It’s a Trap: Extraterrestrial Ozone May be Hidden at Exoplanets’ Equators

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ESO/M. KORNMESSER

Fortunately for life on Earth, our planet has an ozone layer. This high-altitude gas performs an invaluable service to biology, acting as a kind of global “sunscreen” that blocks the most damaging forms of ultraviolet radiation. Early in the evolution of terrestrial life, if there were no ozone layer, life would have found it difficult to gain a foothold.

So, in our effort to seek out exoplanets that are suitable for life, future telescopes will seek out so-called “biosignatures” in the atmospheres of alien worlds. Astrobiologists would be excited to find ozone in particular — not only for its biology-friendly, UV-blocking abilities, but also because the molecule’s building blocks (three oxygen atoms) can originate from biological activity on the planet’s surface.

But in a new study published Wednesday (Nov. 29) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, researchers modeling atmospheric dynamics on tidally-locked “habitable zone” exoplanets have concluded that finding ozone in these exo-atmospheres may be a lot more challenging than we thought.

Red Dwarf Hellholes

Recently, two exoplanets have taken the science news cycle by storm. The first, Proxima b, is touted as the closest temperate exoplanet beyond our solar system. Located a mere 4.22 light-years from Earth, this (presumably) rocky world orbits its star, Proxima Centauri, at just the right distance within the habitable zone. Should this world possess an atmosphere, it would receive just the right amount of energy for any water on its surface to exist in a liquid state. As liquid water is essential for life on Earth, logic dictates that life may be possible there too.

Whether or not Proxima b has the right orbit about its star is academic; there are many other factors to consider before calling it “Earth-like.” For starters, habitable zone exoplanets around red dwarfs will be “tidally locked.” Tidal locking occurs because red dwarf habitable zones are very close to the cool star; so to receive the same amount of heating as our (obviously) habitable Earth, habitable exoplanets around red dwarfs need to cuddle up close. And because they are so close, the same hemisphere will always face the star, while the other hemisphere will always face away. These strange worlds are anything but “Earth-like.”

Also, Proxima Centauri is an angry little star, blasting its locale with regular flares, irradiating its interplanetary space with X-rays, UV and high-energy particles — things that will strip atmospheres from planets and drench planetary surfaces with biology-wrecking radiation. As I’ve previously written, Proxima b is likely a hellhole. And things don’t bode well for that other “habitable” exoplanet TRAPPIST-1d, either.

It’s a Trap

But let’s just say, for astrobiology-sake, that a tidally-locked world orbiting a red dwarf does host an atmosphere and an alien biosphere has managed to evolve despite these stellar challenges. This biosphere is also pretty Earth-like in that oxygen-producing lifeforms are there and the planetary atmosphere has its own ozone layer. As previously mentioned, ozone would be a pretty awesome molecule to find (in conjunction with other biosignatures). But what if no ozone is detected? Well, according to Ludmila Carone, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, and her team, not finding detecting ozone doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there, it’s just that the atmospheric dynamics of tidally-locked worlds are very different to Earth’s.

“Absence of traces of ozone in future observations does not have to mean there is no oxygen at all,” said Carone in a statement. “It might be found in different places than on Earth, or it might be very well hidden.”

Earth’s ozone is predominantly produced at the equator where sun-driven chemical reactions occur high in the atmosphere. Atmospheric flows then transport chemicals like ozone toward the poles, giving our planet a global distribution. When carrying out simulations of tidally-locked worlds, however, Carone’s team found that atmospheric flows may operate in reverse, where atmospheric flows travel from the poles to the equator. Therefore, any ozone produced at the equator will become trapped there, greatly reducing our ability to detect it.

“In principle, an exoplanet with an ozone layer that covers only the equatorial region may still be habitable,” added Carone. “Proxima b and TRAPPIST-1d orbit red dwarfs, reddish stars that emit very little harmful UV light to begin with. On the other hand, these stars can be very temperamental, and prone to violent outbursts of harmful radiation including UV.”

So the upshot is, until we have observatories powerful enough to study these hypothetical exoplanetary atmospheres — such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) or the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) — we won’t know. But modelling the hypothetical atmospheres of these very alien worlds will help us understand what we will, or won’t, see in the not-so-distant future.

