Earth-size exoplanet may be covered in volcanoes

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Astronomers used multiple telescopes to find an Earth-size exoplanet 90 light-years away that may be covered in volcanoes.

Astronomers have found an Earth-size planet that isn’t like Earth at all. Instead, the exoplanet, called LP 791-18 d, is likely covered in volcanoes and may experience eruptions with the same frequency as Jupiter’s moon Io, the most volcanically active place in our solar system, according to researchers. Data from NASA’s planet-hunting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, the retired Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes was used to find the exoplanet. A study detailing the findings was published Wednesday in the journal Nature. LP 791-18 d is located about 90 light-years from Earth in the Crater constellation, where it orbits a small red dwarf star. Two other known planets also orbit the star, including LP 791-18 b, which is estimated to be 20% bigger than Earth, and LP 971-18 c, about 2.5 times Earth’s size and more than seven times its mass. And astronomers believe the massive planet LP 971-18 c might be contributing to the newly detected exoplanet’s possible volcanism. As the two objects orbit their star, LP 971-18 c and the newfound exoplanet LP 791-18 d closely pass each other, allowing the gravitational pull of the larger planet LP 971-18 c to tug on planet d and reshape its orbit. With each trip around the star, planet d’s path shifts, becoming slightly more oval-shaped. The elliptical revolutions cause the interior of the planet to heat up, driving volcanic activity. This phenomenon is similar to what occurs on Io, caught in a gravitational crossfire between Jupiter and its larger moons. But there is no direct evidence yet to prove that volcanoes exist across LP 971-18 d. “We don’t know that there are any volcanoes here,” said study coauthor Ian Crossfield, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, in a statement. “All we know is that this is a small planet that’s experiencing a straight-up periodic stretching due to its orbit around its star and near the other planets. That might cause lots of volcanoes like on Jupiter’s moon Io, which is the most volcanically active thing in our solar system. We know about that because we’ve sent things nearby and taken pictures. There’s not yet that kind of clear evidence yet with LP 791-18 d.” Future observations of the planet could provide more data as astronomers continue the search for potentially habitable Earth-size planets. Volcanic activity and planetary atmospheres Astronomers estimate that LP 791-18 d falls within the inner edge of the habitable zone, the distance from a star where a planet is warm enough to support liquid water on its surface. “LP 791-18 d is tidally locked, which means the same side constantly faces its star,” said study coauthor Björn Benneke, professor of astronomy at the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the University of Montreal, in a statement. “The day side would probably be too hot for liquid water to exist on the surface. But the amount of volcanic activity we suspect occurs all over the planet could sustain an atmosphere, which may allow water to condense on the night side.” Although volcanic activity sounds like an impediment to water and potential life, it may actually help the planet maintain an atmosphere. Volcanoes can drive interactions between the interior and exterior of a planet. “A big question in astrobiology, the field that broadly studies the origins of life on Earth and beyond, is if tectonic or volcanic activity is necessary for life,” said study coauthor Jessie Christiansen, a research scientist at NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, in a statement. “In addition to potentially providing an atmosphere, these processes could churn up materials that would otherwise sink down and get trapped in the crust, including those we think are important for life, like carbon.” Astronomers are intrigued by how volcanic activity can drive changes on planets. Venus, similar enough in size to Earth to be called its twin, may have once been more like our world. “On Venus, volcanic carbon dioxide stayed in the atmosphere, pushing the planet into a runaway greenhouse state,” said study coauthor Stephen Kane, professor of planetary astrophysics at the University of California Riverside, in a statement. “Today, surface temperatures on Venus are more than 850 degrees Fahrenheit (454.4 degrees Celsius) — as hot as a wood-fired pizza oven — and odds of life there are slim. But it may not always have been that way. Volcanoes might be a big piece of the puzzle about what actually happened on Venus. Planets like LP 791-18d can shed important insights into how volcanoes shape planetary environments with time, including those of Venus and Earth.” The search for planetary atmospheres The larger planet LP 971-18 c is already on the list of targets that the James Webb Space Telescope