Before we really get started on today’s episode, I’d like to share a bunch of really cool pictures created by my friend Kevin Gill. Kevin’s a computer programmer, 3-D animator and works on climate science data for NASA.
But one of my favorite sets of images that Kevin did were these. What would it look like if Earth had rings? Kevin and his wife went to a few cool locations, took some landscape pictures, and then Kevin did the calculations for what it would look like if Earth had a set of rings like Saturn.
And let me tell you, Earth would be so much better. At least you’d think so, but actually, it might also suck.
Last time I checked, we don’t have rings like this. In fact, we don’t have any rings at all.
Why not? Considering the fact that Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune all have rings, don’t we deserve at least something?
Did we ever have rings in the past, or will we in the future? What’s it going to take for us to join the ring club? Short answer, an apocalypse.
Before we get into the inevitable discussion of death and devastation, let’s talk a bit about rings.
Saturn is the big showboat, with its fancy rings. They’re made of water ice, with chunks as big as a mountain, or as small as a piece of sand. Astronomers have been arguing about where they came from and how old they are, but the current consensus – sort of – is that the rings are almost as ancient as Saturn itself: billions of years old. And yet, some process is weathering the rings, grinding the particles so they appear much younger.
Jupiter’s rings are much fainter, and we didn’t even know about them until 1979, when the Voyager spacecraft made their flybys. The rings seem to be created by dust blown off into space by impacts on the planet’s moons.
Hey, we’ve got a moon, that’s a sign.
The rings around Uranus are bigger and more complex than Jupiter’s rings, but not as substantial as Saturn’s. They’re much younger, perhaps only 600 million years old, and appear to have been caused by two moons crashing into each other, long ago.
Again, another sign. We still have the potential for stuff to crash around us.
The rings around Neptune are far dustier than any of the other ring systems, and much younger than the Solar System. And like the rings around Uranus, they were probably formed when two or more of its moons collided together.
Now what about our own prospects for rings?
The problem with icy rings is that the Earth orbits too closely to the Sun. There’s a specific point in the Solar System known as the “frost line” or “snow line”. This is the point in the Solar System where deposits of ice could have survived for long periods of time. Any closer and the radiation from the Sun sublimates the ice away.
This point is actually located about 5 astronomical units away from the Sun, in the asteroid belt. Mars is much closer, so it’s very dry, while Jupiter is beyond the frost line, and its moons have plenty of water ice.
The Earth is a mere 1 AU from the Sun. That’s the very definition of an astronomical unit, which means it’s well within the frost line. The Earth itself can maintain water because the planet’s magnetosphere acts like a shield against the solar wind. But the Moon is bone dry (except for the permanently shadowed craters at its poles).
And if there was an icy ring system around the Earth, the solar wind would have blasted it away long ago.
Instead, let’s look at another kind of ring we can have. One made of rock and dust, containing death and sorrow, from a pulverized asteroid or moon. In fact, billions of years ago, we definitely had a ring when a Mars-sized planet crashed into the Earth and spewed out a massive ring of debris. This debris collected together into the Moon we know today. That impact turned the Earth’s surface inside out. It was all volcanoes, everywhere, all the time.
It’s also possible we had a second moon in the ancient past, which collided with our current Moon. That would have generated an all new ring of material for millions of years until it was recaptured by the Moon, kicked out of orbit, or fell down onto the Earth.
It’s that “fell down onto Earth” part that’s apocalyptic. As mountains of ring material entered the Earth’s atmosphere, it would increase the temperature, baking and boiling away any life that couldn’t burrow deep underground.
It’s kind of like the book Seveneves, which you should totally read if you haven’t already. It talks about what we would see if the Moon broke apart into a ring, and the terrible terrible thing that happens next.
If Earth did get a set of rings, they’d be pretty, but they’d also be a huge pain for astronomers. As you saw in Kevin’s original pictures, the rings take up a huge chunk of the sky for most observers. The farther north or south you go, the more dramatically the rings will ruin your view. Only if you were right at the equator, you’d have a thin line, which would be borderline acceptable.
Furthermore, the rings themselves would be incredibly reflective, and completely ruin the whole concept of dark skies. You know how the Moon sucks for astronomy? Rings would be way way worse.
Finally, rings would interfere with our ability to launch spacecraft and maintain satellites. It depends on how far they extend, but we wouldn’t be able to have any satellites in that region or cross the ring plane. Oh, and that fiery death apocalypse I mentioned earlier.
