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

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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The Air Over There: Exploring Exoplanet Atmospheres

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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Constraining the Climates of Rocky Exoplanets

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 Diversity of Exoplanets: From Interior Dynamics to Surface Expressions

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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Exogeology from Polluted White Dwarfs

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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Compositional Diversity of Rocky Exoplanets

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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Why Geosciences and Exoplanetary Sciences Need Each Other

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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Imaging with Neutrons

By exploiting the penetration, attenuation, and scattering properties of neutrons, images of matter in two or three dimensions reveal information unobtainable using other probes. Despite the limitation in brilliance of neutron sources, several neutron-based imaging techniques are essential to different aspects of modern geoscience. Typical examples include the evaluation of porosity in rocks and sediments, mapping of light elements in solids, noninvasive probing of cultural heritage objects, investigations of thick engineering components, and the exploration of diffusion and percolation processes of fluids within porous matrices, organo-inorganic composites, and living organisms. Techniques under development include simultaneous neutron and X-ray tomography in heterogeneous media, Bragg-edge imaging, and the possibility of porosimetry from dark-field imaging.

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Probing Phase Transitions and Magnetism in Minerals with Neutrons

The development of sophisticated sample environments to control temperature, pressure, and magnetic field has grown in parallel with neutron source and instrumentation development. High-pressure apparatus, with high- and low-temperature capability, novel designs for diamond cells, and large volume presses are matched with next-generation neutron sources and moderator designs to provide unprecedented neutron beam brightness. Recent developments in sample environments are expanding the pressure–temperature space accessible to neutron scattering experiments. Researchers are using new capabilities and an increased understanding of the fundamentals of structural and magnetic transitions to explore new territories, including hydrogenous minerals (e.g., ices and hydrates) and magnetic structural phase diagrams.

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Probing the Structure of Melts, Glasses, and Amorphous Materials

Liquids, glasses, and amorphous materials are ubiquitous in the Earth sciences and are intrinsic to a plethora of geological processes, ranging from volcanic activity, deep Earth melting events, metasomatic processes, frictional melting (pseudotachylites), lighting strikes (fulgurites), impact melting (tektites), hydrothermal activity, aqueous solution geochemistry, and the formation of dense high-pressure structures. However, liquids and glassy materials lack the long-range order that characterizes crystalline materials, and studies of their structure require a different approach to that of conventional crystallography. The pair distribution function is the neutron diffraction technique used to characterize liquid and amorphous states. When combined with atomistic models, neutron diffraction techniques can determine the properties and behavior of disordered structures.

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