Tag: exoplanets (page 3 of 4)

Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak: Exoplanets Gave The Origin of Life Field a Huge Boost

Jack Szostak, Nobel laureate and pioneering researcher in the origin-of-life field, was the featured speaker at a workshop this week at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo.  One goal of his Harvard lab is to answer this once seemingly impossible question:  was the origin of life on Earth essentially straight-forward and “easy,” or was it enormously “hard” and consequently rare in the universe. (Nerissa Escanlar)

Sometimes tectonic shifts in scientific disciplines occur because of discoveries and advances in the field.  But sometimes they occur for reasons entirely outside the field itself.  Such appears to be case with origins-of-life studies.

Nobel laureate Jack Szostak was recently in Tokyo to participate in a workshop at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology on “Reconstructing the Phenomenon of Life To Retrace the Emergence of Life.”

The talks were technical and often cutting-edge, but the backstory that Szostak tells of why he and so many other top scientists are now in the origins of life field was especially intriguing and illuminating in terms of how science progresses.

Those ground-shifting discoveries did not involve traditional origin-of-life questions of chemical transformations and pathways.  They involved exoplanets.

“Because of the discovery of all those exoplanets, astronomy has been transformed along with many other fields,” Szostak said after the workshop.

“We now know there’s a large range of planetary environments out there, and that has stimulated a huge amount of interest in where else in the universe might there be life.  Is it just here?  We know for sure that lots of environments could support life and we also would like to know:  do they?

“This has stimulated much more laboratory-based work to try to address the origins question.  What’s really important is for us to know whether the transition from chemistry to biology is easy and can happen frequently and anywhere, or are there one or many difficult steps that make life potentially very rare?”

In other words, the explosion in exoplanet science has led directly to an invigorated scientific effort to better understand that road from a pre-biotic Earth to a biological Earth — with chemistry that allows compounds to replicate, to change, to surround themselves in cell walls, and to grow ever more complex.

With today’s increased pace of research, Szostak said, the chances of finding some solid answers have been growing.  In fact, he’s quite optimistic that an answer will ultimately be forthcoming to the question of how life began on Earth.… Read more

The Very Influential Natalie Batalha

Natalie Batalha, project scientist for the Kepler mission and a leader of NASA’s NExSS initiative on exoplanets, was just selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. (NASA, TIME Magazine.)

I’d like to make a slight detour and talk not about the science of exoplanets and astrobiology, but rather a particular exoplanet scientist who I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

The scientist is Natalie Batalha, who has been lead scientist for NASA’s landmark Kepler Space Telescope mission since soon after it launched in 2009, has serves on numerous top NASA panels and boards, and who is one of the scientists who guides the direction of this Many Worlds column.

Last week, Batalha was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. This is a subjective (non-scientific) calculation for sure, but it nonetheless seems appropriate to me and to doubtless many others.

Batalha and the Kepler team have identified more than 2500 exoplanets in one small section of the distant sky, with several thousand more candidates awaiting confirmation.  Their work has once and for all nailed the fact that there are billions and billions of exoplanets out there.

“NASA is incredibly proud of Natalie,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA headquarters, after the Time selection was announced.

“Her leadership on the Kepler mission and the study of exoplanets is helping to shape the quest to discover habitable exoplanets and search for life beyond the solar system. It’s wonderful to see her recognized for the influence she has had on the world – and on the way we see ourselves in the universe.”

And William Borucki, who had the initial idea for the Kepler mission and worked for decades to get it approved and then to manage it, had this to say about Batalha:

“She has made major contributions to the Kepler Mission throughout its development and operation. Natalie’s collaborative leadership style, and expert knowledge of the population of exoplanets in the galaxy, will provide guidance for the development of successor missions that will tell us more about the habitability of the planets orbiting nearby stars.”

