The pictures were taken from several miles away with a camera intended for portraits, and at sunset. From these fuzzy snapshots, that person claims to know the city’s air quality, the appearance of its buildings, and how often it rains.
Exoplanet transiting in front of its star. Princeton’s Adam Burrows argues against drawing too many conclusions about such distant objects with today’s technologies. Photo credit: ESA/C. Carreau
This technique is similar to how scientists often characterize the atmosphere — including the presence of water and oxygen — of planets outside of Earth’s solar system, known as exoplanets, according to a review of exoplanet research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A planet’s atmosphere is the gateway to its identity, including how it was formed, how it developed and whether it can sustain life, stated Adam Burrows, author of the review and a Princeton University professor of astrophysical sciences.
But the dominant methods for studying exoplanet atmospheres are not intended for objects as distant, dim and complex as planets trillions of miles from Earth, Burrows said. They were instead designed to study much closer or brighter objects, such as planets in Earth’s solar system and stars.
Nonetheless, scientific reports and the popular media brim with excited depictions of Earth-like planets ripe for hosting life and other conclusions that are based on vague and incomplete data, Burrows wrote in the first in a planned series of essays that examine the current and future study of exoplanets. Despite many trumpeted results, few “hard facts” about exoplanet atmospheres have been collected since the first planet was detected in 1992, and most of these data are of “marginal utility.”
The good news is that the past 20 years of study have brought a new generation of exoplanet researchers to the fore that is establishing new techniques, technologies and theories. As with any relatively new field of study, fully understanding exoplanets will require a lot of time, resources and patience, Burrows said.
“Exoplanet research is in a period of productive fermentation that implies we’re doing something new that will indeed mature,” Burrows said. “Our observations just aren’t yet of a quality that is good enough to draw the conclusions we want to draw.
“There’s a lot of hype in this subject, a lot of irrational exuberance. Popular media have characterized our understanding as better than it actually is,” he said. “They’ve been able to generate excitement that creates a positive connection between the astrophysics community and the public at large, but it’s important not to hype conclusions too much at this point.”
The majority of data on exoplanet atmospheres come from low-resolution photometry, which captures the variation in light and radiation an object emits, Burrows reported. That information is used to determine a planet’s orbit and radius, but its clouds, surface, and rotation, among other factors, can easily skew the results. Even newer techniques such as capturing planetary transits — which is when a planet passes in front of its star, and was lauded by Burrows as an unforeseen “game changer” when it comes to discovering new planets — can be thrown off by a thick atmosphere and rocky planet core.
All this means that reliable information about a planet can be scarce, so scientists attempt to wring ambitious details out of a few data points. “We have a few hard-won numbers and not the hundreds of numbers that we need,” Burrows said. “We have in our minds that exoplanets are very complex because this is what we know about the planets in our solar system, but the data are not enough to constrain even a fraction of these conceptions.”
Burrows emphasizes that astronomers need to acknowledge that they will never achieve a comprehensive understanding of exoplanets through the direct-observation, stationary methods inherited from the exploration of Earth’s neighbors. He suggests that exoplanet researchers should acknowledge photometric interpretations as inherently flawed and ambiguous. Instead, the future of exoplanet study should focus on the more difficult but comprehensive method of spectrometry, wherein the physical properties of objects are gauged by the interaction of its surface and elemental features with light wavelengths, or spectra. Spectrometry has been used to determine the age and expansion of the universe.
Existing telescopes and satellites are likewise vestiges of pre-exoplanet observation. Burrows calls for a mix of small, medium and large initiatives that will allow the time and flexibility scientists need to develop tools to detect and analyze exoplanet spectra. He sees this as a challenge in a research environment that often puts quick-payback results over deliberate research and observation. Once scientists obtain high-quality spectral data, however, Burrows predicted, “Many conclusions reached recently about exoplanet atmospheres will be overturned.”
“The way we study planets out of the solar system has to be radically different because we can’t ‘go’ to those planets with satellites or probes,” Burrows said. “It’s much more an observational science. We have to be detectives. We’re trying to find clues and the best clues since the mid-19th century have been in spectra. It’s the only means of understanding the atmosphere of these planets.”
A longtime exoplanet researcher, Burrows predicted the existence of “hot-Jupiter” planets — gas planets similar to Jupiter but orbiting very close to the parent star — in a paper in the journal Nature months before the first such planet, 51 Pegasi b, was discovered in 1995.
Citation: Burrows, Adam S. 2014. Spectra as windows into exoplanet atmospheres. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Article first published online: Jan. 13, 2014. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1304208111
Morgan Kelly | EurekAlert!
LIGO confirms RIT's breakthrough prediction of gravitational waves
12.02.2016 | Rochester Institute of Technology
Milestone in physics: gravitational waves detected with the laser system from LZH
12.02.2016 | Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V.
Today, plants and microorganisms are heavily used for the production of medicinal products. The production of biopharmaceuticals in plants, also referred to as “Molecular Pharming”, represents a continuously growing field of plant biotechnology. Preferred host organisms include yeast and crop plants, such as maize and potato – plants with high demands. With the help of a special algal strain, the research team of Prof. Ralph Bock at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam strives to develop a more efficient and resource-saving system for the production of medicines and vaccines. They tested its practicality by synthesizing a component of a potential AIDS vaccine.
The use of plants and microorganisms to produce pharmaceuticals is nothing new. In 1982, bacteria were genetically modified to produce human insulin, a drug...
Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock which attains an accuracy which had only been predicted theoretically so far. Their optical ytterbium clock achieved a relative systematic measurement uncertainty of 3 E-18. The results have been published in the current issue of the scientific journal "Physical Review Letters".
Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock...
The University of Würzburg has two new space projects in the pipeline which are concerned with the observation of planets and autonomous fault correction aboard satellites. The German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy funds the projects with around 1.6 million euros.
Detecting tornadoes that sweep across Mars. Discovering meteors that fall to Earth. Investigating strange lightning that flashes from Earth's atmosphere into...
Physicists from Saarland University and the ESPCI in Paris have shown how liquids on solid surfaces can be made to slide over the surface a bit like a bobsleigh on ice. The key is to apply a coating at the boundary between the liquid and the surface that induces the liquid to slip. This results in an increase in the average flow velocity of the liquid and its throughput. This was demonstrated by studying the behaviour of droplets on surfaces with different coatings as they evolved into the equilibrium state. The results could prove useful in optimizing industrial processes, such as the extrusion of plastics.
The study has been published in the respected academic journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).
Exceeding critical temperature limits in the Southern Ocean may cause the collapse of ice sheets and a sharp rise in sea levels
A future warming of the Southern Ocean caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere may severely disrupt the stability of the West...
12.02.2016 | Event News
09.02.2016 | Event News
02.02.2016 | Event News
12.02.2016 | Physics and Astronomy
12.02.2016 | Life Sciences
12.02.2016 | Medical Engineering