“We all knew from the beginning that the hunt for alien life will be a challenge,” said Carone. “As it turns out, we are only just scratching the surface of how difficult it really will be.”

Sorry, Proxima Centauri Is Probably a Hellhole, Too

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The surface of Proxima b as imagined in this artist’s impression. Sadly, the reality probably doesn’t include an atmosphere (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

The funny thing about habitable zones is that they’re not necessarily habitable. In fact, depending on the star, some of them are likely downright horrible.

Take, for example, the “habitable zone exoplanet” orbiting our neighboring star Proxima Centauri. When the discovery of Proxima b was announced last year, the world erupted with excitement. After all, astronomers had detected an Earth-sized world right on our galactic doorstep, a mere four light-years away.

Immediately there was discussion about Proxima b’s habitable potential (could there be aliens?) and the possibility of the world becoming an interstellar target (might we one day go there on vacation?).

Alas, for the moment, these exo-dreams are pure fantasy as the only things we know about this world are its mass and its orbital period around the star. We have no clue about the composition of this exoplanet’s atmosphere — or even if it has an atmosphere at all. And, according to new research published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Proxima b would probably be a very unlikely place to find extraterrestrial life and you’d be ill advised to invest in a vacation home there.

Like TRAPPIST-1 — that other star system that contains “habitable, but probably not so habitable” exoplanets — Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star. By their nature, red dwarfs are small and cooler than our sun. Their habitable zones are therefore very compact; to receive enough heating energy to keep water in a liquid state on their surfaces, any “habitable” red dwarf exoplanets would need to snuggle up really close to their star. Liquid water (as we all know) is essential for life. So, if you want to find life as we know it (not that weird Titan life), studying habitable zone planets would be a good place to start. And as red dwarfs are abundant in our galaxy, seeking out habitable zone planets in red dwarf star systems would, at first, seem like an even better place to start.

Except, probably not.

Red dwarfs are angry. They erupt with powerful flares, have powerful stellar winds and their habitable zones are awash with intense ultraviolet radiation. And, like TRAPPIST-1, Proxima Centauri probably wouldn’t be a great place to live.

But the researchers decided to test this hypothesis by throwing Earth in at the deep end.

“We decided to take the only habitable planet we know of so far — Earth — and put it where Proxima b is,” said Katherine Garcia-Sage, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and lead author of the study.

The big advantage for Earth is that it possesses a powerful global magnetic field that can deflect our sun’s solar wind and coronal mass ejections with a minimum of effort. But put Earth in a habitable zone orbit around Proxima Centauri and bad stuff starts to happen, fast.

At this location, the intensity of extreme ultraviolet radiation becomes a problem. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the researchers could gauge the star’s activity and how much radiation would hit Proxima b. According to their calculations, the exoplanet receives hundreds of times more extreme ultraviolet radiation than Earth receives from our sun and, even if we assume Proxima b has an “Earth-like” magnetosphere, it will lose its atmosphere very quickly.

As ultraviolet radiation will ionize the exoplanet’s atmosphere, electrons (that are negatively charged) will be readily stripped from light atoms (hydrogen) and eventually the heavier atoms too (like oxygen and nitrogen). As the electrons are lost to space, a powerful “charge separation” is created and the positively charged ions that are left behind in the atmosphere will be dragged with the electrons, causing them to also be lost to space. Granted, the global magnetic field will have an effect on the rate of atmosphere loss, but the researchers estimate that this process will drain an atmosphere from Proxima b 10,000 times faster than what happens on Earth.

“This was a simple calculation based on average activity from the host star,” added Garcia-Sage. “It doesn’t consider variations like extreme heating in the star’s atmosphere or violent stellar disturbances to the exoplanet’s magnetic field — things we’d expect provide even more ionizing radiation and atmospheric escape.”