Batalha has led the science mission of the Kepler Space Telescope since it launched in 2009. (NASA)

As a sign of the perceived importance of exoplanet research, two of the other TIME influential 100 are discoverers of specific new worlds.  They are Guillem Anglada-Escudé (who led a team that detected a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri) and Michael Gillon (whose team identified the potentially habitable planets around the Trappist-1 system.)… Read more

A Vision That Could Supercharge NASA

An artist rendering of an approximately 16-meter telescope in space.  This image was created for an earlier large space telescope feasibility project called ATLAST, but it is similar to what is being discussed inside and outside of NASA as a possible great observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.  Advocates say such a large space telescope would revolutionize the search for life on exoplanets, as well as providing the greatest observing ever for general astrophysics. (NASA)

Let your mind wander for a moment and let it land on the most exciting and meaningful NASA mission that you can imagine.  An undertaking, perhaps, that would send astronauts into deep space, that would require enormous technological innovation, and that would have ever-lasting science returns.

Many will no doubt think of Mars and the dream of sending astronauts there to explore.  Others might imagine setting up a colony on that planet, or perhaps in the nearer term establishing a human colony on the moon.  And now that we know there’s a rocky exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri — the star closest to our sun — it’s tempting to wish for a major robotic or, someday, human mission headed there to search for life.

All are dream-worthy space projects for sure.  But some visionary scientists (and most especially one well-known former astronaut) have been working for some time on another potential grand endeavor — one that you probably have not heard or thought about, yet might be the most compelling and achievable of them all.

It would return astronauts to deep space and it would have them doing the kind of very difficult but essential work needed for space exploration in the far future. It would use the very costly and very powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule being built now by NASA and Lockheed Martin respectively.  Most important, it would almost certainly revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos near and far.

At a recent meeting of the House Science Committee, chairman Lamar Smith, said of the hearing’s purpose that, “Presidential transitions offer the opportunities to reinvigorate national goals. They bring fresh perspectives and new ideas that energize our efforts.”

That said, here’s the seemingly feasible project that fires my imagination the most.

It has been quietly but with persistence promoted most visibly by John Grunsfeld, the former astronaut who flew to the Hubble Space Telescope three times to fix and upgrade it, who has spent 58 hours on spacewalks outside the Shuttle, and towards the end of his 40 years with the agency ultimately became an associate administrator and head of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.… Read more

With the Main JWST Mirror Completed, Scientists Focus On How To Best and Most Fairly Use It Once In Space

Engineers conduct a white light inspection on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope in the clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

Engineers conduct a white light inspection on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in the clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. (NASA/Chris Gunn)

Recent word that the giant mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope is essentially complete is a cause for celebration, a milestone in the long march toward launching what will be the most powerful astronomical instrument ever.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made the announcement at the Goddard Space Flight Center, with senior project scientist John Mather declaring that “we’re opening up a whole new territory of astronomy.”

Although liftoff isn’t scheduled until two years from now, the mirror’s completion has led to an intensifying of the far less public but also essential task of determining how precisely the JWST will be used.

This is a major issue because the observatory will be far more complicated with many more moving parts for astronomers than the Hubble Space Telescope and other predecessors, and a significant amount of the learning about how to make observations can’t be done until JWST is already in space.

But more pressing still is the fact that “JW” (as it is now commonly called) will fly for a limited time, and as of now cannot be repaired or upgraded once in space because it will be too far away.

So while astronomers and the public have grown accustomed to long-lived observatories like the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes — which have been revolutionizing astronomy for decades now — JW has a planned mission duration of just five years. Should the instruments continue working after that, the observatory will nonetheless run out of necessary fuel in 10 years.

Especially for exoplanet astronomers who often have to focus on a particular star and planet over a substantial time, this means they need to learn the JWST ropes fast or miss out on a scientific opportunity of a lifetime.

Natalie Batalha, a member of the JWST Science Advisory Committee and project scientist for the Kepler mission, said that the logic of  the traditional proposal cycles and proprietary periods “threatens to stall the release of potentially important technical information keeping data out of the public domain until the five year nominal mission is well underway.”

