The last time I discussed exoplanets in this blog was in 2017 with my essay ‘Exoplanets Galore‘, but I think we can all agree that a lot has happened since then!
Here’s the bottom line by March 2023 if you don’t want to read further.
Total exoplanets: 5,312 confirmed out of 9,343 candidates
Total in Habitable Zone: 214 exoplanets of all sizes
Total Earth Analogs: 23 the size of Earth in their Habitable Zones
Number of directly imaged exoplanets: About 30.
Number of atmospheres detected: 11 so far: Water, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen, helium and no biosignatures like oxygen, nitrogen.
Planets with magnetospheres: 1 so far: HAT-P-11b
Closest Earth Analog: Proxima Centauri b at 4.2 light years. (probably lifeless due to frequent flares from star). Gliese 1061 b, c,d at 12 light years. A planetary system with multiple Earth-sized candidates in HZ.
Closest Earth Analog around sun-like star: Kepler 452b, 1,400 light years from Earth orbiting G-type star. It is 5 times the mass of Earth and has twice the surface gravity. Probably between a terrestrial and Neptune-type surface with large ocean.
Searches in Progress: TESS was launched in 2018 and will operate until 2025. It will search the 200,000 brightest stars in the sky and hopefully find ‘thousands’ of new exoplanets using the transit method. So far it has found 6,386 candidates and 326 confirmed exoplanets. Gaia was launched in 2013 and will also last until 2025. So far, Gaia has found 18,383 candidates and has verified 73 exoplanets. Meanwhile there are over 43 ground-based major observatories with exoplanet detection programs mostly designed to verify candidates spotted by satellite studies.
Now let’s dig into the details!
According to NASA, by March 30, 2023 there are now 5,312 confirmed exoplanets, among 9,343 candidates, including 3,981 multiple-exoplanet ‘solar systems’. These confirmed exoplanets include 195 that are ‘terrestrial’ or Earth-sized, and 1,605 that are ‘super-Earths’ up to 5 times bigger than Earth. According to the European, Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia (EPE) as of March 31, 2023 lists 5,346 exoplanets in 3,943 planetary systems, and 855 multi-planet systems.
The NASA catalog is searchable but very bare-bones. It only gives name, size and distance. The Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia ( EPE), however is also searchable but in many more fields including the exoplanet’s radius, period and distance from its star.
First a bit of terminology.
Habitable Zone (HZ), also called the Goldilocks Zone, means the region surrounding a star where the temperature of an exposed surface with no atmosphere, is between the freezing point of water and the boiling point of water where life could supposedly exist. Of course you can’t have liquid water on a planet with no atmosphere, so these distances are lower limits. If the planet has a warming Greenhouse atmosphere dense enough for water to exist it can be farther from the star than these limits because the surface is warmed to a higher temperature. But it is a good first guess for the size of this zone without making any assumptions about atmospheric composition. By the way, Earth is right in the middle of our Sun’s HZ. Care has to be used in using this in the seach for life because even exoplanets that seem too cold to sustain liquid water could have liquid oceans under a thick icy crust like the moons of Jupiter.
Earth-sized means that the exoplanet is very close to our Earth in SIZE, meaning diameter, which means a radius of about 6,300 km. It also means that it can be found anywhere both inside and outside the HZ. Care has to be taken in using this as a search for life indicator because the moons of Jupiter-sized exoplanets can be Earth-sized like Titan in our own solar system, and tidal energy could keep their interiors warm enough for liquid water.
Earth-like means that the exoplanet is not only Earth-sized but inside its star’s HZ. These are also called Earth Analogs or Potentially Habitable Exoplanets.
Habitable Zone exoplanets
The very first thing that you or I would want to know is, how many of the 5,300+ exoplanets are in their HZs? Although a good estimate is about a few hundred, the exact answer is not as straight-forward as you might think.
Exoplanets are often found in elliptical orbits so some of these may only spend part of their ‘year’ in the HZ and most of their time too hot or too cold to support liquid water. To make matters worse, because stars evolve over time and become brighter, the HZs around every star start out close to the star when the star is young but slowly drift further away from the star as it ages. A planet formed inside the HZ may find itself outside the HZ as it gets older. In our solar system, Venus started out inside the HZ of the sun when it was formed 4.5 billion years ago, but now finds itself just inside the HZ today as a much hotter and inhospitable Earth-sized world. The range of distance during the entire lifetime of the star where HZ conditions exist is now called the Continuously Habitable Zone. Our Earth will leave this zone in another 7 billion years, while Mars will find itself in the comfortable middle of this zone by then.