In the worst-case scenario, where the outer atmospheric temperatures are highest and the planet exhibits an “open” field line configuration, Proxima b would lose the equivalent of the whole of Earth’s atmosphere in just 100 million years. If the atmospheric temperatures are cool and a “closed” magnetic field line configuration is assumed, it will take 2 billion years for the atmosphere to be completely lost to space. Either way you look at it, unless the atmosphere is being continuously replaced (perhaps by very active volcanism), Proxima b will have very little chance to see life evolve.

“Things can get interesting if an exoplanet holds on to its atmosphere, but Proxima b’s atmospheric loss rates here are so high that habitability is implausible,” said Jeremy Drake, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and study co-author. “This questions the habitability of planets around such red dwarfs in general.”

TRAPPIST-1: The ‘Habitable’ Star System That’s Probably a Hellhole

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Red dwarfs can be angry little stars (NASA/GSFC/S. Wiessinger)

There are few places that elicit such vivid thoughts of exotic habitable exoplanets than TRAPPIST-1 — a star system located less than 40 light-years from Earth. Alas, according to two recent studies, the planetary system surrounding the tiny red dwarf star may actually be horrible.

For anyone who knows a thing or two about red dwarfs, this may not come as a surprise. Although they are much smaller than our sun, red dwarfs can pack a powerful space weather punch for any world that orbits too close. And, by their nature, any habitable zone surrounding a red dwarf would have to be really compact, a small detail that would bury any “habitable” exoplanet in a terrible onslaught of ultraviolet radiation and a blowtorch of stellar winds. These factors would make the space weather environment around TRAPPIST-1 extreme to say the least.

“The concept of a habitable zone is based on planets being in orbits where liquid water could exist,” said Manasvi Lingam, a Harvard University researcher who led a Center for Astrophysics (CfA) study, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology. “This is only one factor, however, in determining whether a planet is hospitable for life.”

The habitable zone around any star is the distance at which a small rocky world can orbit and receive just the right amount of heating to maintain liquid water on its hypothetical surface. Orbit too close and the water vaporizes; too far and it freezes. As life needs liquid water to evolve, seeking out exoplanets in their star’s habitable zone is a good place to start.

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The peaceful surface of a TRAPPIST-1 habitable zone exoplanet as imagined in this artist’s rendering (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

For the sun-Earth system, we live in the middle of the habitable zone, at a distance of one astronomical unit (1 AU). For a world orbiting a red dwarf like TRAPPIST-1, its orbital distance would be a fraction of that — i.e. three worlds orbit TRAPPIST-1 in the star’s habitable zone at between 2.8% and 4.5% the distance the Earth orbits the sun. This is because red dwarfs are very dim and produce meager heating — for a world to receive the same degree of heating that our planet enjoys, a red dwarf world would need to snuggle up really close to its star.

But just because TRAPPIST-1 is dim, it doesn’t mean it holds back on ultraviolet radiation. And, according to this study, the three “habitable” exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are likely anything but — they would receive disproportionate quantities of damaging ultraviolet radiation.

“Because of the onslaught by the star’s radiation, our results suggest the atmosphere on planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system would largely be destroyed,” said co-author Avi Loeb, who also works at Harvard. “This would hurt the chances of life forming or persisting.”

Life as we know it needs an atmosphere, so the erosion by UV radiation seems like a significant downer for the possible evolution of complex life.

That’s not the only bad news for our extraterrestrial life dreams around TRAPPIST-1, however. Another study carried out by the CfA and the University of Massachusetts in Lowell (and published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters) found more problems. Like the sun, TRAPPIST-1 generates stellar winds that blast energetic particles into space. As these worlds orbit the star so close, they would be sitting right next to the proverbial nozzle of a stellar blowtorch — models suggest they experience 1,000 to 100,000 times stellar wind pressure than the solar wind exerts on Earth.

And, again, that’s not good news if a planet wants to hold onto its atmosphere.

“The Earth’s magnetic field acts like a shield against the potentially damaging effects of the solar wind,” said Cecilia Garraffo of the CfA and study lead. “If Earth were much closer to the sun and subjected to the onslaught of particles like the TRAPPIST-1 star delivers, our planetary shield would fail pretty quickly.”

