The Null Hypothesis: When Do We Declare a Barren World?

This is a guest post by Euan Monaghan, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physical Sciences at The Open University, where he studies the habitability of the subsurface of Mars. You can find him on Twitter

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Astrobiology is the search for life elsewhere in the universe. When this search is focussed on a specific world, there’s a chance—quite a good chance it would seem—that this search will turn out to be fruitless; that there will be no life to be found except the terrestrial life we bring along with us in the process. But can we ever say for sure?

This piece is focussed on Mars, but the idea applies to all worlds targeted for astrobiological exploration. The particular habitats on Europa, Titan or Kepler-62e might be different to those found on Mars, but the question is the same everywhere: does this world host life?

Scientific progress has made the martians of our imagination progressively smaller and more insignificant. No longer the grand canal builders of old—no longer even considered to be multi-cellular—the optimistic amongst us imagine microbes in briny pockets kilometres beneath a hostile surface; their presence deep underground given away by a subtle disequilibrium in the gases of Mars’ tenuous atmosphere. If the martians are there, they’re in hiding.

As we gain a greater understanding of the geologic and climatic history of Mars, a subterranean biosphere doesn’t seem so unreasonable. While Mars was likely warm and wet long before the Earth was, it is also smaller and so cooled faster. It couldn’t hold onto a thick, warming atmosphere for long and so its surface water was gradually lost, both out into space and down into the planet’s interior, to be fixed within the structure of minerals, frozen as permafrost or trapped in groundwater aquifers beneath layers of ice. And as Mars cooled and the water descended, so did the planet’s habitable zone, until it was hidden from view.

Recurring slope lineae in Coprates Chasma may be due to active seeps of water; a clue to a possible subsurface biosphere? (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona, HiRise)

The habitability of any extra-terrestrial environment is estimated through the study of life adapted to extreme conditions on the Earth. This ‘envelope of life’, with its upper and lower boundaries of temperature, pressure, salt tolerance and so on, is expanding all the time. The relatively recent discovery of our own deep subsurface biosphere, as well as its remarkable diversity and extent, has broadened our concept of what we consider to be a habitable environment. It is with this ever-more subtle knowledge of our own world that we turn back to the planets in our search for life.

The next logical step in that search, for Mars at least, is a detailed study of its atmosphere. In early 2016 the European Space Agency will launch a mission to do just that: the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will perform a more comprehensive inventory of the martian atmosphere and the respective abundances of its gases than ever before. It is hoped that the results of this study will provide an insight into active processes occurring deep underground. But then again there is the very real possibility that the TGO will arrive in orbit and find no signs of life, however tentative. The null hypothesis—Mars is a barren world—would still stand. Should we then give up on our search, or do we commit time and resources to a strategy of ever more sophisticated astrobiological exploration, all the while striving to prevent accidental contamination by terrestrial life?

The inevitable moments when we decide to re-focus our search for life beyond the Earth should not be considered moments of pessimism. The universe has too much potential.

Lost in Space: Finding a Sense of Place in the Cosmos

This is a guest post by Sean McMahona PhD student in the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen. Sean’s research applies geological perspectives and techniques to astrobiological problems ranging from the origin and distribution of life in the universe to the origin of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Visit his excellent blog, Fourth Planetfor more on his research, his impressive space art and photography, and writings.

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“Though a planetary perspective is a magnificent and enriching thing, places, not planets, are the core of human experience. It is from places that we build our world.”

—    Mapping Mars, Oliver Morton (2002)

“He stood thereby, though ‘in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,’ yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew.”

—    The French Revolution: A History, Thomas Carlyle (1837)

Last year, in a car park in Aberdeen, I saw Jupiter through a telescope for the first time. What I saw was not the familiar red-spotted giant from the Nasa photographs, that great bronze bauble marbled with cream like artisan coffee—no. What I saw, through a gap in the Scottish clouds, was a pale round smudge with three white specks for moons. It was not dramatic but it was a strange and lovely moment. It reminded me that Jupiter, the other planets, and even the distant stars and galaxies, are no less real, no less here—albeit further away—than Scotland, clouds, car parks, and me. They are on the same map, sharing our geography, our humdrum commonplace reality.

In our eagerness to be inspired by astronomical imagery, we are often tempted to forget this fundamental sameness. Documentaries about the cosmos besiege us with spectacular graphics, rousing orchestral music and rapturous, lyrical narration. In the tradition of Carl Sagan, we are urged to adopt a “cosmic perspective”, in which the Earth dwindles to an insignificant1 “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Meanwhile, digital space art is reliving the Romanticism of 19th Century painting: balance, proportion and subtlety are abandoned in favour of vertiginous perspectives, extremes of colour and contrast, and sublime, mystical lighting: silhouetted planets disintegrate into vast purple nebulae bristling with crepuscular rays. Thus, it seems that an ecstatic, almost mythical vision of outer space, emphasizing above all its spiritual and aesthetic grandeur, has taken root in popular culture.

McMahon juvenilia. This is what I thought space looked like when I was 17. I have since changed my mind.

McMahon juvenilia. This is what I thought space looked like when I was 17. I have since changed my mind.

Maybe that vision has some role to play in attracting public interest to the space sciences. But paradoxically, it can make the “wonders of the universe” seem less accessible than ever; profound, ethereal, miraculous, even unreal. It bolsters the popularity of astrology by reinforcing the illusion that planets and stars are unfathomable, heavenly beings: much more plausible aids to divination than ordinary material things. Most worryingly, it can give the impression that space exploration is an esoteric spiritual quest, unrelated to ordinary human problems and unfit for serious attention from media, government or young, career-minded scientists.

