Alien Planets Could Shed Light on Earth's Climate Future

A Comparative Climatology Symposium held at NASA Headquarters on May 7 focused on new approaches to climate research by highlighting the similarities and contrasts between the environments of the rocky worlds Venus, Earth, Mars and Saturn’s smoggy moon Titan. 

The symposium also included discussions about exoplanets, the sun and past, present and future space missions.

John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said that the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will be able to make important observations of the atmospheres of exoplanets. [Photos: The James Webb Space Telescope]

He said JWST won’t be able to locate the exoplanets, only study them, but the recently selected TESS mission could act as a  planet scout for JWST targets. It is estimated that TESS will discover around 300 "super-Earth" alien planets, many of them in the habitable zone.

But the number one challenge, Grunsfeld noted, is figuring out the climate of our own planet.

Understanding climate change

Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director, said that one goal is to examine a variety of planetary bodies as a system, to see if there are trends or similarities. He also pointed out that from a planetary scientist’s perspective, climate change on our planet is not a new thing.

"Earth’s climate has done nothing but change," Green said. 

Green said that three Earth-observing satellites will be launched this year, and they will help us better understand how the climate is currently changing and the implications that has for our planet’s environment.

David Grinspoon, holder of the first Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress chair in Astrobiology, talked about Mars’ "ferocious and interesting" meteorology, and how Martian global dust storms may help unravel what happened on our planet during the K-T extinction 65 million years ago, when an asteroid hitting the Yucatan Peninsula is thought to have eradicated 75 percent of animals and plants on Earth, including the dinosaurs. [Wipeout: History's Most Mysterious Extinctions]

The 'Venus mafia'

As for Venus, Grinspoon said scientists believe current-day volcanism on Venus is thought to be necessary to sustain the planet’s thick clouds. He added that the active surface has eradicated most ancient rocks, preventing us from easily understanding Venus’ early history.

Grinspoon also discussed the unique climate of Titan, noting that the methane cycle on this moon of Saturn is "like Earth's hydrological cycle on steroids."

Studying the climates of Mars, Venus, Titan and even exoplanets could help us refine our climate models of the Earth. However, Grinspoon said that "clouds are the biggest uncertainty in understanding the past of Venus and predicting the future of Earth."

Tying climatology to astrobiology, Grinspoon said that our expectations of the other planets, in the absence of data, were that they'd be much more Earth-like than they actually are. We still haven’t found a planet quite like our own, although astronomers are zeroing in on exoplanets that should have habitable conditions.

But, Grinspoon said, "it may be that conditions for life's origin aren't rare, but the hard part is the persistence of habitable conditions."

Venus was a popular topic during the symposium. Roald Sagdeev, University of Maryland professor and former director of the Space Research Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences, said during an overview of the Russian missions to Venus that "from the point of view of habitability, Venus is like having a dead body to study, which is of course very useful for learning anatomy."

David Crisp, Senior Research Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology, said that sending weather balloons to Venus taught us a lot about atmospheric physics. And Roger Bonnet, Executive Director of the International Space Science Institute, said there was no chance for a big "flagship" mission to Venus, since the viewpoint among many amounts to "Who cares about clouds and wind on Venus, when we have so much of that on Earth? We want to see little green men!"

One participant noted the presence of "the Venus mafia" at the symposium, inferring that the focus on Earth’s "twin planet" had muscled out discussion of other places of interest. 

Habitable exoplanets

But in addition to studies of Venus and other terrestrial worlds, there was a talk about our sun and its influence on space weather, and general discussions about refining climate models, defining habitable zones, and the importance of basic research.

The participants seemed to agree that, most importantly, planetary climate studies needed to be interdisciplinary, with scientists from different fields communicating and collaborating.

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, also pointed out that we should never become complacent in our scientific understanding. For instance, he said that while climate models have not been able to make early Mars warm enough to sustain liquid water on its surface, the same can be true for models of the young Earth. 

And when it comes to understanding where a planet needs to reside in its solar system to be habitable — the so-called Goldilocks Zone where the temperature is just right for water to be liquid rather than ice or gas — he commented that "the approach [to the habitable zone] is very Goldilocks in that it's almost a fairy tale."   

