Earth is about 29% land and 71% oceans. How significant is that mix for habitability? What does it tell us about exoplanet habitability?Continue reading “What’s the Best Mix of Oceans to Land for a Habitable Planet?”
For many reasons, Venus is sometimes referred to as “Earth’s Twin” (or “Sister Planet”, depending on who you ask). Like Earth, it is terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature, composed of silicate minerals and metals that are differentiated between an iron-nickel core and silicate mantle and crust. But when it comes to their respective atmospheres and magnetic fields, our two planets could not be more different.
For some time, astronomers have struggled to answer why Earth has a magnetic field (which allows it to retain a thick atmosphere) and Venus do not. According to a new study conducted by an international team of scientists, it may have something to do with a massive impact that occurred in the past. Since Venus appears to have never suffered such an impact, its never developed the dynamo needed to generate a magnetic field.
The study, titled “Formation, stratification, and mixing of the cores of Earth and Venus“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Earth and Science Planetary Letters. The study was led by Seth A. Jacobson of Northwestern University, and included members from the Observatory de la Côte d’Azur, the University of Bayreuth, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
For the sake of their study, Jacobson and his colleagues began considering how terrestrial planets form in the first place. According to the most widely-accepted models of planet formation, terrestrial planets are not formed in a single stage, but from a series of accretion events characterized by collisions with planetesimals and planetary embryos – most of which have cores of their own.
Recent studies on high-pressure mineral physics and on orbital dynamics have also indicated that planetary cores develop a stratified structure as they accrete. The reason for this has to do with how a higher abundance of light elements are incorporated in with liquid metal during the process, which would then sink to form the core of the planet as temperatures and pressure increased.
Such a stratified core would be incapable of convection, which is believed to be what allows for Earth’s magnetic field. What’s more, such models are incompatible with seismological studies that indicate that Earth’s core consists mostly of iron and nickel, while approximately 10% of its weight is made up of light elements – such as silicon, oxygen, sulfur, and others. It’s outer core is similarly homogeneous, and composed of much the same elements.
As Dr. Jacobson explained to Universe Today via email:
“The terrestrial planets grew from a sequence of accretionary (impact) events, so the core also grew in a multi-stage fashion. Multi-stage core formation creates a layered stably stratified density structure in the core because light elements are increasingly incorporated in later core additions. Light elements like O, Si, and S increasingly partition into core forming liquids during core formation when pressures and temperatures are higher, so later core forming events incorporate more of these elements into the core because the Earth is bigger and pressures and temperatures are therefore higher.
“This establishes a stable stratification which prevents a long-lasting geodynamo and a planetary magnetic field. This is our hypothesis for Venus. In the case of Earth, we think the Moon-forming impact was violent enough to mechanically mix the core of the Earth and allow a long-lasting geodynamo to generate today’s planetary magnetic field.”
To add to this state of confusion, paleomagnetic studies have been conducted that indicate that Earth’s magnetic field has existed for at least 4.2 billion years (roughly 340 million years after it formed). As such, the question naturally arises as to what could account for the current state of convection and how it came about. For the sake of their study, Jacobson and his team considering the possibility that a massive impact could account for this. As Jacobson indicated:
“Energetic impacts mechanically mix the core and so can destroy stable stratification. Stable stratification prevents convection which inhibits a geodynamo. Removing the stratification allows the dynamo to operate.”
Basically, the energy of this impact would have shaken up the core, creating a single homogeneous region within which a long-lasting geodynamo could operate. Given the age of Earth’s magnetic field, this is consistent with the Theia impact theory, where a Mars-sized object is believed to have collided with Earth 4.51 billion years ago and led to the formation of the Earth-Moon system.
This impact could have caused Earth’s core to go from being stratified to homogeneous, and over the course of the next 300 million years, pressure and temperature conditions could have caused it to differentiate between a solid inner core and liquid outer core. Thanks to rotation in the outer core, the result was a dynamo effect that protected our atmosphere as it formed.
