Category: Exoplanets (page 1 of 11)

Return to Hell: NASA Selects Two Missions to Venus to Explore the Pathway to Habitability

Artists’ renderings show the VERITAS spacecraft (left) and DAVINCI+ probe (right) as they arrive at Venus (Lockheed Martin).

For NASA scientists, Venus missions must feel like buses. You wait thirty years for one, and then two come along at once.

Last week, NASA selected two Venus missions for the space agency’s Discovery Program; solar system exploration missions that can tuck under a lower cost cap than candidates for NASA’s New Horizons or Flagship categories. The first of these is DAVINCI+, which is an orbiter equipped with a descending probe that will take a big whiff of Venus’s stifling atmosphere. The second is the VERITAS orbiter that plans to peer through the clouds to scrutinise the Venusian surface.

While Europe and Japan have both visited Venus more recently than NASA (in fact, the Japanese orbiter is still there), there is little doubt that our inner neighbor is dramatically under-explored compared to Mars. But why the past neglect, and why go twice now?

The answer to the first question is perhaps the easiest.

Venus is hell.

The planet is wrapped in a thick atmosphere consisting of carbon dioxide and clouds of sulfuric acid that beat down on the Venusian surface with pressures nearly one hundred times higher than on Earth and create temperatures sufficient to melt lead.

These conditions have made it difficult to follow the usual pattern of planetary exploration from fly-bys and orbiters to landers and rovers. The Venusian surface is so inhospitable that a rover like NASA’s Mars Perseverance would become rover goop. Although recent engineering combined with high-temperature electronics means that the surface is no longer impossible, it does greatly add to the challenge (and therefore cost) of a lander mission.

Professor Stephen Kane, University of California, Riverside.

Hell-scape conditions have also resulted in Venus being overlooked for any astrobiological studies compared to (the still rather nasty but at least you can stand a rover on the surface) Mars. This makes the urgency to explore Venus now particularly surprising. The missions are a quest to understand habitability. The bottom line is that the hell world of Venus is essential to understanding how a planet becomes habitable and to discovering other habitable worlds outside our solar system.

“Imagine you live in a small town full of life,” explains Professor Stephen Kane from the DAVINCI+ team. “The nearest town is the same size and seems it was once identical. But now, it’s burned to the ground with no sign of life.… Read more

Sure UFOs Exist. But There’s No Reason To Conclude That Aliens Are Flying Them

An apparently unidentified object detected on a Navy plane’s infrared camera. (U.S. Department of Defense/Navy Times)

It seems to happen with some regularity.  Claims that Unidentified Flying Objects are visiting us have captured the public imagination once more and a big reveal is expected soon.

That will come, oddly, from a government report required to be released by the end of June that will supposedly detail the many sightings made by high-flying military pilots and unexplained detections by satellites.  The requirement was added to the Covid relief package that was passed by Congress in December and orders the Department of Defense and the Office of the DIrector of National Intelligence to release their unclassified findings on the subject, information that has been apparently collected for decades.

In terms of national defense, these reports could indeed be meaningful.  If other nations are sending

This well known poster was first introduced during an episode of the 1990s television show, “The X Files.” and featured in a subsequent movie.

drones or satellites of some sort (true UFOs) to get close to and study American assets, then that’s important news.

But, of course, the UFO drama is overwhelmingly about something else:  The claimed presence of intelligent aliens that are scoping out Earth for reasons ranging from awe-inspiring or extremely worrisome.

The report — which sources say concludes that there is insufficient evidence to confirm or conclusively rule out extraterrestrial UFO sightings —  will no doubt be widely consumed by a population with many “UFO believers.”  After all, a 2019 Gallup poll found that 33 percent of American adults said that alien spacecraft from distant planets and galaxies have been visiting us.

I find all this to be not only unfortunate but also misguided and potentially damaging.  The moment will pass with no intelligent aliens identified, and then will return again some time in the future for another round.

The potential damage is to the very real, very challenging, very cutting-edge science being conducted around the world that seeks to identify actual signs of actual extraterrestrial life in the cosmos, or at least to know what to look for when we have space telescopes and instruments with the necessary power.

