In August of 2016, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of an exoplanet in the neighboring system of Proxima Centauri. The news was greeted with consider excitement, as this was the closest rocky planet to our Solar System that also orbited within its star’s habitable zone. Since then, multiple studies have been conducted to determine if this planet could actually support life.
Unfortunately, most of the research so far has indicated that the likelihood of habitability are not good. Between Proxima Centauri’s variability and the planet being tidally-locked with its star, life would have a hard time surviving there. However, using lifeforms from early Earth as an example, a new study conducted by researchers from the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) has shows how life could have a fighting chance on Proxima b after all.
Mathew Anderson, author and good friend of the Weekly Space Hangout, joins us again this week to discuss his newest book, Habitable Exoplanets: Red Dwarf Systems Like TRAPPIST-1, in which he focuses on exoplanet properties and the chances for habitable planets around Red Dwarf stars.
As he did with his two prior books, Our Cosmic Story and its followup Is Anyone Out There, Mathew will be offering a free e-copy of Habitable Exoplanets: Red Dwarf Systems Like TRAPPIST-1 to viewers of the Weekly Space Hangout, so be sure to tune in this week to find out how to get your free copy of this fascinating book.
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NASA’s announcement last week of 7 new exoplanets is still causing great excitement. Any time you discover 7 “Earth-like” planets around a distant star, with 3 of them “potentially” in the habitable zone, it’s a big deal. But now that we’re over some of our initial excitement, let’s look at some of the questions that need to be answered before we can all get excited again.
What About That Star?
The star that the planets orbit, called Trappist-1, is a Red Dwarf star, much dimmer and cooler than our Sun. The three potentially habitable planets—TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g— get about the same amount of energy as Earth and Mars do from the Sun, because they’re so close to it. Red Dwarfs are very long-lasting stars, and their lifetimes are measured in the trillions of years, rather than billions of years, like our Sun is.
But Red Dwarfs themselves can have some unusual properties that are problematic when it comes to supporting life on nearby planets.
Red Dwarfs can be covered in starspots, or what we call sunspots when they appear on our Sun. On our Sun, they don’t have much affect on the amount of energy received by the Earth. But on a Red Dwarf, they can reduce the energy output by up to 40%. And this can go on for months at a time.
Other Red Dwarfs can emit powerful flares of energy, causing the star to double in brightness in mere minutes. Some Red Dwarfs constantly emit these flares, along with powerful magnetic fields.
Part of the excitement surrounding the Trappist planets is that they show multiple rocky planets in orbit around a Red Dwarf. And Red Dwarfs are the most common type of star in the Milky Way. So, the potential for life-supporting, rocky planets just grew in a huge way.
But we don’t know yet how the starspots and flaring of Red Dwarfs will affect the potential habitability of planets orbiting them. It could very well render them uninhabitable.
Will Tidal Locking Affect the Planets’ Habitability?
The planets orbiting Trappist-1 are very likely tidally locked to their star. This means that they don’t rotate, like Earth and the rest of the planets in our Solar System. This has huge implications for the potential habitability of these planets. With one side of the planet getting all the energy from the star, and the other side in perpetual darkness, these planets would be nothing like Earth.
One side would be constantly roasted by the star, while the other would be frigid. It’s possible that some of these planets could have atmospheres. Depending on the type of atmosphere, the extreme temperature effects of tidal locking could be mitigated. But we just don’t know if or what type of atmosphere any of the planets have. Yet.
So, Do They Have Atmospheres?
We just don’t know yet. But we do have some constraints on what any atmospheres might be.
Preliminary data from the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that TRAPPIST 1b and 1c don’t have extended gas envelopes. All that really tells us is that they aren’t gaseous planets. In any case, those two planets are outside of the habitable zone. What we really need to know is if TRAPPIST 1e, 1f, and 1g have atmospheres. We also need to know if they have greenhouse gases in their atmospheres. Greenhouse gases could help make tidally locked planets hospitable to life.
