At one time, astronomers believed that the planets formed in their current orbits, which remained stable over time. But more recent observations, theory, and calculations have shown that planetary systems are subject to shake-ups and change. Periodically, planets are kicked out of their star systems to become “rogue planets,” bodies that are no longer gravitationally bound to any star and are adrift in the interstellar medium (ISM). Some of these planets may be gas giants with tightly bound icy moons orbiting them, which they could bring with them into the ISM.
Like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, these satellites could have warm water interiors that might support life. Other research has indicated that rocky planets with plenty of water on their surfaces could also support life through a combination of geological activity and the decay of radionuclides. According to a recent paper by an international team of astronomers, there could be hundreds of rogue planets in our cosmic neighborhood. Based on their first-ever feasibility analysis, they also indicate that deep space missions could explore these unbound objects more easily than planets still bound to their stars.
The number of known extrasolar planets has exploded in the past few decades, with 5,338 confirmed planets in 4,001 systems (and another 9,443 awaiting confirmation). When it comes to “Earth-like” planets (aka. rocky), the most likely place to find them is in orbit around M-type red dwarf stars. These account for between 75 and 80% of all stars in the known Universe, are several times smaller than the Sun and are quite cool and dim by comparison. They are also prone to flare activity and have very tight Habitable Zones (HZs), meaning that planets must orbit very closely to get enough heat and radiation.
In addition, red dwarfs are highly-active when they are young, exposing planets in their HZs to lots of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. As such, whether planets orbiting these stars can maintain or reestablish their atmospheres over time is an open question. Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), researchers from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) observed an exoplanet known as GJ 486 b. As they stated in a recent study, the team detected traces of water vapor, though it is unclear if the signal was coming from the planet or its parent star.
The field of astronomy is about to be revolutionized, thanks to the introduction of Extremely Large Telescopes that rely on primary mirrors measuring 30 meters (or more) in diameter, adaptive optics (AO), coronographs, and advanced spectrometers. This will include the eponymously-named Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). These telescopes will enable astronomers to study exoplanets using the Direct Imaging (DI) method, which will yield valuable data on the composition of their atmospheres.
According to a new study by a team of researchers from Ohio State University (OSU), these telescopes will also allow astronomers to study “ultracool objects,” like very low-mass stars (VLMs), brown dwarfs, and exoplanets. In addition to being able to visualize magnetic starspots and determine the chemical compositions of these objects, ELTs will be able to reveal details about atmospheric dynamics and cloud systems. These types of studies could reveal a wealth of information about some of the least-studied objects in our Universe and significantly aid in the search for life beyond our Solar System.
When looking for signs of life beyond the Solar System, astrobiologists are confined to looking for life as we understand it. For the most part, that means looking for rocky planets that orbit within their star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ), the distance at which liquid water can exist on its surface. In the coming years, next-generation telescopes and instruments will allow astronomers to characterize exoplanet atmospheres like never before. When that happens, they will look for the chemical signatures we associate with life, like nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia.
However, astrobiologists have theorized that life could exist in the outer Solar System beneath the surfaces of icy moons like Europa, Callisto, Titan, and other “Ocean Worlds.” Because of this, there is no shortage of astrobiologists who think that the search for extraterrestrial life should include exomoons, including those that orbit free-floating planets (FFPs). In a recent study, researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) determined the necessary properties that allow moons orbiting FFPs to retain enough liquid water to support life.
The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), located in China, is currently the world’s largest and most sophisticated radio observatory. While its primary purpose is to conduct large-scale neutral hydrogen surveys (the most common element in the Universe), study pulsars, and detect Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), scientists have planned to use the array in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Integral to this field of study is the search for technosignatures, signs of technological activity that indicate the presence of an advanced civilization.
While many potential technosignatures have been proposed since the first surveys began in the 1960s, radio transmissions are still considered the most likely and remain the most studied. In a recent survey, an international team of SETI researchers conducted a targeted search of 33 exoplanet systems using a new method they call the “MBCM blind search mode.” While the team detected two “special signals” using this mode, they dismissed the idea that they were transmissions from an advanced species. Nevertheless, their survey demonstrated the effectiveness of this new blind mode and could lead to plausible candidate signals in the future.
