Beautiful Planetary Rings Are Dead Dwarf Planets! Dead Dwarf Planets!!!

In 1655, astronomer Christiaan Huygens became the first person to observe the beautiful ring system that surrounds Saturn. And while they are certainly the most spectacular, astronomers have since discovered that all the gas and ice giants of the Solar System (i.e. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) have their own system of rings. These systems […]

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What Does “Earthlike” Even Mean & Should It Apply To Proxima Centauri b?

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

The ESO’s recent announcement that they have discovered an exoplanet candidate orbiting Proxima Centauri – thus confirming weeks of speculation – has certainly been exciting news! Not only is this latest find the closest extra-solar planet to our own Solar System, but the ESO has also indicated that it is rocky, similar in size and mass to Earth, and orbits within the star’s habitable zone.

However, in the midst of this news, there has been some controversy regarding certain labels. For instance, when a planet like Proxima b is described as “Earth-like”, “habitable”, and/or “terrestrial“, there are naturally some questions as to what this really means. For each term, there are particular implications, which in turn beg for clarification.

For starters, to call a planet “Earth-like” generally means that it is similar in composition to Earth. This is where the term “terrestrial” really comes into play, as it refers to a rocky planet that is composed primarily of silicate rock and metals which are differentiated between a metal core and a silicate mantle and crust.

This applies to all planets in the inner Solar System, and is often used in order to differentiate rocky exoplanets from gas giants. This is important within the context of exoplanet hunting, as the majority of the 4,696 exoplanet candidates – of which 3,374 have been confirmed (as of August 18th, 2016) – have been gas giants.

What this does not mean, at least not automatically, is that the planet is habitable in the way Earth is. Simply being terrestrial in nature is not an indication that the planet has a suitable atmosphere or a warm enough climate to support the existence of liquid water or microbial life on its surface.

What’s more, Earth-like generally implies that a planet will be similar in mass and size to Earth. But this is not the same as composition, as many exoplanets that have been discovered have been labeled as “Earth-sized” or “Super-Earths” – i.e. planets with around 10 times the mass of Earth – based solely on their mass.

This term also distinguishes an exoplanet candidate from those that are 15 to 17 masses (which are often referred to as “Neptune-sized”) and those that are have masses similar to, or many times greater than that of Jupiter (i.e. Super-Jupiters). In all these cases, size and mass are the qualifiers, not composition.

Ergo, finding a planet that is greater in size and mass than Earth, but significantly less than that of a gas giant, does not mean it is terrestrial. In fact, some scientists have recommended that the term “mini-Neptune” be used to describe planets that are more massive than Earth, but not necessarily composed of silicate minerals and metals.

And estimates of size and mass are not exactly metrics for determining whether or not a planet is “habitable”. This term is especially sticky when it comes to exoplanets. When scientists attach this word to extra-solar planets like Proxima b, Gliese 667 Cc, Kepler-452b, they are generally referring to the fact that the planet exists within its parent star’s “habitable zone” (aka. Goldilocks zone).

This term describes the region around a star where a planet will experience average surface temperatures that allow for liquid water to exist on its surface. For those planets that orbit too close to their star, they will experience intense heat that transforms surface waster into hydrogen and oxygen – the former escaping into space, the latter combining with carbon to form CO².

This is what scientists believe happened to Venus, where thick clouds of CO² and water vapor triggered a runaway greenhouse effect. This turned Venus from a world that once had oceans into the hellish environment we know today, where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, atmospheric density if off the charts, and sulfuric acid rains from its thick clouds.

For planets that orbit beyond a star’s habitable zone, water ice will become frozen solid, and the only liquid water will likely be found in underground reservoirs (this is the case on Mars). As such, finding planets that are just right in terms of average surface temperature is intrinsic to the “low-hanging fruit” approach of searching for life in our Universe.

But of course, just because a planet is warm enough to have water on its surface doesn’t mean that life can thrive on it. As our own Solar System beautifully demonstrates, a planet can have the necessary conditions for life, but still become a sterile environment because it lacks a protective magnetosphere.

This is what scientists believe happened to Mars. Located within our Sun’s Goldilocks zone (albeit on the outer edge of it), Mars is believed to have once had an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. But today, atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is only 1% that of Earth’s, and the surface is dry, cold, and devoid of life.

