The world’s most powerful telescopes have a lot of work to do. They’re tasked with helping us unravel the mysteries of the universe, like dark matter and dark energy. They’re burdened with helping us find other habitable worlds that might host life. And they’re busy with a multitude of other tasks, like documenting the end of a star’s life, or keeping an eye on meteors that get too close to Earth.
In 1915, Albert Einstein published his famous Theory of General Relativity, which provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time. This theory gave rise to the modern theory of gravitation and revolutionized our understanding of physics. Even though a century has passed since then, scientists are still conducting experiments that confirm his theory’s predictions.
The new infrared observations collected by these instruments allowed the team to monitor one of the stars (S2) that orbits Sagittarius A* as it passed in front of the black hole – which took place in May of 2018. At the closest point in its orbit, the star was at a distance of less than 20 billion km (12.4 billion mi) from the black hole and was moving at a speed in excess of 25 million km/h (15 million mph) – almost three percent of the speed of light.
Whereas the SINFONI instrument was used to measure the velocity of S2 towards and away from Earth, the GRAVITY instrument in the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) made extraordinarily precise measurements of the changing position of S2 in order to define the shape of its orbit. The GRAVITY instrument then created the sharp images that revealed the motion of the star as it passed close to the black hole.
The team then compared the position and velocity measurements to previous observations of S2 using other instruments. They then compared these results with predictions made by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, General Relativity, and other theories of gravity. As expected, the new results were consistent with the predictions made by Einstein over a century ago.
As Reinhard Genzel, who in addition to being the leader of the GRAVITY collaboration was a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESO press release:
“This is the second time that we have observed the close passage of S2 around the black hole in our galactic center. But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution. We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects.”
When observed with the VLT’s new instruments, the team noted an effect called gravitational redshift, where the light coming from S2 changed color as it drew closer to the black hole. This was caused by the very strong gravitational field of the black hole, which stretched the wavelength of the star’s light, causing it to shift towards the red end of the spectrum.
The change in the wavelength of light from S2 agrees precisely with what Einstein’s field equation’s predicted. As Frank Eisenhauer – a researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics, the Principal Investigator of GRAVITY and the SINFONI spectrograph, and a co-author on the study – indicated:
“Our first observations of S2 with GRAVITY, about two years ago, already showed that we would have the ideal black hole laboratory. During the close passage, we could even detect the faint glow around the black hole on most of the images, which allowed us to precisely follow the star on its orbit, ultimately leading to the detection of the gravitational redshift in the spectrum of S2.”
Whereas other tests have been performed that have confirmed Einstein’s predictions, this is the first time that the effects of General Relativity have been observed in the motion of a star around a supermassive black hole. In this respect, Einstein has been proven right once again, using one the most extreme laboratory to date! What’s more, it confirmed that tests involving relativistic effects can provide consistent results over time and space.
“Here in the Solar System we can only test the laws of physics now and under certain circumstances,” said Françoise Delplancke, head of the System Engineering Department at ESO. “So it’s very important in astronomy to also check that those laws are still valid where the gravitational fields are very much stronger.”
In the near future, another relativistic test will be possible as S2 moves away from the black hole. This is known as a Schwarzschild precession, where the star is expected to experience a small rotation in its orbit. The GRAVITY Collaboration will be monitoring S2 to observe this effect as well, once again relying on the VLT’s very precise and sensitive instruments.
As Xavier Barcons (the ESO’s Director General) indicated, this accomplishment was made possible thanks to the spirit of international cooperation represented by the GRAVITY collaboration and the instruments they helped the ESO develop:
“ESO has worked with Reinhard Genzel and his team and collaborators in the ESO Member States for over a quarter of a century. It was a huge challenge to develop the uniquely powerful instruments needed to make these very delicate measurements and to deploy them at the VLT in Paranal. The discovery announced today is the very exciting result of a remarkable partnership.”
And be sure to check out this video of the GRAVITY Collaboration’s successful test, courtesy of the ESO:
The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released a stunning collection of images of the circumstellar discs that surround young stars. The images were captured with the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. We’ve been looking at images of circumstellar disks for quite some time, but this collection reveals the fascinating variety of shapes an sizes that these disks can take.