“Because of the finite lifetime of JWST, we have an urgency here that we didn’t have with Hubble,” she told me.

“The JWST Science Advisory Committee recognized the need to get data into the hands of community scientists as early as possible to take full advantage of this so valuable but limited opportunity.”… Read more

The Ancient Mars Water Story, Updated

Rendering of Gale Lake some 3.5 billion years ago, when Mars was warmer and much wetter. The Curiosity mission is finding that Gale Crater water-changed rock is everywhere.

Rendering of Gale Lake some 3.5 billion years ago, when Mars was warmer and much wetter. The Curiosity mission is finding that rocke in Gale Crater changed by water everywhere. (Evan Williams, with data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HIRISE project)

Before the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, NASA’s “follow the water”maxim had already delivered results that suggested a watery past and just maybe some water not far below the surface today that would periodically break through on sun-facing slopes.

While tantalizing — after all, the potential presence of liquid water on a exoplanet’s surface is central to concluding that it is, or once was, habitable — it was far from complete and never confirmed via essential ground-truthing.

Curiosity famously provided that confirmation early on with the discovery of pebbles that had clearly been shaped in the presence of flowing surface water, followed by the months in Yellowknife Bay which proved geologically, geochemically and morphologically the long-ago presence of substantial amounts of early Martian water.

Some of the earliest drilling was into mudstone that looked very much like a dried up basin or marsh, and that was exactly what Curiosity scientists determined it was, at a minimum.  It took many months for Curiosity leaders to ever use the word “lake” to describe what had once existed on the site, but now it is a consensus description.

Since the presence of a fossil lake was confirmed and announced, the water story has taken something of a backseat as the rover made its challenging and revelatory way across the lowlands of Gale Crater, through some dune fields and onto the Murray formation — a large geological unit that is connected to the base of Mount Sharp itself.  And all along the path of the rover’s traverse mudstone and sandstone were present, a clear indication of ever larger amounts of water.

I spoke recently with geologist and biogeologist John Grotzinger, the former NASA chief scientist for Curiosity and now a member of the science team, to get a sense of how things had progressed for the Gale water story.  He said there was no longer any doubt that the crater was once quite filled with water.

“We have  not seen a single rock at Gale that doesn’t say that the planet was wet.  In the areas where the rover has driven, I’d be very comfortable now in saying that the surface and ground water was often present for millions to tens of millions of years.”… Read more

One Planet, But Many Different Earths

Artist conception of early Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist conception of early Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

We all know that life has not been found so far on any planet beyond Earth — at least not yet.  This lack of discovery of extraterrestrial life has long been used as a knock on the field of astrobiology and has sometimes been put forward as a measure of Earth’s uniqueness.

But the more recent explosion in exoplanet discoveries and the next-stage efforts to characterize their atmospheres and determine their habitability has led to rethinking about how to understand the lessons of life of Earth.

Because when seen from the perspective of scientists working to understand what might constitute an exoplanet that can sustain life,  Earth is a frequent model but hardly a stationary or singular one.  Rather, our 4.5 billion year history — and especially the almost four billion years when life is believed to have been present  — tells many different stories.

For example, our atmosphere is now oxygen-rich, but for billions of years had very little of that compound most associated with complex life.  And yet life existed.

The same with temperature.  Earth went through snowball or slushball periods when most of the planet’s surface was frozen over.  Hardly a good candidate for life, and yet the planet remained habitable and inhabited.

And in its early days, Earth had a very weak magnetic field and was receiving only 70 to 80 percent as much energy from the sun as it does today.  Yet it supported life.

“It’s often said that there’s an N of one in terms of life detected in the universe,” that there is but one example, said Timothy Lyons, a biogeochemist and distinguished professor at University of California, Riverside.