It’s no secret that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded since the turn of the century. Whereas astronomers knew less than a dozen exoplanets twenty years ago, thousands of candidates are available for study today. In fact, as of January 13th, 2023, a total of 5,241 planets have been confirmed in 3,916 star systems, with another 9,169 candidates awaiting confirmation. While opportunities for exoplanet research have grown exponentially, so too has the arduous task of sorting through the massive amounts of data involved.
Hence why astronomers, universities, research institutes, and space agencies have come to rely on citizen scientists in recent years. With the help of online resources, data-sharing, and networking, skilled amateurs can lend their time, energy, and resources to the hunt for planets beyond our Solar System. In recognition of their importance, NASA has launched Exoplanet Watch, a citizen science project sponsored by NASA’s Universe of Learning. This project lets regular people learn about exoplanets and get involved in the discovery and characterization process.
The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), part of the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, is the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope. Between its 100-meter dish (328-foot), unblocked aperture, and excellent surface accuracy, the GBT provides unprecedented sensitivity in the millimeter to meter wavelengths – very high to extremely high frequency (VHF to EHF). Since 2017, it also became one of the main instruments used by Breakthrough Listen and other institutes engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Recently, an international team of researchers from the SETI Institute, Breakthrough Listen, and multiple universities scanned twelve exoplanets for signs of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”). Their observations were timed to coincide with the planets passing in front of their sun relative to the observer (i.e., making a transit). While the survey did not detect any definitive evidence of technosignatures, they did identify two radio signals of interest that warrant follow-up observation. This new technique could vastly expand the field of SETI and create all kinds of opportunities for future research.
As of December 19th, 2022, 5,227 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,908 systems, with over 9,000 more awaiting confirmation. While most of these planets are Jupiter- or Neptune-sized gas giants or rocky planets many times the size of Earth (Super-Earths), a statistically significant number have been planets where water makes up a significant part of their mass fraction – aka. “water worlds.” These planets are unlike anything we’ve seen in the Solar System and raise several questions about planet formation in our galaxy.
In a recent study, an international team led by researchers from the University of Montreal’s Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) found evidence of two water worlds in a single planetary system located about 218 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. Based on their densities, the team determined that these exoplanets (Kepler-138c and Kepler-138d) are lighter than rocky “Earth-like” ones but heavier than gas-dominated ones. The discovery was made using data from NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope and the venerable Hubble Space Telescope.
Today, the number of confirmed exoplanets stands at 5,197 in 3,888 planetary systems, with another 8,992 candidates awaiting confirmation. The majority have been particularly massive planets, ranging from Jupiter and Neptune-sized gas giants, which have radii about 2.5 times that of Earth. Another statistically significant population has been rocky planets that measure about 1.4 Earth radii (aka. “Super-Earths”). This presents a mystery to astronomers, especially where the exoplanets discovered by the venerable Kepler Space Telescope are concerned.
Of the more than 2,600 planets Kepler discovered, there’s an apparent rarity of exoplanets with a radius of about 1.8 times that of Earth – which they refer to as the “radius valley.” A second mystery, known as “peas in a pod,” refers to neighboring planets of similar size found in hundreds of planetary systems with harmonious orbits. In a study led by the Cycles of Life-Essential Volatile Elements in Rocky Planets (CLEVER) project at Rice University, an international team of astrophysicists provide a new model that accounts for the interplay of forces acting on newborn planets that could explain these two mysteries.
On July 12th, 2022, NASA released the first images acquired by the James Webb Space Telescope, which were taken during its first six months of operation. Among its many scientific objectives, Webb will search for smaller, rocky planets that orbit closer to their suns – especially dimmer M-type (red dwarf) stars, the most common in the Universe. This will help astronomers complete the census of exoplanets and gain a better understanding of the types of worlds that exist out there. In particular, astronomers are curious about how many terrestrial planets in our galaxy are actually “water worlds.”
These are rocky planets that are larger than Earth but have a lower density, which suggests that volatiles like water make up a significant amount (up to half) of their mass-fraction. According to a recent study by researchers from the University of Chicago and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), water worlds may be just as common as “Earth-like” rocky planets. These findings bolster the case for exoplanets that are similar to icy moons in the Solar System (like Europa) and could have significant implications for future exoplanet studies and the search for life in our Universe.