First SETI Search of Gliese 581 Finds No Signs of ET


The first targeted SETI search of a system with a potentially habitable world has come up empty, but perhaps finding signals wasn’t the main objective in this search. Back in 2007 a group of astronomers used the Australian Long Baseline Array to listen for radio signals from Gliese 581, a red dwarf star that is now known to host at least six planets, with one in the star’s habitable zone. This was a SETI-type search for extraterrestrial-made signals, and it initially found 222 candidate signals. However, the team was able to reject all of them using automated analysis techniques, determining they were caused by Earth orbiting satellites. So why is this potentially good news?

This search was actually a proof of concept for using the Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) for targeted SETI searches, and that it worked well is great news for future searches that look specifically at a particular star system. Until recently most SETI searches were wide sky surveys, scanning wide, random areas of space looking for radio signals. But now, with the success of the exoplanet hunting Kepler mission, we now know of some potentially habitable systems and planets, and astronomers can do targeted searches, looking at specific spots in the sky.

It wasn’t known if the VLBI technique would be successful for such a “directed” targeted search, but this search by Hayden Rampadarath and team from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at Curtin University in Australia proves it does.

The Australian Long Baseline Array is a combination of three radio antennae: the 22-meter Mopra Telescope, Parkes Observatory and the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) which are each a few hundred kilometers apart from each other. The data from the three locations are combined, making them act as one huge radio telescope, with an extraordinary angular resolution in the milli-arcsecond regime, the highest resolution in astronomy. And it turns out that VLBI techniques are great for SETI searches because they automatically exclude many Earth-based sources of interference that might otherwise look like SETI signals. That’s because the same signals have to show up at all the telescopes several hundred kilometers apart.

The team pointed the telescopes at Gliese 581 (Gl581), located 20 light-years distant in the constellation Libra for about 8 hours, tuning into frequencies close to 1500 megahertz.

The team said that the array would have been able to pick up a broadcast with a power output of at least 7 megaWatts per hertz, which means that if Gliese inhabitants had been broadcasting directly to Earth using an 300-meter Arecibo-style dish, the signals would have easily been picked up. However, ordinary radio transmissions, such as the ones Earthlings regularly transmit into space, would have been too weak to be detected.

But this bodes well for using other more powerful VLBI arrays such as the European VLBI Network, current most-sensitive VLBI array in the world or the upcoming Square Kilometre Array, which will have the sensitivity to pick up broadcasts of a few kilowatts per Hertz from 20 light years away.

So while this doesn’t mean that there is no life in the Gliese 581 system, this does mean we now have an expanded arsenal of tools for looking.

Read the team’s paper.

Source: Technology Review Blog

Update on Gliese 581d’s Habitability


When last we checked in on Gliese 581d, a team from the University of Paris had suggested that the popular exoplanet, Gliese 581d may be habitable. This super-Earth found itself just on the edge of the Goldilocks zone which could make liquid water present on the surface under the right atmospheric conditions. However, the team’s work was based on one dimensional simulations of a column of hypothetical atmospheres on the day side of the planet. To have a better understanding of what Gliese 581d might be like, a three dimensional simulation was in order. Fortunately, a new study from the same team has investigated the possibility with just such an investigation.

The new investigation was called for because Gliese 581d is suspected to be tidally locked, much like Mercury is in our own solar system. If so, this would create a permanent night side on the planet. On this side, the temperatures would be significantly lower and gasses such as CO2 and H2O may find themselves in a region where they could no longer remain gaseous, freezing into ice crystals on the surface. Since that surface would never see the light of day, they could not be heated and released back into the atmosphere, thereby depleting the planet of greenhouse gasses necessary to warm the planet, causing what astronomers call an “atmospheric collapse.”

