Bayesian Analysis Rains On Exoplanet Life Parade

An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist's impression). Via the IAU.

Is there life on other planets, somewhere in this enormous Universe? That’s probably the most compelling question we can ask. A lot of space science and space missions are pointed directly at that question.

The Kepler mission is designed to find exoplanets, which are planets orbiting other stars. More specifically, its aim is to find planets situated in the habitable zone around their star. And it’s done so. The Kepler mission has found 297 confirmed and candidate planets that are likely in the habitable zone of their star, and it’s only looked at a tiny patch of the sky.

But we don’t know if any of them harbour life, or if Mars ever did, or if anywhere ever did. We just don’t know. But since the question of life elsewhere in the Universe is so compelling, it’s driven people with intellectual curiosity to try and compute the likelihood of life on other planets.

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One of the main ways people have tried to understand if life is prevalent in the Universe is through the Drake Equation, named after Dr. Frank Drake. He tried to come up with a way to compute the probability of the existence of other civilizations. The Drake Equation is a mainstay of the conversation around the existence of life in the Universe.

The Drake Equation is a way to calculate the probability of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way that were technologically advanced to communicate. When it was created in 1961, Drake himself explained that it was really just a way of starting a conversation about extraterrestrial civilizations, rather than a definitive calculation. Still, the equation is the starting point for a lot of conversations.

But the problem with the Drake equation, and with all of our attempts to understand the likelihood of life starting on other planets, is that we only have the Earth to go by. It seems like life on Earth started pretty early, and has been around for a long time. With that in mind, people have looked out into the Universe, estimated the number of planets in habitable zones, and concluded that life must be present, and even plentiful, in the Universe.

But we really only know two things: First, life on Earth began a few hundred million years after the planet was formed, when it was sufficiently cool and when there was liquid water. The second thing that we know is that a few billions of years after life started, creatures appeared which were sufficiently intelligent enough to wonder about life.

In 2012, two scientists published a paper which reminded us of this fact. David Spiegel, from Princeton University, and Edwin Turner, from the University of Tokyo, conducted what’s called a Bayesian analysis on how our understanding of the early emergence of life on Earth affects our understanding of the existence of life elsewhere.

A Bayesian analysis is a complicated matter for non-specialists, but in this paper it’s used to separate out the influence of data, and the influence of our prior beliefs, when estimating the probability of life on other worlds. What the two researchers concluded is that our prior beliefs about the existence of life elsewhere have a large effect on any probabilistic conclusions we make about life elsewhere. As the authors say in the paper, “Life arose on Earth sometime in the first few hundred million years after the young planet had cooled to the point that it could support water-based organisms on its surface. The early emergence of life on Earth has been taken as evidence that the probability of abiogenesis is high, if starting from young-Earth-like conditions.”

A key part of all this is that life may have had a head start on Earth. Since then, it’s taken about 3.5 billion years for creatures to evolve to the point where they can think about such things. So this is where we find ourselves; looking out into the Universe and searching and wondering. But it’s possible that life may take a lot longer to get going on other worlds. We just don’t know, but many of the guesses have assumed that abiogenesis on Earth is standard for other planets.

What it all boils down to, is that we only have one data point, which is life on Earth. And from that point, we have extrapolated outward, concluding hopefully that life is plentiful, and we will eventually find it. We’re certainly getting better at finding locations that should be suitable for life to arise.

What’s maddening about it all is that we just don’t know. We keep looking and searching, and developing technology to find habitable planets and identify bio-markers for life, but until we actually find life elsewhere, we still only have one data point: Earth. But Earth might be exceptional.

As Spiegel and Turner say in the conclusion of their paper, ” In short, if we should find evidence of life that arose wholly idependently of us – either via astronomical searches that reveal life on another planet or via geological and biological studies that find evidence of life on Earth with a different origin from us – we would have considerably stronger grounds to conclude that life is probably common in our galaxy.”

With our growing understanding of Mars, and with missions like the James Webb Space Telescope, we may one day soon have one more data point with which we can refine our probabilistic understanding of other life in the Universe.

Or, there could be a sadder outcome. Maybe life on Earth will perish before we ever find another living microbe on any other world.

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Largest Rocky World Found

An illustration of a large, rocky planet similar to the recently discovered BD+20594b. Image: JPL-Caltech/NASA

We thought we understood how big rocky planets can get. But most of our understanding of planetary formation and solar system development has come from direct observation of our own Solar System. We simply couldn’t see any others, and we had no way of knowing how typical—or how strange—our own Solar System might be.

