Exoplanets Will Need Both Continents and Oceans to Form Complex Life

When it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial life, scientists have a tendency to be a bit geocentric – i.e. they look for planets that resemble our own. This is understandable, seeing as how Earth is the only planet that we know of that supports life. As result, those searching for extra-terrestrial life have been looking for planets that are terrestrial (rocky) in nature, orbit within their stars habitable zones, and have enough water on their surfaces.

In the course of discovering several thousand exoplanets, scientists have found that many may in fact be “water worlds” (planets where up to 50% of their mass is water). This naturally raises some questions, like how much water is too much, and could too much land be a problem as well? To address these, a pair of researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) conducted a study to determine how the ratio between water and land masses can contribute to life.

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To Find Evidence of Life on Exoplanets, Scientists Should Search for “Purple Earths”

Finding potentially habitable planets beyond our Solar System is no easy task. While the number of confirmed extra-solar planets has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades (3791 and counting!), the vast majority have been detected using indirect methods. This means that characterizing the atmospheres and surface conditions of these planets has been a matter of estimates and educated guesses.

Similarly, scientists look for conditions that are similar to what exists here on Earth, since Earth is the only planet we know of that supports life. But as many scientists have indicated, Earth’s conditions has changed dramatically over time. And in a recent study, a pair of researchers argue that a simpler form of photosynthetic life forms may predate those that relies on chlorophyll – which could have drastic implications in the hunt for habitable exoplanets.

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The Closest Planet Ever Discovered Outside the Solar System Could be Habitable With a Dayside Ocean

In of August of 2016, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri – the closest star to our Solar System. In addition, they confirmed that this planet (Proxima b) orbited within its star’s habitable zone. Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine if Proxima b could in fact be habitable.

Unfortunately, most of this research has not been very encouraging. For instance, many studies have indicated that Proxima b’s sun experiences too much flare activity for the planet to sustain an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface.  However, in a new NASA-led study, a team of scientists has investigated various climate scenarios that indicate that Proxima b could still have enough water to support life.

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TRAPPIST-1 Planets Might Actually Have Too Much Water to be Habitable

In February of 2017, the world was astounded to learn that astronomers – using data from the TRAPPIST telescope in Chile and the Spitzer Space Telescope – had identified a system of seven rocky exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. As if this wasn’t encouraging enough for exoplanet-enthusiasts, it was also indicated that three of the seven planets orbited within the stars’ circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”).

Since that time, this system has been the focus of considerable research and follow-up surveys to determine whether or not any of its planets could be habitable. Intrinsic to these studies has been the question whether or not the planets have liquid water on their surfaces. But according to a new study by a team of American astronomers, the TRAPPIST planets may actually have too much water to support life.

The study, titled “Inward Migration of the TRAPPIST-1 Planets as Inferred From Their Water-Rich Compositions“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. The study was led by Cayman T. Unterborn, a geologist with the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), and included Steven J. Desch, Alejandro Lorenzo (also from the SESE) and Natalie R. Hinkel – an astrophysicists from Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

As noted, multiple studies have been conducted that have sought to determine if any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets could be habitable. And while some have stressed that they would not be able to hold onto their atmospheres for long due to the fact that they orbit a star that is variable and prone to flaring (like all red dwarfs), others studies have found evidence that the system could be rich in water and ideal for life-swapping.

For the sake of their study, the team used data from prior surveys that attempted to place constraints on the mass and diameter of the TRAPPIST-1 planets in order to calculate their densities. Much of this came from a dataset called the Hypatia Catalog (developed by contributing author Hinkel), which merges data from over 150 literary sources to determine the stellar abundances of stars near to our Sun.

Using this data, the team constructed mass-radius-composition models to determine the volatile contents of each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets. What they noticed is that the TRAPPIST planets are traditionally light for rocky bodies, indicating a high content of volatile elements (such as water). On similarly low-density worlds, the volatile component is usually thought to take the form of atmospheric gases.

But as Unterborn explained in a recent SESE news article, the TRAPPIST-1 planets are a different matter:

“[T]he TRAPPIST-1 planets are too small in mass to hold onto enough gas to make up the density deficit. Even if they were able to hold onto the gas, the amount needed to make up the density deficit would make the planet much puffier than we see.”

Artist’s impression of some of the planets orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO

Because of this, Unterborn and his colleagues determined that the low-density component in this planetary system had to be water. To determine just how much water was there, the team used a unique software package developed known as ExoPlex. This software uses state-of-the-art mineral physics calculators that allowed the team to combine all of the available information about the TRAPPIST-1 system – not just the mass and radius of individual planets.

What they found was that the inner planets (b and c) were “drier” – having less than 15% water by mass – while the outer planets (f and g) had more than 50% water by mass. By comparison, Earth has only 0.02% water by mass, which means that these worlds have the equivalent of hundreds of Earth-sized oceans in their volume. Basically, this means that the TRAPPIST-1 planets may have too much water to support life. As Hinkel explained:

“We typically think having liquid water on a planet as a way to start life, since life, as we know it on Earth, is composed mostly of water and requires it to live. However, a planet that is a water world, or one that doesn’t have any surface above the water, does not have the important geochemical or elemental cycles that are absolutely necessary for life.”

These findings do not bode well for those who believe that M-type stars are the most likely place to have habitable planets in our galaxy. Not only are red dwarfs the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 75% of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, several that are relatively close to our Solar System have been found to have one or more rocky planets orbiting them.

