Category: Discoveries (page 1 of 6)

NASA Should Build a Grand Observatory Designed to Search For Life Beyond Earth, Top Panel Concludes

The National Academy of Sciences has released it’s “Decadal Survey,” with guidance and recommendations for the fields of astronomy, astrobiology and astrophysics.(NASA)

NASA should begin developing a mission that can tell us whether life in the near galaxy is abundant, rare or essentially absent, The National Academy of Sciences recommended yesterday.

The call for a next Grand Observatory telescope with this ambitious goal represents the first time that the Academy, in its Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics, has given top priority to the science of  exoplanets and the search for life far beyond Earth.

The long-awaited NAS survey did not select a single mission concept, although several NASA-commissioned studies were extensively researched and assembled for the Decadal over the past four years.

Rather, they set the science goal of giving an answer – as complete as possible – to the eternally-asked question of whether life exists solely on Earth or can be found on the billions of other planets we now know orbit their own suns.

Decadal steering committee co-chair Robert Kennicutt Jr., a professor at University of Arizona and Texas A & M University, said that a flood of discoveries and astronomical and technological advances in recent decades made clear that the time for such a mission had come.

“We’re laying down a marker here,” Kennicutt said  in a press conference.  “We think that progress in this field has taken us to the point that within the planning horizon of this survey, we can really contemplate imaging  Earth-like planets in their habitable zones around other stars and spectroscopically studying them for atmospheric composition, perhaps including biomarkers. with the ultimate goal of answering one of the most profound questions:  Are we alone in the universe?”

The proposed mission, he said, would as a result have the transformative scientific power of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch next month.  It would change the way that scientists and citizens see the world.

The telescope envisioned by Decadal Survey would search for small rocky planets in the habitable zone of heir sun — where the temperatures would allow for liquid water to exist rather than just water vapor or ice.  This artist’s concept ia of Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world found in the habitable zone of a distant sun-like star. ( NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.)

But the road to an actual mission will be long and definitely uphill.… Read more

Introducing Hycean Planets

A so-called Hycean planet is one featuring large oceans and a hydrogen atmosphere. A new report from the University of Cambridge suggests this kind of planet, sized between a super-Earth and a mini-Neptunes, could potentially support life. The image features a red dwarf star as the planet’s host star. (Artist rendering by Amanda Smith, University of Cambridge)

Planets beyond our solar system, we now know, come in all shapes, sizes and consistencies.  There are rocky planets, water worlds, gaseous planets, super-Earths, hot Jupiters, tidally locked planets, planets in orbital resonance with each other,  and so much more.

A group of exoplanet researchers at the University of Cambridge have recently proposed a new category of planet, one that has seldom been considered even potentially habitable.  They call them Hycean planets due to the presence of substantial hydrogen in the atmospheres and large oceans (hydrogen and ocean = Hycean) on their surfaces.

And in an article in The Astrophysical Journal, they make the case that under certain conditions, some Hycean planets could, indeed, be habitable.

“Hycean planets open a whole new avenue in our search for life elsewhere,” said Nikku Madhusudhan from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who led the research.

Many of the prime Hycean candidates identified by the researchers are bigger and hotter than Earth, but the researchers argue that they still have the characteristics to host large oceans that could support microbial life similar to that found in some of Earth’s most extreme watery environments.

Hycean planets, Madhusudhan said in a release, offer a new paradigm for the search for life beyond Earth.

“Essentially, when we’ve been looking for these various molecular signatures, we have been focusing on planets similar to Earth, which is a reasonable place to start,”  he said. “But we think Hycean planets offer a better chance of finding several trace biosignatures.”

Co-author Anjali Piette, also from Cambridge, added: “It’s exciting that habitable conditions could exist on planets so different from Earth.”

An artist rendering of what a possible Hycean planet would look like.  This image is of K2-18b, which has a radius twice that of Earth and is more than eight times as massive as our planet.  The heavy hydrogen atmosphere is present, as is the red dwarf star that it orbits. (Alex Boersma)

There are no planets of this size and type in our solar system, but planets in the Hycean range are quite common in the galaxy.… Read more

A Young Planet Found That May Well Be Making Moons

An image made by the Very Large Telescope in Chile shows a forming planet, the bright spot at right. The overpowering light of the host star is blocked out by a coronagraph inside the telescope. (ESO/A. Müller et al.)

Astronomers have many theories about how planets are formed within the gas, dust, pebbles and gradually rocks of the circumstellar disks that encircle a star after it has been born.  While the general outlines of this remarkable process are pretty well established, many questions large and small remain unanswered.

One is how and when exomoons are formed around these planets, with the assumption that the process that forms planets must also give birth moons.  But the potential moons have been far too small for the current generation of space and ground telescopes to identify.

Now astronomers have detected something almost as significant:  a circumplanetary disk surrounding a young planet that appears to be in the process of making moons.  The moon itself has not been detected, but a forming planet has been found with a ring of dust and gas that surrounds it.  And within that circumplanetary disk, astronomers infer, a moon is possibly being formed.

