“Two possibilities exist: either we’re alone in the Universe, or we’re not.
Both are equally terrifying.”
- Arthur C. Clarke.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
This the first 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.
Since the middle of the last century, against the backdrop of greatly expanding space technology and understanding, scientists have wondered about our place in the vast universe and whether we are alone or not. When it comes down to it, why would we be? There is no reason, be it physical or chemical, life couldn’t exist elsewhere. At first glance it seems that we live on a relatively normal planet, our parent star is of a fairly common variety and our corner of the galaxy isn’t all that extraordinary. Water and other ‘building block’ organic compounds, thought crucial for life in any imaginable form, are relatively abundant throughout the galaxy.
There are at least 100 billion (that’s a 1 followed by eleven zeroes) stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone; many we now know come complete with a family of planets in their orbit. On top of that, several of these newly-discovered ‘exoplanets’ are not that different from the Earth in mass or orbital distance from their parent stars. In fact, a recent study calculated that a staggering 17 billion Earth-like planets are likely to exist in the Milky Way alone! Surely, more than one of those worlds would have life of some kind or the other clinging to its surface? And if there was life, even if it was almost vanishingly rare, could another species with a similar level of intelligence to humans exist on another one of those billions of planets out there in the reaches of space?Given that a multitude of habitable worlds exist, many covered in a primordial cocktail of complex, biologically useful compounds, it seems that the Milky Way should be teeming with life. So, where is everyone? This question has proved tricky, paradoxical even. Accordingly, it’s known as the Fermi Paradox after the Italian astronomer who first posited the riddle to the wider scientific community, where it was met with unexpected consternation. Over 50 years on and it remains a question without an answer. SETI pioneer Frank Drake devised an equation to address the problem, called the Drake Equation, which attempts to provide an estimate of the likely number of other civilisations in the Milky Way. However, the huge uncertainties involved in each stage of the calculation limits its predictive powers to more of interesting thought exercise than a robust scientific methodology.
What does this apparent silence say about us and our planet? Are we the product of an extremely fortunate evolutionary accident resulting from the interplay between our astronomical and planetary environment? On some distinguishable level, the search for other intelligent species is a thinly veiled search for our own place, both physically and philosophically and convincing proof of a co-existent alien civilisation would most likely have significant scientific, social, political and religious ramifications.
Today, researchers in the burgeoning scientific field of astrobiology attempt to tackle these kinds of open questions, as well as many others in disciplines spanning chemistry and geology, astronomy, biology and even economics and the social sciences. In my completely biased opinion, studying exoplanets is one of the most exciting areas of science to be working in right now, and the rate of new advances and discoveries are progressing at breakneck speed (for science, anyway). However, even despite these recent findings, our understanding of the processes operating on these planets remains regrettably threadbare. Given the immense distances involved and sensitivity required, only limited data is available for a given planet and some large uncertainties remain even when information has been collected. We have yet to image an exoplanet directly, and it may be decades before the technology is available to do so.
Over the course of several posts, I’ll do my best to illuminate the cunning techniques that are being used to tease exoplanet data out of the noise, and explain how the limitations of contemporary technology are driving the development of new methods of remote planetary investigation. Despite the difficulties involved, a picture of our planetary neighbours is beginning to emerge and the results have been surprising and exciting in equal measure.
The Blue Marble Space Institute for Science is a not-for-profit research organisation that is using PetriDish.org to fund a modelling project that seeks to identify the signs of industrial activity in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets. Find out more about the project, including more about the authors, their methods, the possible outcomes of the project and a breakdown of the costs, here:
When viewed from space, the Earth glows like a blue marble under the light of the distant Sun, bobbing gently in an unimaginably vast sea of darkness. Oceans of azure water lap against the winding, jagged coastlines and pure-white clouds swirl gracefully across its face, temporarily obscuring from view the extensive brown-green landmasses below. At first, there is little to suggest that beneath the clouds, scuttling around the coasts, intelligent* bipedal apes are busying themselves with their daily activities; most utterly absorbed by their own inflated sense of self-importance and certain of their centrality to all the workings of the cosmos. However, with the exception of a couple hundred satellites, a permanently occupied human outpost and sea of debris in low Earth orbit, we have remarkably little effect on the environment of space outside the Earth. We assume that not much of our global civilisation can be detected from astronomical distances, excluding the banality of 1960s television that is currently washing across star systems 50 light years from here, carried outwards from the Earth by radio waves.
