Category: NExSS (page 3 of 3)

Ranking Exoplanet Habitability

The Virtual Planetary Lab at the University of Washington has been working to rank exoplanets (or exoplanet candidates) by how likely they are to be habitable. (Rory Barnes)

The Virtual Planetary Lab at the University of Washington has been working to rank exoplanets (or exoplanet candidates) by how likely they are to be habitable. (Rory Barnes)

 

Now that we know that there are billions and billions of planets beyond our solar system, and we even know where thousands of confirmed and candidate planets are located, where should we be looking for those planets that could in theory support extraterrestrial life, and might just possibly support it now?

The first order answer is, of course, the habitable zone — that region around a host star that would allow orbiting planets to have liquid water on the surface at least some of the time.

That assertion is by definition a theoretical one — at this point we have no detection of an exoplanet with liquid water orbiting a distant star — and it is actually a rather long-held view.

For instance, this is what William Whewell, the prominent British natural philosopher-scientist-theologian (and Master of Trinity College at Cambridge) wrote in 1853:

William Whewell was

William Whewell was an early proponent of a region akin to a habitable zone.  He also coined the words “scientist” and “physicist.”

“The Earth is really the domestic hearth of this solar system; adjusted between the hot and fiery haze on one side, the cold and watery vapour on the other.  This region is fit to be the seat of habitation; and in this region is placed the largest solid globe of our system; and on this globe, by a series of creative operations…has been established, in succession, plants, and animals, and man…The Earth alone has become a World.”

Whewell wrongly limited his analysis to our solar system, but he was pretty much on target regarding the crude basics of a habitable zone. His was followed over the decades by other related theoretical assessments, including in more modern times Steven Dole for the Rand Corporation in 1964 and NASA’s Michael Hart in 1979.  All pretty much based on an Earth-centric view of habitable zones throughout the cosmos.

It was this approach, even in its far more sophisticated modern versions, that got some of the scientists at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory thinking three years ago about how they might do better.  What they wanted to do was to join the theory of the habitable (or more colloquially, the “Goldilocks zone”) with actual data now coming in from measurements of transiting exoplanets.… Read more

The Search for Exoplanet Life Goes Broad and Deep

The scientific lessons learned over the centuries about the geological, chemical and later biological dynamics of Earth are beginning to enter the discussion of exoplanets, and especially which might be conducive to life. This is an artist's view of the young Earth under bombardment by asteroids, one of many periods with conditions likely to have parallels in other solar systems. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)

The scientific lessons learned over the centuries about the geological, chemical and later biological dynamics of Earth are beginning to enter the discussion of exoplanets, and especially which might be conducive to life. This is an artist’s view of the young Earth under bombardment by asteroids, one of many periods with conditions likely to have parallels in other solar systems. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)

I had the good fortune several years ago to spend many hours in meetings of the science teams for the Curiosity rover, listening in on discussions about what new results beamed back from Mars might mean about the planet’s formation, it’s early history, how it gained and lost an atmosphere, whether it was a place where live could begin and survive.  (A resounding ‘yes” to that last one.)

At the time, the lead of the science team was a geologist, Caltech’s John Grotzinger, and many people in the room had backgrounds in related fields like geochemistry and mineralogy, as well as climate modelers and specialists in atmospheres.  There were also planetary scientists, astrobiologists and space engineers, of course, but the geosciences loomed large, as they have for all Mars landing missions.

Until very recently, exoplanet research did not have much of that kind interdisciplinary reach, and certainly has not included many scientists who focus on the likes of vulcanism, plate tectonics and the effects of stars on planets.  Exoplanets has been largely the realm of astronomers and astrophysicists, with a sprinkling again of astrobiologists.

But as the field matures, as detecting exoplanets and inferring their orbits and size becomes an essential but by no means the sole focus of researchers, the range of scientific players in the room is starting to broaden.  It’s a process still in its early stages, but exoplanet breakthroughs already achieved, and the many more predicted for the future, are making it essential to bring in some new kinds of expertise.

