On Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, it rains on a regular basis. As with Earth, these rains are the result of liquid evaporating on the surface, condensing in the skies, and falling back to the surface as precipitation. On Earth, this is known as the hydrological (or water) cycle, which is an indispensable part of our climate. In Titan’s case, the same steps are all there, but it is methane that is being exchanged and not water.
In recent years, scientists have found evidence of similar patterns involving exoplanets, with everything from molten metal to lava rain! This raises the question of just how exotic the rains may be on alien worlds. Recently, a team of researchers from Havard University conducted a study where they researched how rain would differ in a diverse array of extrasolar planetary environments.
To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,301 extrasolar planets in 3,192 star systems, with another 5,650 candidates awaiting confirmation. In the coming years, next-generation telescopes will allow astronomers to directly observe many of these exoplanets and place tighter constraints on their potential habitability. In time, this could lead to the discovery of life beyond our Solar System!
The only problem is, finding evidence of life requires that we know what to look for. According to a new study by an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), radioactive elements might play a role in planetary habitability. Future studies of rocky exoplanets, they argue, should therefore look for specific isotopes that indicate the presence of long-lived elements like thorium and uranium.
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!
In 2017, an international team of astronomers announced a momentous discovery. Based on years of observations, they found that the TRAPPIST-1 system (an M-type red dwarf located 40 light-years from Earth) contained no less than seven rocky planets! Equally exciting was the fact that three of these planets were found within the star’s Habitable Zone (HZ), and that the system itself has had 8 billion years to develop the chemistry for life.
At the same time, the fact that these planets orbit tightly around a red dwarf star has given rise to doubts that these three planets could maintain an atmosphere or liquid water for very long. According to new research by an international team of astronomers, it all comes down to the composition of the debris disk that the planets formed from and whether or not comets were around to distribute water afterward.
Located at the heart of the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) – part of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center – is the Discover supercomputer, a 129,000-core cluster of Linux-based processors. This supercomputer, which is capable of conducting 6.8 petaflops (6.8 trillion) operations per second, is tasked with running sophisticated climate models to predict what Earth’s climate will look like in the future.
However, the NCCS has also started to dedicate some of the Discover’s supercomputing power to predict what conditions might be like on any of the over 4,000 planets that have been discovered beyond our Solar System. Not only have these simulations shown that many of these planets could be habitable, they are further evidence that our very notions of “habitability” could use a rethink.
Since the Kepler Space Telescope was launched into space, the number of known planets beyond our Solar System (exoplanets) has grown exponentially. At present, 3,917 planets have been confirmed in 2,918 star systems, while 3,368 await confirmation. Of these, about 50 orbit within their star’s circumstellar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”) , the distance at which liquid water can exist on a planets’ surface.
However, recent research has raised the possibility that we consider to be a habitable zone is too optimistic. According to a new study that recently appeared online, titled “A Limited Habitable Zone for Complex Life“, habitable zones could be much narrower than originally thought. These finds could have a drastic impact on the number of planets scientists consider to be “potentially habitable”.
In their efforts to find evidence of life beyond our Solar System, scientists are forced to take what is known as the “low-hanging fruit” approach. Basically, this comes down to determining if planets could be “potentially habitable” based on whether or not they would be warm enough to have liquid water on their surfaces and dense atmospheres with enough oxygen.
This is a consequence of the fact that existing methods for examining distant planets are largely indirect and that Earth is only one planet we know of that is capable of supporting life. But what if planets that have plenty of oxygen are not guaranteed to produce life? According to a new study by a team from Johns Hopkins University, this may very well be the case.
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.
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.
In the past few decades, thousands of extra-solar planets have been discovered within our galaxy. As of July 28th, 2018, a total of 3,374 extra-solar planets have been confirmed in 2,814 planetary systems. While the majority of these planets have been gas giants, an increasing number have been terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature and were found to be orbiting within their stars’ respective habitable zones (HZ).
However, as the case of the Solar System shows, HZs do not necessary mean a planet can support life. Even though Venus and Mars are at the inner and the outer edge of the Sun’s HZ (respectively), neither is capable of supporting life on its surface. And with more potentially-habitable planets being discovered all the time, a new study suggests that it might be time to refine our definition of habitable zones.
As Dr. Ramirez indicated in his study, the most generic definition of a habitable zone is the circular region around a star where surface temperatures on an orbiting body would be sufficient to maintain water in a liquid state. However, this alone does not mean a planet is habitable, and additional considerations need to be taken into account to determine if life could truly exist there. As Dr. Ramirez told Universe Today via email:
“The most popular incarnation of the HZ is the classical HZ. This classical definition assumes that the most important greenhouse gases in potentially habitable planets are carbon dioxide and water vapor. It also assumes that habitability on such planets is sustained by the carbonate-silicate cycle, as is the case for the Earth. On our planet, the carbonate-silicate cycle is powered by plate tectonics.