The seeds of this theory were presented last year at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. During a presentation titled “Dynamical Mixing of Planetary Cores by Giant Impacts“, Dr. Miki Nakajima of Caltech – one of the co-authors on this latest study – and David J. Stevenson of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. At the time, they indicated that the stratification of Earth’s core may have been reset by the same impact that formed the Moon.
It was Nakajima and Stevenson’s study that showed how the most violent impacts could stir the core of planets late in their accretion. Building on this, Jacobson and the other co-authors applied models of how Earth and Venus accreted from a disk of solids and gas about a proto-Sun. They also applied calculations of how Earth and Venus grew, based on the chemistry of the mantle and core of each planet through each accretion event.
The significance of this study, in terms of how it relates to the evolution of Earth and the emergence of life, cannot be understated. If Earth’s magnetosphere is the result of a late energetic impact, then such impacts could very well be the difference between our planet being habitable or being either too cold and arid (like Mars) or too hot and hellish (like Venus). As Jacobson concluded:
“Planetary magnetic fields shield planets and life on the planet from harmful cosmic radiation. If a late, violent and giant impact is necessary for a planetary magnetic field then such an impact may be necessary for life.”
Looking beyond our Solar System, this paper also has implications in the study of extra-solar planets. Here too, the difference between a planet being habitable or not may come down to high-energy impacts being a part of the system’s early history. In the future, when studying extra-solar planets and looking for signs of habitability, scientists may very well be forced to ask one simple question: “Was it hit hard enough?”
Further Reading: Earth Science and Planetary Letters
The Solar Planets are a nice mixed bag of what is possible when it comes to planetary formation. Within the inner Solar System, you have the terrestrial planets – bodies that are composed primarily of silicate minerals and metals. And in the outer Solar System, you have the gas giants and bodies that are composed primarily of ice that lie just beyond in the Trans-Neptunian region.
Of these, the question of which planet is the smallest has been the subject of some controversy. Until recently, the smallest planet was considered to be Pluto. But with the 2006 IAU Resolution that put constraints on what the definition of a planet entails, that status has since passed to Mercury. So in addition to being the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury is also the smallest.
Size and Mass:
With a mean radius of 2440 km, Mercury is the smallest planet in our Solar System, equivalent in size to 0.38 Earths. And given that it has its experiences no flattening at the poles – like Venus, which means it is an almost perfectly spherical body – its radius is the same at the poles as it is the equator.
And while it is smaller than the largest natural satellites in our Solar System – such as Ganymede and Titan – it is more massive. At 3.3011×1023 kg in mass (33 trillion trillion metric tons; 36.3 trillion trillion US tons), it is equivalent to 0.055 Earths in terms of mass.
On top of that, Mercury is significantly more dense than bodies its size. In fact, Mercury’s density (at 5.427 g/cm3) is the second highest in the Solar System, only slightly less than Earth’s (5.515 g/cm3). The result of this is a gravitational force of 3.7 m/s2, which is 0.38 times that of Earth (0.38 g). In essence, this means that if you could stand on the surface of Mercury, you would weight 38% as much as you do on Earth.
In terms of volume, Mercury once again becomes a bit diminutive, at least by Earth standards. Basically, Mercury has a volume of 6.083×1010 km³ (60 billion cubic km; 14.39 trillion cubic miles) which works out to 0.056 times the volume of the Earth. In other words, you could fit Mercury inside Earth almost twenty times over.
Structure and Composition:
Like Earth, Venus and Mars, Mercury is a terrestrial planet, meaning that is primarily composed of silicate minerals and metals that are differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust. But in Mercury’s case, the core is oversized compared to the other terrestrial planets, measuring some 1,800 km (approx. 1,118.5 mi) in radius, and therefore occupying 42% of the planet’s volume (compared to Earth’s 17%).
Another interesting feature about Mercury’s core is the fact that it has a higher iron content than that of any other major planet in the Solar System. Several theories have been proposed to explain this, the most widely-accepted being that Mercury was once a larger planet that was struck by a planetesimal that stripped away much of the original crust and mantle, leaving behind the core as a major component.
