Finally! A Low Mass Super-Earth With Some Funky Atmosphere

In 2015, astronomers discovered an intriguing extrasolar planet located in a star system some 39 light years from Earth. Despite orbiting very close to its parent star, this “Venus-like” planet – known as GJ 1138b – appeared to still be cool enough to have an atmosphere. In short order, a debate ensued as to what kind of atmosphere it might have, whether it was a “dry Venus” or a “wet Venus”.

And now, thanks to the efforts of an international team of researchers, the existence of an atmosphere has been confirmed around GJ 1138b. In addition to settling the debate about the nature of this planet, it also marks the first time that an atmosphere has been detected around a low-mass Super-Earth. On top of that, GJ 1138b is now the farthest Earth-like planet that is known to have an atmosphere.

Led by John Southworth (of Keele University) and Luigi Mancini (of the University of Rome Tor Vergata), the research team included members from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA), the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), the University of Cambridge and Stockholm University. Their study, titled “Detection of the atmosphere of the 1.6 Earth mass exoplanet GJ 1132b“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal.

Artist’s impression of the “Venus-like” exoplanet GJ 1132b. Credit: cfa.harvard.edu

Using the GROND imager on the La Silla Observatory’s 2.2m ESO/MPG telescope, the team monitored GJ 1132b in different wavelengths as it transited in front of its parent star. Given the planet’s orbital period (1.6 days), these transits happen quite often, which presented plenty of opportunities to view it pass in front of its star. In so doing, they monitored the star for slight decreases in its brightness.

As Dr. Southworth explained to Universe via email, these observations confirmed the existence of an atmosphere:

“What we did was to measure the amount of dimming at 7 different wavelengths in optical and near-infrared light. At one of these wavelengths (IR) the planet seemed to be slightly bigger. This indicated that the planet has a large atmosphere around it which allows most of the starlight to pass through, but is opaque at one wavelength.”

The team members from the University of Cambridge and the MPIA then conducted simulations to see what this atmosphere’s composition could be. Ultimately, they concluded that it most likely has a thick atmosphere that is rich in water and/or methane – which contradicted recent theories that the planet had a thin and tenuous atmosphere (i.e. a “dry Venus”).

The ESO’s Paranal Observatory, located in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Credit: ESO

It was also the first time that an atmosphere has been confirmed around a planet that is not significantly greater in size and mass to Earth. In the past, astronomers have detected atmospheres around many other exoplanets. But in these cases, the planets were either gas giants or planets that were many times Earth’s size and mass (aka. “Super-Earths”). GJ 1132b, however, is 1.6 times as massive as Earth, and measures 1.4 Earth radii.

In addition, these findings are a significant step in the search for life beyond our Solar System. At present, astronomers seek to determine the chemical composition of a planet’s atmosphere to determine if it could be habitable. Where the right combination of chemical imbalances exist, the presence of living organisms is seen as a possible cause.

By being able to determine that a planet at lower end of the super-Earth scale has an atmosphere, we are one step closer to being able to determine exoplanet habitability. The detection of an atmosphere-bearing planet around an M-type (red dwarf) star is also good news in and of itself. Low-mass red dwarf stars are the most common star in the galaxy, and recent findings have indicated that they might be our best shot for finding habitable worlds.

Besides detecting several terrestrial planets around red dwarf stars in recent years – including seven around a single star (TRAPPIST-1) – there is also research that suggests that these stars are capable of hosting large numbers of planets. At the same time, there have been concerns about whether red dwarfs are too variable and unstable to support habitable worlds.

Artist’s impression of Kepler-1649b, the “Venus-like” world orbiting an M-class star 219 light-years from Earth. Credit: Danielle Futselaar

As Southworth explained, spotting an atmosphere around a planet that closely orbits a red dwarf could help bolster the case for red dwarf habitability:

“One of the big issues has been that very-low-mass stars typically have strong magnetic fields and thus throw out a lot of X-ray and ultraviolet light. These high-energy photons tend to destroy molecules in atmospheres, and might also evaporate them completely. The fact that we have detected an atmosphere around GJ 1132b means that this kind of planet is indeed capable of retaining an atmosphere for billions of years, even whilst being bombarded by the high-energy photons from their host stars.

In the future, GJ 1132b is expected to be a high-priority target for study with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, and next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled for launch in 2018). Already, observations are being made, and the results are being eagerly anticipated.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to hear what astronomers discover as they set their sights on this nearby star system and it’s Venus-like world! In the meantime, be sure to check out this video about GJ 1132b, courtesy of MIT news:

Further Reading: Max Planck Institute for Astronomy

Venus 2.0 Discovered In Our Own Back Yard

It has been an exciting time for exoplanet research of late! Back in February, the world was astounded when astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the  discovery of seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, all of which were comparable in size to Earth, and three of which were found to orbit within the star’s habitable zone.

