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.




Ocean Worlds: Enceladus Looks Increasingly Habitable, and Europa’s Ocean Under the Ice More Accessible to Sample

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft completed its deepest-ever dive through the icy plume of Enceladus on Oct. 28, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It wasn’t that long ago that Enceladus, one of 53 moons of Saturn, was viewed as a kind of ho-hum object of no great importance.  It was clearly frozen and situated in a magnetic field maelstrom caused by the giant planet nearby and those saturnine rings.

That view was significantly modified in 2005 when scientists first detected signs of the icy plumes coming out of the bottom of the planet.  What followed was the discovery of warm fractures (the tiger stripes) near the moon’s south pole, numerous flybys and fly-throughs with the spacecraft Cassini, and by 2015 the announcement that the moon had a global ocean under its ice.

Now the Enceladus story has taken another decisive turn with the announcement that measurements taken during Cassini’s final fly-through captured the presence of molecular hydrogen.

To planetary and Earth scientists, that particular hydrogen presence quite clearly means that the water shooting out from Enceladus is coming from an interaction between water and warmed rock minerals at the bottom of the moon’s ocean– and possibly from within hydrothermal vents.

These chimney-like hydrothermal vents at the bottom of our oceans — coupled with a chemical mixture of elements and compounds similar to what has been detected in the plumes — are known on Earth as prime breeding grounds for life.  One important reason why is that the hydrogen and hydrogen compounds produced in these settings are a source of energy, or food, for microbes.

A logical conclusion of these findings:  the odds that Enceladus harbors forms of simple life have increased significantly.

To be clear, this is no discovery of extraterrestrial life. But it is an important step in the astrobiological quest to find life beyond Earth.

“The key here is that Enceladus can produce fuel that could be used by biology,” said Mary Voytek, NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology, referring to the detection of hydrogen.


This graphic illustrates how scientists on NASA’s Cassini mission think water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas (H2). It remains unclear whether the interactions are taking place in hydrothermal vents or more diffusely across the ocean. (NASA)

“So now on this moon we have many of the components associated with life — water, a source of energy and many of the important chemical building blocks.  Nothing coming from Cassini will tell is if there is biology there, but we definitely have found another important piece of evidence of possible habitability.”

The finding of molecular hydrogen (H2 rather a single hydrogen atom) in the Enceladus plumes was described in a Science paper lead by authors Hunter Waite and Christopher Glein of the Southwest Research Institute, headquartered in San Antonio.

They went through a number of possible sources of the hydrogen and then concluded that the clearly most likely one was that chemical interaction of cool water and hot rocks — both heated by tidal forces in the complex Saturn system — at the bottom of the global ocean.

“We previously thought that the water was heated but now we have evidence that the rocks are as well,” Waite told me.  “And the evidence suggests that the rock is quite porous, which means that water is seeping through on a large scale and producing these chemical interactions that have a byproduct of hydrogen.”

The moon Enceladus is the sixth largest in the Saturn system. This image was taken by Cassini in 2008. (NASA/JPL-Caltech, Space Science Institute.)

He said that the process could be taking place in and around those chimney-like hydrothermal vents,  or it could be more diffuse across the ocean floor.  The vent scenario, he said, was “easier to envision.”

What’s more, he said, the conditions during this water-rock interaction are favorable for the production of the gas methane, which has been detected in the Enceladus plume.

This is another tantalizing part of the Enceladus plume story because the earliest lifeforms on Earth are thought to have both consumed and expelled that gas.  At this point, however, Waite said there is no way to determine how the methane was formed, which would be a key finding if and when it is made.

“Our results leave us agnostic on the presence of life,” he said. “We don’t have enough information for that.”

“But we now can make a strong case that we have a very habitable environment on this moon.” It’s such a strong case, he said, that it would be almost as scientifically interesting to not find life there than to detect it.

One of the more interesting remaining puzzles is why the hydrogen is present in the plume in such unexpectedly substantial (though initially difficult to detect) amounts.  If there was a large microbial community under the ice, then it could plausibly be argued that there wouldn’t be so much hydrogen left if they were consuming it.

