Author: Elizabeth Tasker (page 1 of 2)

Searching for the Edge of Habitability

Topographical map of Venus by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft (1990 – 1994). Color indicates height. (NASA/JPL/USGS)

How many habitable worlds like our own could exist around other stars? Since the discovery of the first exoplanets, the answer to this question has seemed tantalizingly close. But to estimate the number of Earths, we first need to understand how our planet could have gone catastrophically awry.

In other words, we need to return to Venus.

We have now discovered over 4000 planets beyond our solar system. Approximately one-third of these worlds are Earth-sized and likely to have rocky surfaces not crushed under deep atmospheres. The next step is to discover how many of these support temperate landscapes versus ones unsuitable for life.

The Earth’s habitability is often ascribed to the level of sunlight we receive. We orbit in the so-called ‘habitable zone’ where our planet’s geological cycle can adjust the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to keep our seas liquid. In a closer orbit to the sun, this cycle could not operate fast enough to keep the Earth cool. Our seas would evaporate and our atmosphere fill with carbon dioxide, sending the planet temperature into an upwards spiral known as a runaway greenhouse.

If our solar system had just one Earth-sized planet, this would suggest we could simply count-up similar sized planets in the habitable zones around other stars. This would then be our set of the most likely habitable worlds.

However, this idea is shredded in a new paper posted this month to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. Led by Stephen Kane from the University of California, Riverside, the paper is authored by many of the top planetary scientists we have met before in this column.

Their message is simple: our sun is orbited by two Earth-sized planets but only one is habitable. To identify habitable planets around other stars, we need to explain why the Earth and Venus evolved so differently. And the data suggests this is not just a climate catastrophe.

Orbiting beyond the inner edge of the habitable zone, Venus does appear at first to be a runaway Earth. The planet’s atmosphere is 96.5% carbon dioxide, smothering the surface to escalate temperatures to a staggering 863°F (462°C). Images from NASA’s Pioneer Venus mission in the late 1970s revealed a surface of highlands and lowlands that resembled the continents of Earth. This is all consistent with a picture of an Earth-like planet with a runaway greenhouse atmosphere.… Read more

Hayabusa2 Snatches Second Asteroid Sample

Artist impression of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft touching down on asteroid Ryugu (JAXA / Akihiro Ikeshita)

“1… 2… 3… 4…”

The counting in the Hayabusa2 control room at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (JAXA, ISAS) took on a rhythmic beat as everyone in the room took up the chant, their eyes fixed on the large display mounted on one wall.

“10… 11… 12… 13…”

The display showed the line-of-sight velocity (speed away from or towards the Earth) of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft. The spacecraft was about 240,000,000 km from the Earth where it was studying a near-Earth asteroid known as Ryugu. At this moment, the spacecraft was dropping to the asteroid surface to collect a sample of the rocky body.

“20… 21… 22… 23…”

Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km. Image was captured with the Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T) on July 20, 2018 ( JAXA, University of Tokyo & collaborators)

Asteroid Ryugu is a carbonaceous or “C-type” asteroid; a class of small celestial bodies thought to contain organic material and undergone relatively little alteration since the beginning of the Solar System. Rocks similar to Ryugu would have pelted the early Earth, possibly delivering both water and the first ingredients for life to our young planet. Where and when these asteroids formed and how they moved through the Solar System is therefore a question of paramount importance to understanding how terrestrial planets like the Earth became habitable. It is a question not only tied to our own existence, but also to assessing the prospect of life elsewhere in the Universe.

The Hayabusa2 mission arrived at asteroid Ryugu just over one year ago at the end of June 2018. The spacecraft remotely analyzed the asteroid and deployed two rovers and a lander to explore the surface. Then in February of this year, the spacecraft performed its own descent to touchdown and collect a sample. The material gathered will be analyzed back on Earth when the spacecraft returns home at the end of 2020.

Touchdown is one of the most dangerous operation in the mission. The distances involved mean that it took about 19 minutes to communicate with the spacecraft during the first touchdown and 13 minutes during the second touchdown, when the asteroid had moved slightly closer to Earth. Both these durations are too long to manually guide the spacecraft to the asteroid surface.… Read more

Starting Life on Another Planet

Inside the planet simulator at McMaster University
A look inside the planet simulator in the Origins of Life laboratory at McMaster University. Within this chamber, the origins of life can be explored on different worlds (McMaster University).

