Approximately 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago, the planets of the inner Solar System experienced many impacts from comets and asteroids that originated in the outer Solar System. This is known as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB) period when (according to theory) the migration of the giant planets kicked asteroids and comets out of their regular orbits, sending them hurtling towards Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. This bombardment is believed to have distributed water to the inner Solar System and maybe the building blocks of life itself.
According to new research from the University of Cambridge, comets must travel slowly – below 15 km/s (9.32 mi/s) – to deliver organic material onto other planets. Otherwise, the essential molecules would not survive the high speed and temperatures generated by atmospheric entry and impact. As the researchers found, such comets are only likely to occur in tightly bound systems where planets orbit closely to each other. Their results show that these systems would be a good place to look for evidence of life (biosignatures) beyond the Solar System.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of researchers from the University of Florida (UF) examine orbital eccentricities for exoplanets orbiting red dwarf (M dwarf) stars and determined that one-third of them—which encompass hundreds of millions throughout the Milky Way—could exist within their star’s habitable zone (HZ), which is that approximate distance from their star where liquid water can exist on the surface. The researchers determined the remaining two-thirds of exoplanets orbiting red dwarfs are too hot for liquid water to exist on their surfaces due to tidal extremes, resulting in a sterilization of the planetary surface.
There’s something menacing about red dwarfs. Human eyes are accustomed to our benevolent yellow Sun and the warm light it shines on our glorious, life-covered planet. But red dwarfs can seem moody, ill-tempered, and even foreboding.
For long periods of time, they can be calm, but then they can flare violently, flashing a warning to any life that might be gaining a foothold on a nearby planet.
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!
The hunt for habitable extrasolar planets continues! Thanks to dedicated missions like Kepler, TESS, and Hubble, the number of confirmed extrasolar planets has exploded in the past fifteen years (with 5,272 confirmed and counting!). At the same time, next-generation telescopes, spectrometers, and advanced imaging techniques are allowing astronomers to study exoplanet atmospheres more closely. In short, the field is shifting from the process of discovery to characterization, allowing astronomers to more tightly constraint habitability.
Astronomers have found another Earth-sized planet. It’s about 31 light-years away and orbits in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star. It’s probably tidally locked, which can be a problem around red dwarf stars. But the team that found it is optimistic about its potential habitability.
In a recent study accepted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters, a team of researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) investigated the potential for life on exoplanets orbiting M-dwarf stars, also known as red dwarfs, which are both smaller and cooler than our own Sun and is currently open for debate for their potential for life on their orbiting planetary bodies. The study examines how a lack of an asteroid belt might indicate a less likelihood for life on terrestrial worlds.
“Go then, there are other worlds than these.” Or so Stephen King said in his famous Dark Tower series. As of yet, none of those worlds are known to be like Earth. But, according to some new simulations by researchers at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), finding a genuinely Earth-like world might be in the cards by the decade’s end.
A super-Earth planet has been found orbiting a red dwarf star, only 37 light-years from the Earth. Named Ross 508 b, the newly found world has an unusual elliptical orbit that causes it to shift in and out of the habitable zone. Therefore, part of the time conditions would be conducive for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface, but other times it wouldn’t.