All posts tagged habitability

Google’s TRAPPIST-1 doodle.

UPDATE: KBSX ran a story about our event this morning – http://boisestatepublicradio.org/post/bsu-and-university-washington-part-search-life-nearby-planets.

The seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1 reveal that rocky worlds are common in our galactic neighborhood. Three of the planets are in the habitable zone, the region around a star in which liquid water is possible. However, planets that are Earth-sized and in the habitable zone have merely cleared the first two hurdles for a planet to support life!

Join the Boise State Physics Department and Prof. Rory Barnes from University of Washington on Friday, April 7 at 7:30p in the Multi-Purpose Classroom Building, room 101 to learn about how these planets were discovered, what it means to us, and the potential of discovering life beyond our Solar System.

Contact Prof. Brian Jackson (bjackson@boisestate.edu) with any questions.

Glint from a sea on Saturn’s moon Titan. From http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA18433.

Our spring semester journal club opened with a nice review paper on finding habitable planets from Tyler Robinson, NASA Sagan Fellow at UC Santa Cruz.

The traditional definition of a habitable planet is “a world that can maintain stable liquid water on its surface”, but, as astrobiologists have explored for decades, this definition involves a vast flotilla of assumptions and very narrowly focuses our search for Earth-like life.

Even with all its limitations, this definition provides a very useful and practical starting point – at the first order, whether a world can host stable liquid water on its surface depends on the amount of sunlight it receives and whether it has a sufficiently thick (but not too thick) atmosphere.

Having found countless worlds outside our solar solar, astronomers are able to assess whether those worlds satisfy these conditions using observations we can already make, and a few dozen (probably) do.

In his review paper, Robinson discusses the observational and theoretical techniques astronomers can employ in the near future to take the next steps in deciding whether a world really has liquid water. Among the different approaches he describes, one is the most striking is the search for the glint from an alien ocean.

Robinson points out that Galileo was the first person to propose how to look for an ocean on another world. In his controversial Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Worlds Systems, he says that, if the Moon had seas, “the surface of the seas would appear darker, and that of the land brighter”, just as on Earth.

Seas can also appear very bright compared to land, given the right observing geometry: seas exhibit specular reflection – this is the same effect you see looking out a plane’s window when the Sun reflects off the ocean. So looking for the glint provides a way to find large bodies of water on a distant world. Indeed, the first extraterrestrial oceans were found on Saturn’s moon Titan using this method, and one of the sea glints now frequently observed by the Cassini mission is shown in the figure at left.

Of course, we don’t have spacecraft orbiting any extrasolar worlds (yet), so we can’t resolve individual points on their surfaces. But, as discussed by Robinson, as they orbit their host stars, some of those worlds line up the right way that we could see a spike in the total amount of light coming from the planets. Observing such a spike over and over again whenever the planet was in the right geometry would be a strong hint that it had a large body of liquid reflecting sunlight. Given a little more information about planetary conditions, we could confidently infer such a planet had liquid water on its surface.

Amazingly, astronomers have used Earthshine reflected from the Moon to indirectly observe sea glints from the Earth. And so we’ve actually detected oceans on two worlds using distant spacecraft (if you let me call the Moon a “spacecraft”). As Robinson’s review implies, astronomers are probably on the cusp of finding oceans on extrasolar worlds. From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to finding life.