Have you ever wondered if you could kick-start life on another planet? In the Origins of Life laboratory at McMaster University in Canada, there is a machine that allows you to try this very task.

Exactly how life began on the Earth remains heavily debated, but one of the most famous ideas was proposed by Charles Darwin in a letter to a friend in 1871:

“But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts…” Darwin began.

In contrast to the vast ocean, a pond would allow simple organic molecules to be concentrated and increase the probability of reactions that would form chains of longer molecules such as RNA; a single-stranded version of DNA that is thought to have been used for genetic information by the earliest forms of life.

warm little pond
Did life begin in warm little ponds such as these? (Katharine Sutliff / Science).

It is highly likely that such warm little ponds would have the necessary ingredients to build such complex molecules. Experiments performed by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey in the 1950s demonstrated that water containing just the basic molecules of methane, ammonia and hydrogen would react to form a wide range of simple organics. Meteorites have also been found to contain similar molecules, proposing an alternative way of populating pools of water on the early Earth.

These ponds should therefore contain plenty of simple organics such as nucleotides, which stack together to form RNA. However, this stacking step turns out to be tricky.

“Anywhere where you have stagnant water and take sample, you will find organic molecules,” explains Maikel Rheinstädter, associate director of McMaster’s Origins Institute. “But you only find the building blocks, not the longer chains. Obviously, something is missing.”

In pond water, molecules are free to move around and potentially meet to initiate a reaction. The problem is that nucleotides carry a negative charge which repels the molecules from one another. While their motion is unconstrained, the nucleotides will therefore not approach close enough to react and form a longer molecule.

The solution is to dry out the pond.

As winter turned to summer on our young planet, shallow pools would have evaporated to leave the molecules suspended in the water lying on the muddy clay bottom.… Read more

Japan’s Hayabusa2 Asteroid Mission Reveals a Remarkable New World

The Hayabusa2 touchdown movie, taken on February 22, 2019 (JST) when Hayabusa2 first touched down on asteroid Ryugu to collect a sample from the surface. It was captured using the onboard small monitor camera (CAM-H). The video playback speed is five times faster than actual time (JAXA).

On March 5 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) released the extraordinary video shown above. The sequence of 233 images shows a spacecraft descending to collect material from the surface of an asteroid, before rising amidst fragments of ejected debris. It is an event that has never been captured on camera before.

The images were taken by a camera onboard the Hayabusa2 spacecraft, a mission to explore a C-type asteroid known as “Ryugu” and bring a sample back to Earth.

C-type asteroids are a class of space rock that is thought to contain carbonaceous material and undergone little evolution since the early days of the Solar System. These asteroids may have rained down on the early Earth and delivered our oceans and possibly our first organics. Examination of the structure of Ryugu and its composition compared to Earth will help us understand how planets can become habitable.

Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km
Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km. Image was captured with the Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T) on July 20, 2018 at around 16:00 JST. (JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST.)

Hayabusa2 arrived at asteroid Ryugu on June 27, 2018. The spacecraft spent the summer examining the asteroid with a suite of onboard instruments. Despite being a tiny world at only 1km across, Hayabusa2 spotted different seasons on Ryugu. Like the Earth, the asteroid’s rotation axis is inclined so that different levels of sunlight reach the northern and southern hemispheres.

It also rotated upside down, spinning in the opposite sense to the Earth and its own path around the Sun. This is likely indicative of a violent past, a view supported by the heavily bouldered and cratered surface. This rugged terrain presented the Hayabusa2 team with a problem: where could they land?

After a summer of observations, Hayabusa2 had been planning three different operations on the asteroid surface. The first was the deployment of two little rovers known as the MINERVA-II1. The second was the release of a shoebox-sized laboratory known as MASCOT, designed by the German and French space agencies.… Read more

The Gale Winds of Venus Suggest How Locked Exoplanets Could Escape a Fate of Extreme Heat and Brutal Cold

Two images of the nightside of Venus captured by the IR2 camera on the Akatsuki orbiter in September 2016 (JAXA).

