For centuries, human beings have speculated about the existence of planetary systems (much like our own) orbiting other stars. However, it has only been in the past few decades that scientists have been able to detect and study these distant worlds. To date, astronomers have used various methods to confirm the existence of 4,422 extrasolar planets in 3,280 star systems, with an additional 7,445 candidates awaiting confirmation.
Naturally, this raises some questions. If there is intelligent life out there that has similar capabilities to our own – and the same burning sense of curiosity – could it be watching us too? Equally important is the question of how many of be able to detect us. According to new research conducted by a team from Cornell and the American Museum of Natural History, there are 2,034 star systems within 326 light-years of Earth that would be watching us right now!
In the past decade, thousands of planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System. These planets have provided astronomers with the opportunity to study planetary systems that have defied our preconcieved notions. This includes particularly massive gas giants that are many times the size of Jupiter (aka. “super-Jupiters”). And then there are those that orbit particularly close to their suns, otherwise known as “hot-Jupiters”.
Conventional wisdom indicates that gas giants should exist far from their suns and have long orbital periods that can last for a decade or longer. However, in a recent study, an international team of astronomers announced the detection of a “hot-Jupiter” with the shortest orbital period to date. Located 1,060 light-years away from Earth, this planet (NGTS-10b) takes just 18 hours to complete a full orbit of its sun.
There’s no two-ways about it, the Universe is an extremely big place! And thanks to the limitations placed upon us by Special Relativity, traveling to even the closest star systems could take millennia. As we addressed in a previous article, the estimated travel time to the nearest star system (Alpha Centauri) could take anywhere from 19,000 to 81,000 years using conventional methods.
For this reason, many theorists have recommended that humanity should rely on generation ships to spread the seed of humanity among the stars. Naturally, such a project presents many challenges, not the least of which is how large a spacecraft would need to be to sustain a multi-generational crew. In a new study, a team of international scientists addressed this very question and determined that a lot of interior space would be needed!
Three times in October, 2017 researchers turned a powerful radar telescope near Tromsø, Norway towards an invisibly faint star in the constellation Canis Minor (the small dog) and beamed a coded message into space in an attempt to signal an alien civilization. This new attempt to find other intelligent life in the universe was reported in a presentation at the ‘Language in the Cosmos’ symposium held on May 26 in Los Angeles, California.
METI International sponsored the symposium. This organization was founded to promote messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) as a new approach to in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It also supports other aspects of SETI research and astrobiology. The symposium was held as part of the International Space Development Conference sponsored by the National Space Society. It brought together linguists and other scientists for a daylong program of 11 presentations. Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, who is a linguist from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, was the organizer.
This is the second of a two part series about METI International’s symposium. It will focus on a presentation given at the symposium by the president of METI International, Dr. Douglas Vakoch. He spoke about a project that hasn’t previously gotten much attention: the first attempt to send a message to a nearby potentially habitable exoplanet, GJ273b. Vakoch led the team that constructed the tutorial portion of the message.
Message to the stars
The modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence began in 1960. This is when astronomer Frank Drake used a radio telescope in West Virginia to listen for signals from two nearby stars. Astronomers have sporadically mounted increasingly sophisticated searches, when funding has been available. The largest current project is Breakthrough Listen, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner. Searches have been made for laser as well as radio signals. Researchers have also looked for the megastructures that advanced aliens might create in space near their stars. METI International advocates an entirely new approach in which messages are transmitted to nearby stars in hopes of eliciting a reply.
The project to send a message to GJ273b was a collaboration between artists and scientists. It was initiated by the organizers of the Sónar Music, Creativity, and Technology Festival. The Sónar festival has been held every year since 1994 in Barcelona, Spain. The organizers wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the festival. To implement the project, the festival organizers sought the help of the Catalonia Institute of Space Studies (IEEC), and METI International.
To transmit the message, the team turned to The European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) which operates a network of radio and radar telescopes in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. This network is primarily used to study interactions between the sun and Earth’s ionosphere and magnetic field from a vantage point north of the arctic circle. The message was transmitted from a 32 meter diameter steerable dish at EISCAT’s Ramfjordmoen facility near Tromso, Norway, with a peak power of 2 megawatts. It is the first interstellar message ever to be sent towards a known potentially habitable exoplanet.