And I’m concerned that a focus on UFOs imagined to be carrying intelligent alien life takes away from the hard-won seriousness of their enormous and so compelling scientific effort.  This is especially true now that the scientific search for extraterrestrial life is on the front burner for the National Academy of Sciences, which will soon make recommendations about a next grand observatory for the 2030s.… Read more

Breakthrough Listen Searches The Crowded Center of the Milky Way for Possible Signals From Intelligent Beings

The Galactic Center from radio to X-ray frequencies.  ( X-Ray: NASA, CXC, UMass, D. Wang et al.; Radio: NRF, SARAO, MeerKAT)

Searching for technologically advanced civilizations inhabiting distant exoplanets is the astrobiological equivalent of swinging for the fences.

While much of the search of extraterrestrial life is now focused on microbes and chemical biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres that would likely be byproducts of life, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or SETI) takes a very different approach.

SETI practitioners scan the skies for radio signals, and now laser signals, that are irregular and different from what is naturally produced.  Were such a signal to be detected, then it would be studied as the potential work of extraterrestrial life that is highly advanced — perhaps far more so than we Earthlings.

This search has been going on since Cornell University astronomer Frank Drake began it 1960 and has advanced (in steps large and small) ever since.  The biggest financial boost to the search took place five years ago when techno-billionaire Yuri Milner, in partnership with Stephen Hawking and other prominent scientists,  set up the Breakthrough Listen project with $100 million to buy telescope time and to greatly expand the SETI search.

And as part of that expanded search, radio telescopes focused on the crowded galactic center of the Milky Way for 600 observing hours.  The thinking was that stars and likely exoplanets are most plentiful in that central region — some 60 million  stars in the line of sight into the galactic center at low astronomical frequencies; 500,000 at higher frequencies  — and so the chances of finding a signal were perhaps higher.

Some preliminary and partial results of that effort were recently released and, unfortunately, no signals were found.  That has been the fate of all SETI searches so far.

But as SETI scientists explain, the night sky is huge and the percentage of stars (and their exoplanets) that have been sampled remains quite small.

The Green Bank Radio Observatory in West Virginia is one of the two main sites for the Breakthrough Listen galactic center campaign.  The other is the Parkes Telescope in Australia . (NRAO)

This latest effort was unique in that it was the “most sensitive and deepest targeted SETI” survey ever done of the galactic center, as the SETI scientists write in a study set to be published in the Astronomical Journal (a preprint is currently available on the arXiv).… Read more

The Space Telescope That Could Find a Second Earth

This rare picture of an exoplanet (called 2M1207B) shows a red world several times Jupiter’s size orbiting a brown dwarf much smaller and dimmer than our sun. LUVOIR is after more elusive targets: small, rocky planets around bright stars. (ESO)

What will it take to capture images and spectra of a distant world capable of harboring life?
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For all the excitement surrounding the search for distant exoplanets in recent years, the 4,000-plus planets confirmed so far have been unseen actors on the cosmic stage. Except for a handful of very large bodies imaged by ground-based telescopes, virtually all exoplanets have been detected only when they briefly dim the light coming from their host stars or when their gravity causes the star to wobble in a distinctive way. Observing these patterns and using a few other methods, scientists can determine an exoplanet’s orbit, radius, mass, and sometimes density—but not much else. The planets remain, in the words of one researcher in the field, “small black shadows.”

Scientists want much more. They’d like to know in detail the chemical makeup of the planets’ atmospheres, whether liquid water might be present on their surfaces, and, ultimately, whether these worlds might be hospitable to life.

Answering those questions will require space telescopes that don’t yet exist. To determine what kinds of telescopes, NASA commissioned two major studies that have taken large teams of (mostly volunteer) scientists and engineers four years to complete. The results are now under review by the National Academy of Sciences, as part of its Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics that will recommend government funding priorities for the 2030s. Past and current NASA mega-projects, from the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch this year, have all gone through this same vetting process. Sometime this spring, the Decadal Survey is expected to wrap up its deliberations and make recommendations.

