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

Concept: Neptune


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


The deep nitrogen-covered basin on Pluto, informally named Sputnik Planitia, is located very close to the longitude of Pluto’s tidal axis and may be an impact feature, by analogy with other large basins in the Solar System. Reorientation of Sputnik Planitia arising from tidal and rotational torques can explain the basin’s present-day location, but requires the feature to be a positive gravity anomaly, despite its negative topography. Here we argue that if Sputnik Planitia did indeed form as a result of an impact and if Pluto possesses a subsurface ocean, the required positive gravity anomaly would naturally result because of shell thinning and ocean uplift, followed by later modest nitrogen deposition. Without a subsurface ocean, a positive gravity anomaly requires an implausibly thick nitrogen layer (exceeding 40 kilometres). To prolong the lifetime of such a subsurface ocean to the present day and to maintain ocean uplift, a rigid, conductive water-ice shell is required. Because nitrogen deposition is latitude-dependent, nitrogen loading and reorientation may have exhibited complex feedbacks.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Mars, Moon, Neptune, Io, Ecliptic


The presence, formation, and migration of giant planets fundamentally shape planetary systems. However, the timing of the formation and migration of giant planets in our solar system remains largely unconstrained. Simulating planetary accretion, we find that giant planet migration produces a relatively short-lived spike in impact velocities lasting ~0.5 My. These high-impact velocities are required to vaporize a significant fraction of Fe,Ni metal and silicates and produce the CB (Bencubbin-like) metal-rich carbonaceous chondrites, a unique class of meteorites that were created in an impact vapor-melt plume ~5 My after the first solar system solids. This indicates that the region where the CB chondrites formed was dynamically excited at this early time by the direct interference of the giant planets. Furthermore, this suggests that the formation of the giant planet cores was protracted and the solar nebula persisted until ~5 My.

Concepts: Solar System, Planet, Mars, Star, Neptune, Uranus, Gas giant, Extrasolar planet


Hitherto, rings have been found exclusively around the four giant planets in the Solar System. Rings are natural laboratories in which to study dynamical processes analogous to those that take place during the formation of planetary systems and galaxies. Their presence also tells us about the origin and evolution of the body they encircle. Here we report observations of a multichord stellar occultation that revealed the presence of a ring system around (10199) Chariklo, which is a Centaur-that is, one of a class of small objects orbiting primarily between Jupiter and Neptune-with an equivalent radius of 124  9 kilometres (ref. 2). There are two dense rings, with respective widths of about 7 and 3 kilometres, optical depths of 0.4 and 0.06, and orbital radii of 391 and 405 kilometres. The present orientation of the ring is consistent with an edge-on geometry in 2008, which provides a simple explanation for the dimming of the Chariklo system between 1997 and 2008, and for the gradual disappearance of ice and other absorption features in its spectrum over the same period. This implies that the rings are partly composed of water ice. They may be the remnants of a debris disk, possibly confined by embedded, kilometre-sized satellites.

Concepts: Solar System, Planet, Star, Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn, Uranus, Extrasolar planet


Exoplanet detections have revolutionized astronomy, offering new insights into solar system architecture and planet demographics. While nearly 1,900 exoplanets have now been discovered and confirmed, none are still in the process of formation. Transition disks, protoplanetary disks with inner clearings best explained by the influence of accreting planets, are natural laboratories for the study of planet formation. Some transition disks show evidence for the presence of young planets in the form of disk asymmetries or infrared sources detected within their clearings, as in the case of LkCa 15 (refs 8, 9). Attempts to observe directly signatures of accretion onto protoplanets have hitherto proven unsuccessful. Here we report adaptive optics observations of LkCa 15 that probe within the disk clearing. With accurate source positions over multiple epochs spanning 2009-2015, we infer the presence of multiple companions on Keplerian orbits. We directly detect Hα emission from the innermost companion, LkCa 15 b, evincing hot (about 10,000 kelvin) gas falling deep into the potential well of an accreting protoplanet.

Concepts: Sun, Solar System, Planet, Jupiter, Astronomy, Neptune, Extrasolar planet, Planetesimal


Direct imaging allows for the detection and characterization of exoplanets via their thermal emission. We report the discovery via imaging of a young Jovian planet in a triple star system and characterize its atmospheric properties through near-infrared spectroscopy. The semi-major axis of the planet is closer relative to that of its hierarchical triple star system than for any known exoplanet within a stellar binary or triple, making HD 131399 dynamically unlike any other known system. The location of HD 131399Ab on a wide orbit in a triple system demonstrates that massive planets may be found on long and possibly unstable orbits in multi-star systems. HD 131399Ab is one of the lowest mass (4 ± 1 MJup) and coldest (850 ± 50 K) exoplanets to have been directly imaged.