To conduct their simulation the team assumed that the climate was dominated by the greenhouse effects of CO2 and H2O since this is true for all rocky planets with significant atmospheres in our solar system. As with their previous study, they performed several iterations, each with varying atmospheric pressures and compositions. For atmospheres less than 10 bars, the simulations suggested that the atmosphere would collapse, either on the dark side of the planet, or near the poles. Past this, the effects of greenhouse gasses prevented the freezing of the atmosphere and it became stable. Some ice formation still occurred in the stable models where some of the CO2 would freeze in the upper atmosphere, forming clouds in much the same way it does on Mars. However, this had a net warming effect of ~12°C.

In other simulations, the team added in oceans of liquid water which would help to moderate the climate. Another effect of this was that the vaporization of water from these oceans also produced warming as it can serve as a greenhouse gas, but the formation of clouds could decrease the global temperature since water clouds increase the albedo of the planet, especially in the red region of the spectra which is the most prevalent form of light from the parent star, a red dwarf. However, as with models without oceans, the tipping point for stable atmospheres tended to be around 10 bars of pressure. Under that, “cooling effects dominated and runaway glaciation occurred, followed by atmospheric collapse.” Above 20 bars, the additional trapping of heat from the water vapor significantly increased temperatures compared to an entirely rocky planet.

The conclusion is that Gliese 581d is potentially habitable. The potential for surface water exists for a “wide range of plausible cases”. Ultimately, they all depend on the precise thickness and composition of any atmosphere. Since the planet does not transit the star, spectral analysis through transmission of starlight through the atmosphere will not be possible. Yet the team suggests that, since the Gliese 581 system is relatively close to Earth (only 20 lightyears), it may be possible to observe the spectra directly in the infrared portion of the spectra using future generations of instruments. Should the observations match the synthetic spectra predicted for the various habitable planets, this would be taken as strong evidence for the habitability of the planet.

The Habitability of Gliese 581d

The Gliese 581 system has been making headlines recently for the most newly announced planet that may lie in the habitable zone. Hopes were somewhat dashed when we were reminded that the certainty level of its discovery was only 3 sigma (95%, whereas most astronomical discoveries are at or above the 99% confidence level before major announcements), but the Gliese 581 system may yet have more surprises. When the second planet, Gliese 581d, was first discovered, it was placed outside of the expected habitable zone. But in 2009, reanalysis of the data refined the orbital parameters and moved the planet in, just to the edge of the habitable zone. Several authors have suggested that, with sufficient greenhouse gasses, this may push Gliese 581d into the habitable zone. A new paper to be published in an upcoming issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics simulates a wide range of conditions to explore just what characteristics would be required.

The team, led by Robin Wordsworth at the University of Paris, varied properties of the planet including surface gravity, albedo, and the composition of potential atmospheres. Additionally, the simulations were also run for a planet in a similar orbit around the sun (Gliese 581 is an M dwarf) to understand how the different distribution of energy could effect the atmosphere. The team discovered that, for atmospheres comprised primarily of CO2, the redder stars would warm the planet more than a solar type star due to the CO2 not being able to scatter the redder light as well, thus allowing more to reach the ground.

One of the potential roadblocks to warming the team considered was the formation of clouds. The team first considered CO2 clouds which would be likely towards the outer edges of the habitable zone and form on Mars. Since clouds tend to be reflective, they would counteract warming effects from incoming starlight and cool the planet. Again, due to the nature of the star, the redder light would mitigate this somewhat allowing more to penetrate a potential cloud deck.

Should some H2O be present its effects are mixed. While clouds and ice are both very reflective, which would decrease the amount of energy captured by a planet, water also absorbs well in the infrared region. As such, clouds of water vapor can trap heat radiating from the surface back into space, trapping it and resulting in an overall increase. The problem is getting clouds to form in the first place.

The inclusion of nitrogen gas (common in the atmospheres of planets in the solar system) had little effect on the simulations. The primary reason was the lack of absorption of redder light. In general, the inclusion only slightly changed the specific heat of the atmosphere and a broadening of the absorption lines of other gasses, allowing for a very minor ability to trap more heat. Given the team was looking for conservative estimates, they ultimately discounted nitrogen from their final considerations.