We have a widely-accepted model of star formation supported by ample evidence, including images like these ones from the ESO. The model starts with a cloud of gas and dust called a giant molecular cloud. Within that cloud, a pocket of gas and dust begins to coalesce. Eventually, as gravity causes material to fall inward, the pocket becomes more massive, and exerts even more gravitational pull. More gas and dust continues to be drawn in.
The material that falls in also gives some angular momentum to the pocket, which causes rotation. Once enough material is accumulated, fusion ignites and a star is born. At that point, there is a proto-star inside the cloud, with unused gas and dust remaining in a rotating ring around the proto-star. That left over rotating ring is called a circumstellar disc, out of which planets eventually form.
There are other images of circumstellar discs, but they’ve been challenging to capture. To image any amount of detail in the disks requires blocking out the light of the star at the center of the disk. That’s where SPHERE comes in.
SPHERE was added to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in 2014. It’s primary job is to directly image exoplanets, but it also has the ability to capture images of circumstellar discs. To do that, it separates two types of light: polarized, and non-polarized.
Light coming directly from a star—in these images, a young star still surrounded by a circumstellar disc—is non-polarized. But once that starlight is scattered by the material in the disk itself, the light becomes polarized. SPHERE, as its name suggests, is able to separate the two types of light and isolate just the light from the disk. That is how the instrument captures such fascinating images of the disks.
Ever since it became clear that exoplanets are not rare, and that most stars—maybe all stars—have planets orbiting them, understanding solar system formation has become a hot topic. The problem has been that we can’t really see it happening in real time. We can look at our own Solar System, and other fully formed ones, and make guesses about how they formed. But planet formation is hidden inside those circumstellar disss. Seeing into those disks is crucial to understanding the link between the properties of the disk itself and the planets that form in the system.
The discs imaged in this collection are mostly from a study called the DARTTS-S (Discs ARound T Tauri Stars with SPHERE) survey. T Tauri stars are young stars less than 10 million years old. At that age, planets are still in the process of forming. The stars range from 230 to 550 light-years away from Earth. In astronomical terms, that’s pretty close. But the blinding bright light of the stars still makes it very difficult to capture the faint light of the discs.
One of the images is not a T Tauri star and is not from the DARTTS-S study. The disc around the star GSC 07396-00759, in the image above, is actually from the SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) survey, though the images itself was captured with SPHERE. GSC 07396-00759 is a red star that’s part of a multiple star system that was part of the DARTTS-S study. The puzzling thing is that red star is the same age as the T TAURI star in the same system, but the ring around the red star is much more evolved. Why the two discs around two stars the same age are so different from each other in terms of time-scale and evolution is a puzzle, and is one of the reasons why astronomers want to study these discs much more closely.
We can study our own Solar System, and look at the positions and characteristics of the planets and the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt. From that we can try to guess how it all formed, but our only chance to understand how it all came together is to look at other younger solar systems as they form.
The SPHERE instrument, and other future instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to look into the circumstellar discs around other stars, and to tease out the details of planetary formation. These new images from SPHERE are a tantalizing taste of the detail and variety we can expect to see.
When it comes to studying some of the most distant and oldest galaxies in the Universe, a number of challenges present themselves. In addition to being billions of light years away, these galaxies are often too faint to see clearly. Luckily, astronomers have come to rely on a technique known as Gravitational Lensing, where the gravitational force of a large object (like a galactic cluster) is used to enhance the light of these fainter galaxies.
Using this technique, an international team of astronomers recently discovered a distant and quiet galaxy that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Led by researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the team used the Hubble Space Telescope to conduct the most extreme case of gravitational lensing to date, which allowed them to observe the faint galaxy known as eMACSJ1341-QG-1.
For the sake of their study, the team relied on the massive galaxy cluster known as eMACSJ1341.9-2441 to magnify the light coming from eMACSJ1341-QG-1, a distant and fainter galaxy. In astronomical terms, this galaxy is an example of a “quiescent galaxy”, which are basically older galaxies that have largely depleted their supplies of dust and gas and therefore do not form new stars.
The team began by taking images of the faint galaxy with the Hubble and then conducting follow-up spectroscopic observations using the ESO/X-Shooter spectrograph – which is part of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Based on their estimates, the team determined that they were able to amplify the background galaxy by a factor of 30 for the primary image, and a factor of six for the two remaining images.