A meeting reflecting and encouraging this reality was held last week at Arizona State University and brought together several dozen specialists in the geo-sciences with a similar number specializing in astronomy and exoplanet detection.  Sponsored by NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS), NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and the National Science Foundation,  it was a conscious effort to bring more scientists expert in the dynamics and evolution of our planet into the field of exoplanet study, while also introducing astronomers to the chemical and geological imperatives of the distant planets they are studying.… Read more

Cloudy, With a Chance of Iron Rain

Analysis of data from the Kepler space telescope has shown that roughly half of the dayside of the exoplanet Kepler-7b is covered by a large cloud mass. Statistical comparison of more than 1,000 atmospheric models show that these clouds are most likely made of Enstatite, a common Earth mineral that is in vapor form at the extreme temperature on Kepler-7b. These models varied the altitude, condensation, particle size, and chemical composition of the clouds to find the right reflectivity and color properties to match the observed signal from the exoplanet. Courtesy of NASA (edited by Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

Many exoplanets being discovered are covered with thick clouds, offering an opportunity to analyze their compositions but hiding the lower atmosphere and surface from measurement and view.  This artist rendering of Kepler-7b is based Kepler Space Telescope data and shows that half of the day-side of the planet is covered by a large cloud.  Statistical comparison of more than 1,000 atmospheric models show that these clouds are most likely made of enstatite, a common Earth mineral that is in vapor form at the extreme temperature on Kepler-7b. (NASA/ edited by Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

 

From an Earth-centric point of view, rain of course means falling water.  We can have storms with falling dust — I experienced a few of those while a reporter in India — but rain is pretty much exclusively H2O falling from the clouds. But as the study of exoplanets moves aggressively into the realm of characterizing these distant planets after they are detected, the concepts of rain and clouds are changing rapidly.

We already know that it rains methane on the moon Titan, sulfuric acid on Venus and ammonia, helium and, yes, water, on Jupiter and Saturn.  Some have even posited that carbon — in the form of graphite and then diamonds — falls from the “clouds” of Saturn and Jupiter, but the eye-catching view is widely disputed.

Now the clouds of exoplanets large and small are being rigorously scrutinized not only because they can potentially tell researchers a great deal about the planets below,  but also because especially thick clouds have become a major impediment to learning what many exoplanet atmospheres and even surfaces are made of.  Current telescopes and spectrometers just can’t see much through many of the thick ones.

Here’s why:  The chemical compositions of many exo-planetary clouds are so profoundly different from what is found in our solar system.  Hot gas exoplanets, for instance, tend to have clouds of irons and silicates — compounds that are in a gas form on the surface (such as it is), then rise into the atmospheres and form into grain-like solids when they get higher and colder.  For some smaller exoplanets, the composition tends to be salts such as zinc sulfide and potassium chloride.

The process of identifying the make-up of different clouds is very much a work in progress, as is an understanding of how thick or how patchy the clouds may be.

The light curve for the planet studied, which is some four times larger than Jupiter, shows differences in brightness as the planet rotates.

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Movement in The Search For ExoLife

A notional version of an observatory for the 2030s that could provide revolutionary direct imaging of exoplanets. GSFC/JPL/STScI

A notional version of an observatory for the 2030s that could provide revolutionary direct imaging of exoplanets. GSFC/JPL/STScI

Assuming for a moment that life exists on some exoplanets, how might researchers detect it?

This is hardly a new question.  More than ten years ago, competing teams of exo-scientists and engineers came up with proposals for a NASA flagship space observatory capable of identifying possible biosignatures on distant planets. No consensus was reached, however, and no mission was developed.

But early this year, NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz announced the formation of four formal Science and Technology Definition Teams to analyze proposals for a grand space observatory for the 2030s.  Two of them in particular would make possible the kind of super-high resolution viewing needed to understand the essential characteristics of exoplanets.  As now conceived, that would include a capability to detect molecules in distant atmospheres that are associated with living things.

These two exo-friendly missions are the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared (LUVOIR) Surveyor and the Habitable Exoplanet (HabEx) Imaging Mission.   Both would be on the scale of, and in the tradition of, scientifically and technically ground-breaking space observatories such as the Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.  These flagship missions provide once in a decade opportunities to move space science dramatically forward, and not-surprisingly at a generally steep cost.

 

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble, and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope (HDST) at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years (z = 2) The renderings show a one-hour observation for each space observatory. Hubble detects the bulge and disk, but only the high image quality of HDST resolves the galaxy’s star-forming regions and its dwarf satellite. The zoom shows the inner disk region, where only HDST can resolve the star-forming regions and separate them from the redder, more distributed old stellar population. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)500 light years away, as imaged by Hubble and potential of the kind of telescope the exoplanet community is working towards.