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

Aside from TRAPPIST-1, these include the super-Earths discovered around LHS 1140 and GJ 625, the three rocky planets discovered around Gliese 667, and Proxima b – the closest exoplanet to our Solar System. In addition, a survey conducted using the HARPS spectrograph at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in 2012 indicated that there could be billions of rocky planets orbiting within the habitable zones of red dwarf stars in the Milky Way.

Unfortunately, these latest findings indicate that the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system are not favorable for life. What’s more, there would probably not be enough life on them to produce biosignatures that would be observable in their atmospheres. In addition, the team also concluded that the TRAPPIST-1 planets must have formed father away from their star and migrated inward over time.

This was based on the fact that the ice-rich TRAPPIST-1 planets were far closer to their star’s respective “ice line” than the drier ones. In any solar system, planets that lie within this line will be rockier since their water will vaporize, or condense to form oceans on their surfaces (if a sufficient atmosphere is present). Beyond this line, water will take the form of ice and can be accreted to form planets.

From their analyses, the team determined that the TRAPPIST-1 planets must have formed beyond the ice line and migrated towards their host star to assume their current orbits. However, since M-type (red dwarf) stars are known to be brightest after the first form and dim over time, the ice line would have also moved inward. As co-author Steven Desch explained, how far the planets migrated would therefore depend on when they had formed.

Artist’s impression of how the surface of a planet orbiting a red dwarf star may appear. The planet is in the habitable zone so liquid water exists. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

“The earlier the planets formed, the farther away from the star they needed to have formed to have so much ice,” he said. Based on how long it takes for rocky planets to form, the team estimated that the planets must have originally been twice as far from their star as they are now. While there are other indications that the planets in this system migrated over time, this study is the first to quantify the migration and use composition data to show it.

This study is not the first to indicate that planets orbiting red dwarf stars may in fact be “water worlds“, which would mean that rocky planets with continents on their surfaces are a relatively rare thing. At the same time, other studies have been conducted that indicate that such planets are likely to have a hard time holding onto their atmospheres, indicating that they would not remain water worlds for very long.

However, until we can get a better look at these planets – which will be possible with the deployment of next-generation instruments (like the James Webb Space Telescope) – we will be forced to theorize about what we don’t know based what we do. By slowly learning more about these and other exoplanets, our ability to determine where we should be looking for life beyond our Solar System will be refined.

Further Reading: SESE, Nature Astronomy

Proxima Centauri Just Released a Deadly Flare, so it’s Probably not a Great Place for Habitable Planets

Since it’s discovery was announced in August of 2016, Proxima b has been an endless source of wonder and the target of many scientific studies. As the closest extra-solar planet to our Solar System – and a terrestrial planet that orbits within Proxima Centauri’s circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”) – scientists have naturally wondered whether or not this planet could be habitable.

Unfortunately, many of these studies have emphasized the challenges that life on Proxima b would likely face, not the least of which is harmful radiation from its star. According to a recent study, a team of astronomers used the ALMA Observatory to detect a large flare emanating from Proxima Centauri. This latest findings, more than anything, raises questions about how habitable its exoplanet could be.

The study, titled “Detection of a Millimeter Flare from Proxima Centauri“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by Meredith A. MacGregor, an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the team also included members from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the University of Colorado Boulder.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For the sake of their study, the team used data obtained by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) between January 21st to April 25th, 2017. This data revealed that the star underwent a significant flaring event on March 24th, where it reached a peak that was 1000 times brighter than the star’s quiescent emission for a period of ten seconds.

Astronomers have known for a long time that when compared to stars like our Sun, M-type stars are variable and unstable. While they are the smallest, coolest, and dimmest stars in our Universe, they tend to flare up at a far greater rate. In this case, the flare detected by the team was ten times larger than our Sun’s brightest flares at similar wavelengths.

Along with a smaller preceding flare, the entire event lasted fewer than two minutes of the 10 hours that ALMA was observing the star between January and March of last year. While it was already known that Proxima Centauri, like all M-type stars, experiences regular flare activity, this one appeared to be a rare event. However, stars like Proxima Centauri are also known to experienced regular, although smaller, X-ray flares.

All of this adds up to a bad case for habitability. As MacGregor explained in a recent NRAO press statement:

“It’s likely that Proxima b was blasted by high energy radiation during this flare. Over the billions of years since Proxima b formed, flares like this one could have evaporated any atmosphere or ocean and sterilized the surface, suggesting that habitability may involve more than just being the right distance from the host star to have liquid water.”

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

MacGregor and her colleagues also considered the possibility that Proxima Centauri is circled by several disks of dust. This was suggested by a previous study (also based on ALMA data) that indicated that the light output of both the star and flare together pointed towards the existence of debris belts around the star. However, after examining the ALMA data as a function of observing time, they were able to eliminate this as a possibility.

As Alycia J. Weinberger, also a researcher with the Carnegie Institution for Science and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“There is now no reason to think that there is a substantial amount of dust around Proxima Cen. Nor is there any information yet that indicates the star has a rich planetary system like ours.”

To date, studies that have looked at possible conditions on Proxima b have come to different conclusions as to whether or not it could retain an atmosphere or liquid water on its surface. While some have found room for “transient habitability” or evidence of liquid water, others have expressed doubt based on the long-term effects that radiation and flares from its star would have on a tidally-locked planet.

