Technology How NASA Could Discover Oceans on Distant Planets
This NASA spacecraft will get closer to the sun than anything ever before
The Parker Solar Probe will launch this year en route to the sun's atmosphere — a mission 60 years in the making.With time, each of those dreams became a reality — the Hubble Space Telescope, the twin Voyager spacecraft, the Apollo program. All except one: an effort to get a close look at the sun, the source of Earth's light and heat, as well as solar storms that could disrupt our satellites and fry our electric grid.
Earth, Venus, Mars, the moon, and Pluto are very different worlds, but they have something in common: mountains. In fact, mountains occur on so many different bodies in the solar system that astronomers are pretty sure many exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—also have them. And like planets and moons close to home, those mountains can tell us a lot about what’s going on with exoplanets. They might even help us discover .
But first, we have to see exoplanetary mountains. In a new paper to be published in the prestigious journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Columbia University astronomers Moiya A.S. McTier and David M. Kipping figured out what it might take toto photograph even with our most powerful telescopes.
Clashing Chemicals Might Identify Distant Alien Life
(Methane + carbon dioxide) - carbon monoxide = aliens?Chemicals such as oxygen are hard to produce without some kind of life. If a planet has oxygen in its atmosphere, it may very well harbor microbes. On Earth, however, oxygen has only been produced in large amounts for about an eighth of its history.
The trick is toas the planet passes in front of its host star, a phenomenon known as “transiting.” During these brief eclipses, the planet cuts off some of the host star’s light, which lets astronomers measure the size of the planet and how quickly it orbits. McTier and Kipping showed that if they observe multiple transits, astronomers might be able to see smaller fluctuations in the light when mountains are on the “horizon.”
“My paper is, to my knowledge, the first work that’s ever been done to come up with a method for finding mountains on planets outside our solar system,” McTier told The Daily Beast. “We’ve found mountains inside our solar system, on Earth and on other planets like Mars. But we’ve never found [mountains] outside of our solar system, even though we’ve found thousands of these types of planets out there.”
Could the Super Blue Blood Moon Help Find Aliens?
The lunar eclipse can help scientists learn how to spot "biosignatures" on distant planets.To be honest, I feel pretty conflicted about all the excitement surrounding the supermoon, a term which describes the moon when it is at a close point to the Earth. It’s great that people get excited about astronomy, but the trouble is that a supermoon in itself is not really all that special.
Many exoplanets are gas giants like Jupiter or Neptune, without a solid surface to have any mountains at all. However, “super-Earths” are another extremely common type: planets bigger and more massive than Earth, but still made of rock. Since no planet in the solar system is like that type of planet, we don’t know much about them yet, including whether they could have mountains or make oceans of water. Though they’re harder to detect, Earth- or Mars-sized exoplanets are probably even more common.
Even a large mountain on a super-sized super-Earth won’t block out that much extra light during a transit. So, instead of trying to see individual topographic features, McTier worked out a way to measure the overall.
“We really wanted bumpiness—as we called it—to be a measure of how much an average feature sticks out from the surface of the planet,” she said. That’s better than looking for big standalone mountains, like Mauna Kea on Earth or Olympus Mons on Mars. “This method could find anything that sticks out from the surface, so it could be mountain ranges, it could be single mountains, it could be volcanoes.”
Trappist planets have water, may be 'habitable': researchers
Seven planets recently spotted orbiting a dim star in our Milky Way galaxy are rocky, seem to have water, and are potentially "habitable", researchers studying the distant system said Monday. Though much remains unknown about the planets' surfaces and atmospheres, the new measurements have not ruled out the possibility that they may harbour even rudimentary life, the scientists reported.
Here’s how the method works. As an exoplanet orbits its host star, it turns relative to astronomers on Earth. During that turning, we get a bit of a sunrise or sunset effect as the star’s light is blocked or unblocked by mountains, over the course of its transit. It’s not a huge effect, so McTier calculated we might need to see hundreds of transits to get an accurate measurement.
But the potential payoff is big: “If we’re able to actually detect bumpiness, then we could potentially learn something about oceans on an exoplanet, and whether or not it has tectonic plate movement,” McTier said.
Earth is the only world we know that has them, and we don’t know whether it’s a coincidence that we’re also the only world known to have life. (Icy moons like Europa and Enceladus have subsurface oceans, which are another intriguing possibility for life.)
Mars probably once had oceans, but doesn’t any more. That absence makes the planet “bumpier” than Earth: The difference between its highest peaks and deepest valleys aren’t hidden by water. Measuring bumpiness may allow us to distinguish between a watery world and a dry one. Saturn’s moon Titan, which has liquid (and very frigid!) hydrocarbon lakes,—a potentially common feature of planets with surface liquids.
Scientists Recreate Titan’s Methane Ocean In Lab
NASA plans to send an autonomous submarine to Saturn’s largest moon Titan to study the liquid methane oceans on its surface.To further the study of Titan, which NASA has been analyzing using data collected by the Cassini mission, scientists at Washington State University recreated a methane ocean in a laboratory. To be exact, the WSU researchers built a test chamber filled with a “liquid mixture at very cold temperatures to simulate the seas of Titan. They added a two-inch, cylinder-shaped cartridge heater that would approximate the heat that a submarine would create.
Similarly, Earth has plate tectonics, which makes our big mountain ranges, but doesn’t grow volcanoes as large as the ones on Mars.
“If it’s really bumpy (meaning there are a lot of features), we can do work from there to figure out what those features are,” McTier said.
The biggest bumps aren’t the mountains: They’re making the observations. Finding mountains is easiest for a very large planet orbiting a very small star, because transiting data depends on the ratio of the planet’s size to the star’s size. For that reason, McTier’s calculated example was a Mars-sized planet orbiting a white dwarf—the burned-out remnant of a star. A typical white dwarf is about the size of Earth, but with a mass comparable to the Sun, so the paper doesn’t describe a normal exoplanet system.
To measure bumpiness of a super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf star (one of the most common systems we see), McTier estimated we would need a huge telescope like the Colossus, which is still in the design stages.
To McTier, the potential science is worth the wait. “We could learn about the length of its day, which is really exciting and currently extremely difficult to do for these small rocky planets orbiting stars hundreds of light years away.”
“Habitability is what gets people excited about exoplanet science,” she added. “If we can overcome those challenges, we can learn exciting things about the planet.”
NASA captures farthest ever image from Earth .
<p>New Horizons flew past Pluto in July 2015, taking pictures which revealed an even more diverse landscape than scientists had previously imagined.</p>New Horizons flew past Pluto in July 2015, taking pictures which revealed an even more diverse landscape than scientists had previously imagined.
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