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MarCO: Taking CubeSat Technologies Interplanetary

The image below intrigues me. It’s the first image of the Earth and the Moon together taken from a CubeSat, one of a pair of such tiny spacecraft NASA has despatched to Mars as part of a mission called MarCO (Mars Cube One), which will work in conjunction with the InSight lander. Taken on May 9, the photo was part of the process of testing the CubeSat’s high-gain antenna. But to me it’s a reminder of how far miniaturized technologies continue to advance.

Image: The first image captured by one of NASA’s Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats. The image, which shows both the CubeSat’s unfolded high-gain antenna at right and the Earth and its moon in the center, was acquired by MarCO-B on May 9. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

As of this morning, we are 66 days away from InSight’s landing on Mars, at a distance of 65 million kilometers from Earth and 16 million kilometers to Mars. I don’t usually focus on Mars and lunar missions because this site’s specialty is deep space, which for our purposes means Jupiter and beyond, and of course the overall theme here is interstellar. But experimental technologies that bring us greater performance from very small payloads are certainly relevant.

Anything we can do to shrink payload size pays off as we look at ever more distant targets, and the cruise velocities and propellant needed to reach them. And CubeSats are a way of exploring small payloads. The standard 10×10×11 cm basic CubeSat is a ‘one unit’ (1U) CubeSat, but larger platforms of 6U and 12U allow more complex missions. With fixed satellite body dimensions, the CubeSat format creates a highly modular and integrated system.

What we have with the two MarCO spacecraft is the application of what had been a low-Earth orbit satellite technology to a planetary mission, with a useful goal. Trailing InSight by thousands of kilometers, they’ve already demonstrated their ability to operate in the interplanetary environment. At Mars, the intention is for them to relay data on InSight’s landing, a job consigned to Mars orbiters, but one this mission may show CubeSats are able to perform.

Image: Illustration of one of the twin MarCO spacecraft with some key components labeled. Front cover is left out to show some internal components. Antennas and solar arrays are in deployed configuration. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Each of the MarCOs has its own high-gain antenna and the necessary radio equipment for data relay, with propulsion systems that have already made two steering maneuvers enroute. No one would claim the diminutive space travelers are as complex as conventional interplanetary craft, but I can see two goals here, the first of which leverages the ‘traditional’ CubeSat role of acting as low-cost entry-level ways to reach orbit.

“Our hope is that MarCO could help democratize deep space,” said Jakob Van Zyl, director of the Solar System Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The technology is cheap enough that you could envision countries entering space that weren’t players in the past. Even universities could do this.”

Fair enough, as we’ve learned how satellites can be ‘piggybacked’ to open up access to space, lowering launch costs even as the cost of the CubeSats offers opportunities for inexpensive missions. Moreover, the fact that CubeSats can be built with standardized parts and systems, with key components provided by commercial partners, underscores their efficiency.

But let’s move beyond today’s current CubeSat. If we can build these craft strong enough to handle relay operations from Mars, we can contemplate future CubeSats capable of a wider range of science return and consider propulsion technologies like solar sails for ‘swarm’ missions to targets beyond Mars. Of particular interest is coupling CubeSats with solar sails for propulsion. Remember, for example, The Planetary Society’s LightSail-1, launched in 2015, which demonstrated sail deployment despite a series of major software glitches.

LightSail-2 is designed to demonstrate controlled solar sailing in the CubeSat format, with a sail of 32 square meters. A key goal of this mission is to raise the orbit apogee after sail deployment at 720 kilometers. I should also mention LightSail-3, which could take this technology out to the L1 Lagrangian point, where it would remain to monitor geomagnetic activity on the Sun.

NASA’s own future plans for CubeSat work take in BioSentinel, which would take living yeast (S. cerevisiae) into space to study DNA lesions caused by energetic particles, with operations expected to last 18 months at distances well beyond low Earth orbit. The NEA (Near-Earth Asteroid) Scout mission would take a CubeSat/sail to a small asteroid, exploring its rotational properties, spectral class, regional morphology and regolith, while Lunar Flashlight would achieve lunar orbit to study ice deposits on the Moon for the use of future explorers.

Image: Engineer Joel Steinkraus uses sunlight to test the solar arrays on one of the Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

I might likewise mention such European Space Agency efforts as GOMX-3, a CubeSat mission exploring the telecommunications capabilities of such craft. GOMX-3 was deployed from the International Space Station in October of 2015 and operated for a year before re-entering the atmosphere.

The list of upcoming missions under ESA’s In-Orbit Demonstration is extensive (you can see it here), and it’s noteworthy that the agency inserts at the top of its list of potential applications the fact that CubeSats can serve “As a driver for drastic miniaturisation of systems, ‘systems-on-chips’, and totally new approach to packaging and integration, multi-functional structures, embedded propulsion.”

So we can keep an eye on the MarCOs as a harbinger of CubeSat operations to come. All three of the future NASA CubeSat missions I’ve mentioned are designed to be launched as secondary payloads on a future Space Launch System (SLS) mission. But however we get such missions into space, they point toward further exploration of small payloads, a parameter space Breakthrough Starshot is pushing to the max in its plans for a centimeter-sized, gram-scale payload to be driven by laser propulsion at 20 percent of lightspeed to another star.



Ceres: Of Ice and Volcanoes

We’ve only orbited one object in the Solar System known to exhibit cryovolcanism, but Ceres has a lot to teach us about the subject. Unlike the lava-spewing volcanoes of Earth, an ice volcano can erupt with ammonia, water or methane in liquid or vapor form. What appear to be cryovolcanoes can be found not only on Ceres but Titan, and the phenomenon appears likely on Pluto and Charon. Neptune’s moon Triton is a special case, with rugged volcanic terrain in evidence, as opposed to much smoother surfaces without obvious volcanoes elsewhere.

Activity like this can be a good deal less dramatic than what we see on Earth, or spectacularly on Io. The eruption of an ice volcano involves rocks, ice and volatiles more or less oozing up out of the volcano to freeze on the surface, a process thought to be widespread on Ceres. But what happens to cryovolcanoes as they age? Ahuna Mons, an almost five-kilometer tall mountain that is no more than 200 million years old, raises the question. Why is it so tall, and why, assuming other cryovolcanic activity on this surface, are there no other mountains this imposing?

Image: Ceres’ unusual mountain Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. On its steepest side, this mountain is about 5 kilometers high. Its average overall height is 4 kilometers. The diameter of the mountain is about 20 kilometers. Dawn took these images from its low-altitude mapping orbit in December 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/Dawn mission.

Tackling the question of cryovolcano evolution is Michael Sori (University of Arizona), working with colleagues at UA and elsewhere to advance a theory they call ‘viscous relaxation.’ The idea here is that the rock and ice making up Ceres can flow in much the way that glaciers flow on Earth, with the ice/rock balance affecting the flow rate. Also a key factor: The temperature, which on Ceres never warms higher than -35 degrees Celsius. A cryovolcano at the poles, in other words, would ‘relax’ at a much slower rate than a warmer mountain at the equator.

Image: Each curve represents a cryovolcano of a different age and shows that mountains at low latitudes close to the equator flatten out at younger ages than mountains located at high latitudes at the poles, where they will maintain their height and width for eons. Credit: Michael Sori.