The possibilities:  Waite said that it could mean there is just a lot of “food” being produced for potential microbes to survive on in the ocean, or that other factors limit the microbe population size.  Or, of course, it could mean that there are no microbes at all to consume the hydrogen food.


Astronomers have twice found evidence of a plume of water vapor coming from the same location on Europa. Both plumes, photographed in UV light by Hubble, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. (NASA/ESA/STScI/USGS)


News of the Enceladus discovery came on the same day that other researchers announced that strong evidence of detecting a similar plume on Jupiter’s moon Europa using the Hubble Space Telescope.

This was not the first plume seen on that larger moon of Jupiter, but is perhaps the most important because it appeared to be was spitting out water vapor in the same location as an earlier plume.  In other words, it may well be the site of a consistently or frequently appearing geyser.

“The plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions,” said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute. “So after Hubble imaged this new plume-like feature on Europa, we looked at that location on the Galileo thermal map. We discovered that Europa’s plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly,”

Sparks led the Hubble plume studies in both 2014 and 2016, and their paper was published in The Astrophysical Journal.  He said he was quite confident, though not completely confident of the result because of the limits of the Hubble resolution.  A 100 percent confirmation, he said, will take more observations.

Since Europa has long been seen as a strong candidate for harboring extraterrestrial life, this is extraordinarily good news for those hoping to test that hypothesis.  Now, rather than devising a way to blast through miles of ice to get to Europa’s large, salty and billions-of-years-old ocean, scientists can potentially learn about the composition of water by studying the plume — as has happened at Enceladus.

As their paper concluded, “If borne out with future observations, these indications of an active Europan surface, with potential access to liquid water at depth, bolster the case for Europa’s potential habitability and for future sampling of erupted material by spacecraft.”

This is particularly exciting since NASA is actively developing a mission to Europa that would orbit the moon and could target the plume area for study.

NASA teams have also proposed a Europa lander — a mission that was rejected by the Trump administration in its budget proposals.  But discovery of  what might be a regularly-spurting plume just might change the equation.


The plumes of Enceladus originate in the long tiger stripe fractures of the south polar region pictured here. (Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)


The news about both Enceladus and Europa illustrates well the process by which the search for life beyond Earth — astrobiology — moves forward.

Like few other disciplines, astrobiology needs expertise coming from a broad range of fields, from astrophysicists, geochemists, biochemists, geologists, and more.

Hunter Waite, for instance, trained as an atmospheric  scientists and now builds mass spectrometers for spacecraft such as Cassini,  operates them in flight, and analyzes and reports the data.  He is something of a “plume” expert as well, and will follow up his team leading work on Enceladus as principal investigator of the Europa mass spectrometer that surely will investigate that other moon’s new-found plumes. (The Europa mission, called the Europa Clipper, is loosely scheduled to launch in 2022.)

His colleague, Christopher Glein, is a geochemist.  And the leader of the Europa plume-spotting team, William Sparks, is an astronomer.

Mary Voytek, NASA senior scientist for astrobiology.  (NASA)

Each discipline focuses on a part of the larger system that might, or might not, be habitable.  No single scientists or discipline of scientists is capable of detecting extraterrestrial life.

This has long been the view of NASA’s Voytek, who views astrobiology as a kind of very long-term scientific full-court press.

She is wary of overselling discoveries that involve the search for life beyond Earth and the origin of life here, saying that they sometimes are well-meaning “science fiction” more than science.

However, the Enceladus findings in particular have her excited.  A lot of questions remain, such as whether the water with molecular hydrogen is coming from a hydrothermal vent or across the ocean floor, and whether the amount of methane detected in the plume increases or decreases the likelihood of life on the ocean floor.

But her conclusion: “I think this puts Enceladus into a different category and definitely higher up on the index of habitability.”  Any potential life, she said, would almost surely be microbial, though it might be larger “if we get lucky.”


A Four Planet System in Orbit, Directly Imaged and Remarkable


Now on Facebook:

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.






The Stellar Side of The Exoplanet Story

K2-33b, shown in this illustration, is one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date. It makes a complete orbit around its star in about five days. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
K2-33b, shown in this illustration, is one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date. It makes a complete orbit around its star in about five days, and as a result its characteristics are very much determined by its host. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)


When it comes to the study of exoplanets, it’s common knowledge that the host stars don’t get much respect.

