Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Scientists Model a Cornucopia of Earth-sized Planets

In the Star Wars movies fictional planets are covered with forests, oceans, deserts, and volcanoes. But new models from a team of MIT, NASA, and Carnegie scientists begin to describe an even wider range of Earth-size planets that astronomers might actually be able to find in the near future.

Sara Seager, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.; Marc Kuchner, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Catherine Hier-Majumder, Carnegie Institution of Washington, (deceased); and Burkhard Militzer, Carnegie, have created models for 14 different types of solid planets that might exist in our galaxy. The 14 types have various compositions, and the team calculated how large each planet would be for a given mass. Some are pure water ice, carbon, iron, silicate, carbon monoxide, and silicon carbide; others are mixtures of these various compounds.

"We’re thinking seriously about the different kinds of roughly Earth-size planets that might be out there, like George Lucas, but for real," says Kuchner.

The team took a different approach from previous studies. Rather than assume that planets around other stars are scaled-up or scaled-down versions of the planets in our solar system, they considered all types of planets that might be possible, given what astronomers know about the composition of protoplanetary disks around young stars.

"We have learned that extrasolar giant planets often differ tremendously from the worlds in our solar system, so we let our imaginations run wild and tried to cover all the bases with our models of smaller planets," says Kuchner. "We can make educated guesses about where these different kinds of planets might be found. For example, carbon planets and carbon-monoxide planets might favor evolved stars such as white dwarfs and pulsars, or they might form in carbon-rich disks like the one around the star Beta Pictoris. But ultimately, we need observations to give us the answers."

The team calculated how gravity would compress planets of varying compositions. The resulting computer models predict a planet’s diameter for a given composition and mass. For example, a 1-Earth-mass planet made of pure water will be about 9,500 miles across, whereas an iron planet with the same mass will be only about 3,000 miles in diameter. For comparison, Earth, which is made mostly of silicates, is 7,926 miles across at its equator.

Some of the results were expected, such as the fact that pure water planets (similar to the moons of the outer planets in our solar system, which consist mostly of water ice) were the least dense of the solid planets, and pure iron planets are the most dense. But there were some surprises. The team discovered that no matter what material a planet is made of, the mass/diameter relationship follows a similar pattern.

"All materials compress in a similar way because of the structure of solids," explains Seager. "If you squeeze a rock, nothing much happens until you reach some critical pressure, then it crushes. Planets behave the same way, but they react at different pressures depending on the composition. This is a big step forward in our fundamental understanding of planets."

The team hopes that these models will yield insights into planet compositions when astronomers start finding Earth-sized planets around other stars. Missions such as the French Corot satellite, which launched on December 27, 2006, and NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, scheduled to launch in 2009, can find planets not much larger than Earth by watching them pass in front of their host stars, events known as transits. The transits yield the planet’s size, and follow-up studies can measure the mass. By comparing a planet's size and mass, astronomers might be able to determine whether it is mostly water ice or mostly iron, for example.

But astronomers using the transit method will find it difficult at best to distinguish a silicate planet from a carbon planet, because they’re about the same size for a given mass. "To make this finer distinction, we will need some help from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope or Terrestrial Planet Finder," says Kuchner. "With these instruments, we could take spectra of Earth-mass planets, which will tell us about their chemistries."

The team’s paper is currently scheduled to appear in the October 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Robert Naeye | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1
21.03.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Hochfrequenzphysik und Radartechnik FHR

nachricht Taming chaos: Calculating probability in complex systems
21.03.2018 | American Institute of Physics

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

TRAPPIST-1 planets provide clues to the nature of habitable worlds

21.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

The search for dark matter widens

21.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Natural enemies reduce pesticide use

21.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>