What Does “Earthlike” Even Mean & Should It Apply To Proxima Centauri b?

The ESO’s recent announcement that they have discovered an exoplanet candidate orbiting Proxima Centauri – thus confirming weeks of speculation – has certainly been exciting news! Not only is this latest find the closest extra-solar planet to our own Solar System, but the ESO has also indicated that it is rocky, similar in size and mass to Earth, and orbits within the star’s habitable zone.

However, in the midst of this news, there has been some controversy regarding certain labels. For instance, when a planet like Proxima b is described as “Earth-like”, “habitable”, and/or “terrestrial“, there are naturally some questions as to what this really means. For each term, there are particular implications, which in turn beg for clarification.

For starters, to call a planet “Earth-like” generally means that it is similar in composition to Earth. This is where the term “terrestrial” really comes into play, as it refers to a rocky planet that is composed primarily of silicate rock and metals which are differentiated between a metal core and a silicate mantle and crust.

This applies to all planets in the inner Solar System, and is often used in order to differentiate rocky exoplanets from gas giants. This is important within the context of exoplanet hunting, as the majority of the 4,696 exoplanet candidates – of which 3,374 have been confirmed (as of August 18th, 2016) – have been gas giants.

What this does not mean, at least not automatically, is that the planet is habitable in the way Earth is. Simply being terrestrial in nature is not an indication that the planet has a suitable atmosphere or a warm enough climate to support the existence of liquid water or microbial life on its surface.

What’s more, Earth-like generally implies that a planet will be similar in mass and size to Earth. But this is not the same as composition, as many exoplanets that have been discovered have been labeled as “Earth-sized” or “Super-Earths” – i.e. planets with around 10 times the mass of Earth – based solely on their mass.

This term also distinguishes an exoplanet candidate from those that are 15 to 17 masses (which are often referred to as “Neptune-sized”) and those that have masses similar to, or many times greater than that of Jupiter (i.e. Super-Jupiters). In all these cases, size and mass are the qualifiers, not composition.

Ergo, finding a planet that is greater in size and mass than Earth, but significantly less than that of a gas giant, does not mean it is terrestrial. In fact, some scientists have recommended that the term “mini-Neptune” be used to describe planets that are more massive than Earth, but not necessarily composed of silicate minerals and metals.

And estimates of size and mass are not exactly metrics for determining whether or not a planet is “habitable”. This term is especially sticky when it comes to exoplanets. When scientists attach this word to extra-solar planets like Proxima b, Gliese 667 Cc, Kepler-452b, they are generally referring to the fact that the planet exists within its parent star’s “habitable zone” (aka. Goldilocks zone).

This term describes the region around a star where a planet will experience average surface temperatures that allow for liquid water to exist on its surface. For those planets that orbit too close to their star, they will experience intense heat that transforms surface water into hydrogen and oxygen – the former escaping into space, the latter combining with carbon to form CO².

This is what scientists believe happened to Venus, where thick clouds of CO² and water vapor triggered a runaway greenhouse effect. This turned Venus from a world that once had oceans into the hellish environment we know today, where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, atmospheric density if off the charts, and sulfuric acid rains from its thick clouds.

Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It's located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It’s located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

For planets that orbit beyond a star’s habitable zone, water ice will become frozen solid, and the only liquid water will likely be found in underground reservoirs (this is the case on Mars). As such, finding planets that are just right in terms of average surface temperature is intrinsic to the “low-hanging fruit” approach of searching for life in our Universe.

But of course, just because a planet is warm enough to have water on its surface doesn’t mean that life can thrive on it. As our own Solar System beautifully demonstrates, a planet can have the necessary conditions for life, but still become a sterile environment because it lacks a protective magnetosphere.

This is what scientists believe happened to Mars. Located within our Sun’s Goldilocks zone (albeit on the outer edge of it), Mars is believed to have once had an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. But today, atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is only 1% that of Earth’s, and the surface is dry, cold, and devoid of life.

The reason for this, it has been determined, is because Mars lost its magnetosphere 4.2 Billion years ago. According to NASA’s MAVEN mission, this resulted in Mars’ atmosphere being slowly stripped away over the course of the next 500 million years by solar wind. What little atmosphere it had left was not enough to retain heat, and its surface water evaporated.

