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Northwestern University

New Findings on Exoplanets

Astronomers identify new traits of planets outside our solar system

Northwestern astronomers have been in the spotlight this month as a result of their breakthrough findings on exoplanets — planets beyond the Earth’s solar system.

Research Assistant Professor Nicholas Cowan says that massive planets called Super-Earths may actually resemble the Earth’s climate and surface, a finding that challenges conventional notions about the surface of such bodies. Meanwhile, Assistant Professor Yoram Lithwick’s research on exoplanet masses has important implications for determining whether a planet can support life. 

Cowan says that Super-Earths, massive planets common in the Milky Way, may resemble Earth’s climate and surface more than previously thought. Cowan and Dorian Abbott of the University of Chicago applied known geophysics to astronomy to dispute that Super-Earths are covered in water. Major media outlets and scientific publications have covered the research news, including, the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, the California Academy of Sciences and The Economist.

“Super-Earths are expected to have deep oceans that will overflow their basins and inundate the entire surface, but we show this logic to be flawed,” Cowan explained.

Expanding scientific knowledge of sub-Neptune exoplanets, Lithwick and graduate student Sam Hadden measured the mass of 60 exoplanets. Doing so allows scientists to investigate a planet’s composition, which relates to a planet’s ability to support life. 

“We were surprised to learn that planets only a few times bigger than Earth are covered by a lot of gas,” Lithwick said.

Coverage of Lithwick and Hadden’s research can be found in USA Today, National Geographic, the New Scientist and The Economist.  

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