Piecing Together The Narrative of Evolution

A reconstruction of the frond-like sea creature Stromatoveris psygmoglena, which lived during the Cambrian explosion of life forms on Earth.  Newfound fossils of Stromatoveris were compared with Ediacaran fossils, and researchers concluded they were all very early animals and that this animal group survived the mass extinction event that occurred between the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods. (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill.)

An essential characteristic of life is that it evolves. Whether on Earth or potentially Mars, Europa or distant exoplanets, we can assume that whatever life might be present has the capacity and the need to change.

Evolution is intimately tied to the origin-of-life question, which this column often explores.  Having more answers regarding how life might have started on Earth can no doubt help the search for life elsewhere, just as finding life elsewhere could help understand how it started here.

The connection between evolution and exoplanets has an added and essential dimension when it comes to hunting for signatures of distant extraterrestrial life.

Searching for a planet with lots of oxygen and other atmospheric compound in disequilibrium (as on Earth) is certainly a way forward. But it is sobering to realize that those biosignatures would not have been detectable on Earth for most of the time that life has been present.  That’s because large concentrations of oxygen are a relative newcomer to our planet,  product of biological evolution.

With all this in mind, it seems both interesting and useful to look at the work of a researcher studying the fossil record to better understand a particular transition on Earth — the one from simpler organisms to multicellular creatures that can be considered animals.

The surprising, large transitional life of the Ediacaran period, which just preceded the Cambrian explosion of complex life. This grouping is termed the Ediacara assemblage, and existed late in the period.  (John Sibbick)

The researcher is Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill of the University of Cambridge, who I first met at the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo, a unique place where scientists research the origin of Earth and of life on Earth.

She had been included in a group of twelve two-year fellows recruited from around the world who specialized in fields ranging from the microbiology of extreme environments to the current and past dynamics of the deep Earth and the digital world of chemo informatics.  And then there was Hoyal Cuthill, whose field is paleobiology, with a heavy emphasis on evolution.

Now Hoyal Cuthill has published a paper in the journal Paleontology that describes findings in the fossil record that shed light on that transition from less complex organisms like bacteria, algae and fungi to  to animals.

Her specialty is the Ediacaran period some 635 to 541 million years ago.  This transitional period came after a snowball Earth event and was followed by the Cambrian explosion, when ocean life of all sorts grew and changed at an unprecedented rate.  But as she and others have found, the Ediacaran also had large and unique lifeforms, and she is working to make sense of them.

She described her work and findings more specifically as follows:

“When did animals originate? What were the bizarre, early fossils known as the Ediacaran biota?

“We show that both questions are answered by a frond-like sea creature called Stromatoveris psygmoglena known from exceptionally preserved, Cambrian fossils from Chengjiang County, China.

“Originally described from only eight specimens, we examined over 200 new fossils since discovered by researchers from Northwest University (in Xian.) Stromatoveris was compared to earlier Ediacaran fossils in a computer analysis of anatomy and evolutionary relationships.

“This showed that Stromatoveris and seven key members of the Ediacaran biota share detailed anatomical similarities, including multiple, radiating, branched fronds that unite them as a phylum of early animals, originating by the Ediacaran Period and surviving into the early Cambrian.”

Fossil of Stromatoveris psygmoglena, turned on its side.  New research suggests that Stromatoveris and related Ediacaran lifeforms could be among the earliest creatures that can be described as an animal. Ediacaran fossils have been found from Australia to arctic Siberia, Canada to southern Africa.  (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill)


Dickinsonia is a genus of iconic fossils of the Ediacaran biota. While a bilaterian affinity had been previously suggested by some researchers, this study suggests that it is closely related to other members of the Ediacaran biota as well as Cambrian Stromatoveris.  (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill)


More broadly, Hoyal Cuthill told me that “the story of the origin of life and the evolution of life are so interwoven.”

“Looking back as far as we can, we see important patterns emerging from the very start.  All things learn.  If possible, they add to complexity… And evolution does not result in a complete replacement.  When transitions happen -– even big ones – important life patterns continue.  And so do some creatures.”

This continuity within change is what she has focused on, in the transitional Proterozoic Eon when bacterial and plant life evolved into the more complex ocean animal life of the Cambrian explosion.

She has traveled the world and scoured the fossil record to come up with this conclusion:  that creatures that can be called “animals” existed at least as far back as the early days of the Ediacaran, some 630 million years ago, when many macro-fossils quite suddenly appeared following that early epoch of global freezing.

The Ediacaran period gets its name from the Ediacara Hills in Australia, where famous fossils of this age were found. Known also as the Vendian, the Ediacaran was the final stage of Pre-Cambrian time. During this time, large (up to meter-sized) organisms, often shaped like fronds with holdfast discs, lived on thick mats of bacteria which, unlike today, coated the sea floor. The slimy mats acted as a barrier between the water above and the sediments below, preventing oxygen from reaching under the sea floor and making it less habitable.