If however, somewhere out there in the menagerie of stars that is the Milky Way, an alien astronomer was perched at his (or her) telescope one night staring out into dark, and our Solar System happened to come into view, what would they see? The blinding glare of the Sun would obscure our family of planets from direct view**, but perhaps some information could be gleamed via other methods nonetheless. Using radial velocity measurements or transit timings for example, a whole host of planets seem to be present around this particular G-type star: four gas or ice giants and possibly four smaller bodies. If our exo-astronomer ran their evening’s observations through their superior spectrometer however, chances are they may be surprised by the results returned from one tiny planet in the orbit of this humdrum star.
Spectrometers measure the properties of light, at first emitted by stars (in the this case, the Sun) 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 can be teased out of the noise with sufficient skill and instrument capabilities. The high levels of oxygen, methane and other gases associated with biological or industrial activity detected in the atmosphere of this planet should result in the alien equivalent of a raised eyebrow or two. Methane and other reducing gases are usually rapidly oxidised in the presence of oxygen, meaning that detecting an appreciable amount in the atmosphere of an otherwise relatively oxidised planet may suggest that a biological mechanism is responsible for its continual replenishment. This kind of atmospheric disequilibrium is termed by astrobiologists a ‘biosignature’ for this very reason.
Planetary atmospheres are something we are all intimately familiar with; the Earth’s is the medium in which all of our lives play themselves out. Ours is filled with life-giving oxygen, greenhouse gases essential (in the right balance) to maintaining planetary climate and ozone that shields us from the Sun’s harmful rays. If humans are to ever colonise Mars, atmospheric engineering on a global scale would be essential to provide a clement climate. Without the thin envelope of gases that clings to the surface of our planet, life as we know it would be unlikely to exist, and the advanced civilisations of intelligent species like humans would be impossible. However, we probably take for granted the atmosphere’s ability to act as a mirror of our industrial and technological activities detectable at light-year distances, able to preserve the unique signatures of the gases associated with these processes and hold them there for those with the correct instruments to see.
Under the watchful eye(s) of our distant alien astronomer’s stern but fair supervisor, and following a long and arduous proposal to the relevant funding bodies of their world during which detractors on the committee would openly balk at the possibility of advanced life outside of their star-system, more observing time would be begrudgingly allocated to collecting data about this strange planet in obvious thermodynamic disequilibrium. A soup of exotic chemicals are now detected: high and increasing amounts of CO2 and constantly replenished methane along with a suite of more harmful and industrially produced compounds like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). There is no known biological mechanism for producing CFCs, so their detection in the atmosphere of this planet is a strong indication of the activities of industry, termed a ‘technosignature’ in line with the naming conventions of the field. The exo-astronomer has struck gold (or the equivalently rare element on their planet); they have detected strong evidence of a technologically advanced species at work, despite having never seen the surface of their planet itself. In doing so, they have forever altered the way their civilisation views itself – one of perhaps many in a vast, galactic family. Whilst they are given a passing mention in the local paper, statues of the members of the funding committee are erected in a square of their nation’s capital, for the whole project was their idea from the outset.
Ignoring the thinly-veiled allegorical critique of science funding on Earth, this is the theory that lies behind the most recent proposal out of the aptly-named not-for-profit Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS). Their project, currently seeking funding at PetriDish.org, aims to use computer modelling techniques to simulate the hypothetical spectra of planets that have elevated levels of CFCs in their atmospheres. Whilst out of our reach at present, the hope is that instruments of the future will be able to examine the atmospheres of these planets to search for signs of life, and these hypothetical signatures would be readily available for comparison against data received from the planet of interest. They will form a standard by which to determine whether the received spectra are the result of accidental or intentional alteration by another global civilisation light years distant.Acquiring science funding from kickstarteresque sites like PetriDish.org is ideal for this kind of small project; perhaps too close to the politically-charged line that NASA is willing to tread when it comes to funding SETI projects, but with sufficient outside interest to attract funding and a mandate directly from the public. The four BMSIS investigators are looking for $24,000 to cover their costs, with a minimum donation of $1. Addressing a resolvable problem within the field with admirable foresight, optimism and cost-effectiveness and detached from the bureaucracy of tax-payer funded science institutions, surely this is the kind of research that should be at the forefront of astrobiological research?