The youthful Ahuna Mons would have been active in the geologically recent past. In a paper published in 2017, Sori’s team used numerical models to predict the flow velocity of the cryovolcano, which they derive as 10-500 meters per million years given the variables of ice content, rheology (the deformation and flow of matter), grain size, and temperature. Flows at the slow end of this range can relax a cryovolcanic structure over 108 to 109 years, a rate sufficient to allow Ahuna Mons to remain identifiable today.

Older cryovolcanoes, having gone lengthier periods of relaxation, become shorter, wider and more rounded with the passage of time. The trick is to identify ancient cryovolcanic structures on today’s surface. In a paper just released in Nature Astronomy, the scientists used their computer simulations as the context in which to scan Dawn data on Ceres’ topography.

22 surface features matched the simulation’s predictions, including Yamor Mons, an old polar mountain five times wider than it is tall. Mountains elsewhere on the surface of the dwarf planet have lower aspect ratios; that is, they are much wider than they are tall. Sori’s team was able to use the simulation/data match to estimate the age of many volcanoes and their volume.

Viscous relaxation as modeled here allows the researchers to derive the rate at which cryovolcanoes form, which turns out to be one every 50 million years. Ceres shows signs of cryovolcanism throughout its history, making the process an important factor in its geological evolution, though less so than the kind of volcanism found on terrestrial planets. Depending on latitude, modeled volcanoes begin tall and steep, but grow short and wide over time.

This passage from the 2017 paper summarizes the process of cryovolcano evolution. Note the acronym FEM, standing for ‘finite element method,’ a reference to software code originally developed for the study of the movement of ice on Earth and used in these simulations

Viscous flow of topography is a modification mechanism that can describe the presence of a single, young, prominent cryovolcano (Ahuna Mons). Flow velocities are fast enough to heavily modify structures on timescales of tens to hundreds of million years, shallowing their topographic relief and providing an explanation for why Dawn observations have not yet identified a plethora of cryovolcanoes. Flow velocities are not so fast that the observed near-pristine state of Ahuna Mons becomes problematic. Domes must be more compositionally ice rich than the average Cerean crust to flow, which is a reasonable property for a cryovolcanic construct. Our hypothesis works with any volumetric fraction of ice > ~40%, but we favor the lower end of this range because past studies do not favor a pure-ice composition for Ahuna Mons. Cerean cryovolcanism involving cryomagma that is approximately half water by volume fits both Dawn observations and our FEM models.

Image: A topographic map of Ceres (top), with the dark red representing the highest elevations and dark blue being the lowest. The topography of Ahuna Mons is shown on the bottom left, and Yamor Mons is shown on the bottom right. The bottom center image shows the topography of an ancient cryovolocano located north of Ceres’s equator. Credit: Michael Sori.

Cryovolcanoes aren’t dramatic. We substitute an ooze of cryomagma, a mixture of rock, salty ice and volatiles, for explosive eruptions. Freezing on the surface, the cryomagma eventually rises into peaks like Ahuna Mons before the inevitable relaxation as geological ages pass. How and why the cryovolcanic activity occurs just where it does is a question for future research, and one that may be illuminated by studies of the ice volcanoes elsewhere in the Solar System.

The paper is Sori et al., “Cryovolcanic rates on Ceres revealed by topography,” Nature Astronomy 17 September 2018 (abstract). The earlier paper is Sori et al., “The vanishing cryovolcanoes of Ceres,” Geophysical Research Letters Vol. 44, Issue 3 (16 February 2017) 1243-1250 (abstract).



Looking Back at Titan

There are two senses in which we are ‘looking back’ at Titan in today’s post. On the one hand, the New Horizons spacecraft has already taken sensors well beyond Pluto in preparation for the encounter with MU69. From its perspective, anything in the Solar System inside the Kuiper Belt is well behind. What with our Pioneers, Voyagers and now New Horizons, the human perspective has widened that far.

But we’re also looking back in terms of time when we revisit the Cassini mission and what it had to tell us about Saturn’s moons. Below is the final view the spacecraft had of Titan’s lakes and seas, a view of the north polar terrain showing the abundance of liquid methane and ethane. The view was acquired on September 11, 2017, a mere four days before Cassini was sent to its fiery end in Saturn’s atmosphere as a way of avoiding any potential future contamination.

Image: This view of Titan’s northern polar landscape was obtained at a distance of approximately 140,000 kilometers (87,000 miles) from Titan. Image scale is about 800 meters (0.5 miles) per pixel. The image is an orthographic projection centered on 67.19 degrees north latitude, 212.67 degrees west longitude. An orthographic view is most like the view seen by a distant observer looking through a telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Just above the center of this mosaic is Punga Mare, 390 kilometers (240 miles) across, with Ligeia Mare (500 kilometers, or 300 miles wide) below center. The large body of methane/ethane at left is Kraken Mare, some 1200 kilometers across (730 miles). Note the scattering of small lakes around the seas, especially at the right side of the mosaic.

Also interesting is the small amount of cloud cover, though a few do appear just below center in the image, as well as several above Ligeia Mare. We would expect clouds, since Titan’s methane cycle involves rainfall, surface runoff, collected methane in large bodies like these, and evaporation, much like Earth’s water cycle. And in fact, cloud activity was found during southern summer over the south pole. But here we’re in northern spring and summer, with few clouds.

“We expected more symmetry between the southern and northern summer,” said Elizabeth (“Zibi”) Turtle of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and the Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) team that captured the image. “In fact, atmospheric models predicted summer clouds over the northern latitudes several years ago. So, the fact that they still hadn’t appeared before the end of the mission is telling us something interesting about Titan’s methane cycle and weather.”

Remember that among the many things Cassini found on Titan are two different kinds of methane/ethane-filled depressions that create the features we see in this mosaic. Some are responsible for the collection of the large seas, which are not only hundreds of kilometers across but evidently several hundred meters deep, all fed by branching channels like rivers on Earth. The much smaller lakes show terrain with steep walls and rounded edges. They do not appear to be associated with incoming channels, meaning they are filled by rainfall or by upwelling from below, and it’s known that some of them fill and dry out during Titan’s seasonal cycle.

Image: An earlier, colorized mosaic from NASA’s Cassini mission shows Titan’s northern land of lakes and seas. Here the data were obtained from 2004 to 2013. In this projection, the north pole is at the center. The view extends down to 50 degrees north latitude. In this color scheme, liquids appear blue and black depending on the way the radar bounced off the surface. Land areas appear yellow to white. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

In a 2015 study, Thomas Cornet (European Space Agency) and colleagues went to work on Titan’s lakes, noting that they are reminiscent of ‘karstic’ landforms on Earth. On our planet, these result from erosion due to groundwater and rainfall affecting dissolvable rock such as limestone and gypsum, creating both caves and sinkholes or, in desert climates, salt pans.

Cornet’s team worked out how long it would take to create features like this on Titan, assuming a surface covered in organic material, with the main dissolving agent being liquid hydrocarbons operating in a climate based on current models. The result: 50 million years to create a 100-meter (330 ft) depression in the polar regions. Says Cornet:

“We compared the erosion rates of organics in liquid hydrocarbons on Titan with those of carbonate and evaporite minerals in liquid water on Earth. We found that the dissolution process occurs on Titan some 30 times slower than on Earth due to the longer length of Titan’s year and the fact it only rains during Titan summer. Nonetheless, we believe that dissolution is a major cause of landscape evolution on Titan and could be the origin of its lakes.”

