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ASU experts weigh in on discovery of warm, rocky 'Earth-like' planets

Liquid water, an atmosphere and a magnetic field could make a planet habitable.
February 22, 2017

The discovery of seven warm, rocky “Earth-like” planets orbiting a star 39 light-years away has created new opportunities for science, according to the lead researcher of the NASA study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

“Before this, if you wanted to study terrestrial planets, we had only four of them and they were all in our solar system,” exoplanetary scientist Michael Gillon told the Washington Post. “Now we have seven Earth-sized planets to expand our understanding. Yes, we have the possibility to find water and life. But even if we don't, whatever we find will be super interesting.”

ASU Now tapped associate professor Jennifer Patience and assistant professor Evgenya Shkolnik of Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration — experts on exoplanetsAn exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star outside Earth’s solar system. and habitable zonesA habitable zone is a region of space where conditions are best for life to form as on Earth. — to explain what we could find, how we could find it and what it could teach us.

Question: What could we possibly find on these planets?

ASU Professor Evgenya Shkonik
Evgenya Shkolnik

Shkolnik: There are a few things we could find that I’m curious about. One is do they have atmospheres? There’s some potential that their atmospheres might be blown off by the star’s activities. Once that’s determined, I want to know what is in those atmospheres, which involves the detection of biosignatures — indications of life on planets.

But knowing anything about them is valuable, even if they don’t have life. Everyone wants to know how common is life? If we find out that none of these planets have life, which I think is highly unlikely, it tells us something about how unique life is on Earth. The question now is how are we going to detect life on these planets? There are opportunities for false-positive and false-negative detections of life. So how do we say for sure?

Q: So how do we detect life and/or biosignatures on these planets?

ASU Professor
Jennifer Patience

Patience: The newly discovered planets pass in front of the host star, and with sensitive measurements from telescopes it is possible to study the starlight passing through the atmosphere of the planet to learn about the composition of the atmosphere. Several possibilities include an atmosphere largely made up of hydrogen and helium, or containing molecules such as water and carbon monoxide. The measurements can be made with telescopes in space and on the ground, and the different colors of light are important to investigate different aspects of the atmosphere.

Shkolnik: You can look at different wavelengths of light to get the biosignatures that indicate oxygen and ozone and methane, which are the kind of biosignatures that exist in Earth’s atmosphere. You’d need to use infrared, like the James Webb Space Telescope will do. This solar system will most certainly be observed with JWST. We’ll receive some information about the planets’ atmospheres, assuming they have atmospheres, through that.

At the NASA press conference (Wednesday), one of the researchers involved in the discovery received a question from a reporter about whether or not SETISETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is a collective term for scientific searches for intelligent extraterrestrial life; for example, monitoring electromagnetic radiation for signs of transmissions from civilizations on other worlds., which observes radio wavelengths from space, has observed these planets. As far as he knows, SETI has observed the planets but has not observed radio intelligence. So that’s one way of detecting life, but that’s a way to detect intelligent life. The first way to determine if there is life on a planet is to look for biosignatures; there can be biosignatures that indicate life is present but not necessarily intelligent.

Q: What are some of the challenges to finding life on these planets?

Shkolnik: We need to understand what the star is doing because all of the light that we see is the starlight as it passes through the atmosphere of the planet. It’s as if the planet is backlit by the star, so you see the signatures — the fingerprints of these molecules of interest — imposed on the stellar light, which can change how they are interpreted. So one of the issues is we need to understand the star light well.

Another challenge is that it’s possible that stellar photons are producing haze or clouds on planets, making it hard to determine its biosignatures. And, of course, there’s the challenge that life there may be subsurface, so wouldn’t be detectable by observing the surface of the planet.

Q: Do we even know what conditions make for a habitable planet?

Patience: There are a range of factors that are important, including the temperature and radiation environment of the planet. A key requirement is a temperature that would allow liquid water to be present. Water is an important factor for life, so a detection of water would be an important step in the exploration of these planets, though water alone would not determine if there is life present on an exoplanet.

Shkolnik: It’s hard to create a set list because the conditions of Earth are the only ones we know about. It’s the only place we know about with life, at the moment. So we have a very Earth-centric understanding of what it takes for a planet to be habitable. But we have some basic conditions.

One of the first conditions that defines a habitable planet is that the surface of the planet receives enough radiation from the sun to be the right temperature to sustain liquid water. Then there’s Earth’s magnetic field, which shields the Earth from high-energy particles from the sun that could potentially strip away our atmosphere, exposing Earth’s surface to space weather elements. So you need liquid water, you need an atmosphere and you need a magnetic field.