“Our work presents a clear detection of a disk in which satellites could be forming,” said Dr. Myriam Benisty, an astronomer at the University of Grenoble and the University of Chile.

“The new … observations were obtained at such exquisite resolution that we could clearly identify that the disk is associated with {the exoplanet} and we are able to constrain its size for the first time,” she said in a release.

While the first detection of the planet was made via the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, the more granular observation of the forming planet and its moon-forming disk was made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), also in Chile.

This ALMA image shows the young PDS 70 planetary system. The system features a star at its center and at least two planets orbiting it, PDS 70b (not visible in the image) and PDS 70c, surrounded by a circumplanetary disk (the dot to the right of the star). Image credit: ALMA / ESO / NAOJ / NRAO / Benisty et al.)

The finding, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, came via direct imaging — in effect through extremely high power photography rather through the indirect methods much more common in exoplanet astronomy.… Read more

Earth as a Transiting Exoplanet

A view of Earth and Sun from thousands of miles above our planet. Stars that enter and exit a position where they can see Earth as a transiting planet around our Sun are brightened. (OpenSpace/American Museum of Natural History)

Exoplanet scientists and enthusiasts spend a lot of time trying to find, measure and understand distant planets that can — under specific conditions — be detected as passing in front of their host star.  A majority of the 4000-plus exoplanets discovered so far were indirectly detected this way, by measuring the diminishing of stellar light as the exoplanet passes between the star and us.

In a conceptual turnaround, two researchers have now asked the question of how common it might be for beings on distant exoplanets to be able to similarly detect and measure Earth as it transits in front of our sun.

Astronomers call this special vantage point in space – the point from which Earth transits can be seen – the Earth transit zone.  Because the cosmos is dynamic and ever-changing, they looked for not only stars that are in that zone now, but have also passed through over the past 5,000 years and will in the next 5,000 years.

“From the exoplanets’ point-of-view, we are the aliens,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University.

“We wanted to know which stars have the right vantage point to see Earth, as it blocks the sun’s light.  And because stars move in our dynamic cosmos, this vantage point is gained and lost.”


Transit data are rich with information. By measuring the depth of the dip in brightness and knowing the size of the star, scientists can determine the size or radius of the planet. The orbital period of the planet can be determined by measuring the elapsed time between transits. Once the orbital period is known, Kepler’s Third Law of Planetary Motion can be applied to determine the average distance of the planet from its stars. (NASA/Ames)

How many stars (and their orbiting planets) have this proper vantage point, have had in the past and will in the future?

In Kaltenegger’s paper, published in Nature with Jackie Faherty of the astrophysics department of the American Museum of Natural History, the numbers reported are quite low.

They found that since the earliest human civilization about 5,000 years ago, only 1,715 stars among the 300,000-plus that shine within 300 light years of our sun are in the right geometric alignment for an observation of Earth passing in front of our sun. Read more

Will The Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx) — Or Something Like It — Emerge As NASA’s Next Great Observatory?

Artist impression of HabEx spacecraft and a deployed starshade 47,000 miles away, with an exoplanet made visible by the starshade’s blocking of stellar light. (NASA)

Some time later this summer, it is predicted, the National Academy of Sciences will release its long-awaited Decadal Survey for astrophysics, which is expected to recommend the science and architecture that NASA should embrace for its next “Great Observatory.”

Many Worlds earlier featured one of the four concepts in the running — LUVOIR or the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor.  With a segmented mirror potentially as wide as 50 feet in diameter, it would revolutionize the search for habitable exoplanets and potentially could detect one (or many) distant planets likely to support life.

Proposed as a “Great Observatory” for the 2030s in the tradition of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled to launch later this year), LUVOIR would allow for transformative science of not only exoplanets but many other fields of astronomy as well.

Also under serious consideration is the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory, HabEx, which would also bring unprecedented capabilities to the search for life beyond Earth.  Its mirror would be considerably smaller than that proposed for LUVOIR and it would have fewer chances to find an inhabited world.

But it is nonetheless revolutionary in terms of what it potentially can do for exoplanet science and it could come with a second spacecraft that seems to be out of science fiction,  designed to block out starlight so exoplanets nearby can be observed. That 52-meter (or 170-foot) petal-rimmed, light-blocking disc is called a starshade or an occulter, and it would fly 76,600 kilometers (or 47,000 miles) away from the HabEx spacecraft and would work in tandem with the telescope to make those close-in exoplanet observations possible.

While the capabilities of HabEx are fewer compared to LUVOIR and the potential harvest of habitable or inhabited planets is less, HabEx nonetheless would be cutting edge and significantly more capable than the Hubble Space Telescope in nearly every way, while also being less expensive than LUVOIR and requiring less of a technology reach.

Scott Gaudi, an Ohio State University astronomer, was co-chair of the NASA-created team that spent three years studying, engineering and then proposing the HabEx concept. He put the potential choice between HabEx and LUVOIR this way:  “Do you want to take a first step or a first leap?  HabEx is a major step; LUVOIR is a huge leap.”… 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.

Read more

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

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.

Read more

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

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