Concepts: Solar System, Planet, Star, Jupiter, Neptune, Gas giant, Extrasolar planet, Binary star


Pluto is an astoundingly diverse, geologically dynamic world. The dominant feature is Sputnik Planitia-a tear-drop-shaped topographic depression approximately 1,000 kilometres in diameter possibly representing an ancient impact basin. The interior of Sputnik Planitia is characterized by a smooth, craterless plain three to four kilometres beneath the surrounding rugged uplands, and represents the surface of a massive unit of actively convecting volatile ices (N2, CH4 and CO) several kilometres thick. This large feature is very near the Pluto-Charon tidal axis. Here we report that the location of Sputnik Planitia is the natural consequence of the sequestration of volatile ices within the basin and the resulting reorientation (true polar wander) of Pluto. Loading of volatile ices within a basin the size of Sputnik Planitia can substantially alter Pluto’s inertia tensor, resulting in a reorientation of the dwarf planet of around 60 degrees with respect to the rotational and tidal axes. The combination of this reorientation, loading and global expansion due to the freezing of a possible subsurface ocean generates stresses within the planet’s lithosphere, resulting in a global network of extensional faults that closely replicate the observed fault networks on Pluto. Sputnik Planitia probably formed northwest of its present location, and was loaded with volatiles over million-year timescales as a result of volatile transport cycles on Pluto. Pluto’s past, present and future orientation is controlled by feedbacks between volatile sublimation and condensation, changing insolation conditions and Pluto’s interior structure.

Concepts: Earth, Planet, Mars, Moon, Neptune, Eris, Charon, Clearing the neighbourhood


M dwarf stars, which have masses less than 60 per cent that of the Sun, make up 75 per cent of the population of the stars in the Galaxy. The atmospheres of orbiting Earth-sized planets are observationally accessible via transmission spectroscopy when the planets pass in front of these stars. Statistical results suggest that the nearest transiting Earth-sized planet in the liquid-water, habitable zone of an M dwarf star is probably around 10.5 parsecs away. A temperate planet has been discovered orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest M dwarf, but it probably does not transit and its true mass is unknown. Seven Earth-sized planets transit the very low-mass star TRAPPIST-1, which is 12 parsecs away, but their masses and, particularly, their densities are poorly constrained. Here we report observations of LHS 1140b, a planet with a radius of 1.4 Earth radii transiting a small, cool star (LHS 1140) 12 parsecs away. We measure the mass of the planet to be 6.6 times that of Earth, consistent with a rocky bulk composition. LHS 1140b receives an insolation of 0.46 times that of Earth, placing it within the liquid-water, habitable zone. With 90 per cent confidence, we place an upper limit on the orbital eccentricity of 0.29. The circular orbit is unlikely to be the result of tides and therefore was probably present at formation. Given its large surface gravity and cool insolation, the planet may have retained its atmosphere despite the greater luminosity (compared to the present-day) of its host star in its youth. Because LHS 1140 is nearby, telescopes currently under construction might be able to search for specific atmospheric gases in the future.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Planet, Mercury, Atmosphere, Star, Jupiter, Neptune


The asteroid belt contains less than a thousandth of Earth’s mass and is radially segregated, with S-types dominating the inner belt and C-types the outer belt. It is generally assumed that the belt formed with far more mass and was later strongly depleted. We show that the present-day asteroid belt is consistent with having formed empty, without any planetesimals between Mars and Jupiter’s present-day orbits. This is consistent with models in which drifting dust is concentrated into an isolated annulus of terrestrial planetesimals. Gravitational scattering during terrestrial planet formation causes radial spreading, transporting planetesimals from inside 1 to 1.5 astronomical units out to the belt. Several times the total current mass in S-types is implanted, with a preference for the inner main belt. C-types are implanted from the outside, as the giant planets' gas accretion destabilizes nearby planetesimals and injects a fraction into the asteroid belt, preferentially in the outer main belt. These implantation mechanisms are simple by-products of terrestrial and giant planet formation. The asteroid belt may thus represent a repository for planetary leftovers that accreted across the solar system but not in the belt itself.

Concepts: Earth, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Dwarf planet, Jupiter, Neptune, Gas giant


The Juno spacecraft acquired direct observations of the jovian magnetosphere and auroral emissions from a vantage point above the poles. Juno’s capture orbit spanned the jovian magnetosphere from bow shock to the planet, providing magnetic field, charged particle, and wave phenomena context for Juno’s passage over the poles and traverse of Jupiter’s hazardous inner radiation belts. Juno’s energetic particle and plasma detectors measured electrons precipitating in the polar regions, exciting intense aurorae, observed simultaneously by the ultraviolet and infrared imaging spectrographs. Juno transited beneath the most intense parts of the radiation belts, passed about 4000 kilometers above the cloud tops at closest approach, well inside the jovian rings, and recorded the electrical signatures of high-velocity impacts with small particles as it traversed the equator.

Concepts: Electron, Earth, Sun, Planet, Jupiter, Neptune, Magnetosphere