Thus we find a process of erosion dependent on rock chemistry, rainfall rate and surface temperature that has similarities with what we see on Earth on what Cornet calls a “relatively youthful billion-year-old surface,” a comparatively slow surface transformation that is even slower at lower latitudes, where the rainfall is less frequent. For more on this, see New Insights into Titan.

The Cornet paper on Titan’s surface features is “Dissolution on Titan and on Earth: Towards the age of Titan’s karstic landscapes,” Journal of Geophysical Research – Planets 25 April 2015 (full text).



TESS, Saint-Exupéry and the Sea

I like nautical metaphors as applied to the stars, my favorite being the words attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, French writer/aviator and author of poetic works about flight like Wind, Sand and Stars (1939), and a work familiar to most American students of French, Vol de nuit, published in English as Night Flight (1931). I think the Saint-Exupéry quote captures what it takes to contemplate far voyaging:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Image: Antoine de Saint-Exupery, whose work inspired, among many other things, my own decision to take up flying.

I had to track down the quote because the last time it appeared in these pages, a reader wrote to tell me he had never found it in Saint-Exupéry. I hadn’t either, which bothered me because I am a huge fan of the man’s work. It certainly sounded like him. So I did some digging and turned up a passage in Saint-Exupéry’s posthumously published Citadelle (1948) that comes close. The quote above is a much abbreviated paraphrase but does capture the spirit of the original (you’ll find a translation of the original at the end of this post).

Looking out over the ocean is much like looking out into the stars, triggering that same sense of immensity and, among some at least, the drive to explore. I get the same triggering effect by looking at images from spacecraft missions, like the views below from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which has now provided us with a ‘first light’ look at the southern sky.

Image: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) took this snapshot of the Large Magellanic Cloud (right) and the bright star R Doradus (left) with just a single detector of one of its cameras on Tuesday, Aug. 7. The frame is part of a swath of the southern sky TESS captured in its “first light” science image as part of its initial round of data collection. Credit: NASA/MIT/TESS.

So do images of the stars make us yearn for deep space as Saint-Exupéry’s passage makes us yearn for the sea? I suspect so, and it would explain how often we resort to the sea in describing the stars. This morning I can point to Paul Hertz, who is astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters, a man who likewise resorts to a maritime theme in describing what TESS will do:

“In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study. This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS’ cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth.”

That bounty should reveal numerous nearby targets for the investigation of the James Webb Space Telescope as well as later space- and ground-based instruments. The full four-camera image that is shown below was captured on August 7, and took in constellations from Capricornus to Pictor, and both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. This view of the southern sky includes more than a dozen stars already known to have transiting planets.

Image: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captured this strip of stars and galaxies in the southern sky during one 30-minute period on Tuesday, Aug. 7. Created by combining the view from all four of its cameras, this is TESS’ “first light,” from the first observing sector that will be used for identifying planets around other stars. Notable features in this swath of the southern sky include the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and a globular cluster called NGC 104, also known as 47 Tucanae. The brightest stars in the image, Beta Gruis and R Doradus, saturated an entire column of camera detector pixels on the satellite’s second and fourth cameras. Credits: NASA/MIT/TESS.

Whereas the Kepler mission ‘stared’ at a single field of stars at distances up to 3,000 light years, TESS puts the same transit detection strategy to work on much closer targets, 30 to 300 light years away, and up to 100 times brighter. The spacecraft will monitor 26 sectors of the sky for 27 days each, ultimately covering 85 percent of the sky, with the first year of operations dedicated to southern stars before beginning the second year-long survey of the northern sky.

The science investigations will include those requested through the TESS Guest Investigator Program, which allows the scientific community at large to use the spacecraft for research.

“We were very pleased with the number of guest investigator proposals we received, and we competitively selected programs for a wide range of science investigations, from studying distant active galaxies to asteroids in our own solar system,” said Padi Boyd, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “And of course, lots of exciting exoplanet and star proposals as well. The science community are chomping at the bit to see the amazing data that TESS will produce and the exciting science discoveries for exoplanets and beyond.”

Here’s a square from the third camera; note the Small Magellanic Cloud just right of center.

Image: The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captured this square of stars and galaxies in the southern sky with its third camera during one 30-minute period on Tuesday, Aug. 7. Bright objects are labeled. Credit: NASA/MIT/TESS.

A sea of stars indeed, with the TESS targets bright enough for high-grade spectroscopic follow-up. All of this is coming together as part of the extension of our studies to the atmospheres of small, rocky worlds. Yesterday we looked at a paper from Anthony Del Genio et. al. on Proxima Centauri b. The Del Genio paper makes the point that “The population of potentially habitable rocky exoplanets in M star systems has now suddenly reached the point at which it will soon be possible to assess the demographics of this class of planet.”

Exoplanet demographics! We’ve come so far since the first detection of planets around a main sequence star back in 1995. TESS will be a huge part of extending our catalog.

And returning to the Saint-Exupéry passage with which I opened, here is a translation of the passage in La Citadelle that I found online.

One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea…

Good stuff, but I admit to liking the abbreviated version better. It has more punch.



Proxima Centauri b: The Habitability Question

Proxima Centauri b is back in the news, although I’ll confess that in my case, it’s rarely out of my thoughts — I’ve been obsessed with the Alpha Centauri system since my youth. The latest comes through work by Anthony Del Genio and colleagues (NASA GSFC), who describe in Astrobiology their new simulations with regard to potential habitability.

You’ll recall the issues here. A planet this close to its host star may well be tidally locked, with one side always facing the M-dwarf Proxima Centauri. Martin Turbet (Sorbonne Universités, Paris) and colleagues described possible climates on Proxima b in a 2016 paper, using a 3D climate model (GCM) to simulate the atmosphere and water cycle of the planet for its two possible rotation modes, a 1:1 and a 3:2 spin resonance (in other words, gravitational forces could keep Centauri b locked to Proxima or rotating 3 times for every 2 orbits of the star).

The Solar System offers analogues: The Moon is in a 1:1 spin resonance with the Earth, while Mercury is in a 3:2 spin resonance with the Sun. What Del Genio and company bring to the table is a model that incorporates these resonances and a global climate model but also includes the effects of an ocean that can transfer heat from one side of the planet to another.

The addition of this dynamic ocean modeling gets us to an interesting outcome: Rather than, as with the Turbet paper, finding an entirely frozen dark side, with a star-facing side that has at least some potential for a sea, Proxima b may have conditions allowing for an equatorial zone of liquid water even on the dark side, with large open ocean possible elsewhere.

This result improves the odds on habitability, as Del Genio is quoted as saying in an article called The Closest Exoplanet to Earth Could Be “Highly Habitable.” An ocean-covered Proxima b with an atmosphere like Earth’s could have open oceans that extend into the dark side, at least at low latitudes, and this turns out to be true both for synchronous rotation and a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance with a somewhat eccentric orbit.

Image: An image of the closest star to the Sun, Promixa Centauri, and its surrounding field of stars. Note that Centauri A and B both appear as a single ‘star’ here, their light combined in the bright object at the left. The bright star on the right is Beta Centauri, which is not a part of the Alpha Centauri system and is much further away from Earth. Credit: Marco Lorenzi.