In the future, the deployment of next-generation instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope are expected to provide more detailed information on this system. With precise measurements of this star and its planet, the question of whether or not life can (and does) exist in this system may finally be answered.

And be sure to enjoy this animation of Proxima Centauri in motion, courtesy of NRAO outreach:

Further Reading: NRAO, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

The Genesis Project: Using Robotic Gene Factories to Seed the Galaxy with Life

In the past decade, the rate at which extra-solar planets have been discovered and characterized has increased prodigiously. Because of this, the question of when we might explore these distant planets directly has repeatedly come up. In addition, the age-old question of what we might find once we get there – i.e. is humanity alone in the Universe or not? – has also come up with renewed vigor.

These questions have led to a number of interesting and ambitious proposals. These include Project Blue, a space telescope which would directly observe any planets orbiting Alpha Centauri, and Breakthrough Starshot – which aims to send a laser-driven nanocraft to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years. But perhaps the most daring proposal comes in the form of Project Genesis, which would attempt to seed distant planets with life.

This proposal was put forth by Dr. Claudius Gros, a theoretical physicist from the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Goethe University Frankfurt. In 2016, he published a paper that described how robotic missions equipped with gene factories (or cryogenic pods) could be used to distribute microbial life to “transiently habitable exoplanets – i.e. planets capable of supporting life, but not likely to give rise to it on their own.

Exogenesis
The purpose of Project Genesis would be to seed “transiently habitable” worlds with life, thus giving them a jump start on evolution. Credit: NASA/Jenny Mottor

Not long ago, Universe Today wrote about Dr. Gros’ recent study where he proposed using a magnetic sail to slow down an interstellar spacecraft. We were fortunate to catch up with Dr. Gros again and had a chance to ask him about Project Genesis. You can find our Q&A below, and be sure to check out his seminal paper that describes this project – “Developing Ecospheres on Transiently Habitable Planets: The Genesis Project“.

What is the purpose of Project Genesis?

Exoplanets come in all sizes, temperatures and compositions. The purpose of the Genesis project is to offer terrestrial life alternative evolutionary pathways on those exoplanets that are potentially habitable but yet lifeless. The basic philosophy of most scientists nowadays is that simple life is common in the universe and complex life is rare. We don’t know that for sure, but at the moment, that is the consensus.

If you had good conditions, simple life can develop very fast, but complex life will have a hard time. At least on Earth, it took a very long time for complex life to arrive. The Cambrian Explosion only happened about 500 million years ago, roughly 4 billion years after Earth was formed. If we give planets the opportunity to fast forward evolution, we can give them the chance to have their own Cambrian Explosions.

Early trilobite species (Eoredlichia takooensis) from the Lower Cambrian period, found in Emu Bay Shale, Kangaroo Island, Australia. Credit and ©: Royal Ontario Museum/David Rudkin

What worlds would be targeted?

The prime candidates are habitable “oxygen planets” around M-dwarfs like TRAPPIST-1. It is very likely that the oxygen-rich primordial atmosphere of these planets will have prevented abiogenesis in first place, that is the formation of life. Our galaxy could potentially harbor billions of habitable but lifeless oxygen planets.

Nowadays, astronomers are looking for planets around M-stars. These are very different from planets around Sun-like stars. Once a star forms, it takes a certain amount of time to contract to the point where fusion begins, and it starts to produce energy. For the Sun, this took 10 million years, which is very fast. For stars like TRAPPIST-1, it would take 100 million to 1 billion years. Then they have to contract to dissipate their initial heat.

The planets around TRAPPIST-1 would have been very hot, because the star was very hot for a long time. All the water that was in their stratospheres, the UV radiation would have disassociated it into hydrogen and oxygen – the hydrogen escaped, and the oxygen remained. All surveys have showed that they have oxygen atmospheres, but this is the product of chemical disassociation and not from plants (as with Earth).

There’s a good chance that oxygen planets are sterile, because oxygen planets eat up prebiotic conditions. We believe there may be billions of oxygen planets in our galaxy. They would have no life, and complex life needs oxygen. In science fiction, you have all these planets that look alike. We could imagine that in half a billion years, we could have this because we seeded oxygen planets (only we couldn’t travel there quickly since we have no FTL).

Illustration of what the TRAPPIST-1 system might look like from a vantage point near planet TRAPPIST-1f (at right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What kind of organisms would be sent?

The first wave would consist of unicellular autotrophs. That is photo-synthesizing bacteria, like cyanobacteria, and eukaryotes (the cell type making up all complex life, that is animals and plants). Heterotrophs would follow in a second stage, organisms that feed on other organisms and can only exist after autotrophs exist and take root.

How would these organisms be sent?

That depends on the technology. If it can advance, we can miniaturize a gene factory. In principle, nature is a miniature gene factory. Everything we want to produce is very small. If it’s possible that would be the best option. Send in a gene bank, and then select the most optimal organism to send down. If that is not possible, you would have to have frozen germs. In the end, it depends on what would be the technically available.

You could also send in synthetic life. Synthetic biology is a very active research field, which involves reprogramming the genetic code. In science fiction, you have alien life with a different genetic code. Today, people are trying to produce this here on Earth. The end goal is to have new life forms that are based on a different code. This would be very dangerous on Earth, but on a far-distant planet, it would be beneficial.

What if these worlds are not sterile?

