Can You Overwater a Planet?


Water worlds, especially if they have no land on them, are unlikely to be home to life, or at least lifewe can detect.  Some of the basic atmospheric and mineral cycles that make a planet habitable will be absent. Cool animation of such a world. (NASA)

By guest columnist Elizabeth Tasker


Wherever we find water on Earth, we find life. It is a connection that extends to the most inhospitable locations, such as the acidic pools of Yellowstone, the black smokers on the ocean floor or the cracks in frozen glaciers. This intimate relationship led to the NASA maxim, “Follow the Water”, when searching for life on other planets.

Yet it turns out you can have too much of a good thing. In the November NExSS Habitable Worlds workshop in Wyoming, researchers discussed what would happen if you over-watered a planet. The conclusions were grim.

Despite oceans covering over 70% of our planet’s surface, the Earth is relatively water-poor, with water only making up approximately 0.1% of the Earth’s mass. This deficit is due to our location in the Solar System, which was too warm to incorporate frozen ices into the forming Earth. Instead, it is widely — though not exclusively — theorized that the Earth formed dry and water was later delivered by impacts from icy meteorites. It is a theory that two asteroid missions, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx and JAXA’s Hayabusa2, will test when they reach their destinations next year.

But not all planets orbit where they were formed. Around other stars, planets frequently show evidence of having migrated to their present orbit from a birth location elsewhere in the planetary system.

One example are the seven planets orbiting the star, TRAPPIST-1. Discovered in February this year, these Earth-sized worlds orbit in resonance, meaning that their orbital times are nearly exact integer ratios. Such a pattern is thought to occur in systems of planets that formed further away from the star and migrated inwards.


Trappist-1 and some of its seven orbiting planets.  They would have been sterilized by high levels of radiation in the early eons of that solar system — unless they were formed far out and then migrated in.  That scenario would also allow for the planets to contain substantial amounts of water. (NASA)

The TRAPPIST-1 worlds currently orbit in a temperate region where the levels of radiation from the star are similar to that received by our terrestrial worlds. Three of the planets orbit in the star’s habitable zone, where a planet like the Earth is most likely to exist.

However, if these planets were born further from the star, they may have formed with a high fraction of their mass in ices. As the planets migrated inwards to more clement orbits, this ice would have melted to produce a deep ocean. The result would be water worlds.

With more water than the Earth, such planets are unlikely to have any exposed land. This does not initially sound like a problem; life thrives in the Earth’s seas, from photosynthesizing algae to the largest mammals on the planet. The problem occurs with the planet itself.

The clement environment on the Earth’s surface is dependent on our atmosphere. If this envelope of gas was stripped away, the Earth’s average global temperature would be about -18°C (-0.4°F): too cold for liquid water. Instead, this envelope of gases results in a global average of 15°C (59°F).

Exactly how much heat is trapped by our atmosphere depends on the quantity of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. On geological timescales, the carbon dioxide levels can be adjusted by a geological process known as the “carbon-silicate cycle”.

In this cycle, carbon dioxide in the air dissolves in rainwater where it splashes down on the Earth’s silicate rocks. The resulting reaction is termed “weathering”. Weathering forms carbonates and releases minerals from the rocks that wash into the oceans. Eventually, the carbon is released back into the air as carbon dioxide through volcanoes.

Continents are not only key for habitability because they sources of minerals and needed elements but also because they allow for plate tectonics — the movements and subsequent crackings of the planet’s crust that allow gases to escape.  Those gases are needed to produce an atmosphere.  (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The rate of weathering is sensitive to temperature, slowing when he planet is cool and increasing when the temperature rises. This allows the Earth to maintain an agreeable climate for life during small variations in our orbit due to the tug of our neighboring planets or when the sun was young and cooler. The minerals released by weathering are used by all life on Earth, in particular phosphorous which forms part of our DNA.

However, this process requires land. And that is a commodity a water world lacks. Speaking at the Habitable Worlds workshop, Theresa Fisher, a graduate student at Arizona State University, warned against the effects of submerging your continents.

Fisher considered the consequences of adding roughly five oceans of water to an Earth-sized planet, covering all land in a global sea. Feasible, because weathering could still occur with rock on the ocean floor, though at a much reduced efficiency. The planet might then be able to regulate carbon dioxide levels, but the large reduction in freed minerals with underwater weathering would be devastating for life.

Despite being a key element for all life on Earth, phosphorus is not abundant on our planet. The low levels are why phosphorous is the main ingredient in fertilizer. Reduce the efficiency with which phosphorous is freed from rocks and life will plummet.

Such a situation is a big problem for finding a habitable world, warns Steven Desch, a professor at Arizona State University. Unless life is capable of strongly influencing the composition of the atmosphere, its presence will remain impossible to detect from Earth.

“You need to have land not to have life, but to be able to detect life,” Desch concludes.

However, considerations of detectability become irrelevant if even more water is added to the planet. Should an Earth-sized planet have fifty oceans of water (roughly 1% of the planet’s mass), the added weight will cause high pressure ices to form on the ocean floor. A layer of thick ice would seal the planet rock away from the ocean and atmosphere, shutting down the carbon-silicate cycle. The planet would be unable to regulate its surface temperature and trapped minerals would be inaccessible for life.