Perhaps the “numinous” view of space reflects a deeper failure to grasp the implications of the Copernican Revolution. Somehow, I suggest, we still make some kind of basic ontological distinction between the heavens and the Earth2. Consequently, we are unable to feel truly embedded in our extraterrestrial environment, which remains a transcendent, detached and coldly beautiful space rather than a homely, material, lived-in place. The Apollo programme helped to bridge that gap for a generation, transforming the moon from an icon of celestial indifference into a humanly intelligible landscape—rather like a golf course, in fact, replete with bunkers, buggies, flags and footprints3. Revealingly, many people today find it easier to believe that the whole thing was a hoax.

A Summer 2012 photograph by NASA's Curiosity rover inside Gale Crater on Mars.

A Summer 2012 photograph by NASA’s Curiosity rover inside Gale Crater on Mars.

The sharp, vivid photographs taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover can have a similar effect, reminding us that the martian surface is a real place, not so different in appearance from the rocky deserts of Libya or the High Arctic. Despite our unsophisticated cultural relationship with outer space—a mixture of mythology, indifference and reverence—a crewed mission to Mars in the next thirty years now seems very likely. I hope that mission will allow the next generation to feel more at home in the universe, more fully at ease with the fact that even Milton Keynes4 is part of the Milky Way. What we stand to gain is not an exalted “cosmic perspective” but simply a richer, more expansive sense of place, of where it is that we live our lives.

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1     This strain of rhetoric characteristically fails to observe that human beings adjudicate the significance of the universe, not the other way around.

2      Douglas Adams exploited this confusion to humorous effect, juxtaposing ordinary things with cosmic phenomena: the “restaurant at the end of the universe,” the “whelk in a supernova” and so on; “you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist but that’s just peanuts compared to [the size of] space”.

3      Some readers will know that the American astronaut Alan Shephard did in fact play golf on the moon; two golf balls remain there.

4       Milton Keynes is an architecturally unprepossessing English town and home to the Open University, where much British space research has been conducted.

The hunt for an Exo-Earth: How close are we?

This is a guest post by Hugh Osborn, a PhD student in the Astronomy and Astrophysics group at the University of Warwick. Hugh’s research involves using transit surveys to discover exoplanets. Visit his excellent blog, Lost in Transitsfor more on exoplanets, their detection and his research.

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In the 1890s Percival Lovell pointed the huge, 24-inch Alvan Clark telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona towards the planet Mars. Ever the romantic, he longed to find some sign of life on the Red Planet: to hold a mirror up to the empty sky above and find a planet that looked a little bit like home. Of course, in Lovell’s case, it was the telescope itself that gave the impression of life, imposing faint lines onto the image that he mistook for canals. But, with Mars long since relegated to the status of a dusty, hostile world, that ideal of finding such a planet still lingers. In the great loneliness of space, our species yearns to find a world like our own, maybe even a world that some other lineage of life might call home.

51 Pegasi: Home to the first exoplanet discovered by humans (Copyright: Royal Observatory Edinburgh, Anglo-Australian Observatory, and AURA)

A hundred years after Lovell’s wayward romanticism, the real search for Earth-like planets began. A team of astronomers at the University of Geneva used precise spectroscopy to discover a Jupiter-sized world around the star 55-Peg. This was followed by a series of similar worlds; all distinctly alien with huge gas giants orbiting perishingly close to their stars. However, as techniques improved and more time & money was invested on exoplanet astronomy, that initial trickle of new worlds soon turned into a flood. By 2008 more than 300 planets had been discovered including many multi-planet systems and a handful of potentially rocky planets around low-mass stars. However, the ultimate goal of finding Earth-like planets still seemed an impossible dream.

In 2009 the phenomenally sensitive Kepler mission launched. Here was a mission that might finally discover Earth-sized planets around Sun-like stars, detecting the faint dip in light as they passed between their star and us. Four years, 3500 planetary candidates and 200 confirmed planets later, the mission was universally declared a success. Its remarkable achievements include a handful of new terrestrial worlds, such as Kepler-61b and 62e, orbiting safely within their star’s habitable zones. However, despite lots of column inches and speculation, are these planets really the Earth 2.0s we were sold?

While such worlds may well have surfaces with beautifully Earth-like temperatures, there are a number of problems with calling such worlds definitive Earth twins. For a start the majority of these potentially habitable planets (such as Kepler-62e) orbit low-mass M-type stars. These are dimmer and redder than our Sun and, due to the relative distance of the habitable zone, such planets are likely to be tidally locked. The nature of such stars also makes them significantly more active, producing more atmosphere-stripping UV radiation. This means, despite appearances, ‘habitable’ planets around M-dwarfs are almost certainly less conducive to life than more sun-like stars.

Even more damning is the size of these planets. Rather than being truly Earth-like, the crop of currently known ‘Habitable planets’ are all super-Earths. In the case of Kepler’s goldilocks worlds, this means they have radii between 1.6 and 2.3 times that of Earth. That may not sound too bad, but the mass of each planet scales with the volume. That means, when compression due to gravity is taken into account, for such planets to be rocky they would need masses between 8 and 30 times that of Earth. With 10ME often used as the likely limit of terrestrial planets, can we really call such planets Earth-like. In fact, a recent study of super-Earths put the maximum theoretical radius for a rocky planet as between 1.5 and 1.8RE, with most worlds above this size likely being more like Mini-Neptunes.