But in going through the paper, I think it’s important to note that the researchers also derive much colder temperatures than previously suggested, the result of the transport of oceanic heat around the surface. Let’s look at how the paper treats this outcome with reference to Earth:

Because of its weak instellation, however, Proxima Centauri b’s climate is unlikely to resemble modern Earth’s. “Slushball” episodes in Earth’s distant past with cold but above-freezing tropical oceans (Sohl et al, 2017) are better analogs. The extent of open ocean depends on the salinity assumed. Elevated greenhouse gas concentrations produce some additional warming, but this is limited for any M-star planet by the reduced penetration of near-infrared starlight to the surface, and for Proxima b in particular, by its existence near a possible dynamical regime transition.

Unlike Turbet and team, Del Genio’s paper rules out a single ocean at the substellar area — this is sometimes called the ‘eyeball Earth’ scenario — because their dynamic ocean models show enough heat transport to allow water to exist on a wider basis. But note the effect of salinity, which determines the temperature at which seawater freezes. Modeling different levels of salinity in their various simulation scenarios (which also varied atmospheric composition), the scientists found that at high salinity, broad regions of open ocean occur and little ice.

We may have a Proxima b that is habitable but in terms that are starkly different from Earth:

…if we think more broadly about what constitutes a habitable planet (Cullum et al., 2016), it is reasonable to imagine a cold but inhabited Proxima Centauri b with a very salty shallow remnant of an earlier extensive ocean in which halophilic bacteria are the dominant life form, especially if the ocean is in contact with a silicate seafloor (Glein and Shock, 2010).

In an interesting discussion of other exoplanets at the end of the paper, the researchers consider TRAPPIST-1 e, LHS 1140 b, GJ 273 b and other worlds in the context of their models. The point could not be clearer: We are steadily building our inventory of potentially habitable rocky exoplanets around M-dwarfs. Where this paper points is toward continued refinements to climate modeling as we anticipate our first atmospheric detections and characterizations.

Calling the Del Genio paper “a very exciting result indeed,” Guillem Anglada Escudé (Queen Mary University of London), who led the team that discovered Proxima b, likewise pointed to nearby M-dwarf systems and the likelihood that their planets would be rich in water. By ‘rich,’ we are talking about 10-30% in water content, as opposed to < 1 percent for Earth.

The problems of atmosphere retention through early tidal heating and later erosion due to stellar flares and a strong stellar wind are serious and we cannot rule out the possibility that they would make habitability impossible. Anglada Escudé noted these issues in an email this morning, but continued:

“The paper (necessarily) needs to make a large number of assumptions, but this is very important work as it points towards the observational probes that we should soon be able to apply to these planets (temperature, thermal environment, atmospheres rich in water vapor, or whatever). As usual, we would like to see a few more of these simulations by independent teams to obtain a better perspective on the landscape of possibilities.”

Where to next with this research? Anglada-Escudé adds:

“As a shopping list of things that I would like to see from our modeller colleagues, it would be great to see some of these models coupled with erosive effects from stellar activity on the upper atmosphere, and the resulting exotic atmosphere we might expect. That is, even if large chunks are eroded due to a particularly violent coronal mass ejection or flare, the ocean would possibly outgas a new one quickly.”

The paper adds that we have some analogues in our own Solar System to seas of high salinity like those modeled here. Europa, for example, is thought to contain such a sea, as is Enceladus. Interestingly, we can’t observe life signatures within these bodies without going there, setting up a situation in which we may detect — within a few decades — biosignatures on an exoplanet before we find signs of life beyond Earth in our own Solar System.

The paper is Del Genio, “Habitable Climate Scenarios for Proxima Centauri b with a Dynamic Ocean,” published online at Astrobiology 5 September 2018 (preprint). The Turbet paper is “The habitability of Proxima Centauri b II. Possible climates and observability,” Astronomy & Astrophysics Vol. 596, A112 (December, 2016). Abstract



Timing Planetary Migration in the Early System

Given that we’ve been talking lately about collisions and water-delivering impacts in the early days of the Solar System, it’s a natural enough segue to today’s work from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) on how the planets themselves may have moved about in that era. We also need to talk about the upcoming Lucy mission, which targets two interesting bodies: Patroclus and Menoetius. Both are approximately 112 kilometers wide, comprising a large binary among the Trojan asteroids, which move in leading and trailing orbits around Jupiter.

Image: Jupiter’s extensive Trojan asteroids, divided into ‘Trojans’ and ‘Greeks’ in a nod to Homer, but all Trojans nonetheless. Credit: “InnerSolarSystem-en” by Mdf at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

What David Nesvorny and team have done in their recent paper is to look at migration of Solar System planets, with evidence they believe can be pulled from the Patroclus-Menoetius binary Trojan. What a cataclysmic time this must have been, as both Uranus and Neptune were pushed much further from the Sun, where they would have encountered the objects we see in today’s Kuiper Belt. The Trojans tell at least part of the tale. Says Nesvorny:

“The Trojans were likely captured during a dramatic period of dynamic instability when a skirmish between the Solar System’s giant planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — occurred, Many small bodies of this primordial Kuiper Belt were scattered inwards, and a few of those became trapped as Trojan asteroids.”

Nesvorny has already examined the period of planetary migration in a 2012 statistical study analyzing the early Solar System in terms of four, five and six giant planets, deducing the likelihood that Jupiter’s encounters with a Neptune-class planet caused Jupiter to move inward (perhaps a fraction of an AU) even as Neptune migrated outward. Earlier work has seen these events as being associated with the Late Heavy Bombardment, 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago. The new paper argues for a much earlier period of migration, with the Patroclus-Menoetius binary forming in a once massive planetesimal disk beyond Neptune.

Image: SwRI scientist studied the binary asteroid Patroclus-Menoetius, shown in this artist’s conception, to determine that a shake-up of the giant planets likely happened early in the solar system’s history, within the first 100 million years. Credit: W.M. Keck Observatory/Lynette Cook.

The Lucy mission to study Patroclus-Menoetius comes out of SwRI, with Harold Levison as principal investigator, and is part of the broader investigation into the development of the Solar System. Nesvorny’s work draws on recent work on how small bodies like this binary emerged, with indications that the early Solar System was a place where binary formation was common. Co-author William Bottke at SwRI points to binaries in today’s Kuiper Belt and contrasts their presence with the relatively few that now exist within the orbit of Neptune. What do we make of the difference, and how can we use it to put Patroclus-Menoetius in its proper context?

The researchers think the very existence of the binary Trojan offers information about the chronology of planetary migration. The longer the period of instability was delayed, the more likely that small body binaries in the primordial Solar disk would have been disrupted by collisions, affecting how many binaries would be captured in the population of Trojans. The evidence, then, points to early instability rather than a delay of hundreds of millions of years.

The Late Heavy Bombardment would have ended approximately 700 million years after the dispersal of the protosolar nebula, referenced in the paper as t0, but Nesvorny’s paper argues for planetary migration starting at the time of that dispersal. From the paper:

The outer planetesimal disk at 20-30 au, in which the P-M binary formed, is thought to have been massive (total estimated mass Mdisk ≃ 20 M, where M ≃ 6 × 1027 g is the Earth mass), as inferred from planetary migration/instability simulations, slow migration of Neptune required to explain the inclination distribution of TNOs [Trans-Neptunian Objects], and the capture probability of JTs [Jupiter Trojans]. The massive disk was subject to intense collisional grinding by impacts between planetesimals. The survival of the P-M binary in such a hostile environment is an important constraint on the disk lifetime, tdisk, defined as the time interval between t0 and the start of Neptune’s migration.

