Earth is not the only planet vulnerable to climate change.
Other potentially habitable planets in the exoplanet systems can encounter such change, too, even if not led by human causes as on Earth.
Meredith Vogel is a senior in the department of physics, astronomy and materials science at Missouri State University. She studies how planets’ positioning in orbit affects their risk of experiencing climate change.
Some of Vogel’s research on the subject was recently featured on Astrobites. She collaborated with Dr. Sarah Morrison, assistant professor of astronomy and her research advisor, on the project.
The research serves as part of an undergraduate research series funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Missouri Space Grant Consortium (MoSGC).
Vogel also received start-up funds from Morrison as support.
Tech Times recently covered Vogel’s Astrobites post.
Defining habitable planets
Not all planets can support life.
They must first meet a few key conditions.
“A habitable planet must have a stable climate and a rocky surface,” Vogel said. “It must also have enough distance from the star it rotates around to have a surface that can hold water in liquid form.”
Connecting changes in orbit and climate
Vogel examines the power of planets’ positioning in shaping their patterns of orbit.
“Gravitational forces between planets in the solar system can cause changes in their orbits over time,” she said, “particularly among those with neighboring planets that are massive or close by.”
By changing orbits, such gravitational forces can also impact the climate of planets’ orbital region. Researchers call this region their habitable zone.
Yet the classic definition of this zone does not consider gravitational effects from other planets.
Redefining the zone in a way that accounts for planets’ evolution in orbit was a main motivator for Vogel and Morrison’s work.
Understanding the greenhouse effect
The threat of climate change is strongest among those at each habitable zone’s inner edge, Vogel explains.
“Planets near the inner edge are in greater danger of experiencing the runaway greenhouse effect. This occurs when planets contain a high volume of greenhouse gases in their atmosphere,” she said. “These gases prevent the planets from transferring heat, which allows them to cool.”
Such heating and cooling is crucial to sustaining life.
Without these processes, planets lose their habitability.
Knowledge as fuel for a future of new planetary life
Research conducted over centuries suggests the movement of planets in the solar system has been stable for a million years.
The changes in planets’ orbits Vogel has discovered are small. But her research can fuel significant growth in understanding of planets’ interactions.
Such knowledge could be key to one day expanding life outside of Earth.
“My research will serve as input for climate models,” Vogel said. “Analyzing these models can help reveal if more subtle effects are at play in shaping a planet’s ability to support life.”
Morrison views Vogel as a star herself in the research world and believes her work will take her far, she shares.
“Meredith has produced award winning presentations and data visualizations,” Morrison said. “By leveraging her knowledge of astrophysics with her prior experience in art, she provides key insight into the dynamical evolution of planets in the habitable zones of other stars.”