During this time, large (up to meter-sized) organisms, often shaped like discs or fronds,  lived on or in shallow horizontal burrows beneath thick mats of bacteria which, unlike today, coated the sea floor. The slimy mats acted as a barrier between the water above and the sediments below, preventing oxygen from reaching under the sea floor and turning it largely uninhabitable.

And then when the Cambrian explosion occurred beginning some 540 million years ago, most of those lifeforms were thought to have gone extinct. Some paleobiologists hold that Earth’s first mass extinction actually took place during this period, when newly evolved animals transformed the environment.

Biota from the Ediacaran period through the Cambrian explosion. (Proceedings of the Royal Academy; B M. Gabriela Mángano, Luis A. Buatois)

Hoyal Cuthill says that her research leads her to a very different view: that there was a broad but not mass extinction, and that Ediacaran animals survived well after the Cambrian Explosion.

And in the journal paper published this week, Hoyal Cuthill and co-author Jian Han of Northwest University in Xian present fossil evidence from southern China of Cambrian creatures that she argues are unquestionably animal.

She said they have characteristics such as radial symmetry, differentiated bodies and an animal type organization. These fossils date from the early Cambrian, she said, yet they are similar in important ways to creatures found during the earlier Ediacaran period.

In other words, this group of animals not only persisted from the onset of the Ediacaran period, but also after the often-invoked mass extinction that came along with the Cambrian Explosion.

Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill, paleobiologist with a focus on Ediacaran period when life began to grow substantially in size. (Julieta Sarmiento Photography).

Hoyal Cuthill says that while the fossil record from the Ediacaran is sparse, flora and fauna are known to have included some of the oldest definite multicellular organisms. The organisms, she said, resembled fractal fronds but bear little resemblance to modern lifeforms.

The world’s first ever burrowing animals also evolved in the Ediacaran, though we don’t know what they looked like. The only fossils that have been found are of the burrows themselves, not the creatures that made them.

In an earlier paper, she described how and why many of the Ediacaran lifeforms got as large as they did.

“All organisms need nutrients simply to survive and grow, but nutrients can also dictate body size and shape.

“During the Proterozoic, there seem to have been major changes in the Earth’s oceans which may have triggered this… growth to the macro-scale. These include increases in oxygen and, potentially, other nutrients such as organic carbon.”

In other words, the surrounding atmosphere, oceans, perhaps reversing magnetic fields, tectonic and volcanic activity and the resulting menu of chemical compounds available and climatic conditions are essential drivers of biological evolution.  Just as they are now considered some of the important indicators of a potentially habitable exoplanet.

And on a currently far more fanciful note, wouldn’t it be wonderful if scientists could some day not only find life beyond Earth, but to learn to study how that life, too, might have evolved.




Large Reservoir of Liquid Water Found Deep Below the Surface of Mars

Artist impression of the Mars Express spacecraft probing the southern hemisphere of Mars, superimposed on a radar cross section of the southern polar layered deposits. The leftmost white line is the radar echo from the Martian surface, while the light blue spots are highlighted radar echoes along the bottom of the ice.  Those highlighted areas measure very high reflectivity, interpreted as being caused by the presence of water. (ESA, INAF. Graphic rendering by Davide Coero Borga )

Far beneath the frigid surface of the South Pole of Mars is probably the last place where you might expect the first large body of Martian liquid water would be found.  It’s -170 F on the surface, there are no known geothermal sources that could warm the subterranean ice to make a meltwater lake, and the liquid water is calculated to be more than a mile below the surface.

Yet signs of that liquid water are what a team of Italian scientists detected — a finding that they say strongly suggests that there are other underground lakes and streams below the surface of Mars.  In a Science journal article released today, the scientists described the subterranean lake they found as being about 20 kilometers in diameter.

The detection adds significantly to the long-studied and long-debated question of how much surface water was once on Mars, a subject that has major implications for the question of whether life ever existed on the planet.

Finding the subterranean lake points to not only a wetter early Mars, said co-author Enrico Flamini of the Italian space agency, but also to a Mars that had a water cycle that collected and delivered the liquid water.  That would mean the presence of clouds, rain, evaporation, rivers, lakes and water to seep through surface cracks and pool underground.

Scientists have found many fossil waterways on Mars, minerals that can only be formed in the presence of water, and what might be the site of an ancient ocean.

But in terms of liquid water now on the planet, the record is thin.  Drops of water collected on the leg of NASA’s Phoenix Lander after it touched down in 2008, and what some have described as briny water appears to be flowing down some steep slopes in summertime.  Called recurrent slope lineae or RSLs, they appear at numerous locations when the temperatures rise and disappear when they drop.

This lake is different, however, and its detection is a major step forward in understanding the history of Mars.

Color photo mosaic of a portion of Planum Australe on Mars.  The subsurface reflective echo power is color coded and deep blue corresponds to the strongest reflections, which are interpreted as being caused by the presence of water. (USGS Astrogeology Science Center, Arizona State University, INAF)

The discovery was made analyzing echoes captured by the the radar instruments on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, a satellite orbiting the planet since 2002.  The data for this discovery was collected from observation made between 2012 and 2015.


