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Hydrogen volcanoes might boost planets’ potential for life

Repeated eruptions could warm otherwise icy worlds

By
7:00am, March 2, 2017
exoplanet illustration

WARMING UP  Hydrogen-spewing volcanoes may warm worlds chilled by the distance from their star (one illustrated above), enhancing planets’ ability to support life, a new study suggests.

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Volcanoes that belch hydrogen could bump up the number of potentially habitable planets in the universe.

Ramses Ramirez and Lisa Kaltenegger, both of Cornell University, modeled the atmospheres of planets blemished with hydrogen-spewing volcanoes. These gaseous eruptions could warm planets and ultimately widen a star’s habitable zone, the region where liquid water can exist on a planet’s surface, by about 30 to 60 percent, researchers report in the March 1 Astrophysical Journal Letters. That would be like extending the outer edge of the sun’s habitable zone from about 254 million kilometers — just beyond Mars’ orbit — to 359 million kilometers, or roughly to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Exoplanets that astronomers had previously thought too cold to support life might, in fact, be ripe for habitability if they have hydrogen volcanoes, the researchers say. One example is TRAPPIST-1h, the farthest-out planet identified in an odd system of seven Earth-sized planets 39 light-years from Earth (SN Online: 2/22/17). That world is thought to be icy like Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Adding planets to a star’s habitable zone means more exotic worlds could be targets in the search for signatures of life beyond our solar system. Astronomers plan to search for these signatures with the James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch in 2018, and later with the European Extremely Large Telescope, scheduled to begin operations in 2024.

Citations

R.M. Ramirez and L. Kaltenegger. A volcanic hydrogen habitable zone. The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Vol. 837, March 1, 2017, p. L4. doi: 10.3847/2041-8213/aa60c8.

Further Reading

A. Yeager. Seven Earth-sized planets orbit nearby supercool star. Science News Online, February 22, 2017.

C. Crockett. New telescopes will search for signs of life on distant planets. Science News. Vol. 189, April 30, 2016, p. 32.

C. Crockett. When looking for aliens, try finding their pollution. Science News Online, July 31, 2014.

C. Crockett. Exoplanet oxygen may not signal alien life. Science News. Vol. 185, April 19, 2014, p. 11.

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