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The TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet family. TRAPPIST-1 e, f and g are located in the system’s habitable zone (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

So it looks like TRAPPIST-1 e, f and g really take a pounding from their angry little star, but the researchers point out that it doesn’t mean we should forget red dwarfs as potential life-giving places. It’s just that life would have many more challenges to endure than we do on our comparatively peaceful place in the galaxy.

“We’re definitely not saying people should give up searching for life around red dwarf stars,” said co-author Jeremy Drake, also from CfA. “But our work and the work of our colleagues shows we should also target as many stars as possible that are more like the sun.”

Two Exoplanets Are Whipping-Up a Pretty Protoplanetary Gas Spiral

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ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Tang et al.

Using the awesome power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, astronomers have probed the protoplanetary disk of a young star system — with a twist.

ALMA is no stranger to protoplanetary disks; the array of 66 radio antennae in the Atacama desert is extremely sensitive to the emissions from the gas and dust surrounding stars. But this observation has revealed something more — there are two obvious dusty rings (orange) that are being sculpted by the presence of massive worlds, but between them (in blue) is a spiral gas structure. If there’s one thing I love it’s space spirals!

When comparing these observations with theoretical modeling of the system — called AB Aurigae, located about 470 light-years away — for that gas spiral to exist, there must be some interplanetary interplay between two exoplanets orbiting the star at 30 and 80 AU (astronomical units, where 1 AU is the average distance that Earth orbits the sun). The spiral is following the direction of rotation of the disk.

Besides looking really pretty, studies of these spiral structures help astronomers identify the presence of exoplanets and build a better understanding of the nature of protoplanetary disks.

Exoplanets Are Sacrificing Moons to Their White Dwarf Overlords

An artist’s impression of a planet, comet and debris field surrounding a white dwarf star (NASA/ESA)

As if paying tribute, exoplanets orbiting white dwarfs appear to be throwing their exomoons into hot atmospheres of these stellar husks.

This fascinating conclusion comes from a recent study into white dwarf stars that appear to have atmospheres that are “polluted” with rocky debris.

A white dwarf forms after a sun-like star runs out of hydrogen fuel and starts to burn heavier and heavier elements in its core. When this happens, the star bloats into a red giant, beginning the end of its main sequence life. After the red giant phase, and the star’s outer layers have been violently ripped away by powerful stellar winds, a small bright mass of degenerate matter (the white dwarf) and a wispy planetary nebula are left behind.

But what of the planetary system that used to orbit the star? Well, assuming they weren’t so close to the dying star that they were completely incinerated, any exoplanets remaining in orbit around a white dwarf have an uncertain future. Models predict that dynamical chaos will ensue and gravitational instabilities will be the norm. Exoplanets will shift in their orbits, some might even be flung clear of the star system all together. One thing is for sure, however, the tidal shear created by the compact white dwarf will be extreme, and should anything stray too close, it will be ripped to shreds. Asteroids will be pulverized, comets will fall and even planets will crumble.

Stray too close to a white dwarf and tidal shear will rip you to shreds (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Now, in a science update based on research published late last year in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) have completed a series of simulations of white dwarf systems in an attempt to better understand where the “pollution” in these tiny stars’ atmospheres comes from.

To explain the quantities observed, the researchers think that not only is it debris from asteroids and comets, but the gravitational instabilities that throw the system into chaos are booting any moons — so-called exomoons — out of their orbits around exoplanets, causing them to careen into the white dwarfs.

The simulations also suggest that as the moons meander around the inner star system and fall toward the star, their gravities scramble to orbits of more asteroids and comets, boosting the around of material falling into the star’s atmosphere.

So there you have it, planets, should your star turn into a white dwarf (as our sun will in a few billion years), keep your moons close — your new stellar overlord will be asking for a sacrifice in no time.

About Those ‘Habitable’ Exoplanets (RT America Interview)

On Monday, I appeared on RT America’s live news broadcast to talk exoplanets — particularly the three small (possibly rocky) worlds that orbit the stars Kepler-62 and Kepler-69. It was a lot of fun discussing ‘Goldilocks Zones’ and the possibilities of extraterrestrials. Enjoy!