And now, a team of international astronomers has announced the discovery of an extra-solar body that is similar to another terrestrial planet in our own Solar System. It’s known as Kepler-1649b, a planet that appears to be similar in size and density to Earth and is located in a star system just 219 light-years away. But in terms of its atmosphere, this planet appears to be decidedly more “Venus-like” (i.e. insanely hot!)

The team’s study, titled “Kepler-1649b: An Exo-Venus in the Solar Neighborhood“, was recently published in The Astronomical Journal. Led by Isabel Angelo – of the SETI Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, and UC Berkley – the team included researchers also from SETI and Ames, as well as the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScl), the Exoplanet Research Institute (iREx), the Center for Astrophysics Research, and other research institutions.

Diagram comparing the Solar System to Kepler 69 and its system of exoplanets. Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

Needless to say, this discovery is a significant one, and the implications of it go beyond exoplanet research. For some time, astronomers have wondered how – given their similar sizes, densities, and the fact that they both orbit within the Sun’s habitable zone – that Earth could develop conditions favorable to life while Venus would become so hostile. As such, having a “Venus-like” planet that is close enough to study presents some exciting opportunities.

In the past, the Kepler mission has located several extra-solar planets that were similar in some ways to Venus. For instance, a few years ago, astronomers detected a Super-Earth – Kepler-69b, which appeared to measure 2.24 times the diameter of Earth – that was in a Venus-like orbit around its host the star. And then there was GJ 1132b, a Venus-like exoplanet candidate that is about 1.5 times the mass of Earth, and located just 39 light-years away.

In addition, dozens of smaller planet candidates have been discovered that astronomers think could have atmospheres similar to that of Venus. But in the case of Kepler-1649b, the team behind the discovery were able to determine that the planet had a sub-Earth radius (similar in size to Venus) and receives a similar amount of light (aka. incident flux) from its star as Venus does from Earth.

However, they also noted that the planet also differs from Venus in a few key ways – not the least of which are its orbital period and the type of star it orbits. As Dr. Angelo told Universe Today via email:

“The planet is similar to Venus in terms of it’s size and the amount of light it receives from it’s host star. This means it could potentially have surface temperatures similar to Venus as well. It differs from Venus because it orbits a star that is much smaller, cooler, and redder than our sun. It completes its orbit in just 9 days, which places it close to its host star and subjects it to potential factors that Venus does not experience, including exposure to magnetic radiation and tidal locking. Also, since it orbits a cooler star, it receives more lower-energy radiation from its host star than Earth receives from the Sun.”

Artist’s impression of a Venus-like exoplanet orbiting close to its host star. Credit: CfA/Dana Berry

In other words, while the planet appears to receive a comparable amount of light/heat from its host star, it is also subject to far more low-energy radiation. And as a potentially tidally-locked planet, the surface’s exposure to this radiation would be entirely disproportionate. And last, its proximity to its star means it would be subject to greater tidal forces than Venus – all of which has drastic implications for the planet’s geological activity and seasonal variations.

Despite these differences, Kepler-1649b remains the most Venus-like planet discovered to date. Looking to the future, it is hoped that next-generations instruments – like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the James Webb Telescope and the Gaia spacecraft – will allow for more detailed studies. From these, astronomers hope to more accurately determine the size and distance of the planet, as well as the temperature of its host star.

This information will, in turn, help us learn a great deal more about what goes into making a planet “habitable”. As Angelo explained:

“Understanding how hotter planets develop thick, Venus-like atmospheres that make them inhabitable will be important in constraining our definition of a ‘habitable zone’. This may become possible in the future when we develop instruments sensitive enough to determine chemical compositions of planet atmospheres (around dim stars) using a method called ‘transit spectroscopy’, which looks at the light from the host star that has passed through the planet’s atmosphere during transit.”

The development of such instruments will be especially useful given joust how many exoplanets are being detected around neighboring red dwarf stars. Given that they account for roughly 85% of stars in the Milky Way, knowing whether or not they can have habitable planets will certainly be of interest!

Further Reading: The Astronomical Journal

Venus-like Exoplanet 39 Light Years Distant Is Probably Baked & Sterile

Last year, astronomers discovered a terrestrial exoplanet orbiting GJ 1132, a red dwarf star located just 12 parsecs (39 light years) away from Earth. Though too close to its parent star to be anything other than extremely hot, astronomers were intrigued to note that it appeared to still be cool enough to have an atmosphere. This was quite exciting, as it represented numerous opportunities for research.