On a tidally locked planet, the termination line between the sunlit side and the dark side is considered the most likely place for life to develop. The presence of greenhouse gases could expand the habitable band of the termination line and make more of the dark side warmer.
We won’t know much about any greenhouse gases in the atmospheres of these planets until the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) are operating. Those two ‘scopes will be able to analyze the atmospheres for greenhouse gases. They might also be able to detect biosignatures like ozone and methane in the atmospheres.
We’ll have to wait a while for that though. The JWST doesn’t launch until October 2018, and the EELT won’t see first light until 2024.
Do They Have Liquid Water?
We don’t know for sure if life requires liquid water. We only know that’s true on Earth. Until we find life somewhere else, we have to be guided by what we know of life on Earth. So we always start with liquid water.
A study published in 2016 looked at planets orbiting ultra-cool dwarfs like TRAPPIST-1. They determined that TRAPPIST 1b and 1c could have lost as much as 15 Earth oceans of water during the early hot phase of their solar system. TRAPPIST 1d might have lost as much as 1 Earth ocean of water. If they had any water initially, that is. But the study also shows that they may have retained some of that water. It’s not clear if the three habitable planets in the TRAPPIST system suffered the same loss of initial water. But if they did, they could have retained a similar amount of water.
There are still a lot of questions here. The word “habitable” only means that they are receiving enough energy from their star to keep water in liquid form. Since the planets are tidally locked, any water they did retain could be frozen on the planets’ dark side. To find out for sure, we’ll have to point other instruments at them.
Are Their Orbits Stable?
Planets require stable orbits over a biologically significant period of time in order for life to develop. Conditions that change too rapidly make it impossible for life to survive and adapt. A planet needs a stable amount of solar radiation, and a stable temperature, to support life. If the solar radiation, and the planet’s temperature, fluctuates too rapidly or too much due to orbital instability, then life would not be able to adapt to those changes.
Right now, there’s no indication that the orbits of the TRAPPIST 1 planets are unstable. But we are still in the preliminary stage of investigation. We need a longer sampling of their orbits to know for sure.
Pelted by Interlopers?
Our Solar System is a relatively placid place when it comes to meteors and asteroids. But it wasn’t always that way. Evidence from lunar rock samples show that it may have suffered through a period called the “Late Heavy Bombardment.” During this time, the inner Solar System was like a shooting gallery, with Earth, Venus, Mercury, Mars, and our Moon being struck continuously by asteroids.
The cause of this period of Bombardment, so the theory goes, was the migration of the giant planets through the solar system. Their gravity would have dislodged asteroids from the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt, and sent them into the path of the inner, terrestrial planets.
We know that Earth has been hit by meteorites multiple times, and that at least one of those times, a mass extinction was the result.
The TRAPPIST 1 system has no giant planets. But we don’t know if it has an asteroid belt, a Kuiper Belt, or any other organized, stable body of asteroids. It may be populated by asteroids and comets that are unstable. Perhaps the planets in the habitable zone are subjected to regular asteroid strikes which wipes out any life that gets started there. Admittedly, this is purely speculative, but so are a lot of other things about the TRAPPIST 1 system.
How Will We Find Out More?
We need more powerful telescopes to probe exoplanets like those in the TRAPPIST 1 system. It’s the only way to learn more about them. Sending some kind of probe to a solar system 40 light years away is something that might not happen for generations, if ever.
Luckily, more powerful telescopes are on the way. The James Webb Space Telescope should be in operation by April of 2019, and one of its objectives is to study exoplanets. It will tell us a lot more about the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, and whether or not they can support life.
Other telescopes, like the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), have the potential to capture images of large exoplanets, and possibly even Earth-sized exoplanets like the ones in the TRAPPIST system. These telescopes will see their first light within ten years.
What these questions show is that we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Yes, it’s exciting that the TRAPPIST planets have been discovered. It’s exciting that there are multiple terrestrial worlds there, and that 3 of them appear to be in the habitable zone.