Discovery News coverage of Kepler-62:

Exoplanet Count Tops 700

An artist's impression of a lone exoplanet transiting its parent star. There are now 700 confirmed alien worlds orbiting other stars (ESO)
An artist's impression of a lone exoplanet transiting its parent star. There are now 700 confirmed alien worlds orbiting other stars (ESO)

On Friday, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia registered more than 700 confirmed exoplanets. Although this is an amazing milestone, it won’t be long until the “first thousand” are confirmed.

There are now more than 700 confirmed exoplanets in the database. The latest addition is the planet HD 100655 b.
— announced via the Exoplanet iPhone app

Only two months ago, the encyclopedia — administered by astrobiologist Jean Schneider of the Paris-Meudon Observatory — registered 600 confirmed alien worlds. Since then, there has been a slew of announcements including the addition of a batch of 50 exoplanets by the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (or HARPS) in September.

The first exoplanet was discovered orbiting a Main Sequence star in 1995, and the rate of exoplanet detections has been accelerating ever since.

It is worth noting that hundreds more candidate exoplanet detections have been made, many of which have been spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Kepler is staring at the same patch of sky, waiting for alien worlds to cross the line of sight between their parent star and Earth, registering a slight dip in starlight brightness. The 1,235 candidates will be confirmed (or denied) as Kepler awaits future transits.

Detecting the slight dimming of starlight isn’t the only tool exoplanet hunters have to spot these alien worlds. The “radial velocity” method — as employed by systems such as the ESO’s HARPS — can detect the slight “wobble” of stars as orbiting worlds gravitationally “tug” on their parent stars. Both methods have their advantages and both are notching up an impressive exoplanet count. “Microlensing” has also been employed to spot a handful of exoplanets, as has direct imaging.

Exoplanetary studies are amongst the most exciting astronomical projects out there. Not only are we realizing there is a veritable zoo of worlds — some Earth-sized, others many times the mass of Jupiter — we are also pondering the most profound question: could extraterrestrial life inhabit these worlds?

For now, we have no clue, but life as we know it has a habit of springing up where we least expect it, it’s only a matter of time before we start to have some clue as to the existence of life as we don’t know it.

When an Astrophysicist Needs a Star Map

Stars of the Northern Hemisphere, Ashland Astronomy Studio
Stars of the Northern Hemisphere, Ashland Astronomy Studio

Imagine the scene: I’m having a romantic walk on a clear night with my wife along the beach. We see a brief flash of light and Deb says, “Hey, a meteor!” I then proceed to tell her that most meteors are actually no bigger than a grain of sand and they originate from comets, even though she already knew that. Feeling quite chuffed with myself that I was able to describe a nugget of atmospheric dynamics in 2 minutes, Deb then points up again and says, “There’s Orion. What constellation is that one?”

“Um. I have no idea,” I reply, feeling less smug. “I know how those things work, but I don’t know what they look like.”

I don’t own a telescope (yet) and I only took one course in university on practical astronomy, everything else was astrophysics. So the sad thing is that I know how stars work — from the nuclear fusion in their core to coronal dynamics (the latter of which I did my PhD in) — but if anyone asked me to point out a constellation or the location of a star… I wouldn’t have a clue.

Sure, there are the old favorites, like Orion, the Big Dipper (or Plough) and bright Polaris, but my expertise in night sky viewing is pretty limited. Although I’d usually refer any astronomy-related questions to BBC astronomy presenter (and Discovery News writer) Mark Thompson, I’d love to learn more. So, firstly, I needed a star chart.

Luckily, a few weeks ago, I received a random email from Erik Anderson from Ashland Astronomy Studio asking whether I’d like a copy of his company’s new star map poster. Being eager to boost my pitiful knowledge of the constellations, I jumped at the chance. Soon after, my poster arrived through the post.

Now this is where things got really cool. Although Erik had titled his email to me “Star Map with Exoplanet Hosts,” I’d forgotten about the “exoplanet” part. On the clear, yet detailed Ashland star map, all the major constellations and stars are plotted, along with the time of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) they can be seen. But also, there’s a symbol representing the hundreds of stars that are known to have exoplanetary systems orbiting.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been referring to my newly-framed star map, and can now confidently point into the sky, not only identifying the constellations but also some stars that possess exoplanets. Only last night, I pointed up in the general vicinity of the star 61 Virginis (near the blue giant Spica) and said, “That star has 3 worlds orbiting it.”