In essence, the planet appeared to be “Venus-like” – i.e. very hot, but still in possession of an atmosphere. What’s more, it was close enough to our Solar System that its atmosphere could be studied in detail. However, a debate began over whether its atmosphere would be hot and wet, or thin and tenuous. And after a year of study, a team of astronomers from the CfA believe they have unlocked that mystery.

In addition to being relatively close to our own Solar System in astronomical terms, the Venus-like exoplanet GJ 1132b also has a relatively small orbital period around its star. This means that opportunities to spot it as it passes in front of its star (i.e. the Transit Method), occur quite often.

Artist's concept of exoplanets orbiting a young, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltec
Artist’s concept of exoplanets orbiting a young, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This makes it an excellent target for detailed observation and study, which in turn will help astronomers to learn more about terrestrial exoplanets that orbit close to red dwarf stars. But as noted already, astronomers were divided on the issue of GJ 1132b’s atmosphere.

Thanks to the research efforts of Laura Schaefer and her colleagues from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), it now appears that the case for a thin atmosphere is the far more likely. Interestingly enough, this was confirmed by determining just how much oxygen the planet has in its atmosphere.

For the sake of their study, which was outlined in a paper that approved for publication in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “Predictions of the atmospheric composition of GJ 1132b” – they explain how they used a “magma ocean-atmosphere” model to determine what would happen to GJ 1132b over time if it began with a water-rich atmosphere.

They began with the knowledge that a planet like GJ 1132b – which orbits its star at a distance of 2.25 million km (1.4 million mi) – would be subjected to intense amounts of ultraviolet light. This would result in any water vapor in the atmosphere being broken down into hydrogen and oxygen (a process known as photolysis), with the hydrogen escaping into space and the oxygen being retained.

Comparison of best-fit size of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b with the Solar System planet Earth, as reported in the Open Exoplanet Catalogue[1] as of 2015-11-14. Open Exoplanet Catalogue (2015-11-14). Retrieved on 2015-11-14. Aldaron, a.k.a. Aldaro
Size comparison of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b with Earth, as reported in the Open Exoplanet Catalogue as of 2015-11-14. Credit: Open Exoplanet Catalogue/Aldaron
At the same time, they determined that the planet’s atmosphere and proximity to its star would lead to a severe greenhouse effect that would leave the surface molten for a long time. This “magma ocean” would likely interact with the atmosphere by absorbing some of the oxygen. How much would be absorbed and how much would be retained was the big question.

They concluded that the planet’s magma ocean would absorb about one-tenth of the oxygen in the atmosphere. The majority of the remaining 90 percent, according to their model, would be lost to space while a small margin would linger around the planet. This proved to be very much consistent with measurements made of the planet thus far.

As Dr. Laura Schaefer explained to Universe Today via email:

“We determined that the planet would likely have a thin atmosphere by doing a suite of models looking at atmospheric loss and interaction with a surface magma ocean. For the allowable composition range (esp. the abundance of water) based on the current mass measurement, nearly all of the allowed compositions resulted in thin atmospheres, except at the very extreme upper end of the range.”

This magma ocean-atmosphere model could not only help scientists to study terrestrial exoplanets that orbit close to their parent stars, but also to understand how our own planet Venus came to be. For some time, scientists have theorized that Venus began with significant amounts of water on its surface, but that it then underwent a significant change.

Artist's impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).
Artist’s impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

This ocean is believed to have evaporated due to Venus’ closer proximity to the Sun, with the ensuing water vapor triggering a runaway greenhouse effect. Over time, ultraviolet radiation from the Sun broke apart the water molecules, resulting in the hot, virtually waterless atmosphere we see today. However, what happened to all the oxygen has remained a mystery.

“We also have plans to use this model in the future to study Venus, which may have once had about the same amount of water as the Earth but is now very dry,” said Schaefer. “There is very little O2 left in Venus’ atmosphere, so this model would help us understand what happened to that oxygen (whether it was lost to space or absorbed by the planet’s mantle).”

Schaefer predicts that their model will also assist researchers with the study of other, similar exoplanets. One example is the TRAPPIST-1 system, which contains three planets that may lie with the star’s the habitable zone. But as Schaefer put it, the real value lies in the fact that we are more likely to find “Venus-like” worlds down the road:

“Most of the rocky planets that we know of and will discover in the near future will likely be hotter than the Earth or even Venus, just because it is easier to detect hotter planets. So there are a lot of planets out there similar to GJ 1132b just waiting to be studied!”

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. It’s scientists are dedicated to studying the origin, evolution and future of the universe.

And be sure to check out this video, courtesy of MIT news:

Further Reading: CfA, arXiv