The reason for this, it has been determined, is because Mars lost its magnetosphere 4.2 Billion years ago. According to NASA’s MAVEN mission, this resulted in Mars’ atmosphere being slowly stripped away over the course of the next 500 million years by solar wind. What little atmosphere it had left was not enough to retain heat, and its surface water evaporated.

By the same token, planets that do not have protective magnetospheres are also subject to an intense level of radiation on their surfaces. On the Martian surface, the average dose of radiation is about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day, which is about a fifth of what people are exposed to here on Earth in the course of a year.

We can expect similar situations on extra-solar planets where a magnetosphere does not exist. Essentially, Earth is fortunate in that it not only orbits in a pretty cushy spot around our Sun, but that its core is differentiated between a solid inner core and a liquid, rotating outer core. This rotation, it is believed, is responsible for creating a dynamo effect that in turn creates Earth’s magnetic field.

However, using our own Solar System again as a model, we find that magnetic fields are not entirely uncommon. While Earth is the only terrestrial planet in our Solar System to have on (all the gas giants have powerful fields), Jupiter’s moon Ganymede also has a magnetosphere of its own.

Similarly, there are orbital parameters to consider. For instance, a planet that is similar in size, mass and composition could still have a very different climate than Earth due to its orbit. For one, it may be tidally-locked with its star, which would mean that one side is permanently facing towards it, and is therefore much warmer.

On the other hand, it may have a slow rotational velocity, and a rapid orbital velocity, which means it only experiences a few rotations per orbit (as is the case with Mercury). Last, but certainly not least, its distance from its respective star could mean it receives far more radiation than Earth does – regardless of whether or not it has a magnetosphere.

This is believed to the be the case with Proxima Centauri b, which orbits its red dwarf star at a distance of 7 million km (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun. It also orbits Proxima Centauri with an orbital period of 11 days, and either has a synchronous rotation, or a 3:2 orbital resonance (i.e. three rotations for every two orbits).

Because of this, the climate is likely to be very different than Earth’s, with water confined to either its sun-facing side (in the case of a synchronous rotation), or in its tropical zone (in the case of a 3:2 resonance). In addition, the radiation it receives from its red dwarf star would be significantly higher than what we are used to here on Earth.

So what exactly does “Earth-like” mean? The short answer is, it can mean a lot of things. And in this respect, its a pretty dubious term. If Earth-like can mean similarities in mass, size, composition, and can allude to the fact that planet orbits within its star’s habitable zone – but not necessarily all of the above – then its not a very reliable term.

In the end, the only way to keep things clear would be to describe a planet as “Earth-like” if it in fact shows similarities in terms of size, mass and composition, all at the same time. The word “terrestrial” can certainly be substituted in a pinch, but only where the composition of the planet is known with a fair degree of certainty (and not just its size and mass).

And words like “habitable” should probably only be used when chaperoned by words like “potentially”. After all, being within a star’s habitable zone certainly means there’s the potential for life. But it doesn’t not necessarily entail that life could have emerged there, or that humans could live there someday.

And should these words apply to Proxima b? Perhaps, but one should consider the fact that the ESO has announced the detection of a exoplanet using the Radial Velocity method. Until such time as it is confirmed using direct detection methods, its remains a candidate exoplanet (not a confirmed one).

But even these simple measures would likely not be enough to erase all the ambiguity or controversy. When it comes right down to it, planet-hunting – like all aspects of space exploration and science – is a divisive issue. And new findings always have a way of drawing criticism and disagreement from several quarters at once.

And you thought Pluto’s classification confused things! Well, Pluto has got nothing on the exoplanet database! So be prepared for many years of classification debates and controversy!

Further Reading: NASA Exoplanet Archive

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Centaurs Keep Their Rings From Greedy Gas Giants

Artist's impression of what the rings of the asteroid Chariklo would look like from the small body's surface. The rings' discovery was a first for an asteroid. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (

When we think of ring systems, what naturally comes to mind are planets like Saturn. It’s beautiful rings are certainly the most well known, but they are not the only planet in our Solar System to have them. As the Voyager missions demonstrated, every planet in the outer Solar System – from Jupiter to Neptune – has its own system of rings. And in recent years, astronomers have discovered that even certain minor planets – like the Centaur asteroids 10199 Chariklo and 2006 Chiron – have them too.