Using simulations within a previously developed collision code, the authors show the sensitivity of the Patroclus-Menoetius binary’s survival to the age of the disk. Just a snippet of this discussion:

Assuming a 100% initial binary fraction, and adopting the 72% dynamical survival probability computed previously, we find that having one P-M binary among the 25 largest JTs with D > 100 km would be a < 0.002 probability event if tdisk ≥ 400 Myr. The long-lived disks can therefore be ruled out at the 99.8% confidence level.

Because simulations of the survival of Patroclus-Menoetius indicate that the planetesimal disk had to have been dispersed by migrating planets within ≲ 100 Myr of the dispersal of the protosolar nebula, there is found to be no linkage between planet migration and the Late Heavy Bombardment.

As I mentioned, Harold Levison, who is a co-author on this work, is also the principal investigator of the Lucy mission, which will launch in 2021 and reach the Patroclus-Menoetius binary in 2033. Three imaging and mapping instruments comprising a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer, a high-resolution visible imager, and a thermal infrared spectrometer can then be put to work to study the physical properties of these interesting relics.

This is an interesting mission profile, by the way. Lucy will head first for the L4 Trojans, which orbit 60° ahead of Jupiter, where it will study four objects, 3548 Eurybates, 15094 Polymele, 11351 Leucus, and 21900 Orus. A return to Earth and subsequent gravity assist will then take the spacecraft to the L5 Trojan cloud, trailing Jupiter by 60° in its orbit. There, it will study Patroclus-Menoetius, along the way making a flyby of the non-Trojan main belt asteroid 52246 Donaldjohanson, which is named after the discoverer of the famous Lucy hominin fossil. The term ‘hominin’ takes in modern humans but also all extinct human species and ancestors.

Image: A mission emblem for Lucy, which will study primitive asteroids orbiting near Jupiter, showing the team’s interest in the Lucy hominin skeleton as an example of the earliest period of humans, a study the spacecraft is intended to duplicate for the earliest era of Solar System formation. Credit: SwRI.

The paper is Nesvorny et al., “Evidence for very early migration of the Solar System planets from the Patroclus–Menoetius binary Jupiter Trojan,” Nature Astronomy 10 September 2018 (abstract / preprint).



Water Delivery to the Early Earth

Thinking about supplying a young planet with water, the mind naturally heads for the outer reaches of the Solar System. After all, beyond the ‘snowline,’ where temperatures are cold enough to allow water to condense into ice grains, volatiles are abundant (this also takes in methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide, all of which can condense into ice grains). The idea that comets or water-rich asteroids bumping around in a chaotic early Solar System could deliver the water Earth needed for its oceans makes sense, given our planet’s formation well inside the snowline.

We’ve just looked at Ceres, in celebration of the Dawn mission’s achievements there, and we know that Ceres has an icy mantle and perhaps even an ocean beneath its surface. At 2.7 AU, the dwarf planet is right on the edge of traditional estimates for the snowline as it would have occurred in the early days of planet formation. Obviously, the snowline has a great deal to do with various models about the accretion of solid grains into planetesimals.

If I dig around in the archives, I can even show you an image of a snowline. The star below is V883 Orionis, from a stellar class called FU Orionis, a young, pre-main sequence star capable of major variability in brightness and spectral type. The snowline is easy to find here because an outburst in luminosity has heated up the protoplanetary disk, pushing the snowline outwards.

Image: This image of the planet-forming disc around the young star V883 Orionis was obtained by ALMA in long-baseline mode. This star is currently in outburst, which has pushed the water snowline further from the star and allowed it to be detected for the first time. The dark ring midway through the disc is the water snowline, the point from the star where the temperature and pressure dip low enough for water ice to form. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Cieza.

As sound an idea as water delivery via objects from beyond the snowline seems, it’s always wise to question our assumptions, and indeed, the issue is strongly debated. For a second scenario for Earth’s water is available. This is the idea that enough water-rich dust grains can accumulate to form boulders of kilometer size, objects that can contain large enough amounts of water to explain the amount we have on Earth. This is the so-called ‘wet-endogenous scenario,’ in which water in the early, still accreting Earth occurs in the form of hydrous silicates.

An interesting take on this comes from Martina D’Angelo (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) and colleagues, with a second paper in the process from W. F. Thi (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics) and team. How to defend the latter scenario given Earth’s formation well inside the snowline? The answer may lie in sheets of silicate materials called phyllosilicates, which as I’ve learned in preparing this piece, include the micas, chlorite, serpentine, talc, and the clay minerals. Usefully, they have interesting properties when it comes to water, retaining it when heated up to several hundreds of degrees centigrade.

Thus D’Angelo, supported by earlier work, notes that there is a way to preserve structural water even in the warmer regions of the protoplanetary disk. D’Angelo’s paper, supported by the still unpublished work of Thi’s team, explores how water from the gas phase can diffuse into the silicates well before the dust grains of the inner system have accreted into planetesimals.

The paper explains the astrophysical models for protoplanetary disks and the Monte Carlo simulations used for studying ice accretion on grains that were used in this work. The simulations show water vapor abundances, temperature and pressure radial profiles that identify where in the protoplanetary disk hydration of dust grains could have occurred. The results show that the ‘wet endogenous scenario’ can by no means be ruled out. From the paper, addressing the simulation results for water adsorption on a forsterite crystal lattice:

Our MC [Monte Carlo] models show that complete surface water coverage is reached for temperatures between 300 and 500 K. For hotter environments (600, 700 and 800 K), less than 30% of the surface is hydrated. At low water vapor density and high temperature, water cluster formation plays a crucial role in enhancing the coverage… The binding energy of adsorbed water molecules increases with the number of occupied neighboring sites, enabling a more temperature-stable water layer to form. Lateral diffusion of water molecules lowers the timescale for surface hydration by water vapor condensation by three order of magnitude with respect to an SCT model, ruling out any doubts on the efficiency of such process in a nebular setting.

Image: Artist impression of a very young star surrounded by a disk of gas and dust. Scientists suspect that rocky planets such as the Earth are formed from these materials. Credit & Copyright: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

D’Angelo and colleagues believe that between 0.5 and 10 Earth oceans worth of water can be produced by the agglomeration of hydrated grains in an Earth-sized planet in formation, depending on size differences among the grains. The timescale in question fits easily into the time necessary for grains to eventually accrete into larger boulders within the early Solar nebula. Now needed are simulations of grain growth that will help the researchers understand how water is retained on grain surfaces through periods of accumulation and collision.

So it may be that we have twin processes at work, with delivery of water from comets and asteroids playing a role in bulking up a young world with a latent supply of its own water.

The papers are Thi et al., “Warm dust surface chemistry in protoplanetary disks – Formation of phyllosilicates,” submitted to Astronomy & Astrophysics, and D’Angelo et al., “On water delivery in the inner solar nebula: Monte Carlo simulations of forsterite hydration,” accepted at Astronomy & Astrophysics (preprint).



