In searching for life in the Universe, a field known as astrobiology, scientists rely on Earth as a template for biological and evolutionary processes. This includes searching for Earth analogs, rocky planets that orbit within their parent star’s habitable zone (HZ) and have atmospheres composed of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. However, Earth’s atmosphere has evolved considerably over time from a toxic plume of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and traces of volcanic gas. Over time, the emergence of photosynthetic organisms caused a transition, leading to the atmosphere we see today.
The last 500 million years, known as the Phanerozoic Eon, have been particularly significant for the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere and terrestrial species. This period saw a significant rise in oxygen content and the emergence of animals, dinosaurs, and embryophyta (land plants). Unfortunately, the resulting transmission spectra are missing in our search for signs of life in exoplanet atmospheres. To address this gap, a team of Cornell researchers created a simulation of the atmosphere during the Phanerozoic Eon, which could have significant implications in the search for life on extrasolar planets.
We have discovered more than 5,400 planets in the universe. These worlds range from hot jovians that closely orbit their star to warm ocean worlds to cold gas giants. While we know they are there, we don’t know much about them. Characteristics such as mass and size are fairly straightforward to measure, but other properties such as temperature and atmospheric composition are more difficult. So the next generation of telescopes will try to capture that information, including one proposed telescope from the Chinese National Space Administration.
The habitable zone is the region around a star where planets can maintain liquid water on their surface. It’s axiomatic that planets with liquid water are the best places to look for life, and astronomers focus their search on that zone. As far as we can tell, no water equals no life.
But new research suggests another delineation in solar systems that could influence habitability: The Soot Line.
To date, 5,250 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,921 systems, with another 9,208 candidates awaiting confirmation. Of these, 195 planets have been identified as “terrestrial” (or “Earth-like“), meaning that they are similar in size, mass, and composition to Earth. Interestingly, many of these planets have been found orbiting within the circumsolar habitable zones (aka. “Goldilocks zone”) of M-type red dwarf stars. Examples include the closest exoplanet to the Solar System (Proxima b) and the seven-planet system of TRAPPIST-1.
These discoveries have further fueled the debate of whether or not these planets could be “potentially-habitable,” with arguments emphasizing everything from tidal locking, flare activity, the presence of water, too much water (i.e., “water worlds“), and more. In a new study from the University of Padua, a team of astrobiologists simulated how photosynthetic organisms (cyanobacteria) would fare on a planet orbiting a red dwarf. Their results experimentally demonstrated that oxygen photosynthesis could occur under red suns, which is good news for those looking for life beyond Earth!
Our closest stellar neighbor is Proxima Centauri, an M-type (red dwarf) star located over 4.24 light-years away (part of the Alpha Centauri trinary system). In 2016, the astronomical community was astounded to learn that an Earth-like planet orbited within this star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ). In addition to being the closest exoplanet to Earth, Proxima b was also considered the most promising place to look for extraterrestrial life for a time.
Unfortunately, the scientific community has been divided on whether or not life could even be possible on this planet. All of these studies indicate that this question cannot be answered until astronomers characterize Proxima b’s atmosphere, ideally by observing it as it passes in front (aka. transited) of its host star. But in a new NASA-supported study, a team led by astrophysicists at the University of Chicago determined that this is an unlikely possibility.
To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,422 extrasolar planets in 3,280 star systems, with an additional 7,445 candidates awaiting confirmation. Of these, only a small fraction (165) have been terrestrial (aka. rocky) in nature and comparable in size to Earth – i.e., not “Super-Earths.” And even less have been found that are orbiting within their parent star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ).
In the coming years, this is likely to change when next-generation instruments (like James Webb) are able to observe smaller planets that orbit closer to their stars (which is where Earth-like planets are more likely to reside). However, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Napoli and the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), Earth-like biospheres may be very rare for exoplanets.
In the past few decades, the study of exoplanets has grown by leaps and bounds, with 4296 confirmed discoveries in 3,188 systems and an additional 5,634 candidates awaiting confirmation. Because of this, scientists have been able to get a better idea about the number of potentially-habitable planets that could be out there. A popular target is stars like our own, which are known as G-type yellow dwarfs.
Recently, an international team of scientists (led by researchers from the NASA Ames Research Center) combined data from by the now-defunct Kepler Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia Observatory. What this revealed is that half of the Sun-like stars in our Universe could have rocky, potentially-habitable planets, the closest of which could be in our cosmic backyard!
NASA’s TESS planet-finding spacecraft completed its primary mission about 3 months ago. TESS’s (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) job was to search the brightest stars nearest to Earth for transiting exoplanets. It found 74 confirmed exoplanets, with another ~1200 candidates awaiting confirmation.
It surveyed 75% of the sky during its two-year primary mission, and now NASA has released a composite image of the northern sky, made up of more than 200 individual images.
Exoplanets have been a particularly hot topic of late. More than 4000 of them have been discovered since the first in 1995. Now one more can potentially be added to the list. This one is orbiting Gliese 3470, a red dwarf star located in the constellation Cancer. What makes this discovery particularly interesting is that this planet wasn’t discovered by any professional astronomers using high tech equipment like the Kepler Space Telescope. It was found entirely by amateurs.
In the past few decades, astronomers have confirmed the existence of thousands of planets beyond our Solar System. Over time, the process has shifted from discovery to characterization in the hopes of finding which of these planets are capable of supporting life. For the time being, these methods are indirect in nature, which means that astronomers can only infer if a planet is inhabitable based on how closely it resembles Earth.
To aid in the hunt for “potentially habitable” exoplanets, a team of Cornell researchers recently created five models that represent key points in Earth’s evolution. These “snapshots” of what Earth looked like during various geological epochs could greatly enhance the search for extra-terrestrial life by providing a more complete picture of what a life-bearing planet could look like.