already know the technology works, as demonstrated by recent advancements where organ tissues and even whole organisms were warmed and vitrified after being cryogenically frozen.

However, the risks also greater than with hibernation. For instance, the long-term effects of cryogenic freezing on the physiology and central nervous system of higher-order animals and humans is not yet known. This means that extensive testing and human trials would be needed before it was ever attempted, which once again raises a number of ethical challenges.

In the end, there are a lot of unknowns associated with any and all potential methods of interstellar travel. Similarly, much more research and development is necessary before we can safely say which of them is the most feasible. In the meantime, Dr. Braddock admits that it’s much more likely that any interstellar voyages will involve robotic explorers using telepresence technology to show us other worlds – though these don’t possess the same allure.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

“Almost certainly, and this revisits the early concept of von Neumann replication probes (minus the replication!),” he said. “Cube Sats or the like may well achieve this goal but will likely not engage the public imagination nearly as much as human space travel. I believe Sir Martin Rees has suggested the concept of a semi-human AI type device… also some way off.”

Currently, there is only one proposed mission for sending an interstellar space craft to a nearby star system. This would be Breakthrough Starshot, a proposal to send a laser sail-driven nanocraft to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years. After being accelerated to 4,4704,000 m/s (160,934,400 km/h; 100 million mph) 20% the speed of light, this craft would conduct a flyby of Alpha Centauri and also be able to beam home images of Proxima b.

Beyond that, all the missions that involve venturing to the outer Solar System consist of robotic orbiters and probes and all proposed crewed missions are directed at sending astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars. Still, humanity is just getting started with space exploration and we certainly need to finish exploring our own Solar System before we can contemplate exploring beyond it.

In the end, a lot of time and patience will be needed before we can start to venture beyond the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud to see what’s out there.

Further Reading: ResearchGate

One of the TRAPPIST-1 Planets Has an Iron Core

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. Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine whether or not any of these planets could be habitable.

In accordance with this goal, these studies have focused on whether or not these planets have atmospheres, their compositions and their interiors. One of the latest studies was conducted by two researchers from Columbia University’s Cool Worlds Laboratory, who determined that one of the TRAPPIST-1 planets (TRAPPIST-1e) has a large iron core – a finding which could have implications for this planet’s habitability.

The study – titled “TRAPPIST-1e Has a Large Iron Core“, which recently appeared online – was conducted by Gabrielle Englemenn-Suissa and David Kipping, a senior undergraduate student and an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, respectively. For the sake of their study, Englemenn-Suissa and Kipping took advantage of recent studies that have placed constraints on the masses and radii of the TRAPPIST-1 planets.

These and other studies have benefited from the fact that TRAPPIST-1 is a seven planet system, which makes it ideally suited for exoplanet studies. As Professor Kipping told Universe Today via email:

“It’s a wonderful laboratory for exoplanetary science for three reasons. First, the system has a whopping seven transiting planets. The depth of the transits dictates the size of each planet so we can measure they sizes quite precisely. Second, the planets gravitationally interact with one another leading to variations in the times of the transits and these have been used to infer the masses of each planet, again to impressive precision. Third, the star is very small being a late M-dwarf, about an eighth the size of the Sun, and that means transits appear 8^2 = 64 times deeper than they would if the star were Sun-sized. So we have lots of things working in our favor here.”

Together, Englemann-Suissa and Kipping used mass and radius measurements of the TRAPPIST-1 planets to infer the minimum and maximum Core Radius Fraction (CRF) of each planet. This built on a study they had previously conducted (along with Jingjing Chen, a PhD candidate at Columbia University and a member of the Cool Worlds Lab) in which they developed their method for determining a planet’s CRF. As Kipping described the method:

“If you know the mass and radius very precisely, like the TRAPPIST-1 system, you can compare them to that predicted from theoretical interior structure models. The problem is that these models generally comprise of possible four layers, an iron core, a silicate mantle, a water layer and an light volatile envelope (Earth only has the first two, its atmosphere contributes negligible to mass and radius). So four unknowns and two measured quantities is in principle an unconstrained, unsolvable problem.”