“But when you look at the conditions on Earth over billion of years, it’s pretty clear that the planet had very different kinds of atmospheres and oceans, very different climate regimes, very different luminosity coming from the sun.  Yet we know there was life under all those very different conditions.

“It’s one planet, but it’s silly to think of it as one planetary regime. Each of our past chapters is a potential exoplanet.”

 

A rendering of the theorized "Snowball Earth" period when, for millions of years, the Earth was entirely or largely covered by ice, stretching from the poles to the tropics. This freezing happened over 650 million years ago in the Pre-Cambrian, though it's now thought that there may have been more than one of these global glaciations. They varied in duration and extent but during a full-on snowball event, life could only cling on in ice-free refuges, or where sunlight managed to penetrate through the ice to allow photosynthesis.

A particularly extreme phase of our planet’s history is called  the “Snowball Earth” period.  During these episodes, the Earth’s surface was entirely or largely covered by ice for millions of years, stretching from the poles to the tropics. One such freezing happened over 700 to 800 million years ago in the Pre-Cambrian, around the time that animals appeared.

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Earth: A Prematurely Inhabited Planet?

A schematic of the history of the cosmos since the Big Bang identifies the period when planets began to form, but there's indication of when life might have started. Harvard's Avi Loeb wants to put life into this cosmological map, and foresees much more of it in the future, given certain conditions. ( NASA)

A schematic of the history of the cosmos since the Big Bang identifies the period when planets began to form, but there’s no indication of when life might have started. Harvard’s Avi Loeb wants to add life into this cosmological map, and foresees much more of it in the future, given certain conditions. ( NASA)

The study of the formation and logic of the universe (cosmology) and the study of exoplanets and their conduciveness to life do not seem to intersect much.  Scientists in one field focus on the deep physics of the cosmos while the others search for the billions upon billions of planets out there and seek to unlock their secrets.

But astrophysicist and cosmologist Avi Loeb — a prolific writer about the early universe from his position at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics– sees the two fields of study as inherently connected, and has set out to be a bridge between them.  The result was a recent theoretical paper that sought to place the rise of life on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere) in cosmological terms.

His conclusion:  The Earth may well be a very early example of a living biosphere, having blossomed well before life might be expected on most planets.   And in theoretical and cosmological terms, there are good reasons to predict that life will be increasingly common in the universe as the eons pass.

By eons here, Loeb is thinking in terms that don’t generally get discussed in geological or even astronomical terms.  The universe may be an ancient 13.7 billion years old, but Loeb sees a potentially brighter future for life not billions but trillions of years from now.  Peak life in the universe, he says, may arrive several trillion years hence.

“We used the most conservative approaches to understanding the appearance of life in the universe, and our conclusion is that we are very early in the process and that it is likely to ramp up substantially in the future,” said Loeb, whose paper was published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics.

“Given the factors we took into account, you could say that life on Earth is on the premature side.”

 

The Earth was formed some 4.5 billions years ago, and life that existed as long ago as 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago has been discovered. Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb argues that life on Earth may well be "premature" in cosmological terms, and that many more planets will have biospheres in the far future. (xxx)

The Earth was formed some 4.5 billion years ago, and signs of life have been discovered that are 3.5 to 3.8 billion years old. Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb, with co-authors Rafael Batista and David Sloan of the University of Oxford, argue that life on Earth may well be “premature” in cosmological terms, and that many more planets will have biospheres in the far future. 

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A Flood of Newly Confirmed Exoplanets

Artist renderings of exoplanets previously detected by the Kepler Space Telescope (NASA)

Artist renderings of exoplanets previously detected by the Kepler Space Telescope (NASA)

In the biggest haul ever of new exoplanets, scientists with NASA’s Kepler mission announced the confirmation of 1,284 additional planets outside our solar system — including nine that are relatively small and within the habitable zones of their host stars.  That almost doubles the number of these treasured rocky planets that orbit their stars at distances that could potentially support liquid water and potentially life.

