Planet Sizes Matter for Habitability Too.

In order to be considered habitable, a planet needs to have liquid water. Cells, the smallest unit of life, need water to carry out their functions. For liquid water to exist, the temperature of the planet needs to be right. But how about the size of the planet?

Without sufficient mass a planet won’t have enough gravity to hold onto its water. A new study tries to understand how size affects the ability of a planet to hold onto its water, and as a result, its habitability.

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There Could be Planets Out There Which are Even More Habitable than Earth

When searching for potentially habitable exoplanets, scientists are forced to take the low-hanging fruit approach. Since Earth is the only planet we know of that is capable of supporting life, this search basically comes down to looking for planets that are “Earth-like”. But what if Earth is not the meter stick for habitability that we all tend to think it is?

That was the subject of a keynote lecture that was recently made at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Congress, which took place from Aug. 18th to 23rd, in Barcelona, Spain. Here, a team of NASA-supported researchers explained how an examination of what goes into defining habitable zones (HZs) shows that some exoplanets may have better conditions for life to thrive than Earth itself has.

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Earth is an Exoplanet to Aliens. This is What They’d See

The study of exoplanets has matured considerably in the last ten years. During this time, the majority of the over 4000 exoplanets that are currently known to us were discovered. It was also during this time that the process has started to shift from the process of discovery to characterization. What’s more, next-generation instruments will allow for studies that will reveal a great deal about the surfaces and atmospheres of exoplanets.

This naturally raises the question: what would a sufficiently-advanced species see if they were studying our planet? Using multi-wavelength data of Earth, a team of Caltech scientists was able to construct a map of what Earth would look like to distant alien observers. Aside from addressing the itch of curiosity, this study could also help astronomers reconstruct the surface features of “Earth-like” exoplanets in the future.

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Which Habitable Zones are the Best to Actually Search for Life?

Looking to the future, NASA and other space agencies have high hopes for the field of extra-solar planet research. In the past decade, the number of known exoplanets has reached just shy of 4000, and many more are expected to be found once next-generations telescopes are put into service. And with so many exoplanets to study, research goals have slowly shifted away from the process of discovery and towards characterization.

Unfortunately, scientists are still plagued by the fact that what we consider to be a “habitable zone” is subject to a lot of assumptions. Addressing this, an international team of researchers recently published a paper in which they indicated how future exoplanet surveys could look beyond Earth-analog examples as indications of habitability and adopt a more comprehensive approach.

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Habitable Planets Around Red Dwarf Stars Might not get Enough Photons to Support Plant Life

In recent years, the number of extra-solar planets discovered around nearby M-type (red dwarf stars) has grown considerably. In many cases, these confirmed planets have been “Earth-like“, meaning that they are terrestrial (aka. rocky) and comparable in size to Earth. These finds have been especially exciting since red dwarf stars are the most common in the Universe – accounting for 85% of stars in the Milky Way alone.

Unfortunately, numerous studies have been conducted of late that indicate that these planets may not have the necessary conditions to support life. The latest comes from Harvard University, where postdoctoral researcher Manasvi Lingam and Professor Abraham Loeb demonstrate that planets around M-type stars may not get enough radiation from their stars for photosynthesis to occur.

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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.

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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