Tag: virtual planetary laboratory

The Virtual Planetary Lab and Its Search for What Makes an Exoplanet Habitable, or Even Inhabited

As presented by the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, exoplanet habitability is a function of the interplay of processes between the planet, the planetary system, and host star.  These interactions govern the planet’s evolutionary trajectory, and have a larger and more diverse impact on a planet’s habitability than its position in a habitable zone. (Meadows and Barnes)

For more than two decades now, the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) at the University of Washington in Seattle has been at the forefront of the crucial and ever-challenging effort to model how scientists can determine whether a particular exoplanet is capable of supporting life or perhaps even had life on it already.

To do this, VPL scientists have developed or combined models from many disciplines that characterize and predict a wide range of planetary, solar system and stellar attributes that could identify habitability, or could pretty conclusively say that a planet is not habitable.

These include the well known questions of whether water might be present and if so whether temperatures would allow it to be sometimes in a liquid state, but on to questions involving whether an atmosphere is present, what elements and compounds might be in the atmospheres, the possible orbital evolution of the planet, the composition of the host star and how it interacts with a particular orbiting planet and much, much more, as shown in the graphic above.

This is work that has played a significant role in advancing astrobiology — the search for life beyond Earth.

More specifically, the VPL approach played a considerable part in building a body of science that ultimately led the Astro2020 Decadal Study of the National Academy of Sciences to recommend last year that the NASA develop its  first Flagship astrobiology project — a mission that will feature a huge space telescope able to study exoplanets for signs of biology in entirely new detail.  That mission, approved but not really defined yet, is not expected to launch until the 2040s.

With that plan actually beginning to move forward, the 132 VPL affiliated researchers at 28 institutions find themselves at another more current-day inflection point:  The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope has begun to collect and send back what will be a massive and unprecedented set of spectra  of chemicals from the atmospheres of distant planets.

The Virtual Planetary Laboratory has modeled the workings of exoplanets since 2001, looking for ways to predict planetary conditions based on a broad range of measurable factors.

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Getting Real About the Oxygen Biosignature

Oxygen, which makes up about 21 percent of the Earth atmosphere, has been embraced as the best biosignature for life on faraway exoplanets. New research shows that detecting distant life via the oxygen biosignature is not so straight-forward, though it probably remains the best show we have. (NASA)


I remember the first time I heard about the atmospheres of distant exoplanets and how could and would let us know whether life was present below.

The key was oxygen or its light-modified form, ozone.  Because both oxygen and ozone molecules bond so quickly with other molecules — think rust or iron oxide on Mars, silicon dioxide in the Earth’s crust — it was said that oxygen could only be present in large and detectable quantities if there was a steady and massive source of free oxygen on the planet.

On Earth, this of course is the work of photosynthesizers such as planets, algae and cyanobacteria, which produce oxygen as a byproduct.  No other abiotic, or non-biological, ways were known at the time to produce substantial amounts of atmospheric oxygen, so it seemed that an oxygen signal from afar would be a pretty sure sign of life.

But with the fast growth of the field of exoplanet atmospheres and the very real possibility of having technology available in the years ahead that could measure the components of those atmospheres, scientists have been busy modelling exoplanet formations, chemistry and their atmospheres.

One important goal has been to search for non-biological ways to produce large enough amounts of atmospheric oxygen that might fool us into thinking that life has been found below.

And in recent years, scientists have succeeded in poking holes in the atmospheric oxygen-means-life scenario.

Oxygen bonds quickly with many other molecules. That means has to be resupplied regularly to be present as O2 in an atmosphere . On Earth, O is mostly a product of biology, but elsewhere it might be result of non-biological processes. Here is an image of oxygen bubbles in water.

Especially researchers at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) have come up with numerous ways that exoplanets atmospheres can be filled (and constantly refilled) with oxygen that was never part of plant or algal or bacteria photo-chemistry.

In other words, they found potential false positives for atmospheric oxygen as a biosignature, to the dismay of many exoplanet scientists.

In part because she and her own team were involved in some of these oxygen false-positive papers, VPL director Victoria Meadows set out to review, analyze and come to some conclusions about what had become the oxygen-biosignature problem.… Read more

Proxima b Is Surely Not "Earth-like." But It’s A Research Magnet And Just May Be Habitable.

Simulated comparison of a sunset on Earth and Proxima b. The red-dwarf star Proxima Centauri appears almost three times bigger than the Sun in a redder and darker sky. Red-dwarf stars appear bigger in the sky than sun-like stars, even though they are smaller. This is because they are cooler and the planets have to be closer to them to maintain temperate conditions. The original photo of the beach was taken at Playa Puerto Nuevo in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo.

A simulated comparison of a sunset on Earth and Proxima b. The images sets out to show that the red-dwarf star Proxima Centauri appears almost three times bigger than our sun in a redder and darker sky. There is value in illustrating how conditions in different solar systems would change physical conditions on the planets, but there is a real danger that the message conveyed becomes the similarities between planets such as Earth and Proxima b.  At this point, there is no evidence that Proxima b is “Earth-like” at all. The original photo of the beach was taken at Playa Puerto Nuevo in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. (PHL @ UPR Arecibo))

It is often discussed within the community of exoplanet scientists that a danger lies in the description of intriguing exoplanets as “Earth-like.”

Nothing discovered so far warrants the designation, which is pretty nebulous anyway.  Size and the planet’s distance from a host star are usually what earn it the title “Earth-like,” with its inescapable expectation of inherent habitability. But residing in a habitable zone is just the beginning; factors ranging from the make-up of the planet’s host star to the presence and content of an atmosphere and whether it has a magnetic field can be equally important.

The recent announcement of the detection of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our own, set off another round of excitement about an “Earth-like” planet.  It was generally not scientists who used that phrase — or if they did, it was in the context of certain “Earth-like” conditions.  But the term nonetheless became a kind of shorthand for signalling a major discovery that just might some day even yield a finding of extraterrestrial life.

Consider, however, what is actually known about Proxima b:

  • The planet, which has a minimum mass of 1.3 Earths and a maximum of many Earths, orbits a red dwarf star.  These are the most common class of star in the galaxy, and they put out considerably less luminosity than a star like our sun — about one-tenth of one percent of the power.
  • These less powerful red dwarf stars often have planets orbiting much closer to them than what’s found in solar systems like our own.   Proxima b, for instance, circles the star in 11.3 days.
  • A consequence of this proximity is that the planet is most likely tidally locked by the gravitational forces of the star — meaning that the planet does not rotate like Earth does but rather has a daytime and nighttime side like our moon. 
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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

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