That puts four proposals in the running to become NASA’s next “Great Observatory” in space: an X-ray telescope called Lynx; the Origins Space Telescope for studying the early universe; and two telescopes devoted mostly, but not exclusively, to exoplanets. One is called HabEx, for Habitable Exoplanet Observatory. The other—the most ambitious, most complex, most expensive, and most revolutionary of all these concepts—is called LUVOIR, for Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor.… Read more

A Close Exoplanet Found That May Have An Atmosphere Ideal For Study

Planet Gliese 486b is close to us (in a relative sense), rocky, on the small side and may have an atmosphere.  These conclusions come from studying the planet using both the transit and radial velocity techniques, which have been the primary methods used by astronomers to find and characterize exoplanets.  Charts showing the presence of the planet using both techniques are in the blue boxes. (Render Area, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, MPIA)

Different methods of searching for and finding distant exoplanets give different information about the planets found.

The transit method — where an exoplanets passed in front of its sun and dims the bright sunlight ever so slightly — gives astronomers not only a detection but also its radius or size.

The radial velocity method — where an exoplanet’s gravity causes its host star to “wobble” in a way that can be measured — provides different information about mass and orbit.

If a planet can be measured by both the transit and radial velocity methods, an important added dimension can be determined — how dense the planet might be.  This tells us if the planet is rocky or gaseous, watery or even if it has a central core and might have an atmosphere.  So many things have to go right that this kind of dual detection has seldom been accomplished for a  relatively small and rocky planet, but such a new planet has now been found.

The planet, Gliese 486b, is a super-Earth orbiting its host star at only 24 light-years away.  That makes the planet the third closest transiting exoplanet to Earth that is known, and the closest with a measured mass that transits a red dwarf star.

The authors of the study in the journal Science say Gliese 486b is an ideal candidate for learning how to best search for and characterize an all-important atmosphere, and to study potential habitability, too.  Future telescopes will make this kind of work more of a reality.

“Gliese 486 b is not hot enough to be a lava world,” lead author Trifon Trifonov of the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie and colleagues write. “But its temperature of ~700 Kelvin (800 degrees Fahrenheit) makes it suitable for emission spectroscopy and …. studies in search of an atmosphere.”

Artist impression of the surface of the newly discovered hot super-Earth Gliese 486 b. With a temperature of about 700 Kelvin (almost 800 degrees Fahrenheit), 486b possibly has an atmosphere.

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The Directly Imaged World Around α Centauri?

Optical and X-ray (cut-out) image of the Alpha Centauri binary stars (Optical: Zdenek Bardon; X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Colorado/T. Ayres et al.)

There is something terribly exciting about actually seeing an exoplanet. While we have discovered over 4,000 planets outside the solar system, the majority of these worlds have been identified through their influence on their star, either via a dimming of the star’s light as the planet transits across its surface, or the wobble of the star from the planet’s gravitational pull. These are incredibly powerful techniques for planet hunting, but neither allow us to actually lay eyes on the planet itself.

The method to actually see a planet is known as “direct imaging” and it is a tricky process, as the star’s light can easily overwhelm any radiation coming from the smaller, cooler planet. Exoplanet imagining has therefore focused on young Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting far from the powerful lighthouse of the star. These planets are large and their recent formation has left them packed with heat, with temperatures around 1340°F (727°C). Such hot houses emit thermal radiation at wavelengths around 5 microns, so most of the instruments dedicated to capturing planet pictures operate around this wavelength range.

Direct imaging of exoplanets is difficult, and so far has been mainly restricted to young, massive planets. This amazing animation of four planets more massive than Jupiter orbiting the young star HR 8799 includes images taken over seven years at the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii. (Jason Wang and Christian Marois)

However, these wavelengths are a bad choice if you want to try imaging an Earth-like world. As an evolved planet on a temperate orbit, thermal emission from a planet like our own is longer at about 10 – 20 microns. This is an awkward wavelength for observations from the Earth, as the Earth’s own thermal emission can swamp the distant signal of the planet.