So it appears our crop of habitable super-Earths may not be as life-friendly as previously thought. But it is true that deep in Kepler’s 3500 candidates a true Earth-like planet may lurk. However the majority of Kepler’s candidates orbit distant, dim stars. This means the hope of confirming these worlds by other techniques, especially tiny exo-Earths, is increasingly unlikely. And with Kepler’s primary mission now ended by a technical fault, an obvious question arises: just when and how will we find a true Earth analogue?

Future exoplanet missions may well be numerous, but are they cut out to discover a true Earth-like planet? The recently launched Gaia spacecraft, for example, will discover hundreds of Gas Giants orbiting Sun-like stars using the astrometry technique, but it would need to be around a hundred times more sensitive to discover Earths. New ground-based transit surveys such as NGTS are set to be an order of magnitude better than previous such surveys, but still these will only be able to find super-Earth or Neptune-sized worlds.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) (space.mit.edu)

Similarly, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite which is due to be launched in 2017, will only be able to find short-period planets with radii more than 50% larger than Earth. HARPS, the most prolific exoplanet-hunting instrument to date, is also due for an upgrade by 2017. Its protégée is a spectrometer named ESPRESSO that will be able to measure the change in velocity of a star down to a mere 10cms-1. Even this ridiculous level of accuracy is still not sufficient to detect the 8cms-1 effect Earth’s mass has on the Sun.

So despite billions spent on the next generation of planet-finders, they all fall short of finding that elusive second Earth. What, precisely, will it take to find this particular Holy Grail? There is some hope that the E-ELT (European-Extremely Large Telescope), with its 35m of collecting area and world-beating instruments will be able to detect exo-earths. Not only will its radial velocity measurements likely be sensitive enough to find such planets, it may also be able to directly image earth-analogues around the nearest stars. However, with observing time likely to be at a premium, the long-duration observations required to find and study exo-earths could prove difficult.

Alternatively, large space telescopes could be the answer. JWST will be able to do innovative exoplanet research including taking direct images of long-period planets and accurate atmospheric spectra of transiting super-Earths and giants. Even more remarkably, it may manage to take spectra of habitable zone super-Earths such as GJ 581d. But direct detection of true Earth-analogues remains out of reach. An even more ambitious project may be required, such as TPF or Darwin. These were a pair of proposals that could have directly imaged nearby stars to discover Earth-like planets. However, with both projects long since shelved by their respective space agencies, the future doesn’t look so bright for Earth-hunting telescopes.

After the unabashed confidence of the Kepler era, the idea that no Earth-like planet discovery is on the horizon may come as a surprisingly pessimistic conclusion. However not all hope is lost. The pace of technological advancement is quickening. Instruments such as TESS, Espresso, E-ELT and JWST are already being built. These missions may not be perfectly designed to the technical challenge of discovering truly Earth-like planets, but they will get us closer than ever before. As a civilisation we have waited hundreds of years for such a discovery; I’m sure we can hold out for a few more.

Rarely-Done Planets

This is a guest post by David Waltham, Reader in Mathematical Geology at Royal Holloway, University of London. David’s new book, Lucky Planet, is out in April 2014. Visit his ‘Strange Worlds Catalogue‘ for more exoplanet oddities. 

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One of the unlucky planets?

The issue of manmade global-warming seems far removed from questions of exoplanet habitability but there is a close link.  A planet whose climate is highly sensitive to greenhouse-gas changes is also a planet that responds strongly to increasing heat from its aging star; and it’s hard for such a world to remain habitable for long. The Earth seems to be one such world (that’s why global warming is such a threat) but it has never-the-less remained habitable for billions of years.  How it managed pull off this trick is an intriguing, but not particularly new, mystery.

In 1972 Carl Sagan and George Mullen recognized that, since our Sun produced 30% less heat when she was young, surface temperatures on the early Earth should have been far below freezing. However, geological evidence showed running water when our world was just a few hundred million years old.   Sagan and Mullen called this the faint young Sun paradox and, forty years later, there is still no consensus on how to resolve it.  However the concept of climate sensitivity, an idea refined over the last thirty years by climate scientists interested in anthropogenic global-warming, now gives us a clear framework for discussing the issues.

Climate sensitivity tells us how much warmer a planet becomes for a given increase in the heat it receives.  It’s a bit like going from gas-mark 5 to gas-mark 6; how much hotter does this make an oven?  At gas-mark 6 more gas is being burnt and temperature rises but, in a badly insulated oven for example, the increase would be less than expected.  Similarly, different planets warm up by different amounts for a given increase in heating and this difference in climate sensitivity depends upon the relative strengths of positive and negative feedbacks in the climate system.  As I’ll show below, the faint young Sun paradox occurs because Earth’s high climate sensitivity is incompatible with the flowing of liquid water on her surface when she was young.

Climate sensitivity is usually expressed by how much warmer the Earth becomes if carbon dioxide concentrations are doubled.  Doubling of CO2 is expected by the end of the current century and so this is a very concrete way of expressing the expected impact.  The best guess is that climate sensitivity is in the range 1.5-4.5 °C .  This range is largely based upon computer models of the present-day climate system but it is backed up by simulations of Earth’s past climate which only match observations when similar climate sensitivities are used .  If anything, these geological studies suggest that the computer estimates are too low but let’s be conservative and stick with the computer models.  What does a climate sensitivity of 3 °C predict concerning temperature changes over the life time of our planet?