Prior to today’s announcement, scientists using Kepler and all other exoplanet detection approaches had confirmed some 2,100 planets in 1,300 planetary systems.  So this is a major addition to the exoplanets known to exist and that are now available for further study by scientists.

These detections comes via the Kepler Space Telescope, which collected data on tiny decreases in the output of light from distant stars during its observing period between 2009 and 2013.  Those dips in light were determined by the Kepler team to be planets crossing in front of the stars rather than impostors to a 99 percent-plus probability.

As Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters put it,  “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth.”

he histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for more than the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous non-Kepler planet discoveries, the light blue bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the orange bar displays the 1,284 new validated planets. (NASA Ames/W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton)

The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for more than the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous non-Kepler planet discoveries, the light blue bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the orange bar displays the 1,284 new validated planets.
(NASA Ames/W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton)

The primary goals of the Kepler mission are to determine the demographics of exoplanets in the galaxy, and more specifically to determine the population of small, rocky planets (less than 1.6 times the size of Earth) in the habitable zones of their stars.  While orbiting in such a zone by no means assures that life is, or was, ever present, it is considered to be one of the most important criteria.

The final Kepler accounting of how likely it is for a star to host such an exoplanet in its habitable zone won’t come out until next year.  But by all estimations, Kepler has already jump-started the process and given a pretty clear sense of just how ubiquitous exoplanets, and even potentially habitable exoplanets, appear to be.

“They say not to count our chickens before they’re hatched, but that’s exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet),” said Natalie Batalha, co-author of the paper in the Astrophysical Journal and the Kepler mission scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.… 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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How Planet 9 Would Make Ours a More Typical Solar System

 

The six most distant known objects in the solar system with orbits exclusively beyond Neptune (magenta) all mysteriously line up in a single direction. The new report shows a planet with 10 times the mass of the earth in a distant eccentric orbit anti-aligned with the other six objects (orange) is required to maintain this configuration. Image: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)"

The six most distant known objects in our solar system with orbits (magenta) exclusively beyond Neptune all mysteriously line up in a single direction. A new report identifies the potential presence of a distant solar system planet — with 10 times the mass of the Earth and in a distant and eccentric orbit (orange) — as the reason why.  (JPL/Caltech; R. Hurt)

There’s been a ton of justifiable excitement these days about the possible discovery of a ninth planet in our solar system — an object ten time the mass  of Earth and 200 times further from the sun.  Especially in the context of the recent demotion of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet, the announcement of a potential replacement seems almost karmic, stage managed, in its take-and-give.  This is especially so since the astronomer probably most responsible for the diminished position of Pluto is also the one who now asserts the very far away presence of a different Planet 9 — planetary astronomer Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology.

The validity of the possible detection of a Planet 9 has set off hot debates — with NASA officials, for instance, making clear that the agency sees the “discovery” as an exciting but early step towards establishing the existence of possible new planet.  We are all drawn to discovery and controversy, so the presence, or non-presence, of the planet has been the focus of attention.

But another most intriguing aspect of the finding has been largely ignored — the way  that such a Planet 9 would make our solar system surprisingly more similar to the many more eccentric exoplanet solar systems now known to be out there.  Our solar system would also suddenly have a range of planets sized more like the galactic norm.

What’s more, there’s reason to consider that a Planet 9 could have been spun off another solar system rather than having been ejected from the inner solar system, as proposed by Brown and colleague Konstantin Batygin.

In other words, Planet 9 may be an “exoplanet” in origin.  And if not, a finding that it was ejected long ago from our inner solar system would answer some questions about why our system seems to be so different from many of the other exoplanetary systems discovered so far.

Mike Brown and Konstanytin Batyglin of Caltech

Astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin of Caltech.  They took research by Scott Shepard of the Carnegie Institution for  Science and Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii regarding the unusual paths of objects orbiting beyond Pluto and carried it further to conclude there is a Planet 9 in the distant solar neighborhood. 

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