Genesis is all about life, not destroying life, so we’d want to avoid that. The probes would have to go into orbit, so we are pretty sure that from orbit, we could detect complex life on the surface. The Genesis Project was intended for planets that are not habitable for eternity. Earth is habitable for billions of years, but we are not sure about habitable exoplanets.

This illustration shows a star’s light illuminating the atmosphere of a planet. Credits: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Exoplanets come in all kinds of sized, temperatures, and habitabilities. Many of these planets will only be habitable for some time, maybe 1 billion years. Life there will not have time to evolve into complex life forms. So you have a decision: leave them like they are, or take a chance at developing complex life there.

Some believe that all bacteria are worth saving. On Earth, there is no protection for bacteria. But bacteria living on different planets are treated differently. Planetary protection, why do we do that? So we can study the life, or for the sake of protecting life itself? Mars most likely had life at one time, but now not, except for maybe a few bacteria. Still, we plan manned missions to Mars, which means planetary protection is off. It’s a contradiction.

I am very enthusiastic about finding life, but what about the planets where we don’t find life? This offers the possibility about doing something about it.

Could humanity benefit from this someday (i.e. colonize “seeded” planets)?

Yes and no. Yes, because nothing would keep our decedents (or any other intelligence living on Earth by then), to visit Genesis planets in 10-100 million years (the minimal time for the life initially seeded to fully unfold). No, because the involved time spans are so long, that it is not rational to speak of a ‘benefit’.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

How soon could such a mission be mounted?

Genesis probes could be launched by the same directed-energy launch system planned for the Breakthrough Starshot initiative. Breakthrough Starshot aims to send very fast, very small, very light probes of about 1 gram to another star system. The same laser technology could send something more massive, but slower. Slow is relative, of course. So the in the end it depends on what is optimal.

The magnetic sail paper I recently wrote was a sample mission to show that it was possible. The probe would be about the size of a car (1 tonne) and would travel at a speed of about 1000 km/s – slow for interstellar travel relative to speed of light, but fast for Earth. If you reduce the velocity by a factor of 100, the mass you can propel is 10,000 heavier. You could accelerate a 1-tonne Genesis Probe and it would still fit into the layout of Breakthrough Starshot.

Therefore, the launch facility could see dual use and you wouldn’t need to build something new. Once that is in place one would need to test the magnetic sail. A realistic time span would hence be in the 50-100 years window.

What counter-arguments are there against this?

There are three main lines of counter-arguments. The first is the religious counter-argument, which says that humanity should not play God. The Genesis project is however not about creating life, but to give life the possibility to further develop. Just not on Earth, but elsewhere in the cosmos.

Mars, according to multiple studies, could still support life, raising issues of “planetary protection”. Credit: YONHAP/EPA

The second is the Planetary protection argument, which argues that we should not interfere. Some people objecting to the Genesis Project cite the ‘first directive’ of the Star Trek TV series. The Genesis Project fully supports planetary protection of planets which harbor complex life and of planets on which complex life could potentially develop in the future. The Genesis project will target only planets on which complex life could not develop on its own.

The third argument is about the lack of benefit to humanity. The Genesis Project is expressively not for human benefit. It is reasonable to argue, from the perspective of survival, that the ethical values of a species (like humanity) has to put the good of the species at the center.  Ethical is therefore “what is good for our own species”. Spending a large amount of money on a project, like the Genesis Project, which is expressively not for the benefit of our own species, would then be unethical.

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Our thanks go out to Dr. Gros for taking the time to talk to us! We hope to hear more from him in the future and wish him the best of luck with Project Genesis.

Closest Potentially-Habitable World Found Around “Quiet” Star

In August of 2016, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) extra-solar planet orbiting within the habitable zone of the nearby Proxima Centauri star system, just 4.25 light-years away. Naturally, news of this was met with a great deal of excitement. This was followed about six months later with the announcement of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1.

Well buckle up, because the ESO just announced that there is another potentially-habitable planet in our stellar neighborhood! Like Proxima b, this exoplanet – known as Ross 128b – is relatively close to our Solar System (10.8 light years away) and is believed to be temperate in nature. But on top of that, this rocky planet has the added benefit of orbiting a quiet red dwarf star, which boosts the likelihood of it being habitable.

The discovery paper, titled “A temperate exo-Earth around a quiet M dwarf at 3.4 parsecs“, was recently released by the ESO. The discovery team was led by Xavier Bonfils of the University of Grenoble Alpes, and included members from the Geneva Observatory, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), the University of Buenos Aires, the University of Laguna, the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), and the University of Porto.

This artist’s impression shows the temperate planet Ross 128b, with its red dwarf parent star in the background. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The discovery was made using the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), located at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. This observatory relies on measurements of a star’s Doppler shift in order to determine if it moving back and forth, a sign that it has a system of planets. Using the HARPS data, the team determined that a  rocky planet orbits Ross 128 (an M-type red dwarf star) at a distance of about 0.05 AU with a period of 9.9 days.

Despite its proximity to its host star, Ross 128b receives only 1.38 times more irradiation than the Earth. This is due to the cool and faint nature of red dwarf stars like Ross 128, which has a surface temperature roughly half that of our Sun. From this, the discovery team estimated that Ross 128b’s equilibrium temperature is likely somewhere between -60 and 20°C – i.e. close to what we experience here on Earth.

As Nicola Astudillo-Defru of the Geneva Observatory – and a co-author on the discovery paper – indicated in an ESO press release:

This discovery is based on more than a decade of HARPS intensive monitoring together with state-of-the-art data reduction and analysis techniques. Only HARPS has demonstrated such a precision and it remains the best planet hunter of its kind, 15 years after it began operations.”