I’m not sure if Deb was overly impressed with my exoplanet knowledge, but I was happy to be smug again.

Although it’s only a very small part of an astronomer’s tool kit, a star map is essential. Although you can get apps for your iPhone, you can’t beat a poster that isn’t only functional, but also looks very attractive on your office wall.

The very cool Ashland Astronomy Studio Star Map can be purchased from Amazon.

Screaming Exoplanets: Detecting Alien Magnetospheres

Exoplanets may reveal their location through radio emissions (NASA)
Exoplanets may reveal their location through radio emissions (NASA)

In 2009, I wrote about a fascinating idea: in the hunt for “Earth-like” exoplanets, perhaps we could detect the radio emissions from a distant world possessing a magnetosphere. This basically builds on the premise that planets in the solar system, including Earth, generate electromagnetic waves as space plasma interacts with their magnetospheres. In short, with the right equipment, could we “hear” the aurorae on extra-solar planets?

In the research I reviewed, the US Naval Research Laboratory scientist concluded that he believed it was possible, but the radio telescopes we have in operation aren’t sensitive enough to detect the crackle of distant aurorae. According to a new study presented at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales, on Monday, this feat may soon become a reality, not for “Earth-like” worlds but for “Jupiter-like” worlds.

“This is the first study to predict the radio emissions by exoplanetary systems similar to those we find at Jupiter or Saturn,” said Jonathan Nichols of the University of Leicester. “At both planets, we see radio waves associated with auroras generated by interactions with ionised gas escaping from the volcanic moons, Io and Enceladus. Our study shows that we could detect emissions from radio auroras from Jupiter-like systems orbiting at distances as far out as Pluto.”

Rather than looking for the magnetospheres of Earth-like worlds — thereby finding exoplanets that have a protective magnetosphere that could nurture alien life — Nichols is focusing on larger, Jupiter-like worlds that orbit their host stars from a distance. This is basically another tool in the exoplanet-hunters’ toolbox.

Over 500 exoplanets have been confirmed to exist around other stars, and another 1,200 plus exoplanetary candidates have been cataloged by the Kepler Space Telescope. The majority of the confirmed exoplanets were spotted using the “transit method” (when the exoplanet passes in front of its host star, thereby dimming its light for astronomers to detect) and the “wobble method” (when the exoplanet gravitationally tugs on its parent star, creating a very slight shift in the star’s position for astronomers to detect), but only exoplanets with short orbital periods have been spotted so far.

The more distant the exoplanet from its host star, the longer its orbital period. To get a positive detection, it’s easy to spot an exoplanet with an orbital period of days, weeks, months, or a couple of years, but what of the exoplanets with orbits similar to Jupiter (12 years), Saturn (30 years) or even Pluto (248 years!)? If we are looking for exoplanets with extreme orbits like Pluto’s, it would be several generations-worth of observations before we’d even get a hint that a world lives there.

“Jupiter and Saturn take 12 and 30 years respectively to orbit the Sun, so you would have to be incredibly lucky or look for a very long time to spot them by a transit or a wobble,” said Nichols.

By assessing how the radio emissions for a Jupiter-like exoplanet respond to its rotation rate, the quantity of material falling into the gas giant from an orbiting moon (akin Enceladus’ plumes of water ice and dust being channeled onto the gas giant) and the exoplanet’s orbital distance, Nichols has been able to identify the characteristics of a possible target star. The hypothetical, “aurora-active” exoplanet would be located between 1 to 50 AU from an ultraviolet-bright star and it would need to have a fast spin for the resulting magnetospheric activity to be detectable at a distance of 150 light-years from Earth.

What’s more, the brand new LOw Frequency ARray (LOFAR) radio telescope should be sensitive enough to detect aurorae on Jupiter-like exoplanets, even though the exoplanets themselves are invisible to other detection methods. Nice.

