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‘Time capsule’ probe into origin of Earth’s atmosphere

The Australian Research Council has awarded a University of Southern Queensland astrophysicist a $850,000 fellowship to investigate how Earth’s atmosphere originally formed.

Dr George Zhou’s “time capsule” study will attempt to find answers to the mystery on Earth by studying the growth of distant, newly born planets.

“We live in a solar system that has a number of terrestrial planets, such as Mars, Venus and Earth, that all have a thin layer of atmosphere,” Dr Zhou said.

“But what was the primordial atmosphere of these planets? And how did it transition into what we have today? This is what we are looking to address with this fellowship.


“We are fortunate to have received such a competitive fellowship, and it’s great to see Australia investing in exoplanet research, a field that will help drive astronomy for the next few decades.”

The Australian Research Council (ARC) is an independent government agency that funds research. Its Future Fellowship program is designed to support mid-career researchers to undertake studies in areas of national and international benefit.

Dr Zhou will use his grant to lead a team that will include University of Southern Queensland PhD students Sydney Vach and Ava Morrissey.

Last year, Dr Zhou was part of a USQ-led team awarded the use of the Hubble Space Telescope and used the time to search for an extended evaporating atmosphere around a specific young planet.


This young planet will also feature in the new ARC project, with Dr Zhou also incorporating data from the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS mission.

By looking at the hydrogen escaping from this young planet in real-time, we can understand how other atmospheres have been stripped away, leaving behind just the core,” Dr Zhou said.

“This stripping away process is universal; all planets go through it – even now, the Earth is losing a lot of its hydrogen and helium into space in the same way.

“We hope to detect this process in other planets and then extend this knowledge to understand how thousands of other planets outside the solar system came to be.

“In the third part of this project, we hope to be granted access to the James Webb Space Telescope to look at the atmosphere of a young planet and see its composition.

“How much water is there? How much carbon dioxide and methane? We will then compare it to a similar-sized planet today.”

Dr Zhou said although there were a couple of atmospheric evaporation models, this study would help to provide greater insight into the phenomenon.

“Hopefully, we will find something interesting, like this particular young planet losing its atmosphere in a weird way,” he said.

“Investigating this is like looking at a time capsule; we can’t turn back the clock to see what the early Earth was like, but we can look at these newly formed planets and infer,” he said.

“By studying other planets, we place our own in context. We have one solar system to understand how life came to be on Earth.”

The ESA describes its Cheops mission – CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite – as the first dedicated to studying bright, nearby stars known to host exoplanets to make “high-precision observations” of the planet’s size as it passes in front of its host star.

“It focuses on planets in the super-Earth to Neptune size range, with its data enabling the bulk density of the planets to be derived – a first-step characterisation towards understanding these alien worlds,” said ESA.

Adam Thorn

Adam Thorn

Adam is a journalist who has worked for more than 40 prestigious media brands in the UK and Australia. Since 2005, his varied career has included stints as a reporter, copy editor, feature writer and editor for publications as diverse as Fleet Street newspaper The Sunday Times, fashion bible Jones, media and marketing website Mumbrella as well as lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Woman’s Weekly, Men’s Health and Loaded. He joined Momentum Media in early 2020 and currently writes for Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.

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