To calculate this we need to re-express climate sensitivity in a slightly different way.  Doubling CO2 increases heating at the Earth’s surface by 3.7 Wm-2 but, to produce an equivalent amount of heating at ground level, solar radiation must go up by 5.3 Wm-2 because some is reflected back into space.  Thus, temperatures go up 3 °C if solar heating increases by 5.3 Wm-2.  Earth’s climate sensitivity is therefore 0.6 °C per Wm-2.  Heat from the Sun has actually gone up 90 Wm-2 over the last 4 billion years and so temperatures should have risen more than 50 °C.  This implies a young Earth that endured average temperatures near -40 °C and that is inconsistent with liquid water anywhere on our planet’s surface.

An obvious objection to this analysis is that the ancient climate system was very different to that of the modern Earth and so the present-day climate sensitivity may not be relevant.  That’s a fair point but we can get around it by concentrating instead on the Phanerozoic Eon (i.e. the last 542 million years) when there is no reason to think that climate sensitivity would have been massively different to today.  Solar heating has increased 15 Wm-2 over this time and so temperatures should have risen by about 10 °C but there is no evidence whatsoever for such a rise.  Analysis of oxygen isotopes in ancient marine organisms suggest that Phanerozoic temperatures have fluctuated around a steady mean or perhaps even dropped a little.  Thus, whether we look at the whole of Earth’s history or just the last half-billion years, there is no evidence for the expected overall warming despite the steadily increasing luminosity of our Sun.  What’s going on?

Tropical Sea Surface Temperatures over the Phanerozoic ()

Tropical Sea Surface Temperatures over the Phanerozoic (after Vizier et al., 1999)

The missing part of the puzzle is that Earth itself has evolved, both geologically and biologically, during its long history.  For example, the slow growth of the continents and the biological evolution of more effective rock-fragmenters (e.g. lichens and trees) has steadily increased the efficiency with which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by the chemical reaction of acid-rain on volcanic rock.  Another greenhouse gas, methane, has also greatly declined through time as oxygen levels have grown following the evolution of photosynthesis.  Furthermore, land, especially plant-covered land, is more reflective than sea and so, as the continents grew and as they became colonized by life, more of the Sun’s heat has been reflected into space.  These processes, and perhaps others, cooled our planet as the Sun tried to warm it.

Two opposing forces therefore fought for dominance of climate trends and, coincidentally, roughly cancelled out.  But what produced this coincidence?  Some would ascribe it to the Gaia hypothesis that a sufficiently complex bio-geochemical system will inherently produce environmental stability.  However there’s no credible mechanism for this and, in any case, Gaia may have confused cause and effect: Earth’s complex biosphere didn’t produce a stable climate; rather a stable climate was a necessary precondition for a complex biosphere.  If this is right, then biospheres whose complexity and beauty rival that of the Earth will be rare in the Universe.  On the majority of those few worlds where life arises, it will all-too-soon be frozen by bio-geochemistry or roasted by its sun.  However a few worlds will, purely by chance, walk the fine line between these fates long enough for intelligent life to arise.  We live on one of those rare, lucky planets.

A Multiplicity of Worlds [RSS]

Earth-like planet (Image credit: Sean McMahon)

I wrote an article for the October edition of the Royal Statistical Society’s Significance magazine about statistics and exoplanets. You can download a .pdf copy here.

Are Exoplanets Habitable?

thingswedontknow

This the fourth and final article in a series of posts by me at Things We Don’t Know about the many unknowns involved in the study of planets in the orbit of other stars across the galaxy. It started off their coverage for World Space Week 2013.

As the catalogue of planets orbiting other stars (called exoplanets) known to us continues to grow, increasing discoveries of potentially ‘habitable’ planets are likely to follow. The ‘habitable zone’ (HZ) concept, which was introduced in a previous post, is becoming increasingly important to our interpretation of these announcements. However, when used unilaterally as it often is, the HZ metric may be misleading – and should rather be considered as a good initial indicator of possible habitable conditions, interpreted relative to other available planetary characteristics.

To the best of our knowledge, Hungry Space Bears aren’t really the leading cause of failure on interplanetary missions. Image copyright ©Luke Surl, used with permission.

The habitable zone describes the theoretical distance (with both upper and lower limits) at which a given planet must orbit a star to support the basic fundamental requirements for the existence of life based on our understanding of the evolution of the biosphere on Earth. It is often referred to as “the Goldilocks Zone“, since it looks for the region “not too hot, and not too cold”. The concept is based on terrestrial (rocky, as opposed to gaseous or icy) planets that exhibit dynamic tectonic activity (volcanism and/or possible plate tectonics) and that have active magnetic fields to protect their atmospheres from high energy stellar particles that could strip it away. The composition of atmosphere is assumed to consist of water vapour, carbon dioxide and nitrogen with liquid water available at the surface, as on the Earth. Liquid water is the key; the giver of life and the fundamental factor in defining the habitable zone in any planetary system.

It should be relatively easy to spot a number of limitations of the habitable zone concept already; we are still unsure of the atmospheric composition of many of the planets we have already discovered, which would significantly affect any habitability analysis.

Also, we assume that any potential exobiology (the biology of life on other worlds) would have the same requirements as Earth-based life, which may not necessarily be so. The wide variety of extremophile organisms (those able to tolerate extremes of temperature, pressure, salinity, radiation etc.) on Earth might mean we should extend the parameters of the habitable zone beyond those originally considered. All in all, the idea of a habitable zone is a great thought experiment, but it may not necessarily translate into a warm, clement planet in reality. Planetary processes, such as tectonics and atmospheric greenhouse effects, warp the boundaries of the habitable zone. Furthermore, astrobiologists are now considering the very real possibility of salty liquid waterexisting in massive sub-surface oceans of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, a body well outside of the defined habitable zone of our solar system1.