But what is most encouraging is the fact that Ross 128 is the “quietest” nearby star that is also home to an exoplanet. Compared to other classes of stars, M-type red dwarfs are particularly low in mass, dimmer and cooler. They are also the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 70% of the stars in spiral galaxies and more than 90% of all stars in elliptical galaxies.

Unfortunately, they are also variable and unstable compared to other classes of star, which means they experience regular flare ups. This means that any planets which orbit them will be periodically subjected to deadly ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. In comparison, Ross 128 is much quieter, meaning it experiences less in the way of flare activity, and planets orbiting it are therefore exposed to less radiation over time.

This means that, relative to Proxima b or those planets located within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone – Ross 128b is more likely to retain an atmosphere and support life. For those who are engaged in searches for exoplanets around M-type stars – or are of the opinion that red dwarfs are the best bet for finding habitable worlds – this latest discovery would seem to confirm that they are looking in the right spots!

As noted, red dwarfs are the most common in the Universe, and in recent years, many rocky planets (sometimes even a multi-planet system) have been found orbiting these stars. Combined with their natural longevity – which can remain in their main sequence phase for up to 10 trillion years – red dwarf stars have understandably become a popular target for exoplanet-hunters.

In fact, lead author Xavier Bonfils named their HARPS program “The Shortcut to Happiness” for this very reason. As he and his colleagues indicated, it is easier to detect small cool planets of Earth around smaller, dimmer M-type stars than it is around stars that are more similar to the Sun.

However, many in the scientific community have remained skeptical about the likelihood that any of these planets could be habitable (again, due to their variable nature). But this most recent discovery, along with recent research that indicates how tidally-locked  planets that orbit red dwarf stars could hold onto their atmospheres, is another possible indication that these fears may be for naught.

Being at a distance of about 11 light-years from Earth, Ross 128b is currently the second-closest exoplanet to our Sun. However, Ross 128 itself is slowly moving closer towards us and will become our nearest stellar neighbor in roughly 79,000 years. At this point, Ross 128b will replace Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth!

But of course, much remains to be found about this latest exoplanet. While the discovery team consider Ross 128b to be a temperate planet based on its orbit, it remains uncertain as to whether it lies within, beyond, or on the cusp of the star’s habitable zone. However, further studies are expected to shed more light on this and other questions relating this potentially-habitable world.

Astronomers also anticipate that more temperature exoplanets will be discovered in the coming years, and that future surveys will be able to determine a great deal more about their atmospheres, composition and chemistry. Instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) are expected to play a major role.

Not only will these and other instrument help turn up more exoplanet candidates, they will also be used in the hunt for biosignatures in planet’s atmospheres (i.e. oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor, etc.). As Bonfils concluded:

New facilities at ESO will first play a critical role in building the census of Earth-mass planets amenable to characterization. In particular, NIRPS, the infrared arm of HARPS, will boost our efficiency in observing red dwarfs, which emit most of their radiation in the infrared. And then, the ELT will provide the opportunity to observe and characterize a large fraction of these planets.”

At this juncture, the process of exoplanet discovery is moving beyond detection and getting into the process of characterization and detailed study. Even so, it is nice that we are still making groundbreaking discoveries in the field of detection. In the coming years, we may transition from looking for an Earth 2.0 to a point where weare actively studying several at once!

Further Reading: ESO, ESO (2)

Using Atmospheric Beacons to Search for Signs of Extra-Terrestrial Life

Despite the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered by astronomers in recent years, determining whether or not any of them are habitable is a major challenge. Since we cannot study these planets directly, scientists are forced to look for indirect indications. These are known as biosignatures, which consist of the chemical byproducts we associate with organic life showing up in a planet’s atmosphere.

A new study by a team of NASA scientists proposes a new method to search for potential signs of life beyond our Solar System. The key, they recommend, is to takes advantage of frequent stellar storms from cool, young dwarf stars. These storms hurl huge clouds of stellar material and radiation into space, interacting with exoplanet atmospheres and producing biosignatures that could be detected.

The study, titled “Atmospheric Beacons of Life from Exoplanets Around G and K Stars“, recently appeared in Nature Scientific Reports. Led by Vladimir S. Airapetian, a senior astrophysicist with the Heliophysics Science Division (HSD) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the team included members from NASA’s Langley Research Center, the Science Systems and Applications Incorporated (SSAI), and the American University.

Beacons of life could help researchers identify potentially habitable worlds. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk

Traditionally, researchers have searched for signs of oxygen and methane in exoplanet atmospheres, since these are well-known byproducts of organic processes. Over time, these gases accumulate, reaching amounts that could be detected using spectroscopy. However, this approach is time-consuming and requires that astronomers spend days trying to observe spectra from a distant planet.

But according to Airapetian and his colleagues, it is possible to search for cruder signatures on potentially habitable worlds. This approach would rely on existing technology and resources and would take considerably less time. As Airapetian explained in a NASA press release:

“We’re in search of molecules formed from fundamental prerequisites to life — specifically molecular nitrogen, which is 78 percent of our atmosphere. These are basic molecules that are biologically friendly and have strong infrared emitting power, increasing our chance of detecting them.”