will observe in the future, and now the study team believes that the newly spotted planet d is also a prime candidate. Astronomers are using the Webb telescope to search for signs of atmospheres around exoplanets and peer into them to determine the chemicals that make up these extraterrestrial atmospheres. The discovery of LP 971-18 d points to the importance of data collected by space telescopes. The planetary system was one of the last observation targets of the Spitzer Space Telescope before the observatory was retired in January 2020. “It is incredible to read about the continuation of discoveries and publications years beyond Spitzer’s end of mission,” said Joseph Hunt, Spitzer project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement. “That really shows the success of our first-class engineers and scientists. Together they built not only a spacecraft but also a data set that continues to be an asset for the astrophysics community.”.The road to Mars is long and fraught with peril. One challenge is getting humans to the red planet; another is ensuring that once they’ve arrived they’ll be able to manage life there. To prepare astronauts for an extended stay on Mars, NASA’s latest simulated mission, CHAPEA – Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog – will isolate four people inside a mock-Mars base in Texas for 378 days – roughly the time a manned mission to Mars would spend on the surface. Once inside they will adopt a pre-planned schedule taking part in simulated activities and science work, eating like astronauts, and dealing with maintenance and equipment failures, while undergoing strenuous psychological and physiological testing. The first simulation – known as an analog – will begin in June, and will be followed by two more, each with a different crew in identical conditions, with the last simulation starting in 2026. “We’ve built a high-fidelity Mars surface mission scenario,” says Scott M. Smith, co-investigator for CHAPEA. The participants will experience a 22-minute delay in external communications, as astronauts would on Mars. Ambient noise will be played through speakers around the base, ensuring no outside sounds can be heard by participants. Aiming for fidelity has resulted in a habitat that could feasibly built on Mars, Smith adds. The base, called “Mars Dune Alpha,” is a custom design by Bjarke Ingels Group and 3D-printing company ICON, and resides inside a hangar at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Printed in a month from ICON’s concrete formula dubbed “Lavacrete,” on Mars, the idea is to build using Martian soil, or regolith. “NASA has evaluated a tremendous number of options for off-world habitat construction – repurposed rockets and landers, inflatables, assembled buildings, etc.,” explains ICON CEO Jason Ballard. “They’ve come to believe what we believe: that when you evaluate it from a financial, safety and flexibility standpoint, robotic construction using local materials is far and away the best option.” The layout of the base features a work area, a living and kitchen area, private bedrooms, bathroom, medical area, comms center, an exercise room, airlock and “outside” area mimicking the Martian surface. “The separation of the living area with the work area was very intentional,” Smith says. “That was one of the comments that (the designers) heard from International Space Station (ISS) crews … when you’re living in the office, literally having the ability to physically separate was important.” For over 12 months, this 1,700 square foot space will be all CHAPEA’s first crew, Kelly Haston, Ross Brockwell, Nathan Jones and Alyssa Shannon, a mixture of scientists and engineers, will know. Filling knowledge gaps NASA is attempting to fill in what it calls “Strategic Knowledge Gaps,” that currently make a manned Mars mission too risky. There are currently four “red risks,” says Smith: “radiation; SANS (Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome, a swelling of the eyeball that affects the majority of astronauts during long periods in microgravity); crew behavior and performance; and food and nutrition.” “Those are risks that in my mind represent things that, if we had a vehicle on the launchpad today to go to Mars, we would advise against the trip,” he explains. Although the analog won’t be able to test the effects of radiation and reduced gravity (which on Mars is roughly 38% of that on Earth), assessing human health and performance is CHAPEA’s primary objective. A large part of that is testing the impact of a Martian diet over an extended period. “If you go back through the history books, food and nutrition made or broke many an exploration journey. Across the oceans or to Antarctica or the Arctic, if you didn’t plan well for nutrition, it didn’t go well,” says Smith, who is also manager for nutritional biochemistry at the Johnson Space Center. The journey to Mars is estimated to take between six and nine months. A manned Mars mission will ship food to the planet in advance