Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Planet


Planetary formation models show that terrestrial planets are formed by the accretion of tens of Moon- to Mars-sized planetary embryos through energetic giant impacts. However, relics of these large proto-planets are yet to be found. Ureilites are one of the main families of achondritic meteorites and their parent body is believed to have been catastrophically disrupted by an impact during the first 10 million years of the solar system. Here we studied a section of the Almahata Sitta ureilite using transmission electron microscopy, where large diamonds were formed at high pressure inside the parent body. We discovered chromite, phosphate, and (Fe,Ni)-sulfide inclusions embedded in diamond. The composition and morphology of the inclusions can only be explained if the formation pressure was higher than 20 GPa. Such pressures suggest that the ureilite parent body was a Mercury- to Mars-sized planetary embryo.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Dwarf planet, Mercury, Venus


Chemical disequilibrium in planetary atmospheres has been proposed as a generalized method for detecting life on exoplanets through remote spectroscopy. Among solar system planets with substantial atmospheres, the modern Earth has the largest thermodynamic chemical disequilibrium due to the presence of life. However, how this disequilibrium changed over time and, in particular, the biogenic disequilibria maintained in the anoxic Archean or less oxic Proterozoic eons are unknown. We calculate the atmosphere-ocean disequilibrium in the Precambrian using conservative proxy- and model-based estimates of early atmospheric and oceanic compositions. We omit crustal solids because subsurface composition is not detectable on exoplanets, unlike above-surface volatiles. We find that (i) disequilibrium increased through time in step with the rise of oxygen; (ii) both the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic may have had remotely detectable biogenic disequilibria due to the coexistence of O2, N2, and liquid water; and (iii) the Archean had a biogenic disequilibrium caused by the coexistence of N2, CH4, CO2, and liquid water, which, for an exoplanet twin, may be remotely detectable. On the basis of this disequilibrium, we argue that the simultaneous detection of abundant CH4 and CO2 in a habitable exoplanet’s atmosphere is a potential biosignature. Specifically, we show that methane mixing ratios greater than 10-3 are potentially biogenic, whereas those exceeding 10-2 are likely biogenic due to the difficulty in maintaining large abiotic methane fluxes to support high methane levels in anoxic atmospheres. Biogenicity would be strengthened by the absence of abundant CO, which should not coexist in a biological scenario.

Concepts: Water, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Atmosphere, Neptune, Uranus, Proterozoic


Determining whether Earth-like planets are common or rare looms as a touchstone in the question of life in the universe. We searched for Earth-size planets that cross in front of their host stars by examining the brightness measurements of 42,000 stars from National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kepler mission. We found 603 planets, including 10 that are Earth size ($$1-2\hbox{ \hspace{0.5em} }{R}_{\oplus }$$) and receive comparable levels of stellar energy to that of Earth ($$0.25-4\hbox{ \hspace{0.5em} }{F}_{\oplus }$$). We account for Kepler’s imperfect detectability of such planets by injecting synthetic planet-caused dimmings into the Kepler brightness measurements and recording the fraction detected. We find that 11 ± 4% of Sun-like stars harbor an Earth-size planet receiving between one and four times the stellar intensity as Earth. We also find that the occurrence of Earth-size planets is constant with increasing orbital period (P), within equal intervals of logP up to ∼200 d. Extrapolating, one finds $${5.7}_{-2.2}^{+1.7}$$% of Sun-like stars harbor an Earth-size planet with orbital periods of 200-400 d.

Concepts: Earth, Solar System, Planet, Jupiter, Universe, Terrestrial planet, Extrasolar planet, Orbital period


The Earth-Moon system likely formed as a result of a collision between two large planetary objects. Debate about their relative masses, the impact energy involved, and the extent of isotopic homogenization continues. We present the results of a high-precision oxygen isotope study of an extensive suite of lunar and terrestrial samples. We demonstrate that lunar rocks and terrestrial basalts show a 3 to 4 ppm (parts per million), statistically resolvable, difference in Δ17O. Taking aubrite meteorites as a candidate impactor material, we show that the giant impact scenario involved nearly complete mixing between the target and impactor. Alternatively, the degree of similarity between the Δ17O values of the impactor and the proto-Earth must have been significantly closer than that between Earth and aubrites. If the Earth-Moon system evolved from an initially highly vaporized and isotopically homogenized state, as indicated by recent dynamical models, then the terrestrial basalt-lunar oxygen isotope difference detected by our study may be a reflection of post-giant impact additions to Earth. On the basis of this assumption, our data indicate that post-giant impact additions to Earth could have contributed between 5 and 30% of Earth’s water, depending on global water estimates. Consequently, our data indicate that the bulk of Earth’s water was accreted before the giant impact and not later, as often proposed.

