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.
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?
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: 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’.
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?
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.
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!
-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