Another good example of the limitations of using the habitable zone concept in isolation was the furore that resulted from the discovery of the first planet definitively found to be within the habitable zone of its star, Kepler 22b, in late 20112. The popular science media and news outlets were awash with articles and posts describing Kepler 22b as “Earth’s twin” and “Earth 2.0” based solely on the fact that it has been discovered to be orbiting within the habitable zone of the Sun-like star Kepler 22. The media circus surrounding this announcement was an unusual situation, and one that had not been afforded to many other exoplanet announcements before or since. It’s clear that the possibility that this distant world may be suitable for life had spurred the imagination of scientists and the public alike. However, what was usually skipped over, or not mentioned at all, is that Kepler 22b has a radius 2.1 times that of the Earth, and estimates of its mass range from 10 to 34 times that of our planet. The large uncertainty in these figures are due to the method used in its detection, more about which can be found in this previous post in my TWDK series. The unknowns inherent in the discovery of Kepler 22b meant that it could be either a warm, ocean covered rocky planet with a greenhouse atmosphere similar in composition to that of the Earth, or a gaseous planet with crushing gravity and surface temperatures closer to a lead-melting 460 °C, depending on its mass and composition. These are attributes we cannot yet determine effectively.

compisite artist's impressions of Kepler 22B as a watery world and as a gas giant

Kepler 22b: Oceanic paradise, or hellish furnace?
Images courtesy of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at UPR Arecibo

More data and better detection technology will provide the answer in time, but until then it remains important not to over-hype planets that are only borderline habitable in the very best case scenario as this will most likely be damaging to the public perception of this exciting field in the long term.

Recently, there has been revitalised interest in the habitable zone concept itself, which was first proposed in 1953, with updated estimates based on new climate models published in the scientific literature, as well as increased use of integrated habitability metrics which take other planetary factors into account. However, our understanding of the factors that control the habitability of extrasolar planets is at a very early stage, as is our grasp on the limits that life can endure, and it remains too early to say with much confidence that we have discovered another world suitable for life.

References:

[1] Tyler, Robert H. “Strong ocean tidal flow and heating on moons of the outer planets.” Nature 456, 770-772 DOI: doi:10.1038/nature07571

[2] Borucki, William J et al. “Kepler-22b: a 2.4 Earth-radius planet in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star.” The Astrophysical Journal 745.2 (2012): 120. (PDF)

The Search for another Earth

thingswedontknow

This the third in a series of posts by me at Things We Don’t Know about the many unknowns involved in the study of planets in the orbit of other stars across the galaxy.

 In my last post I broadly covered the techniques for finding planets around other stars in the galaxy, as well as the role this technology plays in defining the current limits on our knowledge. We have discovered 885 other planets to date, but how many of them are like the Earth and why is this important?

As we live on a rather lovely watery planet ourselves, we seem to have a natural inclination to seek out others just like it because we consider them to be the most likely for hosting life. Why? Well, because our current sample of ‘inhabited planets’ stands at just one, we have a very limited understanding of where the boundaries for life lie as well as the important factors that affect habitability when considering the broad characteristics of life-bearing worlds. If other inhabited planets exist, is the Earth typical within the sample or an outlier? Are the furnaces of close-in gas giants the cradle of most flavours of life in the universe, or maybe the frigid surfaces of icy worlds in the far-flung outer regions of their star system?

Waterbear, taken by scanning electron micrograph

Some lifeforms live in extremely tough environments, and have even survived space vacuum conditions – like this water bear. Image credit Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden (Creative Commons)

It might be fun to speculate about all the various forms and shapes that other life might take, but this lies outside the remit of science. It seems obvious to us that only on a planet able to support life would organisms (like intelligent Homo Sapiens) eventually evolve, but this instils in us a fundamental bias towards planets like Earth: it remains beyond our perspective to consider the possibility that can life operate outside of the physical and biological boundaries that we are familiar with. It therefore seems unsurprising that the limits of life lie so perfectly within those experienced on Earth, and why we seek out other Earth-like planets as possible oases of biology. This bias is known as the anthropic principle and is an important philosophical consideration to bear in mind when considering the search for ‘habitable’ planets.

Nevertheless, many of the projects that exist to catalogue exoplanets are looking for ‘Earth-like’ planets: about the same size as Earth and at a similar distance from their star where the amount of incoming light produces temperatures that allow water to exist on the surface of these planets as a liquid. Liquid water plays a central role in the search for other Earth-like worlds because it is considered to be an essential requirement for life that is used as a solvent for biochemical reactions and is crucial to the operation of cells; no life exists on Earth that can survive without water. This water-centric distance is known as the habitable zone, or ‘Goldilocks zone’, because the temperature is ‘just right’! Different star-types have habitable zones that extend to different distances: the habitable zones of large, bright and young stars are further away than those of small, dim and cool stars.

Being within the habitable zone is important, but there are many, many other factors to consider before a planet can be labelled as ‘Earth-like’ or ‘habitable’. Planet size, age, density, orbital characteristics, atmospheric pressure and composition, the existence of an active geological cycle with volcanism and plate tectonics and the properties of the other members of the star system, to name a few. The habitability of planets is a complex and multifaceted property that we are only beginning to investigate, but it seems that a single measure (like residence the habitable zone) is insufficient to capture the true nature of the planet itself. This is why the growing catalogue of exoplanets has prompted the development of integrated ‘habitability indices’ that incorporate a number of factors into a single measure to determine how similar an exoplanet is to the Earth. One such measure, called the Earth Similarity Index (ESI) has been developed by researchers at the Arecibo observatory and attempts to rank planets discovered in the habitable zone on a scale from 0 (completely dissimilar to the Earth) to 1 (identical to the Earth) across a range of factors including size, density, atmospheric properties and temperature. According to this measure, the ‘Top 10’ most habitable planets we’ve discovered so far fall into a range between 0.50 and 0.82. For reference, our cold and dry neighbour Mars has a rating of 0.64, so it seems that none of these planets represent a suitable replacement for the Earth just yet.