Finally, Meyer noted, just when we thought we understood how planets are made, we discovered hot Jupiters and other unusual exoplanets that "turned all of our planet formation models on their head." 

"And that’s a good thing," he added.

The featured speakers at NASA's Comparative Climatology Symposium, titled "New Approaches to Climate Research," were John Grunsfeld, Jim Green, David Grinspoon, Lori Glaze, Mark Bullock, Roald Sagdeev, Jack Kaye, Lennart Bengtsson, David Crisp, Roger Bonnet, Mark Marley, and Madhulika Guhathakurta.

This story was provided by Astrobiology Magazine, a web-based publication sponsored by the NASA astrobiology program.

Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Loading...
  • Here's what you need to know before taking out a peer-to-peer loan
    Here's what you need to know before taking out a peer-to-peer loan

    From Lending Club to Prosper, here's how the peer-to-peer (P2P) lending business works .

  • Taken boy with brain tumour could be in Spain: police
    Taken boy with brain tumour could be in Spain: police

    A five-year-old British boy with a brain tumour who was taken from hospital by his parents without doctors' consent could now be in Spain, British police said on Saturday. The police said they had "positive information" to suggest that Ashya King and his family could be in Spain where they have "strong links" to the Marbella area on the south coast. King's parents, who are Jehovah's Witnesses, drove him away from Southampton hospital in southern England on Thursday and were seen boarding a ferry to Cherbourg in France. It is really important that we find him and ensure he receives medical attention," said Chris Shead, deputy police chief in Hampshire, the county the boy was taken from.

  • Batistuta asked legs be cut off to relieve pain

    BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Former star Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina's record goal scorer for the national team, says he once asked a doctor to amputate his legs to relieve intense pain in his ankles.

  • What If Teachers Were Paid Like Athletes?
    What If Teachers Were Paid Like Athletes?

    No one will be ‘too cool for school’ ever again .

  • Polish president warns Germany of Putin's 'empire' ambitions

    Polish President Bronis law Komorowski said that Vladimir Putin is trying to build a new Russian empire for Moscow and that the region now had to choose whether it wanted "a Cossack Europe or a democratic one". "Russia has carried out an invasion in Ukraine," the Polish head of state told German public radio, according to excerpts of an interview to be broadcast later on Saturday. Komorowski said Putin was quite open about his ambitions to "rebuild the empire". The Polish president, whose post is largely ceremonial but does give him a say in foreign policy, is an ally of Prime Minister Donald Tusk from the centrist Civic Platform (PO).

  • Police officer resigns, another is fired after Ferguson incidents
    Police officer resigns, another is fired after Ferguson incidents

    By Brendan O'Brien (Reuters) - A police officer has resigned after pointing a rifle at protesters during racially charged demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and another has been fired for inappropriate social media posts stemming from the two weeks of civil unrest, officials said on Friday. Violent protests erupted in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson after white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed black 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9, drawing global attention to the state of race relations in the United States. Police and demonstrators in Ferguson clashed nightly for days after the shooting, with authorities coming under fire for mass arrests and the what critics said were the use of heavy-handed tactics and military gear. At a protest on Aug. 19, Ray Albers, a police officer in the neighboring community of St. Ann, pointed his rifle at a Ferguson protester during a heated verbal exchange, an episode that was captured on video and widely circulated on social media.

  • 30 ways to waste your money
    30 ways to waste your money

    Almost all of us have holes in our budgets that can quickly add up to big bucks.

  • Britain poorer than all US states except Mississippi

    Having spent a number of years living in Alabama, I’m well acquainted with the phrase, “Thank God for Mississippi.” While we had a lot of problems, we could always point to our western border for a state that was even more backwards. The Spectator's Fraser Nelson did the math and explains “Why Britain is poorer than any US state, other than Mississippi.” His methodology is pretty straightforward: You take the US figures for GDP per state (here), divide it by population (here) to come up with a GDP per capita figure. Then get the equivalent figure for Britain: I used the latest Treasury figures (here) which also chime with the OECD’s (here).

Follow Yahoo! News