“The carbonate-silicate cycle regulates the transfer of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere, surface, and interior of the Earth. It acts as a planetary thermostat over long timescales and ensures that there is not too much CO2 in the atmosphere (the planet gets too hot) or too little (the planet gets too cold). The classical HZ also (typically) assumes that habitable planets possess total water inventories (e.g. total water in the oceans and seas) similar in size to that on the Earth.”
This is what can be referred to as the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where scientists have looked for signs of habitability based on what we as humans are most familiar with. Given that the only example we have of habitability is planet Earth, exoplanet studies have been focused on finding planets that are “Earth-like” in composition (i.e. rocky), orbit, and size.
However, in recent years this definition has come to be challenged by newer studies. As exoplanet research has moved away from merely detecting and confirming the existence of bodies around other stars and moved into characterization, newer formulations of HZs have emerged that have attempted to capture the diversity of potentially-habitable worlds.
As Dr. Ramirez explained, these newer formulations have complimented traditional notions of HZs by considering that habitable planets may have different atmospheric compositions:
“For instance, they consider the influence of additional greenhouses gases, like CH4 and H2, both of which have been considered important for early conditions on both Earth and Mars. The addition of these gases makes the habitable zone wider than what would be predicted by the classical HZ definition. This is great, because planets thought to be outside the HZ, like TRAPPIST-1h, may now be within it. It has also been argued that planets with dense CO2-CH4 atmospheres near the outer edge of the HZ of hotter stars may be inhabited because it is hard to sustain such atmospheres without the presence of life.”
One such study was conducted by Dr. Ramirez and Lisa Kaltenegger, an associate professor with the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University. According to a paper they produced in 2017, which appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, exoplanet-hunters could find planets that would one day become habitable based on the presence ofvolcanic activity – which would be discernible through the presence of hydrogen gas (H2) in their atmospheres.
This theory is a natural extension of the search for “Earth-like” conditions, which considers that Earth’s atmosphere was not always as it is today. Basically, planetary scientists theorize that billions of years ago, Earth’s early atmosphere had an abundant supply of hydrogen gas (H2) due to volcanic outgassing and interaction between hydrogen and nitrogen molecules in this atmosphere is what kept the Earth warm long enough for life to develop.
In Earth’s case, this hydrogen eventually escaped into space, which is believed to be the case for all terrestrial planets. However, on a planet where there is sufficient levels of volcanic activity, the presence of hydrogen gas in the atmosphere could be maintained, thus allowing for a greenhouse effect that would keep their surfaces warm. In this respect, the presence of hydrogen gas in a planet’s atmosphere could extend a star’s HZ.
According to Ramirez, there is also the factor of time, which is not typically taken into account when assessing HZs. In short, stars evolve over time and put out varying levels of radiation based on their age. This has the effect of altering where a star’s HZ reaches, which may not encompass a planet that is currently being studied. As Ramirez explained:
“[I]t has been shown that M-dwarfs (really cool stars) are so bright and hot when they first form that they can desiccate any young planets that are later determined to be in the classical HZ. This underscores the point that just because a planet is currently located in the habitable zone, it doesn’t mean that it is actually habitable (let alone inhabited). We should be able to watch out for these cases.
Finally, there is the issue of what kinds of star system astronomers have been observing in the hunt for exoplanets. Whereas many surveys have examined G-type yellow dwarf star (which is what our Sun is), much research has been focused on M-type (red dwarf) stars of late because of their longevity and the fact that they believed to be the most likely place to find rocky planets that orbit within their stars’ HZs.
“Whereas most previous studies have focused on single star systems, recent work suggests that habitable planets may be found in binary star systems or even red giant or white dwarf systems, potentially habitable planets may also take the form of desert worlds or even ocean worlds that are much wetter than the Earth,” says Ramirez. “Such formulations not only greatly expand the parameter space of potentially habitable planets to search for, but they allow us to filter out the worlds that are most (and least) likely to host life.”
In the end, this study shows that the classical HZ is not the only tool that can be used to asses the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. As such, Ramirez recommends that in the future, astronomers and exoplanet-hunters should supplement the classical HZ with the additional considerations raised by these newer formulations. In so doing, they just may be able to maximize their chances for finding life someday.
“I recommend that scientists pay real special attention to the early stages of planetary systems because that helps determine the likelihood that a planet that is currently located in the present day habitable zone is actually worth studying further for more evidence of life,” he said. “I also recommend that the various HZ definitions are used in conjunction so that we can best determine which planets are most likely to host life. That way we can rank these planets and determine which ones to spend most of our telescope time and energy on. Along the way we would also be testing how valid the HZ concept is, including determining how universal the carbonate-silicate cycle is on a cosmic scale.”