* – whether humans are truly ‘intelligent’ or not is open for debate, as this video of a ‘haunted toaster’ illustrates all too well.
** – assuming a similar level of observational technology to that of the astronomers of contemporary Earth, which remains statistically unlikely.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks for exoplanetary discoveries, but also for me, which explains why I’ve taken so long getting round to writing about them.
On the 28th of August, the Kepler mission announced the discovery of a unique binary star two planet system. The Kepler 47 family consists of a binary pair, a G-type star – about 84% as massive as the Sun, and a smaller M-type red dwarf roughly 36% of the Sun’s mass, but only 1.4% as luminous. Two planets have been observed to be orbiting the pair. The closest is of these is Kepler 47 (AB) b, estimated (from mass-radius relationships) to be between 7 and 10 Earth masses, but the error on this figure remains large. The outermost planet, Kepler 47 (AB) c, is Neptune-sized (16 – 23 Earth masses) and is orbiting within the habitable zone, although due to its large mass it is unlikely to fulfil the traditional requirements for planetary habitability. The configuration of the Kepler 47 system illustrates the fact that stable multi-planetary orbits can exist around binary stars, and brings the total of circumbinary planets to six.
On the 29th of August, a new planet was added to the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog (HEC) bringing the total to six (including: Gliese 581d and g, Gliese 677Cc HD 85512b, Kepler 22b). Super-Earth Gliese 163c was established to be orbiting within the habitable zone of its 0.40 Solar mass star by an international team working at the European HARPS project. It completes an orbit in 26 days and has a mass no less than 6.9 times that of the Earth. The custodians of the HEC database have given Gliese 163c an Earth Similarity Index (ESI) rating of 0.73, establishing it as the 5th ‘most habitable’ exoplanet discovered to date, despite exhibiting possible surface temperatures of 60 °C or above.
Speaking to online science network io9, HEC lead scientist Professor Abel Méndez in the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo said, “Gliese 163c ranks fifth in our current list of six potentially habitable exoplanets because it is nearly twice the size of Earth and its temperature is also higher, but it’s still an object of interest for the search of biosignatures by future observatories.” The HEC has yet to assess Kepler 43 (AB) c, but it is not likely to fare well in habitability assessments due to its large mass.
Bringing my own (as-of-yet-unpublished, but in preparation) research into planetary habitable periods to the table, Kepler 43 (AB) c has a residence time within the habitable zone of approximately 3.9 billion years, whilst Gliese 163c can be expected to within the habitable zone for at least 22.6 billion years. The habitable zone is now populated by 8 planets (including the Earth), and looks a bit like this:
It’s certainly an exciting time to be working in this field; nearly each new week brings another interesting discovery. Keep looking up!
Around this time every year, the Earth, on her year long trundle around the Sun, passes through the Perseid cloud of cometary debris. The resulting month long encounter produces arguably the most prolific and spectacular meteor shower for northern observers – the Perseids. As many as 100 “shooting stars” an hour may be visible at its peak in mid-August and the shower is eagerly awaited by sky-gazers for it’s dazzling and reliable display of colourful meteors and fireballs.
The source of the Perseids is dust and debris contained in a relatively dense ‘cloud’ impacting the upper atmosphere of the planet and burning up due to rapid deceleration due to increased aerodynamic drag. The shower has been observed for millennia, the first recorded sighting was in 69 BC, and most of the dust and debris responsible for the shower was pulled off a comet a thousand years ago. The particles that produce this astronomical light-show are generally tiny, on the order of centimetres, and pose little threat to the Earth below. However, the same cannot be said for their parent, comet Swift-Tuttle.