Using life on Earth as a template, Airapetian and his team designed a new method to look or signs of water vapor, nitrogen and oxygen gas byproducts in exoplanets atmospheres. The real trick, however, is to take advantage of the kinds of extreme space weather events that occur with active dwarf stars. These events, which expose planetary atmospheres to bursts of radiation, cause chemical reactions that astronomers can pick on.

Artist’s impression of the cool red star above a distant exoplanet. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick.

When it comes to stars like our Sun, a G-type yellow dwarf, such weather events are common when they are still young. However, other yellow and orange stars are known to remain active for billions of years, producing storms of energetic, charged particles. And M-type (red dwarf) stars, the most common type in the Universe, remain active throughout their long-lives, periodically subjecting their planets to mini-flares.

When these reach an exoplanet, they react with the atmosphere and cause the chemical dissociation of nitrogen (N²) and oxygen (O²) gas into single atoms, and water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen. The broken down nitrogen and oxygen atoms then cause a cascade of chemical reactions which produce hydroxyl (OH), more molecular oxygen (O), and nitric oxide (NO) – what scientists refer to as “atmospheric beacons”.

When starlight hits a planet’s atmosphere, these beacon molecules absorb the energy and emit infrared radiation. By examining the particular wavelengths of this radiation, scientists are able to determine what chemical elements are present. The signal strength of these elements is also an indication of atmospheric pressure. Taken together, these readings allow scientist’s to determine an atmosphere’s density and composition.

For decades, astronomers have also used a model to calculate how ozone (O³) is formed in Earth’s atmosphere from oxygen that is exposed to solar radiation. Using this same model – and pairing it with space weather events that are expected from cool, active stars – Airapetian and his colleagues sought to calculate just how much nitric oxide and hydroxyl would form in an Earth-like atmosphere and how much ozone would be destroyed.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s TIMED spacecraft, which has been observing Earth’s upper atmosphere for 15 years. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL

To accomplish this, they consulted data from NASA’s Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics Dynamics (TIMED) mission, which has been studying the formation of beacons in Earth’s atmosphere for years. Specifically, they used data from its Sounding of the Atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry (SABER) instrument, which allowed them to simulate how infrared observations of these beacons might appear in exoplanet atmospheres.

As Martin Mlynczak, the SABER associate principal investigator at NASA’s Langley Research Center and a co-author of the paper, indicated:

“Taking what we know about infrared radiation emitted by Earth’s atmosphere, the idea is to look at exoplanets and see what sort of signals we can detect. If we find exoplanet signals in nearly the same proportion as Earth’s, we could say that planet is a good candidate for hosting life.”

What they found was that the frequency of intense stellar storms was directly related to the strength of the heat signals coming from the atmospheric beacons. The more storms occur, the more beacon molecules are created, generating a signal strong enough to be observed from Earth with a space telescope, and based on just two hours of observation time.

An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist's impression). Via the IAU.
An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist’s impression). Credit: IAU

They also found that this kind of method can weed out exoplanets that do not possess an Earth-like magnetic field, which naturally interact with charged particles from the Sun. The presence of such a field is what ensures that a planet’s atmosphere is not stripped away, and is therefore essential to habitability. As Airapetian explained:

“A planet needs a magnetic field, which shields the atmosphere and protects the planet from stellar storms and radiation. If stellar winds aren’t so extreme as to compress an exoplanet’s magnetic field close to its surface, the magnetic field prevents atmospheric escape, so there are more particles in the atmosphere and a stronger resulting infrared signal.”

This new model is significant for several reasons. On the one hand, it shows how research that has enabled detailed studies of Earth’s atmosphere and how it interacts with space weather is now being put towards the study of exoplanets. It is also exciting because it could allow for new studies of exoplanet habitability around certain classes of stars – ranging from many types of yellow and orange stars to cool, red dwarf stars.

Red dwarfs are the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 70% of stars in spiral galaxies and 90% in elliptical galaxies. What’s more, based on recent discoveries, astronomers estimate that red dwarf stars are very likely to have systems of rocky planets. The research team also anticipates that next-generation space instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope will increase the likelihood of finding habitable planets using this model.

This artist’s impression shows the planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth. Credit: ESO

As William Danchi, a Goddard senior astrophysicist and co-author on the study, said:

“New insights on the potential for life on exoplanets depend critically on interdisciplinary research in which data, models and techniques are utilized from NASA Goddard’s four science divisions: heliophysics, astrophysics, planetary and Earth sciences. This mixture produces unique and powerful new pathways for exoplanet research.”

Until such time that we are able to study exoplanets directly, any development that makes biosignatures more discernible and easier to detect is incredibly valuable. In the coming years, Project Blue and Breakthrough Starshot are hoping to conduct the first direct studies of the Alpha Centauri system. But in the meantime, improved models that allow us to survey countless other stars for potentially habitable exoplanets are golden!

Not only will they vastly improve our understanding of just how common such planets are, they might just point us in the direction of one or more Earth 2.0s!

Further Reading: NASA, Nature Scientific Reports

Looking for Signs of Life on Distant Planets Just Got Easier

When it comes to searching for worlds that could support extra-terrestrial life, scientists currently rely on the “low-hanging fruit” approach. Since we only know of one set of conditions under which life can thrive – i.e. what we have here on Earth – it makes sense to look for worlds that have these same conditions. These include being located within a star’s habitable zone, having a stable atmosphere, and being able to maintain liquid water on the surface.