FRB 121102: New Bursts From Older Data

“Not all discoveries come from new observations,” says Pete Worden, in a comment referring to original thinking as applied to an existing dataset. Worden is executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives program, which includes Breakthrough Listen, an ambitious attempt to use SETI techniques to search for signs of technological activity in the universe. Note that last word: The targets Breakthrough Listen examines do extend to about one million stars in the stellar neighborhood, but they also go well outside the Milky Way, with 100 galaxies being studied in a range of radio and optical bands.

A major and sometimes neglected aspect of SETI as it is reported in the media is the fact that such careful observation can turn up highly useful astronomical information unrelated to any extraterrestrial technologies. Worden’s comment underlines the fact that we are generating vast data archives as our multiplying space- and ground-based instruments continue to scan the heavens at various wavelengths. It is not inconceivable that the signature of a distant civilization or a novel astrophysical process is buried deep within data that is years or decades old.

The case in point this morning comes through Breakthrough Listen’s observations of the Fast Radio Burst (FRB) 121102. FRBs seize the attention because they are a recent and puzzling detection. The first, the so-called Lorimer Burst (FRB 010724) was found no more than eleven years ago. FRBs are also highly unusual, appearing as radio pulses of extremely short duration, usually milliseconds. They are believed to originate in distant galaxies and one of them, FRB 121102, stands out because unlike all others thus far detected, it sends out repeat bursts.

Image: The FRB in question. This is a Gemini composite image of the field around FRB 121102 (indicated). The dwarf host galaxy was imaged, and spectroscopy performed, using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on the Gemini North telescope on Maunakea in Hawai’i. Data were obtained on October 24-25 and November 2, 2016, before the subsequent Breakthrough Listen observations at Green Bank. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC.

FRB 121102 is prolific in repeat bursts, as it turns out, and this is where Worden’s words resonate. Earlier studies have shown that the source is located in a galaxy some 3 billion light years away. Breakthrough Listen’s observing team at the University of California, Berkeley SETI Research Center went to work on this ‘repeater’ on August 26, 2017, finding a total of 21 bursts in data acquired at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. All of these turned up within a single hour, which implies periods of intense activity. For more, see New Activity of Repeating FRB 121102.

Working with the same dataset, UC Berkeley graduate student Gerry Zhang and collaborators have now introduced a new machine learning algorithm into the mix, subjecting the same dataset (about 400 TB) to techniques not dissimilar to those used by Internet technology companies. Zhang and team’s ‘convolutional neural network’ was trained to recognize FRBs in the same way that Vishal Gajjar applied when he and his own colleagues analyzed the data in 2017. The algorithm was then applied to the raw data to see if anything new could be acquired.

From the paper:

…we present a re-analysis of the C-band observation by Breakthrough Listen on August 26, 2017 with convolutional neural networks. Recent rapid development of deep learning, and in particular, convolutional neural networks (CNN; Krizhevsky et al. 2012; Simonyan & Zisserman 2014; He et al. 2015; Szegedy et al. 2014) has enabled revolutionary improvements to signal classification, pattern recognition in all fields of data science such as, but not limited to computer image processing, medicine, and autonomous driving. In this work, we present the first successful application of deep learning to direct detection of fast radio transient signals in raw spectrogram data.

The result: 72 new detections of pulses from FRB 121102. That takes the cumulative total from this dataset to 93 pulses in five hours of observation, including 45 pulses within the first 30 minutes. As to periodicity, the work shows that the pulses are not received in a regular pattern. Using the same methods, Zhang and team go on to explore trends in pulse fluence, pulse detection rate, and pulse frequency structure. The breadth of the analysis is made possible by the sheer number of pulses, the highest detected from a single observation, and the use of Zhang and team’s neural network technology, which can surely be adapted to other datasets.

“Gerry’s work is exciting not just because it helps us understand the dynamic behavior of FRBs in more detail,” says Berkeley SETI Research Center Director and Breakthrough Listen Principal Investigator Dr. Andrew Siemion, “but also because of the promise it shows for using machine learning to detect signals missed by classical algorithms.”

So can we be sure we are dealing with a natural astrophysical phenomenon, or is there any possibility of a technology behind this repeating FRB? The data here do not give us the answer, but it’s intriguing to speculate about galactic SETI in light of our recent discussion of the work of Yuki Nishino and Naoki Seto (Kyoto University), who have suggested that natural phenomena such as the merger of a binary neutron star system like GW170817 could be used as a marker to flag a message from a civilization attempting to announce its presence to the cosmos.

For that matter, are all FRBs the same? We’ve only found the one repeater thus far, but 104 are now thought to occur in our sky on a daily basis. Avi Loeb and Minasvi Lingam (Harvard University) have worked out an FRB rate for each galaxy within 100 Gpc3 of about 10-5 per day, if indeed we are dealing with natural sources like gamma ray bursts or neutron star mergers. And as they’ve noted in a recent paper, one of these going off in our own galaxy, as would be expected about every 300 years, would resolve the question of FRB origins, a doubtless spectacular event if occurring nearby.

The Gajjar et al. paper reporting on the 2017 repeat detections is “Highest-frequency detection of FRB 121102 at 4-8 GHz using the Breakthrough Listen Digital Backend at the Green Bank Telescope,” accepted at The Astrophysical Journal (preprint). The Zhang et al. paper covering the subsequent new analysis is “Fast Radio Burst 121102 Pulse Detection and Periodicity: A Machine Learning Approach,” accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, with further details available here. Avi Loeb and Minasvi Lingam’s paper on technological possibilities in FRBs is “Fast Radio Bursts from Extragalactic Light Sails,” The Astrophysical Journal Letters Vol. 837, No. 2 (March 8, 2017). Abstract / preprint.



Dawn at Sunset

The announcement that the Dawn spacecraft is running out of its hydrazine fuel was not unexpected, but when we prepare to lose communications with a trailblazing craft, the moment is always tinged with a bit of melancholy. Even so, the accomplishments of this mission in its 11 years of data gathering are phenomenal. They also speak to the virtues of extended missions, which in this case gave us views and a wealth of information about Vesta but also a continuation of its stunning orbital operations around Ceres. And at Ceres it will stay, a silent orbiting monument to deep space exploration.

“Dawn’s legacy is that it explored two of the last uncharted worlds in the inner Solar System,” said Marc Rayman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California, who serves as Dawn’s mission director and chief engineer. “Dawn has shown us alien worlds that for two centuries were just pinpoints of light amidst the stars. And it has produced these richly detailed, intimate portraits and revealed exotic, mysterious landscapes unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Image: This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft maneuvering above Ceres with its ion propulsion system. Dawn arrived into orbit at Ceres on March 6, 2015, and continues to collect data about the mysterious and fascinating world. The mission celebrated its ninth launch anniversary on September 27, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Speaking of Marc Rayman, he deserves great thanks for his efforts at keeping an ongoing chronicle of Dawn operations available in his Dawn Journal. In his latest entry, Rayman notes how he always had to write these entries in haste because of his full schedule, but it’s the mark of a gifted narrator that haste is never an impression the reader comes away with. He has always seemed to be a patient and thorough writer who took the time to get things right.