This artist’s concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Their study also took into account previous work by other scientists who have attempted to place constraints on the chemical composition of the TRAPPIST-1 system. In these studies, the authors assumed that the planets’ chemical compositions were connected to that of the star, which can be measured. However, Englemann-Suissa and Kipping took a more “agnostic” approach and simply considered the boundary conditions of the problem.

“We essentially say that given the mass and radius, there are no models with cores smaller than X that can possibly explain the observed mass and radius,” he said. “The core might be bigger than X but has to be at least X since no theoretical models could explain it otherwise. Here, X would therefore correspond to what we could call the minimum core radius fraction. We then play the same game for the maximum limit.”

What they determined was that the minimum core size of six of the TRAPPIST-1 planets was essentially zero. This means that their compositions could be explained without necessarily having an iron core – for instance, a pure silicate mantle could be all that’s there. But in the case of TRAPPIST-1e, they found that its core must comprise at least 50% of the planet by radius, and at most, 78%.

Compare this to Earth, where the solid inner core of iron and nickel and a liquid outer core of a molten iron-nickel alloy comprise 55% of the planet’s radius. Between the upper and lower limit of TRAPPIST-1e’s CRF, they concluded that it must have a dense core, one which is likely comparable to Earth. This finding could mean that of all the TRAPPIST-1 planets, e is the most “Earth-like” and likely to have a protective magnetosphere.

As Kipping indicated, this could have immense implications when it comes to the hunt for habitable exoplanets, and might push TRAPPIST-1e to the top of the list:

“This gets me more excited about TRAPPIST-1e in particular. That planet is a tad smaller than the Earth, sits right in the habitable-zone and now we know has a large iron core like the Earth. We also know it does not possess a light volatile envelope thanks to other measurements. Further, TRAPPIST-1 appears to be a quieter star than Proxima so I’m much more optimistic about TRAPPIST-1e as potential biosphere than Proxima b right now.”

This is certainly good news in light of recent studies that have indicated that Proxima b is not likely to be habitable. Between its star emitting powerful flares that can be seen by the naked eye to the likelihood that an atmosphere and liquid water would not survive long on its surface, the closest exoplanet to our Solar System is currently not considered a good candidate for finding a habitable world or extra-terrestrial life.

In recent years, Kipping and his colleagues have also dedicated themselves and the Cool Worlds Laboratory to the study of possible exoplanets around Proxima Centauri. Using the Canadian Space Agency’s Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars (MOST) satellite, Kipping and his colleagues monitored Proxima Centauri in May of 2014 and again in May of 2015 to look for signs of transiting planets.

While the discovery of Proxima b was ultimately made by astronomers at the ESO using the Radial Velocity Method, this campaign was significant in drawing attention to the likelihood of finding terrestrial, potentially-habitable planets around nearby M-type (red dwarf) stars. In the future, Kipping and his team also hope to conduct studies of Proxima b to determine if it has an atmosphere and determine what its CRF could be.

Once again, it appears that one of the many rocky planets orbiting a red dwarf star (and which is closer to Earth) might just be a prime candidate for habitability studies! Future surveys, which will benefit from the introduction of next-generation telescopes (like the James Webb Space Telescope) will no doubt reveal more about this  system and any potentially habitable worlds it has.

Further Reading: arXiv

How Many Planets is TESS Going to Find?

Artist Illustration of TESS and its 4 telescopes. Credit: NASA/MIT

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), NASA’s latest exoplanet-hunting space telescope, was launched into space on Wednesday, April 18th, 2018. As the name suggests, this telescope will use the Transit Method to detect terrestrial-mass planets (i.e. rocky) orbiting distant stars. Alongside other next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), TESS will effectively pick up where telescopes like Hubble and Kepler left off.

But just how many planets is TESS expected to find? That was the subject of a new study by a team researchers who attempted to estimate just how many planets TESS is likely to discover, as well as the physical properties of these planets and the stars that they orbit. Altogether, they estimate TESS will find thousands of planets orbiting a variety of stars during its two-year primary mission.

