25% of Sun-Like Stars Could Host Earth-Sized Worlds

by Nancy Atkinson on October 28, 2010

Artists impression of a distant solar system. Credit: ESO

A five-year survey of nearby solar-mass stars has provided astronomers with an estimate of how many stars of this type could have Earth-size planets. Andrew Howard and Geoffrey Marcy from the University of California Berkeley studied 166 G and K stars within 80 light-years of Earth, determining the number, mass and orbital distance of any of the stars’ planets. Since Earth-sized worlds have not yet been found, they extrapolated the number of that size of planets, based on the fraction of stars that host Neptune to super-Earth sized planets. Their findings are encouraging, since it means planets the size of Neptune and smaller are probably much more common than gas-giant planets, like Jupiter. But what they found also conflict with current models of planet formation and migration.

“Of about 100 typical sun-like stars, one or two have planets the size of Jupiter, roughly six have a planet the size of Neptune, and about 12 have super-Earths between three and 10 Earth masses,” said Howard. “If we extrapolate down to Earth-size planets – between one-half and two times the mass of Earth – we predict that you’d find about 23 for every 100 stars.”

“This is the first estimate based on actual measurements of the fraction of stars that have Earth-size planets,” said Marcy. Previous studies have estimated the proportion of Jupiter and Saturn-size exoplanets, but never down to as small as this study, and the astronomers say this enabled them to estimate the Earth-size planets.

“What this means,” Howard added, “is that, as NASA develops new techniques over the next decade to find truly Earth-size planets, it won’t have to look too far.”

Using the 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii, the astronomers measured the small wobble of each star from the tug of orbiting planets. For systems with multiple planets, teasing out the radial velocity signature of each planet is very complex, since each signature is extremely small. The more times a star is observed, the better the data. Current techniques allow detection of planets massive enough and near enough to their stars to cause a wobble of about 1 meter per second. That means they saw only massive, Jupiter-like gas giants up to three times the mass of Jupiter (1,000 times Earth’s mass) orbiting as far as one-quarter of an astronomical unit (AU) from the star, or smaller, closer super-Earths and Neptune-like planets (15-30 times the mass of the earth). An AU is 93 million miles, the average distance between the earth and the sun.

Histogram of stellar masses for Eta-Earth stars. Credit: Howard, et al.

Only 22 of the stars had detectable planets – 33 planets in all – within this range of masses and orbital distances. After accounting statistically for the fact that some stars were observed more often than others, the researchers estimated that about 1.6 percent of the sun-like stars in their sample had Jupiter-size planets and 12 percent had super-Earths (3-10 Earth masses). If the trend of increasing numbers of smaller planets continues, they concluded, 23 percent of the stars would have Earth-size planets.

Based on these statistics, Howard and Marcy, — who is also member of NASA’s Kepler mission to survey 156,000 faint stars in search of transiting planets — estimate that the telescope will detect 120-260 “plausibly terrestrial worlds” orbiting some 10,000 nearby G and K dwarf stars with orbital periods less than 50 days.

“One of astronomy’s goals is to find ‘eta-Earth,’ the fraction of sun-like stars that have an earth,” Howard said. “This is a first estimate, and the real number could be one in eight instead of one in four. But it’s not one in 100, which is glorious news.”

They were able to only detect close-in planets, so they say there could be even more Earth-size planets at greater distances, including within the habitable zone — or Goldilocks zone — located at a distance form the star where conditions are not too hot or too cold to allow the presence of liquid water.

But the researchers note that their results conflict with current models of planet formation and migration, where it is thought that nascent planets spiral inward towards the sun because of interactions with the gas in the disk. Such models predict a “planet desert” in the inner region of solar systems. But that’s where all the planets are being found.

“Just where we see the most planets, models predict we would find no cacti at all,” Marcy said. “These results will transform astronomers’ views of how planets form.”

Howard and Marcy report their results in the Oct. 29 issue of the journal Science.

Sources: UC Berkeley, Science


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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