Add still more water and Cayman Unterborn, a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State, warns that the pressure will seal the planet’s lid. The Earth’s surface is divided into plates that are in continual motion. The plates melt as they slide under one another and fresh crust is formed where the plates pull apart. When the ocean weight reaches 2% of the planet’s mass, melting is suppressed and the planet’s crust grinds to a halt.

A stagnant lid would prevent any gases trapped in the rocks during the planet’s formation from escaping. Such “degassing” is the main source of atmosphere for a rocky planet. Without such a process, the Earth-sized deep water world could only cling to an envelop of water vapor and any gas that may have escaped before the crust sealed shut.

Unterborn’s calculations suggest that this fate awaits the TRAPPIST-1 planets, with the outer worlds plausibly having hundreds of oceans worth of water pressing down on the planet.

So can we prove if TRAPPIST-1 and similarly migrated worlds are drowning in a watery grave? Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, notes that exoplanets are currently seen only as “dark shadows” briefly reducing their star’s light.

However, the next generation of telescopes such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, will aim to change this with observations of planetary atmospheres. Intertwined with the planet’s geological and biological processes, this cloak of gases may reveal if the world is living or dead.


Elizabeth Tasker is a planetary scientist and communicator at the Japanese space agency JAXA and the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo.  She is also author of a new book about planet formation titled “The Planet Factory.”




The Very Influential Natalie Batalha

Natalie Batalha, project scientist for the Kepler mission and a leader of NASA’s NExSS initiative on exoplanets, was just selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. (NASA, TIME Magazine.)

I’d like to make a slight detour and talk not about the science of exoplanets and astrobiology, but rather a particular exoplanet scientist who I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

The scientist is Natalie Batalha, who has been lead scientist for NASA’s landmark Kepler Space Telescope mission since soon after it launched in 2009, has serves on numerous top NASA panels and boards, and who is one of the scientists who guides the direction of this Many Worlds column.

Last week, Batalha was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. This is a subjective (non-scientific) calculation for sure, but it nonetheless seems appropriate to me and to doubtless many others.

Batalha and the Kepler team have identified more than 2500 exoplanets in one small section of the distant sky, with several thousand more candidates awaiting confirmation.  Their work has once and for all nailed the fact that there are billions and billions of exoplanets out there.

“NASA is incredibly proud of Natalie,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA headquarters, after the Time selection was announced.

“Her leadership on the Kepler mission and the study of exoplanets is helping to shape the quest to discover habitable exoplanets and search for life beyond the solar system. It’s wonderful to see her recognized for the influence she has had on the world – and on the way we see ourselves in the universe.”

And William Borucki, who had the initial idea for the Kepler mission and worked for decades to get it approved and then to manage it, had this to say about Batalha:

“She has made major contributions to the Kepler Mission throughout its development and operation. Natalie’s collaborative leadership style, and expert knowledge of the population of exoplanets in the galaxy, will provide guidance for the development of successor missions that will tell us more about the habitability of the planets orbiting nearby stars.”

Batalha has led the science mission of the Kepler Space Telescope since it launched in 2009. (NASA)

As a sign of the perceived importance of exoplanet research, two of the other TIME influential 100 are discoverers of specific new worlds.  They are Guillem Anglada-Escudé (who led a team that detected a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri) and Michael Gillon (whose team identified the potentially habitable planets around the Trappist-1 system.)

But Batalha, and no doubt the other two scientists, stress that they are part of a team and that the work they do is inherently collaborative. It absolutely requires that many others also do difficult jobs well.

For Batalha, working in that kind of environment is a natural fit with her personality and skills.  Having watched her at work many times, I can attest to her ability to be a strong leader with extremely high standards, while also being a kind of force for calm and inclusiveness.

We worked together quite a bit on the establishing and running of this column, which is part of the NASA Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) initiative to encourage interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration in exoplanet science.

It was NASA’s astrobiology senior scientist Mary Voytek who set up the initiative and saw fit to start this column, and it was Batalha (along with several others) who helped guide and focus it in its early days.

I think back to her patience.  I was visiting her at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and talking shop — meaning stars and planets and atmospheres and the like.  While I had done a lot of science reporting by that time, astronomy was not a strong point (yet.)

So in conversation she made a reference to stars on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram and I must have had a somewhat blank look to me.  She asked if I was familiar with Hertzsprung-Russell and I had to confess that I was not.

Not missing a beat, she then went into an explanation of what is a basic feature of astronomy, and did it without a hint of impatience.  She just wanted me to know what the diagram was and what it meant, and pushed ahead with good cheer to bring me up to speed — as I’m sure she has done many other times with many people of different levels of exposure to the logic and complexities of her very complex work.

(Incidently, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram plots each star on a graph measuring the star’s brightness against its temperature or color.)

I mention this because part of Batalha’s influence has to do with her ability to communicate with individuals and audiences from the lay to the most scientifically sophisticated.  Not surprisingly, she is often invited to be a speaker and I recommend catching her at the podium if you can.

By chance — or was it chance? — the three exoplanet scientists selected for the Time 100 were at Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Discuss session Thursday when the news came out. On the left is Anglada-Escude, Batalha in the middle and Gillon on the right.

Batalha was born in Northern California with absolutely no intention of being a scientist.  Her idea of a scientist, in fact, was a guy in a white lab coat pouring chemicals into a beaker.

As a young woman, she was an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley and planned on going into business.  But she had always been very good and advanced in math, and so she toyed with other paths.  Then, one day, astronaut Rhea Setton came to her sorority.  Setton had been a member of the same sorority and came to deliver a sorority pin she had taken up with during on a flight on the Space Shuttle.

“That visit changed my path,” Batalha told me.  “When I had that opportunity to see a woman astronaut, to see that working for NASA was a possibility, I decided to switch my major — from business to physics.”

After getting her BA in physics from UC Berkeley, she continued in the field and earned a PhD in astrophysics from  UC Santa Cruz. Batalha started her career as a stellar spectroscopist studying young, sun-like stars. Her studies took her to Brazil, Chile and, in 1995, Italy, where she was present at the scientific conference when the world learned of the first planet orbiting another star like our sun — 51 Pegasi b.

It had quite an impact.  Four years later, after a discussion with Kepler principal investigator Borucki at Ames about challenges that star spots present in distinguishing signals from transiting planets, she was hired to join the Kepler team.  She has been working on the Kepler mission ever since.

Asked how she would like to use her now publicly acknowledged “influence,” she returned to her work on the search for  habitable planets, and potentially life, beyond earth.

“We’ve seen that there’s such a keen public interest and an enormous scientific interest in terms of habitable worlds, and we have to keep that going,” she said. “This is a very hard problem to solve, and we need all hands on deck.”

She said the effort has to be interdisciplinary and international to succeed, and she pointed to the two other time 100 exoplanet hunters selected.  One is from Belgium and the other is working in the United Kingdom, but comes from Spain.

When the nominal Kepler mission formally winds down in September, she says she looks forward to more actively engaging with the exoplanet science Kepler has made possible.

The small planets identified by Kepler as one one year ago that are small and orbit in the region around their star where water can exist as a liquid. NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel

Batalha’s role in the NASA NExSS initiative offers a window into what makes her a leader — she excels at making things happen.

Voytek and Shawn Domogal-Goldman of Goddard founded and oversee the group.  They then chose Batalha two other leaders (Anthony Del Genio of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Dawn Gelino of NASA Exoplanet Science Institute ) to be the hands-on leaders of the 18 groups of scientists from a wide variety of American universities.

(Asked why she selected Batalha, Voytek replied, “TIME is recognizing what motivated us to select her as one of the leaders for….NExSS. Her scientific and leadership excellence.”)

This is the official NExSS task:  “Teams will help classify the diversity of worlds being discovered, understand the potential habitability of these worlds, and develop tools and technologies needed in the search for life beyond Earth. Scientists are developing ways to identify habitable environments on these worlds and search for biosignatures, or signs of life.  Central to the work of NExSS is understanding how biology interacts with the atmosphere, surface, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how these interactions are affected by the host star.”

She has encouraged and helped create the kinds of collaborations that these tasks have made essential, but also helped identify upcoming problems and opportunities for exoplanet research and has started working on ways to address them.  For instance, it became clear within the NExSS group and larger community  that many, if not most exoplanet researchers would not be able to effectively apply for time to use the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for several years after it launched in late 2018.

To be awarded time on the telescope, researchers have to write detailed descriptions of what they plan to do and how they will do it. But how the giant telescope will operate in space is not entirely know — especially as relates to exoplanets.  So it will be impossible for most researchers to make proposals and win time until JWST is already in space for at least two of its five years of operation.

Led by Batalha, exoplanet scientists are now hashing out a short list of JWST targets that the community as a whole can agree should be the top priorities scientifically and to allow researchers to learn better how JWST works.  As a result, they would be able to propose their own targets for research much more quickly  in those early years of JWST operations.   It’s the kind of community consensus building that Batalha is known for.

She also has an important roles in the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee and hopes to use the skills she developed working with Kepler on the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission.

Batalha preparing for the Science Walk in San Francisco on Earth Day.

A mother of four (including daughter Natasha, who is on her way to also becoming an accomplished astrophysicist), Batalha is active on Facebook sharing her activities, her often poetic thoughts, and her strong views about scientific and other issues of the day.

She was an active participant, for instance, in the National March for Science in San Francisco, posting photos and impressions along the way.  I think it’s fair to say her presence was noticed with appreciation by others.

And that returns us to what she considers to be some of her greatest potential “influence” — being an accomplished, high ranking and high profile NASA female scientist.

“I don’t have to stand up and say to young women ‘You can do this.’  You can just exist doing your work and you become a role model.  Like Rhea Setton did with me.”