A schematic of how scientists used radar to find what they interpret to be liquid water beneath the surface of Mars. (ESA)

Antarctic researchers have long used radar on aircraft to search for lakes beneath the thick glaciers and ice layers,  and have found several hundred.  The largest is Lake Vostok, which is the sixth largest lake on Earth in terms of volume of water.  And it is two miles below the coldest spot on Earth.

So looking for a liquid lake below the southern pole of Mars wasn’t so peculiar after all.  In fact, lead author Roberto Orosei of the Institute of Radioastronomy of Bologna, Italy said that it was the ability to detect subsurface water beneath the ice of Antarctica and Greenland that helped inspire the team to look at Mars.

There are a number of ways to keep water liquid in the deep subsurface even when it is surrounded by ice.  As described by the Italian team and an accompanying Science Perspective article by Anja Diez of the Norwegian Polar Institute, the enormous pressure of the ice lowers the freezing point of water substantially.

Added to that pressure on Mars is the known presence of many salts, that the authors propose mix with the water to form a brine that lowers the freezing point further.

So the conditions are present for additional lakes and streams on Mars.  And according to Flamini, solar system exploration manager for the Italian space agency, the team is confident there are more and some of them larger than the one detected.  Finding them, however, is a difficult process and may be beyond the capabilities of the radar equipment now orbiting Mars.


Subsurface lakes and rivers in Antarctica. Now at least one similar lake has been found under the southern polar region of Mars. (NASA/JPL)

The view that subsurface water is present on Mars is hardly new.  Stephen Clifford, for many years a staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, even wrote in 1987 that there could be liquid water at the base of the Martian poles due to the kind of high pressure environments he had studied in Greenland and Antarctica.

So you can imagine how gratifying it might be to learn, as he put it “of some evidence that shows that early theoretical work has some actual connection to reality.”

He considers the new findings to be “persuasive, but not definitive” — needing confirmation with other instruments.

Clifford’s wait has been long, indeed.  Many observations by teams using myriad instruments over the years did not produce the results of the Italian team.

Their discovery of liquid water is based on receiving particularly strong radar echoes from the base of the southern polar ice — echoes consistent with the higher radar reflectivity of water (as opposed to ice or rock.)

After analyzing the data in some novels ways and going through the many possible explanations other than the presence of a lake, Orosei said that none fit the results they had.  The explanation, then, was clear:  “We have to conclude there is liquid water on Mars.”

The depth of the lake — the distance from top to bottom — was impossible to measure, though the team concluded it was at least one meter and perhaps in the tens of meters.

Might the lake be a habitable?  Orosei said that because of the high salt levels “this is not a very pleasant environment for life.”

But who knows?  As he pointed out, Lake Vostok and other subglacial Antarctic lake, are known to be home to single-cell organisms that not only survive in their very salty world, but use the salt as part of their essential metabolism.




Exoplanet Science Flying High

An artist’s concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star, as of February 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Early this spring, the organizers of an exoplanet science gathering at Cambridge University put out the word that they would host a major meeting this summer.  Within a week, the 300 allotted slots had been filled by scientists aspiring and veteran, and within a short time the waiting list was up to 150 more.

Not the kind of reaction you might expect for a hardcore, topic-specific meeting, but exoplanet science is now in a phase of enormous growth and excitement.  With so many discoveries already made and waiting to be made, so many new (and long-standing) questions to be worked on, so much data coming in to be analyzed and turned into findings,  the field has something of a golden shine.

What’s more, it has more than a little of the feel of the Wild West.

Planet hunters Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla site. (L. Weinstein/Ciel et Espace Photos)

Didier Queloz, a professor now at Cambridge but in the mid 1990s half of the team that identified the first exoplanet, is the organizer of the conference.

“It sometimes seems like there’s not much exploration to be done on Earth, and the opposite is the case with exoplanets,” he told me outside the Cambridge gathering.

“I think a lot of young scientists are attracted to the excitement of exoplanets, to a field where there’s so much that isn’t known or understood.”

Michel Mayor of the Observatory of Geneva — and the senior half of the team that detected the first exoplanet orbiting a star like our sun, 51 Pegasi b– had opened the gathering with a history of the search for extra-solar planets.

That search had some conceptual success prior to the actual 1995 announcement of an exoplanet discovery, but several claims of having actually found an exoplanet had been made and shown to be wanting.  Except for the relative handful of scientists personally involved, the field was something of a sideshow.

“At the time we made our first discovery, I basically knew everyone in the field.  We were on our own.”

Now there are thousands of people, many of them young people, studying exoplanets.  And the young people, they have to be smarter, more clever, because the questions are harder.”

And enormous progress is being made.

The pace of discovery is charted here by Princeton University physicist and astronomer Joshua Winn. First is a graphic of all the 3,735 exoplanet discoveries made since 1995, and then the 1943 planets found just from 2016 to today.