Yet, being able to directly image temperate planets is an important technique for studying possible habitable worlds. As you move away from the star, the chances of the planet’s orbit transiting across the star’s surface from our view from Earth decreases. For a planet on a similar orbit to the Earth around a sun-like star, the probability is less than 0.5%. The only way to study many of these worlds may be if we can see them directly, and space-based observatories have been generally seen as the path to this kind of imaging.… Read more

New Insights Into How Earth Got Its Nitrogen

An artist’s conception shows a protoplanetary disk of dust and gas around a young star. New research by Rice University shows that Earth’s nitrogen came from both inner and outer regions of the disk that formed our solar system, contrary to earlier theory.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists have long held that many of the important compounds and elements that make life possible on Earth arrived here after the planet was formed and was orbiting the sun.  These molecules came via meteorites and comets, it was thought,  from the colder regions beyond Jupiter.

But in a challenge to that long-accepted view, a team from Rice University has found isotopic signatures of nitrogen from both the inner and the outer disk in iron meteorites that fell to Earth.  What this strongly suggests is that the seeds of rocky, inner solar system planets such as Earth were bathed in  dust that contained nitrogen and other volatiles, and the growing planet kept some of that “local” material.

“Our work completely changes the current narrative,” said Rice University graduate student and lead author Damanveer Grewal. “We show that the volatile elements were present in the inner disk dust, probably in the form of refractory (non-gaseous) organics, from the very beginning. This means that contrary to current understanding, the seeds of the present-day rocky planets — including Earth — were not volatile-free.”

The solar protoplanetary disk was separated into two reservoirs, with the inner solar system material having a lower concentration of nitrogen-15 and the outer solar system material being nitrogen-15 rich. The nitrogen isotope composition of present-day Earth lies in between, according to a new Rice University study that shows it came from both reservoirs. (Credit: Illustration by Amrita P. Vyas)

This work helped settle a prolonged debate over the origin of life-essential volatile elements — such as hydrogen, water, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen, ammonia — on Earth and other rocky bodies in the solar system.

“Researchers have always thought that the inner part of the solar system, within Jupiter’s orbit, was too hot for nitrogen and other volatile elements to condense as solids, meaning that volatile elements in the inner disk were only in the gas phase,” Grewal said.

Because the seeds of present-day rocky planets, also known as protoplanets, grew in the inner disk by accreting locally sourced dust, he said it appeared they did not contain nitrogen or other volatiles because of the high temperatures, necessitating their delivery from the outer solar system.… Read more

How to Predict the Make-Up of Rocky Exoplanets Too Small and Distant to Directly Observe

The seven planets of the Trappist-1 solar system.  The first planets were discovered five years ago and others in 2017.  Trappist-1 is a dream system for researchers to study because it includes so many rocky planets.  The planets do, however, orbit very close to a relatively small and cool Red Dwarf star, which makes the system and its potential for habitability different than if they orbited a sun-like star. (NASA)

In trying to tease out what a planet is made of, its density is of great importance.   Scientists can use that measure  of density — the amount of matter contained in a given volume — to determine what ratio of a planet is likely is gas, or water, or rocks, or rocks and iron and more. They can even help determine if the planet has a central core.

So determining the density of exoplanets is a high priority and one that has been especially important for the Trappist-1 solar system, the amazing collection of seven “Earth-sized” rocky planets orbiting a Red Dwarf star some 40 light years away.

The Trappist-1 planets have been a major focus of study since its first planets were discovered in 2016, and now a new and rather surprising finding about the density of the planets has been accepted for publication in the Planetary Science Journal .  While the planets are somewhat different sizes, they appear to be all almost the exact same density.  This provides a goldmine of information for scientists.

Equally exciting, while the seven Trappist-1 planets have similar densities, they are 8% less dense than they would be if they had the same chemical composition as our planet.  It may not seem like a lot, but to astrophysicists it is.

“This is the information we needed to make hypotheses about their composition and understand how these planets differ from the rocky planets in our solar system,” said lead author Eric Agol of the University of Washington.

