NASA team looks to ancient Earth first to study hazy exoplanets

February 9, 2017 by Elizabeth Zubritsky, NASA
When haze built up in the atmosphere of Archean Earth, the young planet might have looked like this artist's interpretation - a pale orange dot. A team led by Goddard scientists thinks the haze was self-limiting, cooling the surface by about 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 Kelvins) – not enough to cause runaway glaciation. The team’s modeling suggests that atmospheric haze might be helpful for identifying earthlike exoplanets that could be habitable. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Francis Reddy

For astronomers trying to understand which distant planets might have habitable conditions, the role of atmospheric haze has been hazy. To help sort it out, a team of researchers has been looking to Earth – specifically Earth during the Archean era, an epic 1-1/2-billion-year period early in our planet's history.

Earth's atmosphere seems to have been quite different then, probably with little available oxygen but high levels of methane, ammonia and other organic chemicals. Geological evidence suggests that might have come and gone sporadically from the Archean atmosphere – and researchers aren't quite sure why. The team reasoned that a better understanding of haze formation during the Archean era might help inform studies of hazy earthlike exoplanets.

"We like to say that Archean Earth is the most alien planet we have geochemical data for," said Giada Arney of NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute's Virtual Planetary Laboratory based at the University of Washington, Seattle. Arney is the lead author of two related papers published by the team.

In the best case, haze in a planet's atmosphere could serve up a smorgasbord of carbon-rich, or organic, molecules that could be transformed by into precursor molecules for life. Haze also might screen out much of the harmful UV radiation that can break down DNA.

In the worst case, haze could become so thick that very little light gets through. In this situation, the surface might get so cold it freezes completely. If a very thick haze occurred on Archean Earth, it might have had a profound effect, because when the era began roughly four billion years ago, the sun was fainter, emitting perhaps 80 percent of the light that it does now.

Arney and her colleagues put together sophisticated computer modeling to look at how haze affected the surface temperature of Archean Earth and, in turn, how the temperature influenced the chemistry in the atmosphere.

The new modeling indicates that as the haze got thicker, less sunlight would have gotten through, inhibiting the types of sunlight-driven chemical reactions needed to form more haze. This would lead to the shutdown of haze-formation chemistry, preventing the planet from undergoing runaway glaciation due to a very thick haze.

The team calls this self-limiting haze, and their work is the first to make the case that this is what occurred on Archean Earth – a finding published in the November 2016 issue of the journal Astrobiology. The researchers concluded that self-limiting haze could have cooled Archean Earth by about 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 Kelvins) – enough to make a difference but not to freeze the surface completely.

"Our modeling suggests that a planet like hazy Archean Earth orbiting a star like the young sun would be cold," said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a Goddard scientist and a member of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory. "But we're saying it would be cold like the Yukon in winter, not cold like modern-day Mars."

Such a planet might be considered habitable, even if the mean global temperature is below freezing, as long as there is some liquid water on the surface.

In subsequent modeling, Arney and her colleagues looked at the effects of haze on planets that are like Archean Earth but orbiting several kinds of stars.

"The parent star controls whether a haze is more likely to form, and that haze can have multiple impacts on a planet's habitability," said co-author Victoria Meadows, the principal investigator for the Virtual Planetary Laboratory and an astronomy professor at the University of Washington.

It looks as if the Archean Earth hit a sweet spot where the haze served as a sunscreen layer for the planet. If the sun had been a bit warmer, as it is today, the modeling suggests the haze particles would have been larger – a result of temperature feedbacks influencing the chemistry – and would have formed more efficiently, but still would have offered some sun protection.

The same wasn't true in all cases. The modeling showed that some stars produce so much UV radiation that haze cannot form. Haze did not cool planets orbiting all types of stars equally, either, according to the team's results. Dim stars, such as M dwarfs, emit most of their energy at wavelengths that pass right through atmospheric haze; in the simulations, these planets experience little cooling from haze, so they benefit from haze's UV shielding without a major drop in temperature.

For the right kind of star, though, the presence of haze in a planet's atmosphere could help flag that world as a good candidate for closer study. The team's simulations indicated that, for some instruments planned for future space telescopes, the spectral signature of haze would appear stronger than the signatures for some atmospheric gases, such as methane. These findings are available in the Astrophysical Journal as of Feb. 8, 2017.

"Haze may turn out to be very helpful as we try to narrow down which exoplanets are the most promising for habitability," said Arney.

Explore further: 'Pale orange dot': Early Earth's haze may give clue to habitability elsewhere in space

Related Stories

Pluto's haze varies in brightness

April 19, 2016

Scientists on NASA's New Horizons mission team are learning more about the structure and behavior of Pluto's complex atmosphere by discovering new attributes of its extensive haze layers. The hazes were first discovered by ...

NASA image: Pluto's haze in bands of blue

January 18, 2016

This processed image is the highest-resolution color look yet at the haze layers in Pluto's atmosphere. Shown in approximate true color, the picture is constructed from a mosaic of four panchromatic images from the Long Range ...

Cloudy days on exoplanets may hide atmospheric water

June 8, 2016

Water is a hot topic in the study of exoplanets, including "hot Jupiters," whose masses are similar to that of Jupiter, but which are much closer to their parent star than Jupiter is to the sun. They can reach a scorching ...

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (5) Feb 09, 2017
"Earth's atmosphere seems to have been very different then, probably with little available oxygen but high levels of methane, ammonia and other organic chemicals."
Poor transcription. It is not wise to rewrite the part and fit it into fiction.
Now they are trying (from NASA) said that greenhouse gases freezes instead of that heat up the planet.
Suffice it to say the planet and the star are young and immediately valid second opposite laws.
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Feb 09, 2017
Good article highlighting yet another important variable (haze) to consider when trying to understand conditions on exoplanets. As the article pointed out, stars that are strong UV emitters can dissipate haze and M-type stars produce more haze-penetrating infrared. With so many interacting variables affecting conditions on planets over time, it is clear that the only way to determine present conditions on any particular planet is empirically. Because of vast distances involved, even gigantic space telescopes will only be able to tell us so much. So if you are asked why space exploration matters, one reason is our progress in understanding of the universe will eventually stall without it. If we don't get out there, we will be limiting our understanding to only what we can see from here. Star Trek was right, again, the only way forward is to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.