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Abu Dhabi researchers contribute to discovery of Earth-sized exoplanet with volcanic activity


ABU DHABI: A researcher in Abu Dhabi has contributed to research that led to the discovery of an Earth-sized exoplanet that could be riddled with volcanoes and also host to life.

Dr. Mohamad Ali-Dib, a research scientist at the Center for Astronomy, Particle and Planetary Physics at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), contributed to the University of Montreal-led effort to discover new exoplanets, planets outside our solar system The planet, called LP 791-18 d, may experience volcanic eruptions as frequently as Jupiter’s moon Io, the most volcanically active body in our solar system.

The planet was discovered and studied using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the Spitzer Space Telescope, and a suite of ground-based observatories. Dr. Ali-Dib has led research specifically on the stability of planetary systems and found that the orbits of its planets are long-term stable. In addition, his work places significant constraints on the presence of additional unknown Earth-sized planets in the system, which could destabilize their orbits.

Journal publishing

In a paper titled “A temperate Earth-sized planet with tidal heating passing an M6 star,” published in the journal Nature, the researchers explain how they detected and studied the new planet. LP 791-18 d was found orbiting a small red dwarf star about 90 light-years away in the southern constellation Crater. The researchers estimate that the newly discovered planet is only slightly larger and more massive than Earth. There are two other previously known planets in the system, called LP 791-18 b and c. Each time planets c and d pass each other in orbit, the larger planet c exerts a gravitational pull on planet d. This continuously deformed the planet d and created internal friction, which greatly heated the planet’s interior and created volcanism on its surface.

water possibility

The study also noted that LP 791-18 d is tidally locked, meaning that one side of it is always facing its star, while the other is in constant darkness. Tidal locking, combined with suspected substantial volcanic activity on Earth, would allow LP 791-18 d to maintain an atmosphere and allow water to condense during its night. This is important because a planet’s ability to sustain liquid water is key to its potential habitability.

Planet LP 791-18 c was recently approved for observation with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The new paper’s findings suggest that similar studies should be performed on LP 791-18 d to further investigate its ability to sustain life.

“The discovery of possible volcanism on an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone is a huge step forward in the search for life outside our solar system. The next step is to use JWST to observe the system and see what it can tell us about its atmosphere,” Dr Ali-Dib said.


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