The target system
The obscure star known by the catalogue designation GJ273 caught the attention of the Dutch-American astronomer Willem J. Luyten in 1935. Luyten was researching the motions of the star. The star caught his attention because it was moving through Earth’s sky at the surprising rate of 3.7 arc seconds per year. Later study showed that this fast apparent motion is due to the fact that GJ273 is one of the sun’s nearest neighbors, just 12.4 light years away. It is the 24th closest star to the sun. Because of Luyten’s discovery it is sometimes known as Luyten’s star.
Luyten’s star is a faint red dwarf star with only a quarter of the sun’s mass. It caught astronomers’ attention again in March 2017. That’s when an exoplanet, GJ273b, was discovered in it’s habitable zone. The habitable zone is the range of distances where a planet with an atmosphere similar to Earth’s would, theoretically, have a range of temperatures suitable to have liquid water on its surface. The planet is a super Earth, with a mass 2.89 times that of our homeworld. It orbits just 800,000 miles from its faint sun, which it circles every 18 Earth days.
This exoplanet was chosen because of its proximity to Earth, and because it is visible in the sky from the transmitter’s northerly location. Because GJ273b is relatively nearby, and radio messages travel at the speed of light, a reply from the aliens could come as early as the middle of this century.
The message carried aboard each Voyager spacecraft was encoded digitally on a phonographic record. It was largely pictorial, and attempted to give a comprehensive overview of humans and Earth. It also included a selection of music from various Earthly cultures. These spacecraft will take tens of thousands of years to reach the stars. So, no reply can be expected on a timescale relevant to our society.
In some ways the GJ273b message is very different from the Voyager message. Unlike the Voyager record, it isn’t pictorial and doesn’t attempt to give a comprehensive overview of humans and Earth. This is perhaps because, unlike the Voyager message, it is intended to initiate a dialog on a timescale of decades. It resembles the Voyager message in that it contains music from Earth, namely, music from the artists that performed at the Sónar music festival.
The message consists of a string of binary digits—ones and zeros. These are represented in the signal by a shift between two slightly different radio frequencies. The ‘hello’ section is designed to catch the attention of alien listeners. It consists of a string of prime numbers (numbers divisible only by themselves and one). They are represented with binary digits like this:
The message continues the sequence up to 193. A signal like this almost certainly can’t be produced by natural processes, and can only be the designed handiwork of beings who know math.
After the ‘hello’ section comes the tutorial. This, and all the rest of the message, uses eight bit blocks of binary digits as the basis for its symbols. The tutorial begins by introducing number symbols by counting. It uses base two numbers like this:
The tutorial then proceeds to geometry using combinations of numbers and symbols to illustrate the Pythagorean theorem. It eventually progresses to sine waves, thereby describing the radio wave carrying the signal itself. Finally the tutorial describes the physics of sound waves and the relationships between musical notes.
Besides the numbers, the tutorial introduces 55 8-bit symbols in all. It provides the instructions that aliens would need to properly reproduce a series of digitally encoded musical selections from the Sónar Festival.
During its journey of 70 trillion miles, the message is sure to become corrupted with noise. To compensate, the tutorial was transmitted three times during each transmission, requiring a total of 33 minutes to transmit. The entire transmission was repeated on three separate days, October 16, 17, and 18, 2017. A second block of three transmissions was made on May 14, 15, and 16, 2018.
Each transmission included a different selection of music, with the works of 38 different musicians included in all. You can hear recordings of all this music at the Sónar Calling GJ273b website.
The rationale behind the message
Current and past SETI projects conducted by astronomers here on Earth assume that advanced aliens would make things easy for newly emerging civilizations by establishing powerful beacons that would broadcast in all directions at all times. Thus, SETI searchers generally use the same sort of highly directional dish antennae often used for other research in radio astronomy. They listen to any one star for only a few minutes, searching each one in turn for the beacon.
Unlike the always-on beacons imagined as the objects of Earth’ SETI searches, the Sónar message was only transmitted for 33 minutes on each of three days, and on only two occasions. Vakoch admits that “our message would likely be undetected by a civilization on GJ273b using the same strategy” favored by beacon searching SETI researchers on Earth.
However, some researchers have called traditional SETI assumptions and strategy into question, and studies of alternative search technologies have already been conducted. Vakoch notes that “we humans already have the technological capacity, and need only the funding, to conduct an all-sky survey that would detect intermittent transmission like ours”.
A larger problem is that the message was directed at just one planet. Although GJ273b orbits within its star’s habitable zone, we really know little what that means for whether the planet is actually habitable, or whether it has life or intelligence. Earth itself has been habitable for billions of years. But it has only had a civilization capable of radio transmissions for a century.