The last two entries have been cases in point, describing the end of the Dawn mission and what is happening aboard the spacecraft. Immediately ahead is the final act, the loss of hydrazine that will eventually cause Dawn to lose the ability to orient itself — this could occur within weeks — and thus the spacecraft will no longer be able to point its solar panels at the Sun or its radio antenna at Earth (Dawn’s reaction wheels failed earlier in the mission, making hydrazine a critical factor). Radio silence will ensue. What happens next is an interesting question:

We also took a short look at the long-term fate of the spacecraft. To ensure the integrity of possible future exploration that may focus on the chemistry related to life, planetary protection protocols dictate that Dawn not contact Ceres for at least 20 years. Despite being in an orbit that regularly dips so low, the spaceship will continue to revolve around its gravitational master for at least that long and, with very high confidence, for more than 50 years. The terrestrial materials that compose the probe will not contaminate the alien world before another Earth ship could arrive.

So we have a window of about 50 years and perhaps more before Dawn will come down on Ceres, and Rayman’s inference here is that this gives time to mount another mission to Ceres before any contamination could occur. But given that it has also been 50 years since Apollo, I for one don’t necessarily see this as a very large window, and can only hope that its presence will be a motivator for a return to the dwarf planet before we have to wonder whether what we find there could have been affected by anything from Earth.

Dawn is the only spacecraft to orbit a body in the asteroid belt, and it is also the only spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations, a feat that was accomplished thanks to its ion propulsion system. Dawn reached the 4.5 billion year old Vesta in 2011 and spent 14 months orbiting it, showing us a mountain at the center of the Rheasilvia basin that turns out to be twice the height of Mt. Everest, along with multiple canyons that fit into Grand Canyon scale. We also learned that Vesta, with its violent history, was the source of a common family of meteorites.

Ceres turned out to be even more of a surprise, with its bright salty deposits made up of sodium carbonate in the form of a slushy brine that originated from below the crust. Some regions on Ceres were geologically active in comparatively recent times, indicating a deep reservoir of liquid. Organic molecules turned up in the area around Ernutet Crater, but we lack the instrumentation aboard the spacecraft to be able to say whether they were formed by any biological processes. “There is growing evidence that the organics in Ernutet came from Ceres’ interior, in which case they could have existed for some time in the early interior ocean,” said Julie Castillo-Rogez, Dawn’s project scientist and deputy principal investigator at JPL.

With its high-resolution images, gamma ray and neutron spectra, infrared spectra, and gravity data, Dawn has delivered full value and continues, as this JPL news release reminds us, to “swoop over Ceres about 22 miles (35 kilometers) from its surface — only about three times the altitude of a passenger jet.” For his part, Marc Rayman thinks about Dawn after it goes silent as “an inert, celestial monument to human creativity and ingenuity,” which it is. But the data Dawn gathered still lives, and will resonate in the form of discoveries and new papers for decades.



Extending the Habitable Zone

Not long ago, Ramses Ramirez (Earth-Life Science Institute, Tokyo) described his latest work on habitable zones to Centauri Dreams readers. Our own Alex Tolley (University of California) now focuses on Dr. Ramirez’ quest for ‘a more comprehensive habitable zone,’ examining classical notions of worlds that could support life, how they have changed over time, and how we can broaden current models. We can see ways, for example, to extend the range of habitable zones at both their outer and inner edges. A look at our assumptions and the dangers implicit in the term ‘Earth-like’ should give us caution as we interpret the new exoplanet detections coming soon through space- and ground-based instruments.

by Alex Tolley

The Plains of Tartarus – Bruce Pennington

In 1993, before we had detected any exoplanets, James Kasting, Daniel Whitmire, and Ray Reynolds published a modeled estimate of the habitable zone in our solar system [1]. They stated:

“A one-dimensional climate model is used to estimate the width of the habitable zone (HZ) around our sun and around other main sequence stars. Our basic premise is that we are dealing with Earth-like planets with CO2/H2O/N2 atmospheres and that habitability requires the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface. The inner edge of the HZ is determined in our model by the loss of water via photolysis and hydrogen escape. The outer edge of the HZ is determined by the formation of CO2 clouds, which cool a planet’s surface by increasing its albedo and by lowering the convective lapse rate. Conservative estimates for these distances in our own Solar System are 0.95 and 1.37 AU, respectively; the actual width of the present HZ could be much greater. Between these two limits, climate stability is ensured by a feedback mechanism in which atmospheric CO2 concentrations vary inversely with planetary surface temperature. The width of the HZ is slightly greater for planets that are larger than Earth and for planets which have higher N2 partial pressures. The HZ evolves outward in time because the Sun increases in luminosity as it ages. A conservative estimate for the width of the 4.6-Gyr continuously habitable zone (CHZ) is 0.95 to 1.15 AU.”

Climate models have improved considerably over time, and now are capable of three dimensional (3-D) models as well as more advanced 1-D models. Parameter estimations are also being refined to account for different atmospheric features.

The 1993 Kasting et al paper set the bounds for a conservative HZ at 0.95 and 1.37 AU, the outer bound being inside the orbit of Mars. However, the authors noted that a maximal greenhouse with a dense, CO2 atmosphere would push the outer bound to 1.67 AU, that would include Mars, although this was considered optimistic. In 2013, Kopparapu, Ramirez, Kasting, et al, published new estimates on the HZs using a more advanced 1-D model [3]. For the Solar System, the inner and outer edges were 0.99 and 1.67 AU respectively, with the now conservative outer limit at maximal greenhouse warming.

In 2018, Dr. Ramirez published a review of HZ research that included ideas that extended the HZ in time and space, as well as a wider range of stellar types [4]. The conclusion of that paper included the decision tree concerning newly discovered planets and models of their environments. The decisions have identifying numbers added and are shown in figure 1.

In a recent Centauri Dreams essay, Revising the Classical ‘Habitable Zone’, Dr. Ramirez outlined his reasons for studying models of planetary habitable zones (HZ) and environments as part of the search for life. This post will try to tie the many ideas of the journal article to the decision points in figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Reproduced from the paper [4], annotated with numbers.

1. Assuming the planet is in the classic HZ, did planet have a runaway GHE during pre-main sequence?

The classic HZ calculates its inner limit as the point at which a runaway greenhouse effect (RGE) can occur. This inner edge is calculated for the period when the star is in the main sequence. For most stars, the main sequence starts quite quickly, within 0.1 Gyr of the nebula forming, allowing life to evolve after the main sequence had started and before the star in its potentially more luminous pre-main sequence state has had time to initiate the RGE. However, for the numerically numerous M-dwarfs, this pre-main sequence period may last for up to a 1 Gyr and have orders of magnitude more luminosity than during the main-sequence. Any planet currently in the classic HZ would have been subject to far higher luminosities and with a time period sufficient to desiccate the planet. The world might then be like Venus, a hot, dry world, with our without a dense CO2 atmosphere. Transit techniques will detect Earth-sized rocky worlds more easily around M-dwarfs, which have attracted a fair amount of discussion about the conditions for life on their surfaces. The issue of a high luminosity during a long pre-main sequence period may trump any favorable conditions during the current main sequence period. Therefore whether the exoplanet lost all of its water during this time needs to be addressed, which leads us to:

Figure 2. Evolution of stellar luminosity for F – M stars (F1, F5, Sun, K6, M1, M5, and M8) using Barrafe et al. [184] stellar evolutionary models. When the star reaches the main-sequence (red points) the luminosity curve flattens. [4]

2. Did the planet lose more than a few Earth oceans of water during the pre-main sequence period?

An Earth analog planet will desiccate like Venus if it loses more than a few Earth oceans of water. It is possible that the water loss was not severe when the planet entered the classic HZ. If the water loss was high, the world would be desiccated, like Venus.