We know that the Moon is drifting away from the Earth right now thanks to the conservation of angular momentum. But in the distant future, billions of years from now, there might be a scenario that turns everything around.
As you know, when it runs out of fuel in its core, the Sun is going to bloat up as a red giant, consuming Mercury and Venus. Scientists are on the fence about Earth. Some think that Earth will be fine. The Sun will blast off its outer layers, but not actually envelop Earth. Others think that at the Sun’s largest point, we’ll be orbiting within the outer atmosphere of the Sun. Ouch, that’s hot.
The orbiting Moon will experience drag as it goes around the Earth, slowing down its orbital velocity, and causing it to spiral inward. Once it reaches the Roche Limit of the Earth, about 9,500 km, our planet’s gravity will tear the Moon apart into a ring. The chunks in the ring will also experience drag in the solar atmosphere and continue to spiral inward until they crash into the planet.
That would be considered a very bad day, if it wasn’t for the fact that we were already living inside the atmosphere of the Sun. No amount of terraforming will fix that.
Sadly, the Earth doesn’t have rings like Saturn, and it probably never did. It might have had rings of rock and dust for periods, but they weren’t that majestic to look at. In fact, seeing rings around the planet would mean we’d lost a moon, and our planet was about go through a period of bombardment. I’ll pass.
The Solar System is pretty huge place, extending from our Sun at the center all the way out to the Kuiper Cliff – a boundary within the Kuiper Belt that is located 50 AU from the Sun. As a rule, the farther one ventures from the Sun, the colder and more mysterious things get. Whereas temperatures in the inner Solar System are enough to burn you alive or melt lead, beyond the “Frost Line“, they get cold enough to freeze volatiles like ammonia and methane.
So what is the coldest planet of our Solar System? In the past, the title for “most frigid body” went to Pluto, as it was the farthest then-designated planet from the Sun. However, due to the IAU’s decision in 2006 to reclassify Pluto as a “dwarf planet”, the title has since passed to Neptune. As the eight planet from our Sun, it is now the outermost planet in the Solar System, and hence the coldest.
Orbit and Distance:
With an average distance (semi-major axis) of 4,504,450,000 km (2,798,935,466.87 mi or 30.11 AU), Neptune is the farthest planet from the Sun. The planet has a very minor eccentricity of 0.0086, which means that its orbit around the Sun varies from a distance of 29.81 AU (4.459 x 109 km) at perihelion to 30.33 AU (4.537 x 109 km) at aphelion.
Because Neptune’s axial tilt (28.32°) is similar to that of Earth (~23°) and Mars (~25°), the planet experiences similar seasonal changes. Combined with its long orbital period, this means that the seasons last for forty Earth years. Also owing to its axial tilt being comparable to Earth’s is the fact that the variation in the length of its day over the course of the year is not any more extreme than it is on Earth.
When it comes to ascertaining the average temperature of a planet, scientists rely on temperature variations measured from the surface. As a gas/ice giant, Neptune has no surface, per se. As a result, scientists rely on temperature readings from where the atmospheric pressure is equal to 1 bar (100 kPa), the equivalent to atmospheric pressure at sea level here on Earth.
On Neptune, this area of the atmosphere is just below the upper level clouds. Pressures in this region range between 1 and 5 bars (100 – 500 kPa), and temperature reach a high of 72 K (-201.15 °C; -330 °F). At this temperature, conditions are suitable for methane to condense, and clouds of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are thought to form (which is what gives Neptune its characteristically dark cyan coloring).
Farther into space, where pressures drop to about 0.1 bars (10 kPa), temperatures decrease to their low of around 55 K (-218 °C; -360 °F). Further into the planet, pressures increase dramatically, which also leads to a dramatic increase in temperature. At its core, Neptune reaches temperatures of up to 7273 K (7000 °C; 12632 °F), which is comparable to the surface of the Sun.
The huge temperature differences between Neptune’s center and its surface (along with its differential rotation) create huge wind storms, which can reach as high as 2,100 km/hour, making them the fastest in the Solar System. The first to be spotted was a massive anticyclonic storm measuring 13,000 x 6,600 km and resembling the Great Red Spot of Jupiter.