But thanks to the Kepler Spacecraft, and it’s ability to observe and collect data from other, distant, solar systems, we’ve found a rocky planet that’s bigger than we thought one could be. The planet, called BD+20594b, is half the diameter of Neptune, and composed entirely of rock.

The planet, whose existence was reported on January 28 at arXiv.org by astrophysicist Nestor Espinoza and his colleagues at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, is over 500 light years away, in the constellation Aries.

BD+20594b is about 16 times as massive as Earth and half the diameter of Neptune. Its density is about 8 grams per cubic centimeter. It was first discovered in 2015 as it passed in between Kepler and its host star. Like a lot of discoveries, a little luck was involved. BD+20594b’s host star is exceptionally bright, which allowed more detailed observations than most exoplanets.

The discovery of BD+20594b is important for a couple of reasons: First, it shows us that there’s more going on in planetary formation than we thought. There’s more variety in planetary composition than we could’ve known from looking at our own Solar System. Second, comparing BD+20594b to other similar planets, like Kepler 10c—a previous candidate for largest rocky planet—gives astrophysicists an excellent laboratory for testing out our planet formation theories.

It also highlights the continuing importance of the Kepler mission, which started off just confirming the existence of exoplanets, and showing us how common they are. But with discoveries like this, Kepler is flexing its muscle, and starting to show us how our understanding of planetary formation is not as complete as we may have thought.

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Earth From Afar Would Look Only 82% Right For Life

From Lunar orbit, Earth is obviously habitable. But from a distant point in the galaxy, not so much. Image: NASA/LRO.

Right now, we’re staring hard at a small section of the sky, to see if we can detect any planets that may be habitable. The Kepler Spacecraft is focused on a tiny patch of sky in our Milky Way galaxy, hoping to detect planets as they transit in front of their stars. But if alien astronomers are doing the same, and detect Earth transiting in front of the Sun, how habitable would Earth appear?

You might think, because, well, here we are, that the Earth would look 100% habitable from a distant location. But that’s not the case. According to a paper from Rory Barnes and his colleagues at the University of Washington-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory, from a distant point in the galaxy, the probability of Earth being habitable might be only 82%.

Barnes and his team came up with the 82% number when they worked to create a “habitability index for transiting planets,” that seeks to rank the habitability of planets based on factors like the distance from its star, the size of the planet, the nature of the star, and the behaviour of other planets in the system.

The search for habitable exo-planets is dominated by the idea of the circumstellar habitable zone—or Goldilocks Zone—a region of space where an orbiting planet is not too close to its star to boil away all the water, and not so far away that the water is all frozen. This isn’t a fixed distance; it depends on the type and size of the star. With an enormous, hot star, the Goldilocks Zone would be much further away than Earth is from the Sun, and vice-versa for a smaller, cooler star. “That was a great first step, but it doesn’t make any distinctions within the habitable zone,” says Barnes.

Kepler has already confirmed the existence of over 1,000 exo-planets, with over 4,700 total candidate planets. And Kepler is still in operation. When it comes time to examine these planets more closely, with the James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments, where  do we start? We needed a way to rank planets for further study. Enter Barnes and his team, and their habitability index.

To rank candidates for further study, Barnes focused on not just the distance between the planet and the host star, but on the overall energy equilibrium. That takes into account not just the energy received by the planet, but the planet’s albedo—how much energy it reflects back into space. In terms of  being warm enough for life, a high-albedo planet can tolerate being closer to its star, whereas a low-albedo planet can tolerate a greater distance. This equilibrium is affected in turn by the eccentricity of the planet’s orbit.

The habitability index created by Barnes—and his colleagues Victoria Meadows and Nicole Evans—is a way to enter data, including a planet’s albedo and its distance from its host star, and get a number representing the planet’s probability of being habitable. “Basically, we’ve devised a way to take all the observational data that are available and develop a prioritization scheme,” said Barnes, “so that as we move into a time when there are hundreds of targets available, we might be able to say, ‘OK, that’s the one we want to start with.’”

So where does the Earth fit into all this? If alien astronomers are creating their own probability index, at 82%, Earth is a good candidate. Maybe they’re already studying us more closely.

 

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