Vakoch conceded that “The only way we will get a reply back from GJ273b is if the galaxy is chock full of intelligent life, and it is out there just waiting for us to take the initiative. More realistically, we may need to replicate this process with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of stars before we reach one with an advanced civilization that can detect our signal”. METI International aims to conduct a design study for such a large scale METI project in hopes that funding will materialize from governmental or other sources.
Ultraviolet light is what you might call a controversial type of radiation. On the one hand, overexposure can lead to sunburn, an increased risk of skin cancer, and damage to a person’s eyesight and immune system. On the other hand, it also has some tremendous health benefits, which includes promoting stress relief and stimulating the body’s natural production of vitamin D, seratonin, and melanin.
And according to a new study from a team from Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), ultraviolet radiation may even have played a critical role in the emergence of life here on Earth. As such, determining how much UV radiation is produced by other types of stars could be one of the keys to finding evidence of life any planets that orbit them.
Recent studies have indicated that UV radiation may be necessary for the formation of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is necessary for all forms of life as we know it. And given the rate at which rocky planets have been discovered around red dwarf stars of late (exampled include Proxima b, LHS 1140b, and the seven planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system), how much UV radiation red dwarfs give off could be central to determining exoplanet habitability.
“It would be like having a pile of wood and kindling and wanting to light a fire, but not having a match. Our research shows that the right amount of UV light might be one of the matches that gets life as we know it to ignite.”
For the sake of their study, the team created radiative transfer models of red dwarf stars. They then sought to determine if the UV environment on prebiotic Earth-analog planets which orbited them would be sufficient to stimulate the photoprocesses that would lead to the formation of RNA. From this, they calculated that planets orbiting M-dwarf stars would have access to 100–1000 times less bioactive UV radiation than a young Earth.
As a result, the chemistry that depends on UV light to turn chemical elements and prebiotic conditions into biological organisms would likely shut down. Alternately, the team estimated that even if this chemistry was able to proceed under a diminished level of UV radiation, it would operate at a much slower rate than it did on Earth billions of years ago.
As Robin Wordsworth – an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science and a co-author on the study – explained, this is not necessarily bad news as far as questions of habitability go. “It may be a matter of finding the sweet spot,” he said. “There needs to be enough ultraviolet light to trigger the formation of life, but not so much that it erodes and removes the planet’s atmosphere.”
Previous studies have shown that even calm red dwarfs experience dramatic flares that periodically bombard their planets with bursts UV energy. While this was considered to be something hazardous, which could strip orbiting planets of their atmospheres and irradiate life, it is possible that such flares could compensate for the lower levels of UV being steadily produced by the star.
This news also comes on the heels of a study that indicated how the outer planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system (including the three located within its habitable zone) might still have plenty of water of their surfaces. Here too, the key was UV radiation, where the team responsible for the study monitored the TRAPPIST-1 planets for signs of hydrogen loss from their atmospheres (a sign of photodissociation).
Compared to higher-mass stars that have shorter life spans, red dwarf stars are likely to remain in their main sequence for as long as six to twelve trillion years. Hence, red dwarf stars would certainly be around long enough to accommodate even a vastly decelerated rate of organic evolution. In this respect, this latest study might even be considered a possible resolution for the Fermi Paradox – Where are all the aliens? They’re still evolving!
But as Dimitar Sasselov – the Phillips Professor of Astronomy at Harvard, the Director of the Origins of Life Initiative and a co-author on the paper – indicated, there are still many unanswered questions:
“We still have a lot of work to do in the laboratory and elsewhere to determine how factors, including UV, play into the question of life. Also, we need to determine whether life can form at much lower UV levels than we experience here on Earth.”
As always, scientists are forced to work with a limited frame of reference when it comes to assessing the habitability of other planets. To our knowledge, life exists on only on planet (i.e. Earth), which naturally influences our understanding of where and under what conditions life can thrive. And despite ongoing research, the question of how life emerged on Earth is still something of a mystery.
If life should be found on a planet orbiting a red dwarf, or in extreme environments we thought were uninhabitable, it would suggest that life can emerge and evolve in conditions that are very different from those of Earth. In the coming years, next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope are the Giant Magellan Telescope are expected to reveal more about distant stars and their systems of planets.
The payoff of this research is likely to include new insights into where life can emerge and the conditions under which it can thrive.