This was a rather surprising find, since these objects have such chaotic orbits. Given that their paths through the Solar System are frequently altered by the powerful gravity of gas giants, astronomers have naturally wondered how a minor planet could retain a system of rings. But thanks to a team of researchers from the Sao Paulo State University in Brazil, we may be close to answering that question.

In a study titled “The Rings of Chariklo Under Close Encounters With The Giant Planets“, which appeared recently in The Astrophysical Journal, they explained how they constructed a model of the Solar System that incorporated 729 simulated objects. All of these objects were the same size as Chariklo and had their own system of rings. They then went about the process of examining how interacting with gas giant effected them.

To break it down, Centaurs are a population of objects within our Solar System that behave as both comets and asteroids (hence why they are named after the hybrid beasts of Greek mythology). 10199 Chariklo is the largest known member of the Centaur population, a possible former Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) which currently orbits between Saturn and Uranus.

The rings around this asteroid were first noticed in 2013 when the asteroid underwent a stellar occultation. This revealed a system of two rings, with a radius of 391 and 405 km and widths of about 7 km 3 km, respectively. The absorption features of the rings showed that they were partially composed of water ice. In this respect, they were much like the rings of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and the other gas giants, which are composed largely of water ice and dust.

This was followed by findings made in 2015 that indicated that 2006 Chiron – another major Centaur – could have a ring of its own. This led to further speculation that there might be many minor planets in our Solar System that have a system of rings. Naturally, this was a bit perplexing to astronomers, since rings are fragile structures that were thought to be exclusive to the gas giants of our System.

As Professor Othon Winter, the lead researcher of the Sao Paulo team, told Universe Today via email:

“At first it was a surprise to find a Centaur with rings, since the Centaurs have chaotic orbits wandering between the giant planets and having frequent close encounters with them. However, we have shown that in most of the cases the ring system can survive all the close encounters with the giant planets. Therefore,  Centaurs with rings might be much more common than we thought before.”

For the sake of their study, Winter and his colleagues considered the orbits of 729 simulated clones of Chariklo as they orbited the Sun over the course of 100 million years. From this, Winter and his colleagues found that each Centaur averaged about 150 close encounters with a gas giant, within one Hill radius of the planet in question. As Winter described it:

“The study was made in two steps. First we considered a set of more than 700 clones of Chariklo. The clones had initial trajectories that were slightly different from Chariklo for statistical purposes (since we are dealing with chaotic trajectories) and computationally simulated their orbital evolution forward in time (to see their future) and also backward in time (to see their past). During these simulations we archived the information of all the close encounters (many thousands) they had with each of the giant planets.”

“In the second step, we performed simulations of each one of the close encounters found in the first step, but now including a disk of particles around Chariklo  (representing the ring particles). Then, at the end of each simulation we analyzed what happened to the particles. Which ones were removed from Chariklo  (escaping its gravitational field)? Which ones were strongly disturbed (still orbiting around Chariklo)? Which ones did not suffer any significant effect?”

In the end, the simulations showed that in 90 percent of the cases, the rings of the Centaurs survived their close encounters with gas giants, whereas they were disturbed in 4 percent of cases, and were stripped away only 3 percent of the time. Thus, they concluded that if there is an efficient mechanism that creates the rings, then it is strong enough to let Centaurs keep them.

More than that, their research would seem to indicate that what was considered unique to certain planetary bodies may actually be more commonplace. “It reveals that our Solar System is complex not just as whole or for large bodies,” said Winter, “but even small bodies may show complex structures and even more complex temporal evolution.”

The next step for the research team is to study ring formation, which could show that they in fact picking them up from the gas giants themselves. But regardless of where they come from, its becoming increasingly clear that Centaurs like 10199 Chariklo are not alone. What’s more, they aren’t giving up their rings anytime soon!

Further Reading:

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Surveying the “Fossils of Planet Formation”: The Lucy Mission

In February of 2014, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for mission proposals, one or two of which will have the honor of taking part in Discovery Mission Thirteen. Hoping to focus the next round of exploration efforts to places other than Mars, the five semifinalists (which were announced this past September) include proposed […]