Beyond the core is a mantle that measures 500 – 700 km (310 – 435 mi) in thickness and is composed primarily of silicate material. The outermost layer is Mercury’s crust, which is composed of silicate material that is believed to be 100 – 300 km thick.
Yes, Mercury is a pretty small customer when compared to its brothers, sisters and distant cousins in the Solar System. However, it is also one of the densest, hottest and most irradiated. So while small, no one would ever accuse this planet of not being really tough!
We have written many interesting articles on Mercury and the Solar Planets here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Biggest Planet in the Solar System?, What is the Second Largest Planet in the Solar System?, How Does Mercury Compare to Earth?, What is the Average Surface Temperature on Mercury?, How Long is a Day on Mercury?, and The Orbit of Mercury, How Long is a Year on Mercury?,
We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast.
It is good time to be an exoplanet hunter… or just an exoplanet enthusiast for that matter! Every few weeks, it seems, new discoveries are being announced which present more exciting opportunities for scientific research. But even more exciting is the fact that every new find increases the likelihood of locating a potentially habitable planet (and hence, life) outside of our Solar System.
And with the discovery of LHS 1140b – a super-Earth located approximately 39 light years from Earth – exoplanet hunters think they have found the most likely candidate for habitability to date. Not only does this terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet orbit within its sun’s habitable zone, but examinations of the planet (using the transit method) have revealed that it appears to have a viable atmosphere.
Credit for the discovery goes to a team of international scientists who used the MEarth-South telescope array – a robotic observatory located on Cerro Tololo in Chile – to spot the planet. This project monitors the brightness of thousands of red dwarf stars with the goal of detecting transiting planets. After consulting data obtained by the array, the team noted characteristic dips in the star’s brightness that indicated that a planet was passing in front of it.
These findings were then followed up using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory, located on the outskirts of Chile’s Atacama Desert. According to the their study – which appeared in the April 20th, 2017, issue of the journal Nature – the team was able to make estimates of the planet’s age, size, mass, distance from its star, and orbital period.
They estimate that the planet is at least five billion years old – about 500 million years older than Earth. It is also slightly larger than Earth – 1.4 times Earth’s diameter – and is considerably more massive, weighing in at a hefty 6.6 Earth masses. Since they were able to view the planet almost edge-on, the team was also able to determine that it orbits its sun at a distance of about 0.1 AU (one-tenth the distance between Earth and the Sun) with a period of 25 days.
However, since its star is a red dwarf, this proximity places it in the middle of the system’s habitable zone. But what was most exciting was the fact that the team was able to look for evidence of an atmosphere since the planet was passing in front of its star – something that has not been possible with many exoplanets. Because of this, they were able to conduct transmission spectroscopy measurements that revealed the presence of an atmosphere.
As Jason Dittmann – of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the lead author of the study – said in a CfA press release:
“This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade. We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science — searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.”
Granted, this exoplanet is not as close as Proxima b, which orbits Proxima Centauri – just 4.243 light years away. And it certainly isn’t as robust a find as the TRAPPIST-1 system, with its seven rocky planets, three of which are located within its habitable zone. But compared to these candidates, the researchers were able to place solid constraints on the planet’s mass and density, not to mention the fact that they were able to observe an atmosphere.
The discovery of an exoplanet that orbits a red dwarf star and has an atmosphere is also encouraging in a wider context. Low-mass red dwarf stars are the most common star in the galaxy, accounting for 75% of stars in our cosmic neighborhood alone. They are also long-lived (up to 10 trillion years), and recent research indicates that they are capable of hosting large numbers of planets.
But given their variability and unstable nature, astronomers have expressed doubts as to whether or not planet orbiting them could retain their atmospheres for very long. Knowing that a terrestrial planet that orbits a red dwarf, is five billion years old, and still has an atmosphere is therefore a very good sign. But of course, simply knowing there is an atmosphere doesn’t mean that it is conducive to life as we know it.