The total number and distribution of known exoplanets, identified by the mass of the planet and their distance from their host star. A legend to the four major techniques for finding exoplanets is in the lower right The circled planets in green are those in our solar system. All the data comes from the NASA Exoplanet archive. (Joshua Winn, Princeton University)


Based on published papers, Winn found that the discovery of 1,943 new planets had been announced in papers between 2016 and today. Winn said the number is not formal as some debate remains whether a small number are planets or not.

Many of the planets discovered via the transit method come from the Kepler and K2 missions.  Kepler revolutionized the field with its four years of intensively observing a region of the sky for planet transits in front of their star.

The K2 mission began after the second of Kepler’s four stabilizing wheels failed. But adjustments were made and the second incarnation of Kepler has continued to find planets, though in a different way.

While a majority of exoplanets have been detected via the transit method, the first exoplanet was discovered by Mayor and Queloz via the radial velocity method — which involves ground-based measurements of the “wobble” of a star caused by the gravitational pull of a planet.

Many astronomers continue to use the technique because it provides more information about the minimum mass and orbital eccentricity of planet.  In addition, two high-precision, next-generation spectrometers for radial velocity measuring are now coming on line and are expected to significantly improve the detection of smaller planets using that method.

One is the ESPRESSO instrument (the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic) recently installed by the European Southern Observatory on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. The other newcomer is EXPRES, developed by scientists at Yale University, with support for the National Science Foundation.  The instrument, designed go look for Earth-sized planets, has been installed on the Lowell Observatory Discovery Channel Telescope in Arizona.


The Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) will search for exoplanets with unprecedented precision by looking at the minuscule changes in the properties of light coming from their host stars. This picture shows the front-end structure where the light beams coming from the four Very Large Telescopes are brought together and fed into fibers. They then deliver the photons to a spectrograph in another room, which makes the radial velocity measurements. (Giorgio Calderone, INAF Trieste)

The conference, which will go through the week, focuses both generally and in great detail on many of the core questions of the field:  how exoplanets are formed, what kind of stars are likely to produce what kinds of planets, the makeup and dynamics of exoplanet atmospheres, planet migration, the architecture of planetary systems.

And, of course, where new exoplanets might be found.  (Mostly around red dwarf stars, several scientists argued, and many in the relatively near neighborhood.)

Notably, many of the exoplanet questions being studied have clear implications for better understanding our own solar system.  In fact, it is often said that we won’t really understand the workings and history of our solar system, planets, moons, asteroids and more until we know a lot more about the billions and billion of other planetary systems in our galaxy.

Also notable for this conference is the lack of emphasis on biosignatures, habitability and the search for life beyond Earth.  The conference is billed as being about “exoplanet science,” and Queloz explained the absence of habitability and life-detection talks was based on the scientific progress made, or not made, in the past two years.

When it comes to planet detection, however, theory and practice are coming together in searches for exoplanets around smaller and cooler stars, and even around young stars where planets are just forming.  Such a planet discovery was announced this week coming from the European Space Agency’s Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument.


The first clear image of a planet caught while being formed,around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet is visible as a bright point to the right of center. The star at the center is blacked out by a coronagraph mask that blocks its blinding light. The SPHERE instrument is on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (A. Müller et al./ESO)


The Cambridge exoplanet conference is the second in a series begun two years ago by Queloz and Kevin Heng, an exoplanet atmosphere theoretician at the University of Bern and director of the Center for Space and Habitability.

The two had been struck by how European exoplanet conferences seemed to be dominated by senior scientists, with little time or space for the many younger men and women coming up in the field.  The presentations also seemed more long and formal than needed.

So using funds from their own institutions to seed the conferences, Heng set up the first in Davos, Switzerland and Didier the second in Cambridge.  The idea has caught on, and similar gathering are now scheduled at two year intervals in Heidelberg, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, Porto and hopefully later in Asia, too.

There is no dearth of other exoplanet gatherings around the world, and attendees report that they are also very well attended.

But given sheer amount of work now being done in the field that was so lonely only twenty years ago,  they surely appear to be warranted.

And newsworthy, though no always reportable.

Three of the papers discussed in the Cambridge conference, for instance, are under reporting embargo from the journal Nature. And information from George Ricker, principal investigator for NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), about the early days of the mission are also under embargo.  Suffice it to say, however, that Ricker reported that things are going well for the exoplanet-hunting telescope.


This test image from one of the four cameras aboard the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captures a swath of the southern sky along the plane of our galaxy. TESS is designed to study exoplanets around the brightest stars, and is expected to cover more than 400 times the amount of sky shown in this image. (NASA/MIT/TESS)

While the initial discovery of an exoplanet was difficult for sure, what the much, much larger field is grappling with now is clearly even more challenging.  With that in mind, I asked Queloz what he hoped to see from exoplanets in the years ahead.

“We have reached the point where we know stars usually have planets.  But what we are still looking for is an Earth twin — a planet clearly like ours.  That we have not found.  Before I retire, what I hope for is the discovery of that Earth twin.”




NASA’s Planet-Hunter TESS Has Just Been Launched to Check Out the Near Exoplanet Neighborhood


This column was written by my colleague Elizabeth Tasker, now at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS).  Trained as an astrophysicist, she researches planet and galaxy formation and also writes on space science topics.  Her book, “The Planet Factory,” came out last year.