Known as the Great Dark Spot, this storm was not spotted five later (Nov. 2nd, 1994) when the Hubble Space Telescope looked for it. Instead, a new storm that was very similar in appearance was found in the planet’s northern hemisphere, suggesting that these storms have a shorter lifespan than Jupiter’s. The Scooter is another storm, a white cloud group located farther south than the Great Dark Spot.
This nickname first arose during the months leading up to the Voyager 2 encounter in 1989, when the cloud group was observed moving at speeds faster than the Great Dark Spot. The Small Dark Spot, a southern cyclonic storm, was the second-most-intense storm observed during the 1989 encounter. It was initially completely dark; but as Voyager 2 approached the planet, a bright core developed and could be seen in most of the highest-resolution images.
Despite being 50% further from the Sun than Uranus – which orbits the Sun at an average distance of 2,875,040,000 km (1,786,467,032.5 mi or 19.2184 AU) – Neptune receives only 40% of the solar radiation that Uranus does. In spite of that, the two planets’ surface temperatures are surprisingly close, with Uranus experiencing an average “surface” temperature of 76 K (-197.2 °C)
And while temperatures similarly increase the further one ventures into the core, the discrepancy is larger. Uranus only radiates 1.1 times as much energy as it receives from the Sun, whereas Neptune radiates about 2.61 times as much. Neptune is the farthest planet from the Sun, yet its internal energy is sufficient to drive the fastest planetary winds seen in the Solar System.
One would expect Neptune to be much colder than Uranus, and the mechanism for this remains unknown. However, astronomers have theorized that Neptune’s higher internal temperature (and the exchange of heat between the core and outer layers) might be the reason for why Neptune isn’t significantly colder than Uranus.
As already noted, Pluto’s surface temperatures do get to being lower than Neptune’s. Between its greater distance from the Sun, and the fact that it is not a gas/ice giant (so therefore doesn’t have extreme temperatures at its core) means that it experiences temperatures between a high of 55 K (-218 °C; -360 °F)and a low of 33 K (-240 °C; -400 °F). However, since it is no longer classified as a planet (but a dwarf planet, TNO, KBO, plutoid, etc.) it is no longer in the running. Sorry, Pluto!
Our Solar System is a fascinating place. Between its eight planets and many dwarf planets, there are some serious differences in terms of orbit, composition, and temperature. Whereas conditions within the inner Solar System, where planets are terrestrial in nature, can get pretty hot, planets that orbit beyond the Frost Line – where it is cold enough that volatiles (i.e. water, ammonia, methane, CO and CO²) condense into solids – can get mighty cold!
It is in this environment that we find Neptune, the Solar System’s most distance (and hence most cold) planet. While this gas/ice giant has no “surface” to speak of, Earth-based research and flybys have been conducted that have managed to obtain accurate measurements of the temperature in the planet’s upper atmosphere. All told, the planet experiences temperatures that range from approximately 55 K (-218 °C; -360 °F) to 72 K (-200 °C; -328 °F), making it the coldest planet in the Solar System.
Of all the planets in the Solar System, Neptune orbits the Sun at the greatest average distance. With a very minor eccentricity (0.0086), it orbits the Sun at an semi-major axis of approximately 30.11 AU (4,504,450,000,000 km), ranging from 29.81 AU (4.459 x 109 km) at perihelion and 30.33 AU (4.537 x 109 km) at aphelion.
Neptune takes 16 hours 6 minutes and 36 seconds (0.6713 days) to complete a single sidereal rotation, and 164.8 Earth years to complete a single orbit around the Sun. This means that a single day lasts 67% as long on Neptune, whereas a year is the equivalent of approximately 60,190 Earth days (or 89,666 Neptunian days).
Because Neptune’s axial tilt (28.32°) is similar to that of Earth (~23°) and Mars (~25°), the planet experiences similar seasonal changes. Combined with its long orbital period, this means that the seasons last for forty Earth years. In addition, the planets axial tilt also leads to variations in the length of its day, as well as variations in temperature between the northern and southern hemispheres (see below).
Due to their composition, determining a surface temperature on gas or ice giants (compared to terrestrial planets or moons) is technically impossible. As a result, astronomers have relied on measurements obtained at altitudes where the atmospheric pressure is equal to 1 bar (or 100 kilo Pascals), the equivalent of air pressure here on Earth at sea level.
