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Planetary Discovery

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Era of Planetary Discovery  

By Guadalupe Martinez  

When Galileo first posited that the moon was a planet, that was the first step towards space exploration setting the stage for our ancestors to explore our solar system. The first humans believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. In many diverse cultures the planets were seen as celestial beings, means by which God could communicate to us humans. What once thought is becoming a reality as technology advances, paving the way for us to explore beyond our solar system. Even if it takes centuries, we will eventually be able to explore other worlds in addition to the moon and Mars.

For the past seven years, new exoplanets have been discovered, and each new technology prompts the question: if you had the opportunity to live on a planet besides the Earth that could sustain life, would you migrate off-world?  

Hello New World!  

An exoplanet or extrasolar planet is a planet outside the Solar System. An exoplanet orbiting the small M-dwarf planet 50 light-years away from Earth may be a life-friendly water world. This planet is in the habitable zone of a small, dim star called LHS 1140 that lies in the constellation Cetus which is why scientists have named the exoplanet LHS 1140 b. Over the recent years, scientists have made Multiple observations’ that all point to LHS 1140 b capable of containing life. Studies conducted have shown the exoplanet to have significant amounts of liquid water

covered by a thin ice envelope. The exoplanet was discovered in 2017 and has been observed with multiple microscopes ever since.  

    NASA, the U.S. government agency that is responsible for science and technology related to air and space, states that a planet is considered habitable if it has a magnetic field, contains liquid water (as opposed to ice or gas), and can hold an atmosphere. To date, a habitable red dwarf planet has never been found with an atmosphere, but LHS 1140 b could be the first, and since the sun it orbits is a stable, older star. However, with time delay caused by time dilation, which increases the time it takes light to travel a given distance from the perspective of an outside observer, for example, time in space lags approximately 0.01 seconds for every 12 months on Earth. If a planetary atmosphere managed to form 547 years ago it could still survive today. Astronomy, a bestselling scientific journal, elaborates that modern telescopes like the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the James Webb Telescope are capable of observing exoplanets even though they are technically 4.2 light years outside our solar system. These telescopes make “studying signals from the planets easier than around more active M-dwarfs [and] might even be capable of spotting oxygen in the atmosphere of LHS 1140b.” Currently, we can only observe this exoplanet, but with future technological advances, such as Space robotics and Space traffic management enabling long-distance space travel, LHS 1140 b could very well turn out to be the next habitable planet we find life on.   

    Bernie Barge, who teaches Chemistry at Greenfield High School and advises the campus Robotics Club, states that for a planet to be habitable for humans, its atmosphere must be similar to ours, containing oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. However, he observes that it can be habitable for other forms of life, even if they are not inhabitable for human beings. Anaerobic bacteria and the chemosynthetic bacteria can be alive in harsh conditions could stop us. When asked if people want to live on challenging or uninhabitable planets, Barge agreed that we do, citing Mars as one example. So why do people want to live on Mars even though its atmosphere does not support human life? Barge tells our reporters that “Scientists have been interested in Mars as a potential second earth with a fascination for the planet increases with every discovery.” In 1894 astronomer Percival Lowell believed that 4.1 billion to 3.5 billion years ago Mars did have the correct conditions to be habitable for life. Scientists have modeled habitability on Mars and have concluded that life could still exist on Mars and has just adapted to the change of atmosphere. Mars sits between the asteroid belt and is a stepping stone for what lies beyond where it's situated. It remains close to the sun to get heat and light but also close enough away to avoid the sun’s heat outputs, like solar flares.  

Space InfographicDiscovering a Habitable Zone Far Beyond  

With new scientific technology like the James Webb Telescope, a new world can be upon us to explore and possibly discover new planets in our solar system that might be able to contain life. One way our scientists do this is to consider planets that lie within what we call the “Habitable Zone” which is typically defined as the orbital distance at which the steady stellar irradiation leads to a suitable temperature for the presence of liquid water on the planetary surface. In other words, the planet lies a distance from the sun so that it is not too cold and not too hot for water to exist which is necessary to support life.  

    In addition to having water and a survivable temperature, our atmosphere plays a crucial role in our ability to survive on Earth. It provides us with the necessary air to breathe and protects us from the harmful radiation and particles emitted by the sun and other celestial bodies. The atmosphere also helps regulate the Earth's temperature, preventing it from becoming too hot or too cold. Without our atmosphere, life as we know it would not exist on this planet. It is essential to understand how the atmosphere affects the way planets are habitable, as it is a critical factor in determining whether other planets in our solar system and beyond could support life. What is exciting is that LHS 1140 b has the prime qualifications for having an atmosphere. At this time it is unclear if it has one, but if an atmosphere is spotted by future telescope observations, it may help settle the great debate over whether M-dwarf planets can hold onto their atmospheres long enough to sustain life.  

    The four criteria necessary for a planet to be considered habitable are as follows: the planet is within the habitable zone (it orbits a stable star), the planet has the right mass, the planet can hold an atmosphere, and most importantly of all, there is the presence of liquid water on the planet surface. Exoplanet LHS 1140b’s enormous size means that a magma ocean could have existed on its surface for millions of years. This seething ocean of lava could feed steam into the atmosphere long after the nearby star has calmed to a steady glow, which in turn would replenish the planet with water. Water could still be present on LHS 1140 b making it a target for sustaining life.  

A New Home?  

When we think about relocation, we usually think about relocation to a different state, country, or continent. What we do not think about daily, unless we work at N.A.S.A., is the possibility of relocating to a different planet entirely, away from Earth to a possible new future. While there are still decades left to go before humanity develops and finds the technology to successfully colonize another habitable planet, the idea is not any less possible than when we first dreamed about it. Many Americans believe that we should be trying to send people to other planets via space travel including sending astronauts on various expeditions and establishing permanent settlements in space like the International Space Station (ISS) or even a colony on another planet. Some scientists even say N.A.S.A. will have people on Mars by 2040.  

    The topic of relocation has come up in multiple professional polls as just one of many priorities of NASA, but should it even be a priority in the first place? 55% of U.S. adults expect that people will routinely travel in space as tourists in the next 50 years, Pew Research Center, A nonpartisan fact tank that does public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis, and other data-driven social science research, despite many Americans, on balance not being enthusiastic about traveling to space themselves: 35% say they would be interested in orbiting Earth in a spacecraft, compared to 65% who say they would not be interested. One major target for colonization and relocation is Mars, who to Nasa will tell us all about Earth's past and Future, that Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and a driver of technologies that will enable humans to travel and explore far from Earth.   

    So, what does this mean for the future of scientific discovery? What does this mean for the future of humanity? Well, the answer is not so simple. We can never have a firm answer to what future technology will be able to discover, whether it be new solar systems or new habitable planets. What we do know, however, is that Humanity on Earth is a mere speck in the entire universe and multiverses and that despite many scientific discoveries not having a definitive answer, we will one day be able to travel beyond our large, changing solar system.