Category: Planetary Systems (page 1 of 9)

The Remarkable Race to Find the First Exoplanet, And the Nobel Prize It Produced

Rendering of the planet that started it all — 51 Pegasi b. It is a “hot Jupiter” that, when discovered, broke every astronomical rule regarding where types of planets should be in a solar system. (NASA)

Earlier this week, the two men who detected the first planet outside our solar system that circled a sun-like star won a Nobel Prize in physics.  The discovery heralded the beginning of the exoplanet era — replacing a centuries-old scientific supposition that planets orbited other stars with scientific fact.

The two men are Michel Mayor,  Professor Emeritus at the University of Geneva and Didier Queloz, now of Cambridge University.  There is no Nobel Prize in astronomy and the physics prize has seldom gone to advances in the general field of astronomy and planetary science.  So the selection is all the more impressive.

Mayor and Queloz worked largely unknown as they tried to make their breakthrough, in part because previous efforts to detect exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) orbiting sun-like stars had fallen short, and also because several claimed successes turned out to be unfounded.  Other efforts proved to be quite dangerous:  a Canadian duo used poisonous and corrosive hydrogen flouride vapor in the 1980s as part of their planet-hunting effort.

But since their 1995 discovery opened the floodgates, the field of exoplanet science has exploded.  More than 4,000 exoplanets have been identified and a week seldom goes by without more being announced.  The consensus scientific view is now that billions upon billions of exoplanets exist in our galaxy alone.

While Mayor and Queloz were pioneers for sure, they did not work in a vacuum.  Rather, they were in a race of sorts with an American team that had also been working in similar near anonymity for years to also find an exoplanet.

And so here is a human, rather than a purely scientific, narrative look — reported over the years — into the backdrop to the just announced Nobel Prize.  While Mayor and Queloz were definitely the first to find an exoplanet, they were quite close to being the second.

 

Swiss astronomers Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor are seen here in 2011 in front of the European Southern Observatory’s ’s 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile. The telescope hosts the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), one of the world’s leading exoplanet hunters.  After the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, Mayor led the effort to build the HARPS planet-finding spectrometer.

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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

Exoplanets Discoveries Flood in From TESS

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has hundreds of “objects of interest” waiting to be confirmed as planets in the data from the space telescope’s four cameras.  These three were the first confirmed TESS discoveries, identified last year during its first three months of observing. By the time the mission is done, TESS’s wide-field cameras will have covered the whole sky in search of transiting exoplanets around 200,000 of the nearest (and brightest) stars. (NASA / MIT / TESS)

The newest space telescope in the sky — NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, TESS — has been searching for exoplanets for less than a year, but already it has quite a collection to its name.

The TESS mission is to find relatively nearby planets orbiting bright and stable suns, and so expectations were high from the onset about the discovery of important new planets and solar systems.  At a meeting this week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devoted to TESS  results,  principal investigator George Ricker pronounced the early verdict.

The space telescope, he said,  “has far exceeded our most optimistic hopes.”  The count is up to 21 new planets and 850 additional  candidate worlds waiting to be confirmed.

Equally or perhaps more important is that the planets and solar systems being discovered promise important results.  They have not yet included any Earth-sized rocky planet in a sun’s habitable zone — what is generally considered the most likely, though hardly the only, kind of planet to harbor life — but they did include planets that offer a great deal when it comes to atmospheres and how they can be investigated.

This infographic illustrates key features of the TOI 270 system, located about 73 light-years away in the southern constellation Pictor. The three known planets were discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite through periodic dips in starlight caused by each orbiting world. Insets show information about the planets, including their relative sizes, and how they compare to Earth. Temperatures given for TOI 270’s planets are equilibrium temperatures, (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger)

One of the newest three-planet system is called TOI-270, and it’s about 75 light years from Earth. The star at the center of the system is a red dwarf, a bit less than half the size of the sun.

Despite its small size, it’s brighter than most of the nearby stars we know host planets. And it’s stable, making its solar system especially valuable.

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Curiosity Rover as Seen From High Above by Mars Orbiter

A camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently spotted the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater.  The image is color-enhanced to allow surface features to become more visible. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This is Apollo memory month, when the 50th anniversary arrives of the first landing of astronauts on the moon.  It was a very big deal and certainly deserves attention and applause.

But there’s something unsettling about the anniversary as well, a sense that the human exploration side of NASA’s mission has disappointed and that its best days were many decades ago.   After all, it has been quite a few years now since NASA has been able to even get an astronaut to the International Space Station without riding in a Russian capsule.

There have been wondrous (and brave) NASA human missions since Apollo — the several trips to the Hubble Space Telescope for emergency repair and upgrade come to mind — but many people who equate NASA with human space exploration are understandably dismayed.

This Many Worlds column does not focus on human space exploration, but rather on the science coming from space telescopes, solar system missions, and the search for life beyond Earth.

And as I have argued before, the period that following the last Apollo mission and began with the 1976 Viking landings on Mars has been — and continues to be — the golden era of space science.

This image of Curiosity,  which is now exploring an area that has been named Woodland Bay in Gale Crater, helps make the case.

Taken on May 31 by the HiRISE camera of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), it shows the rover in a geological formation that holds remains of ancient clay.  This is important because clay can be hospitable to life, and Curiosity has already proven that Mars once had the water, organic compounds and early climate to support life.

The MRO orbits between 150 and 200 miles above Mars, so this detailed image is quite a feat.

The arm of the Curiosity rover examines the once-watery remains at Woodland Bay, Gale Crater. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity landed on Mars for what was planned as a mission of two years-plus. That was seven years ago this coming August.

The rover has had some ups and downs and has moved more slowly than planned, but it remains in motion — collecting paradigm-shifting information, drilling into the Mars surface, taking glorious images and making its way up the slopes of Gale Crater. … Read more

NASA Announces Astrobiology Mission to Titan

 

The Dragonfly drone has been selected as the next New Frontiers mission, this time to Saturn’s moon Titan.  Animation of the vehicle taking off from the surface of the moon. (NASA)

A vehicle that flies like a drone and will try to unravel some of the mysteries of Saturn’s moon Titan was selected yesterday to be the next New Frontiers mission to explore the solar system.

Searching for the building blocks of life,  the Dragonfly mission will be able to fly multiple sorties to sample and examine sites around Saturn’s icy moon.

Titan has a thick atmosphere and features a variety of hydrocarbons, with rivers and lakes of methane, ethane and natural gas, as well as and precipitation cycles like on Earth.  As a result, Dragonfly has been described as an astrobiology mission because it will search for signs of the prebiotic environments like those on Earth that gave rise to life.

“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science at the agency headquarters in Washington.

“It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”

 

Saturn’s moon Titan is significantly larger than our moon, and larger than the planet Mercury. It features river channels of ethane and methane, and lakes of liquified natural gas. It is the only other celestial body in our solar system that has flowing liquid on its surface. (NASA)

As described in a NASA release, Titan is an analog to the very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on our planet.

Dragonfly will explore environments ranging from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years. Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed.

They also will investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.

Because it is so far from the sun, Titan’s surface temperature is around -290 degrees Fahrenheit and its surface pressure is 50 percent higher than Earth’s.… Read more

The Interiors of Exoplanets May Well Hold the Key to Their Habitability

Scientists have had a working — and evolving — understanding of the interior of the Earth for only a century or so.  But determining whether a distant planet is truly habitable may require an understanding of its inner dynamics — which will for sure be a challenge to achieve. (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

The quest to find habitable — and perhaps inhabited — planets and moons beyond Earth focuses largely on their location in a solar system and the nature of its host star,  the eccentricity of its orbit, its size and rockiness, and the chemical composition of its atmosphere, assuming that it has one.

Astronomy, astrophysics, cosmochemistry and many other disciplines have made significant progress in characterizing at least some of the billions of exoplanets out there, although measuring the chemical makeup of atmospheres remains a immature field.

But what if these basic characteristics aren’t sufficient to answer necessary questions about whether a planet is habitable?  What if more information — and even more difficult to collect information — is needed?

That’s the position of many planetary scientists who argue that the dynamics of a planet’s interior are essential to understand its habitability.

With our existing capabilities, observing an exoplanet’s atmospheric composition will clearly be the first way to search for signatures of life elsewhere.   But four scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science — Anat Shahar, Peter Driscoll, Alycia Weinberger, and George Cody — argued in a recent perspective article in Science that a true picture of planetary habitability must consider how a planet’s atmosphere is linked to and shaped by what’s happening in its interior.

They argue that on Earth, for instance, plate tectonics are crucial for maintaining a surface climate where life can fill every niche. And without the cycling of material between the planet’s surface and interior, the convection that drives the Earth’s magnetic field would not be possible and without a magnetic field, we would be bombarded by cosmic radiation.

What makes a planet potentially habitable and what are signs that it is not. This graphic from the Carnegie paper illustrates the differences (Shahar et al.)

 

“The perspective was our way to remind people that the only exoplanet observable right now is the atmosphere, but that the atmospheric composition is very much linked to planetary interiors and their evolution,” said lead author Shahar, who is trained in geological sciences. “If there is a hope to one day look for a biosignature, it is crucial we understand all the ways that interiors can influence the atmospheric composition so that the observations can then be better understood.”

“We need a better understanding of how a planet’s composition and interior influence its habitability, starting with Earth,” she said. 

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Exoplanets With Complex Life May Be Very Rare, Even in Their “Habitable Zones”

The term “habitable zone” can be a misleading one, since it describes a limited number of conditions on a planet to make it hospitable to life. (NASA)

 

For years now, finding planets in the habitable zones of their host stars has been a global astrophysical quest and something of a holy grail.  That distance from a star where temperatures could allow H20 to remain liquid some of the time has been deemed the “Goldilocks” zone where life could potentially emerge and survive.

The term is valuable for sure, but many in the field worry that it can be as misleading or confusing as it is helpful.

Because while the habitable zone is a function of the physics and architecture of a solar system, so much more is needed to make a planet actually potentially habitable.  Does it have an atmosphere?  Does it have a magnetic field. Does it orbit on an elliptical path that takes it too far (and too close) to the sun?  Was it sterilized during the birth of the host star and orbiting planets?  What kind of star does it orbit, and how old and luminous is that star?

And then there’s the sometimes confused understanding that many habitable zones may well support complex, even technologically-advanced life.  They are, after all, habitable.

But as a new paper in the Astrophysical Journal makes clear, the likelihood of a habitable zone planet being able to support complex life — anything beyond a microbe — is significantly limited by the amount of toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide and excesses of carbon dioxide.

Eddie Schwieterman, a NASA postdoc at the University of California, Riverside and lead author of the article, told me that the odds for complex life on most exoplanets in their habitable zones weren’t great.

“A rough estimate is between 10-20% of habitable zone planets are truly suitable for analogs to humans and animals.” he said. “Of course, being located in this part of the habitable zone isn’t enough by itself – you still need the build-up of oxygen via the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis and certain planetary biogeochemical cycles.”

 

A rendering of the exoplanet Kepler 442 b, compared in size to  Earth.  Kepler 442 b was detected using the Kepler Space Telescope and is 0ne of a handful of planets found so far deemed to be most likely to be habitable. But it’s 1200 light-years away, so learning its secrets will be challenging.

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A Grand Global Competition to Name 100 ExoWorlds

Within the framework of its 100th anniversary commemorations, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is organising the IAU100 NameExoWorlds global competition that allows any country in the world to give a popular name to a selected exoplanet and its host star. Exoplanet rendering by IAU.

Four years ago, the International Astronomical Union organized a competition to give popular names to 14 stars and 31 exoplanets that orbit them.  The event encouraged 570,000 people to vote and the iconic planet 51 Pegasi b became “Dimidium, ” 55 Cancri b became “Galileo,” and (among others) Formalhaut b became “Dagon.”

It remains unclear how often those popular names are used in either scientific papers or writing about the papers.  But the idea of giving mythical names, names that describe something unique about the planet (or star)  or that nod to famous astronomer or iconic writers has caught on and the IAU has a new naming contest up and running.

This one is the IAU NameExoWorlds global campaign, and almost 100 nations have signed up to organize public national campaigns that will  give new names to a selected exoplanet and its host star.

“This exciting event invites everyone worldwide to think about their collective place in the universe, while stimulating creativity and global citizenship,” shared Debra Elmegreen, IAU President Elect. “The NameExoWorlds initiative reminds us that we are all together under one sky.”

From a large sample of well-studied, confirmed exoplanets and their host stars, the IAU NameExoWorlds Steering Committee assigned a star-planet system to each country, taking into account associations with the country and the visibility of the host star from most of the country.

The national campaigns will be carried out from June to November 2019 and, after final validation by that NameExoWorlds Steering Committee, the global results will be announced in December 2019. The winning names will be used freely in parallel with the existing technical scientific names.