The TESS exoplanet hunter telescope launched today on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The space telescope will survey almost the entire sky, staring at the brightest and closest stars in an effort to find any planets that might be orbiting them. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

On January 5, 2010, NASA issued  landmark press release : the Kepler Space Telescope had discovered its first five new extra-solar planets.

The previous twenty years had seen the discovery of just over 400 planets beyond the solar system. The majority of these new worlds were Jupiter-mass gas giants, many bunched up against their star on orbits far shorter than that of Mercury. We had learnt that our planetary system was not alone in the Galaxy, but small rocky worlds on temperate orbits might still have been rare.

Based on just six weeks of data, these first discoveries from Kepler were also hot Jupiters; the easiest planets to find due to their large size and swiftly repeating signature as they zipped around the star. But expectations were high that this would be just the beginning.

“We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect,” said Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters at the time the discovery was announced. “It’s only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth analog.”

Morse’s prediction was to prove absolutely right. Now at the end of its life, the Kepler Space Telescope has found 2,343 confirmed planets, 30 of which are smaller than twice the size of the Earth and in the so-called “Habitable Zone”, meaning they receive similar levels of insolation –the amount of solar radiation reaching a given area–to our own planet.

Yet, the question remains: were any of these indeed Earth analogs?

In just a few decades, thanks to Kepler, the Hubble Space Telescope and scores of astronomers at ground-based observatories, we have gone from suspecting the presence of exoplanets to knowing there are more exoplanets than stars in our galaxy. (NASA/Ames Research Station; Jessie Dotson and Wendy Stenzel)

It was a question that Kepler was not equipped to answer. Kepler identifies the presence of a planet by looking for the periodic dip in starlight as a planet passes across the star’s surface. This “transit technique” reveals the planet’s radius and its distance from the star, which provides an estimate of the insolation level but nothing about the planet surface conditions.

To distinguish between surfaces like those of Earth or Venus, a new generation of space telescopes is required.

These are the tasks before NASA’s long-awaited flagship James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and  WFIRST  (if ultimately funded,)  Europe’s ARIEL mission and potentially what would be the 2030s flagship space telescope LUVOIR, if it is selected by NASA over three competitors. These telescopes will be able to probe exoplanet atmospheres and will have the capacity to measure the faint reflected light of the planets to study, via spectroscopy, their composition, geology and possibly biology.

But there is one big problem. While Kepler has found thousands of exoplanets, very few are suitable targets for these studies.

At the time of Kepler’s launch, we had no idea whether planet formation was common or anything about the distribution of planet sizes. Kepler therefore performed a planet census. By staring continuously at a small patch of the sky, Kepler waited out the time needed to see planets whose orbits took days, months and then years to complete.

From this, we discovered that planet formation takes place around the majority of stars, small planets are common and planets frequently get shoveled inwards onto short orbits close to the star. The cost of focusing on a small patch of sky is that many of the planets Kepler discovered were very distant. This is like staring into a forest; if you try to count 100 trees by looking in just one direction, many will be deep in the wood and far away from you.

Looping animated gif of the unique orbit TESS will fly. At 13.7 days, it is exactly half of the moon’s orbit, which lets the moon stabilize it. During the part of the orbit marked with blue, TESS will observe the sky, collecting science data. During the orange part, when TESS is closest to Earth, it will transmit that data to the ground. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)”

These distant planets are great for number counting, but they are too far away for their atmosphere or reflected light to be detected. In such cases, even enticing properties such as an orbit within the habitable zone have little meaning as follow-up studies that could probe signs of life are not possible.

Yet the census result that short-period planets were common allows for an entirely new type of mission. A survey to focus only on the bright, close stars whose planets would be near enough to detect their atmospheres with instruments such as the JWST. Prior to Kepler, we did not know such a telescope would find any planets. Now, we can be certain.

And that is why TESS was launched on Wednesday.

Standing for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, TESS is a NASA mission to look for planets around bright stars less than 300 light years from Earth. All told, TESS will look at 200,000 stars spread over 85% of the sky in two years. For comparison, the field of view for Kepler had a sky coverage of just 0.25% and looked as deep as 3,000 light years into space.

Such a wide sweep means TESS cannot spend long staring at any one position. TESS will observe most of the sky for about 27 days, which is ample for detecting planets on ten day orbits, the most common orbital period found by Kepler. Over the ecliptic pole (90 degrees from the Sun’s position), TESS will observe somewhere between 27 and 351 days.  This region is where the JWST will be able to study planets throughout the year.

Image showing the planned viewing regions for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission. (Roland Vanderspek, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Bright and close by red dwarf stars, and the planets around them, are a prime target for TESS.  These stars are smaller and cooler than our sun, which makes it easier to spot the subtle dip in brightness from smaller planets. The cooler temperatures also mean that planets can orbit much closer to the star without roasting. A ten day orbit is still unlikely to be within the habitable zone, but orbits lasting between 20 – 40 days (which TESS will spot near the ecliptic poles) may receive similar insolation levels to the Earth.

