Volcanoes on a newly discovered exoplanet are causing a stir in the professional world. There are two reasons for this, related to the search for life in the universe.
MONTREAL – A research team led by Merrin Peterson of the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) at the University of Montreal has discovered a planet roughly the size of Earth that has a very special feature for research: it appears to be volcanically active. Dubbed LP 791-18d, the exoplanet orbits a small red dwarf star 90 light-years away and is causing a stir with its volcanic activity.
But why do volcanoes on an Earth-sized planet outside our solar system cause such a stir among experts? “Volcanoes are the main source contributing to the formation of a planet’s atmosphere, and with the atmosphere there could be liquid water on the surface – a prerequisite for life as we know it,” explains astrophysicist Stephen Kane.
An Earth-sized exoplanet with active volcanism – could life exist there?
Volcanoes come with the help of a neighboring planet, LP 791-18c. It orbits the star at a greater distance than the volcanic world LP 791-18d – and every time the two planets come closer together, the sheer size of planet c creates a gravitational force that makes planet d’s orbit elliptical rather than circular. This deformation of the orbit causes friction – the interior of the planet is heated and volcanic activity occurs on the surface.
A study describing the newly discovered planet has been published in the journal nature published. But how did the research team come up with the idea that water could exist on a planet whose surface is likely to be completely covered with volcanoes? For one thing, the planet is in what’s called the “habitable zone” around its star — that is, it orbits at a distance that the temperature would allow liquid water to exist on the surface.
Volcanic planet: Liquid water could be possible on the night side
On the other hand, the planet is in closed rotation – it always rotates the same side to the star. So one side of the planet is always day while the other side is in perpetual darkness. Co-author Björn Benneke suggests in one communication. “But the amount of volcanic activity we suspect around the planet could have preserved an atmosphere that would allow water to condense at night.”
Although liquid water may exist on the surface, the planet LP 791-18d probably wouldn’t be habitable, the research group that wrote the study suspects. Then too many erupting volcanoes would permanently render the planet uninhabitable – and water doesn’t help either. But the presence of volcanoes gives researchers new clues about evolution, as co-author Jessie Christiansen explains: “The big question in astrobiology is whether tectonic or volcanic activity is necessary for life.”
Volcanoes in the solar system
There are also volcanoes in our solar system: on Earth, of course, but there are also volcanoes on Venus, and on Mars there is the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons.
Volcanoes can create an atmosphere
In addition to the fact that volcanoes may provide an atmosphere, these processes ensure that materials within the planet that would otherwise sink downward are transported upwards, including materials important to the formation of life, such as carbon.
The new planet was discovered using NASA’s TESS and Spitzer space telescopes and studied with ground-based telescopes. The observation time on the James Webb Space Telescope of Planet C has already been confirmed, As reported by NASA. The research team now also wants to study volcanic planet d and its possible atmosphere using the powerful space telescope. (unpaid bill)
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