That Tingling Feeling

 

There is a word in Japanese, Yūgen (幽玄), derived from the study of Japanese aesthetics with no English equivalent, that perhaps comes closest to describing the profound sense of the enormity of the cosmos: to despair and be humbled by the insignificance of the struggle against the indifference of the universe, whilst also appreciating the sad beauty of human suffering. I often find myself grasping for a word to describe this reaction when discussing astrobiology with people, other scientists or members of the public, who find the entire field incredibly depressing; who, at some level, acknowledge the futility of our search for meaning in the distant reaches of space. Some find the emotional burden too great to bear, triggering a minor existential crisis. “It’s better not to know”, they say, “Not to think about it. Besides, [insert reality TV show name here] is on!”

On one hand, who can blame them? It’s not like we’re expecting answers to many of The Questions that astrobiology and astronomy are trying to solve in our lifetimes. Science is a gradual process after all, and one that will last as long as there are still questions to be answered. The relative insignificance of our personal lives, our careers and relationships, cast against the enormity of the cosmos and separated by orders of magnitudes of space and time, so clearly presented, can prove a bit too much. The Astronomical Perspective can be overwhelming, and astronomy, as Carl put it, is a humbling experience. I’d like to adopt yūgen as a general descriptor of these feelings.1

Yūgen-inducing perspective: Over the Top. Credit: Luc Perrot

Astrobiology is a scientific discipline practised from deep within in the realms of bounded rationality. These bounds stem from a definite, fundamental and detrimental lack of information about the system, as well as a possible cognitive and technological limitation in processing of the limited information available to us. We definitively lack the resources to arrive at an optimally rational conclusion regarding our place in the universe, the existence of suitably habitable environments elsewhere, and the possibility of life on other planets.  And yet, we know we’re close. We suffer a kind of collective Dunning-Kruger effect regarding how little we know, and how little we know about how little we know. We’re approaching that greatest of unknowns, cobbling together a piecemeal scientific narrative as we go, but missing so many parts of the puzzle that it’s not even clear what it is we’re building. Yet, something innate drives us onwards. Some part of us that has always been, as if a distant memory or half-remembered dream, within our genetic luggage and passed on to us from pre-human ancestors.

The size of our brains relative to our body size (also known as the encephalization quotient (EQ)) has, in fact, gotten smaller in recent times, peaking ~30,000 years ago after 2 million years of expansive growth. I’ll leave the anthropologists to argue over why and what this means, but making some crude assumptions about intelligence and EQ we can assume, therefore, that our extremely distant ancestors may have gazed up at the canopy of the night sky and felt that same intangible yearning as we do. At least, there seems to be no cognitive reasons that they couldn’t have done so. Maybe it was even more pronounced by the gulf of knowledge that separates their knowledge of the cosmos from our own? The bright band of the Milky Way stretched out overhead, unobscured by pollution, but hidden by ignorance; an unknowable story waiting for a narrator, one that would not arrive in earnest for thousands of years. In the meantime, complex and anthropomorphic mythologies were borne and woven by the tapestry of human imagination and fuelled by our penchant for storytelling.

Perhaps, that sense of insignificance, that yūgen, was even more heart-wrenching in the very distant past when we were young, when our contemporary achievements in understanding of our place in the greater Story would seem unfathomable, akin to magic. Perhaps, yūgen has been a driving force in our history as long as we have existed? I’m not suggesting an evolutionary driver akin to bipedalism, but perhaps a minor constituent of the human story that contributed an unquantifiable edge to our tale. An ember burning near the edge of the campfire of humanity’s intellectual awakening, smouldering away throughout the ages whilst we built our temples and cities, waged our wars and battles, waiting for the spark of enlightenment to burst into an inferno of curiosity and discovery.

That’s why I’m optimistic about our search. Sure, we may not find any concise answers to the ‘big’ questions in our lifetimes, and we’ll probably always have that sense of yūgen when faced with incomprehensible enormity on galactic and light year-scales, but rather than hiding in the dark, we should embrace the feeling of astronomical despair and turn it into a creative force for discovery! If you don’t like being insignificant, find something that makes you significant. Yūgen will be passed on to the next generation of curious scientists and philosophers, and as it has done in the past, it will drive us on to more profound questions and more mysterious unknowns.

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1 If any Japanese speakers are reading this, please let me know if I’m using this word incorrectly – my understanding is that the context is important.

The future of life detection on Mars: We come in peace, but carry lasers!

       

This is a guest post by Samantha Rolfe, a PhD student at the The Open University’s Department of Physical Sciences, where she is researching potential biomarkers on Mars using Raman spectroscopy. You can find her on Twitter, or talking science on Radio Verulam

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The robotic exploration of other planets has been happening for many decades now. We have been to almost all the classical planets, with the New Horizons mission presently on its way to the Pluto‑Charon system (Pluto will always be a planet in my heart). Among the earliest fragile feelers of this type were extended in the 1970s in the shape of the Viking missions to Mars. Mars has been the subject of speculation for over a century in the minds of humans when considering whether we are alone in the Universe. For many years, almost right up to the landing of the Viking missions, it was believed that Mars had vegetation on its surface; Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he had observed a network of linear ‘channels’ on Mars during observations in 1877, which was later mistranslated as ‘canals’ by Percival Lowell, further fuelling the fire that intelligent Martians existed there. However, images from the Mariner program showed the surface to be littered with craters, a surface similar to that of the Moon.

