Exoplanets: Headlines from the Future

The field of exoplanet is exploding: on a typical day about a dozen new peer-reviewed exoplanet studies are published and most weeks see announcements of multiple discoveries: new results range from the compositions and structures of exoplanet atmospheres through new findings on exoplanet formation and exoplanet population to exciting discoveries of the smallest, coolest, or lowest-mass planets. Exoplanets all over the headlines. But what discoveries will be in the headlines ten and twenty years from now?

Surprisingly, this question is very important now. It is important because most discoveries today are made by telescopes that were designed and built ten to twenty years ago – and what discoveries we may make in the future depends on what telescopes, instruments, and space missions we are building now. Different telescopes and observational techniques are great for answering different questions: no telescope can do it all.

Karl Stapelfeldt, NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program Chief Scientist, with a possible cover from a future New York Times.

So, what questions we will be able to answer in the future depends on what telescopes we build now, which in turn depends on the questions we think are going to be important.

I posted yesterday on the preprint server arXiv a report we worked on with a dedicated group of exoplanet experts and which we recently delivered it to the NASA EXOPAG Executive Committee and to the NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee (more on the abbreviations at the bottom of the page)*. The study builds on input from the exoplanet community to identify the most interesting science questions that we may be able to study in the future with direct imaging missions – that is, space telescopes that can directly image exoplanets (separating their light from that of their host stars).

To be clear, our report does not determine or advise NASA on which missions we should build – that will be done by multiple other committees – but reports on what science questions the community thinks are the most important and potentially solvable questions. Our study informs and guides the community and NASA (and various observatories and organizations) when deciding on future exoplanet strategies.

So, what do astronomers think about the future of exoplanet research?

Even though we have learned a lot about exoplanets in the past decade, it is clear that we are just scratching the surface of the universe of amazing, exotic, and surprising worlds. Reflecting this our group started with a huge list of questions – close to a hundred of them, everything we wanted to know about exoplanets. Too many questions to be useful, but through discussions and analysis we weeded out questions that seemed to be intractable even in the best foreseeable future. This cut down our list, but still left us with too many questions. After lengthy discussions we were able to combine many of the questions into more general or fundamental questions, which again led to a shorter list.

Then the work really started: we needed to understand which of our questions will be answered in the next decade or so by telescopes already being built (such as NASA’s JWST, TESS, or the 30m-class ground-based telescopes) — none of those questions were interesting for our report. With the truly amazing work being done on exoplanets now, many of the obvious questions on our list will, in fact, be answered by 2030.

This process left us with high-level, important, but often very tough questions that will not be answered with any of the telescopes currently existing or being built. They will be the big questions in   a few decades. These are the questions that require truly powerful new telescope(s).

Many of the questions have to do with habitable worlds, which is not surprising. Still, some focus on gas exoplanets and some on ice giants (think cold or hot exo-neptunes) or super-earths. (In our report we did not focus on directly searching for and characterizing extrasolar life, because it was being addressed in a parallel report, SAG16 – but we covered how habitable worlds can be characterized).

The nine questions we identified naturally fell in three categories: Questions in Category A  aimed at exploring planetary systems: what are their structures, components, how do they form and evolve, what combinations of planets and planetesimal belts are common, etc. Although much progress will be made on these questions over the next two decades by telescopes being built now, we found that no telescope will be able to give us the complete picture: some will detect only close-in planets, others only dust disks, yet others only planets far out.

Questions in Category B are questions about individual planets: what are their atmospheres made of, do they have clouds and hazes and if so, where do those come from? Which of the (small) planets are truly habitable, i.e., that they have liquid water on their surfaces?

Finally, Questions in Category C aim to understand how planets work. These were some of the toughest questions, especially those about rocky planets. These worlds are the most difficult to detect, yet they can be so diverse (we think): just consider how different Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Earth are! In the future we will want to know not only how these planets look now, but why — how did they evolve to be the worlds they are. Unlike massive gas giant planets, whose strong gravity will hold on to pretty much all the stuff they formed with, puny rocky planets often lose their atmospheres (Earth and Mars definitely did).

This study has been fun: over one and a half year we held virtual and physical meetings to explore ideas and methods for exoplanet characterization; I found the list of questions we converged to to be really exciting.

Perhaps the most important questions are, however, those that directly aid our search for life on other planets. It is clear that the search for life around other stars is going to be with one of the most fundamentally important experiments ever conducted; but it is also clear that it is going to be extremely difficult. Not only is it technically difficult to detect the gases in the atmospheres of earth-like planets that could reveal life, but it is similarly difficult to interpret them. In fact, none of the atmospheric signatures we think we could detect in exoplanets would allow us to conclude that we found life unless we have a pretty good understanding of the planet. This is because all biosignature gases we could possibly detect could also be produced by some odd geological or atmospheric processes — all without life. To exclude those “false positives”, we must know the worlds in detail.

Questions in Category C aim exactly at this: Is there a geological activity on a planet? How did it evolve? What processes set is atmospheric circulation?

Many of the tough, but also very exciting questions go beyond astrophysics and connect to planetary sciences, geophysics, geochemistry, and atmospheric sciences: fortunately, we could draw on multi-disciplinary expertise from the NASA NExSS group to explore these questions.

Our report was a community effort – we received input from a large number of exoplanet scientists who volunteered their time and expertise to explore what the future should bring. For me, it has been a thrilling experience to work with such a great team and to try to figure out if and how we could in explore oceans, volcanism, climate, and other exotic properties of exoplanets in the future – for all the exciting discoveries we are making today, I am sure that the future will be even cooler.

Of course, we can be sure of one thing: With all the exciting questions we can identify, there will be many surprises and unexpected discoveries.

So, even though our report helps us to guess some of the topics in which future exoplanet discoveries will be made – I, for one, will surely follow closely the exoplanet news even twenty years from now.

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