It is here on Neptune, just below the upper level clouds, that pressures reach between 1 and 5 bars (100 – 500 kPa). It is also at this level that temperatures reach their recorded high of 72 K (-201.15 °C; -330 °F). At this temperature, conditions are suitable for methane to condense, and clouds of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are thought to form (which is what gives Neptune its characteristically dark cyan coloring).
But as with all gas and ice giants, temperatures vary on Neptune due to depth and pressure. In short, the deeper one goes into Neptune, the hotter it becomes. At its core, Neptune reaches temperatures of up to 7273 K (7000 °C; 12632 °F), which is comparable to the surface of the Sun. The huge temperature differences between Neptune’s center and its surface create huge wind storms, which can reach as high as 2,100 km/hour, making them the fastest in the Solar System.
Temperature Anomalies and Variations:
Whereas Neptune averages the coldest temperatures in the Solar System, a strange anomaly is the planet’s south pole. Here, it is 10 degrees K warmer than the rest of planet. This “hot spot” occurs because Neptune’s south pole is currently exposed to the Sun. As Neptune continues its journey around the Sun, the position of the poles will reverse. Then the northern pole will become the warmer one, and the south pole will cool down.
Neptune’s more varied weather when compared to Uranus is due in part to its higher internal heating, which is particularly perplexing for scientists. Despite the fact that Neptune is located over 50% further from the Sun than Uranus, and receives only 40% its amount of sunlight, the two planets’ surface temperatures are roughly equal.
Deeper inside the layers of gas, the temperature rises steadily. This is consistent with Uranus, but oddly enough, the discrepancy is larger. Uranus only radiates 1.1 times as much energy as it receives from the Sun, whereas Neptune radiates about 2.61 times as much. Neptune is the farthest planet from the Sun, yet its internal energy is sufficient to drive the fastest planetary winds seen in the Solar System. The mechanism for this remains unknown.
And while temperatures on Pluto have been recorded as reaching lower – down to 33 K (-240 °C; -400 °F) – Pluto’s status as a dwarf planet mean that it is no longer in the same class as the others. As such, Neptune remains the coldest planet of the eight.
It is an well-known fact that all stars have a lifespan. This begins with their formation, then continues through their Main Sequence phase (which constitutes the majority of their life) before ending in death. In most cases, stars will swell up to several hundred times their normal size as they exit the Main Sequence phase of their life, during which time they will likely consume any planets that orbit closely to them.
However, for planets that orbit the star at greater distances (beyond the system’s “Frost Line“, essentially), conditions might actually become warm enough for them to support life. And according to new research which comes from the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University, this situation could last for some star systems into the billions of years, giving rise to entirely new forms of extra-terrestrial life!
In approximately 5.4 billion years from now, our Sun will exit its Main Sequence phase. Having exhausted the hydrogen fuel in its core, the inert helium ash that has built up there will become unstable and collapse under its own weight. This will cause the core to heat up and get denser, which in turn will cause the Sun to grow in size and enter what is known as the Red Giant-Branch (RGB) phase of its evolution.
This period will begin with our Sun becoming a subgiant, in which it will slowly double in size over the course of about half a billion years. It will then spend the next half a billion years expanding more rapidly, until it is 200 times its current size and several thousands times more luminous. It will then officially be a red giant star, eventually expanding to the point where it reaches beyond Mars’ orbit.
As we explored in a previous article, planet Earth will not survive our Sun becoming a Red Giant – nor will Mercury, Venus or Mars. But beyond the “Frost Line”, where it is cold enough that volatile compounds – such as water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide – remain in a frozen state, the remain gas giants, ice giants, and dwarf planets will survive. Not only that, but a massive thaw will set in.
In short, when the star expands, its “habitable zone” will likely do the same, encompassing the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. When this happens, formerly uninhabitable places – like the Jovian and Cronian moons – could suddenly become inhabitable. The same holds true for many other stars in the Universe, all of which are fated to become Red Giants as they near the end of their lifespans.
However, when our Sun reaches its Red Giant Branch phase, it is only expected to have 120 million years of active life left. This is not quite enough time for new lifeforms to emerge, evolve and become truly complex (i.e. like humans and other species of mammals). But according to a recent research study that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “Habitable Zone of Post-Main Sequence Stars” – some planets may be able to remain habitable around other red giant stars in our Universe for much longer – up to 9 billion years or more in some cases!