The first ‘clear’ image from the surface of Mars sent back by Viking 1 shortly after landing (NASA/Roel van der Hoorn).

The Viking landers were sent with life detection instrumentation, the results of which proved inconclusive (though recent reanalysis shows they may have detected organic material but it was masked by geochemical processes that were not understood at the time) and this led to pessimism about finding life elsewhere in the Solar System in planetary science departments around the world. Nonetheless, with improving technology and further study of Mars from orbit and the ground has revealed that Mars definitely had areas of standing and running water on its surface for a significant amount of time; long enough to create fluvial fans, sedimentary stacks and rounded pebbles, which are amongst the evidence for liquid water. These discoveries, along with the developing discipline of astrobiology, have forced us to continue looking for the potential of Mars as a habitable planet.

The concept of habitability has been stretched in recent years with the in depth study of extremophiles, often single celled organisms (though they can be found on all three branches of the phylogenetic tree) living in conditions where humans would instantly perish. Examples of terrestrial life living at extremes of temperature, pressure or salinity, for example, makes for an interesting case that Mars may too host life. Liquid water can only exist at the surface of Mars if its freezing point is depressed to extremes, evidence of which has been found in the form of Recurring Slope Lineae – streaks seen to lengthen and retreat with the seasons on crater walls – if there is liquid water at the surface, perhaps there are reservoirs in the subsurface which life could utilise.

Recurring Slope Lineae in Newton Crater on Mars, evidence for liquid water at the surface (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona).

Future missions to planetary bodies will be employing new techniques to search for life. Raman spectroscopy is one of these techniques. A non-destructive laser is fired at a sample and some of the reflected photons are engaged in a non-elastic interaction with the sampled molecules, slightly changing the frequency of the returning light. This is displayed as spectroscopic peaks or bands representative of the individual bonds within the molecule. Therefore, each molecule has its own unique Raman spectrum allowing the identification of organic and inorganic molecules even within a mixed matrix of materials, making it a useful tool for life detection.

The present surface conditions of Mars are not forgiving to the survival organic material or, therefore, its detection. The surface is known to be an oxidising environment, leading to the destruction of organic material that may exist at the surface of Mars. The Martian subsurface may be protecting organic molecules waiting to be detected as tantalising evidence for the possible existence of life on the Red Planet. ESA’s ExoMars mission, due to launch in 2018, will be carrying a Raman spectrometer and ideas for future missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa are also considering strapping a Raman spectrometer to them and throwing it into the extreme radiation environment of the Jovian system.

Before we land on these planetary bodies, we can test what we think we are expecting i.e. can organic molecules be detected in simulated Martian environments? Experiments have shown that organic molecules such as amino acids are able to survive Martian surface conditions, for perhaps millions of years (extrapolated) in small quantities (parts per billion). In the harsh light of the Martian day (where the atmosphere does not block the ultraviolet radiation from the Sun as effectively as the Earth’s does), the Raman signatures of amino acids are degraded. Similar results are seen for microbes, such as Deinococcus radiodurans. Their Raman signatures have been analysed and examined after exposure to the ionising radiation environment expected at the surface and near surface of Mars.

If we are to discover organic molecules or even microbial Raman signatures on Mars then it is apparent that we will need to dig or drill down into the subsurface, beyond the depth where destructive ultraviolet and ionising radiation can penetrate. For ultraviolet, mere millimetres of regolith can block harmful rays, but the depth to which ionising radiation is able to penetrate is thought to be at least 2 m below the surface. Luckily, ExoMars will carry a drill with the ability to bore to a depth of 2 m (see what they did there?). Drilling to this depth has never been attempted before and will be a great feat of engineering if achieved. Samples recovered from the subsurface will need to be handled with great care and be removed from direct interaction with the Martian daylight as experiments have shown that Raman signatures of some organic molecules can begin to degrade within seconds, losing vital information about potential life that may exist or have existed in the subsurface.

A typical Raman spectrum of the amino acid Alanine, used in biological processes, most commonly in the building of proteins.

Raman spectroscopy is only some of what we have to look forward to in terms of future martian life detection missions and with all the new information we have been gathering with Curiosity of the Mars Sample Laboratory mission in Gale Crater (rounded pebbles indicating long term presence of liquid water, Mars is not red all over but grey too – a sedimentary rock, ‘John Klein’, was drilled into, a first in Mars exploration, and was found to be grey under the surface with analysis being consistent with clay minerals), we can only imagine what we might find in the future. Especially given that Curiosity’s mission is only to assess the habitability of Mars, not search for life, we have so much to look forward to.

 

Despite the amazing advances and discoveries made by robotic missions, robots are no substitute for human exploration. It is thought that humans could have conducted the same amount of research that the Mars rovers have within a few days or weeks, compared to the several years that it has taken. However, human space exploration warrants further discussion as there are many difficulties that we need to overcome before travel into interplanetary space will be safe enough, never mind the spiralling costs.

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.

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.

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’.

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.

Exoplanet Update

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.

Artist’s impression of the Kepler 47 system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

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.

Gliese 163 c infographic: Warm Superterran Exoplanet in the Constellation Dorado (PHL @ Arecibo/HEC)

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:

The habitable zone and confirmed habitable zone exoplanets. The dashed lines indicate differing models of cloud cover. Data points are not to scale. (Author’s own research)

It’s certainly an exciting time to be working in this field; nearly each new week brings another interesting discovery. Keep looking up!