If any of these conditions are not satisfied:

3. If water loss was not sufficient to desiccate the planet

If the period and intensity of water loss was insufficient to result in a complete RGE, or the starting volume of water was low, then the planet may be characterized as a desert world, with lakes of water, possibly at altitude.

One possibility is that the world is an ocean world with far higher quantities of water than an Earth analog. In this case, desiccation has been held off as a result. Density calculations for that world will indicate if the planet may be an ocean world. As far as life is concerned, we would return to the issue of whether such ocean worlds are suitable for sustaining any abiogenesis derived life.

If the planet has retained enough water it may join the candidates for the next decision: This allows the planet to be considered potentially habitable regardless of early heating.

The author then allows for a wider interpretation of the HZ:

4. Is the planet in another HZ that is outside the classic HZ?

The bulk of the paper deals with possible modifications of the HZ that extend its range at both the inner and outer edges. The paper documents a number of mechanisms that could widen the HZ and to what one might call an optimistic HZ.

Some examples are listed below:

A. Empirical vs model HZs

The author argues that empirical, rather than model limits for the classic HZ might be applied. These limits imply that the outer edge must have been further than the climate model as Mars has evidence that it once had running water on its surface when the sun’s luminosity was lower. For the inner edge, this puts the edge of the HZ closer to the sun at 0.75 AU, but still outside the orbit of Venus as the planet has no sign of surface water even 1 Gya when the sun was cooler [Figure 3].

B. Stellar spectral range

The author argues that the apparent rapid emergence of life on earth allows for hotter, shorter-lived stars to harbor life before they exit the main sequence. This extends the HZ to beyond the star types usually associated with life, but to large, hot stars.

C. Extensions of the HZ in space

Greenhouse gases like methane (CH4) and hydrogen (H2) can extend the HZ, particularly at the outer edge. Methane could extend the HZ beyond Mars, and as it is also produced biologically in greater quantities than geological processes, can maintain the gas in the atmosphere. It is often cited as a detectable gas out of equilibrium and possibly indicative of life. H2 may also contribute to warming and has be posited as a possible explanation for the warmer, ice-free Earth during the Archean.

Ocean worlds are often cited as having unregulatable temperatures due to the absence of exposed crust that prevent the carbon-silicate cycle to act as a carbon sink. One model of ocean worlds with ice caps suggests a way for this sink to operate with CO2 clathrates.

Binary stars would appear to be problematic for worlds to stay in their HZ. The climates are difficult to model, especially where the planet orbits one star, but the planet may create a temporary, benign temperature with periods of freezing as is transits into and out of an HZ.

3-D climate modeling is now increasingly able to compute the effects of rotation rates and different types of cloud cover and composition. The results vary regarding whether these parameters can extend the HZ.

This leads to a sub-question: about the outer edge of the extended HZ:

5. Is the planet near the outer edge of the classic HZ?

The classic HZ outer edge is set by the maximum warming effect of an atmosphere with CO2 and H2O. However, there are some possible ways to extend that outer edge using other greenhouse gases like CH4 and H2. Figure 3 shows the effect of CH4 and H2 on the outer limit of the HZ. For most worlds, retaining a light H2 component to the atmosphere is unlikely, unless it is maintained by some geologic or biotic process. Other possibilities include transient warming periods, possibly even limit cycles that create warm conditions on a periodic basis, perhaps with CH4 or H2 that can exist for short periods. Of course, life would have to survive in some form during the planet’s frozen period. Even on the hypothesized Snowball Earth, liquid water was probably present below the surface ice. For a solidly frozen world, the conditions for survival would be harsher.

For M dwarfs, with high luminosity, and long pre-main sequence periods, planets currently residing at the outer edge of the classic HZ may have been habitable during this pre-main sequence period. Life may have evolved during that period, then retreated to the subsurface as the planet cooled. This is analogous to the hopes of some that life on Mars may have evolved when the planet had surface water, but may still exist at depth as Mars surface cooled and dried.

Figure 3. The classical HZ (blue) with CO2-CH4 (green) and CO2-H2 (red) extensions for stars of stellar temperatures between 2,600 and 10,000 K (A – M-stars). Some solar system planets and exoplanets are also shown. [4]

6. Is the planet orbiting a hotter ( >~ 4500 K) star?

Because the star type influences the warming of the atmosphere and planet’s surface, only stars with a surface temperature greater than 4500K will extend the outer edge of the HZ with the greenhouse gas, Ch4, as part of a dense CO2 atmosphere. Unintuitively, for cooler stars, CH4 in the CO2 atmosphere brings the outer limit of the HZ closer to the star. This is clearly shown in Figure 3. [See also CD post The Habitable Zone: The Impact of Methane.] Hydrogen (H2) will quite considerably extend the outer limit of the HZ for all stellar types. Spectroscopy to determine the atmospheric mixing ratios will help in determining whether this is possibly the case.

Other considerations

The paper ignores the current vogue for life in icy moon subsurface oceans for good reason as any subsurface liquid ocean is undetectable by any telescopes that we have on the near horizon. Focusing on the HZ where surface water can exist makes operational sense.

This paper does us a service in not just offering routes to expanding the HZ, but also in the approach to characterizing planets, and ultimately to modeling them accurately once we have the empirical data to support these models.

In passing, the author gives credence to the issues of interpreting results. There is a criticism of the use of “HZ” and “Earth-like” and super-Earth” to imply that those exoplanets have Earth-like life in abundance on their surfaces. In many ways, the extending of HZs retains the concept of surface water possibly existing. In the original Kasting et al paper, their HZ definition required surface water as a necessary condition for life to evolve, as we currently believe. Nevertheless, these worlds may be sterile, as this condition may be insufficient.

As Moore states[5]:

“Habitable planets, not habitable zones Similarly, the term habitable zone is misleading to both the public and the scientific community. On the face of it, habitable-zone planets should be, well, habitable, but in its now classic definition, this is the region in which the presence of a liquid water surface “is not impossible” with an atmosphere assumed to be Earth-like. It does not mean that a habitable zone planet would, in fact, have a wet surface or any other condition required for life. Furthermore, this definition ignores the potential for deep, chemosynthetic biospheres and biases our thinking toward only one of the many ways in which life manages to sustain itself on Earth. That the term habitable zone has such a disconnect with the concept of habitability is problematic for communicating ideas clearly and yet its use has become entrenched in discussions of new exoplanet results and it continues to inform the design of our exoplanet program.”

For life in the Earth’s Archean eon, prokaryotic methanogens create methane (CH4). This greenhouse gas must be present in sufficient quantities to be detected and should push out the inner bound of the HZ.

With these caveats in mind, the Ramirez paper suggests that we can use these expanded HZs to both focus the search for targets, and to validate the models so that targets can be more accurately determined as we extend our searches. This might be very timely as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) all-sky survey is already turning up many potential targets.


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