Can super-Earth interior dynamics set the table for habitability?

February 09, 2021

Washington, DC-- New research led by Carnegie's Yingwei Fei provides a framework for understanding the interiors of super-Earths--rocky exoplanets between 1.5 and 2 times the size of our home planet--which is a prerequisite to assess their potential for habitability. Planets of this size are among the most abundant in exoplanetary systems. The paper is published in Nature Communications.

"Although observations of an exoplanet's atmospheric composition will be the first way to search for signatures of life beyond Earth, many aspects of a planet's surface habitability are influenced by what's happening beneath the planet's surface, and that's where Carnegie researcher's longstanding expertise in the properties of rocky materials under extreme temperatures and pressures comes in," explained Earth and Planets Laboratory Director Richard Carlson.

On Earth, the interior dynamics and structure of the silicate mantle and metallic core drive plate tectonics, and generate the geodynamo that powers our magnetic field and shields us from dangerous ionizing particles and cosmic rays. Life as we know it would be impossible without this protection. Similarly, the interior dynamics and structure of super-Earths will shape the surface conditions of the planet.

With exciting discoveries of a diversity of rocky exoplanets in recent decades, are much-more-massive super-Earths capable of creating conditions that are hospitable for life to arise and thrive?

Knowledge of what's occurring beneath a super-Earth's surface is crucial for determining whether or not a distant world is capable of hosting life. But the extreme conditions of super-Earth-mass planetary interiors challenge researchers' ability to probe the material properties of the minerals likely to exist there.

That's where lab-based mimicry comes in.

For decades, Carnegie researchers have been leaders at recreating the conditions of planetary interiors by putting small samples of material under immense pressures and high temperatures. But sometimes even these techniques reach their limitations.

"In order to build models that allow us to understand the interior dynamics and structure of super-Earths, we need to be able to take data from samples that approximate the conditions that would be found there, which could exceed 14 million times atmospheric pressure," Fei explained. "However, we kept running up against limitations when it came to creating these conditions in the lab. "

A breakthrough occurred when the team--including Carnegie's Asmaa Boujibar and Peter Driscoll, along with Christopher Seagle, Joshua Townsend, Chad McCoy, Luke Shulenburger, and Michael Furnish of Sandia National Laboratories--was granted access to the world's most powerful, magnetically-driven pulsed power machine (Sandia's Z Pulsed Power Facility) to directly shock a high-density sample of bridgmanite--a high-pressure magnesium silicate that is believed to be predominant in the mantles of rocky planets--in order to expose it to the extreme conditions relevant to the interior of super-Earths.

A series of hypervelocity shockwave experiments on representative super-Earth mantle material provided density and melting temperature measurements that will be fundamental for interpreting the observed masses and radii of super-Earths.

The researchers found that under pressures representative of super-Earth interiors, bridgmanite has a very high melting point, which would have important implications for interior dynamics. Under certain thermal evolutionary scenarios, they say, massive rocky planets might have a thermally driven geodynamo early in their evolution, then lose it for billions of years when cooling slows down. A sustained geodynamo could eventually be re-started by the movement of lighter elements through inner core crystallization.

"The ability to make these measurements is crucial to developing reliable models of the internal structure of super-Earths up to eight times our planet's mass," Fei added. "These results will make a profound impact on our ability to interpret observational data."
-end-
The project is partially supported by a Carnegie Venture Grant and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The project is made possible by the Z Fundamental Science Program.

Carnegie Institution for Science

Related Planets Articles from Brightsurf:

Stars and planets grow up together as siblings
ALMA shows rings around the still-growing proto-star IRS 63

Two planets around a red dwarf
The 'SAINT-EX' Observatory, led by scientists from the National Centre of Competence in Research NCCR PlanetS of the University of Bern and the University of Geneva, has detected two exoplanets orbiting the star TOI-1266.

Some planets may be better for life than Earth
Researchers have identified two dozen planets outside our solar system that may have conditions more suitable for life than our own.

Fifty new planets confirmed in machine learning first
Fifty potential planets have had their existence confirmed by a new machine learning algorithm developed by University of Warwick scientists.

Rogue planets could outnumber the stars
An upcoming NASA mission could find that there are more rogue planets - planets that float in space without orbiting a sun - than there are stars in the Milky Way, a new study theorizes.

Could mini-Neptunes be irradiated ocean planets?
Many exoplanets known today are ''super-Earths'', with a radius 1.3 times that of Earth, and ''mini-Neptunes'', with 2.4 Earth radii.

As many as six billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy, according to new estimates
There may be as many as one Earth-like planet for every five Sun-like stars in the Milky way Galaxy, according to new estimates by University of British Columbia astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler mission.

How planets may form after dust sticks together
Scientists may have figured out how dust particles can stick together to form planets, according to a Rutgers co-authored study that may also help to improve industrial processes.

Planets around a black hole?
Theoreticians in two different fields defied the common knowledge that planets orbit stars like the Sun.

The rare molecule weighing in on the birth of planets
Astronomers using one of the most advanced radio telescopes have discovered a rare molecule in the dust and gas disc around a young star -- and it may provide an answer to one of the conundrums facing astronomers.

Read More: Planets News and Planets Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.