Yesterday’s look at NExSS (the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science), NASA’s new ‘virtual institute,’ focused on the multidisciplinary nature of the effort. The work I’m looking at today, an analysis of the planets around Tau Ceti performed at Arizona State University, only emphasizes the same point. To get a read on whether two planets that are possibly in Tau Ceti’s habitable zone are likely to be terrestrial worlds like Earth, the ASU team brought the tools of Earth science into play, in particular the work of Sang-heon Shim.
Shim is a mineral physicist who worked with astrophysicists Michael Pagano, Patrick Young and Amanda Truitt in the Tau Ceti analysis. His perspective was vital because early work had already suggested that Tau Ceti has an unusual balance between the rock-forming minerals magnesium and silicon. In fact, the ratio of magnesium to silicon here is 1.78, about 70% more than we find in the Sun. That casts long-standing views of Tau Ceti as Sol’s twin into doubt, and raises questions about the nature of the planets that formed around it.
There is evidence for five of these, with two — Tau Ceti e and f — thought to be in the habitable zone. That’s an attractive possibility, for Tau Ceti is nearby at 12 light years, a solitary G-class star like the Sun, and a relatively stable one at that. No wonder it figures prominently in science fiction, its very proximity made a significant plot issue by Larry Niven in his 1968 novel A Gift from Earth, which depicts an isolated Tau Ceti colony that can still receive the occasional cargo from Earth. Isaac Asimov made a Tau Ceti planet the home of the first human extrasolar settlement in The Caves of Steel (1954).
Image: The Sun is at the left in this comparison with Tau Ceti. Credit: R.J. Hall via Wikimedia Commons.
In fact, I can think of few stars that have received so much attention from writers. Might some of the planets there really be habitable? The two planets we are looking at are ‘super-Earths,’ with masses of 4.29±2.00 and 6.67±3.50 times that of Earth respectively. The new work makes the prospect of Earth-like conditions unlikely. In fact, Shim’s mineralogical study indicates that the high magnesium/silicon ratio of the parent star could produce planets unlike any we’re familiar with, as the scientist explains:
“With such a high magnesium and silicon ratio it is possible that the mineralogical make-up of planets around Tau Ceti could be significantly different from that of Earth. Tau Ceti’s planets could very well be dominated by the mineral olivine at shallow parts of the mantle and have lower mantles dominated by ferropericlase.”
Ferropericlase is a magnesium/iron oxide that is thought to be a major constituent of the Earth’s lower mantle, along with silicate perovskite, which is a magnesium/iron silicate. Because ferropericlase is viscous, an abundance of it in the mantle would make mantle rock flow more readily, possibly affecting plate tectonics and volcanism at the planetary surface. The resulting world would pose challenges for the development of life, and certainly for its detection. “Faster geochemical cycling,” the paper notes, “could impede the buildup of biologically produced non-equilibrium chemical species in the planet’s atmosphere.”
The paper describes what it calls a detectability index, or DI, that gauges the ability of a planet to house life and to maintain biosignatures of the kind we hope to detect with new space telescope missions. Tau Ceti planets in the habitable zone might, in other words, be habitable, but unlikely to produce detectable life signs in their atmospheres. Life would not necessarily be absent, but detecting it would require a thorough study of planetary evolution.
Another issue is the length of time a planet spends in the habitable zone. Tau Ceti e’s position is deeply problematic. The authors believe the world is reaching the end of its habitable lifetime and is at best on the extreme inner edge of the habitable zone. Tau Ceti f, meanwhile, appears to be near the outer edge of the habitable zone, but evidently moved into it within the past 1.5 billion years, and probably in much less time than this.
Assume even a billion years in the habitable zone and bear in mind that Earth’s biosphere took roughly two billion year to produce biosignatures that would be theoretically detectable. The DI for this world — our ability to find life if it does exist on Tau Ceti f — would be low indeed. A long habitable lifetime may be in this planet’s future, but that doesn’t help us now:
Even in the most pessimistic case, the planet will have about 7 Gy of habitable lifetime until the end of the main sequence, plus additional time while the star traverses the subgiant branch. From a detectability standpoint, however, f is a poor candidate. At best, the planet has been in the HZ for < <1Gy under these assumptions.
So we have in Tau Ceti f a world where life could exist but would be, at least according to what we know of life here on Earth, probably in an early state and unlikely to be detectable. There is a significant lesson for us in this conclusion, as the paper goes on to note:
The rate of change of L [luminosity] and Teff [stellar effective temperature] as a function of time means that cases similar to f where a planet enters the HZ in the latter part of the star’s life are more common than planets that have been in the HZ since early times. This serves as a reminder that the present “habitability” of a planet does not necessarily indicate that it is a good candidate for detecting biosignatures. The temporal evolution of the system must be taken into account.
So much, then, for the notion that if we detect a planet in the habitable zone, we are safe in assuming life has had time enough to emerge there. Here we have one case of basic mineralogy casting doubt over whether surface conditions are habitable or whether it could be detected by our instruments if present, and another where the movement of a planet into the habitable zone means that biology may flourish there but only in our distant future.