of humans, which means it will need a long shelf-life. “The last food will be eaten about five years after we launch it,” Smith explains. “If you think about packing up your pantry with food that’s going to sustain you over the next five years, that’s a challenge.” Inside the habitat, crew will eat rations similar to those on the ISS, albeit without the chance to choose a percentage of their menus, like current astronauts (Smith says that crew selection for a Mars mission would likely be finalized after provisions have begun their journey to the planet). Participants will also grow vegetables using a hydroponic system – both a psychological and nutritional boost, Smith adds. The crew will have their blood, urine, saliva and feces tested, their behavior monitored, and physical performance measured. Their body mass and composition, nutritional status, immune system function, cognition and microbiome will all be evaluated – “we’re looking at essentially all elements of physiology,” says Smith. Even after the analog is complete, the participants will go through weeks of medical checks at the Johnson Space Center. “It takes a certain dedication to be willing to spend a year with us,” Smith adds. “Not everybody’s cut out for this mission.” A world of analogs Around the world, separate analogs are working on different areas, and NASA and other space agencies are building a patchwork of knowledge hopefully encompassing an entire Mars mission. Mars analogs come in all shapes and sizes. Take the UAE’s grand plans for Mars Science City, for example, a 176,000-square-meter, $136 million hub mooted for construction in the desert outside Dubai. Intended as a location for the emirate to develop technology for an eventual Mars mission, it was also designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, with 3D-printed buildings. On the other end of the scale, the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah is run by non-profit The Mars Society and populated – very successfully – by a team of volunteers who have simulated a total of seven and a half years on Mars over two decades. Perhaps the most cited analog today is Mars-500, a collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. Located in Moscow and run between 2007 and 2011, three simulations culminated in a 520-day mission inside a mock Mars habitat from 2010-2011, which factored in the journey to Mars and back as well as descent and landing. The same Russian institute has previously collaborated with NASA on SIRIUS (Scientific International Research In a Unique terrestrial Station), a series of isolation and confinement analogs in Moscow studying the dynamics of multicultural crews. HERA (Human Exploration Research Analog), meanwhile, has conducted six confinement and isolation missions inside a 650-square feet mock space module. NASA looks to Antarctica and Concordia – a research base more isolated than the ISS itself – as an analog for the hostile environment of space. As data continues to flood in from Earth-bound analogs, NASA will also look to the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon, for information in areas like radiation – the “red risk” that may be the toughest obstacle on the road to Mars, given its propensity to cause cancers and other physiological and psychological impediments. “On the Artemis missions they will be exposed to greater radiation, so there may be some lessons learned, even though those will be – at least in the early phases – shorter duration,” says Smith. Thankfully the crew entering CHAPEA in June will not have to concern themselves with that potentially deadly element of a Mars mission. Nevertheless, the data CHAPEA generates may still prove useful – as Smith notes, there is ongoing research into the effect of diet and nutrition on cancer incidence. “The idea that we’ll ever be able to get the risk down to zero is a long shot,” he says. “But we’ll do what we can.”.In an open letter to President Biden and top Congressional leaders Tuesday, nearly 150 business leaders urged the two sides to act – or face “a devastating scenario … and potentially disastrous consequences,” the letter states. The open letter was first shared with CNN before it was published. CEOs of major corporations and financial institutions signed the letter. Among the signees are James P. Gorman, Chairman & CEO of Morgan Stanley, David M. Solomon, Chairman & CEO of Goldman Sachs, Adena Friedman, Chair & CEO of the Nasdaq, and Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue. It is one of the strongest collective warnings from America’s business sector. The United States could default on its debt as soon as June 1 if lawmakers fail to raise the amount of money the US can borrow to pay its debts, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said. President Biden and top Congressional leaders are expected to meet Tuesday to negotiate a deal and prevent a default. “Failure to resolve the current impasse could easily have more negative consequences. Although the American