Comet Swift Tuttle (designation: 109P/Swift–Tuttle) is a typical Halley-like long period comet. It tears through the inner solar system when nearing the closest approach of its 133 year orbit around the Sun; an orbit that takes it out 12 AU past Pluto to 51 AU, and all the way back again. Its last close encounter with Earth was in 1992, and it won’t return until 2126.
For a while following its rediscovery in 1992, almost 10 years away from its expected position, the orbital evolution of the comet was not well constrained and there was considerable cause for alarm when it was estimated to be on a collision course with Earth in 2126. Concern was justified: its nucleus is 26km in diameter, considerably larger than the 10 km impactor that is thought to have caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-T) mass extinction event 65 million years ago. However, reanalysis of ancient records of observations and improved calculations that included the effects of nucleus evaporation confirmed that the comet is on a very stable orbit and poses little threat to Earth for the next 2000 years.
That said, in a 1997 book by South African/American radio astronomer Gerrit Verschuur, comet Swift-Tuttle was described as the most dangerous object known to man for it’s ability to cause catastrophic damage if it was to impact the Earth. An exceptionally close encounter is expected in 4479, bringing Swift Tuttle to within 0.03 AU (approximately 4 million km) of the Earth – roughly 10 times the mean Earth-Moon distance. Travelling at a relative velocity of 60 km per second, Swift-Tuttle would unleash the equivalent of a devastating 3.2×1015 tons of TNT upon impact – 27 times the energy of the K-T impactor. For comparison, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated was a ‘mere’ 50 megatons (106). It would very likely cause huge loss of life across the planet and result in a mass extinction unlike any known previously, whilst placing unbridled pressure on the capacity for human civilisation to recover. If the initial impact was survived, tsunamis, wildfires, earthquakes, years of darkness and a toxic atmosphere would follow. Harvard astrophysicist John Chambers estimates the chance of collision in 4479 to be 1 in 1,000,000. Best of luck to our descendants 2467 years from now!
It is worth bearing this in mind when you gaze up over the next few nights to witness the magnificent sight of the ancient dust of this comet burning up in our atmosphere, for one day their parent may put on a somewhat more spectacular, if devastating, show.
-Carl Sagan. Cosmos
In my last post I discussed how it was possible to make tentative estimates about the total amount of time that a planet spends in the habitable zone, also known as its habitable period, and why this is important. In this post, I’d like to put numbers to those estimates.
This simple model, the results of which are outlined in the image above, estimates the Earth’s total habitable period to be approximately 4.91 billion years, meaning that it will end about 370 million years from now. That sounds like a long time, and in the context of human time-scales, it certainly is. Even geologically, the world of 370 million years ago was a very different place. It was the height of the Late Devonian period, and a full 172 million years after the Cambrian explosion saw the rapid diversification and speciation of some the earliest complex eukaryote life. The first forests were in the process of transforming the landscape of the supercontinent Gondwana, unconstrained by the lack of large herbivorous animals, and the first tetrapods were appearing in the fossil record. Who knows what transformations the world and life will undergo during the next 370 million years?
I should note that the error bars for these numbers are high, and I’m making no concrete predictions here for the inhabitants of the world 369 million years from now to call me out on. The habitable zone as a theory itself is fraught with assumptions that are, at this stage of understanding, regrettably necessary and regularly challenged and amended.
The Clock is Ticking
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet LX
It remains intrinsically unsettling to consider the fact that at some point our lovely blue-green home planet will eventually lose its ability to support life. It is certain that, whether after 4.91 billion years or not, the edge of the gradually advancing theoretical boundary of habitability will near planet Earth; now an apocalyptic world of blistering heat and desolation, unrecognisable from today’s lush, watery paradise. As Sol’s mass, radiative output and surface temperature steadily increase, the Earth’s climate will eventually become scorching. The fundamental biogeochemical mechanisms that help to regulate the Earth’s climate will break down, buckling under the strain of the ever encroaching Sun, and a ‘runaway greenhouse‘ crisis will result. Caused by the evaporation of the oceans and the initiation of a irreversible water vapour/temperature feedback mechanism, the runaway greenhouse is thought to be responsible for the of climate of Venus today. High temperatures result in more water vapour in the air and higher humidity, which in turns boosts the temperature further causing more evaporation and more humidity. Eventually the Earth will become enveloped in thick, impenetrable cloud, insulating the surface and acting like an planet-wide pressure cooker, undoubtedly heralding the end of life on the Earth as we know it.
