Are we alone in the universe?

There’s never been a better time to ponder this age-old question. We now know of thousands of exoplanets – planets that orbit stars elsewhere in the universe.

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So just how many of these planets could support life?

Scientists from a variety of fields — including astrophysics, Earth science, heliophysics and planetary science — are working on this question. Here are a few of the strategies they’re using to learn more about the habitability of exoplanets.

Squinting at Earth

Even our best telescopic images of exoplanets are still only a few pixels in size. Just how much information can we extract from such limited data? That’s what Earth scientists have been trying to figure out.

One group of scientists has been taking high-resolution images of Earth from our Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera and ‘degrading’ them in order to match the resolution of our pixelated exoplanet images. From there, they set about a grand process of reverse-engineering: They try to extract as much accurate information as they can from what seems — at first glance — to be a fairly uninformative image.

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Credits: NOAA/NASA/DSCOVR

So far, by looking at how Earth’s brightness changes when land versus water is in view, scientists have been able to reverse-engineer Earth’s albedo (the proportion of solar radiation it reflects), its obliquity (the tilt of its axis relative to its orbital plane), its rate of rotation, and even differences between the seasons. All of these factors could potentially influence a planet’s ability to support life.

Avoiding the “Venus Zone”

In life as in science, even bad examples can be instructive. When it comes to habitability, Venus is a bad example indeed: With an average surface temperature of 850 degrees Fahrenheit, an atmosphere filled with sulfuric acid, and surface pressure 90 times stronger than Earth’s, Venus is far from friendly to life as we know it.

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The surface of Venus, imaged by Soviet spacecraft Venera 13 in March 1982

Since Earth and Venus are so close in size and yet so different in habitability, scientists are studying the signatures that distinguish Earth from Venus as a tool for differentiating habitable planets from their unfriendly look-alikes.

Using data from our Kepler Space Telescope, scientists are working to define the “Venus Zone,” an area where planetary insolation – the amount of light a given planet receives from its host star – plays a key role in atmospheric erosion and greenhouse gas cycles.

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Planets that appear similar to Earth, but are in the Venus Zone of their star, are, we think, unlikely to be able to support life.

Modeling Star-Planet Interactions

When you don’t know one variable in an equation, it can help to plug in a reasonable guess and see how things work out. Scientists used this process to study Proxima b, our closest exoplanet neighbor. We don’t yet know whether Proxima b, which orbits the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri four light-years away, has an atmosphere or a magnetic field like Earth’s. However, we can estimate what would happen if it did.

The scientists started by calculating the radiation emitted by Proxima Centauri based on observations from our Chandra X-ray Observatory. Given that amount of radiation, they estimated how much atmosphere Proxima b would be likely to lose due to ionospheric escape — a process in which the constant outpouring of charged stellar material strips away atmospheric gases.

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With the extreme conditions likely to exist at Proxima b, the planet could lose the equivalent of Earth’s entire atmosphere in 100 million years — just a fraction of Proxima b’s 4-billion-year lifetime. Even in the best-case scenario, that much atmospheric mass escapes over 2 billion years. In other words, even if Proxima b did at one point have an atmosphere like Earth, it would likely be long gone by now.

Imagining Mars with a Different Star

We think Mars was once habitable, supporting water and an atmosphere like Earth’s. But over time, it gradually lost its atmosphere – in part because Mars, unlike Earth, doesn’t have a protective magnetic field, so Mars is exposed to much harsher radiation from the Sun’s solar wind.

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But as another rocky planet at the edge of our solar system’s habitable zone, Mars provides a useful model for a potentially habitable planet. Data from our Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission is helping scientists answer the question: How would Mars have evolved if it were orbiting a different kind of star?

Scientists used computer simulations with data from MAVEN to model a Mars-like planet orbiting a hypothetical M-type red dwarf star. The habitable zone of such a star is much closer than the one around our Sun.

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Being in the habitable zone that much closer to a star has repercussions. In this imaginary situation, the planet would receive about 5 to 10 times more ultraviolet radiation than the real Mars does, speeding up atmospheric escape to much higher rates and shortening the habitable period for the planet by a factor of about 5 to 20.

These results make clear just how delicate a balance needs to exist for life to flourish. But each of these methods provides a valuable new tool in the multi-faceted search for exoplanet life.  Armed with these tools, and bringing to bear a diversity of scientific perspectives, we are better positioned than ever to ask: are we alone?

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