The planet ranked most highly in this measure is called Kepler 62e and was discovered recently by the Kepler space telescope: the latest in a series of remarkable finds from this workhorse of planetary detection. This planet is orbiting within the habitable zone of an orange star slightly smaller and less bright than our own 1200 light years distant, but the planet itself is somewhat larger than the Earth and may be covered by a global ocean. At present, this distant world represents the pinnacle of exoplanetary habitability, yet it is far from being another Earth.

Kepler 62e
Kepler 62e: An artist’s concept of the most ‘Earth-like’ planet found to date
Image Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Our occupation with the search for an ‘Earth analog’ masks the fact that there is still plenty about this planet we don’t know. For example, exoplanet researchers consider an active geological cycle to be essential for long-term habitability because the geochemical coupling between the oceans, atmosphere and planet interior is essential for ‘recycling’ nutrients through the Earth’s system. However, there are many unanswered questions about how this process operates on the Earth, and how it would function on planets that are different sizes. Modelling studies from different teams return seemingly contradictory results: some suggest that a similar mechanism to plate tectonics is inevitable, while others propose the opposite and infer a very different ‘lid’ type mode. These scenarios result in very different outcomes in terms of surface morphology and overall habitability, yet without direct observations it seems unlikely that this problem will be resolved soon.

We are also very limited by the detection limits of our instruments in this area: Kepler can only tell us the size of the planet – because it is proportional to the amount of light from the star that it blocks out to produce a detectable signal – but not the mass because we don’t know what it is the planet is made of. It is therefore very difficult to accurately model or estimate many of the surface or subsurface processes that may be occurring on these planets as mass is a very important factor in many aspects of planetary dynamics. Further to this, we are most likely decades away from being able to investigate the atmospheres of small, Earth-like planets in any detail.

We find ourselves poised at the very beginning of the search for another Earth, but the few results that we have at the moment are nevertheless very inspiring. The diversity of exoplanets discovered in the last decade is astounding, and small, rocky planets do not seem to be rare. My bold prediction is that Kepler will soon find a world that is seemingly like our own in size, temperature and orbital characteristics, but even so there are still very many unknowns that need to be addressed before any planet could be labelled as ‘another Earth’.

Habitable Zone Lifetimes of Exoplanets Around Main Sequence Stars

Last week, my first research paper was published in the journal Astrobiology. The paper outlines our method for estimating how long ‘habitable’ conditions may exist for on planets that have been discovered in the ‘habitable zone’ – a concept I regularly discuss on this blog and elsewhere. The run-up to its publication has been surprisingly hectic, and it has received a lot of media attention (see the bottom of this post for a full list of coverage). Whilst this is great for getting the science out there, I want to make sure that there is something available on the internet where I discuss the paper in my own words in case there are any misconceptions about our results.

The habitable zone describes an area around a star where a planet, if it was discovered to be orbiting within this area, could have liquid water on its surface. Stars of different masses and classifications have different habitable zone distances, and not all planets in the habitable zone are habitable: some may be too massive, others too small, many wouldn’t have the correct mix of atmospheric constituents, others may have no atmosphere at all. In fact, there are more reasons to think that planets, whether inside or outside the habitable zone, are more likely to be completely unsuitable for (Earth-like) life than there are to consider the opposite.

However, whilst habitability is variable in space, it is almost certainly variable in time as well. The habitable zone isn’t a fixed distance: its boundaries move outwards as the star undergoes main-sequence evolution, growing larger and hotter over time. More massive stars (classifications F, G and K) have the shortest main sequence lifetimes and therefore the habitable zone boundaries around these stars migrate outwards at a proportionally more rapid rate. Low mass stars, M-stars for example, have extensive lifetimes on the order of tens or hundreds of billions of (Earth) years, and therefore their habitable zones are relatively more static in time. I should stress that the planet itself is not moving, but rather the boundaries of the possible habitable zone that extends around the star are changing, and planets may be left in the heat, or brought in from the cold, as the star ages.

Building on this idea, if it is possible to determine the extent of the habitable zone at the beginning and end of the star’s main sequence lifetime using modelling techniques, and estimate the approximate age of the star, then a rate of outward migration of the boundaries of the habitable zone can be derived. The time that a planet spends within the habitable zone can be considered its ‘habitable zone lifetime‘ (HZL). The HZL of a planet is an important factor when considering the possibility of life on these worlds. A planet with a long habitable period is perhaps more likely to host complex organisms that require more time to evolve, if we make the assumption that evolution by natural selection is a universal constant, operating in a similar way in potential exobiological systems as it does on Earth.

We coupled a stellar evolution model, with the classic habitable zone and applied it to planets that had already been discovered in the habitable zone by workers at the Planetary Habitability Laboratory. (Bio)geochemical feedback mechanisms operating on individual planet to buffer the climate will affect the boundaries of the habitable zone, but because these processes are complex and likely planet-dependent, we left them out and assumed constant conditions. We made the same assumptions about the planets’ atmospheres that the original authors of the habitable zone model (Kasting et al. 1993) did: a nitrogen rich atmosphere, with about 300ppm carbon dioxide and no clouds or other complex atmospheric physics or chemistry.