As the Sun grows larger and hotter, high energy particles from the solar wind will eventually strip away this thick atmosphere which will be forever lost to space. The parched, molten husk of the Earth, former home to countless organisms and every human ever to exist, as well as the stage to every single event, from the minuscule to the revolutionary that took place for nearly 5 billion years, will probably be devoured by the Sun long after it has become inhospitable for life, an incomprehensibly distant 7 billion years from now.
The Earth, my friends, is lost. But fear not, perhaps we could move out to Mars? Our dusty neighbour will move into the habitable zone approximately 1.7 billion years from now, and stay there for the remainder of the Sun’s main sequence lifetime. The Sun in it’s death throes will make for an incredible sight in the Martian sky. However, Mars has a very chaotic orbit, making it difficult to determine exactly where it will be in the distant future. On top of all this, it’s hard to predict what conditions will be like around the ageing Sun.
Well, so much for the Earth and Mars. Let’s hope that in the preceding 370 million years our descendants make it to a better world.
The Lives of Planets
The Super-Earth Gliese 581d (top left of plot) has an approximate habitable period of over 50 billion years. I don’t know about you, but I have real difficultly grasping the truly unfathomable immensity of that amount of time. Research suggests that its star, red dwarf Gliese 581, is approximately 8 billion years old, and therefore the habitable zone has been home to Gliese 581d for 1.4 times as long as the Earth has existed for, yet it is only 13% of the way through its total habitable period. Still, this isn’t to say that it’s ‘habitable’; there are plenty of other factors (its large mass for example) that suggests that it’s not a place where life would thrive. Although, given 50 billion years who knows what evolution could throw up?
Gliese 667Cc, also orbiting a red dwarf star, will be in the habitable zone for 1.8 billion years because it formed straddling the inner edge – it won’t be (relatively) long until the heat of its star overwhelms its ability to maintain a habitable environment, if it has one at all. It’s a similar story for the Super-Earth HD 85512 b. Despite it’s location in the habitable zone, it’s still too close to be habitable for any considerable length of time – a mere 603 million years which, if we draw on Earth’s evolutionary history for comparison, is barely enough time for the denizens of the Cambrian to make themselves comfortable, if we extrapolate backwards (and ignore the ~3.5 billion years that it took to get to this stage in the first place).
Kepler 22b is another excellent candidate for a habitable planet, orbiting well within the habitable zone and remaining there for 3.4 billion years. On Earth, 3.4 billion years ago, it is thought that the first primitive organisms had emerged and were building reefs (stromatolites) and going about their daily business of dividing and multiplying – the kind of stuff that modern bacteria tend to fill their lives with. From these humble beginnings we emerged eons later; perhaps the same can be true on Kepler 22b?
In the End…
I realise this has been quite a long article, and I appreciate you sticking it out to the end. I hope that you found it as interesting to read as I did to write. The concept of habitability through time hasn’t been explored in great detail, and I hope to refine these numbers and tweak the model and its assumptions to improve the accuracy of the estimates in the future. Nevertheless, I found it an interesting, and rather humbling, thought experiment if nothing else.
Perspective is important, and yet always in short supply. We’re currently 92% of the way through our planet’s habitable period, enjoying the twilight years of its habitable lifetime. We have to remember that the Earth isn’t going to be able to shelter us indefinitely and that all planets’ lives come to an end at some point. It’s worth bearing that mind when considering that despite our delusions of grandeur, our brief residence on this planet has been a fleeting blip in its long and tumultuous history. Our future may well be too.
Undoubtedly the most exciting exoplanet news of the past week is the discovery of a star system with a total of 9 potential planets, surpassing even our own Solar System in terms of planetary diversity. University of Hertfordshire astronomer Mikko Tuomi discovered the bustling planetopolis around the enigmatic star HD 10180, a Sun-like G-type main sequence star 127 light years distant, using a probabilistic Bayesian analysis technique.