And it is probably no coincidence that four other senior (and demanding) positions on the Kepler mission are filled by women — two of whom were students in classes taught some years ago by Natalie Batalha.




A Four Planet System in Orbit, Directly Imaged and Remarkable


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The era of directly imaging exoplanets has only just begun, but the science and viewing pleasures to come are appealingly apparent.

This evocative movie of four planets more massive than Jupiter orbiting the young star HR 8799 is a composite of sorts, including images taken over seven years at the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii.

The movie clearly doesn’t show full orbits, which will take many more years to collect. The closest-in planet circles the star in around 40 years; the furthest takes more than 400 years.

But as described by Jason Wang,  an astronomy graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers think that the four planets may well be in resonance with each other.

In this case it’s a one-two-four-eight resonance, meaning that each planet has an orbital period in nearly precise ratio with the others in the system.

The black circle in the center of the image is part of the observing and analyzing effort to block the blinding light of the star, and thus make the planets visible.

The images were initially captured by a team of astronomers including Christian Marois of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, who analyzed the data.  The movie animation was put together by Wang, who is part of the Berkeley arm of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), a NASA-sponsored group formed to encourage interdisciplinary exoplanet science.

The star HR 8799 has already played a pioneering role in the evolution of direct imaging of exoplanets.  In 2008, the Marois group announced discovery of three of the four HR 8799 planets using direct imaging for the first time. On the same day that a different team announced the direct imaging of a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut.

This false-color composite image traces the motion of the planet Fomalhaut b, a world captured by direct imaging. (NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas, University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute)

HR 8799 is 129 light years away in the constellation of Pegasus.  By coincidence, it is quite close to the star 51 Pegasi, where the first exoplanet was detected in 1995.  It is less than 60 million years old, Wang said, and is almost five times brighter than the sun.

Wang said that the animation is based on eight observations of the planets since 2009.  He then used a motion interpolation algorithm to draw the orbit between those points.

Much can be learned from the motion of the planets, however long it may take for them to circle their sun.  Based on the Keck observations, astronomers have concluded that the four planets orbit in roughly Keplerian motion around the star — almost circular, but not entirely.

Jason Wang is a graduate student in astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley.

The planets are quite far from each other, which is to be expected due to their enormous size.   Because of those large separations, Wang said astronomers will be watching to see if the system is stable or if some of the planets may be ejected from the system.

Although the first three HR 8799 planets were officially discovered in 2008,  researchers learned afterwards that the planets had actually already been observed.  The “precovery” had been made in 1998 by the NICMOS instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope, but was teased out only after a newly developed image-processing technique was installed.

Christian Marois was part of the team that discovered HR 8799 using direct imaging. He is also on the engineering and science teams of the Gemini Planet Imager, which he helped design and build.

The fourth HR 8799 planet was found after further observations in 2009–2010.  That planet orbits inside the first three planets, but is still fifteen times the distance from its sun than Earth to our sun.  (The team working with Marois included Quinn Konopacky of the University of California, San Diego, Bruce Macintosh of Stanford University, Travis Barman of the University of Arizona and Ben Zuckerman of UCLA.)

James Graham is leader of the Berkeley NExSS group, and he was struck by some of the connections between what has been found around HR 8799 and what exists in our own solar system.

For instance, he said that “it’s delightful that these recently discovered planets exhibit the same type of harmony exhibited by the Galilean moons, Io, Europa, and Ganymede (1:2:4) and illustrating some of the connections between our own solar system and those orbiting other stars. ”

The outer planet orbits inside a dusty disk like our Kuiper Belt. It is one of the most massive disks known around any star within 300 light years of Earth, and there is room in the inner system for rocky planets.

Both Wang and Marois are also on the team operating the Gemini Planet Imager, a cutting-edge addition to the Gemini South telescope in Atacama Desert of Chile.

The GPI includes a next-generation adaptive optics instrument that allows for much clearer seeing through the Earth’s atmosphere by correcting for turbulence.  The result is better direct imaging.   A key goal of the GPI project is to image large extrasolar planets orbiting at distances from their host stars similar to, or greater than, between Jupiter and our sun.

This looping animation of a series of images taken between November 2013 and April 2015 with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) on the Gemini South telescope in Chile shows the exoplanet Beta Pictoris b orbiting the star Beta Pictoris. In the images, the star is at the center of the left-hand edge of the frame; it is hidden by the Gemini Planet Imager’s coronagraph. We are looking at the planet’s orbit almost edge-on. (M. Millar-Blanchaer, University of Toronto; F. Marchis, SETI Institute)

The idea for the HR 8799 movie came from a similar, but less elaborate, orbital animation of a planet detected by GPI circling the star Beta Pictoris.

It was initially thought (and hoped) that the planet might transit in front of Beta Pictoris,  providing a unique opportunity to learn the radius of the planet and thus understand the size of the atmosphere.  Unfortunately, the geometry of the planet’s orbit doesn’t quite line up in a way that would have the planet pass in front of the star from our point of view.