As we’re talking about exoplanets, magnetospheres and listening for radio signals, let’s throw in some alien-hunting for good measure: “In our Solar System, we have a stable system with outer gas giants and inner terrestrial planets, like Earth, where life has been able to evolve. Being able to detect Jupiter-like planets may help us find planetary systems like our own, with other planets that are capable of supporting life,” Nichols added.

Although Nichols isn’t talking about directly detecting habitable alien worlds (just that the detection of Jupiter-like exoplanets could reveal Solar System-like star systems), I think back to the 2009 research that discusses the direct detection of habitable worlds using this method: Aliens, if you’re out there, you can be as quiet as you like (to avoid predators), but the screaming radio emissions from your habitable planet’s magnetosphere will give away your location…

Earth is no Longer ‘One of a Kind’

For this special little planet, today has been a very big day.

Although we’ve speculated that planets the size of Earth must exist elsewhere in the cosmos, it wasn’t until one of the co-investigators working with the Kepler Space Telescope said he had statistical evidence that worlds of the approximate size of Earth appear to dominate our Milky Way.

We now know Earth isn’t unique.

Alas, this historic news didn’t come without controversy. It was unofficially broken at a TED conference in Oxford earlier this month and only after a recording of a presentation given by Dimitar Sasselov was posted online did the news get out. What’s more, the announcement only became clear when Sasselov referred to a presentation slide depicting a bar chart with the different sizes of exoplanets discovered by Kepler:

A slide from Dimitar Sasselov's TED presentation.

This slide shows the number of exoplanets discovered up until this month, binned by size. We have Jupiter-like exoplanets, Saturn-like exoplanets and Neptune-like exoplanets, all compared with Earth’s radius.

The heart-stopping moment comes when looking at the bar that represents Earth-like exoplanets (i.e. worlds with a radius of below 2 Earth radii, or “<2 Re"). According to Sasselov, Kepler has detected a lot of Earth-like worlds, so many in fact that they dominate the picture. From what we have here, it would appear that around 140 exoplanets are considered to be like Earth.

“The statistical result is loud and clear,” said Sasselov. “And the statistical result is that planets like our own Earth are out there. Our Milky Way galaxy is rich in these kinds of planets.”

But why the controversy? Isn’t this good news?

It would appear that the Kepler co-investigator chose not to wait until the official press release from NASA. He publicized these groundbreaking results in the U.K. at an event where you had to buy tickets to attend. This isn’t usually the stage you’d expect this kind of discovery to be announced — a move that will undoubtedly upset many.

“What is really annoying is that the Kepler folks were complaining about releasing information since they wanted more time to analyze it before making any announcements,” Keith Cowing, of NASAWatch.com, wrote in a SpaceRef article today. “And then the project’s Co-I goes off and spills the beans before an exclusive audience – offshore. We only find out about it when the video gets quietly posted weeks later.”

This sentiment is understandable. Only last month there was some frustration vented at the Kepler team for holding back data on 400 exoplanet candidates. While this might be standard practice — the discovering team should be allowed some time to publish work on any discoveries they have uncovered — telling the world’s scientists they will have to wait until February 2011 before they can get their hands on this invaluable data was a bridge too far.

In light of this, for a Kepler scientist to then jump the gun and disclose a groundbreaking discovery at an international conference without the backing of an official NASA release seems a little hypocritical.

But there is another argument to put out there: Why should anyone sit on such a profound discovery? Perhaps NASA and the Kepler team should have issued an earlier press release announcing to the world that 140 candidate Earth-like worlds have been detected and that further work will need to be done to confirm.

Ultimately, this controversy is just background noise when compared to what we have learned today. Official confirmation or not, Dimitar Sasselov’s message is clear. Although these detections need to be confirmed (hence why these worlds are referred to as “candidates”), it would appear there is an overwhelming preponderance of exoplanets measuring 2 Earth radii or less.

For me, that fact alone is astonishing — the first scientific evidence that worlds of Earth dimensions are not rare.

Earth is no longer unique.

For more, read my Discovery News article, “Kepler Scientist: ‘Galaxy is Rich in Earth-Like Planets‘”