 

More than two decades before the first exoplanet was discovered, an experiment was performed using a moving flame and liquid mercury that could hold the key to habitability on tidally locked worlds.

The paper was published in a 1969 edition of the international journal, Science, by researchers Schubert and Whitehead. The pair reported that when a Bunsen flame was rotated beneath a cylindrical container of mercury, the liquid began to flow around the container in the opposite direction at speeds up to four times greater than the rotation of the flame. The scientists speculated that such a phenomenon might explain the rapid winds on Venus.

On the Earth, the warm equator and cool poles set up a pressure difference that creates our global winds. These winds are deflected westward by the rotation of the planet (the so-called Coriolis force) promoting a zonal (east-west) air flow around the globe. But what would happen if our planet’s rotation slowed? Would our winds just cycle north and south between the equator and poles?

The Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, so only one hemisphere is visible from our planet (Smurrayinchester / wikipedia commons).

Such a slow-rotating scenario may be the lot of almost all rocky exoplanets discovered to date. Planets such as the TRAPPIST-1 system and Proxima Centauri-b all orbit much closer to their star than Mercury, making their faint presence easier to detect but likely resulting in tidal lock. Like the moon orbiting the Earth, planets in tidal lock have one side permanently facing the star, creating a day that is equal to the planet’s year.

The dim stars orbited by these planets can mean they receive a similar level of radiation as the Earth, placing them within the so-called “habitable zone.” However, tidal lock comes with the risk of horrific atmospheric collapse. On the planet side perpetually facing away from the star, temperatures can drop low enough to freeze an Earth-like atmosphere. The air from the dayside would then rush around the planet to fill the void, freezing in turn and causing the planet to lose its atmosphere even within the habitable zone.

The only way this could be prevented is if winds circulating around the planet could redistribute the heat sufficiently to prevent freeze-out. But without a strong Coriolis force from the planet’s rotation, can such winds exist?… Read more

Does Proxima Centauri Create an Environment Too Horrifying for Life?

Artist’s impression of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

 

In 2016, the La Silla Observatory in Chile spotted evidence of possibly the most eagerly anticipated exoplanet in the Galaxy. It was a world orbiting the nearest star to the sun, Proxima Centauri, making this our closest possible exoplanet neighbour. Moreover, the planet might even be rocky and temperate.

Proxima Centauri b had been discovered by discerning a periodic wobble in the motion of the star. This revealed a planet with a minimum mass 30% larger than the Earth and an orbital period of 11.2 days. Around our sun, this would be a baking hot world.

But Proxima Centauri is a dim red dwarf star and bathes its closely orbiting planet in a level of radiation similar to that received by the Earth. If the true mass of the planet was close to the measured minimum mass, this meant Proxima Centauri b would likely be a rocky world orbiting within the habitable zone.

 

Comparison of the orbit of Proxima Centauri  b with the same region of the solar system. Proxima Centauri is smaller and cooler than the sun and the planet orbits much closer to its star than Mercury. As a result it lies well within the habitable zone. (ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman.)

Sitting 4.2 light years from our sun, a journey to Proxima Centauri b is still prohibitively long.

But as our nearest neighbor, the exoplanet is a prime target for the upcoming generation of telescopes that will attempt to directly image small worlds. Its existence was also inspiration for privately funded projects to develop faster space travel for interstellar distances.

Yet observations taken around the same time as the La Silla Observatory discovery were painting a very different picture of Proxima Centauri. It was a star with issues.

This set of observations were taken with Evryscope; an array of small telescopes that was watching stars in the southern hemisphere. What Evryscope spotted was a flare from Proxima Centauri that was so bright that the dim red dwarf star became briefly visible to the naked eye.

Flares are the sudden brightening in the atmosphere of a star that release a strong burst of energy. They are often accompanied by a large expulsion of plasma from the star known as a “coronal mass ejection”. Flares from the sun are typically between 1027 – 1032 erg of energy, released in a few tens of minutes.… Read more

What Would Happen If Mars And Venus Swapped Places?