This makes eMACSJ1341-QG-1 the most strongly amplified quiescent galaxy discovered to date, and by a rather large margin! As Johan Richard – an assistant astronomer at the University of Lyon who performed the lensing calculations, and a co-author on the study – indicated in a University of Hawaii News release:
“The very high magnification of this image provides us with a rare opportunity to investigate the stellar populations of this distant object and, ultimately, to reconstruct its undistorted shape and properties.”
Although other extreme magnifications have been conducted before, this discovery has set a new record for the magnification of a rare quiescent background galaxy. These older galaxies are not only very difficult to detect because of their lower luminosity; the study of them can reveal some very interesting things about the formation and evolution of galaxies in our Universe.
As Ebeling, an astronomer with the UH’s Institute of Astronomy and the lead author on the study, explained:
“We specialize in finding extremely massive clusters that act as natural telescopes and have already discovered many exciting cases of gravitational lensing. This discovery stands out, though, as the huge magnification provided by eMACSJ1341 allows us to study in detail a very rare type of galaxy.”
Quiescent galaxies are common in the local Universe, representing the end-point of galactic evolution. As such, this record-breaking find could provide some unique opportunities for studying these older galaxies and determining why star-formation ended in them. As Mikkel Stockmann, a team member from the University of Copenhagen and an expert in galaxy evolution, explained:
“[A]s we look at more distant galaxies, we are also looking back in time, so we are seeing objects that are younger and should not yet have used up their gas supply. Understanding why this galaxy has already stopped forming stars may give us critical clues about the processes that govern how galaxies evolve.”
In a similar vein, recent studies have been conducted that suggest that the presence of a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) could be what is responsible for galaxies becoming quiescent. As the powerful jets these black holes create begin to drain the core of galaxies of their dust and gas, potential stars find themselves starved of the material they would need to undergo gravitational collapse.
In the meantime, follow-up observations of eMACSJ1341-QG1 are being conducted using telescopes at the Paranal Observatory in Chile and the Maunakea Observatories in Hawaii. What these observations reveal is sure to tell us much about what will become of our own Milky Way Galaxy someday, when the last of the dust and gas is depleted and all its stars become red giants and long-lived red dwarfs.
When it comes to looking beyond our Solar System, astronomers are often forced to theorize about what they don’t know based on what they do. In short, they have to rely on what we have learned studying the Sun and the planets from our own Solar System in order to make educated guesses about how other star systems and their respective bodies formed and evolved.
For example, astronomers have learned much from our Sun about how convection plays a major role in the life of stars. Until now, they have not been able to conduct detailed studies of the surfaces of other stars because of their distances and obscuring factors. However, in a historic first, an international team of scientists recently created the first detailed images of the surface of a red giant star located roughly 530 light-years away.
For decades, astronomers have sought to learn more about the convection properties and evolution of stars by studying red giants. These are what become of main sequence stars once they have exhausted their hydrogen fuel and expand to becomes hundreds of times their normal diameter. Unfortunately, studying the convection properties of most supergiant stars has been challenging because their surfaces are frequently obscured by dust.
After obtaining interferometric data on Π1 Gruis in September of 2014, the team then relied on image reconstruction software and algorithms to compose images of the star’s surface. These allowed the team to determine the convection patterns of the star by picking out its “granules”, the large grainy spots on the surface that indicate the top of a convective cell.
This was the first time that such images have been created, and represent a major breakthrough when it comes to our understanding of how stars age and evolve. As Dr. Fabien Baron, an assistant professor at Georgia State University and a co-author on the study, explained:
“This is the first time that we have such a giant star that is unambiguously imaged with that level of details. The reason is there’s a limit to the details we can see based on the size of the telescope used for the observations. For this paper, we used an interferometer. The light from several telescopes is combined to overcome the limit of each telescope, thus achieving a resolution equivalent to that of a much larger telescope.”
This study is especially significant because Π1 Gruis in the last major phase of life and resembles what our Sun will look like when it is at the end of its lifespan. In other words, when our Sun exhausts its hydrogen fuel in roughly five billion years, it will expand significantly to become a red giant star. At this point, it will be large enough to encompass Mercury, Venus, and maybe even Earth.
