Upcoming Telescopes Should be Able to Detect Mountains and Other Landscapes on Extrasolar Planets

Article written: 22 Jan , 2018

The study of exoplanets has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past few decades. Between ground-based observatories and spacecraft like the Kepler mission, a total of 3,726 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,792 systems, with 622 systems having more than one planet (as of Jan. 1st, 2018). And in the coming years, scientists expect that many more discoveries will be possible thanks to the deployment of next-generation missions.

These include NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and several next-generation ground based observatories. With their advanced instruments, these and other observatories are not only expected to find many more exoplanets, but to reveal new and fascinating things about them. For instance, a recent study from Columbia University indicated that it will be possible, using the Transit Method, to study surface elevations on exoplanets.

The study, which recently appeared online under the title “Finding Mountains with Molehills: The Detectability of Exotopography“, was conducted by Moiya McTier and David Kipping – and graduate student and an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Columbia University, respectively. Based on models they created using bodies in our Solar System, the team considered whether transit surveys might be able to reveal topographical data on exoplanets.

Artist’s impression of an extra-solar planet transiting its star. Credit: QUB Astrophysics Research Center

To recap, the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry) is currently the most popular and reliable means for detecting exoplanets. It consists of astronomers measuring the light curve of distant stars over time and looking for periodic dips in brightness. These dips are the result of exoplanets passing in front of the star (i.e. transiting) relative to the observer.

By measuring the rate at which the star’s light dips, and the period with which the dimming occurs, astronomer are not only able to determine the presence of exoplanets, but also place accurate constraints on their size and orbital periods. According to McTier and Kipping, this same method could also reveal the presence of geographical features – for instance, mountain ranges, volcanoes, trenches, and craters.

As they indicate in their study, in lieu of direct imaging, indirect methods are the only means astronomers have for revealing data on an exoplanet’s surface. Unfortunately, there is no conceivable way that the radial velocity, microlensing, astrometry, and timing methods could reveal exotopography. This leaves the transit method, which has some potential in this respect. As they state:

“The transit method directly measures the sky-projected area of a planet’s silhouette relative to that of a star, under the assumption that the planet is not luminous itself… This fact implies that there is indeed some potential for transits to reveal surface features, since the planet’s silhouette is certainly distorted from a circular profile due to the presence of topography.”

Satellite image of the Himalayan mountain chain, as imaged by NASA’sLandsat-7 imagery of Himalayas. Credit: NASA

In other words, as a planet transits in front of its host star, the light passing around the planet itself could be measured for small variations. These could indicate the presence of mountain ranges and other large-scale features like massive chasms. To test this theory, they considered planets in the Solar System as templates for how the scattering of light during a transit could reveal large-scale features.

As an example, they consider what an Earth analog planet would reveal if the Himalayan mountain range ran from north to south and was wide enough to span 1° in longitude:

“Now assume that the planet completes half of one rotation as it transits its parent star from our point of view, which is all that is necessary to see all of the planet’s features appear on its silhouette without repeating. As our hypothetical planet rotates and the Himalayan block moves into and out of view, the change in silhouette will result in different transit depths…”

Ultimately, they consider that Mars would be the ideal test case due to its combination of small size, low surface gravity, and active internal volcanism, which has caused it become what they describe as the “bumpiest body in the Solar System”. When paired with a white dwarf star, this presents the optimal case for using light curves to determine exotopography.

Color Mosaic of Olympus Mons on Mars

Color mosaic of Mars’ greatest mountain, Olympus Mons, viewed from orbit. Credit NASA/JPL

At a distance of about 0.01 AU (which would be within a white dwarf’s habitable zone), they calculate that a Mars-sized planet would have an orbital period of 11.3 hours. This would allow for many transits to be observed in a relatively short viewing period, thus ensuring a greater degree of accuracy. At the same time, the team admits that their proposed methods suffers from drawbacks.

For instance, due to the presence of astrophysical and instrumental noise, they determined that their method would be unproductive when it comes to studying exoplanets around Sun-like stars and M-type (red dwarf) stars. But for Mars-like planets orbiting low mass, white dwarf stars, the method could produce some highly valuable scientific returns.

While this might sound rather limited, it would present some rather fascinating opportunities to learn more about planets beyond our Solar System. As they explain:

“Finding the first evidence of mountains on planets outside our solar system would be exciting in its own right, but we can also infer planet characteristics from the presence and distribution of surface features. For example, a detection of bumpiness could lead to constraints on a planet’s internal processes.”

In short, planets with a high degree of bumpiness would indicate tectonic activity or the buildup of lava caused by internal heating sources. Those with the highest bumpiness (i.e. like Mars) would indicate that they too experience a combination internal processes, low surface gravity, volcanism, and a lack of tectonic plate movement. Meanwhile, low-bumpiness planets are less likely to have any of these internal processes and their surfaces are more likely to be shaped by external factors – like asteroid bombardment.

Artist’s impression of the OWL Telescope being deployed at night from its enclosure, where it will operated during the daytime. Credit: ESO

Based on their estimates, they conclude that the various super telescopes that are scheduled to be commissioned in the coming years would be up to task. These include the ESO’s OverWhelmingly Large (OWL) Telescope, a 100-meter proposed optical and near-infrared telescope that would build on the success of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).

Another example is the Colossus Telescope, a 74-meter optical and infrared telescope that is currently being commissioned by an international consortium. Once operational, it will be the largest telescope optimized for detecting extrasolar life and extraterrestrial civilizations.

In the past, the success of exoplanet hunters has come down to a combination of factors. In addition to greater levels of cooperation between institutions, amateur astronomers and citizen scientists, there has also been the way in which improved technology has coincided with new theoretical models. As more data become available, scientists are able to produce more educated estimates on what we might be able to learn once new instruments come online.

When the next-generation telescopes take to space or are finished construction here on Earth, we can anticipate that thousands more exoplanets will be found. At the same time, we can anticipate that important details will be also discovered about these planets that were not possible before. Do they have atmospheres? Do they have oceans? Do they have mountain ranges and chasms? We hope to find out!

Further Reading: arXiv

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2 Responses

  1. Manu says

    Considering a white dwarf is typically Earth-sized, good luck finding a transiting exoplanet around one in the first place.

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