Venus, Earth and Mars (ESA).

 

What would happen if you switched the orbits of Mars and Venus? Would our solar system have more habitable worlds?

It was a question raised at the “Comparative Climatology of Terrestrial Planets III”; a meeting held in Houston at the end of August. It brought together scientists from disciplines that included astronomers, climate science, geophysics and biology to build a picture of what affects the environment on rocky worlds in our solar system and far beyond.

The question regarding Venus and Mars was proposed as a gedankenexperiment or “thought experiment”; a favorite of Albert Einstein to conceptually understand a topic. Dropping such a problem before the interdisciplinary group in Houston was meat before lions: the elements of this question were about to be ripped apart.

The Earth’s orbit is sandwiched between that of Venus and Mars, with Venus orbiting closer to the sun and Mars orbiting further out. While both our neighbors are rocky worlds, neither are top picks for holiday destinations.

Mars has a mass of just one-tenth that of Earth, with a thin atmosphere that is being stripped by the solar wind; a stream of high energy particles that flows from the sun. Without a significant blanket of gases to trap heat, temperatures on the Martian surface average at -80°F (-60°C). Notably, Mars orbits within the boundaries of the classical habitable zone (where an Earth-like planet could maintain surface water)  but the tiny planet is not able to regulate its temperature as well as the Earth might in the same location.

 

The classical habitable zone around our sun marks where an Earth-like planet could support liquid water on the surface (Cornell University).

 

Unlike Mars, Venus has nearly the same mass as the Earth. However, the planet is suffocated by a thick atmosphere consisting principally of carbon dioxide. The heat-trapping abilities of these gases soar surface temperatures to above a lead-melting 860°F (460°C).

But what if we could switch the orbits of these planets to put Mars on a warmer path and Venus on a cooler one? Would we find that we were no longer the only habitable world in the solar system?

“Modern Mars at Venus’s orbit would be fairly toasty by Earth standards,” suggests Chris Colose, a climate scientist based at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and who proposed the topic for discussion.

Dragging the current Mars into Venus’s orbit would increase the amount of sunlight hitting the red planet.… Read more

Prepare For Lift-off! BepiColombo Launches For Mercury

Artist illustration of the BepiColombo orbiters, MIO and Bepi, around Mercury (JAXA).

This Friday (October 19) at 10:45pm local time in French Guinea, a spacecraft is set to launch for Mercury. This is the BepiColombo mission which will begin its seven year journey to our solar system’s innermost planet. Surprisingly, the science goals for investigating this boiling hot world are intimately linked to habitability.

Mercury orbits the sun at an average distance of 35 million miles (57 million km); just 39% of the distance between the sun and the Earth. The planet therefore completes a year in just 88 Earth days.

The close proximity to the sun puts Mercury in a 3:2 tidal lock, meaning the planet rotates three times for every two orbits around the sun. (By contrast, our moon is in a 1:1 tidal lock and rotates once for every orbit around the Earth.) With only a tenuous atmosphere to redistribute heat, this orbit results in extreme temperatures between about -290°F and 800°F (-180°C to 427°C). The overall picture is one of the most inhospitable of worlds, so what do we hope to learn from this barren and baked land?

BepiColombo is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It consists of two orbiters, one built by each space agency. The mission is named after Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, an Italian mathematician who calculated the orbit of the first mission to Mercury —NASA’s Mariner 10— such that it could make repeated fly-bys of the planet.

When Mariner 10 reached Mercury in the mid-1970s, it made an astonishing discovery:  the planet had a weak magnetic field. The Earth also has a magnetic field that is driven by movement in its molten iron core.

However, with a mass of only 5.5% that of the Earth, the interior of Mercury was expected to have cooled sufficiently since its formation for the core to have solidified and jammed the breaks on magnetic field generation. This is thought to have happened to Mars, which is significantly larger than Mercury with a mass around 10% that of the Earth. So how does Mercury hold onto its field?

The discoveries only got stranger with the arrival of NASA’s MESSENGER mission in 2011. MESSENGER discovery that Mercury’s magnetic field was off-set, with the center shifted northwards by a distance equal to 20% of the planet’s radius.