The study, titled “A Revised Exoplanet Yield from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)“, recently appeared online. The study was led by Thomas Barclay, an associate research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland, and included Joshua Pepper (an astrophysicist at Lehigh University) and Elisa Quintana (a research scientist with the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center).

As Thomas Barclay told Universe Today via email:

“TESS builds off the legacy of Kepler. Kepler was primarily a statistical mission and taught us that planets are everywhere. However, it wasn’t optimized for finding excellent individual planets for further study. Now that we know planets are common, we can launch something like TESS to search for the planets that we will undertake intensive studies of using ground and space-based telescopes. Planets that TESS will find will on average be 10x closer and 100x brighter.”

For the sake of their study, the team created a three-step model that took into account the stars TESS will observe, the number of planets each one is likely to have, and the likelihood of TESS spotting them. These included the kinds of planets that would be orbiting around dwarf stars ranging from A-type to K-type (like our Sun), and lower-mass M-type (red dwarf) stars.

“To estimate how many planets TESS will find we took stars that will be observed by TESS and simulated a population of planets orbiting them,” said Barclay. “The exoplanet population stats all come from studies that used Kepler data. Then, using models of TESS performance, we estimated how many of those planets would be detected by TESS. This is where we get our yield numbers from.”

The first step was straightforward, thanks to the availability of the Candidate Target List (CTL) – a prioritized list of target stars that the TESS Target Selection Working Group determined were the most suitable stars for detecting small planets. They then ranked the 3.8 million stars that are included in the latest version based on their brightness and radius and determined which of these TESS is likely to observe.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying NASA’s TESS spacecraft. Image credit: NASA TV

The second step consisted of assigning planets to each star based on a Poisson distribution, a statistical technique where a given number is assigned to each star (in this case, 0 or more). Each planet was then assigned six physical properties drawn at random, including an orbital period, a radius, an eccentricity, a periastron angle, an inclination to our line of sight, and a mid-time of first transit.

Last, they attempted to estimate how many of these planets would generate a detectable transit signal. As noted, TESS will rely on the Transit Method, where periodic dips in a star’s brightness are used to determine the presence of one or more orbiting planets, as well as place constraints on their sizes and orbital periods. For this, they considered the flux contamination of nearby stars, the number of transits, and the transit duration.

Ultimately, they determined with 90% confidence that TESS is likely to detect 4430–4660 new exoplanets during its two years mission:

“The results is that we predict that TESS will find more than 4000 planets, with hundreds smaller than twice the size of Earth. The primary goal of TESS is to find planets that are bright enough for ground-based telescope to measure their mass. We estimate that TESS could lead to triple the number of planets smaller than 4 Earth-radii with mass measurements.”

As of April 1st, 2018, a total 3,758 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,808 systems, with 627 systems having more than one planet. In other words, Barclay and his team estimate that the TESS mission will effectively double the number of confirmed exoplanets and triple the number of Earth-sized and Super-Earth’s during its primary mission.

This will begin after a series of orbital maneuvers and engineering tests, which are expected to last for about two months. With the exoplanet catalog thus expanded, we can expect that there will be many more “Earth-like” candidates available for study. And while we still will not be able to determine if any of them have life, we may perhaps find some that show signs of a viable atmosphere and water on the surfaces.

The hunt for life beyond Earth will continue for many years to come! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video about the TESS mission, courtesy of NASA:

Further Reading: Astrobites, arXiv

If We’re Searching for Earth 2.0, Would We Know It When We Find It?

In the past few decades, there has been an explosion in the number of extra-solar planets that have been discovered. As of April 1st, 2018, a total of 3,758 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,808 systems, with 627 systems having more than one planet. In addition to expanding our knowledge of the Universe, the purpose of this search has been to find evidence of life beyond our Solar System.

In the course of looking for habitable planets, astronomers have used Earth as a guiding example. But would we recognize a truly “Earth-like” planet if we saw one? This question was addressed in a recent paper by two professors, one of whom is an exoplanet-hunter and the other, an Earth science and astrobiology expert. Together, they consider what advances (past and future) will be key to the search for Earth 2.0.