To put that in perspective, nine billion years is close to twice the current age of Earth. So assuming that the worlds in question also have the right mix of elements, they will have ample time to give rise to new and complex forms of life. The study’s co-author, Professor Lisa Kaltennegeris, is also the director of the Carl Sagan Institute. As such, she is no stranger to searching for life in other parts of the Universe. As she explained to Universe Today via email:
“We found that planets – depending on how big their Sun is (the smaller the star, the longer the planet can stay habitable) – can stay nice and warm for up to 9 Billion years. That makes an old star an interesting place to look for life. It could have started sub-surface (e.g. in a frozen ocean) and then when the ice melts, the gases that life breaths in and out can escape into the atmosphere – what allows astronomers to pick them up as signatures of life. Or for the smallest stars, the time a formerly frozen planet can be nice and warm is up to 9 billion years. Thus life could potentially even get started in that time.”
Using existing models of stars and their evolution – i.e. one-dimensional radiative-convective climate and stellar evolutionary models – for their study, Kaltenegger and Ramirez were able to calculate the distances of the habitable zones (HZ) around a series of post-Main Sequence (post-MS) stars. Ramses M. Ramirez – a research associate at the Carl Sagan Institute and the lead author of the paper – explained the research process to Universe Today via email:
“We used stellar evolutionary models that tell us how stellar quantities, mainly the brightness, radius, and temperature all change with time as the star ages through the red giant phase. We also used a climate model to then compute how much energy each star is outputting at the boundaries of the habitable zone. Knowing this and the stellar brightness mentioned above, we can compute the distances to these habitable zone boundaries.”
At the same time, they considered how this kind of stellar evolution could effect the atmosphere of the star’s planets. As a star expands, it loses mass and ejects it outward in the form of solar wind. For planets that orbit close to a star, or those that have low surface gravity, they may find some or all of their atmospheres blasted away. On the other hand, planets with sufficient mass (or positioned at a safe distance) could maintain most of their atmospheres.
“The stellar winds from this mass loss erodes planetary atmospheres, which we also compute as a function of time,” said Ramirez. “As the star loses mass, the solar system conserves angular momentum by moving outwards. So, we also take into account how the orbits move out with time.” By using models that incorporated the rate of stellar and atmospheric loss during the Red Giant Branch (RGB) and Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) phases of star, they were able to determine how this would play out for planets that ranged in size from super-Moons to super-Earths.
What they found was that a planet can stay in a post-HS HZ for eons or more, depending on how hot the star is, and figuring for metallicities that are similar to our Sun’s. As Ramirez explained:
“The main result is that the maximum time that a planet can remain in this red giant habitable zone of hot stars is 200 million years. For our coolest star (M1), the maximum time a planet can stay within this red giant habitable zone is 9 billion years. Those results assume metallicity levels similar to those of our Sun. A star with a higher percentage of metals takes longer to fuse the non-metals (H, He..etc) and so these maximum times can increase some more, up to about a factor of two.”
Within the context of our Solar System, this could mean that in a few billion years, worlds like Europa and Enceladus (which are already suspected of having life beneath their icy surfaces) might get a shot at becoming full-fledged habitable worlds. As Ramirez summarized beautifully:
“This means that the post-main-sequence is another potentially interesting phase of stellar evolution from a habitability standpoint. Long after the inner system of planets have been turned into sizzling wastelands by the expanding, growing red giant star, there could be potentially habitable abodes farther away from the chaos. If they are frozen worlds, like Europa, the ice would melt, potentially unveiling any preexisting life. Such pre-existing life may be detectable by future missions/telescopes looking for atmospheric biosignatures.”
But perhaps the most exciting take-away from their research study was their conclusion that planets orbiting within their star’s post-MS habitable zones would be doing so at distances that would make them detectable using direct imaging techniques. So not only are the odds of finding life around older stars better than previously thought, we should have no trouble in spotting them using current exoplanet-hunting techniques!
It is also worth noting that Kaltenegger and Dr. Ramirez have submitted a second paper for publication, in which they provide a list of 23 red giant stars within 100 light-years of Earth. Knowing that these stars, all of which are in our stellar neighborhood, could have life-sustaining worlds within their habitable zones should provide additional opportunities for planet hunters in the coming years.
And be sure to check out this video from Cornellcast, where Prof. Kaltenegger shares what inspires her scientific curiosity and how Cornell’s scientists are working to find proof of extra-terrestrial life.