The mysteries also do not end with Mercury’s wonky magnetic field.… Read more

Asteroid Remains Around Dead Stars Reveal the Likely Fate of Our Solar System

Artist concept of an asteroid breaking up. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

June 30th has been designated “Asteroid Day” to promote awareness of these small members of our solar system. But while asteroids are often discussed in the context of the risk they might pose to the Earth, their chewed up remains around other stars may also reveal the fate of our solar system.

It is 6.5 billion years into our future. The sun has fused hydrogen into a core of heavier helium. Compressed by its own gravity, the helium core releases heat and the sun begins to swell. It is the end of our star’s life, but what will happen to the solar system?

While very massive stars end their element-fusing days in a colossal explosion known as a supernovae, the majority of stars in our galaxy will take a less dramatic exit.

Our sun’s helium core will fuse to form carbon but there is not enough mass to achieve the crushing compression needed for the creation of heavier elements. Instead, the outer layers of the dying star will be blown away to leave a dense remnant with half the mass of our current sun, but squeezed down to the size of the Earth. This is a white dwarf; the most common of all stellar ends.

The life cycle of our sun

The white dwarf rapidly cools to become a dim twinkle in the sky. Within a few million years, our white dwarf will be less luminous that the sun today. Within 100 million years, it will be dimmer by a factor of 100. But examination of white dwarfs in our galaxy reveals this gentle dimming of the lights is not as peaceful as first appears.

The remnants of stars too light to fuse carbon, white dwarfs have atmospheres that should be thin shells of residue hydrogen and helium. Instead, observations have detected 20 different heavy elements in this envelope of gases that include rock-forming elements such as silicon and iron and volatiles such as carbon and nitrogen.

Infrared observations of over forty white dwarfs have additionally revealed compact dusty discs circling the dead stars. Sitting within the radius of a regular star, these could not have formed before the star shrank into a white dwarf. These must be the remains of what occurred as the star morphed from a regular fusion burner into a white dwarf.

This grizzly tale begins with the star’s expansion.… Read more

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet: How Gaia is Helping Nail Down Planet Sizes

Gaia’s all-sky view of our Milky Way and neighboring galaxies. (ESA/Gaia/DPAC)

Last month, the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission released the most accurate catalogue to date of positions and motions for a staggering 1.3 billion stars.

Let’s do a few comparisons so we can be suitably amazed. The total number of stars you can see without a telescope is less than 10,000. This includes visible stars in both the northern and southern hemispheres, so looking up on a very dark night will allow you to count only about half this number.

The data just released from Gaia is accurate to 0.04 milli-arcseconds. This is a measurement of the angle on the sky, and corresponds to the width of a human hair at a distance of over 300 miles (500 km.) These results are from 22 months of observations and Gaia will ultimately whittle down the stellar positions to within 0.025 milli-arcseconds, the width of a human hair at nearly 680 miles (1000 km.)

OK, so we are now impressed. But why is knowing the precise location of stars exciting to planet hunters?

The reason is that when we claim to measure the radius or mass of a planet, we are almost always measuring the relative size compared to the star. This is true for all planets discovered via the radial velocity and transit techniques — the most common exoplanet detection methods that account for over 95% of planet discoveries.

It means that if we underestimate the star size, our true planet size may balloon from being a close match to the Earth to a giant the size of Jupiter. If this is true for many observed planets, then all our formation and evolution theories will be a mess.

The size of a star is estimated from its brightness. Brightness depends on distance, as a small, close star can appear as bright as a distant giant. Errors in the precise location of stars therefore make a big mess of exoplanet data.


An artist’s impression of the Gaia spacecraft — which is on a mission to chart a three-dimensional map of our Milky Way. In the process it will expand our understanding of the composition, formation and evolution of the galaxy. (ESA/D. Ducros)

This issue has been playing on the minds of exoplanet hunters.

In 2014, a journal paper authored by Fabienne Bastien from Vanderbilt University suggested that nearly half of the brightest stars observed by the Kepler Space Telescope are not regular stars like our sun, but actually are distant and much larger sub-giant stars.… Read more

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