What Agol considers the team’s most robust conclusions:  The Trappist-1 planets have a “common make-up” just as the rocky planets in our solar system do, but are nonetheless in some significant ways different from our rocky planets.  “TRAPPIST-1 has a different ‘recipe’ for forming terrestrial planets, and a more uniform recipe as well,” he told me.

A planet’s density is determined not just by its composition, but also by its size: Gravity compresses the material a planet is made of, increasing the planet’s density.

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More Weird and Wild Planets

A world called TOI-849b could be the exposed, naked core of a former gas giant planet whose atmosphere was blasted away by its star.  Every day is a bad day on planet TOI-849b. . It hugs its star so tightly that a year – one trip around the star – takes less than a day. And it pays a high price for this close embrace: an estimated surface temperature of nearly 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius) It’s a scorcher even compared to Venus, which is 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius). About half the mass of our own Saturn, this planet orbits a Sun-like star more than 700 light-years from Earth. (NASA/Exoplanet Exploration Program)

The more we learn about the billions upon billions of planets that orbit beyond our solar system, the more we are surprised by the wild menagerie of objects out there.  From the start, many of these untolled planets have been startling, paradigm-breaking,  mysterious, hellish, potentially habitable and just plain weird.  Despite the confirmed detection of more than 4,000 exoplanets, the job of finding and characterizing these worlds remains in its early phases.  You could make the argument that  learning a lot more about these distant exoplanets and their solar systems is not just one of the great tasks of future astronomy, but of future science.

And that is why Many Worlds is returning to the subject of “Weird Planets,” which first appeared in this column at the opening of 2019.  It has been the most viewed column in our archive, and a day seldom goes by without someone — or some many people — decide to read it.

So here is not a really a sequel, but rather a continuation of writing about this unendingly rich subject.  And as I will describe further on,  almost all of the planets on display so far have been detected and characterized without ever having been seen.  The characteristics and colors presented in these (mostly) artistic renderings are the result of indirect observing and discovery — measuring how much light dims when a faraway planet crosses its host star, or how much the planet’s gravity causes its sun to move.

As a result, these planets are sometimes called “small, black shadows.” Scientists can infer a lot from the indirect measurements they make and from the beginnings of the grand effort to spectroscopically read the chemical makeup of exoplanet atmospheres. … Read more

How Radioactive Elements May Make Planets Suitable or Hostile to Life

An artist’s conception of a super Venus planet on the left and a super Earth on the right.  The question of what makes one planet habitable and one uninhabitable is a focus of many astrobiology researchers.  A new hypothesis looks at the presence of radioactive elements as an important factor in making a solar system habitable. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames)

When describing exoplanets that are potentially promising candidates for life, scientists often use the terminology of the “habitable zone.”  This is a description of planets in orbit where temperatures, as predicted by the distance from the host star,  are not too cold for liquid water to exist on a planetary surface and also not to hot for all the water to burn off.

This planetary sweet spot, which not surprisingly Earth inhabits, is also more casually called the “Goldilocks zone” for exoplanets.

While there is certainly value to the habitable zone concept, there has also been scientific pushback to using the potential presence of liquid water as a primary or singular factor in predicting potential habitability.

There are just too many other factors that can play into habitability, some argue, and a focus on a planet’s distance from its host sun (and thus its temperature regime) is too narrow.  After all, several of the objects that just might support life in our own solar system are icy moons quite far from any solar system habitable zone.

With these concerns in the background, an interdisciplinary team of astrophysicists and planetary scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz has begun to look at a source of heat in addition to suns and tidal forces that might play a role in making a planet habitable.

This source is the heat generated by the decay of long-lived radioactive elements such as uranium, thorium and potassium, which are found in stars and presumably on and in planets throughout the galaxies in greater or lesser amounts.

Using theory and modeling, they have concluded that the abundance of these radioactive elements in a planetary mantle can indeed give important insights into whether life might emerge there.

Supercomputer models of Earth’s magnetic field,  which is kept going thanks in part to the heat and subsequent convection produced by radioactive decay. (NASA)

Uranium is among the most widespread  elements on Earth — 500 times more common than gold It is present on the surface and in the mantle below. (Atomic Heritage Foundation.)

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