Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico, a living laboratory and a proxy for early Earth, shows living stromatolites in a pristine river system, targets of investigation for the VPL team to better understand microbial evolution and adaptive processes.
VPL modeling results predict that a planet's gravitational interaction with the parent star can create extreme volcanism and vaporize oceans
VPL researchers work to understand the co-evolution of photosynthesis with the planetary environment on planets that orbit stars very different to our Sun.

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VPL Headlines


Congratulations to Shawn Domagal-Goldman!

VPL member Shawn Domagal-Goldman at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has been honored with the Agency Early Career Achievement Medal! Congratulations, Shawn! MORE>


Early earth's air pressure was less than half of today's

A new study led by VPL researcher Sanjoy Som together with VPL members Roger Buick and David Catling and others implies that early Earth's atmospheric pressure 2.7 billion years ago was less than half of modern day. The researchers used gas bubbles trapped in ancient sea-level lava flows as a "paleobarometer". The sizes of the bubbles record the pressure of the atmosphere bearing down on the cooling lava billions of years ago. This low atmospheric pressure suggests that early microbes may have been consuming atmospheric nitrogen, but there was not an efficient process to release that consumed nitrogen back to the atmosphere like there is today. MORE>


Congratulations to Rory Barnes!

Rory Barnes of the UW astronomy department has been promoted to an Assistant Professor in astrobiology! Congratulations Rory! MORE>


Congratulations to new members of NASA STDTs!

NASA has convened Science and Technology Definitions Teams (STDTs) to study large telescope concepts for future direct imaging of exoplanets. Congratulations to Vikki Meadows, Tyler Robinson, and Shawn Domagal-Goldman who have been seletected as members of these teams! Vikki will be a member of the LUVIOR team, and Shawn will be the LUVIOR Deputy Study Scientist. Shawn is also a member of the HabEx STDT, as is Ty Robinson. Congratulations to all!  MORE>


Dry planets help weed out false positive biosignatures

Terrestrial planets orbiting in the habitable zones of low mass stars may be extremely dry due to water loss from exposure to high energy UV radiation during their host stars' early evolution. VPL researchers Peter Gao, Tyler Robinson, Yuk Yung, and collaborators show that if such a planet outgassed a secondary atmosphere composed primarily of CO2, UV radiation can break up the CO2 molecules and produce large amounts of abiotic O2 and O3. O2 produced by this mechanism can reach up to 20% of the atmosphere if large amounts of water are lost. However, this should not present a great challenge for deciphering between biological and abiotic oxygen in an exoplanet atmosphere: the researchers show that the lack of water in the reflectance and emission spectra of these worlds clearly indicate that the oxygen signals are likely abiotic in nature.    MORE>


Hints from selenium isotopes on the end-Permian mass extinction

VPL members Eva Stüeken, Roger Buick, and collabors studied isotope ratios of selenium, a trace element. Their results show that biological productivity of macro-organisms collapsed during the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, but the collapse was probably not caused by a shortage of nutrients. Other factors such as ocean acidification or perturbations of food webs may have been more important. MORE>


Congratulations to Aomawa Shields!

VPL member Aomawa Shields has been awarded the 2016 ASU Origins Project Postdoctoral Lectureship Award! This prestigous $10,000 award is offered to young scientists based on scholarly achievement and skills in science communication. Shields, who has a professional acting background in addition to her rigorous training as a scientist, will be resident at Arizona State University for a week and will offer a series of departmental colloquia and a large public lecture in early April. Congratulations Aomawa!  MORE>


Dead or Alive? New ways to sniff out imposter biosignatures

Recent research has shown that planets orbiting cool stars are potentially susceptible to the accumulation of oxygen through abiotic processes. This is problematic as oxygen is considered an important target biosignature for future exoplanet observing missions.  However, in a new study VPL researchers including doctoral student Edward Schwieterman and principal investigator Victoria Meadows have now shown that these “biosignature impostors” are accompanied by other signatures that would indicate their abiotic origin.  If abiotic oxygen is produced through CO2 photolysis, CO would also be also be observable in transit transmission observations. If the abiotic oxygen is from a history of massive hydrogen escape, the substantial oxygen atmosphere that would remain could be identified by pressure-sensitive O4 features in transmission or reflected light observations. The paper has been accepted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters. VPL graduate students Giada Arney, Rodrigo Luger, Sonny Harman and researchers Shawn Domagal-Goldman, Drake Deming, Amit Misra, and Rory Barnes also contributed. A press release about this work can be found here. MORE>