As a result, studying this star will give scientists insight into the future activity, characteristics and appearance of our Sun. For instance, our Sun has about two million convective cells that typically measure 2,000 km (1243 mi) in diameter. Based on their study, the team estimates that the surface of Π1 Gruis has a complex convective pattern, with granules measuring about 1.2 x 10^8 km (62,137,119 mi) horizontally or 27 percent of the diameter of the star.
This is consistent with what astronomers have predicted, which was that giant and supergiant stars should only have a few large convective cells because of their low surface gravity. As Baron indicated:
“These images are important because the size and number of granules on the surface actually fit very well with models that predict what we should be seeing. That tells us that our models of stars are not far from reality. We’re probably on the right track to understand these kinds of stars.”
The detailed map also indicated differences in surface temperature, which were apparent from the different colors on the star’s surface. This are also consistent with what we know about stars, where temperature variations are indicative of processes that are taking place inside. As temperatures rise and fall, the hotter, more fluid areas become brighter (appearing white) while the cooler, denser areas become darker (red).
Looking ahead, Paladini and her team want to create even more detailed images of the surface of giant stars. The main aim of this is to be able to follow the evolution of these granules continuously, rather than merely getting snapshots of different points in time.
From these and similar studies, we are not only likely to learn more about the formation and evolution of different types of stars in our Universe; we’re also sure to get a better understanding of what our Solar System is in for.
Astronomers have been fascinated with globular clusters ever since they were first observed in 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stellar systems in the Universe, dating back to the early Universe when galaxies were just beginning to grow and evolve. Such clusters orbit the centers of most galaxies, with over 150 known to belong to the Milky Way alone.
One of these clusters is known as NGC 3201, a cluster located about 16,300 light years away in the southern constellation of Vela. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, a team of astronomers recently studied this cluster and noticed something very interesting. According to the study they released, this cluster appears to have a black hole embedded in it.
For the sake of their study, the team relied on the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument on the VLT to observe NGC 3201. This instrument is unique because of the way it allows astronomers to measure the motions of thousands of far away stars simultaneously. In the course of their observations, the team found that one of the cluster’s stars was being flung around at speeds of several hundred kilometers an hour and with a period of 167 days.
“It was orbiting something that was completely invisible, which had a mass more than four times the Sun — this could only be a black hole! The first one found in a globular cluster by directly observing its gravitational pull.”
This finding was rather unexpected, and constitutes the first time that astronomers have been able to detect an inactive black hole at the heart of a globular cluster – meaning that it is not currently accreting matter or surrounded by a glowing disc of gas. They were also able to estimate the black hole’s mass by measuring the movements of the star around it and thus extrapolating its enormous gravitational pull.
From its observed properties, the team determined that the rapidly-moving star is about 0.8 times the mass of our Sun and the mass of its black hole counterpart to be around 4.36 times the Sun’s mass. This put’s it in the “stellar-mass black hole” category, which are stars that exceeds the maximum mass allowance of a neutron star, but are smaller than supermassive black holes (SMBHs) – which exist at the centers of most galaxies.
This finding is highly significant, and not just because it was the first time that astronomers have observed a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. In addition, it confirms what scientists have been suspecting for a few years now, thanks to recent radio and x-ray studies of globular clusters and the detection of gravity wave signals. Basically, it indicates that black holes are more common in globular clusters than previously thought.
“Until recently, it was assumed that almost all black holes would disappear from globular clusters after a short time and that systems like this should not even exist!” said Giesers. “But clearly this is not the case – our discovery is the first direct detection of the gravitational effects of a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. This finding helps in understanding the formation of globular clusters and the evolution of black holes and binary systems – vital in the context of understanding gravitational wave sources.”
This find was also significant given that the relationship between black holes and globular clusters remains a mysterious, but highly important one. Due to their high masses, compact volumes, and great ages, astronomers believe that clusters have produced a large number of stellar-mass black holes over the course of the Universe’s history. This discovery could therefore tell us much about the formation of globular clusters, black holes, and the origins of gravitational wave events.
