Stellar Dust in Distant Solar Systems Could Disrupt the Search For Earth-Like Planets

Saturday, 28 April 2018 - 2:57PM
Space
Astronomy
Saturday, 28 April 2018 - 2:57PM
Stellar Dust in Distant Solar Systems Could Disrupt the Search For Earth-Like Planets
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NASA/JPL-Caltech
You wouldn't think that studying dust is important, but if we hope to find more Earth-like exoplanets out there, looking at space dust has to come first.

That's because much like regular dust on Earth, solar systems are often filled with stellar dust that never completely made it inside the star, and when exoplanets (the term for planets in other solar systems) are already difficult to find, those fields of cosmic dust can become a problem. Especially when it has a tendency to light up whenever it's seen through an infrared lens, thanks to the star heating it up.

So NASA's goal with their recent Hunt for Observable Signatures of Terrestrial Systems (HOSTS) survey was to determine how much of a problem dust could be during their upcoming exoplanet hunts (more on that in a bit). Using the Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer (LBTI) at Mount Graham in Arizona, researchers took a close look at 30 different star systems to, put simply, see how dusty they are.



They specifically looked at warm dust floating inside the orbital planes of stars, a type of material called "exo-zodiacal dust" - for context, dust within our own solar system is just called zodiacal dust. If the researchers found that most of these solar systems had more than 15 times the amount of dust in our solar system, it would mean astronomers would need to create even bigger telescopes to see through it all. 

The results ended up being promising: in the majority of those 30 stars didn't have enough dust to completely block our views, and most of these stars were similar to our sun. According to Philip Hinz from the University of Arizona, who led the HOSTS survey team, checking solar systems like our own was the key because the eventual goal is to find exoplanets similar to Earth:

Opening quote
"There is dust in our own solar system. We want to characterize stars that are similar to our own solar system, because that's our best guess as to what other planetary systems might have life."
Closing quote


Now that this is out of the way, it's good news for NASA's recently launched exoplanet-hunting telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (or TESS for short). TESS' job is to exclusively scan over 200,000 stars in the observable universe for signs of transit events, when a star temporarily dips in brightness because something passed in front of it.

A transit tends to be a first sign of an exoplanet, and once we know where one is hiding, we can study it further. We've already found quite a few exoplanets, and are expecting to find more thanks to TESS.

If all goes well, we'll start to find ones that mirror Earth and we'll know whether our pale blue dot is the only one of its kind in the universe.
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