We tend to think of our Earthly circumstances as normal. A watery, temperate world orbiting a stable yellow star. A place where life has persisted for nearly 4 billion years. It’s almost inevitable that when we think of other places where life could thrive, we use our own experience as a benchmark.
NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has found its first Earth-sized planet located in the habitable zone of its host star. The find was confirmed with the Spitzer Space Telescope. This planet is one of only a few Earth-sized worlds ever found in a habitable zone.
Earthlings are fortunate. Our planet has a robust magnetic shield. Without out magnetosphere, the Sun’s radiation would’ve probably ended life on Earth before it even got going. And our Sun is rather tame, in stellar terms.
What’s it like for exoplanets orbiting more active stars?
When astronomers discover a new exoplanet, one of the first considerations is if the planet is in the habitable zone, or outside of it. That label largely depends on whether or not the temperature of the planet allows liquid water. But of course it’s not that simple. A new study suggests that frozen, icy worlds with completely frozen oceans could actually have livable land areas that remain habitable.
When NASA launched TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) in 2018, it had a specific goal. While its predecessor, the Kepler spacecraft, found thousands of exoplanets, many of them were massive gas giants. TESS was sent into space with a promise: to find smaller planets similar in size to Earth and Neptune, orbiting stable stars without much flaring. Those constraints, astronomers hoped, would identify more exoplanets that are potentially habitable.
Jupiter’s moon Europa is an intriguing world. It’s the smoothest body in the Solar System, and the sixth-largest moon in the Solar System, though it’s the smallest of the four Galilean moons. Most intriguing of all is Europa’s subsurface ocean and the potential for habitability.
When looking for potentially-habitable extra-solar planets, scientists are somewhat restricted by the fact that we know of only one planet where life exists (i.e. Earth). For this reason, scientists look for planets that are terrestrial (i.e. rocky), orbit within their star’s habitable zones, and show signs of biosignatures such as atmospheric carbon dioxide – which is essential to life as we know it.
This gas, which is the largely result of volcanic activity here on Earth, increases surface heat through the greenhouse effect and cycles between the subsurface and the atmosphere through natural processes. For this reason, scientists have long believed that plate tectonics are essential to habitability. However, according to a new study by a team from Pennsylvania State University, this may not be the case.
On Earth, volcanism is the result of plate tectonics and occurs where two plates collide. This causes subduction, where one plate is pushed beneath the other and deeper into the subsurface. This subduction changes the dense mantle into buoyant magma, which rises through the crust to the Earth’s surface and creates volcanoes. This process can also aid in carbon cycling by pushing carbon into the mantle.
Plate tectonics and volcanism are believe to have been central to the emergence of life here on Earth, as it ensured that our planet had sufficient heat to maintain liquid water on its surface. To test this theory, Professors Foley and Smye created models to determine how habitable an Earth-like planet would be without the presence of plate tectonics.
These models took into account the thermal evolution, crustal production and CO2 cycling to constrain the habitability of rocky, Earth-sized stagnant lid planets. These are planets where the crust consists of a single, giant spherical plate floating on mantle, rather than in separate pieces. Such planets are thought to be far more common than planets that experience plate tectonics, as no planets beyond Earth have been confirmed to have tectonic plates yet. As Prof. Foley explained in a Penn State News press release:
“Volcanism releases gases into the atmosphere, and then through weathering, carbon dioxide is pulled from the atmosphere and sequestered into surface rocks and sediment. Balancing those two processes keeps carbon dioxide at a certain level in the atmosphere, which is really important for whether the climate stays temperate and suitable for life.”
Essentially, their models took into account how much heat a stagnant lid planet’s climate could retain based on the amount of heat and heat-producing elements present when the planet formed (aka. its initial heat budget). On Earth, these elements include uranium which produces thorium and heat when it decays, which then decays to produce potassium and heat.
After running hundreds of simulations, which varied the planet’s size and chemical composition, they found that stagnant lid planets would be able to maintain warm enough temperatures that liquid water could exist on their surfaces for billions of years. In extreme cases, they could sustain life-supporting temperatures for up to 4 billion years, which is almost the age of the Earth.
As Smye indicated, this is due in part to the fact that plate tectonics are not always necessary for volcanic activity:
“You still have volcanism on stagnant lid planets, but it’s much shorter lived than on planets with plate tectonics because there isn’t as much cycling. Volcanoes result in a succession of lava flows, which are buried like layers of a cake over time. Rocks and sediment heat up more the deeper they are buried.”
The researchers also found that without plate tectonics, stagnant lid planets could still have enough heat and pressure to experience degassing, where carbon dioxide gas can escape from rocks and make its way to the surface. On Earth, Smye said, the same process occurs with water in subduction fault zones. This process increases based on the quantity of heat-producing elements present in the planet. As Foley explained:
“There’s a sweet spot range where a planet is releasing enough carbon dioxide to keep the planet from freezing over, but not so much that the weathering can’t pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and keep the climate temperate.”
According to the researchers’ model, the presence and amount of heat-producing elements were far better indicators for a planet’s potential to sustain life. Based on their simulations, they found that the initial composition or size of a planet is very important for determining whether or not it will become habitable. Or as they put it, the potential habitability of a planet is determined at birth.
By demonstrating that stagnant lid planets could still support life, this study has the potential for greatly extending the range of what scientists consider to be potentially-habitable. When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is deployed in 2021, examining the atmospheres of stagnant lid planets to determine the presence of biosignatures (like CO2) will be a major scientific objective.
Knowing that more of these worlds could sustain life is certainly good news for those who are hoping that we find evidence of extra-terrestrial life in our lifetimes.
To put it simply, the Earth’s Moon is a dry, airless place where nothing lives. Aside from concentrations of ice that exist in permanently-shaded craters in the polar regions, the only water on the moon is believed to exist beneath the surface. What little atmosphere there is consists of elements released from the interior (some of which are radioactive) and helium-4 and neon, which are contributed by solar wind.
However, astronomers have theorized that there may have been a time when the Moon might have been inhabitable. According to a new study by an astrophysicist and an Earth and planetary scientist, the Moon may have had two early “windows” for habitability in the past. These took place roughly 4 billion years ago (after the Moon formed) and during the peak in lunar volcanic activity (ca. 3.5 billion years ago).
Astronomers have long understood that there is a link between a star’s magnetic activity and the amount of X-rays it emits. When stars are young, they are magnetically active, due to the fact that they undergo rapid rotation. But over time, the stars lose rotational energy and their magnetic fields weaken. Concurrently, their associated X-ray emissions also begin to drop.
Interestingly, this relationship between a star’s magnetic activity and X-ray emissions could be a means for finding potentially-habitable star systems. Hence why an international team led by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast conducted a study where they cataloged the X-ray activity of 24 Sun-like stars. In so doing, they were able to determine just how hospitable these star systems could be to life.
To understand how stellar magnetic activity (and hence, X-ray activity) changes over time, astronomers require accurate age assessments for many different stars. This has been difficult in the past, but thanks to mission like NASA’s Kepler Space Observatory and the ESA’s Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits (CoRoT) mission, new and precise age estimates have become available in recent years.
Using these age estimates, Booth and her colleagues relied on data from the Chandra X-ray observatory and the XMM-Newton obervatory to examine 24 nearby stars. These stars were all similar in mass to our Sun (a main sequence G-type yellow dwarf star) and at least 1 billion years of age. From this, they determined that there was a clear link between the star’s age and their X-ray emissions. As they state in their study:
“We find 14 stars with detectable X-ray luminosities and use these to calibrate the age-activity relationship. We find a relationship between stellar X-ray luminosity, normalized by stellar surface area, and age that is steeper than the relationships found for younger stars…”
In short, of the 24 stars in their sample, the team found that 14 had X-ray emissions that were discernible. From these, they were able to calculate the star’s ages and determine that there was a relationship between their longevity and luminosity. Ultimately, this demonstrated that stars like our Sun are likely to emit less high-energy radiation as they exceed 1 billion years in age.
And while the reason for this is not entirely clear, astronomers are currently exploring various possible causes. One possibility is that for older stars, the reduction in spin rate happens more quickly than it does for younger stars. Another possibility is that the X-ray brightness declines more quickly for older, more slowly-rotating stars than it does for younger, faster ones.
Regardless of the cause, the relationship between a star’s age and its X-ray emissions could provide astronomers and exoplanet hunters with another tool for gauging the possible habitability of a system. Wherever a G-type or K-type star is to be found, knowing the age of the star could help place constraints on the potential habitability of any planets that orbit it.
It has become a well-known scientific fact that billions of years ago, Mars once had a thicker atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. Scientists have also discovered that it was the gradual loss of this atmosphere, between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, that caused Mars to go from being a warmer, wetter environment to the dry, freezing environment it is today.
Despite the existence of both a thicker atmosphere and water, questions remain as to whether or not Mars was truly habitable in the past. According to a new study from a team of researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the discovery of a specific mineral (boron) has added weight to the argument that Mars was once a potentially life-bearing world.
The study, titled “In situ detection of boron by ChemCam on Mars“, was recently published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters. For the sake of this study, the LANL research team consulted data collected by the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument aboard the Curiosity rover, which showed evidence of boron on the surface of Mars.
Boron, an element which is created by cosmic rays and is relatively rare in the Solar System, is necessary for the creation of ribonucleic acid – which is present in all forms of modern life. Essentially, RNA requires a key ingredient to form, which is a sugar called ribose. Like all sugars, ribose is highly unstable and decomposes quickly in water. As such, it needs another element to stabilize it, which is where boron comes into play.
As Patrick Gasda, a postdoctoral researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author on the paper, explained in a LANL press statement:
“Because borates may play an important role in making RNA – one of the building blocks of life – finding boron on Mars further opens the possibility that life could have once arisen on the planet. Borates are one possible bridge from simple organic molecules to RNA. Without RNA, you have no life. The presence of boron tells us that, if organics were present on Mars, these chemical reactions could have occurred.”
When boron is dissolved in water (which, as noted, Mars once had in abundance) it becomes borate. This compound (when combined with ribose) would act as a stabilizing agent, keeping the sugar together long enough so that RNA can form. As Gasda explained, “We detected borates in a crater on Mars that’s 3.8 billion years old, younger than the likely formation of life on Earth.”
The boron was detected by Curiosity’s laser-shooting ChemCam instrument, which was developed by the LANL in conjunction with France’s space agency, the National Center of Space Studies (CNES). It detected the element in veins of calcium sulfate minerals located in the Gale Crater, which means that boron was present in Mars’ groundwater and was preserved with other minerals when the water dissolved, leaving behind rich mineral veins.
This provides further evidence that the lake that is now known to have once filled the Gale Crater could have had life in it. During the time period in question, this lake would have experienced temperatures ranging from from 0 to 60 ° C (32 to 140 °F) and had a pH level that would have been neutral-to-alkaline. It also means that on ancient Mars, the conditions necessary for life would have existed, and independent of Earth to boot.
This is just one of many findings Curiosity has made related to the composition of Martian rocks. Since it touched down in the Gale Crater in 2012, the rover has been gathering chemical evidence of the ancient lake that once existed there, as well as geological evidence that has been preserved by sedimentary deposits. As the rover began to scale the slope of Mount Sharp, the composition of the surface began to change.
Whereas samples taken from the crater floor tended to contain more in the way of clays, samples collected higher up Mount Sharp contained more boron. These and other chemical traces are indications of how conditions under which sediments were deposited changed over time. Analysis conducted of the mountain’s layers has also showed how the movement of groundwater through these layers of sediment altered and transported elements (like boron).
All of this is providing a picture of how Mars’ environment changed over the course of billions of years and affected the planet’s potential favorability for microbial life. And while scientists have a general picture of how Mars underwent a very significant transition billions of years ago, whether or not Martian life ever existed remains unknown.
The main goal of the Curiosity mission was to determine whether the area ever offered a habitable environment. Thanks to evidence of past water and the discovery of minerals like boron, this has been confirmed. In the coming years, the deployment of the Mars 2020 rover is expected to follow-up on these findings and shed more light on Mars’ case for past habitability.
Once it reaches the surface, the Mars 2020 rover – which relies on much of the same technology as Curiosity – will use an instrument called the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC). Also developed by the LANL, this “SuperCam” instrument will use spectrometers, a laser and a camera to search for organics and minerals that could indicate the existence of past microbial life.
If there is still preserved evidence of life to be found on Mars or – fingers crossed! – microbial life still exists there today, we can expect to find it before long. If that should be the case, human beings will finally know with certainty that life evolved on a planet other than Earth, and perhaps independent of it!