Nevertheless, this produced some interesting results. The Earth seems to be habitable for perhaps 6.29 billion years (Gyr), but this is excluding the influence of humans and our pesky habit of pumping extra CO2 into the atmosphere. This obviously can’t account for other random events (asteroids etc.), and it’s important to remember that we’re making no allowances for the natural biogeochemical cycles of the planet to buffer climate – this is a very simplified picture. Luckily for us, these estimates are similar to those produced by other more complex and Earth-centric models, so we were happy to continue to try to apply the simple model on other planets with reasonable confidence.

Other potentially habitable exoplanets do pretty well too. Kepler 22b may be habitable for 4.3 Gyr, Gliese 581g (if it exists!) will be in a habitable position for 11.2 Gyr, whilst its neighbour Gliese 581d might be clement for 42 Gyr! A huge amount of time. This star system is already approximately 8 Gyr old, so both these planets would be very interesting candidates for further study.

Our intention was to supply these figures so that they could be incorporated in habitability metrics in the future to capture the temporal aspect of the planetary habitability. Also, we hope that this framework can be used with other habitable zone formulations (several updated versions already exist) that focus on different aspects of the planetary system. Further, we hope that we can identify interesting planets for further study by future space telescopes or SETI campaigns. These would be planets that have been habitable for a similar or greater amount of time to the Earth, because we think that the evolution of intelligence will require a very, very long time, so pinpointing worlds with long HZLs would make sense.

I’ve noticed from the very many interviews I did that the press machine is a rapid, yet inefficient beast. I worry now that the purpose of the paper (to find habitable exoplanets like the Earth) has been eclipsed by the fact that we tested it on Earth first, and that we are making some definitive statement about how long we can comfortably live here. We are not. Earth is or test, our standard, our control. The press releases I have seen have put all the emphasis on this small part of the project, (and the fact that we should move to Mars!), whilst in reality we only validated the model against other more complex models for the Earth, and came to similar conclusion.

Further to this, it now appears that some people seem to have taken my work to show that human induced climate change will have little effect in the long term and that it undermines climate research. This really was not my intention. If I could have, I would have avoided all discussion of anthropogenic climate change in the first place, because we were investigating a different question (long term, solar-forced exoplanetary habitability) using a different tool. However, my institution (the University of East Anglia) has a strong reputation for climate science, and I fully support the findings of my colleagues at the UEA and elsewhere that illustrate the warming effects of increased levels of atmospheric CO2 over human timescales, and I did what I could to mention this in my interviews. When we state that the Earth will be in the habitable zone for 1.7 billion years longer, we have left anything that humans could do to the atmosphere in the interim out of the equation out of necessity.

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Press coverage of this publication has been extensive. Here is a list compiled by the UEA Press Office:

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The Atmospheric Mirror

‘Earthrise’ : A blue marble, floating in a sea of blackness.

 

When viewed from space, the Earth glows like a blue marble under the light of the distant Sun. Azure oceans lap against the jagged coastlines and pale clouds swirl gracefully across its face, temporarily obscuring from view the brown-green landmasses beneath. From this vantage point, there is little to suggest that intelligent bipedal apes are scuttling around the coasts; confident of their centrality to all the workings of the cosmos, yet mostly unaware of the intricate complexities of its operation.

With the exception of five hundred  operational satellites amidst a sea of orbital debris, one permanently occupied space station in low Earth orbit and two intrepid robotic explorers on the planet next door (Opportunity and Curiosity), humans have little visible presence outside of the Earth. In spite of our delusions of grandeur, we assume that no evidence of our global civilisation could be detected from light-year distances.

However, if we imagine that somewhere in the menagerie of stars that make up our local neighbourhood in the Milky Way, on a planet not too dissimilar from ours, an alien astronomer was perched at his (or her) telescope one night staring out into the dark when our Solar System happened into view. What would they see? Just another star on their survey, if relatively young and brighter than most, but perhaps one of many observed that evening. Initially, the blinding glare of the Sun would obscure our family of planets from direct view. Luckily, there are a number of ways to circumvent this problem. Using indirect planet detection techniques familiar to us such as radial velocity measurements or transit timings, the planetary companions of this curious yellow dwarf star are revealed:  four gas giants and four smaller worlds. If the exo-astronomer ran their observations through their superior spectrometer however, chances are they may be intrigued by the results from one tiny blue planet in the orbit of this humdrum star.

Spectrometers measure the properties of light, first emitted by stars but then altered by the constituent gases of the planetary atmospheres through which the beam passes on the way to the receiving instrument. Different gases absorb light at different wavelengths to produce characteristic spectra and the composition of the atmosphere mirrored in the light can be teased out of the noise with sufficient skill. The high levels of water vapour, oxygen, methane and other gases associated with biological activity discovered in the atmosphere of this planet should result in the alien equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Methane is a ‘reduced’ gas and is usually rapidly destroyed in the presence of oxygen, meaning that detecting an appreciable amount of both may suggest that a biological mechanism is responsible for their continual replenishment. This mismatch is identified as a ‘biosignature‘ – a sign that this planet may harbour life.

Planetary atmospheres are something we are all intimately familiar with. The Earth’s is flush with life-giving oxygen, greenhouse gases essential (in the right balance) to maintaining a clement climate and an ozone layer that shields us from the Sun’s harmful rays. Most of us will never leave its gaseous embrace, and without it life would be extremely difficult. However, we take for granted the atmosphere’s ability to act as a mirror of our activities detectable from astronomical distances, able to reflect the unique signatures of the gases injected into it and hold them there for those with the correct instruments to see.