It’s exciting that a Red Dwarf star—the most common type of star in our neighborhood—has been found with multiple rocky planets in the habitable zone. Maybe we’ll find a bunch more of them, and the prospect of finding life somewhere else will grow.
But it’s also possible that Earth, with all of its life supporting and sustaining characteristics, is an extremely unlikely occurrence. Special, rare, and unrepeatable.
Dr. Derrick Pitts, Chief Astronomer and Director of the Fels Planetarium at The Franklin Institute. He has been a NASA Solar System Ambassador since 2009 and serves as the Astrobiology Ambassador for the NASA/MIRS/UNCF Special Program Corporation’s Astrobiology Partnership Program. Additionally, Derrick was recently appointed to the outreach advisory board for the Thirty-Meter-Telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
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Planet-watchers, some exciting news: you know how we keep talking about planet candidates, those planets that have yet to be confirmed, when we reveal stories about other worlds? That’s because verifying that the slight dimming of a star’s light is due to a planet takes time – -specifically, to have other telescopes verify it through examining gravitational wobbles on the parent star.
Turns out there’s a way to solve the so-called “bottleneck” of planet candidates vs. confirmed planets. NASA has made use of a new technique that they say will work for multi-planet systems, one that already has results: a single Kepler release of data today (Feb. 26) yielded 715 new planets in one shot. That almost doubles the amount of known planets found before today, which was just under 1,000, officials said.
“This is the largest windfall of planets, not exoplanet candidates, but actual verified exoplanets announced at one time,” said Doug Hudgins, a NASA exoplanet exploration program scientist based in Washington, D.C., at a press conference today. What’s more, among the release were four planets (about double to 2.5 times the size of Earth) that could be considered habitable: Kepler-174 d, Kepler-296 f, Kepler-298 d, Kepler-309 c.
The findings were based on scouring the first two of Kepler’s four years of data, so scientists expect there will be a lot more to come once they go through the second half. Most of the discoveries were planets close to Earth’s size, showing that small planets are common in multiplanetary systems.
These planets, however, are crowded into insanely compact multiple planet systems, sometimes within the reaches of the equivalent of Mercury’s or Venus’ orbits. It’s raising questions about how young systems would have enough material in those reaches to form planets. Perhaps planetary migration played a role, but that’s still poorly understood.
Discoveries of these worlds was made with a new technique called “verification by multiplicity”. The challenge with the method Kepler uses — watching for starlight dimming when a planet passes in front of it — is there are other ways that same phenomenon can occur. One common reason is if the star being observed is a binary star and the second star is just barely grazing the first.
This is how the technique works: If you can imagine a star with a bunch of other stars around it, the mutual gravities of each object would throw their relative orbits into chaos. A star with a bunch of planets, however, would have a more stable orbital configuration. So if scientists see multiple transits of objects across a star’s face, the assumption is that it would be several planets.
“This physical difference, the fact you can’t have multiple star systems that look like planetary systems, is the basis of the validation by multiplicity,” said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center who was involved in the research.
Although this is a new technique, the astronomers said there has been at least one published publication talking about this method, and they added that two papers based on their own research have been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Astrophysical Journal.
There’s been a lot of attention on Kepler lately, not only because of its planetary finds, but also its uncertain status. In May 2013, a second of its four reaction wheels (or gyroscopes) went down, robbing the probe of its primary mission: to seek planets transiting in front of their stars in a spot in the Cygnus constellation. Since then, scientists have been working on a new method of finding planets with the spacecraft.
The spacecraft is good to go for K2 physically, NASA added, as the spacecraft only has four major malfunctions: the two reaction wheels, and 2 (out of 21) “science modules” that are used for science observing. The first module failed early in the mission, while the second died during a recent K2 test. While the investigation is ongoing, NASA said that they expect it will be due to an isolated part failure and that it will have no measurable impact on doing K2.
Edit, 8:30 p.m. EST: The two papers related to the Kepler discovery are available here and here on the prepublishing site Arxiv. Both are accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. (Hat tip to Tom Barclay).
