A New Extrasolar Planet is as Hot and Dense as Mercury, but 2.5 Times the Mass of Earth

A team of international astronomers recently discovered a Super Earth that has the density of Mercury, and is several times as hot!

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James Webb Telescope is Probably Going to be Delayed Again, and Could Exceed a Congress Spending Cap

According to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is likely to be delayed again, and exceed its cost cap.

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Focusing On ‘Second-Earth’ Candidates In The Kepler Catalog

Artist’s impression of how an infant earth might look. Credit: ESO.

The ongoing hunt for exoplanets has yielded some very interesting returns in recent years. All told, the Kepler mission has discovered more than 4000 candidates since it began its mission in March of 2009. Amidst the many “Super-Jupiters” and assorted gas giants (which account for the majority of Kepler’s discoveries) astronomers have been particularly interested in those exoplanets which resemble Earth.

And now, an international team of scientists has finished perusing the Kepler catalog in an effort to determine just how many of these planets are in fact “Earth-like”. Their study, titled “A Catalog of Kepler Habitable Zone Exoplanet Candidates” (which will be published soon in the Astrophysical Journal), explains how the team discovered 216 planets that are both terrestrial and located within their parent star’s “habitable zone” (HZ).

The international team was made up of researchers from NASA, San Francisco State University, Arizona State University, Caltech, University of Hawaii-Manoa, the University of Bordeaux, Cornell University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Having spent the past three years looking over the more than 4000 entries, they have determined that 20 of the candidates are most like Earth (i.e. likely habitable).

As Stephen Kane, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at San Fransisco University and lead author of the study, explained in a recent statement:

“This is the complete catalog of all of the Kepler discoveries that are in the habitable zone of their host stars. That means we can focus in on the planets in this paper and perform follow-up studies to learn more about them, including if they are indeed habitable.”

In addition to isolating 216 terrestrial planets from the Kepler catalog, they also devised a system of four categories to determine which of these were most like Earth. These included “Recent Venus”, where conditions are like that of Venus (i.e. extremely hot); “Runaway Greenhouse”, where planets are undergoing serious heating; “Maximum Greenhouse”, where planets are within their star’s HZ; and “Recent Mars”, where conditions approximate those of Mars.

From this, they determined that of the Kepler candidates, 20 had radii less than twice that of Earth (i.e. on the smaller end of the Super-Earth category) and existed within their star’s HZ. In other words, of all the planets discovered in our local Universe, they were able to isolate those where liquid water can exist on the surface, and the gravity would likely be comparable to Earth’s and not crushing!

This is certainly exciting news, since one of the most important aspects of exoplanet hunting has been finding worlds that could support life. Naturally, it might sound a bit anthropocentric or naive to assume that planets which have similar conditions to our own would be the most likely places for it to emerge. But this is what is known as the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where scientists seek out conditions which they know can lead to life.

“There are a lot of planetary candidates out there, and there is a limited amount of telescope time in which we can study them,” said Kane. “This study is a really big milestone toward answering the key questions of how common is life in the universe and how common are planets like the Earth.”

Professor Kane is renowned for being one of the world’s leading “planet-hunters”. In addition to discovering several hundred exoplanets (using data obtained by the Kepler mission) he is also a contributor to two upcoming satellite missions – the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the European Space Agency’s Characterizing ExOPLanet Satellite (CHEOPS).

These next-generation exoplanet hunters will pick up where Kepler left off, and are likely to benefit greatly from this recent study.

Further Reading: arXiv

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Life On Kepler-62f?

Exoplanet Kepler 62f would need an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide for water to be in liquid form. Artist's Illustration: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

A team of astronomers suggests that an exoplanet named 62f could be habitable. Kepler data suggests that 62f is likely a rocky planet, and could have oceans. The exoplanet is 40% larger than Earth and is 1200 light years away.

62f is part of a planetary system discovered by the Kepler mission in 2013. There are 5 planets in the system, and they orbit a star that is both cooler and smaller than our Sun. The target of this study, 62f, is the outermost of the planets in the system.

Kepler can’t tell us if a planet is habitable or not. It can only tell us something about its potential habitability. The team, led by Aomawa Shields from the UCLS department of physics and astronomy, used different modeling methods to determine if 62f could be habitable, and the answer is, maybe.

According to the study, much of 62f’s potential habitability revolves around the CO2 component of its atmosphere, if it indeed has an atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, CO2 can have a significant effect on the temperature of a planet, and hence, a significant effect on its habitability.

Earth’s atmosphere is only 0.04% carbon dioxide (and rising.) 62f would likely need to have much more CO2 than that if it were to support life. It would also require other atmospheric characteristics, .

The study modelled parameters for CO2 concentration, atmospheric density, and orbital characteristics. They simulated:

  • An atmospheric thickness from the same as Earth’s up to 12 times thicker.
  • Carbon dioxide concentrations ranging from the same as Earth’s up to 2500 times Earth’s level.
  • Multiple different orbital configurations.

It may look like the study casts its net pretty wide in order to declare a planet potentially habitable. But the simulations were pretty robust, and relied on more than a single, established modelling method to produce these results. With that in mind, the team found that there are multiple scenarios that could make 62f habitable.

“We found there are multiple atmospheric compositions that allow it to be warm enough to have surface liquid water,” said Shields, a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Program Fellow. “This makes it a strong candidate for a habitable planet.”

As mentioned earlier, CO2 concentration is a big part of it. According to Shields, the planet would need an atmospheric entirely composed of CO2, and an atmosphere five times as dense as Earth’s to be habitable through its entire year. That means that there would be 2500 times more carbon dioxide than Earth has. This would work because the planet’s orbit may take it far enough away from the star for water to freeze, but an atmosphere this dense and this high in CO2 would keep the planet warm.

But there are other conditions that would make 62f habitable, and these include the planet’s orbital characteristics.

“But if it doesn’t have a mechanism to generate lots of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere to keep temperatures warm, and all it had was an Earth-like amount of carbon dioxide, certain orbital configurations could allow Kepler-62f’s surface temperatures to temporarily get above freezing during a portion of its year,” said Shields. “And this might help melt ice sheets formed at other times in the planet’s orbit.”

Shields and her team used multiple modelling methods to produce these results. The climate was modelled using the Community Climate System Model and the Laboratoire de Me´te´orologie Dynamique Generic model. The planet’s orbital characteristics were modelled using HNBody. This study represents the first time that these modelling methods were combined, and this combined method can be used on other planets.

Shields said, “This will help us understand how likely certain planets are to be habitable over a wide range of factors, for which we don’t yet have data from telescopes. And it will allow us to generate a prioritized list of targets to follow up on more closely with the next generation of telescopes that can look for the atmospheric fingerprints of life on another world.”

There are over 2300 confirmed exoplanets, and many more candidates yet to be confirmed. Only a handful of them have been confirmed as being in the habitable zone around their host star. Of course, we don’t know if life can exist on other planets, even if they do reproduce the same kind of habitability that Earth has. We just have no way of knowing, yet.

That will change when instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope are able to peer into the atmospheres of exoplanets and tell us something about any bio-markers that might be present.

But until then, and until we actually visit another world with a probe of some design, we need to use modelling like the type employed in this study, to get us closer to answering the question of life on other worlds.

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