In our recent explorations, NASA’s Hubble Space telescope has given astronomers the tool needed to explore the galaxy for planets that are possibly suitable for alien life. Scanning the Milky Way, astronomers search for Sub-Neptunes and Super-Earths, proving that there are planets out there fitting the ‘goldilocks‘ criteria for harboring alien life.
Astronomers have discovered hundreds of planets in the Milky Way, from rocky planets with Earth-like similarities, to giant gas planets with characteristics more similar to Jupiter and Saturn. However, it was not until relatively recently that astronomers scanned the sky and found the third type of planet found out in the cosmos, a type that is very similar to some of the planets found in our solar system—a part-gas, part-ice planet similar to our own Neptune and Uranus. So it seems that (unsurprisingly) our universe, like our solar system, is a very very diverse place.
The New Ice World
The ‘Ice Giant’ Planet was discovered to be roughly 25,000 light years away in a nearby solar system by an international research team led by Radek Poleski, a postdoctoral researcher at The Ohio State University. The team describes the planet to be the ‘giant twin’ of our own Uranus in the online paper written in The Astrophysical Journal.
Uranus and Neptune are mostly composed of helium and hydrogen. Both also containing significant amounts of methane ice, hence their milky blemished appearances. Understandably, with the newly discovered Uranus-like planet, astronomers can not actually discern its exact composition (given the vast light-years separating it from Earth). However, based on the distance from its host star and that the planet’s orbit resembles that of Uranus, astronomers think that the planet is an “Ice-Giant’ with a Uranus analog.
Astronomers can, however, deduce that the newly identified planet lives in turbulent existence as it orbits one star in a binary star system. The ice giant is just close enough in proximity to the other star to have its orbit disrupted. Astronomers like Andrew Gould, a professor of Astronomy at Ohio State, believe the new planet will help solves the mysteries surrounding the origins of the gas giants in our solar system.
“Nobody knows for sure why Uranus and Neptune are located on the outskirts of our solar system, when our models suggest that they should have formed closer to the sun,” Gould said. “One idea is that they did form much closer, but were jostled around by Jupiter and Saturn and knocked farther out.” Already it is evident the new planet is kindling a new enthusiasm for the gas planets in our solar system, when of late NASA has directed its attention at the Martian planet.
“Maybe the existence of this Uranus-like planet is connected to interference from the second star,” Gould continued. “Maybe you need some kind of jostling to make planets like Uranus and Neptune.” Gould is hinting at the idea of the binary sun pulling on the new ‘Ice Giant’ may have worked similarly as Saturn and Jupiter have on our own Uranus and Neptune.
The binary star system is located in our Milky Way galaxy, towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The primary star is roughly two thirds as massive as our own sun, while the second star is about one sixth as massive. The planet however, is four times as large as Uranus, hence the name ‘Ice Giant,’ and orbits its sun nearly identical to the same distances Uranus orbits our sun.
Astronomers located the solar system during a phenomenon called gravitational microlensing – when the gravity of a star focuses the light from a more distant star magnifying it like a lens. It is very rare for a planet orbiting the lens star to appear within that magnified light signal, given the vast calculating obscurities of long-distance space. “Only microlensing can detect these cold ice giants that, like Uranus and Neptune, are far away from their host stars. This discovery demonstrates that microlensing is capable of discovering planets in very wide orbits,” Poleski admitted.
“We were lucky to see the signal from the planet, its host star, and the companion star. If the orientation had been different, we would have seen only the planet, and we probably would have called it a free-floating planet,” he added.
Part of the problem with finding alien life is getting to where it might exist. Space travel, as NASA can tell you, is not cheap. However, with so many different kinds of exoplanets, the likeliness of life existing somewhere out there is quite high. Even here on our home planet, we can observe archaea, prokaryotes, tubeworms, protists, and fungi for a “proof of concept” of how life forms can turn out radically different from our particular flavor of life. Some of these organisms thrive in some of the most dangerous and inexplicable places, like hydrothermal vents deep on the ocean floor, or in the geysers at Yellowstone National Park.
We’ve even observed life forms that aren’t directly dependent on energy from the Sun to survive. To me, the weirdest phenomena by far that we’ve observed is an organism that uses a process called “chemosynthesis“, where organisms within an ecosystem derive their energy through chemicals instead of using photosynthesis. In such a system, chemosynthesis can produce sulfur as a by-product instead of oxygen. Organisms that use this process can withstand temperatures close to the boiling point of water and consume toxic chemicals, remaining unharmed.
Ultimately, this new discovery may not seem that significant. Of course, there were probably ice giants out in the cosmos. But here’s the thing: Now we know. Science, as any good scientist will tell you, requires proof. And as the proof of the extreme diversity of our universe continues to mount, the likeliness of alien life increases dramatically.
This post was written by Zane Foley. A published writer, Zane lives in Los Angeles studying philosophy at California State University Fullerton.