Billions of years ago, Mars was a very different world. Liquid water flowed in long rivers that emptied into lakes and shallow seas. A thick atmosphere blanketed the planet and kept it warm. Credit: NASA
Billions of years ago, Mars was a very different world. Liquid water flowed in long rivers that emptied into lakes and shallow seas. A thick atmosphere blanketed the planet and kept it warm. Credit: NASA

By the same token, planets that do not have protective magnetospheres are also subject to an intense level of radiation on their surfaces. On the Martian surface, the average dose of radiation is about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day, which is about a fifth of what people are exposed to here on Earth in the course of a year.

We can expect similar situations on extra-solar planets where a magnetosphere does not exist. Essentially, Earth is fortunate in that it not only orbits in a pretty cushy spot around our Sun, but that its core is differentiated between a solid inner core and a liquid, rotating outer core. This rotation, it is believed, is responsible for creating a dynamo effect that in turn creates Earth’s magnetic field.

However, using our own Solar System again as a model, we find that magnetic fields are not entirely uncommon. While Earth is the only terrestrial planet in our Solar System to have on (all the gas giants have powerful fields), Jupiter’s moon Ganymede also has a magnetosphere of its own.

Similarly, there are orbital parameters to consider. For instance, a planet that is similar in size, mass and composition could still have a very different climate than Earth due to its orbit. For one, it may be tidally-locked with its star, which would mean that one side is permanently facing towards it, and is therefore much warmer.

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl
An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

On the other hand, it may have a slow rotational velocity, and a rapid orbital velocity, which means it only experiences a few rotations per orbit (as is the case with Mercury). Last, but certainly not least, its distance from its respective star could mean it receives far more radiation than Earth does – regardless of whether or not it has a magnetosphere.

This is believed to the be the case with Proxima Centauri b, which orbits its red dwarf star at a distance of 7 million km (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun. It also orbits Proxima Centauri with an orbital period of 11 days, and either has a synchronous rotation, or a 3:2 orbital resonance (i.e. three rotations for every two orbits).

Because of this, the climate is likely to be very different than Earth’s, with water confined to either its sun-facing side (in the case of a synchronous rotation), or in its tropical zone (in the case of a 3:2 resonance). In addition, the radiation it receives from its red dwarf star would be significantly higher than what we are used to here on Earth.

So what exactly does “Earth-like” mean? The short answer is, it can mean a lot of things. And in this respect, its a pretty dubious term. If Earth-like can mean similarities in mass, size, composition, and can allude to the fact that planet orbits within its star’s habitable zone – but not necessarily all of the above – then its not a very reliable term.

Earth-like planets. Image Credit: JPL
Artist’s impression of the Earth-like planets that have been observed in other star systems. Image Credit: JPL

In the end, the only way to keep things clear would be to describe a planet as “Earth-like” if it in fact shows similarities in terms of size, mass and composition, all at the same time. The word “terrestrial” can certainly be substituted in a pinch, but only where the composition of the planet is known with a fair degree of certainty (and not just its size and mass).

And words like “habitable” should probably only be used when chaperoned by words like “potentially”. After all, being within a star’s habitable zone certainly means there’s the potential for life. But it doesn’t not necessarily entail that life could have emerged there, or that humans could live there someday.

And should these words apply to Proxima b? Perhaps, but one should consider the fact that the ESO has announced the detection of a exoplanet using the Radial Velocity method. Until such time as it is confirmed using direct detection methods, its remains a candidate exoplanet (not a confirmed one).

But even these simple measures would likely not be enough to erase all the ambiguity or controversy. When it comes right down to it, planet-hunting – like all aspects of space exploration and science – is a divisive issue. And new findings always have a way of drawing criticism and disagreement from several quarters at once.

And you thought Pluto’s classification confused things! Well, Pluto has got nothing on the exoplanet database! So be prepared for many years of classification debates and controversy!

Further Reading: NASA Exoplanet Archive

How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present to our guide to terraforming Jupiter’s Moons. Much like terraforming the inner Solar System, it might be feasible someday. But should we?

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.

As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?”

Kuiper Belt Objects Point The Way To Planet 9

Artist's impression of Planet Nine, blocking out the Milky Way. The Sun is in the distance, with the orbit of Neptune shown as a ring. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

On January 20th, 2016, researchers Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown of Caltech announced that they had found evidence that hinted at the existence of a massive planet at the edge of the Solar System. Based on mathematical modeling and computer simulations, they predicted that this planet would be a super-Earth, two to four times Earth’s size and 10 times as massive. They also estimated that, given its distance and highly elliptical orbit, it would take 10,000 – 20,000 years to orbit the Sun.

Since that time, many researchers have responded with their own studies about the possible existence of this mysterious “Planet 9”. One of the latest comes from the University of Arizona, where a research team from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory have indicated that the extreme eccentricity of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) might indicate that they crossed paths with a massive planet in the past.

For some time now, it has been understood that there are a few known KBOs who’s dynamics are different than those of other belt objects. Whereas most are significantly controlled by the gravity of the gas giants planets in their current orbits (particularly Neptune), certain members of the scattered disk population of the Kuiper Belt have unusually closely-spaced orbits.

The six most distant known objects in the solar system with orbits exclusively beyond Neptune (magenta), including Sedna (dark magenta), all mysteriously line up in a single direction. Also, when viewed in three dimensions, they tilt nearly identically away from the plane of the solar system. Another population of Kuiper belt objects (cyan) are forced into orbits that are perpendicular to the plane of the solar system and clustered in orientation. Batygin and Brown show that a planet with 10 times the mass of the earth in a distant eccentric orbit (orange) anti-aligned with the magenta orbits and perpendicular to the cyan orbits is required to maintain this configuration. Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
The orbits of Neptune (magenta), Sedna (dark magenta), a series of Kuiper belt objects (cyan), and the hypothetical Planet 9 (orange). Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

When Batygin and Brown first announced their findings back in January, they indicated that these objects instead appeared to be highly clustered with respect to their perihelion positions and orbital planes. What’s more, their calculation showed that the odds of this being a chance occurrence were extremely low (they calculated a probability of 0.007%).

Instead, they theorized that it was a distant eccentric planet that was responsible for maintaining the orbits of these KBOs. In order to do this, the planet in question would have to be over ten times as massive as Earth, and have an orbit that lay roughly on the same plane (but with a perihelion oriented 180° away from those of the KBOs).

Such a planet not only offered an explanation for the presence of high-perihelion Sedna-like objects – i.e. planetoids that have extremely eccentric orbits around the Sun. It would also help to explain where distant and highly inclined objects in the outer Solar System come from, since their origins have been unclear up until this point.

In a paper titled “Coralling a distant planet with extreme resonant Kuiper belt objects“, the University of Arizona research team – which included Professor Renu Malhotra, Dr. Kathryn Volk, and Xianyu Wang – looked at things from another angle. If in fact Planet 9 were crossing paths with certain high-eccentricity KBOs, they reasoned, it was a good bet that its orbit was in resonance with these objects.

Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

To break it down, small bodies are ejected  from the Solar System all the time due to encounters with larger objects that perturb their orbits. In order to avoid being ejected, smaller bodies need to be protected by orbital resonances. While the smaller and larger objects may pass within each others’ orbital path, they are never close enough that they would able to exert a significant influence on each other.

This is how Pluto has remained a part of the Solar System, despite having an eccentric orbit that periodically cross Neptune’s path. Though Neptune and Pluto cross each others orbit, they are never close enough to each other that Neptune’s influence would force Pluto out of our Solar System. Using this same reasoning, they hypothesized that the KBOs examined by Batygin and Brown might be in an orbital resonance with the Planet 9.

As Dr.  Malhotra, Volk and Wang told Universe Today via email:

“The extreme Kuiper belt objects we investigate in our paper are distinct from the others because they all have very distant, very elliptical orbits, but their closest approach to the Sun isn’t really close enough for them to meaningfully interact with Neptune. So we have these six observed objects whose orbits are currently fairly unaffected by the known planets in our Solar System. But if there’s another, as yet unobserved planet located a few hundred AU from the Sun, these six objects would be affected by that planet.”

After examining the orbital periods of these six KBOs – Sedna, 2010 GB174, 2004 VN112, 2012 VP113, and 2013 GP136 – they concluded that a hypothetical planet with an orbital period of about 17,117 years (or a semimajor axis of about 665 AU), would have the necessary period ratios with these four objects. This would fall within the parameters estimated by Batygin and Brown for the planet’s orbital period (10,000 – 20,000 years).

Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign
Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign

Their analysis also offered suggestions as to what kind of resonance the planet has with the KBOs in question. Whereas Sedna’s orbital period would have a 3:2 resonance with the planet, 2010 GB174 would be in a 5:2 resonance, 2994 VN112 in a 3:1, 2004 VP113 in 4:1, and 2013 GP136 in 9:1. These sort of resonances are simply not likely without the presence of a larger planet.