However, although the planet doesn’t transit, what is called its Hill sphere does. The Hill sphere is the region surrounding the planet where its gravitational influence dominates over the gravitational influence of the star. As a result, the remnants of the disk left over from planet formation, planetary rings and moons could transit the star later this year and may be detectable.

Those smaller bodies are unlikely to be the subject of any evocative movie animations, but direct imaging will be bringing many more of them to us in the days ahead.

“The Beta Pic animation looked so cool that we’ve wanted to do more,” Wang said, explaining why the HR 8799 movie was made.  “We wanted to make one that was even more impactful for the audience and could begin to show what one of these systems looks like.”

I think they succeeded.






One Planet, But Many Different Earths

Artist conception of early Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist conception of early Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

We all know that life has not been found so far on any planet beyond Earth — at least not yet.  This lack of discovery of extraterrestrial life has long been used as a knock on the field of astrobiology and has sometimes been put forward as a measure of Earth’s uniqueness.

But the more recent explosion in exoplanet discoveries and the next-stage efforts to characterize their atmospheres and determine their habitability has led to rethinking about how to understand the lessons of life of Earth.

Because when seen from the perspective of scientists working to understand what might constitute an exoplanet that can sustain life,  Earth is a frequent model but hardly a stationary or singular one.  Rather, our 4.5 billion year history — and especially the almost four billion years when life is believed to have been present  — tells many different stories.

For example, our atmosphere is now oxygen-rich, but for billions of years had very little of that compound most associated with complex life.  And yet life existed.

The same with temperature.  Earth went through snowball or slushball periods when most of the planet’s surface was frozen over.  Hardly a good candidate for life, and yet the planet remained habitable and inhabited.

And in its early days, Earth had a very weak magnetic field and was receiving only 70 to 80 percent as much energy from the sun as it does today.  Yet it supported life.

“It’s often said that there’s an N of one in terms of life detected in the universe,” that there is but one example, said Timothy Lyons, a biogeochemist and distinguished professor at University of California, Riverside.

“But when you look at the conditions on Earth over billion of years, it’s pretty clear that the planet had very different kinds of atmospheres and oceans, very different climate regimes, very different luminosity coming from the sun.  Yet we know there was life under all those very different conditions.

“It’s one planet, but it’s silly to think of it as one planetary regime. Each of our past chapters is a potential exoplanet.”


A rendering of the theorized "Snowball Earth" period when, for millions of years, the Earth was entirely or largely covered by ice, stretching from the poles to the tropics. This freezing happened over 650 million years ago in the Pre-Cambrian, though it's now thought that there may have been more than one of these global glaciations. They varied in duration and extent but during a full-on snowball event, life could only cling on in ice-free refuges, or where sunlight managed to penetrate through the ice to allow photosynthesis.
A particularly extreme phase of our planet’s history is called  the “Snowball Earth” period.  During these episodes, the Earth’s surface was entirely or largely covered by ice for millions of years, stretching from the poles to the tropics. One such freezing happened over 700 to 800 million years ago in the Pre-Cambrian, around the time that animals appeared. Others are now thought to have occurred much further back in time. They varied in duration and extent but during a full-on snowball event, life could only survive in ice-free refuges, or where sunlight managed to penetrate through the ice to allow photosynthesis.

Lyons is the principal investigator for one of the newer science teams selected to join the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), an interdisciplinary group hat calls itself “Alternative Earths.”

Consisting of 23 scientists from 14 institutions, its self-described mission is to address and answer these questions: How has Earth remained persistently inhabited through most of its highly changeable history?  How has the presence of very different kinds of lifeforms been manifested in the atmosphere, and simultaneously been captured in what would become the rock record? And how might this approach to early Earth help in the search for life beyond Earth?

“The idea that early Earth can help us understand other planets and moons, especially in our solar system, is certainly not new,” Lyons said.  “Scientists have studied possible Mars analogues and extreme life for years.  But we’re taking it to the next level with exoplanets, and pushing hard on the many ways that conditions on early Earth can help us study exoplanet atmospheres and habitability.”

The importance of this work was apparent at a recent workshop on biosignatures held by NASA’s initiative, the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS.)  As Earth scientists, Lyons and his group are expert at finding proxy records in ancient rocks that hold information important to exoplanet scientists (among others) want to know.

Those proxy fingerprints occur as elemental, molecular, and isotopic properties preserved in rocks that correspond to ancient characteristics in the ocean or atmosphere that can no longer be observed directly.

“We can’t measure the pH in ancient oceans, and we can’t measure the composition of ancient atmospheres,” Lyons said.  “So what we have to do is go to the chemistry of ocean and land deposits formed at the same time and look for the chemical fingerprints locked away and preserved.”

At the exoplanet biosignatures workshop, Lyons was struck by how eager exoplanet modelers were to learn about the proxy chemicals they could profitably put in their models for clues about how distant planet atmospheres might form and behave.  It’s clear that no single element or compound will be a silver bullet for understanding whether there’s life on an exoplanet, but a variety of proxy results together can begin to tell an important story.