The paper, titled “Earth as an Exoplanet“, recently appeared online. The study was conducted by Tyler D. Robinson, a former NASA Postdoctoral Fellow and an assistant professor from Northern Arizona University, and Christopher T. Reinhard – an assistant professor from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of of Earth and Atmospheric Studies.

Thanks to advances in technology and detection methods, astronomers have detected multiple Earth-like planets in our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL

For the sake of their study, Robinson and Reinhard focus on how the hunt for habitable and inhabited planets beyond our Solar System commonly focuses on Earth analogs. This is to be expected, since Earth is the only planet that we know of that can support life. As Professor Robinson told Universe Today via email:

“Earth is – currently! – our only example of a habitable and an inhabited world. Thus, when someone asks, “What will a habitable exoplanet look like?” or “What will a life-bearing exoplanet look like?”, our best option is to point to Earth and say, “Maybe it will look a lot like this.” While many studies have hypothesized other habitable planets (e.g., water-covered super-Earths), our leading example of a fully-functioning habitable planet will always be Earth.”

The authors therefore consider how observations made by spacecraft of the Solar System have led to the development of approaches for detecting signatures of habitability and life on other worlds. These include the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions and Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which conducted flybys of many Solar System bodies during the 1970s.

These missions, which conducted studies on the planets and moons of the Solar System using photometry and spectroscopy allowed scientists to learn a great deal about these bodies’ atmospheric chemistry and composition, as well as meteorlogical patterns and chemistry. Subsequent missions have added to this by revealing key details about the surface details and geological evolution of the Solar planets and moons.

The “pale blue dot” of Earth captured by Voyager 1 spacecraft on Feb 14th, 1990. Credit: NASA/JPL

In addition, the Galileo probe conducted flybys of Earth in December of 1990 and 1992, which provided planetary scientists with the first opportunity to analyze our planet using the same tools and techniques that had previously been applied throughout the Solar System. It was also the Voyager 1 probe that took a distant image of Earth, which Carl Sagan referred to as the “Pale Blue Dot” photo.

However, they also note that Earth’s atmosphere and surface environment has evolved considerably over the past 4.5 billion years ago. In fact, according to various atmospheric and geological models, Earth has resembled many environments in the past that would be considered quite “alien” by today’s standards. These include Earth’s many ice ages and the earliest epochs, when Earth’s primordial atmosphere was the product of volcanic outgassing.

As Professor Robinson explained, this presents some complications when it comes to finding other examples of “Pale Blue Dots”:

“The key complication is being careful to not fall into the trap of thinking that Earth has always appeared the way it does today. So, our planet actually presents a huge array of options for what a habitable and/or inhabited planet might look like.”

In other words, our hunt for Earth analogs could reveal a plethora of worlds which are “Earth-like”, in the sense that they resemble a previous (or future) geological period of Earth. These include “Snowball Earth’s”, which would be covered by glacial sheets (but could still be life-bearing), or even what Earth looked like during the Hadean or Archean Eons, when oxygenic photosynthesis had not yet taken place.

Ice ages are characterized by a drop in average global temperatures, resulting in the expansion of ice sheets globally. Credit: NASA

This would also have implications when it comes to what kinds of life would be able to exist there. For instance, if the planet is still young and its atmosphere was still in its primordial state, life could be strictly in microbial form. However, if the planet was billions of years old and in an interglacial period, more complex life forms may have evolved and be roaming the Earth.

Robinson and Reinhard go on to consider what future developments will aid in the spotting of “Pale Blue Dots”. These include next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – scheduled for deployment in 2020 – and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is currently under development.  Other technologies include concepts like Starshade, which is intended to eliminate the glare of stars so that exoplanets can be directly imaged.

“Spotting true Pale Blue Dots – water-covered terrestrial worlds in the habitable zone of Sun-like stars – will require advancements in our ability to “directly image” exoplanets,” said Robinson. “Here, you use either optics inside the telescope or a futuristic-sounding “starshade” flying beyond the telescope to cancel out the light of a bright star thereby enabling you to see a faint planet orbiting that star. A number of different research groups, including some at NASA centers, are working to perfect these technologies.”

Once astronomers are able to image rocky exoplanets directly, they will at last be able to study their atmospheres in detail and place more accurate constraints on their potential habitability. Beyond that, there may come a day when we will be able to image the surfaces of these planets, either through extremely sensitive telescopes or spacecraft missions (such as Project Starshot).

Whether or not we find another “Pale Blue Dot” remains to be seen. But in the coming years, we may finally get a good idea of just how common (or rare) our world truly is.

Further Reading: arXiv

Could We Detect an Ancient Industrial Civilization in the Geological Record?

As a species, we humans tend to take it for granted that we are the only ones that live in sedentary communities, use tools, and alter our landscape to meet our needs. It is also a foregone conclusion that in the history of planet Earth, humans are the only species to develop machinery, automation, electricity, and mass communications – the hallmarks of industrial civilization.

But what if another industrial civilization existed on Earth millions of years ago? Would we be able to find evidence of it within the geological record today? By examining the impact human industrial civilization has had on Earth, a pair of researchers conducted a study that considers how such a civilization could be found and how this could have implications in the search for extra-terrestrial life.

The study, which recently appeared online under the title “The Silurian Hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record“, was conducted by Gavin A. Schmidt and Adam Frank – a climatologist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (NASA GISS) and an astronomer from the University of Rochester, respectively.

Carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere if half of global-warming emissions are not absorbed. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC

As they indicate in their study, the search for life on other planets has often involved looking to Earth-analogues to see what kind conditions life could exist under. However, this pursuit also entails the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) that would be capable of communicating with us. Naturally, it is assumed that any such civilization would need to develop and industrial base first.

This, in turn, raises the question of how often an industrial civilization might develop – what Schmidt and Frank refer to as the “Silurian Hypothesis”. Naturally, this raises some complications since humanity is the only example of an industrialized species that we know of. In addition, humanity has only been an industrial civilization for the past few centuries – a mere fraction of its existence as a species and a tiny fraction of the time that complex life has existed on Earth.

For the sake of their study, the team first noted the importance of this question to the Drake Equation. To recap, this theory states that the number of civilizations (N) in our galaxy that we might be able to communicate is equal to the average rate of star formation (R*), the fraction of those stars that have planets (fp), the number of planets that can support life (ne), the number of planets that will develop life ( fl), the number of planets that will develop intelligent life (fi), the number civilizations that would develop transmission technologies (fc), and the length of time these civilizations will have to transmit signals into space (L).

This can be expressed mathematically as: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L

The Drake Equation, a mathematical formula for the probability of finding life or advanced civilizations in the universe. Credit: University of Rochester

As they indicate in their study, the parameters of this equation may change thanks to the addition of the Silurian Hypothesis, as well as recent exoplanets surveys:

“If over the course of a planet’s existence, multiple industrial civilizations can arise over the span of time that life exists at all, the value of fc may in fact be greater than one. This is a particularly cogent issue in light of recent developments in astrobiology in which the first three terms, which all involve purely astronomical observations, have now been fully determined. It is now apparent that most stars harbor families of planets. Indeed, many of those planets will be in the star’s habitable zones.”

In short, thanks to improvements in instrumentation and methodology, scientists have been able to determine the rate at which stars form in our galaxy. Furthermore, recent surveys for extra-solar planets have led some astronomers to estimate that our galaxy could contains as many as 100 billion potentially-habitable planets. If evidence could be found of another civilization in Earth’s history, it would further constrain the Drake Equation.