Neither the NASA nor the EPE catalogs explicitly give statistics on this sub-category because the exact location of the HZ for each star depends on some assumptions including orbit shape, age of star, surface reflectivity, and Greenhous gas content. None of these ‘official’ catalogs wants to offer an official count because it could be ‘incorrect’ or worse-still, meaningless.
According to the Habitable Zone Gallery maintained by astronomers Stephen Kane and Dawn Gelino, their March 2023 catalog includes 4,628 exoplanets with known orbits. The figure below shows in green that only a total of 214 spend more than half their ‘year’ inside their star’s HZ. These include all types of exoplanets not just Earth-sized ones.
The Search for Earth Analogs.
How many exoplanets are both Earth-sized and in their star’s HZ? Depending on the details there are up to a few dozen that seem very promissing.
Encyclopedia Britanica says 40 as of March 2023. The searchable Habitable Exoplanets Catalog gives 23 Earth-sized and 39 super-Earths (3-10 times Earth mass) for a total of 62 habitable worlds by January 5, 2023. One graphical summary by Chester Harman gives 13 potentially habitable exoplanets as of March 2022 when stellar evolution is factored-in. So, lets take the charitable view and use the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog tally of 23 Earth-sized and 39 super-Earths.
Well first of all, the super-Earth exoplanets are problemtical because they are larger and more massive than Earth. They have a lower density so many astronomers suspect that these are Water Worlds. If you had placed Neptune in the sun’s HZ at the time of formation, instead of being a planet with a thick icy mantle on top of a rocky core the size of Earth, it would have had a thousand-kilometer-deep water ocean on top of a rocky Earth-sized core. You could have life in a deep ocean, of course, but with no solid surface on which life could emerge and evolve. It is hard to understand how ‘fish’ would have created telescopes or even known that the rest of the universe exists at all.
Some of these super-Earths closer to the size of our planet could have enormous oceans covering their surface but with diminishing land areas. For future explorers, these exoplanets would still be massive enough that we would never be able to visit the small islands on their surfaces and return to space because their escape velocities are so high.
The closest Earth Analogs.
We are obsessed with finding the closest because these would be the easiest targets for future interstellar probes to visit within a human lifespan of travel. The current catalog lists quite a few of these but they all orbit red dwarf stars. TheTRAPPIST-1 system contains TRAPPIST-1e, f and g — all located in the habitable zone of the star. The M8V red dwarf star is 39 light years from Earth. Unfortunately, different studies have come to different conclusions on whether any TRAPPIST-1 planet can retain substantial amounts of water. Because the planets are most-likely synchronized to their host star, water could become trapped on the planets’ night sides and would be unavailable to support life.
Meanwhile, Kepler 442b located 1,200light years from Earth is only 2-3 times the mass of Earth and is in the HZ around a K-type sun-like star. It has a temperature of 233 K (−40 °C; −40 °F) and a radius of 1.34 REarth. Because of its radius, it is likely to be a rocky planet with a solid surface. The mass of the exoplanet is estimated to be 2.36 MEarth. The surface gravity on Kepler-442b would be 30% stronger than Earth, assuming a rocky composition similar to that of Earth.
Based on the observations available by 2013, statistically, there should be nearly 9 billion habitable Earth-sized planets in our Milky Way. A 2020 estimate places this at about 6 billion exoplanets orbiting sun-like stars. A 2019 study places this at 10 billion habitable exoplanets orbiting the stars in the Milky Way of which one in every four G-type stars have habitable planets. A bit of math tells us that the volume of the Milky Way is about 17 trillion cubic light years. If you scatter 10 billion habitable exoplanets throughout this volume, you get 17 trillion cubic light years/10 billion exos = 1,700 cubic light years/exoplanet. That means the average distance between them is about 12 light years, which is very promissing!
Within 100 light years of the Sun there are 512 of these sun-like stars so there could be as many as 128 habitable Earth-like exoplanets yet to be discovered! These would be close enough to Earth to consider sending fast, unmanned spacecraft to visit them and check for lifesigns first-hand.