“For a resonance to be dynamically meaningful in the outer Solar System, you need one of the objects to have enough mass to have a reasonably strong gravitational effect on the other,” said the research team. “The extreme Kuiper belt objects aren’t really massive enough to be in resonances with each other, but the fact that their orbital periods fall along simple ratios might mean that they each are in resonance with a massive, unseen object.”

But what is perhaps most exciting is that their findings could help to narrow the range of Planet 9’s possible location. Since each orbital resonance provides a geometric relationship between the bodies involved, the resonant configurations of these KBOs can help point astronomers to the right spot in our Solar System to find it.

But of course, Malhotra and her colleagues freely admit that several unknowns remain, and further observation and study is necessary before Planet 9 can be confirmed:

“There are a lot of uncertainties here. The orbits of these extreme Kuiper belt objects are not very well known because they move very slowly on the sky and we’ve only observed very small portions of their orbital motion. So their orbital periods might differ from the current estimates, which could make some of them not resonant with the hypothetical planet. It could also just be chance that the orbital periods of the objects are related; we haven’t observed very many of these types of objects, so we have a limited set of data to work with.”

Based on a careful study of Saturn's orbit and using mathematical models, French scientists were able to whittle down the search region for Planet Nine to "possible" and "probable" zones. Source: CNRS, Cote d'Azur and Paris observatories. Credit:
Estimates of Planet Nine’s “possible” and “probable” zones. by French scientists based on a careful study of Saturn’s orbit and using mathematical models. Source: CNRS, Cote d’Azur and Paris observatories. Credit: Bob King

Ultimately, astronomers and the rest of us will simply have to wait on further observations and calculations. But in the meantime, I think we can all agree that the possibility of a 9th Planet is certainly an intriguing one! For those who grew up thinking that the Solar System had nine planets, these past few years (where Pluto was demoted and that number fell to eight) have been hard to swallow.

But with the possible confirmation of this Super-Earth at the outer edge of the Solar System, that number could be pushed back up to nine soon enough!

Further Reading: arXiv.org

Uranus’ “Frankenstein Moon” Miranda

Ever since the Voyager space probes ventured into the outer Solar System, scientists and astronomers have come to understand a great deal of this region of space. In addition to the four massive gas giants that call the outer Solar System home, a great deal has been learned about the many moons that circle them. And thanks to photographs and data obtained, human beings as a whole have come to understand just how strange and awe-inspiring our Solar System really is.

This is especially true of Miranda, the smallest and innermost of Uranus’ large moons – and some would say, the oddest-looking! Like the other major Uranian moons, its orbits close to its planet’s equator, is perpendicular to the Solar System’s ecliptic, and therefore has an extreme seasonal cycle. Combined with one of the most extreme and varied topographies in the Solar System, this makes Miranda an understandable source of interest!

Discovery and Naming:

Miranda was discovered on February 16th, 1948, by Gerard Kuiper using the McDonald Observatory‘s Otto Struve Telescope at the University of Texas in Austin. Its motion around Uranus was confirmed on March 1st of the same year, making it the first satellite of Uranus to be discovered in almost a century (the previous ones being Ariel and Umbriel, which were both discovered in 1851 by William Lassell).

A montage of Uranus's moons. Image credit: NASA
A montage of Uranus’s moons. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Consistent with the names of the other moons, Kuiper decided to the name the object “Miranda” after the character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This continued the tradition set down by John Herschel, who suggested that all the large moons of Uranus – Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon – be named after characters from either The Tempest or Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 235.8 ± 0.7 km and a mass of 6.59 ± 0.75 ×1019 kg, Miranda is 0.03697 Earths times the size of Earth and roughly 0.000011 as massive. Its modest size also makes it one of the smallest object in the Solar System to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium, with only Saturn’s moon of Mimas being smaller.

Of Uranus’ five larger moons, Miranda is the closest, orbiting at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 129,390 km. It has a very minor eccentricity of 0.0013 and an inclination of 4.232° to Uranus’ equator. This is unusually high for a body so close to its parent planet – roughly ten times that of the other Uranian satellites.

Since there are no mean-motion resonances to explain this, it has been hypothesized that the moons occasionally pass through secondary resonances. At some point, this would have led Miranda into being locked in a temporary 3:1 resonance with Umbriel, and perhaps a 5:3 resonance with Ariel as well. This resonance would have altered the moon’s inclination, and also led to tidal heating in its interior (see below).