Q: What can we learn from studying these new planets?

Shkolnik: I think it will add to our body of knowledge of how common Earth-sized planets are, and particularly Earth-sized size planets in habitable zones.

It’s going to affect everyone in our field’s next telescope proposal. Everyone will want to use Hubble, if they’re not already. Everyone will want to use the James Webb Space Telescope; everyone will be proposing new research to use it. I think there’s going to be many papers coming out pretty soon, like there were after Proxima b back in August. There’ll be the same wave of theory and enthusiasm.

Q: What is most exciting about this discovery?

Shkolnik: I think it’s going to be the first of many discoveries like it. With anything in astronomy, if you find one, there’s probably many more. I think it confirms what we already learned from the Kepler space mission, that planets around these low-mass stars are ubiquitous, including habitable-zone planets. So this is really just the beginning.

Patience: A really exciting aspect of this discovery is the fact that there are multiple Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone, compared to other exoplanet systems that have only one or no planets in the habitable zone. Thousands of exoplanets are known, but only a much smaller number are in the habitable zones of their host stars, and this is the only system with several Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone.


Top photo: Artist illustration of the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Scientists using the Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes have discovered that there are seven Earth-size planets in the system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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ASU Herberger studio gives students permission to dream

ASU art students given opportunity to innovate for the future.
February 23, 2017

Steven J. Tepper embraces the notion that building a better future starts with dreaming a better world; the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts dean also recognizes that visions require time and space.

To that end, Tepper and an array of partners created a special incubator for futurist thinking at Arizona State University that allowed design and art students to investigate, research, interview, brainstorm and prototype ideas about technology, philanthropy, education, training and business models.

It was exactly the result he was looking for.

“We need artists and designers who have passion and energy and ideas and want to shape the world,” Tepper said at a presentation conference marking the end of the six-week/three-credit collaboration between the Herberger Institute, Vermont’s Bennington College and the L.A.-based Center for Cultural Innovation that was funded in part by a $40,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. 

Tepper’s remarks kicked off two days of Studio for the Future of Arts and Culture charrettes, intense planning sessions where a lineup of students gave short presentations that sought to advance a radical idea for innovation in our culture — 50 years into the future.

In true Herberger Institute fashion, the discussions were wide-ranging and big-picture.

Bennington grad student Lauren Roshan said that in the future “art can truly save the life of a young black man or woman. The future of arts and culture does not alienate black artists and audiences from art.”

She said the conclusion came in part from her own experience as a black woman who found salvation through expression. 

ASU graduate student Mitch Miller, meanwhile, said that “in the future the need for public spaces will be greater than the need for intellectual spaces” because observing and interpreting the world is at the root of creating art.

“Nobody brought the word ‘no’ into the room, and that’s part of the idea,” said Bennington President Mariko Silver, who helped develop the partnership. “It’s also not about making each other feel good, but how the team, bringing all of our perspectives together, can solve the issue.”

The charrettes, included all 13 participants — nine ASU and four Bennington students — as well as representatives from the two universities and fellows from the Center for Cultural Innovation.

Quiroz discussion
Digital media junior Andrea Quiroz presents her vision the arts and culture in 50 years, at the Studio for the Future of Arts and Culture, in the ASU Art Museum, on Wednesday, Feb. 15. Quiroz sees the Art Delegate as a governmental attaché or translator for culture to facilitate mediation for both domestic and foreign issues. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

As part of the studio program, students traveled to California to participate in the Center for Cultural Innovation’s Future Arts Forward conference, meeting with 250 other young artists and art leaders to discuss whom the arts should serve and how the arts sector might shift to serve a changing America.

Cyndi Coon of Tempe-based Laboratory 5, a creative consultant for the university, designed the course.

“I wanted (students) to understand they had permission to embody new ideas and put them forth into the world,” she said.

“I designed the course so that students would have a tool kit when they left this class.”

ASU music student Nicolette Zillich, said she thinks the course is a good start on her journey toward problem-solving.

“There are so many artists who are trying to make a difference somehow in some way, and even though that path isn’t clear yet, I’ve met so many brilliant people who’ve told me they’re looking for the same things,” Zillich said.

She added that by working together and sharing ideas they could “propel ourselves forward just by talking to each other and meeting.”

Tepper, meanwhile, is considering the future himself.

“I’ve had many students come up to me and say, ‘This is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in college,’” Tepper said. “That has inspired me to think this shouldn’t be a one-time thing.

“The best studios, historically,” he said, “have been ones that have persisted over many, many years.”