The bulge of the Milky Way, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Our galaxy is inferred to have hundreds of billions of stars, and even more planets. (NASA, ESA, and T. Brown (STScI);

 

The naming contest flows from the well-established fact that exoplanets are everywhere — at least one around most stars, scientists have concluded.  Some 4,500 exoplanets have been identified so far, but this is but the beginning.  Astronomers are confident there are hundreds of billions of exoplanets — ranging from small and rocky like Earth to massive gas giants much larger than Jupiter — in our galaxy reaches into the many billions.… Read more

Our Ever-Growing Menagerie of Exoplanets

While we have never seen an exoplanet with anything near this kind of detail, scientists and artists now do know enough to represent them with characteristics that are plausible, given what is known about them..  (NASA)

With so many exoplanets already detected, with the pace of discovery continuing to be so fast, and with efforts to find more distant worlds so constant and global,  it’s easy to become somewhat blase´ about new discoveries.  After so many “firsts,” and so many different kinds of planets found in very different ways, it certainly seems that some of the thrill may be gone.

Surely the detection of a clearly “Earth-like planet” would cause new excitement — one that is not only orbiting in the habitable zone of its host star but also has signs of a potentially nurturing atmosphere in a generally supportive cosmic neighborhood.

But while many an exoplanet has been described as somewhat “Earth-like” and potentially habitable, further observation has consistently reduced the possibility of the planets actually hosting some form of biology.  The technology and knowledge base needed to find distant life is surely advancing, but it may well still have a long way to go.

In just the last few days, however, a slew of discoveries have been reported that highlight the allure and science of our new Exoplanet Era.  They may not be blockbusters by themselves, but they are together part of an immense scientific exploration under way, one that is re-shaping our understanding of the cosmos and preparing us for bigger discoveries and insights to come.

 

Already 3,940 exoplanets have been identified (as of April 17) with an additional 3,504 candidates waiting to be confirmed or discarded.  this is but the start since it is widely held now that virtually every star out there has a planet, or planets, orbiting it.   That’s billions of billions of planets.  This image is a collection of NASA exoplanet renderings.

What I have in mind are these discoveries:

  • The first Earth-sized planet detected by NASA’s year-old orbiting telescope TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.)  TESS is designed to find planets orbiting massive stars in our near neighborhood, and it has already made 10 confirmed discoveries.  But finding a small exoplanet — 85 percent the size of Earth — is a promising result for a mission designed to not only locate as many as 20,000 new exoplanets, but to find 500 to 1,000 the rough size of Earth or SuperEarth. 
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A New and Revelatory Window Into Evolution on Earth

A Leanchoilia fossil from at the Qingjiang site in China. A very early arthropod  found with sharply defined appendages is an arthropod and  one of the prime examples of early Cambrian life (D Fu et al., Science 363:1338 (2019)

Virtually every definition of the word “life” includes the capability to undergo Darwinian evolution as a necessary characteristic.  This is true of life on Earth and of thinking about what would constitute life beyond Earth.  If it can’t change, the thinking goes, then it cannot be truly alive.

In addition, evolutionary selection and change occurs within the context of broad planetary systems — the chemical makeup of the atmosphere, the climactic conditions, the geochemistry and more.  If an environment is changing, then the lifeforms that can best adapt to the new conditions are the ones that will survive and prosper.

So evolution is very much part of the landscape that Many Worlds explores — the search for life beyond Earth and effort to understand how life emerged on Earth.  Evolution happens in the context of broad conditions on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere), and finding potential life elsewhere involves understanding the conditions on distant planets and determining if they are compatible with life.

This all came to mind as I read about the discovery of a remarkable collection of fossils alongside a river in China, fossils of soft-bodied creatures that lived a half billion years ago in the later phase of what is termed the the Cambrian explosion.  They are of being compared already with the iconic “Burgess Shale” fossil find in Canada of decades ago, and may well shed equally revelatory light on a crucial time in the evolution of life on Earth.

Artist rendering of Qingjiang life showing characteristics of different early Cambrian taxonomical groups.  More than 50 percent had never been identified before. (ZH Yao and DJ Fu)

The new discovery is reported in the journal Science in a paper authored by Dongjing Fu and a team largely from the Northwest University in Xi’an.  The paper reports on a zoo of Cambrian-era creatures, with more than half of them never identified before in the rock record.

The animals are soft-bodied — making it all the more remarkable that they were preserved — and some bear little resemblance to anything that followed.   Like the Burgess Shale fossils, the Qingjiang discovery is of an entire ecosystem that largely disappeared as more fit (and predatory) animals emerged.… Read more

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