A recent paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal by Sarah Ballard, an exoplanet astronomer at MIT, estimated that TESS may find as many as 1000 planets orbiting red dwarfs and around 15 of these may be less than twice the size of the Earth and orbit within the habitable zone; ideal candidates for a JWST observation.

Previous predictions for TESS suggested the telescope will find a total (all orbits around all stars) of 500 planets less than twice the size of the Earth and 20,000 exoplanets over the first two years. Ballard’s new numbers for planets around red dwarfs are 1.5 times higher than previous predictions, so these totals look likely to be lower limits.

While future atmospheric studies with JWST are exciting, these observations will still be very challenging. Time on this multi-purpose telescope will also be limited and we have to wait until 2020 for the launch. However, the bright stars targeted by TESS are also perfect for a second type of planet hunting method: the radial velocity technique.

This second-most prolific planet-hunting technique looks for the slight shift in the wavelength of the light as the star wobbles due to the gravitational pull of the planet. As the star moves away from Earth, the light waves stretch and redden. The light shifts towards blue as the star wobbles back our way. The result is a measurement of the planet’s minimum mass. The true mass can be found if the inclination of the orbit is known, which can be measured if the planet is also seen to transit.

With both a transit measurement from TESS and a radial velocity measurement from another ground-based instrument such as HARPS, on Europe’s La Silla Telescope in Chile, the average density of the planet can be calculated.

The transit technique identifies planets by the tiny drop in starlight measured as a planet passes in front of the star.


The radial velocity technique identifies planets via the shift in the wavelength of the light of a star as it wobbles due to the presence of a planet.

The planet density can reveal whether a world is gaseous or rocky or heavy in volatiles such as water. This is a particularly interesting question for the “super Earths” that are one of the most common class of planet found by Kepler, but for which we have no solar system analog. While an average density can only be a crude estimate of the planet interior, it can potentially be measured for a large number of the planets found by TESS and is an extremely useful guide for narrowing down planet formation theories.

But before TESS can find these planets, it first has to get into a rather unusual orbit. From launch on the SpaceX Falcon 9, TESS will boost its orbit using solid rocket motors (ignitable cylinders of solid propellent) until it is able to get a kick from the Moon’s gravity. The need for the lunar push was why the launch window for TESS was a very brief 30 seconds.

After the lunar shove, TESS will enter a highly elliptical orbit around the Earth, circling our planet every 13.7 days. This means TESS will orbit the Earth twice in the time it takes the Moon to orbit once: a situation known as a 2:1 resonance.

Planets that orbit in very close packed systems are often seen to be in similar resonant orbits. For examples, the TRAPPIST-1  worlds are in resonance and within our own solar system, the Jovian moons of Io, Europa and Ganymede orbit Jupiter in a 4:2:1 resonance.

This common occurrence is because resonant orbits are very stable, due to the pull from the gravity of the neighboring planets or moons exactly cancelling out. It is exactly for this reason that such an orbit has been chosen for TESS. With the gravitational tugs from the Moon cancelling out over an orbit, TESS’s path around the Earth will remain stable for decades. This potentially allows the mission to continue far beyond its designated two year lifespan.

TESS will take about 60 days to reach its final orbit and power-on, initialize and test its instruments. Science operations are expected to begin properly 68 days after launch. The first full data release from TESS is planned for next January, but with science operations starting in the summer we may hear the first results from TESS in the second half of this year.

Unlike with Kepler, this will be the data that will let us get to know our neighborhood.


The Just-Approved European ARIEL Mission Will Be First Dedicated to Probing Exoplanet Atmospheres



This column was written by my colleague Elizabeth Tasker, now at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS).  Trained as an astrophysicist, she researches planet and galaxy formation and also writes on space science topics.  Her book, “The Planet Factory,” came out last year.


The Ariel space telescope will explore the atmospheres of exoplanets. (Artist impression, ESA)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved the ARIEL space mission—the world’s first dedicated exoplanet atmosphere sniffer— to fly in 2028.

ARIEL stands for the “Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-Survey mission.” It is a space telescope that can detect which atoms and molecules are present in the atmosphere of an exoplanet.

The mission was selected as a medium class mission in the ESA Cosmic Vision program; the agency’s decadal plan for space missions that spans 2015 – 2025.

One of the central themes for Cosmic Vision is uncovering the conditions for planet formation and the origins of life. This has resulted in three dedicated exoplanet missions within the same decadal plan. ARIEL will join CHEOPS (in the small class mission category) and PLATO (another medium class mission) in studying worlds beyond our own sun.

Yet ARIEL is a different type of telescope from the other exoplanet-focused missions. To understand why, we need to examine what properties we can observe of these distance exo-worlds.

Exoplanet missions can be broadly divided into two types. The first type are the exoplanet hunter missions that search the skies for new worlds.

These are spacecraft and instruments such as the NASA Kepler Space Telescope. Since it launched in 2009, Kepler has been an incredibly prolific planet hunter. The telescope has found thousands of planets, modeled their orbits and told us about the distribution of their sizes.