“Right now we’re just making educated guesses about the content of this planet’s atmosphere,” said Dittman. “Future observations might enable us to detect the atmosphere of a potentially habitable planet for the first time. We plan to search for water, and ultimately molecular oxygen.”
Hence, additional studies will be needed before this planet can claim the title of “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. To that end, future space-based missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (which will launch in 2018), and ground-based instruments like the Giant Magellan Telescope and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, will be especially well-suited!
In the meantime, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope will be conducting observations of the star system in the near future. These observations, it is hoped, will indicate exactly how much high-energy radiation LHS 1140b receives from its sun. This too will go a long way towards determining just how habitable the Super-Earth is.
And be sure to enjoy this video of the LHS 1140 star system, courtesy of the European Southern Observatory and spaceengine.org:
In what is surely the biggest news since the hunt for exoplanets began, NASA announced today the discovery of a system of seven exoplanets orbiting the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1. Discovered by a team of astronomers using data from the TRAPPIST telescope in Chile and the Spitzer Space Telescope, this find is especially exciting since all of these planets are believed to be Earth-sized and terrestrial (i.e. rocky).
But most exciting of all is the fact that three of these rocky exoplanets orbit within the star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). This means, in effect, that these planets are capable of having liquid water on their surfaces and could therefore support life. As far as extra-solar planet discoveries go, this is without precedent, and the discovery heralds a new age in the search for life beyond our Solar System.
Venus and Earth have many similarities. Both are terrestrial planets, meaning that they are composed predominately of metal and silicate rock, which is differentiated between a metal core and a silicate mantle and crust. Both also orbit the Sun within its habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone“). Hence why Venus and Earth are often called “sister planets”.
However, Venus is also starkly different from Earth in a number of ways. It’s atmosphere, which is composed primarily of carbon dioxide and small amounts of nitrogen, is 92 times as dense as Earth’s. It is also the hottest planet in the Solar System, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead! And on top of all that, a year on Venus is much different than a year on Earth.
Venus orbits the Sun at an average distance of about 0.72 AU (108,000,000 km/67,000,000 mi) with almost no eccentricity. In fact, with its farthest orbit (aphelion) of 0.728 AU (108,939,000 km) and closest orbit (perihelion) of 0.718 AU (107,477,000 km), it has the most circular orbit of any planet in the Solar System.
The planet’s orbital period is 224.65 days, which means that a year on Venus is 61.5% as long as a year on Earth. Unlike most other planets in the Solar System, which rotate on their axes in an counter-clockwise direction, Venus rotates clockwise (called “retrograde” rotation). It also rotates very slowly, taking 243 Earth days to complete a single rotation.
Sidereal vs. Solar Day:
While a year on Venus lasts the equivalent of 224.65 Earth days, it only lasts the equivalent 1.92 days on Venus. This is due to the fact that Venus rotates quick slowly and in the opposite direction of its orbit. Because of this, a Solar Day – the time it takes for the Sun to rise, set, and return to the same place in the sky – takes 116.75 Earth days.
This means, in effect, that a single day on Venus lasts over half a year. In other words, in the space of just over a single Venusian year, the Sun will appear to have circled the heavens twice. In addition, to someone standing on the planet’s surface, the Sun would appear to rise in the west and set in the east.
Because of its dense atmosphere and its highly circular rotation, Venus experiences very little in the way of temperature variations during the course of a year. Similarly, its axial tilt of 2.64° (compared to Earth’s 23.44°) is the second-lowest in the Solar System, behind Mercury’s extremely low tilt of 0.03.
This means that there is virtually no variation in Venus’ surface temperature between day and night, or the equator and the poles. All year long, the mean surface temperature of Venus is a scorching 735 K (462 °C/863.6 °F), with the only variations occurring as a result of elevation.