HD 10180 has been known as a multi-planet system since 2010, but the last analysis of the HARPS data available for the star, carried out by Christopher Lovis last year, seemed to indicate a 6 or 7-planet system was most likely. However, the novel probabilistic methods used by Tuomi are more computationally intense than those previously applied, and confirm the findings of Lovis whilst also adding a further two planets to the planetary inventory of HD 10180.
Tuomi’s Bayesian method, which seeks to evaluate a number of possible scenarios to determine which is most consistent with the observations, finds that an orbital configuration including an eighth and ninth planet, with masses 5.1 and 1.9 times that of the Earth respectively, returns a 99.7% probability.
The planets themselves, denoted HD 10180 b through h, are a diverse bunch, including two Earth-mass terran planets, one superterran, five neptunian and one jovian-sized planet, and all are contained within 3.5 AU – roughly the distance of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in our Solar System. Despite their proximity, the orbits are predicted to be stable over astronomical time.
The image above, from the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, provides a visualisation of the orbital system and a comparison of the sizes of the planets. Note that one neptunian, HD 10180 g, is within the habitable zone but is unlikely to be habitable given its large mass, at least not by our definition.
That’s an extraordinary array of sizes and shapes crammed into a comparatively small area, and unseats our Solar System, with a certain 8 planets (excluding trans-neputunian objects, asteroids and dwarf planets – sorry Pluto fans!), from atop the pile of planetary richness, all the while adding to our understanding of the mechanisms of planetary system formation.
Whilst this is certainly an exciting discovery, should we be surprised by the apparent ubiquity of multi-planetary systems? It would be more unusual if this architecture wasn’t the norm, given model predictions. Writing for his Scientific American blog Life, Unbounded, astrobiologist Caleb Scharf notes that the combined masses of the HD 10180 planets would only amount to roughly half that of Jupiter, and given the star’s similarity to our own Sun, its proto-planetary circumstellar disk should have contained a similar amount of material. Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising if more planets lurked in the HD 10180 system somewhere!
In fact, the same could be said for any of the planetary systems we have detected so far as well as those that we find in the future. Our detection techniques remain biased towards massive, short-period planets that produce readily identifiable signals, particularly when using the radial velocity method, and we suffer from the fact that we have only been collecting data for a few years and so may have missed more orbitally distant, longer period planets.
However, as with most exoplanet discoveries, the detection of this diverse family of worlds serves to put our planet into some wider perspective – to challenge the notion that Earth and this solar system are particularly unique, at least in an astronomical sense.
Solar systems, it seems, are everywhere.
Given that 80% of the stars in the Universe are M-type ‘red dwarfs’, research into the habitability of planets in these stars’ orbits has received relatively little attention in the past as they were generally considered unsuitable for hosting habitable planets due to their low mass and temperatures, as well as the propensity for planets in their orbit to be ‘tidally locked’. However, this trend has shown signs of reversal over the past few years, and habitability assessments have generally returned favourable reviews of M-star planets. The issue of tidal locking, where one hemisphere of a planet constantly faces the star, doesn’t seem to be resolved yet, but more research is being carried out and a definitive assessment may be forthcoming soon.
A paper published in Astrobiology this month has bolstered the habitability assessment of red dwarf systems even further. Manoj Joshi, now at the University of East Anglia, and Robert Haberle at the NASA Ames Research Center, have considered the effect that the longer wavelength spectra of M-stars may have on the ice-albedo feedback operating on planets within their habitable zones. Albedo describes the fractional reflectivity of a given surface, from 0 (nothing reflected, a hypothetical ‘black-body’ ) to 1 (all light reflected). On Earth, the albedo of ice is ~0.5 (50% of light reflected), whilst snow has an albedo of ~0.8.
The ice-albedo feedback is a fundamentally important abiotic feedback mechanism that has a powerful control over the planetary climate: it describes the ability of ice and snow to reflect light away from the surface, thereby cooling it further and causing more ice/snow to form, which continues to exacerbate the effect in what is termed a ‘positive’ or destabilising feedback loop. More ice, more light reflected away, cooler temperatures, more ice and so on.