From Kepler, we have learnt that planet formation is common, that it can occur around stars far different from our own sun, and that these worlds can have a vast range of sizes and myriad of orbits quite unlike our own Solar System.


Current and future (or proposed) space missions with capacities to identify and characterize exoplanets. (NASA,ESA: T. Wynne/JPL, composited by Barbara Aulicino)


However, the information Kepler is able to provide about individual planets is very limited. The telescope monitors stars for the tiny drop in light as the planet crosses (or “transits”) the star’s surface. From this, astronomers can measure the radius of the planet and its orbital period but nothing about the planet’s surface conditions.

The result is a little like knowing the number of students and distribution of grades in a particular school, but having no idea if the student who sits in the third row actually likes math.

The second medium-class mission in the ESA Cosmic Vision program, PLATO, is also a planet hunter. Like Kepler, PLATO will search stars for the periodic light dip that indicates the presence of a planet.

However, the telescope will explore a much larger region of the sky than Kepler, with an emphasis on detecting rocky planets on Earth-like orbits that receive a similar amount of radiation as our own planet (the so-called habitable zone).

While PLATO will not be able to tell if these planets are actually Earth-like (and not just Earth-sized on similar orbits), it will tell us a lot more about the statistics of solar systems like our own. I’m also going to throw CHEOPS into this category at well.

Technically, CHEOPS is not a planet hunter as the telescope will search for the transit light dip of stars already known to host planets. These worlds have been detected by the wobble of the star due to the presence of the orbiting planet, a method known as the radial velocity or Doppler wobble technique.

This method provides the minimum mass of a planet, but the true mass depends on the angle of the planet’s orbit. If a transit could be detected, then both the radius and the orbit inclination would be known, providing a density for these worlds. Bulk density is a very useful measurement for differentiating between rocky super Earths and gaseous mini Neptunes, providing a huge boost information for planet formation theories.

However, CHEOPS still will not know anything about the composition or surface conditions of these planets.


NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is scheduled to launch next months. (Artist impression, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

By virtue of its imminent launch in the next month, the NASA TESS mission is one of the most exciting new entries in the planet hunter class. TESS will sweep over the whole sky, a huge coverage that means the telescope must focus on planets orbiting bright stars at a swift click of about 10 days per orbit.

In a two-year survey of the solar neighborhood, TESS will monitor more than 200,000 stars for planetary transits. This first-ever space-borne all-sky transit survey will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, around a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances.

If we compare the planet hunter missions to our school analogy, Kepler studied the grades of one school, TESS is checking a single class in multiple schools and PLATO is aiming for a full educational census. CHEOPS is adding in extra scores to greatly extend the useful statistics.

One of the key goals of TESS is to identify good targets for atmospheric follow-up missions —  a topic that brings us finally back to ARIEL.


Transmission spectroscopy: Molecules in an exoplanet’s atmosphere absorb different wavelengths of light, causing the atmosphere to go from transparent (left) to opaque (right). The observed planet radius therefore depends on the wavelength being observed. ARIEL can use this to determine atmospheric composition.


In contrast to Kepler, PLATO and TESS, ARIEL is not trying to find new planets.Instead, the telescope belongs to the second type of mission which probes conditions on the planet itself.

ARIEL will look at starlight that is passing through the atmosphere of known transiting planets. Molecules in the atmosphere absorb different wavelengths of light, turning the gases surrounding the planet opaque at these wavelengths. This produces a change in the planet’s radius as its atmosphere switches from transparent to opaque.

By measuring this apparent size change for different wavelengths, ARIEL can decipher what gases must be in the planet’s atmosphere.

This technique is known as transmission spectroscopy, where the term spectroscopy  refers to studying light split into its constituent wavelengths or spectrum. These molecules are the products of the planet’s composition, chemistry and —in the case of rocky planets— geological and potentially biological processes. This makes transmission spectroscopy a direct measure of what is going on within the planet.


Eclipse spectrometry: As the planet is eclipsed by the star, a secondary dip in luminosity is observed. This corresponds to the planet’s own radiated and reflected light and can also reveal atmospheric details.


In addition to exploring the light dip during the planet’s transit, ARIEL will also examine the tiny difference in radiation as the planet ducks behind the star.

We normally consider the planet as a dark object obscuring the star’s light during the transiting part of its orbit. However, the planet also emits radiation both due to its ownheat and reflected starlight. Just before the planet is eclipsed by the star, the observed luminosity peaks due to the combination of the star and fully illuminated planet.

When the planet moves behind the star and disappears from view, there is a sudden drop corresponding to the loss of the planet’s radiation. This fluctuation is more tiny than when the planet transits across the star, but its detection measures the planet’s own radiation.

The magnitude of this dip also depends on wavelength, as the structure and composition of the planet’s atmosphere will determine what wavelengths of radiation are being reflected and emitted.

Looking at the spectrum of this emitted (rather than transmitted) light gives ARIEL a second handle on planet conditions. The planet’s disappearance behind the star is known as the secondary or planetary eclipse giving this technique the name eclipse spectroscopy.