Water clouds do not cool planets around low mass stars as much as previously believed

Planets in the habitable zone of low-mass, cool stars are expected to be in synchronous rotation, where one side of the planet always faces the host star. Previous studies using 3-D climate models have shown that, if a planet orbiting these low-mass stars is slowly rotating, thick water clouds form at substellar point (the point at which the star is directly overhead) increasing the reflectivity, and thus stabilizing the planet against increased warming at the inner edge of the habitable zone. However these studies did not use self-consistent orbital/rotational periods for synchronously rotating planets placed at different distances from the host star. VPL researchers Ravi Kopparapu, Jacob Haqq-Misra, Vikki Meadows and Jim Kasting, along with collaborator Eric Wolf, have shown that, using correct relations between orbital and rotational periods, the inner edge of the HZ around low mass, cool stars is not as close as the estimates from previous studies. MORE>


Geothermal heating enhances atmospheric asymmetries on synchronously rotating planets

Earth-like planets that orbit small, red stars (M-dwarfs) might be able to sustain liquid water on the surface and provide habitable conditions where life could develop. However, such planets orbit their parent star so closely that they are prone to fall into synchronous rotation so that one side of the planet always faces the star and is constantly heated. Their atmospheres can be at risk of collapsing into huge ice caps on the anti-stellar side, but the large-scale motions of the atmosphere can provide enough energy transport from the warm side to the cold side to keep the climate stable.VPL researchers Jacob Haqq-Misra and Ravi Kopparapu used a 3D climate model and found that geothemal heating from tides can warm the planets' night sides. The reasearchers find that cross-polar circulation can transport energy and mas from the day side to night side, contributing to climate stability. MORE>


A whiff of ancient oxygen supported by selenium isotopes

VPL researchers Eva Stüeken, Roger Buick, and Arial Anbar showed that there was a brief interval around 2.5 billion years ago when the flux of selenium into the ocean increased and isotopes were more fractionated. These data support previous indications that this period corresponds to a brief "whiff" of free oxygen, either globally or within microbial mats on land. Hence oxygen production must have started long before the great oxidation event at ~2.3-2.4 billion years ago, which in turn supports the idea that it takes a considerable amount of time to fully oxidize the surface of a planet, which has implications for the evolution of organisms that require oxygen to breathe.  MORE>


The global selenium cycle

VPL researchers Eva Stüeken, Roger Buick, David Catling, and coauthors studied trends in selenium cycling over Earth's history and proposed a conceptual model, supported by data, of how the selenium cycle operates in the modern ocean. Their model supports the idea of oxidative weathering in the late Archean, before the Great Oxidation Event when oxygen levens in the atmosphere rose. Lastly, the data are consistent with an anoxic ocean throughout most of the Precambrian and oxygenation of the deep ocean in the Neoproterozoic. This work helped establish selenium isotopes as a biogeochemical redox proxy that we can now use to address astrobiological questions. MORE>


Rare and abundant microbial lineages in deep-sea hydrothermal vents

In every ecosystem studied to date, microbial diversity generally consists of a few dominant species, and many thousand rare species. However, we don't have a good understanding of what those rare groups are doing, or how they're distributed throughout the environment. VPL researchers Dr. Rika Anderson and Dr. John Baross examined the global distribution of rare and abundant microbial species in hydrothermal vent systems across the globe. They found that the abundant species tend to be the most successful taking over a given community as well as traveling across the globe-- they're both dominant and cosmopolitan. In contrast, the rare species are homebodies. They tend to appear in small numbers where they are found, and those rare groups don't travel around much. MORE>


The unusual architecture of the υ Andromedae planetary system

The star υ Andromedae has 3 known planets orbiting it, all three close to or greater than the size of Jupiter.  Surprisingly, observations show that the orbits of the outer two planets are tilted relative to each other by about 30 degrees, which is very unusual in comparison with the solar system. A study led by VPL graduate student Russell Deitrick together with VPL members Rory Barnes, Tom Quinn, and Rodrigo Luger used computer models to learn more about this interesting planetary system. The researchers were able to place constraints on the inner-most planet's mass and orbital tilt, which were previously unknown. They found that the inner-most planet is likely to be several Jupiter masses, and its orbital plane is probably aligned about halfway between the planes of the outer two planets.  MORE>


