Several years ago, planetary scientist Lynnae Quick began to wonder whether any of the more than 4,000 known exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system, might resemble some of the watery moons around Jupiter and Saturn. Though some of these moons don’t have atmospheres and are covered in ice, they are still among the top targets in NASA’s search for life beyond Earth. Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, which scientists classify as “ocean worlds,” are good examples.
“Plumes of water erupt from Europa and Enceladus, so we can tell that these bodies have subsurface oceans beneath their ice shells, and they have energy that drives the plumes, which are two requirements for life as we know it,” says Quick, a NASA planetary scientist who specializes in volcanism and ocean worlds. “So if we’re thinking about these places as being possibly habitable, maybe bigger versions of them in other planetary systems are habitable too.”
Quick, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, decided to explore whether — hypothetically — there are planets similar to Europa and Enceladus in the Milky Way galaxy. And, could they, too, be geologically active enough to shoot plumes through their surfaces that could one day be detected by telescopes.
Through a mathematical analysis of several dozen exoplanets, including planets in the nearby TRAPPIST-1 system, Quick and her colleagues learned something significant: More than a quarter of the exoplanets they studied could be ocean worlds, with a majority possibly harboring oceans beneath layers of surface ice, similar to Europa and Enceladus. Additionally, many of these planets could be releasing more energy than Europa and Enceladus.
Scientists may one day be able to test Quick’s predictions by measuring the heat emitted from an exoplanet or by detecting volcanic or cryovolcanic (liquid or vapor instead of molten rock) eruptions in the wavelengths of light emitted by molecules in a planet’s atmosphere. For now, scientists cannot see many exoplanets in any detail. Alas, they are too far away and too drowned out by the light of their stars. But by considering the only information available — exoplanet sizes, masses and distances from their stars — scientists like Quick and her colleagues can tap mathematical models and our understanding of the solar system to try to imagine the conditions that could be shaping exoplanets into livable worlds or not.
While the assumptions that go into these mathematical models are educated guesses, they can help scientists narrow the list of promising exoplanets to search for conditions favorable to life so that NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope or other space missions can follow up.
“Future missions to look for signs of life beyond the solar system are focused on planets like ours that have a global biosphere that’s so abundant it’s changing the chemistry of the whole atmosphere,” says Aki Roberge, a NASA Goddard astrophysicist who collaborated with Quick on this analysis. “But in the solar system, icy moons with oceans, which are far from the heat of the Sun, still have shown that they have the features we think are required for life.”
To look for possible ocean worlds, Quick’s team selected 53 exoplanets with sizes most similar to Earth, though they could have up to eight times more mass. Scientists assume planets of this size are more solid than gaseous and, thus, more likely to support liquid water on or below their surfaces. At least 30 more planets that fit these parameters have been discovered since Quick and her colleagues began their study in 2017, but they were not included in the analysis, which was published on June 18, 2020, in the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
With their Earth-size planets identified, Quick and her team sought to determine how much energy each one could be generating and releasing as heat. The team considered two primary sources of heat. The first, radiogenic heat, is generated over billions of years by the slow decay of radioactive materials in a planet’s mantle and crust. That rate of decay depends on a planet’s age and the mass of its mantle. Other scientists already had determined these relationships for Earth-size planets. So, Quick and her team applied the decay rate to their list of 53 planets, assuming each one is the same age as its star and that its mantle takes up the same proportion of the planet’s volume as Earth’s mantle does.
Next, the researchers calculated heat produced by something else: tidal force, which is energy generated from the gravitational tugging when one object orbits another. Planets in stretched out, or elliptical, orbits shift the distance between themselves and their stars as they circle them. This leads to changes in the gravitational force between the two objects and causes the planet to stretch, thereby generating heat. Eventually, the heat is lost to space through the surface.
One exit route for the heat is through volcanoes or cryovolcanoes. Another route is through tectonics, which is a geological process responsible for the movement of the outermost rocky or icy layer of a planet or moon. Whichever way the heat is discharged, knowing how much of it a planet pushes out is important because it could make or break habitability.
“Forecasting Rates of Volcanic Activity on Terrestrial Exoplanets and Implications for Cryovolcanic Activity on Extrasolar Ocean Worlds” by Lynnae C. Quick, Aki Roberge, Amy Barr Mlinar and Matthew M. Hedman, 18 June 2020, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
“A radiogenic heating evolution model for cosmochemically Earth-like exoplanets” by Elizabeth A. Frank, Bradley S. Meyer and Stephen J. Mojzsis, Icarus.