economy is generally strong, high inflation has created stresses in our financial system, including several recent bank failures. Much worse will occur if the nation defaults on our debt obligations, which would weaken our position in the world financial system,” the letter states. A default on the nation’s debt could send the economy into a recession, and the stock market could tank. The nation’s unemployment rate could spike and borrowing costs for businesses and everyday Americans would rise. In her second letter in two weeks to Congressional leaders Monday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reaffirmed her warning. She says the US is already feeling the impacts of getting close to the “x date” of June 1. “We have learned from past debt limit impasses that waiting until the last minute to suspend or increase the debt limit can cause serious harm to business and consumer confidence, raise short-term borrowing costs for taxpayers, and negatively impact the credit rating of the United States. In fact, we have already seen Treasury’s borrowing costs increase substantially for securities maturing in early June,” Secretary Yellen wrote Monday. The last time the US came close to a default was in 2011 – and as a result the US lost its lustrous AAA credit rating. That ended up being a miserable year for the market and the economy, the CEOs noted. “The stock market still lost 17% of its value for more than a year. Moody’s reported that the heightened uncertainty from this crisis resulted in 1.2 million fewer jobs, a 0.7 percentage point higher unemployment rate, and a $180 billion smaller economy than it otherwise would have — dire impacts that occurred without an actual default, “the letter from business leaders’ states. A default on the US debt would also impact the US government’s ability to pay out Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits, and the military. The consequences would harm the US’s global leadership position, and ability to defend national security interests. “This cannot be allowed to happen,” the letter states..Deegan is projected to defeat Republican former state Rep. Daniel Davis in Tuesday’s runoff election to succeed term-limited GOP incumbent Lenny Curry. Jacksonville is currently the biggest city in the country led by a Republican mayor. Deegan and Davis had advanced to the runoff after no candidate took more than 50% of the vote in the first round in March. Deegan took 39% of the vote to 25% for Davis, though Republicans combined for a slight majority of the overall vote in the March race. Leading up to the runoff, an ad by the county GOP took aim at Deegan, a longtime news anchor in Jacksonville, for saying she had attended Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020. The spot, which was approved by Davis, also suggested that Deegan wanted to defund the police. In response, Deegan accused Republicans of using the “same old playbook.” “I believe that two things can be true,” she said in a video released on Twitter. “While I do believe police have a very dangerous job, and I believe that we need more officers on the streets and will fund those, I also believe that Black mamas shouldn’t have to worry every time their kids step out of the house.” Deegan campaigned on improving city infrastructure, increased access to health care and for a more inclusive economy, while portraying herself as someone who could bring change. Davis focused on a tough-on-crime messaging, while also emphasizing his support for boosting the city economy and infrastructure. Davis had the support of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who endorsed him in March as “the proven law and order conservative Jacksonville needs to tackle the city’s greatest challenges and seize its biggest opportunities.” While Republicans have long had the edge in Duval County, home to Jacksonville, the area has grown more competitive politically over the past few years. In 2020, Joe Biden was the first Democrat to carry the county since Jimmy Carter in 1976. And while DeSantis coasted to reelection by 19 points in November, the Republican governor carried Duval by 12 points. Deegan, a cousin of the late Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Hazouri, started her career in broadcast journalism after graduating from Florida State University. She was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 2020, losing a bid for a deep-red northeast Florida seat to GOP Rep. John Rutherford. In 2003, the former journalist started The DONNA Foundation, a nonprofit providing financial assistance and support to those living with breast cancer and funding research after receiving multiple diagnoses of breast cancer. She chronicled her experiences in two books and also founded 26.2 with DONNA: The National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer, which raises money for breast cancer research and care. This story has been updated with additional reporting..


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