Yes, Venus is a truly hellish place. And unfortunately, that’s a year-round phenomena! The days are extremely hot, the nights extremely hot, and a day lasts over half as long as a year. So if you’re planning on vacationing somewhere, might we recommend somewhere a little less sunny and balmy?
We’ve written several articles about years on other planets here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long is a Year on the Other Planets?, Which Planet has the Longest Day?, How Long is a Year on Mercury?, How Long is a Year on Earth?, How Long is a Year on Mars?, How Long is a Year on Jupiter?, How Long is a Year on Saturn?, How Long is a Year on Uranus?, How Long is a Year on Neptune?, How Long is a Year on Pluto?
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Venus. Listen here, Episode 50: Venus.
The hunt for exoplanet has revealed some very interesting things about our Universe. In addition to the many gas giants and “Super-Jupiters” discovered by mission like Kepler, there have also been the many exoplanet candidate that comparable in size and structure to Earth. But while these bodies may be terrestrial (i.e. composed of minerals and rocky material) this does not mean that they are “Earth-like”.
For example, what kind of minerals go into a rocky planet? And what could these particular compositions mean for the planet’s geological activity, which is intrinsic to planetary evolution? According to new study produced by a team of astronomers and geophysicists, the composition of an exoplanet depends on the chemical composition of its star – which can have serious implications for its habitability.
The findings of this study were presented at the 229th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), which will be taking place from Jan. 3rd to Jan. 7th. During an afternoon presentation – titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Can Garnet Planets Be Habitable?” – Johanna Teske (an astronomer from the Carnegie Institute of Science) showed how different types of stars can produce vastly different types of planets.
Using the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), which is part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) Telescope at Apache Point Observatory, they examined spectrographic information obtained from 90 star systems – which were also observed by the Kepler Mission. These systems are of particular interest to exoplanet hunters because they have been shown to contain rocky planets.
As Teske explained during the course of the presentation, this information could help scientists to place further constraints on what it takes for a planet to be habitable. “[O]ur study combines new observations of stars with new models of planetary interiors,” she said. “We want to better understand the diversity of small, rocky exoplanet composition and structure — how likely are they to have plate tectonics or magnetic fields?”
Focusing on two star systems in particular – Kepler 102 and Kepler 407 – Teske demonstrated how the composition of a planet has a great deal to do with the composition of its star. Whereas Kepler 102 has five known planets, Kepler 407, has two different planets – one gaseous and the other terrestrial. And while Kepler 102 is quite similar to our Sun (slightly less luminous), Kepler 407 has close to the same mass (but a lot more silicon).
In order to understand what consequences these differences could have for planetary formation, the SDSS team turned to a team of geophysicists. Led by Cayman Unterborn from Arizona State University, this team ran computer models to see what kinds of planets each system would have. As Unterborn explained:
“We took the star compositions found by APOGEE and modeled how the elements condensed into planets in our models. We found that the planet around Kepler 407, which we called ‘Janet,” would likely be rich in the mineral garnet. The planet around Kepler 102, which we called ‘Olive,’ is probably rich in olivine, like Earth.”
This difference would have considerable impact on planetary tectonics. For one, garnet is lot more rigid than olivine, which would mean “Janet” would experience less in the way of long-term plate tectonics. This in turn would mean that processes that are believed to be essential to life on Earth – like volcanic activity, atmospheric recycling, and mineral exchanges between the crust and mantle – would be less common.
This raises additional questions about the habitability of “Earth-like” planets in other star systems. In addition to being rocky and having strong magnetic fields and viable atmospheres, it seems that exoplanets also need to have the right mix of minerals in order to support life – life as we know it, at any rate. What’s more, this kind of research also helps us to understand how life came to emerge on Earth in the first place.
Looking forward, the research team hopes to extend their study to include all the 200,000 stars surveyed by APOGEE to see which could host terrestrial planets. This will allow astronomers to determine the mineral composition of more rocky worlds, thus helping them to determine which rocky exoplanets are “Earth-like”, and which are just “Earth-sized”.
Further Reading: SDSS
The discovery of an exoplanet candidate orbiting around nearby Proxima Centauri has certainly been exciting news. In addition to being the closest exoplanet to our Solar System yet discovered, all indications point to it being terrestrial and located within the stars’ circumstellar habitable zone. However, this announcement contained its share of bad news as well.
For one, the team behind the discovery indicated that given the nature of its orbit around Proxima Centauri, the planet likely in terms of how much water it actually had on its surface. But a recent research study by scientists from the University of Marseilles and the Carl Sagan Institute may contradict this assessment. According to their study, the exoplanet’s mass may consist of up to 50% water – making it an “ocean planet”.
According to the findings of the Pale Red Dot team, Proxima Centauri b orbits its star at an estimated distance of 7 million kilometers (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, liquid water is likely to be confined to either the sun-facing side of the planet (in the case of a synchronous rotation), or in its tropical zone (in the case of a 3:2 resonance). In addition, the radiation Proxima b receives from its red dwarf star would be significantly higher than what we are used to here on Earth.
However, according to a study led by Bastien Brugger of the Astrophysics Laboratory at the University of Marseilles, Proxima b may be wetter than we previously thought. For the sake of their study, titled “Possible Internal Structures and Compositions of Proxima Centauri b” (which was accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters), the research team used internal structure models to compute the radius and mass of Proxima b.
Their models were based on the assumptions that Proxima b is both a terrestrial planet (i.e. composed of rocky material and minerals) and did not have a massive atmosphere. Based on these assumptions, and mass estimates produced by the Pale Red Dot survey (~1.3 Earth masses), they concluded that Proxima b has a radius that is between 0.94 and 1.4 times that of Earth, and a mass that is roughly 1.1 to 1.46 times that of Earth.
As Brugger told Universe Today via email:
“We listed all compositions that Proxima b could have, and ran the model for each of them (that makes about 5000 simulations), giving us each time the corresponding planet radius. We finally excluded all the results that were not compatible with a planetary body, basing on the formation conditions of our solar system (since we do not know these conditions for the Proxima Centauri system). And thus, we obtained a range of possible planet radii for Proxima b, going from 0.94 to 1.40 times the radius of the Earth.”
This range in size allows for some very different planetary compositions. At the lower end, being slightly smaller but a bit more massive than Earth, Proxima b would likely be a Mercury-like planet with a 65% core mass fraction. However, at the higher end of the radii and mass estimates, Proxima b would likely be half water by mass.
“If the radius is 0.94 Earth radii, then Proxima b is fully rocky with a huge metallic core (like Mercury in the solar system),” said Brugger. “On the opposite, Proxima b can reach a radius of 1.40 only if it harbors a massive amount of water (50% of the total planet mass), and in this case it would be an ocean planet, with a 200 km deep liquid ocean! Below that, the pressure is so high that the water would turn into ice, forming a ~3000 km thick ice layer (Under which there would be a core made of rocks).”
In other words, Proxima b could be an “eyeball planet”, where the sun-facing side has a liquid ocean surface, while the dark side is covered in frozen ice. Recent studies have suggested that this may be the case with planet’s that orbit within the habitable zones of red dwarf stars, where tidal-locking ensures that only one side gets the heat necessary to maintain liquid water on the surface.
On the other hand, if it has an orbital resonance of 3:2, its likely to have a double-eyeball pattern – with liquid oceans in both the eastern and western hemispheres – while remaining frozen at the terminators and poles. However, if the lower estimates should be true, then Proxima b is likely to be a rocky, dense planet where liquid water is rare on one side, and frozen on the other.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the the research is that it offers a glimpse into the likelihood of Proxima b being habitable. Ever since its discovery, the question of whether or not the planet can support life has remained contentious. But as Brugger explained:
“The interesting part is that all the cases we considered are compatible with a habitable planet. So if the planet radius is finally measured (in some months or years), two cases are possible: either (i) the measurement lies within the 0.94-1.40 range and we will be able to give the exact composition of the planet (and not only a range of possibilities), or (ii) the measured radius is out of this range, and we will know that the planet is not habitable. The case where Proxima b is an ocean planet is particularly interesting, because this kind of planet does not need an atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen (like on the Earth) to harbor life, since it can develop in its huge ocean.”