As well as studying the components of light as the planet and star eclipse one another, ARIEL will also monitor the luminosity of the planet during its whole orbit. This allows the telescope to see changes in radiation as different parts of the planet come into view, corresponding to a longitudinal map of planet temperature. Such changes are known as phase variations, referring to the star illuminating the planet at different angles just like phases of the moon.

An example of what can be drawn from this is found in the intriguing case of a planet known as 55 Cancri e. 55 Cancri e is a planet roughly twice the size of the Earth on an orbit so short that the scorching hot world circles its star in just 17 hours. This close proximity to the star makes 55 Cancri e tidally locked; like the moon orbiting the Earth, one side of 55 Cancri e always faces the star, giving a hemisphere of perpetual day and one of never ending night.


Super-Earth 55 Cancri e orbits in front of its parent star in this artist’s illustration. (ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser)


It would be logical to assume that the hottest spot on 55 Cancri e would be the center of the day side, known as the sub-stellar point. This would be visible just before the planet ducked behind the star.

However, a 2016 paper in the journal Nature, led by Brice-Olivier Demory from the University of Cambridge used the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope to map the phase variations of 55 Cancri e. To their surprise, the hot spot was shifted by 41 degrees east of the expected location. This suggested either 55 Cancri e had an atmosphere capable of redistributing the star’s heat or perhaps the baking surface was molten rock that pushed the hottest material along a river of lava.

The result from 55 Cancri e shows that ARIEL will not be the first attempt to study exoplanet atmospheres. However, it will be the first mission entirely dedicated to this task. This comes with serious advantages.

The first forages into exoplanet atmospheric data came from the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes and ground-based observatories. These have been enticing but sparse, with data from only a handful of planets smaller than Neptune.

The upcoming (but, alas, just delayed until 2020) NASA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will also be powerful observatories for exploring exoplanet atmospheres, but these are general purpose facilities whose high demand will give time for just a few tens of possible planetary targets.

To truly explore the composition of exoplanets, we need an order of magnitude more examples of atmospheric data. Without this, we risk building our models of planet formation on a handful of observed compositions that may not be typical, or only occur in particular situations. ARIEL aims to observe around 1000 exoplanet atmospheres, probing the gases enveloping planets from Jupiter to super-Earth in size.

“With the current data sets, we have unsettled questions including why some planets have flatter spectrum (less evidence of light being absorbed by different molecules) and others with distinct absorption features, and the diversity of atmospheric inventories and profiles is not well understood,” explains Yuka Fujii, Associate Professor at the Earth Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “The large number of planets Ariel will give us more clues.”

As a mission with a dedicated task, ARIEL is also fine tuned for the job.

The telescope can simultaneously examine a broad range of wavelengths covering all the major expected atmospheric gases such as water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide and cyanide through to the metallic compounds.

Simultaneous measurements are particularly exciting, as stars are rambunctious plasma balls and stellar activity in-between observations may interfere with being able to directly compare different wavelength observations.

While the atmosphere is potentially a good place to hunt out biosignatures, directly spotting biological action is not a target for ARIEL. The planets ARIEL will be studying are hot worlds which orbit close enough to their star to have equilibrium temperatures (the temperature at the top of the atmosphere) above 660°F (350°C).


ARIEL will focus on hot planets that orbit close to their star. (Artist impression, ESA/ATG medialab.)


The advantage of the high temperature is that the atmosphere should reflect the composition of the planet, whereas a cooler world might have many of its molecules in solid form or in condensed clouds, hidden from ARIEL.

Speaking to the journal Nature, the principal investor for the ARIEL mission, Giovanna Tinetti said that “ARIEL can really give us a full picture of what exoplanets are made of, how they form and how they evolve.”

Probing the main composition for the planet makes the data from ARIEL invaluable to understanding how and where planets formed. This last point is particularly intriguing, since results from our planet hunting telescopes strongly suggest planets do not stay where they are born.

The first discoveries of Jupiter-sized worlds on orbits much shorter than Mercury was highly surprising, since there should not be enough dusty building material so close to the star to create large planets. This advanced the idea of planetary migration, where planets form on one orbit and then move to another.

What is not clear is where these planets formed and when they began their migration. Unpicking the planet composition will help pin down their trajectories, since different elements condense into planet-building material at different distances from the star. A planet rich in water vapor, for example, likely formed far from the star where it was cold enough for ice to freeze.

Mapping the evolution of planetary systems has relevance for more temperate worlds, as the composition of planets on Earth-like orbits will dictate whether they can support processes we use for life, such as a carbon-silicate cycle and magnetic field. As the first dedicated atmospheric explorer, ARIEL will also act as a pathfinder for future missions that may one day be able to sniff the gases around a habitable world.

Whether your interests lie in composition, planet evolution or habitability, ARIEL will be the one to watch.

A wonderful overview of the different exoplanet missions, including ARIEL, Plato and TESS, can be found on David Kipping’s “Cool Worlds” YouTube series.