With the combination of all these considerations, the team found that even given the most unfavorable conditions of most variables, should the atmospheric pressure be sufficiently high, this would allow for the presence of liquid water on the surface of the planet, a key requirement for what scientists maintain is critical for abiogenesis. The favorable merging of characteristics other than pressure were also able to produce liquid water with pressures as low as 5 bars. The team also notes that other greenhouse gasses, such as methane, were excluded due to their rarity, but should the exist, the ability for liquid water would be improved further.

Ultimately, the simulation was only done as a one dimensional model which essentially considered a thin column of the atmosphere on the day side of the planet. The team suggests that, for a better understanding, three dimensional models would need to be created. In the future, they plan to use just such modeling which would allow for a better understanding of what was happening elsewhere on the planet. For example, should temperatures fall too quickly on the night side, this could lead to the condensation of the gasses necessary and put the atmosphere in an unstable state. Additionally, as we discover more transiting exoplanets and determine their atmospheric properties from transmission spectra, astronomers will better be able to constrain what typical atmospheres really look like.

Could Chance for Life on Gliese 581g Actually Be “100%”?

Orbital Period


The announcement yesterday of the discovery of the closest Earth-sized planet found so far that also exists in the habitable zone around its star is certainly exciting (read our previous article for all the details). Gliese 581g is surely a potential habitable planet where liquid water could exist on the planet‘s surface, and many are touting the old adage of where there’s water, there’s life. However, some quotes from one of the scientists involved in the discovery might be feeding some wild speculation about the potential for life on this extrasolar planet and elsewhere. “Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent,” said discoverer and astronomer Steven Vogt during a press briefing yesterday. “I have almost no doubt about it.”

Yes, that is an exact quote. He really used those words. He also said that it would be pretty hard to imagine that water wouldn’t exist on the planet, given the ubiquity of water in our solar system and beyond, and the habitable region in which this planet orbits.

Also participating in the briefing was Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which provided funds for the observations at the Keck I telescope, and his comments were more tempered.

“Any discussion of life on at this point is purely speculative,” Butler said. “What we know is that this planet exists at the right distance for liquid water it has the right amount of mass to hold on to its atmosphere and any liquid water on the surface. So any subsequent discussion of life there is purely speculative. That being said, on the Earth anywhere you find liquid water you find life in overwhelming abundance. The question should be, if this planet has liquid water, how can you rule out life doesn’t exist? It is pretty probable that anywhere you find liquid water pooling, that you would find life existing.”

Are Vogt’s claims too extreme, or were they made in exhilaration during an exciting announcement? This has been a topic of debate on Twitter this morning. Some wondered if Vogt had been misquoted, and many expressed that Vogt’s words may fuel off-the-deep-end speculation about the certainty of life on another world.

“Until we know more about this planet and the origin of life itself, any claim of certain habitation is idiotic and does not serve science,” said Dr. Stuart Clark (@DrStuClark), author and astronomy journalist. To clarify, he wanted others to know that he thinks just the claim is idiotic, not the discovery or the people involved.

“As cool as it is, please realize that right now *all* we really know about it is its orbit and estimated mass. That’s it.” said Lee Billings (@leebillings), editor at Seed Magazine. “In other words, barring observational evidence that may still be a generation away, Gliese 581g is ‘Earth-like’ only in terms of mass/orbit.”

From our pal Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer (@badastronomer): “I understand what he meant – he thinks it *could* have life – but it was phrased unfortunately, and the media have jumped on it, of course.”

From David Masten (@dmasten), CEO of the commercial space company Masten Space Systems: “I have an opinion or 3 about life on anything in Gliese 581! And I’d dare say much closer to zero chance. But I’m not an astrobiologist.”