The ice-albedo feedback is thought to have been at least partially responsible for the ‘Snowball’ or ‘Slushball’ Earth events that occurred in the late Proterozoic eon, approximately 600 million years ago, which saw the Earth frozen from pole to pole, with possible refugia at the equator. This interpretation is still rather contentious within the geosciences, but most researchers agree that the Earth experienced a period of extreme glaciation around this time, but its full extent, and how the Earth emerged from this deep-freeze, is still not fully understood.
The amount of incident light, as well as atmospheric greenhouse effects, exhibit a strong control on the ability of the ice-albedo feedback to enter a ‘runaway’ state by preventing temperatures from falling below a critical level of ice cover. Accordingly, this mechanism is often considered a controlling factor on the outer boundary of the habitable zone because of its very powerful ability to destabilise the planetary environment into an irreversible state of complete glaciation.
Joshi and Haberle constructed a simple model to test how the the ice-albedo feedback would operate on planets within the habitable zones of M-stars when considering the longer wavelength, lower energy emissions of these stars. Red dwarfs, as their name suggests, emit much of their radiation in the red and near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Observations from the red dwarfs Gliese 436 and GJ 1214 mentioned by the authors show that they emit much of their radiation at wavelengths greater than 0.7 μm, and significantly more in the 3 to 10 μm region than would be expected from a ‘black-body’ hypothesised M-type of a similar temperature. The albedo of ice and snow begins to decrease at wavelengths greater than 1 μm, and therefore the albedo of snow and ice covered surfaces on planets in the orbit of red dwarfs would be proportionally lower than that of the same surface on Earth (or any other planet in orbit around a G- or K-type star), meaning they reflect less radiation away from the surface, and that the ice-albedo feedback mechanism is weakened. For example, the authors show that snow or ice covered surfaces on planets orbiting GJ1214 may have albedos of 0.43 and 0.23 respectively, representing a significant decrease in the amount of incident light reflected from the surface and a dampening of the ice-albedo feedback mechanism.
Because of the diminished effect of the ice-albedo feedback mechanism around red dwarfs, the authors propose that their habitable zone may be 10-30% further from the star than was previously considered. This finding has a significant impact on the search for habitable exoplanets and for astrobiology, and, as is often the case with good science, has been drawn from a relatively simple experiment – in this case, by analysing the reflectivity of frozen or snowy surfaces under the observed radiative regime of red dwarfs. It seems that the tide really is turning in terms of our understanding of the habitability of planets in the orbits of red dwarfs, and that these numerous and ubiquitous stars should receive renewed research and observational attention.
Click here for the Astrobiology article (requires subscription).
Manoj M. Joshi and Robert M. Haberle (2012). Suppression of the water ice and snow albedo feedback on planets orbiting red dwarf stars and the subsequent widening of the habitable zone Astrobiology, 12 (1) DOI: http://arxiv.org/abs/1110.4525
Astronomers announce with excitement the latest exoplanet found to be orbiting within the habitable zone of its star. In addition, the newly discovered Gliese 667Cc is a member of a very unique orbital system. Its parent star, the red dwarf Gliese 667C itself orbits a binary system of two K-type stars, Gliese 667A & B at an enormous distance roughly equivalent to 6 times that between the Sun and the dwarf planet Pluto. Accordingly, the distant binary system, whilst bound gravitationally, has no affect over the planetary environment of Gliese 667Cc, nicknamed ‘Vulcan’ by astronomers after the triple-star system home to Star Trek‘s Spock. I’m not much of a sci-fi fan, despite my interest in all things exoplanet, so I’ll stick to an shortened ‘Cc‘ for brevity.
The Gliese 667C system revolves around a M1.5V red dwarf, a small star only 31% as massive as the Sun and much less luminous, located 22 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Scorpius. The habitable zone extends from 0.11 AU out to 0.23 AU, well within the orbit of Mercury if superimposed onto the Solar System. Cc has a minimum mass equivalent to roughly 4.5 Earths and orbits at 0.12 AU, straddling the inner edge of the habitable zone. Accompanying Cc in orbit is Gliese 667Cb, a large (5.7 Earth masses) planet nestled at 0.05 AU, and possibly another planet of equal mass, dubbed Gliese 667Cd, at 0.24 AU.