Until now, scientists have relied on methods that make it very difficult to detect water vapor in the atmosphere’s of terrestrial planets. But thanks to a new study led by Yuka Fujii of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), that may be about to change. Using a new three-dimensional model that takes into account global circulation patterns, this study also indicates that habitable exoplanets may be more common than we thought.

The study, titled “NIR-driven Moist Upper Atmospheres of Synchronously Rotating Temperate Terrestrial Exoplanets“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. In addition to Dr. Fujii, who is also a member of the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the research team included Anthony D. Del Genio (GISS) and David S. Amundsen (GISS and Columbia University).

Artist’s concept of the hot Jupiter WASP-121b, which presents the best evidence yet of a stratosphere on an exoplanet – generated using Engine House VFX. Credit: Bristol Science Centre/University of Exeter

To put it simply, liquid water is essential to life as we know it. If a planet does not have a warm enough atmosphere to maintain liquid water on its surface for a sufficient amount of time (on the order of billions of years), then it is unlikely that life will be able to emerge and evolve. If a planet is too distant from its star, its surface water will freeze; if it is too close, its surface water will evaporate and be lost to space.

While water has been detected in the atmospheres of exoplanets before, in all cases, the planets were massive gas giants that orbited very closely to their stars. (aka. “Hot Jupiters”). As Fujii and her colleagues state in their study:

“Although H2O signatures have been detected in the atmospheres of hot Jupiters, detecting molecular signatures, including H2O, on temperate terrestrial planets is exceedingly challenging, because of the small planetary radius and the small scale height (due to the lower temperature and presumably larger mean molecular weight).”

When it comes to terrestrial (i.e. rocky) exoplanets, previous studies were forced to rely on one-dimensional models to calculate the presence of water. This consisted of measuring hydrogen loss, where water vapor in the stratosphere is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. By measuring the rate at which hydrogen is lost to space, scientists would estimate the amount of liquid water still present on the surface.

Artist’s impression of the “Venus-like” exoplanet GJ 1132b. Credit: cfa.harvard.edu

However, as Dr. Fujii and her colleagues explain, such models rely on several assumptions that cannot be addressed, which include the global transport of heat and water vapor vapor, as well as the effects of clouds. Basically, previous models predicted that for water vapor to reach the stratosphere, long-term surface temperatures on these exoplanets would have to be more than 66 °C (150 °F) higher than what we experience here on Earth.

These temperatures could create powerful convective storms on the surface. However, these storms could not be the reason water reaches the stratosphere when it comes to slowly rotating planets entering a moist greenhouse state – where water vapor intensifies heat. Planets that orbit closely to their parent stars are known to either have a slow rotation or to be tidally-locked with their planets, thus making convective storms unlikely.

This occurs quite often for terrestrial planets that are located around low-mass, ultra cool, M-type (red dwarf) stars. For these planets, their proximity to their host star means that it’s gravitational influence will be strong enough to slow down or completely arrest their rotation. When this occurs, thick clouds form on the dayside of the planet, protecting it from much of the star’s light.

The team found that, while this could keep the dayside cool and prevent water vapor from rising, the amount of near-Infrared radiation (NIR) could provide enough heat to cause a planet to enter a moist greenhouse state. This is especially true of M-type and other cool dwarf stars, which are known to produce more in the way of NIR. As this radiation warms the clouds, water vapor will rise into the stratosphere.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to the Solar System. In the background, the binary system of Alpha Centauri can be seen. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

To address this, Fujii and her team relied on three-dimensional general circulation models (GCMs) which incorporate atmospheric circulation and climate heterogeneity. For the sake of their model, the team started with a planet that had an Earth-like atmosphere and was entirely covered by oceans. This allowed the team to clearly see how variations in distance from different types of stars would effect conditions on the planets surfaces.

These assumptions allowed the team to clearly see how changing the orbital distance and type of stellar radiation affected the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere. As Dr. Fujii explained in a NASA press release:

“Using a model that more realistically simulates atmospheric conditions, we discovered a new process that controls the habitability of exoplanets and will guide us in identifying candidates for further study… We found an important role for the type of radiation a star emits and the effect it has on the atmospheric circulation of an exoplanet in making the moist greenhouse state.”

In the end, the team’s new model demonstrated that since low-mass star emit the bulk of their light at NIR wavelengths, a moist greenhouse state will result for planets orbiting closely to them. This would result in conditions on their surfaces that comparable to what Earth experiences in the tropics, where conditions are hot and moist, instead of hot and dry.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

What’s more, their model indicated that NIR-driven processes increased moisture in the stratosphere gradually, to the point that exoplanets orbiting closer to their stars could remain habitable. This new approach to assessing potential habitability will allow astronomers to simulate circulation of planetary atmospheres and the special features of that circulation, which is something one-dimensional models cannot do.

In the future, the team plans to assess how variations in planetary characteristics -such as gravity, size, atmospheric composition, and surface pressure – could affect water vapor circulation and habitability. This will, along with their 3-dimensional model that takes planetary circulation patterns into account, allow astronomers to determine the potential habitability of distant planets with greater accuracy. As Anthony Del Genio indicated:

“As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state. Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state.”

Beyond offering astronomers a more comprehensive method for determining exoplanet habitability, this study is also good news for exoplanet-hunters hoping to find habitable planets around M-type stars. Low-mass, ultra-cool, M-type stars are the most common star in the Universe, accounting for roughly 75% of all stars in the Milky Way. Knowing that they could support habitable exoplanets greatly increases the odds of find one.

Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In addition, this study is VERY good news given the recent spate of research that has cast serious doubt on the ability of M-type stars to host habitable planets. This research was conducted in response to the many terrestrial planets that have been discovered around nearby red dwarfs in recent years. What they revealed was that, in general, red dwarf stars experience too much flare and could strip their respective planets of their atmospheres.

These include the 7-planet TRAPPIST-1 system (three of which are located in the star’s habitable zone) and the closest exoplanet to the Solar System, Proxima b. The sheer number of Earth-like planets discovered around M-type stars, coupled with this class of star’s natural longevity, has led many in the astrophysical community to venture that red dwarf stars might be the most likely place to find habitable exoplanets.

With this latest study, which indicates that these planets could be habitable after all, it would seem that the ball is effectively back in their court!

Further Reading: NASA, The Astrophysical Journal

 

Here’s How We Can Detect Plants on Extrasolar Planets

The past year has been an exciting time for those engaged in the hunt for extra-solar planets and potentially habitable worlds. In August of 2016, researchers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of the closest exoplanet to Earth (Proxima b) yet discovered. This was followed a few months later (February of 2017) with the announcement of a seven-planet system around TRAPPIST-1.

The discovery of these and other extra-solar planets (and their potential to host life) was an overarching theme at this year’s Breakthrough Discuss conference. Taking place between April 20th and 21st, the conference was hosted by Stanford University’s Department of Physics and sponsored by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Breakthrough Initiatives.

Founded in 2015 by Yuri Milner and his wife Julia, Breakthrough Initiatives was created to encourage the exploration of other star systems and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). In addition to prepping what could very well be the first mission to another star system (Breakthrough Starshot), they are also developing what will be the world’s most advanced search for extra-terrestrial civilizations (Breakthrough Listen).

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The first day of the conference featured presentations that addressed recent exoplanet discoveries around M-type (aka. red dwarf) stars and what possible strategies will be used to study them. In addition to addressing the plethora of terrestrial planets that have been discovered around these types of stars in recent years, the presentations also focused on how and when life might be confirmed on these planets.

One such presentation was titled “SETI Observations of Proxima b and Nearby Stars”, which was hosted by Dr. Svetlana Berdyugina. In addition to being a professor of astrophysics with the University of Freiburg and a member of the Kiepenheuer Institute for Solar Physics, Dr. Berdyugina is also one of the founding members of the Planets Foundation  – an international team of professors, astrophysicists, engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists dedicated to the development of advanced telescopes.

As she indicated during the course of the presentation, the same instruments and methods used to study and characterize distant stars could be used to confirm the presence of continents and vegetation on the surface of distant exoplanets. The key here – as as been demonstrated by decades of Earth observation – is to observe the reflected light (or “light curve”) coming from their surfaces.

Measurements of a star’s light curve are used to to determine what type of class a star is and what processes are at work within it. Light curves are also routinely used to discern the presence of planets around stars – aka. the Transit Method, where a planet transiting in front of a star causes a measurable dip in its brightness – as well as determining the size and orbital period of the planet.

Diagram illustrating how the absorption of light can be used to determine the presence of vegetation on an extra-solar planet. Credit: S. Berdyugina.

When used for the sake of planetary astronomy, measuring the light curve of worlds like Proxima b could not only allow astronomers to be able to tell the difference between land masses and oceans, but also to discern the presence of meteorological phenomena. These would include clouds, periodic variations in albedo (i.e. seasonal change), and even the presence of photosynthetic life forms (aka. plants).

For example, and illustrated by the diagram above, green vegetation absorbs almost all the red, green and blue (RGB) parts of the spectrum, but reflects infrared light. This sort of process has been used for decades by Earth observation satellites to track meteorological phenomena, measure the extent of forests and vegetation, track the expansion of population centers, and monitor the growth of deserts.

In addition, the presence of biopigments caused by chlorophyll means that the reflected RGB light would be highly-polarized while UR light would be weakly polarized. This will allow astronomers to tell the difference between vegetation and something that is simply green in color. To gather this information, she stated, will require the work of off-axis telescopes that are both large and high-contrast.

These are expected to include the Colossus Telescope, a project for a massive telescope that is being spearheaded by the Planets Foundation – and for which Dr. Berdyugina is the project lead. Once completed, Colossus will be the largest optical and infrared telescope in the world, not to mention the largest telescope optimized for detecting extrasolar life and extraterrestrial civilizations.

It consists of 58 independent off-axis 8-meter telescopes, which effectively merge their telescope-interferometry to offer an effective resolution of 74-meters. Beyond Colossus, the Planets Foundation is also responsible for the ExoLife Finder (ELF). This 40-m telescope uses many of the same technologies that will go into Colossus, and is expected to be the first telescope to create surface maps of nearby exoplanets.

And then there’s the Polarized Light from Atmospheres of Nearby Extra-Terrestrial Planets (PLANETS) telescope, which is currently being constructed in Haleakala, Hawaii (expected to be completed by January 2018). Here too, this telescope is a technology demonstrator for what will eventually go into making Colossus a reality.

Beyond the Planets Foundation, other next-generation telescopes are also expected to conduct high-quality spectroscopic studies of distant exoplanets. The most famous of these is arguably NASA’s James Webb Telescope, which is scheduled to launch next year.

And be sure to check out the video of Dr. Berdyugina full presentation below:

Further Reading: Breakthrough Initiatives, Centauri Dreams