The element chromium and its isotopes have become important proxies for the measurement of oxygen levels in the atmosphere of early Earth and have led to some revised theories about when those concentrations jumped.  Understanding the potential makeup of early Earth’s atmosphere and oceans is a pathway to understanding exoplanets.

“We told them about the range of things they should be modeling and, wow, they were interested.  I was thinking at the time that ‘you guys really need us — and vice versa.'”

Some of the researchers most intrigued by potentially new geochemical proxies from the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory,  They’ve been a pioneer in modeling how different atmospheric, geological, stellar and other factors characterize particular kinds of planets and solar systems and their possibilities for life.

In keeping with the growing connection between exoplanet and Earth science, Lyons just brought one of the VPL top modellers, Edward Schwieterman, to UC Riverside for a postdoc as part of the Alternative Earths project.

Among his initial projects will take the new data being generated by the Alternative Earths team about the atmosphere and oceans of early Earth, and model what would happen on a planet with that kind of atmosphere if it was orbiting a very different type of star from our own.

“It’s a direct use of early Earth research on exoplanet studies, and is exactly the kind of work we plan to do be doing,” Lyons said. “Eddie is the perfect bridge between the lessons learned from early Earth and their implications for exoplanets.”

Banded iron formations Karijini National Park, Western Australia. The layers of reddish iron show the presence of oxygen, which bonded with the iron to form a rust-like iron oxide. These formations date most commonly from the period of 2.4 to 1.9 billion years ago, after the Great Oxidation Event.
Banded iron formations at Karijini National Park, Western Australia. The layers of reddish iron point to an early ocean poor in oxygen and rich in dissolved iron. These formations date most commonly from the periods just before and right after the Great Oxidation Event, which spanned from about 2.4 to 2.0 billion years ago. Their distributions over times and their chemical properties are key proxies for the tempo and fabric of the earliest permanent oxygenation of Earth’s atmosphere.

Lyons, along with colleagues Christopher Reinhard of Georgia Tech and Noah Planavsky of Yale and other members of their Alternative Earths team, are especially focused on an effort to understand Earth’s atmosphere—as tracked in the rock record—over the eons and especially the levels of oxygen present.

The concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere is now about about 21 percent and, by some estimates, reached as high as 35 percent within the past 500 million years.

In comparison, early Earth had but trace amounts of oxygen for two billion years before what is called the Great Oxidation Event—when marine O2-producing photosynthesis outpaced reactions that consumed O2 and allowed for the beginnings of its permanent accumulation in the atmosphere.  Estimated to have occurred 2.4 billion years ago, it began (or was part of) an oxidizing process that led to ever more complex life forms over the following one to two billion years.

Timothy Lyons, distinguished professor of geobiochemistry at the University of California, Riverside. He is also the principal investigator of a National Astrobiology Institute project xxx.
Timothy Lyons, distinguished professor of biogeochemistry at the University of California, Riverside. He is also the principal investigator of a National Astrobiology Institute project “Alternative Earths:  Explaining Persistent Inhabitation on a Dynamic Early Earth.

There is a spirited scientific debate underway now about whether that “Great Oxidation Event” triggered permanently high levels of oxygen in the atmosphere and the oceans, or whether it began an up and down process through which the presence of oxygen was quite unstable and still well below current levels until relatively recent times.

Lyons and Reinhard are of the “boring billion” school, arguing that oxygen levels did not head continuously upwards after the Oxidation Event, but rather stayed relatively stable and still very low for most of a billion and half years after the Great Oxidation Event and continued to challenge O2-requiring life—for almost a third of Earth history.

This would be primarily an Earth science issue if not for the fact that oxygen — on its own and in conjunction with other compounds — is among the most prominent and promising biosignatures that exoplanet scientists are looking for.

Christopher Reinhard, Georgia Institute of technology. (Brad...
Christopher Reinhard of Georgia Institute of Technology and Alternative Earths project. (Ben Brumfield/Georgia Tech.)

In fact, not that long ago, it was widely accepted that a discovery of oxygen and/or ozone in the atmosphere of a planet pretty much proved, or at least strongly suggested, the presence of some sort of biology on the planet below.  That view has been modified of late by the identification of ways that free oxygen can be formed abiotically (without the presence of photosynthesis and life), potentially producing false positives for potential life.

While the field is a long way from an active search for direct, in situ fingerprints of life on exoplanets light years away, oxygen and its relationship with other atmospheric gases remains a lodestar in thinking about what biosignatures to search for. The technology is already in place for characterizing the compositions of very distant atmospheres.

And this is where, for Lyons, Reinhard and others, things get both interesting and complicated.

For more than a billion years before the Great Oxidation Event Earth demonstrably supported life.  It consisted mostly of anaerobic microbes that did just fine without oxygen, but in many cases needed and produced methane, an organic compound with one carbon atom and four hydrogens.

So if an exoplanet scientist from a distant world were to search for life on Earth during that period via the detection of oxygen only, they would entirely miss the presence of an already long history of life.  Searching for a potentially large-scale presence of methane might have been more productive, though that is a source of rigorous debate as well.