Size comparison of all the Solar Systems moons. Credit: The Planetary Society
Size comparison of all the Solar Systems moons. Credit: NASA/The Planetary Society

With an average orbital speed of 6.66 km/s, Miranda takes 1.4 days to complete a single orbit of Uranus. Its orbital period (also 34 hours) is synchronous with its rotational period, meaning that it is tidally-locked with Uranus and maintains one face towards it at all times. Given that it orbits around Uranus’ equator, which means its orbit is perpendicular to the Sun’s ecliptic, Uranus goes through an extreme seasonal cycle where the northern and southern hemispheres experience 42 years of lightness and darkness at a time.

Composition and Surface Structure:

Miranda’s mean density (1.2 g/cm3) makes it the least dense of the Uranian moons. It also suggests that Miranda is largely composed of water ice (at least 60%), with the remainder likely consisting of silicate rock and organic compounds in the interior. The surface of Miranda is also the most diverse and extreme of all moons in the Solar System, with features that appear to be jumbled together in a haphazard fashion.

This consists of huge fault canyons as deep as 20 km (12 mi), terraced layers, and the juxtaposition of old and young surfaces seemingly at random. This patchwork of broken terrain indicates that intense geological activity took place in Miranda’s past, which is believed to have been driven by tidal heating during the time when it was in orbital resonance with Umbriel (and perhaps Ariel).

This resonance would have increased orbital eccentricity, and along with varying tidal forces from Uranus, would have caused warming in Miranda’s interior and led to resurfacing. In addition, the incomplete differentiation of the moon, whereby rock and ice were distributed more uniformly, could have led to an upwelling of lighter material in some areas, thus leading to young and older regions existing side by side.

Miranda
Uranus’ moon Miranda, imaged by the Voyager 2 space probe on January 24th, 1986. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Another theory is that Miranda was shattered by a massive impact, the fragments of which reassembled to produce a fractured core. In this scenario – which some scientists believe could have happened as many as five times – the denser fragments would have sunk deep into the interior, with water ice and volatiles setting on top of them and mirroring their fractured shape.

Overall, scientists recognize five types of geological features on Miranda, which includes craters, coronae (large grooved features), regiones (geological regions), rupes (scarps or canyons) and sulci (parallel grooves).

Miranda’s cratered regions are differentiated between younger, lightly-cratered regions and older, more-heavily cratered ones. The lightly cratered regions include ridges and valleys, which are separated from the more heavily-cratered areas by sharp boundaries of mismatched features. The largest known craters are about 30 km (20 mi) in diameter, with others lying in the range of 5 to 10 km (3 to 6 mi).

Miranda has the largest known cliff in the Solar System, which is known as Verona Rupes (named after the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). This rupes has a drop-off of over 5 km (3.1 mi) – making it 12 times as deep as the Grand Canyon. Scientists suspect that Miranda’s ridges and canyons represent extensional tilt blocks – a tectonic event where tectonic plates stretch apart, forming patterns of jagged terrain with steep drops.

. Credit: NASA/JPL
Image taken by the Voyager 2 probe during its close approach on January 24th, 1986, with a resolution of about 700 m (2300 ft). Credit: NASA/JPL

The most well known coronae exist in the southern hemisphere, with three giant ‘racetrack’-like grooved structures that measure at least 200 km (120 mi) wide and up to 20 km (12 mi) deep. These features, named Arden, Elsinore and Inverness – all locations in Shakespeare’s plays – may have formed via extensional processes at the tops of diapirs (aka. upwellings of warm ice).

Other features may be due to cryovolcanic eruptions of icy magma, which would have been driven by tidal flexing and heating in the past. With an albedo of 0.32, Miranda’s surface is nearly as bright as that of Ariel, the brightest of the larger Uranian moons. It’s slightly darker appearance is likely due to the presence of carbonaceous material within its surface ice.

Exploration:

Miranda’s apparent magnitude makes it invisible to many amateur telescopes. As a result, virtually all known information regarding its geology and geography was obtained during the only flyby of the Uranian system, which was made by Voyager 2 in 1986. During the flyby, Miranda’s southern hemisphere pointed towards the Sun (while the northern was shrouded in darkness), so only the southern hemisphere could be studied.

At this time, no future missions have been planned or are under consideration. But given Miranda’s “Frankenstein”-like appearance and the mysteries that still surround its history and geology, any future missions to study Uranus and its system of moons would be well-advised.

We have many interesting articles on Miranda and Uranus’ moons here at Universe Today. Here’s one about about why they call it the “Frankenstein Moon“, and one about Voyager 2‘s historic flyby. And here’s one that answers the question How Many Moons Does Uranus Have?

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Miranda.

Sources: