These are the Best Places to Search for Habitable Exomoons

An artist's conception of a habitable exomoon. Credit: NASA

Our Solar System contains eight planets and more than 200 moons. The large majority of those moons have no chance of being habitable, but some of them—Europa and Enceladus, for example—are strong candidates in the search for life.

Is it the same in other solar systems?

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Planet Found in the Habitable Zone of a White Dwarf

An artist’s impression of the white dwarf star WD1054–226 orbited by clouds of planetary debris and a major planet in the habitable zone. Credit Mark A. Garlick / markgarlick.com Licence type Attribution (CC BY 4.0)

Most stars will end their lives as white dwarfs. White dwarfs are the remnant cores of once-luminous stars like our Sun, but they’ve left their lives of fusion behind and no longer generate heat. They’re destined to glow with only their residual energy for billions of years before they eventually fade to black.

Could life eke out an existence on a planet huddled up to one of these fading spectres?

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We Might Know Why Mars Lost its Magnetic Field

This figure shows a cross-section of the planet Mars revealing an inner, high density core buried deep within the interior. Dipole magnetic field lines are drawn in blue, showing the global scale magnetic field that one associates with dynamo generation in the core. Mars must have one day had such a field, but today it is not evident. Perhaps the energy source that powered the early dynamo has shut down. The differentiation of the planet interior - heavy elements like iron sinking towards the center of the planet - can provide energy as can the formation of a solid core from the liquid. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC

Mars is a parched planet ruled by global dust storms. It’s also a frigid world, where night-time winter temperatures fall to -140 C (-220 F) at the poles. But it wasn’t always a dry, barren, freezing, inhospitable wasteland. It used to be a warm, wet, almost inviting place, where liquid water flowed across the surface, filling up lakes, carving channels, and leaving sediment deltas.

But then it lost its magnetic field, and without the protection it provided, the Sun stripped away the planet’s atmosphere. Without its atmosphere, the water went next. Now Mars is the Mars we’ve always known: A place that only robotic rovers find hospitable.

How exactly did it lose its magnetic shield? Scientists have puzzled over that for a long time.

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An Exoplanet Found Protected by a Magnetosphere

Today’s astronomers are busy building the census of extrasolar planets, which has reached a total of 4,884 confirmed planets, with another 8,288 candidates awaiting confirmation. Now that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has finally been launched, future surveys will be reaching beyond mere discovery and will be focused more on characterization. In essence, future exoplanet surveys will determine with greater certainty which planets are habitable and which are not.

One characteristic that they will be on the lookout for in particular is the presence of planetary magnetic fields (aka. magnetospheres). On Earth, the atmosphere and all life on the surface are protected by a magnetic field, which is why they are considered crucial to habitability. Using data from the venerated Hubble Space Telescope (HST), an international team of astronomers reported the detection of a magnetic field around an exoplanet for the first time!

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Eggshell Planets Have a Thin Brittle Crust and No Mountains or Tectonics

'Eggshell planets’ are rocky worlds that have an ultra-thin outer brittle layer and little to no topography. Here, an artist’s rendition of such an exoplanet. (Image: NASA)

Planets without plate tectonics are unlikely to be habitable. But currently, we’ve never seen the surface of an exoplanet to determine if plate tectonics are active. Scientists piece together their likely surface structures from other evidence. Is there a way to determine what exoplanets might be eggshells, and eliminate them as potentially habitable?

The authors of a newly-published paper say there is.

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Rocky Planets Might Need to be the Right age to Support Life

This artist’s impression shows the planet orbiting the Sun-like star HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is one of sixteen super-Earths discovered by the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth lis at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid water, and perhaps even life, could potentially exist. Credit: ESO

Extrasolar planets are being discovered at a rapid rate, with 4,531 planets in 3,363 systems (with another 7,798 candidates awaiting confirmation). Of these, 166 have been identified as rocky planets (aka. “Earth-like”), while another 1,389 have been rocky planets that are several times the size of Earth (“Super-Earths). As more and more discoveries are made, the focus is shifting from the discovery process towards characterization.

In order to place tighter constraints on whether any of these exoplanets are habitable, astronomers and astrobiologists are looking for ways to detect biomarkers and other signs of biological processes. According to a new study, astronomers and astrobiologists should look for indications of a carbon-silicate cycle. On Earth, this cycle ensures that our climate remains stable for eons and could be the key to finding life on other planets.

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Rogue Planets Could be Habitable

An artist's illustration of a rogue planet, dark and mysterious. Image Credit: NASA

The search for potentially habitable planets is focused on exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—for good reason. The only planet we know of with life is Earth and sunlight fuels life here. But some estimates say there are many more rogue planets roaming through space, not bound to or warmed by any star.

Could some of them support life?

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Galactic Panspermia. How far Could Life Spread Naturally in a Galaxy Like the Milky Way?

A new study expands on the classical theory of panspermia, addressing whether or not life could be distributed on a galactic scale. Credit: NASA

Can life spread throughout a galaxy like the Milky Way without technological intervention? That question is largely unanswered. A new study is taking a swing at that question by using a simulated galaxy that’s similar to the Milky Way. Then they investigated that model to see how organic compounds might move between its star systems.

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The Elements for Life Depend on Both how and Where a Planet Forms

Artist's conception of a solar system in formation. Credit: NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook

In the past few decades, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown into the thousands. At present, 4,389 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,260 systems, with another 5,941 candidates awaiting confirmation. Thanks to numerous follow-up observations and studies, scientists have learned a great deal about the types of planets that exist in our Universe, how planets form, and how they evolve.

A key consideration in all of this is how planets become (and remain) habitable over time. In general, astrobiologists have operated under the assumption that habitability comes down to where a planet orbits within a system – within its parent star’s habitable zone (HZ). However, new research by a team from Rice University, indicates that where a planet forms in its respective star system could be just as important.

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How Would Rain be Different on an Alien World?

Artist’s impression of a sunset seen from the surface of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

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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