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble, and as viewed by the kind of high definition space telescope now under study.   Hubble detects the bulge and disk, but only the high definition image resolves the galaxy’s star-forming regions and its dwarf satellite. The zoom shows the inner disk region, where only high definition can resolve the star-forming regions and separate them from the redder, more distributed old stellar population. (D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)

 

Because the stakes are so high, planning and development takes place over decades — twenty years is the typical time elapsed between the conception of a grand flagship mission and its launch.  So while what is happening now with the science and technology definition teams  is only a beginning — albeit one with quite a heritage already — it’s an essential, significant and broadly-supported start.  Over the next three years, the teams will undertake deep dives into the possibilities and pitfalls of LUVOIR and HabEx, as well as the two other proposals.  There’s a decent chance that a version of one of the four will become a reality.… Read more

Exoplanet Earth

Snowball, or "slushball" Earths have occurred several times in Earth history, covering large swaths and perhaps at times all of the planet in glacial ice and snow. NSF

Snowball, or “slushball” Earths have occurred several times in our planet’s history, covering large swaths — and perhaps at times all of the planet — in glacial ice and snow. (NSF)

Some two billion years ago, all of Earth may well have been covered in snow and ice.  Oceans, continents, everything, and for many millions of years.  Observed from afar, the planet would be pretty low on the list of planets that might conceivably support life.  But we know that it did.

Five hundred to seven hundred million years ago, our planet had what scientists have determined to be another severe period of cold, with the global mean temperature somewhere around 10 degrees F.   Again, hardly a good candidate planet for life.  But in fact, the tropics were ice-free and Earth’s biosphere was preparing for its biggest explosion of life ever.

These kinds of insights and conclusions are part of the work now underway to use the earth and its climate history as a way to understand exoplanets, and some day to predict the best targets for examination.

cientific illustrations of recently discovered, potentially habitable worlds. Left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, and Kepler-62f, compared with Earth at far right. (Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Illustrations of exoplanets that orbit their suns within a habitable zone. Left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, and Kepler-62f, compared with Earth at far right. (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

It is a field with numerous players, but perhaps none so deeply engaged as NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City.

Using the same 3D modeling that it produces to understand our currently changing climate,  GISS and its collaborators is pushing further into the study of ancient Earth and solar system climates as a way to better understand exoplanets and someday identify potentially inhabited, or at least habitable, candidates.

Anthony Del Genio, a senior climate scientist at GISS, is the team leader for this novel effort, which includes some 30 scientists from a variety of institutions.

Anthony Del Genio, leader of GISS team using cutting edge Earth climate models to better understand conditions on exoplanets.

Anthony Del Genio, leader of GISS team using cutting edge Earth climate models to better understand conditions on exoplanets.

Undergirding the effort is the conviction that it would be a mistake to see exoplanets as static entities rather than as evolving bodies, with pasts and futures that can be as changeable as our own mutable planet.

“The beauty of Earth’s climate history for this project is that we have so many well studied fluctuations, and they give some tantalizing clues for a deeper understanding of other planets,”  said Del Genio, whose team is sponsored by both the NASA Planetary Atmospheres, Exobiology, and Habitable Worlds Programs  and the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS,) a NASA initiative. … Read more

The Exoplanet Era

Many, and perhaps most stars have solar systems with numerous planets, as in this artist rendering of Kepler 11. (NASA)

Throughout the history of science, moments periodically arrive when new fields of knowledge and discovery just explode.

Cosmology was a kind of dream world until Edwin Hubble established that the universe was expanding, and doing so at an ever-faster rate. A far more vibrant and scientific discipline was born. On a more practical level, it was only three decades ago that rudimentary personal computers were still a novelty, and now computer-controlled, self-driving cars are just on the horizon. And not that long ago, genomics and the mapping of the human genome also went into hyperspeed, and turned the mysterious into the well known.

Most frequently, these bursts of scientific energy and progress are the result of technological innovation, coupled with the far-seeing (and often lonely and initially unsupported) labor and insights of men and women who are simply ahead of the curve.

We are at another of those scientific moments right now, and the subject is exoplanets – the billions (or is it billions of billions?) of planets orbiting stars other than our sun.

The 20th anniversary of the breakthrough discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a sun, 51 Pegasi B, is being celebrated this month with appropriate fanfare. But while exoplanet discovery remains active and planet hunters increasingly skilled and inventive, it is no longer the edgiest frontier.

Now, astronomers, astrophysicists, astrobiologists, planetary scientists, climatologists, heliophysicists and many more are streaming into a field made so enticing, so seemingly fertile by that discovery of the ubiquitousness of exoplanets.

The new goal: Identifying the most compelling mysteries of some of those distant planets, and gradually but inexorably finding ever-more inventive ways to solve them. This is a thrilling task on its own, but the potential prize makes it into quite an historic quest. Because that prize is the identification of extraterrestrial life.

The presence of life beyond Earth is something that humans have dreamed about forever – with a seemingly intuitive sense that there just had to be other planets out there, and that it made equal sense that some of them supported life. Hollywood was on to this long ago, but now we have the beginning technology and fast-growing knowledge to transform that intuitive sense of life out there into a working science.

The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere.

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