Gliese 667 Cc performed very well in a habitability assessment undertaken by the Habitable Exoplanet Catalog (HEC), ranking as the planet with the greatest habitability potential of all discovered exoplanets to date:
Figures in red are subject to large uncertainty, and will only be refined with more detailed observation. A quick refresher of the HEC metrics in the context of Cc: ESI is the ‘Earth Similarity Index’ and consists of several planetary characteristics, namely radius, density, escape velocity, and surface temperature that are used to determine the relative similarity of the planet to Earth on a scale from 0 (completely dissimilar) to 1 (identical). An ESI 0f 0.82 represents an ‘Earth-like’ world, but the large mass (5.2 as the mean expected mass) of Cc has negatively affected this value.
SPH is the Standard Primary Habitability, a measure (from 0 to 1), calculated from surface temperature and humidity, of the ability of the planet to support terrestrial primary producers. In the case of SPH, Cc outranks even the Earth! Its position half-way between the very centre of habitable zone and its inner edge, represented here by the metric HZD, means that it is extremely favourable to supporting a ecosystem of primary producers similar to those on Earth. However, as a red dwarf, Gliese 667C emits much of its radiation in the red, near-infrared (NIR) and infrared (IR) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Red dwarfs like Gliese 667C are also known to be more variable and prone to flaring. The affect of this shift in wavelength would have very negative repercussions for Earth-based photosynthetic mechanisms which utilise visible light, but the possibility of photosystems evolved to exploit lower-energy NIR/IR radiation is hypothetically possible.
Other values to note are the comfortable planetary temperature of 29 °C, large mass and somewhat more suppressive gravity. A year on Cc lasts 28 days. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to determine whether Cc is a rocky, watery or gas planet without an accurate measurement of its size, a parameter still unavailable at this stage. The effects of a possible atmosphere cannot be accounted for just yet but a thick greenhouse of water vapour, carbon dioxide or methane would elevate the planetary temperature beyond that considered habitable.
Lack of public interest
So it seems that Cc is the new champion of the habitable planet competition being held by scientists on Earth, and the evidence seems to back up their claims. Why then the lack of public interest? Outside of popular science websites and publications, news of this new planetary utopia is hard to find. Contrast the scarcity of coverage with the hype surrounding Kepler 22b two months ago, and I fear the predictions I made in these posts may have come to fruition. The wider public is bored; they’ve heard it all before and become desensitised our disinterested. Kepler 22b is habitable, so is Gliese 581d and now so is Gliese 667Cc. It’s disappointing, but inevitable, that the furore of excitement surround these planet discoveries wasn’t sustainable. The thing is, we still haven’t stumbled across the perfect Earth analogue, a replica of our watery, rocky globe. Yet. We will do, and when this day comes and the discovery is announced, I fear the room may be empty save for a few dedicated science correspondents that realise the very real implication of finding a planet like this.
It seems that in my haste to bemoan the lack of mainstream press coverage of Cc, I neglected to detect the underlying politics of the announcement. The main reason that Kepler 22b attracted so much more attention is that Cc was not announced by NASA. The NASA PR machine is an effective beast. Also, the discovery of Gliese 667Cc was first announced last November by a European team of astronomers led by Xavier Bonfils from Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, France. However, it’s confirmation came yesterday from an international team lead by two American astronomers, Guillem Anglada-Escudé and Paul Butler from the Carnegie Institute for Science. Cc‘s discoverer is therefore under debate.
The coverage of Gliese 667Cc also seems to suffer from a somewhat of a geographical disconnect. Daniel Fischer, who runs the excellent ‘The Cosmic Mirror‘ site, notes that the coverage of Cc has been extensive in his native Germany because of Anglada-Escudé’s link with the University of Göttingen. Parodies and further analysis can be found here and here, respectively (in German – thanks Google Translate!).
It seems that the story of Gliese 667Cc is far from over.