Abiotic oxygen on exoplanets spells trouble for life-detection

Life has produced significant impacts on our own planet, including the oxygen we breathe, which makes up 21% of Earth's atmosphere. But what would happen if an early, lifeless Earth had been orbiting a different star? VPL Researchers Sonny Harman, Edward Schwieterman, and James Kasting examined what would happen if the early Earth was orbiting around different stars, ranging from a star slightly more massive than the Sun (an F type star) to a star less than half the mass of the Sun (an M type star). For the Earths orbiting smaller stars, the interaction between the atmosphere of the planet and the radiation from the star meant that some abiotic oxygen was produced. This could mean that when we look at distant planets around some types of stars, the presence of oxygen alone may not be a sure sign of life.  MORE>


Is the pale blue dot unique?

Voyager 1's iconic image of the Pale Blue Dot shows hints of Earth's uniqueness are visible from great distances; the pale blue color of Earth sets it apart from other objects in our Solar System. But could planet color be used to easily identify Earth-like exoplanets? VPL graduate students Joshua Krissansen-Totton, Edward Schwieterman, Giada Arney, and VPL researchers Tyler Robinson, Benjamin Charnay, Victoria Meadows, and David Catling have authored a paper on whether color can be used to distinguish Earth-like exoplanets from uninhabitable worlds. This paper shows that numerous uninhabitable planets - particularly icy worlds with thick atmospheres - could mimic the Earth's pale blue color. It is possible to distinguish these icy worlds from Earth-like planets with extremely precise color observations, but this level precision demands a lot of telescope time. This suggests that spectral observations may be preferable to color observations for identifying Earth-like exoplanets. MORE>


Simulations of Exotic Clouds on Exoplanet GJ 1214b

What are clouds like on an exoplanet? In the case of GJ 1214b, they are unlike anything we have on Earth! For the first time, 3-D clouds on GJ 1214b have been simulated by VPL postdoc Benjamin Charnay, VPL PI Victoria Meadows, former VPL graduate student Amit Misra, current VPL graduate student Giada Arney, and University of Toronto researcher Jérémy Leconte. GJ 1214b is a "mini-Neptune" planet orbiting its star 42 light years away. The temperature of this planet's atmosphere is hotter than the boiling point of water, and clouds in it are likely to be composed of exotic salts such as zinc sulfide or potassium chloride.  MORE>


Where to look for life?

UWAB astronomers Rory Barnes, Victoria Meadows, and research assistant Nicole Evans have co-authored a paper on how to prioritize targets in the search for life beyond our solar system.  We know of over 3000 exoplanets now, and we'll discover many more in the coming years. To quote Rory: "Now it's as if Goldilocks has hundreds of bowls of porridge to choose from!" Which ones should we focus on precious telescope observing time on?  A new metric called the "habitability index for transiting planets" ranks worlds according to a suite of properties that impact how life-friendly a planet is likely to be. MORE>


Sheltered by the magnetic cocoon

Habitable planets orbiting close to low mass M dwarf stars probably have magnetic fields to protect them according to VPL researchers Peter Driscoll and Rory Barnes. Planets orbiting near M dwarfs are likely to be tidally locked, meaning they rotate at the same rate they orbit the star just like the moon does around the Earth.  It has been assumed that these planets would not have magnetic fields, which are important for protecting planets against events like stellar flares which are frequent and violent on M dwarfs.  However, this assumption might not be true. Heat generated in the interior of these planets by tidal forces can create enough energy to generate a magnetic field, providing a protective magnetic cocoon to shield these worlds from stellar activity. The paper can be read here. MORE>


The Center of Light: Detecting Exomoons

VPL Researcher Eric Agol has led a study on detecting exomoons along with VPL PI Victoria Meadows and researcher Tyler Robinson. Planets have been found in abundance orbiting other stars, which brings up the question: do these planets have moons?  This paper identifies a new method for detecting moons orbiting planets, orbiting other stars, using the fact that a moon can outshine a planet at wavelengths where the planet is dark. Future space-based telescopes will be able to suppress starlight, enabling the telescope to see the much fainter planet hiding in the wings.  If the planet hosts a moon, then the center of light of the planet will appear to shift at certain wavelengths where the moon outshines the planet.  As the moon orbits the planet, the position will vary with time, allowing a measurement of the mass of the planet and moon.  Disentangling the planet and moon spectral signatures will enable determination of their atmospheric properties, including potential chemical signatures that might be signposts for life! MORE>