They then address the likely geologic consequences of human industrial civilization and then compare that fingerprint to potentially similar events in the geologic record. These include the release of isotope anomalies of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, which are a result of greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen fertilizers. As they indicate in their study:

“Since the mid-18th Century, humans have released over 0.5 trillion tons of fossil carbon via the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, at a rate orders of magnitude faster than natural long-term sources or sinks. In addition, there has been widespread deforestation and addition of carbon dioxide into the air via biomass burning.”
Based on fossil records, 250 million years ago over 90% of all species on Earth died out, effectively resetting evolution. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

They also consider increased rates of sediment flow in rivers and its deposition in coastal environments, as a result of agricultural processes, deforestation, and the digging of canals. The spread of domesticated animals, rodents and other small animals are also considered – as are the extinction of certain species of animals – as a direct result of industrialization and the growth of cities.

The presence of synthetic materials, plastics, and radioactive elements (caused by nuclear power or nuclear testing) will also leave a mark on the geological record – in the case of radioactive isotopes, sometimes for millions of years. Finally, they compare past extinction level events to determine how they would compare to a hypothetical event where human civilization collapsed. As they state:

“The clearest class of event with such similarities are the hyperthermals, most notably the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (56 Ma), but this also includes smaller hyperthermal events, ocean anoxic events in the Cretaceous and Jurassic, and significant (if less well characterized) events of the Paleozoic.”

These events were specifically considered because they coincided with rises in temperatures, increases in carbon and oxygen isotopes, increased sediment, and depletions of oceanic oxygen. Events that had a very clear and distinct cause, such as the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (caused by an asteroid impact and massive volcanism) or the Eocene-Oligocene boundary (the onset of Antarctic glaciation) were not considered.

Artistic rendition of the Chicxulub impactor striking ancient Earth, with Pterosaur observing. Credit: NASA

According to the team, the events they did consider (known as “hyperthermals”) show similarities to the Anthropocene fingerprint that they identified. In particular, according to research cited by the authors, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) shows signs that could be consistent with anthorpogenic climate change. These include:

 “[A] fascinating sequence of events lasting 100–200 kyr and involving a rapid input (in perhaps less than 5 kyr) of exogenous carbon into the system, possibly related to the intrusion of the North American Igneous Province into organic sediments. Temperatures rose 5–7?C (derived from multiple proxies), and there was a negative spike in carbon isotopes (>3%), and decreased ocean carbonate preservation in the upper ocean.”

Finally, the team addressed some possible research directions that might improve the constraints on this question. This, they claim, could consist of a “deeper exploration of elemental and compositional anomalies in extant sediments spanning previous events be performed”. In other words, the geological record for these extinction events should be examined more closely for anomalies that could be associated with industrial civilization.

If any anomalies are found, they further recommend that the fossil record could be examined for candidate species, which would raise questions about their ultimate fate. Of course, they also acknowledge that more evidence is necessary before the Silurian Hypothesis can be considered viable. For instance, many past events where abrupt Climate Change took place have been linked to changes in volcanic/tectonic activity.

Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill

Second, there is the fact that current changes in our climate are happening faster than in any other geological period. However, this is difficult to say for certain since there are limits when it comes to the chronology of the geological record. In the end, more research will be necessary to determine how long previous extinction events (those that were not due to impacts) took as well.

Beyond Earth, this study may also have implications for the study of past life on planets like Mars and Venus. Here too, the authors suggest how explorations of both could reveal the existence of past civilizations, and maybe even bolster the possibility of finding evidence of past civilizations on Earth.

“We note here that abundant evidence exists of surface water in ancient Martian climates (3.8 Ga), and speculation that early Venus (2 Ga to 0.7 Ga) was habitable (due to a dimmer sun and lower CO2 atmosphere) has been supported by recent modeling studies,” they state. “Conceivably, deep drilling operations could be carried out on either planet in future to assess their geological history. This would constrain consideration of what the fingerprint might be of life, and even organized civilization.”
Two key aspects of the Drake Equation, which addresses the probability of finding life elsewhere in the galaxy, are the sheer number of stars and planets out there and the amount of time life has had to evolve. Until now, it has been assumed that one planet would give rise to one intelligent species capable of advanced technology and communications.
But if this number should prove to be more, we may a find a galaxy filled with civilizations, both past and present. And who knows? The remains of a once advanced and great non-human civilization may very well be right beneath us!

Further Reading: arXiv