The search for exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars – has been one of the most exciting developments in astronomy and space science in recent years. The first couple exoplanets were found in 1992, and now over 3,400 have been confirmed, with over 5,000 additional candidates. Some of these are smaller rocky worlds similar in size to Earth, bringing scientists close to finding “Earth 2.0” – another planet with water and, perhaps, life. Yesterday, NASA announced another key discovery, bringing us even closer to finding another living world – a star with not just one or two Earth-sized planets orbiting it, but seven. Three of those planets are in the star’s habitable zone, where, depending upon other surface conditions, lakes or oceans of liquid water could exist.
Discovering new exoplanets has become rather routine in the last few years, but determining just what conditions exist on any of them is naturally more difficult, since they are so far away. But astronomers are making advances in this area as well, and now they have found the first evidence of changing temperatures – and possible volcanic activity – on a distant super-Earth exoplanet.
Patchy clouds in the west and clear skies in the east. That is the current weather forecast, not for anywhere on Earth, but for a much more distant world in another solar system. For the first time, astronomers have been able to map cloud patterns on such a far-away exoplanet, it was announced on September 30, 2013.
The Kepler space telescope has already started finding its first exoplanets which are about the size of Earth or smaller, and the results seem to indicate that these smaller rocky worlds are much more numerous than larger gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn, an exciting trend.
Now, another space telescope, Spitzer, has apparently found its very first exoplanet, and it is estimated to be one of the smallest found so far – only about two-thirds the size of the Earth. Spitzer has done follow-up studies of previous exoplant discoveries, but this is the first initial discovery of its own.
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New evidence from the Spitzer Space Telescope suggests that there is a “storm” of comets surrounding a nearby star, Eta Corvi, which is about 60 light-years from Earth. It is thought to be similar to the “Late Heavy Bombardment” in our own solar system several billion years ago, when comets rained down on the planets and are believed to have brought water and organics to the early Earth. The same thing may be happening now at Eta Corvi, if there are any planets there.
“We believe we have direct evidence for an ongoing Late Heavy Bombardment in the nearby star system Eta Corvi, occurring about the same time as in our solar system,” said Carey Lisse, senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and lead author of a paper detailing the findings. “We think the Eta Corvi system should be studied in detail to learn more about the rain of impacting comets and other objects that may have started life on our own planet,” Lisse said.
The makeup of this comet cloud closely resembles comets in our solar system, and suggest that a giant comet may have been obliterated, perhaps when it collided with a planet. Water ice, organics and rock have all been identified in the comet cloud. There is also an even larger, colder ring of dust farther out from Eta Corvi, which resembles the Kuiper Belt of comets and other debris in our solar system, left over from the solar system’s formation.
All of these similarities reinforce the idea that the way in which our solar system formed is much like how other older ones formed in the past, and younger ones are still forming today, as a common process in the universe.
This article was first published on Examiner.com.