Yes, everyone knows that there wouldn’t be exoplanets without stars, and that they serve as the essential background for exoplanet transit observations and as the wobbling object that allows for radial velocity measurements that lead to new exoplanets discoveries.

But stars in general have been seen and studied for ever, while the first exoplanet was identified only 20-plus years ago.  So it’s inevitable that host stars have generally take a back seat to the compelling newly-found exoplanets that orbit them.

As the field of exoplanet studies moves forward, however, and tries to answer questions about the characteristics of the planets and their odds of being habitable, the perceived importance of the host stars is on the rise.

The logic:  Stars control space weather, and those conditions produce a space climate that is conducive or not so conducive to habitability and life.

Space weather consists of a variety of enormously energetic events ranging from solar wind to solar flares and coronal mass ejections, and their characteristics are defined by the size, variety and age of the star.  It is often said that an exoplanet lies in a “habitable zone” if it can support some liquid water on its surface, but absent some protection from space weather it will surely be habitable in name only.

A recognition of this missing (or at least less well explored) side of the exoplanet story led to the convening of a workshop this week in New Orleans on “The Impact of Exoplanetary Space Weather On Climate and Habitability.”

“We’re really just starting to detect and understand the secret lives of stars,”  said Vladimir Airapetian, a senior scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center.  He organized the highly interdisciplinary workshop for the Nexus for Exoplanet Space Studies (NExSS,) a NASA initiative.

“What has become clear is that a star affects and actually defines the character of a planet orbiting around it,” he said.  “And now we want to look at that from the point of view of astrophysicists, heliophysicists, planetary scientists and astrobiologists.”

William Moore, principal investigator for a NASA-funded team also studying how host stars affect their exoplanets, said the field was changing fast and that “trying to understand those (space weather) impacts has become an essential task in the search for habitable planets.”

 The newly discovered giant planet orbits around its young and active host star inside the inner hole of a dusty circumstellar disk (artist view). Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. The newly discovered giant planet orbits around its young and active host star inside the inner hole of a dusty circumstellar disk (artist view). Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.
The newly discovered giant planet orbits around its young and active host star inside the inner hole of a dusty circumstellar disk (artist view). Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

So with space weather in the forefront, the workshop grappled with issues not frequently on the exoplanet agenda including the formation and protective effects of magnetic fields around planets; how, why and at what rate potentially life-supporting elements and compounds are likely to “escape” from bombarded exoplanets; and the extent to which those solar winds in particular speed that escape process.

Direct exoplanet measurements of these sun/planet dynamics remains sparse to entirely absent. That’s why much of the workshop discussion has centered around what’s known about our solar system — the workings of our sun and the way our solar dynamics impact planets.

This quite mature science and provides an exoplanet road map of sorts, though one always used with the caveat that what happens in and around our sun might be quite different than what’s happening around a sun many light years away.

We’ll return to the workshop, but first a little stellar science:

Our sun is not only a nuclear reactor producing enormous heat, but also has massive and very active electromagnetic fields in its outer corona.

When oppositely directed magnetic fields meet and become “reconnected,”  an intense flare of high-energy photons can shoot out at a speed that will bring them to Earth in 20 minutes to several hours.  Often, a coronal mass ejection will accompany the flare.   These vast CMEs consist of bubbles of magnetic field and billions of tons of of super-heated plasma (protons and neutrons), and they will arrive on Earth in one to three days.

In addition, the million degree heat of the sun’s outer corona produces a solar wind that also sends high-energy particles into space.  Unlike flares and CMEs, the solar wind is always blowing.

These phenomena and more would fry Earth were it not for our own protective magnetic field.  But this space weather can wreck havoc with satellites, GPS and electric power grids.  And it can potentially harm unprotected astronauts in space.  Not surprisingly, the study of space weather is a hot subject now.


Illustration of solar wind arriving at Earth's magnetosphere
Illustration of solar wind arriving at Earth’s magnetosphere

The same or similar space weather is inferred to exist in other solar systems as well.  Flares have been actually detected, but workshop scientists said the CMEs have not been measured so far on the host stars of exoplanets.