An image of a rock with fossilized stromatolites, tiny layered structures from 3.7 billion years ago that are remnants from a community of microbes. Found in a newly melted part of Greenland, Australian scientists reported in the journal Nature that the stromatolites lived on an ancient seafloor at a time when Earth's skies were orange and its oceans green. They describe the stromatolites as perhaps the oldest fossil found so far on Earth. (Allen Nutman/University of Wollongong)
An image of a rock with fossilized stromatolites, tiny layered structures from 3.7 billion years ago that are remnants from a community of microbes. Found in a part of Greenland new exposed by melting glaciers, Australian scientists reported in the journal Nature that the stromatolites lived on an ancient seafloor at a time when Earth’s skies may well have been orange and its oceans green. They describe the stromatolites as perhaps the oldest fossil found so far on Earth, although chemical suggestions of life may extend further back in time . (Allen Nutman/University of Wollongong)

Because both oxygen and methane can be formed without life, a current gold standard for detecting future biosignatures on exoplanets is the presence of the two together.  As a result of the way the two interact, they would remain in an atmosphere together only if both were being replenished on a substantial, on-going scale.  And as far as is now understood, the only way to do that is through biology.

Yet as described by Reinhard, the most current research suggest that oxygen and methane were probably never in the Earth’s atmosphere together at levels that would be detectable from afar.  There is some evidence that Earth’s atmosphere held a lot of methane in its early times, and there has been a lot of oxygen for the past 600 million years or so, but as one grew in concentration the other declined — and during the “boring billion” both were likely low.

“So we have a complicated situation here where using the best exoplanet biosignatures we have now, intelligent beings looking at Earth over the past 4.5 billion years would not find a convincing signature of life for most, or maybe all, of that time if they relied only on co-occurrence of oxygen and methane,” Reinhard said.  Yet there has been life for at least 3.7 billion years, and those beings studying Earth would have come up with a very false negative.

Lyons insists this is should not be a source of pessimism in the search for life on exoplanets, instead it is a “call to arms for new and more creative possibilities rather than the lowest hanging fruit.” It’s a challenge “to help us sharpen our thinking in a search that was never going to be easy.”

And the best test bed available for coming up with different answers, he said, may very well be the many different Earths that have come and gone on our planet.




Out of the Stovepipes and Into the Galaxy


This “Many Worlds” post is written by Andrew Rushby, a postdoctoral fellow from the United Kingdom who recently began working with NASA’s NExSS initiative. The column will hopefully serve to both introduce this new NExSS colleague and to let him share his thoughts about the initiative and what lies ahead.

NExSS encourages a "systems science" approach to understanding exoplanets, and especially whether they might be habitable. Systems science is inherently interdisciplinary, and so fields such as earth science and planetary science (and many more) provide needed insights into how exoplanets might be explored. (NASA)
NExSS encourages a “systems science” approach to understanding exoplanets, and especially whether they might be habitable. Systems science is inherently interdisciplinary, and so fields such as earth science and planetary science (and many more) provide needed insights into how exoplanets might be explored. (NASA)

I’m most excited to join NExSS at its one year anniversary, and hope that I can help the network as it advances into, and works to fashion, the exoplanetary future.

Coming in from the outside, the progress I already see in terms of bringing researchers together to work on interdisciplinary exoplanet science is impressive. But more generally, I see this as a significant juncture in the fast-expanding study of these distant worlds, with NExSS and its members poised to facilitate a potentially revolution in how we look at planets in this solar system and beyond.

The ‘systems science’ approach to understanding exoplanets is, I believe, the right framework for advancing our understanding.  Earth scientists and biogeochemists have been using systems science for some time now to build, test, and improve theories for how the Earth functions as an interconnected system of physical, chemical and biological components — all operating over eons in a complex and tangled evolutionary web that we are only now unraveling.

It is this method that allows us to better understand the respective roles of the atmosphere, ocean, biosphere, and geosphere in influencing the past and present climate of this planet. It allows us to clearly see the damage we are causing to these systems through the release of industry and transport-created greenhouse gases, and offers opportunities for mitigation. We know the systems science approach works for the Earth, and the time to make it work for exoplanets is now.

But as Marc pointed out in his previous post about the first year of NExSS, the opportunity to leverage this method for comparative planetology is a relatively new one. We just haven’t had the data for building exoplanet systems models and making  testable hypotheses.

Understanding a planetary system like this artist's view of an ocean world, scientists have learned, takes an interdisciplinary approach.
Understanding a planetary system like this artist’s view of an ocean world, scientists have learned, takes an interdisciplinary approach.

The work that NExSS is doing is extremely relevant to this effort because we recognize that faced with the gargantuan task of discerning how innumerable planets beyond our solar system can be found, formed, characterized and understood — we have to do something different. The decisions we make and the effort we invest at this still very early stage will determine the future of planet discovery, and build the foundations for how we come to understand the planet system and its evolution.

We are likely the first of many generations of interdisciplinary exoplanetologists. To build a sturdy foundation for this approach, we will need to further break down the often restrictive scientific “stovepipes” that can keep necessary data known to scientists in one field from others who need it to understand their own data.  After the stovepipes have been dismantled (or at least modified), then comes the process of together building the exoplanetary chimney.