Ever since it was deployed in March of 2009, the Kepler mission has detected thousands of extra-solar planet candidates. In fact, between 2009 and 2012, it detected a total of 4,496 candidates, and confirmed the existence of 2,337 exoplanets. Even after two of its reaction wheels failed, the spacecraft still managed to turn up distant planets as part of its K2 mission, accounting for another 521 candidates and confirming 157.
However, according to a new study conducted by a pair of researches from Columbia University and a citizen scientist, Kepler may also have also found evidence of an extra-solar moon. After sifting through data from hundreds of transits detected by the Kepler mission, the researchers found one instance where a transiting planet showed signs of having a satellite.
For years, Dr. Kipping has been searching the Kepler database for evidence of exomoons, as part of the HEK. This is not surprising, considering the kinds of opportunities that exomoons present for scientific research. Within our Solar System, the study of natural satellites has revealed important things about the mechanisms that drive early and late planet formation, and moons possess interesting geological features that are commonly found on other bodies.
It is for this reason that extending that research to the hunt for exoplanets is seen as necessary. Already, exoplanet-hunting missions like Kepler have turned up a wealth of planets that challenge conventional ideas about how planet formation and what kinds of planets are possible. The most noteworthy example are gas giants that have observed orbiting very close to their stars (aka. “Hot Jupiters”).
As such, the study of exomoons could yield valuable information about what kinds of satellites are possible, and whether or not our own moons are typical. As Teachey told Universe Today via email:
“Exomoons could tell us a lot about the formation of our Solar System, and other star systems. We see moons in our Solar System, but are they common elsewhere? We tend to think so, but we can’t know for sure until we actually see them. But it’s an important question because, if we find out there aren’t very many moons out there, it suggests maybe something unusual was going on in our Solar System in the early days, and that could have major implications for how life arose on the Earth. In other words, is the history of our Solar System common across the galaxy, or do we have a very unusual origin story? And what does that say about the chances of life arising here? Exomoons stand to offer us clues to answering these questions.”
What’s more, many moons in the Solar System – including Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus and Titan – are thought to be potentially habitable. This is due to the fact that these bodies have steady supplies of volatiles (such as nitrogen, water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen, methane and sulfur dioxide) and possess internal heating mechanisms that could provide the necessary energy to power biological processes.
Here too, the study of exomoons presents interesting possibilities, such as whether or not they may be habitable or even Earth-like. For these and other reasons, astronomers want to see if the planets that have been confirmed in distant star systems have systems of moons and what conditions are like on them. But as Teachey indicated, the search for exomoons presents a number of challenges compared to exoplanet-hunting:
“Moons are difficult to find because 1) we expect them to be quite small most of the time, meaning the transit signal will be quite weak to begin with, and 2) every time a planet transits, the moon will show up in a different place. This makes them more difficult to detect in the data, and modeling the transit events is significantly more computationally expensive. But our work leverages the moons showing up in different places by taking the time-averaged signal across many different transit events, and even across many different exoplanetary systems. If the moons are there, they will in effect carve out a signal on either side of the planetary transit over time. Then it’s a matter of modeling this signal and understanding what it means in terms of moon size and occurrence rate.”
To locate signs of exomoons, Teachey and his colleagues searched through the Kepler database and analyzed the transits of 284 exoplanet candidates in front of their respective stars. These planets ranged in size from being Earth-like to Jupiter-like in diameter, and orbited their stars at a distance of between ~0.1 to 1.0 AU. They then modeled the light curve of the stars using the techniques of phase-folding and stacking.
These techniques are commonly used by astronomers who monitor stars for dips in luminosity that are caused by the transits of planets (i.e. the transit method). As Teachey explained, the process is quite similar:
“Basically we cut up the time-series data into equal pieces, each piece having one transit of the planet in the middle. And when we stack these pieces together we’re able to get a clearer picture of what the transit looks like… For the moon search we do essentially the same thing, only now we’re looking at the data outside the main planetary transit. Once we stack the data, we take the average values of all the data points within a certain time window and, if a moon is present, we ought to see some missing starlight there, which allows us to deduce its presence.”
What they found was a single candidate located in the Kepler-1625 system, a yellow star located about 4000 light years from Earth. Designated Kepler-1625B I, this moon orbits the large gas giant that is located within the star’s habitable zone, is 5.9 to 11.67 times the size of Earth, and orbits its star with a period of 287.4 days. This exomoon candidate, if it should be confirmed, will be the first exomoon ever discovered
The team’s results (which await peer review) also demonstrated that large moons to be a rare occurrence in the inner regions of star systems (within 1 AU). This was something of a surprise, though Teachey acknowledges that it is consistent with recent theoretical work. According to what some recent studies suggest, large planets like Jupiter could lose their moons as they migrate inward.
If this should prove to be the case, then what Teachey and his colleagues witnessed could be seen as evidence of that process. It could also be an indication our current exoplanet-hunting missions may not be up to the task of detecting exomoons. In the coming years, next-generations missions are expected to provide more detailed analyses of distant stars and their planetary systems.
However, as Teachey indicated, these too could be limited in terms of what they can detect, and new strategies may ultimately be needed:
“The rarity of moons in the inner regions of these star systems suggests that individual moons will remain difficult to find in the Kepler data, and upcoming missions like TESS, which should find lots of very short period planets, will also have a difficult time finding these moons. It’s likely the moons, which we still expect to be out there somewhere, reside in the outer regions of these star systems, much as they do in our Solar System. But these regions are much more difficult to probe, so we will have to get even more clever about how we look for these worlds with present and near-future datasets.”
In the meantime, we can certainly be exited about the fact that the first exomoon appears to have been discovered. While these results await peer review, confirmation of this moon will mean additional research opportunities for Kepler-1625 system. The fact that this moon orbits within the star’s habitable zone is also an interesting feature, though its not likely the moon itself is habitable.
Still, the possibility of a habitable moon orbiting a gas giant is certainly interesting. Does that sound like something that might have come up in some science fiction movies?
The Kepler space observatory has made some interesting finds since it began its mission back in March of 2009. Even after the mission suffered the loss of two reaction wheels, it has continued to make discoveries as part of its K2 mission. All told, the Kepler and K2 missions have detected a total of 5,106 planetary candidates, and confirmed the existence of 2,493 planets.
One of the latest finds made using Kepler is EPIC 228813918 b, a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet that orbits a red dwarf star some 264 to 355 light years from Earth. This discovery raises some interesting questions, as it is the second time that a planet with an ultra-short orbital period – it completes a single orbit in just 4 hours and 20 minutes – has been found orbiting a red dwarf star.
As the team indicated in their study, the detection of this exoplanet was made thanks to data collected by numerous instruments. This included spectrographic data from the 8.2-m Subaru telescope and the 10-m Keck I telescope (both of which are located on Mauna Kea, Hawaii) and the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain.
This was combined with speckle imaging from the 3.5-m WIYN telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, photometry from the NASA’s K2 mission, and archival information of the star that goes back over 60 years. After eliminating any other possible explanations – such as an eclipsing binary (EB) – they not only confirmed the orbital period of the planet, but also provided constrains on its mass and size. As they wrote:
“Using a combination of archival images, AO imaging, RV measurements, and light curve modelling, we show that no plausible eclipsing binary scenario can explain the K2 light curve, and thus confirm the planetary nature of the system. The planet, whose radius we determine to be 0.89 ± 0.09 [Earth radii], and which must have a iron mass fraction greater than 0.45, orbits a star of mass 0.463 ± 0.052 M and radius 0.442 ± 0.044 R.”
This orbital period – four hours and 20 minutes – is the second shortest of any exoplanet discovered to date, being just 4 minutes longer than that of KOI 1843.03, which also orbits an M-type (red dwarf) star. It is also the latest in a long line of recently-discovered exoplanets that complete a single orbit of their stars in less than a day. Planets belonging to this group are known as ultra-short-period (USP) planets, of which Kepler has found a total of 106.
However, what is perhaps most surprising about this find is just how massive it is. Though they didn’t measure the planet’s mass directly, their constraints indicate that the exoplanet has an upper mass limit of 0.7 Jupiter masses – which works out to over 222 Earth masses. And yet, the planet manages to pack this gas giant-like mass into a radius that is 0.80 to 0.98 times that of Earth.
The reason for this, they indicate, has to do with the planet’s apparent composition, which is particularly metal-rich:
“This leads to a constraint on the composition, assuming an iron core and a silicate mantle. We determine the minimum iron mass fraction to be 0.525 ± 0.075 (cf. 0.7 for KOI 1843.03), which is greater than that of Earth, Venus or Mars, but smaller than that of Mercury (approximately 0.38, 0.35, 0.26, and 0.68, respectively; Reynolds & Summers 1969).”
Ultimately, the discovery of this planet is significant for a number of reasons. On the one hand, the team indicated that the constraints their study placed on the planet’s composition could prove useful in helping to understand how our own Solar planets came to be.
“Discovering and characterizing extreme systems, such as USP planets like EPIC 228813918 b, is important as they offer constraints for planet formation theories,” they conclude. “Furthermore, they allow us to begin to constrain their interior structure – and potentially that of longer-period planets too, if they are shown to be a single population of objects.”
On the other hand, the study raises some interesting questions about USP planets – for instance, why the two shortest-period planets were both found orbiting red dwarf stars. A possible explanations, they claim, is that short-period planets could have longer lifetimes around M-dwarfs since their orbital decay would likely be much slower. However, they are quick to caution against making any tentative conclusions before more research is conducted.
In the future, the team hopes to conduct measurements of the planet’s mass using the radial velocity method. This would likely involve a next-generation high-resolution spectrograph, like the Infrared Doppler (IFD) instrument or the CARMENES instrument – which are currently being built for the Subaru Telescope and the Calar Alto Observatory (respectively) to assist in the hunt for exoplanets around red dwarf stars.
One thing is clear though. This latest find is just another indication that red dwarf stars are where exoplanet-hunters will need to be focusing their efforts in the coming years and decades. These low mass, ultra-cool and low-luminosity stars are where some of the most interesting and extreme finds are being made. And what we stand to learn by studying them promises to be most profound!
It is good time to be an exoplanet hunter… or just an exoplanet enthusiast for that matter! Every few weeks, it seems, new discoveries are being announced which present more exciting opportunities for scientific research. But even more exciting is the fact that every new find increases the likelihood of locating a potentially habitable planet (and hence, life) outside of our Solar System.
And with the discovery of LHS 1140b – a super-Earth located approximately 39 light years from Earth – exoplanet hunters think they have found the most likely candidate for habitability to date. Not only does this terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet orbit within its sun’s habitable zone, but examinations of the planet (using the transit method) have revealed that it appears to have a viable atmosphere.
Credit for the discovery goes to a team of international scientists who used the MEarth-South telescope array – a robotic observatory located on Cerro Tololo in Chile – to spot the planet. This project monitors the brightness of thousands of red dwarf stars with the goal of detecting transiting planets. After consulting data obtained by the array, the team noted characteristic dips in the star’s brightness that indicated that a planet was passing in front of it.
These findings were then followed up using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory, located on the outskirts of Chile’s Atacama Desert. According to the their study – which appeared in the April 20th, 2017, issue of the journal Nature – the team was able to make estimates of the planet’s age, size, mass, distance from its star, and orbital period.
They estimate that the planet is at least five billion years old – about 500 million years older than Earth. It is also slightly larger than Earth – 1.4 times Earth’s diameter – and is considerably more massive, weighing in at a hefty 6.6 Earth masses. Since they were able to view the planet almost edge-on, the team was also able to determine that it orbits its sun at a distance of about 0.1 AU (one-tenth the distance between Earth and the Sun) with a period of 25 days.
However, since its star is a red dwarf, this proximity places it in the middle of the system’s habitable zone. But what was most exciting was the fact that the team was able to look for evidence of an atmosphere since the planet was passing in front of its star – something that has not been possible with many exoplanets. Because of this, they were able to conduct transmission spectroscopy measurements that revealed the presence of an atmosphere.
As Jason Dittmann – of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the lead author of the study – said in a CfA press release:
“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade. We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science — searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.”
Granted, this exoplanet is not as close as Proxima b, which orbits Proxima Centauri – just 4.243 light years away. And it certainly isn’t as robust a find as the TRAPPIST-1 system, with its seven rocky planets, three of which are located within its habitable zone. But compared to these candidates, the researchers were able to place solid constraints on the planet’s mass and density, not to mention the fact that they were able to observe an atmosphere.
The discovery of an exoplanet that orbits a red dwarf star and has an atmosphere is also encouraging in a wider context. Low-mass red dwarf stars are the most common star in the galaxy, accounting for 75% of stars in our cosmic neighborhood alone. They are also long-lived (up to 10 trillion years), and recent research indicates that they are capable of hosting large numbers of planets.
But given their variability and unstable nature, astronomers have expressed doubts as to whether or not planet orbiting them could retain their atmospheres for very long. Knowing that a terrestrial planet that orbits a red dwarf, is five billion years old, and still has an atmosphere is therefore a very good sign. But of course, simply knowing there is an atmosphere doesn’t mean that it is conducive to life as we know it.
“Right now we’re just making educated guesses about the content of this planet’s atmosphere,” said Dittman. “Future observations might enable us to detect the atmosphere of a potentially habitable planet for the first time. We plan to search for water, and ultimately molecular oxygen.”
Hence, additional studies will be needed before this planet can claim the title of “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. To that end, future space-based missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (which will launch in 2018), and ground-based instruments like the Giant Magellan Telescope and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, will be especially well-suited!
In the meantime, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope will be conducting observations of the star system in the near future. These observations, it is hoped, will indicate exactly how much high-energy radiation LHS 1140b receives from its sun. This too will go a long way towards determining just how habitable the Super-Earth is.
And be sure to enjoy this video of the LHS 1140 star system, courtesy of the European Southern Observatory and spaceengine.org:
In 2015, astronomers discovered an intriguing extrasolar planet located in a star system some 39 light years from Earth. Despite orbiting very close to its parent star, this “Venus-like” planet – known as GJ 1138b – appeared to still be cool enough to have an atmosphere. In short order, a debate ensued as to what kind of atmosphere it might have, whether it was a “dry Venus” or a “wet Venus”.
And now, thanks to the efforts of an international team of researchers, the existence of an atmosphere has been confirmed around GJ 1138b. In addition to settling the debate about the nature of this planet, it also marks the first time that an atmosphere has been detected around a low-mass Super-Earth. On top of that, GJ 1138b is now the farthest Earth-like planet that is known to have an atmosphere.
Using the GROND imager on the La Silla Observatory’s 2.2m ESO/MPG telescope, the team monitored GJ 1132b in different wavelengths as it transited in front of its parent star. Given the planet’s orbital period (1.6 days), these transits happen quite often, which presented plenty of opportunities to view it pass in front of its star. In so doing, they monitored the star for slight decreases in its brightness.
As Dr. Southworth explained to Universe via email, these observations confirmed the existence of an atmosphere:
“What we did was to measure the amount of dimming at 7 different wavelengths in optical and near-infrared light. At one of these wavelengths (IR) the planet seemed to be slightly bigger. This indicated that the planet has a large atmosphere around it which allows most of the starlight to pass through, but is opaque at one wavelength.”
The team members from the University of Cambridge and the MPIA then conducted simulations to see what this atmosphere’s composition could be. Ultimately, they concluded that it most likely has a thick atmosphere that is rich in water and/or methane – which contradicted recent theories that the planet had a thin and tenuous atmosphere (i.e. a “dry Venus”).
It was also the first time that an atmosphere has been confirmed around a planet that is not significantly greater in size and mass to Earth. In the past, astronomers have detected atmospheres around many other exoplanets. But in these cases, the planets were either gas giants or planets that were many times Earth’s size and mass (aka. “Super-Earths”). GJ 1132b, however, is 1.6 times as massive as Earth, and measures 1.4 Earth radii.
In addition, these findings are a significant step in the search for life beyond our Solar System. At present, astronomers seek to determine the chemical composition of a planet’s atmosphere to determine if it could be habitable. Where the right combination of chemical imbalances exist, the presence of living organisms is seen as a possible cause.
By being able to determine that a planet at lower end of the super-Earth scale has an atmosphere, we are one step closer to being able to determine exoplanet habitability. The detection of an atmosphere-bearing planet around an M-type (red dwarf) star is also good news in and of itself. Low-mass red dwarf stars are the most common star in the galaxy, and recent findings have indicated that they might be our best shot for finding habitable worlds.
Besides detecting several terrestrial planets around red dwarf stars in recent years – including seven around a single star (TRAPPIST-1) – there is also research that suggests that these stars are capable of hosting large numbers of planets. At the same time, there have been concerns about whether red dwarfs are too variable and unstable to support habitable worlds.
As Southworth explained, spotting an atmosphere around a planet that closely orbits a red dwarf could help bolster the case for red dwarf habitability:
“One of the big issues has been that very-low-mass stars typically have strong magnetic fields and thus throw out a lot of X-ray and ultraviolet light. These high-energy photons tend to destroy molecules in atmospheres, and might also evaporate them completely. The fact that we have detected an atmosphere around GJ 1132b means that this kind of planet is indeed capable of retaining an atmosphere for billions of years, even whilst being bombarded by the high-energy photons from their host stars.
