August 2021 - Volume 17, Number 4

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Geosciences Beyond the Solar System

Oliver Shorttle, Natalie R. Hinkel, and Cayman T. Unterborn Guest Editors

Table of Contents

Overview

A revolution in astronomical observation has expanded the horizon of geological processes out from the handful of rocky and icy bodies in our solar system to the now thousands of planets detected around other stars (“exoplanets”). A major result from this burgeoning field is that rocky planets are the most abundant. A remarkable ∼11% of Sun-like stars host planets similar in their size and incident flux to Earth, whilst many more planets may exist in states relevant to past periods of terrestrial evolution, either trapped as perpetual magma oceans or locked into a snowball climate. This issue will highlight the myriad opportunities exoplanets represent for investigating fundamental geological processes and the opportunities for the geosciences to contribute to this exciting young field.

  • Why Geosciences and Exoplanetary Sciences Need Each Other
  • Compositional Diversity of Rocky Exoplanets
  • Exogeology from Polluted White Dwarfs
  • The Diversity of Exoplanets: From Interior Dynamics to Surface Expressions
  • Constraining the Climates of Rocky Exoplanets
  • The Air Over There: Exploring Exoplanet Atmospheres
  • Life’s Origins and the Search for Life on Rocky Exoplanets
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2021 Topics

Thematic Articles

Why Geosciences and Exoplanetary Sciences Need Each Other

By , and

The study of planets outside our Solar System may lead to major advances in our understanding of the Earth and may provide insight into the universal set of rules by which planets form and evolve. To achieve these goals requires applying geoscience’s wealth of Earth observations to fill in the blanks left by the necessarily minimal exoplanetary observations. In turn, many of Earth’s one-offs—plate tectonics, surface liquid water, a large moon, and life; long considered as “Which came first?” conundrums for geoscientists—may find resolution in the study of exoplanets that possess only a subset of these phenomena.

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Compositional Diversity of Rocky Exoplanets

By , , and

To test whether exoplanets are similar to Earth, knowledge of their host star composition is essential. Stellar elemental abundances and planetary orbital data show that of the ~5,000 known minerals, exoplanetary silicate mantles contain mostly olivine, orthopyroxene, and clinopyroxene, ± quartz and magnesiowüstite at the extremes, while wholly exotic mineralogies are unlikely. Understanding the geology of exoplanets requires a better marriage of geological insights to astronomical data. The study of exoplanets is like a mirror: it reflects our incomplete understanding of Earth and neighboring planets. New geological/planetary experiments, informed by exoplanet studies, are needed for effective progress.

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Exogeology from Polluted White Dwarfs

By and

It is difficult to study the interiors of terrestrial planets in the Solar System and the problem is magnified for distant exoplanets. However, sometimes nature is helpful. Some planetary bodies are torn to fragments and consumed by the strong gravity close to the descendants of Sun-like stars, white dwarfs. We can deduce the general composition of the planet when we observe the spectroscopic signature of the white dwarf. Most planetary fragments that fall into white dwarfs appear to be rocky with a variable fraction of associated ice and carbon. These white dwarf planetary systems provide a unique opportunity to study the geology of exoplanetary systems.

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The Diversity of Exoplanets: From Interior Dynamics to Surface Expressions

By and

The coupled interior–atmosphere system of terrestrial exoplanets remains poorly understood. Exoplanets show a wide variety of sizes, densities, surface temperatures, and interior structures, with important knock-on effects for this coupled system. Many exoplanets are predicted to have a “stagnant lid” at the surface, with a rigid stationary crust, sluggish mantle convection, and only minor volcanism. However, if exoplanets have Earth-like plate tectonics, which involves several discrete, slowly moving plates and vigorous tectono-magmatic activity, then this may be critical for planetary habitability and have implications for the development (and evolution) of life in the galaxy. Here, we summarize our current knowledge of coupled planetary dynamics in the context of exoplanet diversity.

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Constraining the Climates of Rocky Exoplanets

By , , and

Numerical climate models originally developed for Earth have been adapted to study exoplanetary climates. This is allowing us to investigate the range of properties that might affect an exoplanet’s climate. The recent discovery, and upcoming characterization, of cosmically close rocky exoplanets opens the door toward understanding the processes that shape planetary climates, maybe also leading to insight into the persistent habitability of Earth itself. We summarize the recent advances made in understanding the climate of rocky exoplanets, including their atmospheric structure, chemistry, evolution, and atmospheric and oceanic circulation. We describe current and upcoming astronomical observations that will constrain the climate of rocky exoplanets and describe how modeling tools will both inform and interpret future observations.

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The Air Over There: Exploring Exoplanet Atmospheres

By and

T he atmospheric composition for a rocky exoplanet will depend strongly on the planet’s bulk composition and orbital position. Nontraditional gases may be present in the atmospheres of exceptionally hot planets. Atmospheres of more clement planets will depend on the abundance of volatiles acquired during planet formation and atmospheric removal processes, including escape, condensation, and reaction with the surface. To date, observations of exoplanet atmospheres have focused on giant planets, but future space- and ground-based observatories will revolutionize the precision and spectral resolution with which we can probe an exoplanet’s atmosphere. This article consolidates lessons learned from the study of giant planet atmospheres, and points to the observations and challenges on the horizon for terrestrial planets.

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Life’s Origins and the Search for Life on Rocky Exoplanets

By , and

The study of the origin(s) of life on Earth and the search for life on other planets are closely linked. Prebiotic chemical scenarios can help prioritize target planets for the search for life (as we know it) and can provide informative prior probabilities to help us assess the likelihood that particular spectroscopic features are evidence of life. The prerequisites for origins scenarios themselves predict characteristic spectral signatures. The interplay between origins research and the search for extraterrestrial life starts with laboratory work to guide exploration within our own Solar System, which will then inform future exoplanet observations and laboratory research. Exoplanet research will, in turn, provide statistical context to conclusions about the nature and origins of life.

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