Future historians might look back on this time and call it the ‘exoplanet age.’ We’ve found over 5,000 exoplanets, and we’ll keep finding more. Next, we’ll move beyond just finding them, and we’ll turn our efforts to finding biosignatures, the special chemical fingerprints that living processes imprint on exoplanet atmospheres.
But there’s more to biosignatures than atmospheric chemistry. On a planet with lots of plant life, light can be a biosignature, too.
Thanks to the explosion in discoveries made in the last decade, the study of extrasolar planets have entered a new phase. With 4,884 confirmed discoveries in 3,659 systems (and another 7,958 candidates awaiting confirmation), scientists are shifting their focus from discovery to characterization. This means examining known exoplanets more closely to determine if they possess the necessary conditions for life, as well as “biomarkers” that could indicate the presence of life.
A key consideration is how the type of star may impact a planet’s chances of developing the right conditions for habitability. Consider red dwarf stars, the most common stellar class in the Universe and a great place to find “Earth-like,” rocky planets. According to a new study by an international team of scientists, a lifeless planet in our own backyard (Mars) might have evolved differently had it orbited a red dwarf instead of the Sun.
Some planets orbit their stars so closely that they have extremely high surface temperatures and extremely rapid orbits. Most of the ones astronomers have found are Hot Jupiters— planets in the size range of Jupiter and with similar compositions as Jupiter. Their size and proximity to their star make them easier to spot using the transit method.
But there’s another type of planet that also orbits very close to their stars and has extremely high surface temperatures. They’re small, rocky, and they orbit their star in less than 24 hours. They’re called ultra-short-period (USP) planets and TESS found one that orbits its star in only eight hours.
And the planet’s density is almost equivalent to pure iron.
LOFAR sees ‘exoplanet aurorae’ near distant red dwarf suns.
A powerful new method may help to detect exoplanets, via the aurorae they induce on their host star. The finding was announced recently from ASTRON’s Low Frequency Array radio telescope (LOFAR), based out of Exloo in the Netherlands, and sprawled across sites in Europe.
NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has found its first Earth-sized planet located in the habitable zone of its host star. The find was confirmed with the Spitzer Space Telescope. This planet is one of only a few Earth-sized worlds ever found in a habitable zone.
You can be thankful that we orbit a placid, main sequence, yellow dwarf star. Astronomers recently spied a massive superflare on a diminutive star, a powerful, radiation spewing event that you wouldn’t want to witness up close.
The most common type of star in the galaxy is the red dwarf star. None of these small, dim stars can be seen from Earth with the naked eye, but they can emit flares far more powerful than anything our Sun emits. Two astronomers using the Hubble space telescope saw a red dwarf star give off a powerful type of flare called a superflare. That’s bad news for any planets in these stars’ so-called habitable zones.
Red dwarfs make up about 75% of the stars in the Milky Way, so they probably host many exoplanets. In fact, scientists think most of the planets that are in habitable zones are orbiting red dwarfs. But the more astronomers observe these stars, the more they’re becoming aware of just how chaotic and energetic it can be in their neighbourhoods. That means we might have to re-think what habitable zone means.
“When I realized the sheer amount of light the superflare emitted, I sat looking at my computer screen for quite some time just thinking, ‘Whoa.'” – Parke Loyd, Arizona State University.
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.
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!
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When we think of other planetary systems, we tend to think that they will operate by the same basic rules as our own. In the Solar System, the planets orbit close to the equatorial plane of the Sun – meaning around its equator. The Sun’s rotational axis, the direction of its poles based to its rotation, is also the same as most of the planets’ (the exception being Uranus, which rotates on its side).
But if the study of extra-solar planets has taught us anything, it is that the Universe is full of possibilities. Consider the star known as GJ436, a red dwarf located about 33 light-years from Earth. For years, astronomers have known that this star has a planet that behaves very much like a comet. But according to a recent study led by astronomers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), this planet also has a very peculiar orbit.
GJ436 has already been the source of much scientific interest, thanks in part to the discovery that its only confirmed exoplanet has a gaseous envelop similar a comet. This exoplanet, known as GJ436b, was first observed in 2004 using radial velocity measurements taken by the Keck Observatory. In 2007, GJ436b became the first Neptune-sized planet known to be orbiting very closely to its star (aka. a “Hot Neptune”).
And in 2015, GJ436 b made headlines again when scientists reported that its atmosphere was evaporating, resulting in a giant cloud around the planet and a long, trailing tale. This cloud was found to be the result of hydrogen in the planet’s atmosphere evaporating, thanks to the extreme radiation coming from its star. This never-before-seen phenomena essentially means that GJ436 b looks like a comet.
Another interesting fact about this planet is its orbital inclination, which astronomers have puzzled over for the past 10 years. Unlike the planets of the Solar System – whose orbits are largely circular – GJ436b follows a very eccentric, elliptical path. And as the research team indicated in their study, the planet also doesn’t orbit along the star’s equatorial plane, but passes almost above the its poles.
As Vincent Bourrier – a researcher at the Department of Astronomy of the UNIGE Faculty of Science, a member of the European Research Council project FOUR ACES, and the lead author of the study – explained in a UNIGE press release:
“This planet is under enormous tidal forces because it is incredibly close to its star, barely 3% of the Earth-Sun distance. The star is a red dwarf whose lifespan is very long, the tidal forces it induces should have since circularized the orbit of the planet, but this is not the case!”
This was an especially interesting find for many reasons. On the one hand, it is the first instance where a planet was found to have a polar orbit. On the other, studying how planets orbit around a star is a great way to learn more about how that system formed and evolved. For instance, if a planet has been disturbed by the passage of a nearby star, or is being influenced by the presence of other massive planets, that will be apparent from its orbit.
As Christophe Lovis, a UNIGE researcher and co-author of the study, explained:
“Even if we have already seen misaligned planetary orbits, we do not necessarily understand their origin, especially since here it is the first time we measure the architecture of a planetary system around a red dwarf.”
Hervé Beust, an astronomer from the University of Grenobles Alpes, was responsible for doing the orbital calculations on GJ436b. As he indicated, the likeliest explanation for GJ436b’s orbit is the existence of a more massive and more distant planet in the system. While this planet is not currently known, this could be the first indication that GJ436 is a multi-planet system.
“If that is true, then our calculations indicate that not only would the planet not move along a circle around the star, as we’ve known for 10 years, but it should also be on a highly inclined orbit,” he said. “That’s exactly what we just measured!”
Another interesting takeaway from this study was the prediction that the planet has not always orbited so closely to its star. Based on their calculations, the team hypothesizes that the GJ436b may have migrated over time to become a “evaporating planet” that it is today. Here too, the existence of an as-yet-undetected companion is believed to be the most likely cause.
As with all exoplanet studies, these findings have implications for our understanding of the Solar System as well. Looking ahead, the team hopes to conduct further studies of this system in the hopes of determining if there is an elusive planetary companion to be found. These surveys will likely benefit from the deployment of next-generation missions, particularly the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
As Bourier indicated, “Our next goal is to identify the mysterious planet that has upset this planetary system.” Locating it will be yet another indirect way in which astronomers discover exoplanets – determining the presence of other planets based on orbital inclination of already discovered ones. The orbital inclination method, perhaps?
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.