In the future, GJ 1132b is expected to be a high-priority target for study with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, and next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled for launch in 2018). Already, observations are being made, and the results are being eagerly anticipated.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to hear what astronomers discover as they set their sights on this nearby star system and it’s Venus-like world! In the meantime, be sure to check out this video about GJ 1132b, courtesy of MIT news:
Proxima b is the subject of a lot interest these days. And why not? As the closest extrasolar planet to our Solar System, it is the best shot we have at studying exoplanets up close in the near future. However, a recent study from the University of Marseilles indicated that, contrary to what many hoped, the planet may be a “water world” – i.e. a planet where up to half of its mass consists of water.
And now, researchers from the University of Bern have taken this analysis a step further. Based on their study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics (A&A), they have determined that the majority planets that form within the habitable zones of a red dwarf star may be water worlds. These findings could have drastic implications for the search for habitable exoplanets around red dwarf stars.
The research was conducted by Dr. Yann Alibert from the National Centers for Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS center and Prof. Willy Benz from the Center of Space and Habitability (CSH). Both of these institutions, which are located at the University of Bern, are dedicated to understanding planetary formation and evolution, as well as fostering a dialogue with the public about exoplanet research.
For the sake of their study, titled “Formation and Composition of Planets Around Very Low Mass Stars“, Alibert and Benz carried out the first computer simulation designed to examine the formation of planets around stars that are ten times less massive than our Sun. This involved creating a model that included hundreds of thousands of identical low-mass stars, which were then given orbiting protoplanetary disks of dust and gas.
They then simulated what would happen if planets began to form from the accretion of these disks. For each, they assumed the existence of ten “planetary embryos” (equal to the mass of the Moon) which would grow and migrate over time, giving rise to a system of planets.
Ultimately, what they found was that the planets orbiting within the habitable zone of their parent star would likely to be comparable in size to Earth – ranging from 0.5 to 1.5 times the radius of Earth, with 1 Earth radii being the average. As Dr. Yann Alibert explained to Universe Today via email:
“In the simulations we have considered here, it appears that the majority of the mass (more than 99%) is in the solids. [W]e therefore start with a protoplanetary disk that is made of solids and gas and 10 planetary embryos. The solids in the disk are planetesimals (similar to present day asteriods, around 1 km in size), that can be dry (if they are located in the hot regions of the protoplanetary disk) or wet (around 50% per mass of water ice, if they are in the cold regions of the disk). The planetary embryos are small bodies, whose mass is similar to the moon mass. We then compute how much of the disk solids are capture by the planetary embryos.”
In addition, the simulations produced some interesting estimates on how much of the planets would consist of water. In 90% of cases, water would account for more than 10% of the planets’ mass. Compare that to Earth, where water covers over 70% of our surface, but makes up only about 0.02% of our planet’s total mass. This would mean that the exoplanets would have very deep oceans and a layer of ice at the bottom, owing to the extreme pressure.
Last, but not least, Alibert and Benze found that if the protoplanetary disks that these planets formed from lived longer than the models suggested, the situation would be even more extreme. All of this could be dire news for those hoping that we might find ET living next door, or that red dwarf stars are the best place to look for intelligent life.
“The fact that many planets are water rich could have potentially very strong (and negative) consequence on the habitability of such planets,” said Dr. Alibert. “In fact, we already showed in other articles (Alibert et al 2013, Kitzmann et al. 2015) that if there is too much water on a planet, this may lead to an unstable climate, and an atmosphere that could be very rich in CO2.”
However, Alibert indicates that these two studies were conducted based on planets that orbit stars similar to our Sun. Red dwarfs are different because they evolve much slower (i.e. the luminosity changes very slowly over time) and they are far more red than our Sun, meaning that the light coming from them has different wavelengths that will interact different with planetary atmospheres.
“So, to summarize, it could be that the presence of large amounts of water is not so bad as in the case of solar type stars, but it could also well be that it is even worse for reasons that we do not know,” said Alibert. “Whatever the effect, it is something that is important to study, and we have started working on this subject.”
But regardless of whether or not planets that orbit red dwarf stars are habitable, simulations like this one are still exciting. Aside from offering data on what neighboring planets might look like, they also help us to understand the wide range of possibilities that await us out there. And last, they give us more incentive to actually get out there and explore these worlds up close.
Only be sending missions to other stars can we confirm or deny if they are capable of supporting life. And if in the end, we should find that the most common star in the Universe is unlikely to produce life-giving planets, it only serves to remind us how rare and precious “Earth-like” planets truly are.