The effects of space weather are especially important when it comes to red dwarfs — smaller and cooler stars that make up some 75 percent of the stars out there.

These smaller stars generally form exoplanets that orbit quite close in, leaving them in danger of a complete sterilizing from solar wind or other space weather.  Adding to the risk, red dwarfs  are generally very active in their early lives, throwing out large and powerful flares and more.  Only later do they become far more sedentary, long-lived and seemingly good targets for habitable exoplanets.

But while an exoplanet of a red dwarf might orbit in a habitable zone later in its life and have other characteristics of habitability, the planet is considered unlikely to ever recover if it was sterilized eons before by a solar flare.

Space weather is often discussed in terms of the damage it can do, but the same high energy protons that can sterilize one planet may be able, through photochemistry,  to create some of the chemical building blocks of life.

Airapetian and Goddard colleague William Danchi published a paper in the journal Nature in June proposing that solar super-flares not only warmed the early Earth to make it habitable, but also provided the vast amounts of energy needed to combine evenly scattered simple molecules into the kind of complex molecules that could keep the planet warm and form some of the chemical building blocks of life.

What’s more, Gregg Hallinan of Caltech proposed future searches for protective magnetic fields as way to identify potentially habitable exoplanets. He said that as techniques improve for detecting stellar flares, they should as well for observing stellar CMEs and ultimately planetary magnetic fields.


NASA's Swift mission detected a record-setting series of X-ray flares unleashed by DG CVn, a nearby binary consisting of two red dwarf stars, illustrated here. At its peak, the initial flare was brighter in X-rays than the combined light from both stars at all wavelengths under normal conditions. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger
NASA’s Swift mission detected a record-setting series of X-ray flares unleashed by DG CVn, a nearby binary consisting of two red dwarf stars, illustrated here. At its peak, the initial flare was brighter in X-rays than the combined light from both stars at all wavelengths under normal conditions. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger)

Bill Moore’s “Living, Breathing Planet” team was well represented at the workshop.   While Moore is a professor at Virginia’s Hampton University’s Department of Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, his NASA-sponsored team includes scientists from six other institutions along the East Coast.

The talks by team members focused on how and why material escapes from planetary atmospheres, and the implications of that escape.  On Mars, for instance, hydrogen escape due to solar winds is a major factor as water and other molecules break apart and send that lightest element into space.

One result that exoplanet scientists worry about is that the escaping hydrogen can leave behind reservoirs of oxygen that might lead to misleading conclusions.  An atmosphere filled with oxygen has long been seen as a promising one in terms of extraterrestrial life; indeed, oxygen and ozone are considered essential biosignatures of life.

But if oxygen can also be left behind when an atmosphere is stripped of hydrogen, then that clearly must be taken into account.  So models for detecting actual biosignatures on exoplanets now include oxygen and other compounds together, rather than oxygen alone.

William Moore of Hampton University, and principal investigator of the Living, Breathing Planet team.
William Moore of Hampton University, and principal investigator of the Living, Breathing Planet team.

“As the field turned to habitability on exoplanets rather than solely detection, we had to start worrying more about the host star.  The issue became not detection but how to live around that star, which we’re finding is, not surprisingly, a very complex question.”

Inevitably, that question involves not only current space conditions, but the evolution of the exoplanet and its solar system.  In particular, that requires an understanding of the stellar radiation environment that the planet formed in and has lived in, as well as what other stars might be close by.

He offered as an example the exciting discovery of a planet in the habitable zone around the star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our own.  Teams around the world are now studying the planet for potential habitability, and they may get some promising results.

But Moore’s group is looking at the Proxima Centauri planet from the perspective of its environment, and that it’s located in what is essentially a three-star cluster.  That means the planet has potentially been exposed to the forces of all three stars.

“We see a planet sitting out there on its own, and it seems to be a closed system.  But that’s not true; it’s related to the stars.  The Proxima planet is a case in point.  We’ve done some work and have found a very complicated environment to live in — to say the least.”


Also coming next week from the New Orleans conference:  Using host stars to find the most tempting targets for observation.



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.