But of course, these scenarios are based on the assumption that Proxima b has a lot in common with the planets of our own Solar System. It’s also based on the assumption that the planet is indeed about 1.3 Earth masses. Until the planet can be observed making a transit of Proxima Centauri, astronomers won’t know for sure how massive it is.
Ultimately, we’re still a long ways away from determining Proxima b’s exact size, composition, and surface features – to say nothing about whether or not it can actually support life. Nevertheless, research like this is beneficial in that it helps us to come up with constrains on what kind of planetary conditions could exist there.
And who knows? Someday, we may be able to send probes or crewed missions to the planet, and perhaps they will beam back images of sentient beings navigating vast oceans, looking for some fabled parcel of land they heard about? God I hope not! Once was more than enough!
Further Reading: arXiv
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The ongoing hunt for exoplanets has yielded some very interesting returns in recent years. All told, the Kepler mission has discovered more than 4000 candidates since it began its mission in March of 2009. Amidst the many “Super-Jupiters” and assorted gas giants (which account for the majority of Kepler’s discoveries) astronomers have been particularly interested in those exoplanets which resemble Earth.
And now, an international team of scientists has finished perusing the Kepler catalog in an effort to determine just how many of these planets are in fact “Earth-like”. Their study, titled “A Catalog of Kepler Habitable Zone Exoplanet Candidates” (which will be published soon in the Astrophysical Journal), explains how the team discovered 216 planets that are both terrestrial and located within their parent star’s “habitable zone” (HZ).
The international team was made up of researchers from NASA, San Francisco State University, Arizona State University, Caltech, University of Hawaii-Manoa, the University of Bordeaux, Cornell University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Having spent the past three years looking over the more than 4000 entries, they have determined that 20 of the candidates are most like Earth (i.e. likely habitable).
As Stephen Kane, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at San Fransisco University and lead author of the study, explained in a recent statement:
“This is the complete catalog of all of the Kepler discoveries that are in the habitable zone of their host stars. That means we can focus in on the planets in this paper and perform follow-up studies to learn more about them, including if they are indeed habitable.”
In addition to isolating 216 terrestrial planets from the Kepler catalog, they also devised a system of four categories to determine which of these were most like Earth. These included “Recent Venus”, where conditions are like that of Venus (i.e. extremely hot); “Runaway Greenhouse”, where planets are undergoing serious heating; “Maximum Greenhouse”, where planets are within their star’s HZ; and “Recent Mars”, where conditions approximate those of Mars.
From this, they determined that of the Kepler candidates, 20 had radii less than twice that of Earth (i.e. on the smaller end of the Super-Earth category) and existed within their star’s HZ. In other words, of all the planets discovered in our local Universe, they were able to isolate those where liquid water can exist on the surface, and the gravity would likely be comparable to Earth’s and not crushing!
This is certainly exciting news, since one of the most important aspects of exoplanet hunting has been finding worlds that could support life. Naturally, it might sound a bit anthropocentric or naive to assume that planets which have similar conditions to our own would be the most likely places for it to emerge. But this is what is known as the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where scientists seek out conditions which they know can lead to life.
“There are a lot of planetary candidates out there, and there is a limited amount of telescope time in which we can study them,” said Kane. “This study is a really big milestone toward answering the key questions of how common is life in the universe and how common are planets like the Earth.”
Professor Kane is renowned for being one of the world’s leading “planet-hunters”. In addition to discovering several hundred exoplanets (using data obtained by the Kepler mission) he is also a contributor to two upcoming satellite missions – the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the European Space Agency’s Characterizing ExOPLanet Satellite (CHEOPS).
These next-generation exoplanet hunters will pick up where Kepler left off, and are likely to benefit greatly from this recent study.
Further Reading: arXiv