This is not an effort that can be successfully undertaken by individuals alone, or even already formed cross-disciplinary groups.

By its very nature, exoplanet science needs the insights and energy of the entire community of astrophysicists, heliophysicists, Earth scientists and planetary scientists interested in how their particular field of study fits in to the grand picture beginning to take shape.

Planets are endlessly complex and dynamic islands at the confluence of the physical, chemical and biological realms, and therefore our approach to making sense of them must be interdisciplinary, inclusive and epistemologically unique.

Biogeochemistry postdoc Andrew Rushby arrived at Ames last month and will remain for two years, with some of his time dedicated to the NExSS program.
Biogeochemistry postdoc Andrew Rushby arrived at Ames last month and will remain for two years, with some of his time dedicated to the NExSS program.

I’ve always thought, naively perhaps, of the search for exoplanets and for other life in the universe as a proxy search for our own place.

With our telescopes we peer ever outward, trying to find other worlds like our own to give meaning to that which we know best – this planet and its biosphere. It’s the next inevitably tumultuous battle in the long and sustained campaign for a greater perspective on ourselves, one that began when we first looked up at the night sky and wondered if what was out there was anything like what was down here.

It’s difficult, of course, to see how far you’ve already traveled on a journey of unknown length. But his field has come so far already and made so many strides in the last twenty years that analogies to its pace of discovery are difficult to come by.

As for me, I come from a biogeochemical background and was schooled at the University of East Anglia the UK. I spent my PhD years building models to investigate how the planetary evolution of Earth and Earth-like planets may affect their long-term habitability.  But I have also dedicated much time to telling just about anyone who would listen just how very cool exoplanets are. I hope to continue this work too.

Artist illustration of an exoplanet and a debris disc orbiting their host star. (NASA)
Artist illustration of an exoplanet and a debris disc orbiting their host star. (NASA)

During my exoplanet talks in the UK – at meetings, science cafes, outreach events, at the pub and online through my blog — I can honestly say I’ve never encountered anyone who didn’t find this science fascinating. Whatever my own speaking skills may be,  I know that it’s not difficult to enthuse people about the idea of exotic planets, alien life, and space missions. It’s almost cheating. There’s an optimism inherent in the field – one that says we can learn about these distant, shrouded and endlessly complex planetary systems through our own hard work, cleverness and technology. I think it’s an optimism that people relate to.

I hope therefore to make some small contribution to this effort through my time with NExSS by helping to build and maintain future and current collaborations among our existing members, growing our network, helping with our upcoming meetings and workshops, and facilitating communication from the network and its members.

I look forward to both embracing the differences, and identifying the similarities, between my training in the UK and the research culture here in USA. I think other countries would benefit greatly from the ‘NExSS approach’, and I look forward to welcoming the input of international colleagues in making NExSS a truly global enterprise. Many countries may be looking to NExSS’s example: let’s lead the way in showing the world how best to find and understand other worlds.

The 3-day in-person workshop will be coordinated with pre-workshop online activities to summarize the state of the science of exoplanet biosignatures. This review will provide background for the in-person workshop, which will focus on advancing the science of biosignatures, and understanding the technological needs and capabilities for their detection. This information will be exchanged with the Science Technology Definition Teams (STDTs) of upcoming planet-observing missions.
The 3-day in-person workshop will be coordinated with pre-workshop online activities to summarize the state of the science of exoplanet biosignatures. This review will provide background for the in-person workshop, which will focus on advancing the science of biosignatures, and understanding the technological needs and capabilities for their detection. This information will be exchanged with the Science Technology Definition Teams (STDTs) of upcoming planet-observing missions.

In addition to on-going PI collaborations,  NExSS has some exciting plans for the year ahead, as well as some tasks with significant and formal purposes.

First is the NExSS Exoplanet Biosignatures Workshop Without Walls in Seattle in July, which will have 30-35 on-site participants and an opportunity for many more to participate online.  Insights and conclusions from the Biosignatures Workshop will be exchanged with NASA’s Science Technology Definition Teams (STDTs) for upcoming planet-observing missions.

In addition, summary reports from the workshop will be circulated to the community for feedback. These reports will then be filed with a dedicated Exoplanet Biosignatures Study Analysis Group (SAG 16) of the Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG).

A heliophysics-based workshop (title and details tbc) will also be held in November, with title and details to be announced.

The second Face-to-Face meeting of all 17 NExSS PIs and associated team members, Co-leads, and NASA HQ representatives will be held at NASA Headquarters and the Carnegie Institution for Science in May. The two-day event offers an opportunity to discuss what worked and what didn’t work so well during the first year of NExSS, to hopefully come up with new collaborations, and to look ahead to the future of the network.

Over the next two years, the initiative will also continue to engage with the wider exoplanet community through workshops, meetings, and outreach activities in order to grow the network organically while ensuring inclusivity and representation from all of areas of this multidisciplinary field.

Per unitatem ad astra! (Through unity, to the stars!)