One big challenge in astronomy is everything is so darn far away. This makes it hard to see the signs of life in planets, which are usually but tiny dots of light using the telescope technology we have today.
There are signs in Earth’s atmosphere that life is on the surface — methane from microbes, for example — and already scientists have years of research concerning ideas to find “biomarkers” on other planets. A new model focuses on a theoretical Earth-sized planet orbiting a red dwarf star, where it is believed biomarkers would be easier to find because these stars are smaller and fainter than that of the sun.
“We developed computer models of exoplanets which simulate the abundances of different biomarkers and the way they affect the light shining through a planet’s atmosphere,” stated Lee Grenfell, who is with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) institute of planetary science.
Preliminary work has already been done to find chemicals in the planet’s atmosphere (by looking at how they affect light that pass through the chemicals) particularly on large exoplanets that are close to their star (sometimes called “hot Jupiters“). Signs of life would be found through a similar process, but would be much fainter.
The research team constructed a model of a planet similar to Earth, at different orbits and distances from a red dwarf stars. Their work shows a sort of “Goldilocks” effect (or, a condition that is “just right”) to find ozone when the ultraviolet radiation falls into the medium of a given range. If it is too high, the UV heats the middle atmosphere and obliterates the biomarker signal. Too low UV makes the signal very hard to find.
“We find that variations in the UV emissions of red-dwarf stars have a potentially large impact on atmospheric biosignatures in simulations of Earth-like exoplanets. Our work emphasizes the need for future missions to characterise the UV emissions of this type of star,” said Grenfell.
The research has plenty of limitations, he added. We don’t know what alien life would look like, we don’t know if planets near red dwarfs are a good place to search, and even if we found a signal that looked like life, it could have come from another process. Still, Grenfell’s team expects the model is a good basis on which to continue asking the question: is life really out there?
The research has been submitted to the journal Planetary and Space Science.
The holy grail in the search for extrasolar planets will be the discovery of Earthlike planets orbiting other stars. With better telescopes and techniques, astronomers will eventually be able to even detect the atmospheres of extrasolar planets and determine if there’s life there. Although Earth-sized planets are impossible to detect with current observatories, astronomers are now finding super earths.
A super Earth is a terrestrial planet orbiting a distant star. But instead of having the mass of our own planet, it might have 2, 5, or even 10 times the mass of the Earth. Although that makes them large, very massive planets, they’re not as large or massive as gas giants.
And just because they’re called super Earths doesn’t mean they’re habitable, or even Earthlike in climate at all. Super Earths could be orbiting close to their parent star, or well outside the solar system’s habitable zone.
Scientists haven’t completely settled on a definition for super Earths. Some believe a planet should be considered a super Earth if it’s a terrestrial planet between 1 and 10 Earth masses, while others think it should be between 5 and 10 Earth masses.
The first super Earth ever discovered was found in 1991 orbiting a pulsar. Obviously that wouldn’t really be a very habitable place to live. The first super earth found orbiting a main sequence star was found in 2005, orbiting the star Gliese 876. It’s estimated to have 7.5 times the mass of the Earth, and orbits its parent star every 2 days. With such a short orbital period, you can expect that it’s orbiting very close to its parent star. Temperatures on the surface of the planet reach 650 kelvin.
The first super earth found within its star’ habitable zone was Gliese 581 c. It’s estimated to have 5 Earth masses, and orbits its parent star at a distance of 0.073 astronomical units (1 AU is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun). That’s pretty close to the star, and Gliese 581 c would probably have a runaway greenhouse effect, similar to Venus. But right beside that is Gliese 581 d, with a mass of 7.7 Earths and an orbit of 0.22 AU. This planet could very well have liquid water on its surface.
The smallest super Earth discovered so far is MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb, which has only 3.3 times the mass of the Earth, and was orbiting a brown dwarf star. But this record will probably be beaten by the time you read this, as planet hunters get better. It’s only a matter of time before a true Earthlike planet is discovered.