Concepts: Oxygen, Water, Earth, Planet, Mars, Moon, Chemical element, Impact event


One aim of modern astronomy is to detect temperate, Earth-like exoplanets that are well suited for atmospheric characterization. Recently, three Earth-sized planets were detected that transit (that is, pass in front of) a star with a mass just eight per cent that of the Sun, located 12 parsecs away. The transiting configuration of these planets, combined with the Jupiter-like size of their host star-named TRAPPIST-1-makes possible in-depth studies of their atmospheric properties with present-day and future astronomical facilities. Here we report the results of a photometric monitoring campaign of that star from the ground and space. Our observations reveal that at least seven planets with sizes and masses similar to those of Earth revolve around TRAPPIST-1. The six inner planets form a near-resonant chain, such that their orbital periods (1.51, 2.42, 4.04, 6.06, 9.1 and 12.35 days) are near-ratios of small integers. This architecture suggests that the planets formed farther from the star and migrated inwards. Moreover, the seven planets have equilibrium temperatures low enough to make possible the presence of liquid water on their surfaces.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Planet, Mars, Mercury, Star, Gas giant, Terrestrial planet


At a distance of 1.295 parsecs, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri (α Centauri C, GL 551, HIP 70890 or simply Proxima) is the Sun’s closest stellar neighbour and one of the best-studied low-mass stars. It has an effective temperature of only around 3,050 kelvin, a luminosity of 0.15 per cent of that of the Sun, a measured radius of 14 per cent of the radius of the Sun and a mass of about 12 per cent of the mass of the Sun. Although Proxima is considered a moderately active star, its rotation period is about 83 days (ref. 3) and its quiescent activity levels and X-ray luminosity are comparable to those of the Sun. Here we report observations that reveal the presence of a small planet with a minimum mass of about 1.3 Earth masses orbiting Proxima with a period of approximately 11.2 days at a semi-major-axis distance of around 0.05 astronomical units. Its equilibrium temperature is within the range where water could be liquid on its surface.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Planet, Star, Astronomical unit, Proxima Centauri, Stellar classification, Red dwarf


Star-like objects with effective temperatures of less than 2,700 kelvin are referred to as ‘ultracool dwarfs’. This heterogeneous group includes stars of extremely low mass as well as brown dwarfs (substellar objects not massive enough to sustain hydrogen fusion), and represents about 15 per cent of the population of astronomical objects near the Sun. Core-accretion theory predicts that, given the small masses of these ultracool dwarfs, and the small sizes of their protoplanetary disks, there should be a large but hitherto undetected population of terrestrial planets orbiting them-ranging from metal-rich Mercury-sized planets to more hospitable volatile-rich Earth-sized planets. Here we report observations of three short-period Earth-sized planets transiting an ultracool dwarf star only 12 parsecs away. The inner two planets receive four times and two times the irradiation of Earth, respectively, placing them close to the inner edge of the habitable zone of the star. Our data suggest that 11 orbits remain possible for the third planet, the most likely resulting in irradiation significantly less than that received by Earth. The infrared brightness of the host star, combined with its Jupiter-like size, offers the possibility of thoroughly characterizing the components of this nearby planetary system.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Planet, Star, Terrestrial planet, Extrasolar planet, Brown dwarf


Meteorites represent the only samples available for study on Earth of a number of planetary bodies. The minerals within meteorites therefore hold the key to addressing numerous questions about our solar system. Of particular interest is the Ca-phosphate mineral merrillite, the anhydrous end-member of the merrillite-whitlockite solid solution series. For example, the anhydrous nature of merrillite in Martian meteorites has been interpreted as evidence of water-limited late-stage Martian melts. However, recent research on apatite in the same meteorites suggests higher water content in melts. One complication of using meteorites rather than direct samples is the shock compression all meteorites have experienced, which can alter meteorite mineralogy. Here we show whitlockite transformation into merrillite by shock-compression levels relevant to meteorites, including Martian meteorites. The results open the possibility that at least part of meteoritic merrillite may have originally been H(+)-bearing whitlockite with implications for interpreting meteorites and the need for future sample return.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Mineral, Meteorite, Comet


Simulations predict that hot super-Earth sized exoplanets can have their envelopes stripped by photoevaporation, which would present itself as a lack of these exoplanets. However, this absence in the exoplanet population has escaped a firm detection. Here we demonstrate, using asteroseismology on a sample of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates observed during the Kepler mission that, while there is an abundance of super-Earth sized exoplanets with low incident fluxes, none are found with high incident fluxes. We do not find any exoplanets with radii between 2.2 and 3.8 Earth radii with incident flux above 650 times the incident flux on Earth. This gap in the population of exoplanets is explained by evaporation of volatile elements and thus supports the predictions. The confirmation of a hot-super-Earth desert caused by evaporation will add an important constraint on simulations of planetary systems, since they must be able to reproduce the dearth of close-in super-Earths.

Concepts: Scientific method, Planet, Star, Terrestrial planet, Extrasolar planet, Kepler Mission, COROT, Super-Earth


The quest for Earth-like planets is a major focus of current exoplanet research. Although planets that are Earth-sized and smaller have been detected, these planets reside in orbits that are too close to their host star to allow liquid water on their surfaces. We present the detection of Kepler-186f, a 1.11 ± 0.14 Earth-radius planet that is the outermost of five planets, all roughly Earth-sized, that transit a 0.47 ± 0.05 solar-radius star. The intensity and spectrum of the star’s radiation place Kepler-186f in the stellar habitable zone, implying that if Kepler-186f has an Earth-like atmosphere and water at its surface, then some of this water is likely to be in liquid form.

Concepts: Planet, Mars, Mercury, Star, Gas giant, Terrestrial planet, Extrasolar planet, Habitable zone