If Astronomers see Isoprene in the Atmosphere of an Alien World, There’s a Good Chance There’s Life There

It is no exaggeration to say that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded in recent decades. To date, 4,375 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,247 systems, with another 5,856 candidates awaiting confirmation. In recent years, exoplanet studies have started to transition from the process of discovery to one of characterization. This process is expected to accelerate once next-generation telescopes become operational.

As a result, astrobiologists are working to create comprehensive lists of potential “biosignatures,” which refers to chemical compounds and processes that are associated with life (oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, etc.) But according to new research by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), another potential biosignature we should be on the lookout for is a hydrocarbon called isoprene (C5H8).

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Gliese 486b is a Hellish World With Temperatures Above 700 Kelvin

In the past two and a half decades, astronomers have confirmed the existence of thousands of exoplanets. In recent years, thanks to improvements in instrumentation and methodology, the process has slowly been shifting from the process of discovery to that of characterization. In particular, astronomers are hoping to obtain spectra from exoplanet atmospheres that would indicate their chemical composition.

This is no easy task since direct imaging is very difficult, and the only other method is to conduct observations during transits. However, astronomers of the CARMENES consortium recently reported the discovery of a hot rocky super-Earth orbiting the nearby red dwarf star. While being extremely hot, this planet has retained part of its original atmosphere, which makes it uniquely suited for observations using next-generation telescopes.

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How Would Rain be Different on an Alien World?

On Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, it rains on a regular basis. As with Earth, these rains are the result of liquid evaporating on the surface, condensing in the skies, and falling back to the surface as precipitation. On Earth, this is known as the hydrological (or water) cycle, which is an indispensable part of our climate. In Titan’s case, the same steps are all there, but it is methane that is being exchanged and not water.

In recent years, scientists have found evidence of similar patterns involving exoplanets, with everything from molten metal to lava rain! This raises the question of just how exotic the rains may be on alien worlds. Recently, a team of researchers from Havard University conducted a study where they researched how rain would differ in a diverse array of extrasolar planetary environments.

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Super-Earth Conditions Simulated in the Lab to Discover if They’re Habitable

Deep inside planet Earth, there is a liquid outer core and a solid inner core that counter-rotate with each other. This creates the dynamo effect that is responsible for generating Earth’s planetary magnetic field. Also known as a magnetosphere, this field keeps our climate stable by preventing Earth’s atmosphere from being lost to space. So when studying rocky exoplanets, scientists naturally wonder if they too have magnetospheres.

Unfortunately, until we can measure an exoplanet’s magnetic fields, we are forced to infer their existence from the available evidence. This is precisely what researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories did with its Z Pulsed Power Facility (PPF). Along with their partners at the Carnegie Institution for Science, they were able to replicate the gravitational pressures of “Super-Earths” to see if they could generate magnetic fields.

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What Are Extrasolar Planets?

For countless generations, human beings have looked out at the night sky and wondered if they were alone in the Universe. With the discovery of other planets in our Solar System, the true extent of the Milky Way galaxy, and other galaxies beyond our own, this question has only deepened and become more profound.

And whereas astronomers and scientists have long suspected that other star systems in our galaxy and the Universe had orbiting planets of their own, it has only been within the last few decades that any have been observed. Over time, the methods for detecting these “extrasolar planets” have improved, and the list of those whose existence has been confirmed has grown accordingly (over 4000 and counting!)

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A Sunlike Star Found With Four (No, Five!) Exoplanets Orbiting It

In just nine months (October 31st, 2021), NASA’s long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally be launched to space. Once operational, this next-generation observatory will use its powerful infrared imaging capabilities to study all kinds of cosmological phenomena. It will also be essential to the characterization of extrasolar planets and their atmospheres to see if any are habitable.

In anticipation of this, astronomers have been designating exoplanets as viable candidates for follow-up studies. Using data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), an international team led by MIT researchers discovered four new exoplanets orbiting a Sun-like star about 200 light-years from Earth. This system could be an ideal place for James Webb to spot a habitable planet.

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Some Stars Could Support as Many as 7 Habitable Planets

Most exoplanets orbit red dwarf stars because they're the most plentiful stars. This is an artist's illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In recent decades, over 4,000 extrasolar planets have been confirmed beyond our Solar System. With so many planets available for study, astronomers have learned a great deal about the types of planets that exist out there and what kind of conditions are prevalent. For instance, they have been able to get a better idea of just how common habitable planets are (at least by our standards).

As it turns out, a surprisingly high number of planets out there could support life. That is the conclusion reached by a team of astronomers and planetary scientists who conducted a study of the possible sizes of habitable zones (HZ) based on stellar classification. After considering many planets could stably orbit within them, they came to the conclusion that stars with no Jupiter-sized gas giants can have as many as seven habitable planets!

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What are the Odds of Life Emerging on Another Planet?

In 1961, famed astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake formulated an equation for estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy at any given time. Known as the “Drake Equation“, this formula was a probabilistic argument meant to establish some context for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Of course, the equation was theoretical in nature and most of its variables are still not well-constrained.

For instance, while astronomers today can speak with confidence about the rate at which new stars form, and the likely number of stars that have exoplanets, they can’t begin to say how many of these planets are likely to support life. Luckily, Professor David Kipping of Columbia University recently performed a statistical analysis that indicates that a Universe teeming with life is “the favored bet.”

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Galaxies Like the Milky Way are the Best for Life

Scientists have speculated that given the sheer number of galaxies in our Universe – modern estimates are as high as 2 trillion – that there must be infinite opportunities for life to emerge. It has also been theorized that galaxies (like stars) have habitable zones, where star systems located too close to the core or too far out in the spiral arms will be exposed to too much radiation for life to emerge.

But are certain types of galaxies more likely to produce intelligent life? Not that long ago, scientists believed that giant elliptical galaxies – which are substantially larger than spiral galaxies (like the Milky Way) – are a far more likely place to find advanced civilizations. But according to new research from the University of Arkansas, these galaxies may not be the cradles of civilization they were previously thought to be.

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Fomalhaut’s Planet Has Gone Missing, But it Might Have Been Something Even More Interesting

Planets don’t simply disappear. And yet, that appears to be what happened to Fomalhaut b (aka. Dagon), an exoplanet candidate located 25 light-years from Earth. Observed for the first time by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004, then confirmed by follow-up observations in 2008 and 2012, this exoplanet candidate was the first to be detected in visible wavelengths (i.e. the Direct Imaging Method.)

Over time, this candidate got fainter and wider until it disappeared from sight altogether. This led to all kinds of speculation, which included the possibility of a collision that reduced the planet to debris. Recently, a team of astronomers from the University of Arizona has suggested another possibility – Fomalhaut b was never a planet at all, but an expanding cloud of dust from two planetesimals that smashed together.

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