NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope discovers seven Earth-sized worlds orbiting nearby star

Artist’s conception of standing on the surface of exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

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Astronomers find first evidence of possible volcanic activity on a super-Earth exoplanet

Artist’s conception of super-Earth exoplanet 55 Cancri e, before and after volcanic activity on its day side. The surface may be partially molten. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt
Artist’s conception of super-Earth exoplanet 55 Cancri e, before and after volcanic activity on its day side. The surface may be partially molten. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt

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.

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Today’s weather forecast is patchy clouds – on exoplanet Kepler-7b

Size comparison between Kepler-7b (left) and Jupiter (right). Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MIT
Size comparison between Kepler-7b (left) and Jupiter (right).
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MIT

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.

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Spitzer space telescope finds possible exoplanet smaller than Earth

Artist’s conception of exoplanet UCF-1.01, thought to be only about two-thirds the size of Earth. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

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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Comet storm in alien solar system

Artist's conception of 'comet storm' around star Eta Corvi. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

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Miscellaneous wrap-up

As noted earlier, I missed posting more the last few weeks due to being sick, but here is a condensed summary of some of the other recent interesting updates as we come to the end of 2010…

Does Pluto, of all places, have a subsurface ocean? This new report says maybe; Cassini has found new evidence for an ice volcano on Titan; the building blocks of life could possibly form on Titan’s surface more easily than thought if there is any liquid water temporarily on the surface from ice volcano eruptions (or comet impacts); there’s a new theory on how Iapetus may have obtained its odd equatorial ridge; the “arsenic life” discovery continues to be criticized by some other scientists (see also here) while the scientists involved have responded and rebutted those claims (see also here); the Spitzer space telescope has found the first known carbon-rich exoplanet; a fourth large exoplanet has been photographed orbiting a star 129 light-years from Earth; another smaller exoplanet, a “super-Earth” was found to have an atmosphere with either high clouds or hot steam; a new study says that the entire Tharsis Rise on Mars should be named the largest known volcano in the solar system instead of the current Olympus Mons (one of four volcanoes that are part of Tharsis Rise); the warm fissures on Enceladus, the source of its water-ice geysers, were seen up-close by Cassini again; there may be another Jupiter-sized planet hiding out in the outer solar system; and finally, the current known exoplanet count is now 516 (and the hope was for at least 500 by the end of this month)!

Highlighted by, among other things, the next exoplanet update from Kepler in February and the launch of Curiosity, the next bigger and better Mars rover, in November, 2011 should also be an interesting year…

The case of the missing methane

In our solar system, all of the gas giant planets have abundant methane in their atmospheres. It was expected that similar planets in other solar systems would also, but one has been found which doesn’t… the planet GJ 436b, about the size of Neptune, orbiting a star 33 light-years from Earth. Based on analysis by the Spitzer Space Telescope, it appears to have almost none, which is a mystery. It should be noted that methane on these types of planets is primordial methane, a very simple molecule, left over from the planets’ original creation. On small rocky planets like Earth and Mars (and it exists on both), it can be either geological or biological in origin. In the case of Mars, the origin is still uncertain.

Artist's conception. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech