Nav: Home

Volcanic hydrogen spurs chances of finding exoplanet life

February 27, 2017

ITHACA, N.Y. - Hunting for habitable exoplanets now may be easier: Cornell University astronomers report that hydrogen pouring from volcanic sources on planets throughout the universe could improve the chances of locating life in the cosmos.

Planets located great distances from stars freeze over. "On frozen planets, any potential life would be buried under layers of ice, which would make it really hard to spot with telescopes," said lead author Ramses Ramirez, research associate at Cornell's Carl Sagan Institute. "But if the surface is warm enough - thanks to volcanic hydrogen and atmospheric warming - you could have life on the surface, generating a slew of detectable signatures."

Combining the greenhouse warming effect from hydrogen, water and carbon dioxide on planets sprinkled throughout the cosmos, distant stars could expand their habitable zones by 30 to 60 percent, according to this new research. "Where we thought you would only find icy wastelands, planets can be nice and warm - as long as volcanoes are in view," said Lisa Kaltenegger, Cornell professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute.

Their research, "A Volcanic Hydrogen Habitable Zone," published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The idea that hydrogen can warm a planet is not new, but an Earth-like planet cannot hold onto its hydrogen for more than a few million years. Volcanoes change the concept. "You get a nice big warming effect from volcanic hydrogen, which is sustainable as long as the volcanoes are intense enough," said Ramirez, who suggested the possibility that these planets may sustain detectable life on their surface.

A very light gas, hydrogen also "puffs up" planetary atmospheres, which will likely help scientists detect signs of life. "Adding hydrogen to the air of an exoplanet is a good thing if you're an astronomer trying to observe potential life from a telescope or a space mission. It increases your signal, making it easier to spot the makeup of the atmosphere as compared to planets without hydrogen," said Ramirez.

In our solar system, the habitable zone extends to 1.67 times the Earth-sun distance, just beyond the orbit of Mars. With volcanically sourced hydrogen on planets, this could extend the solar system's habitable zone reach to 2.4 times the Earth-sun distance - about where the asteroid belt is located between Mars and Jupiter. This research places a lot of planets that scientists previously thought to be too cold to support detectable life back into play.

"We just increased the width of the habitable zone by about half, adding a lot more planets to our 'search here' target list," said Ramirez.

Atmospheric biosignatures, such as methane in combination with ozone - indicating life - will likely be detected by the forthcoming, next-generation James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, or the approaching European Extremely Large Telescope, first light in 2024.

Last week, NASA reported finding seven Earth-like planets around the star Trappist-1. "Finding multiple planets in the habitable zone of their host star is a great discovery because it means that there can be even more potentially habitable planets per star than we thought," said Kaltenegger. "Finding more rocky planets in the habitable zone - per star - increases our odds of finding life."

With this latest research, Ramirez and Kaltenegger have possibly added to that number by showing that habitats can be found, even those once thought too cold, as long as volcanoes spew enough hydrogen. Such a volcanic hydrogen habitable zone might just make the Trappist-1 system contain four habitable zone planets, instead of three. "Although uncertainties with the orbit of the outermost Trappist-1 planet 'h' means that we'll have to wait and see on that one," said Kaltenegger.
-end-
Media note: The research paper "A Volcanic Hydrogen Habitable Zone," as well as images and graphics can be downloaded at https://cornell.box.com/v/RamirezKaltenegger. Lisa Kaltenegger discusses how her team is searching for alien life, http://www.cornell.edu/video/lisa-kaltenegger-search-for-extraterrestrial-life.

The Simons Foundation and the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science funded this research.

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.

Cornell University

Related Hydrogen Articles:

Paving the way for hydrogen fuel cells
The hype around hydrogen fuel cells has died down, but scientists have continued to pursue new technologies that could enable such devices to gain a firmer foothold.
Keeping the hydrogen coming
A coating of molybdenum improves the efficiency of catalysts for producing hydrogen.
Hydrogen bonds directly detected for the first time
For the first time, scientists have succeeded in studying the strength of hydrogen bonds in a single molecule using an atomic force microscope.
Argon is not the 'dope' for metallic hydrogen
Hydrogen is both the simplest and the most-abundant element in the universe, so studying it can teach scientists about the essence of matter.
Metallic hydrogen, once theory, becomes reality
Nearly a century after it was theorized, Harvard scientists have succeeded in creating metallic hydrogen.
From theory to reality: The creation of metallic hydrogen
For more than 80 years, it has been predicted that hydrogen will adopt metallic properties under certain conditions, and now researchers have successfully demonstrated this phenomenon.
Artificial leaf goes more efficient for hydrogen generation
A new study, affiliated with Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology has introduced a new artificial leaf that generates hydrogen, using the power of the Sun to mimic underwater photosynthesis.
Hydrogen from sunlight -- but as a dark reaction
The storage of photogenerated electric energy and its release on demand are still among the main obstacles in artificial photosynthesis.
New process produces hydrogen at much lower temperature
Waseda University researchers have developed a new method for producing hydrogen, which is fast, irreversible, and takes place at much lower temperature using less energy.
Hydrogen in your pocket? New plastic for carrying and storing hydrogen
A Waseda University research group has developed a polymer which can store hydrogen in a light, compact and flexible sheet, and is safe to touch even when filled with hydrogen gas.

Related Hydrogen Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#532 A Class Conversation
This week we take a look at the sociology of class. What factors create and impact class? How do we try and study it? How does class play out differently in different countries like the US and the UK? How does it impact the political system? We talk with Daniel Laurison, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College and coauthor of the book "The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged", about class and its impacts on people and our systems.