“Claiming a 100% chance of life on Gliese 581g is definitely an overreach,” said astrophysicist Juan Cabanela (@Juan_Kinda_Guy) at Minnesota State University Moorhead, “given we currently have a sample of 1 planet with life.”

“Vogt’s extrapolation was certainly quite a leap. On the other hand, the media might finally get it that some scientists really do think life everywhere is possible – but not bug-eyed aliens” said Robert Cumming, (@maltesk), journalist at the Swedish magazine “Populär Astronomi.“. “Then we can also discuss why there might not be life everywhere after all.”

Mark Thompson (@PeoplesAstro), Astronomy presenter on BBC’s the One Show said the Vogt’s quote was “absolutely and totally inappropriate. We can’t even be 100% sure it’s made of rock!!!”

From astronomer, educator and journalist Nicole Gugliucci (@noisyastronomer): “The public seems to have enough trouble trusting science these days without scientists making bold statements like that.”

“100% is ridiculous,” Tweeted frequent image contributor to Universe Today, Stu Atkinson (@mars_stu). “No *possible* way anyone could know that, surely?”

Many expressed excitement over the discovery, and Stu articulated perhaps the most colorful, which was re-tweeted several times yesterday: “Ah, a PROPER planet!” Not a great fat bloated sweaty “Who ate all the pies” ‘hot Jupiter’ tearing insanely around its star.”

What are your views?

*all Tweets used by permission.

Here’s an article about abiogenesis, theories about how life got started here on Earth.

Super Earths

The holy grail in the search for extrasolar planets will be the discovery of Earthlike planets orbiting other stars. With better telescopes and techniques, astronomers will eventually be able to even detect the atmospheres of extrasolar planets and determine if there’s life there. Although Earth-sized planets are impossible to detect with current observatories, astronomers are now finding super earths.

A super Earth is a terrestrial planet orbiting a distant star. But instead of having the mass of our own planet, it might have 2, 5, or even 10 times the mass of the Earth. Although that makes them large, very massive planets, they’re not as large or massive as gas giants.

And just because they’re called super Earths doesn’t mean they’re habitable, or even Earthlike in climate at all. Super Earths could be orbiting close to their parent star, or well outside the solar system’s habitable zone.

Scientists haven’t completely settled on a definition for super Earths. Some believe a planet should be considered a super Earth if it’s a terrestrial planet between 1 and 10 Earth masses, while others think it should be between 5 and 10 Earth masses.

The first super Earth ever discovered was found in 1991 orbiting a pulsar. Obviously that wouldn’t really be a very habitable place to live. The first super earth found orbiting a main sequence star was found in 2005, orbiting the star Gliese 876. It’s estimated to have 7.5 times the mass of the Earth, and orbits its parent star every 2 days. With such a short orbital period, you can expect that it’s orbiting very close to its parent star. Temperatures on the surface of the planet reach 650 kelvin.

The first super earth found within its star’ habitable zone was Gliese 581 c. It’s estimated to have 5 Earth masses, and orbits its parent star at a distance of 0.073 astronomical units (1 AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun). That’s pretty close to the star, and Gliese 581 c would probably have a runaway greenhouse effect, similar to Venus. But right beside that is Gliese 581 d, with a mass of 7.7 Earths and an orbit of 0.22 AU. This planet could very well have liquid water on its surface.

The smallest super Earth discovered so far is MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb, which has only 3.3 times the mass of the Earth, and was orbiting a brown dwarf star. But this record will probably be beaten by the time you read this, as planet hunters get better. It’s only a matter of time before a true Earthlike planet is discovered.

We have written many articles about super Earths. Here’s an article speculating on the kinds of atmospheres that super Earths might have, and another article about how similar super Earths really are to our own planet.

Here’s an artist’s impression of a super Earth features on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website, and here’s an article from NASA about super Earths.

We also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast dealing with the different kinds of extrasolar planets you can find. Listen to it here. Episode 125: A Zoo of Extrasolar Planets.

Source: Wikipedia