Further studies by the inquisitive alien astronomer would reveal a soup of exotic chemicals in the atmosphere of this distant little planet: increasing levels of carbon dioxide along with a suite of destructive, industrially produced compounds like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). There is no known biological pathway for producing CFCs, so their detection in the atmosphere of this planet is a strong indication of the activities of industry. They have struck gold (or the equivalently rare element on their planet) by discovering compelling evidence for the existence of another technologically advanced species. In doing so, they may have forever altered the way their civilisation views itself – one of perhaps many in a vast, galactic family.

Cloaked in an imaginative example, this is the theory that lies behind using spectroscopy as a method of detecting life, and perhaps even advanced civilisations, across the depths of space. Two promising space telescopes, TPF (NASA) and Darwin (ESA), were cancelled due to budgetary constraints, so for now at least interstellar planetary spectroscopy remains out of our grasp. However, the hope is that instruments of the near-future will be able to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets to search for these signs of life. Until they can, it might be worth remembering that we might not be the only ones able to gaze into the Earth’s atmospheric mirror.

Perhaps we should try to keep it clean?

Detection and Discovery of Exoplanets

thingswedontknowThis the second in a series of posts by me at Things We Don’t Know about the many unknowns involved in the study of planets in the orbit of other stars across the galaxy.

The first planet discovered orbiting another star was detected by astronomers at an observatory in France in 1995. The planet is an enormous gas giant, half the mass of Jupiter, orbiting very close to the Sun-like star 51 Pegasi in the constellation Pegasus, 50 light-years from Earth. The existence of other planetary systems had been predicted by astronomers for centuries and the discovery marked a monumental breakthrough in astronomical research. Since then, rapid improvements in technology and observational techniques have resulted in the discovery of 863 confirmed ‘exoplanets’ to date.

How many planets are there? As astronomers hunt for planets orbiting other stars, we are starting to form a picture of  how many planets there are in the galaxy. Image credit: Luke Surl, for TWDK

How many planets are there? As astronomers hunt for planets orbiting other stars, we are starting to form a picture of how many planets there are in the galaxy. Image credit: Luke Surl

Unlike the direct observation of stars, the detection of planetary bodies requires astronomers to use a number of indirect methods to infer their existence. Due to the immense distances involved, the distance between any planet and their host star when viewed from Earth is tiny, and the brightness of the star itself effectively blinds instruments and obscures any planets in their orbit, which are much less bright by comparison. Therefore, astronomers have devised a number of ingenious methods to tease out planet data from their observations, but they require a great deal of skill, a generous helping of statistical analysis and a pinch of luck.

The most successful means of planet detection to date, yielding roughly 58% of all discoveries, is called the radial velocity method. This technique exploits the fact that the host star and its planets orbit a common centre of mass, and the planets exert a tiny ‘tug’ on the star that results in a very slight wobble – a signature that can be detected and used to infer the existence of one or more planets. Another successful indirect method of detection, responsible for a third of exoplanet discoveries, is called the transit method. When viewed from the Earth, a planet orbiting a star periodically passes in front of the star (‘transits’) and obscures a very small amount of its light, resulting in a tiny but consistent reduction in the amount of light received by Earth-based instruments. The amount of light that is blocked out provides some information about the size of planet, as larger planets will obscure relatively more light, and the frequency and duration of the transit can be used to infer the distance from the star that the planet orbits. NASA’s Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, uses this method and it has proved extremely fruitful, resulting in the discovery of 105 confirmed exoplanets to date. Additionally, there are a further 2,740 potential planets (called ‘planet candidates’) detected by Kepler awaiting confirmation.

Kepler’s search area extends 3000 light years from Earth along the Orion Spur of the Milky Way. Image copyright © Jon Lomberg, used with permission.

However, the science of exoplanet detection is by no means certain; many teams use different statistical methods to isolate exoplanet signals, and the lack of consistency means that many discoveries are initially met with scepticism. With little means of directly imaging these planets, debate continues about the existence of a number of exoplanet candidates, and the finer details of many confirmed planetary systems. Also, the methods mentioned above tend to favour large planets as their effect on their star (either by increased ‘wobble’ or by concealing more light during transit) is proportionally greater.

We find ourselves at an exciting, but also frustrating, juncture at the birth of exoplanet detection. Our 862 planet sample is impressive and the effort and skill of the astronomers responsible for their detection should be applauded. However, we have only begun to scratch the surface of planet discovery. Kepler can survey an impressive 100,000 stars, but that is only one millionth of the total stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Many, many more stars and planets remain out of reach of our telescopes, at least for the foreseeable future.

First direct picture of an alien planet orbiting a Sun-like star. Image credit: Gemini Observatory

Admittedly, to say that no planet has been directly imaged would not be quite accurate. Some extremely large planets, in most cases 5 or 10 times the mass of Jupiter, orbiting at great distances from their stars have been directly imaged. These first pictures represent great steps forward for exoplanet research, but technological constraints impose limits on the size and orbital distance of planets able to be imaged in this way, and the direct imaging of small, Earth-like planets orbiting relatively near to their host stars is not yet possible.

In my next post, I hope to take a more detailed tour through the current exoplanet catalogue to highlight some of the interesting and exotic planets that inhabit our galactic neighbourhood, and illustrate what the diversity of these planets can tell us about the Earth and our Solar System.