And be sure to enjoy this ESO podcast explaining the recent discovery:
Since its deployment in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has given us some of the richest and most detailed images of our Universe. Many of these images were taken while observing a patch of sky located in the Fornax constellation between September 2003 and January 2004. This region, known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), contains an estimated 10,000 galaxies, all of which existed roughly 13 billion years ago.
Looking to this region of space, multiple teams of astronomers used the MUSE instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to discover 72 previously unseen galaxies. In a series of ten recently released studies, these teams indicate how they measured the distance and properties of 1600 very faint galaxies in the Ultra Deep Field, revealing new information about star formation and the motions of galaxies in the early Universe.
The original HUDF images, which were published in 2004, were a major milestone for astronomy and cosmology. The thousands of galaxies it observed were dated to less than just a billion years after the Big Bang, ranging from 400 to 800 million years of age. This area was subsequently observed many times using the Hubble and other telescopes, which has resulted in the deepest views of the Universe to date.
One such telescope is the European Southern Observatory‘s (ESO) Very Large Telescope, located in the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Intrinsic to the studies of the HUDF was the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE), a panoramic integral-field spectrograph operating in the visible wavelength range. It was the data accumulated by this instrument that allowed for 72 new galaxies to be discovered from this tiny area of sky.
This was an unprecedented accomplishment, given that this is ten times as many galaxies that have had similar measurements performed on them in the last decade using ground-based telescopes. As Bacon indicated in an ESO press release:
“MUSE can do something that Hubble can’t — it splits up the light from every point in the image into its component colors to create a spectrum. This allows us to measure the distance, colors and other properties of all the galaxies we can see — including some that are invisible to Hubble itself.”
The galaxies detected in this survey were also 100 times fainter than any galaxies studied in previous surveys. Given their age and their very dim and distant nature, the study of these 1600 galaxies is sure to add to any already very richly-observed field. This,in turn, can only deepen our understanding of how galaxies formed and evolved during the past 13 billions years.
The 72 newly-discovered galaxies that the survey observed are known as Lyman-alpha emitters, a class of galaxy that is extremely distant and only detectable in Lyman-alpha light. This form of radiation is emitted by excited hydrogen atoms, and is thought to be the result of ongoing star formation. Our current understanding of star formation cannot fully explain these galaxies, and they were not visible in the original Hubble images.
Thanks to MUSE’s ability to disperse light into its component colors, these galaxies became more apparent. As Jarle Brinchmann – an astronomer at the University of Leiden and the University of Porto’s (CAUP) Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences, and the lead author of one of the papers – described the results of the survey:
“MUSE has the unique ability to extract information about some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe — even in a part of the sky that is already very well studied. We learn things about these galaxies that is only possible with spectroscopy, such as chemical content and internal motions — not galaxy by galaxy but all at once for all the galaxies!”
Another major finding of this survey was the systematic detection of luminous hydrogen halos around galaxies in the early Universe. This finding is expected to give astronomers a new and promising way to study how material flowed in and out of early galaxies, which was central to early star formation and galactic evolution. The series of studies produced by Bacon and his colleagues also indicate a range of other possibilities.
These include studying the role faint galaxies played during cosmic reionization, the period that took place between 150 million to billion years after the Big Bang. It was during this period, which followed the “dark ages” (380 thousand to 150 million years ago) that the first stars and quasars formed and sent ionizing radiation throughout the early Universe. And as Roland Bacon explained, the best may yet be to come:
“Remarkably, these data were all taken without the use of MUSE’s recent Adaptive Optics Facility upgrade. The activation of the AOF after a decade of intensive work by ESO’s astronomers and engineers promises yet more revolutionary data in the future.”
Even before Einstein proposed his groundbreaking Theory of General Relativity – which established that space and time are inextricably linked – scientists have understood that probing deeper into the cosmic field is to also probe farther back in time. The farther we are able to see, the more we are able to learn about how the Universe evolved over the course of billions of years.
On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii picked up the first interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. `Oumuamua). After originally being mistaken for a comet, observations performed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other astronomers indicated that it was actually an asteroid that measures about 400 meters (1312 ft) long.
The VLT was intrinsic to the combined effort to characterize the fast-moving asteroid rapidly, as it needed to be observed before it passed back into interstellar space again. Based on initial calculations of `Oumuamua’s orbit, astronomers had determined that it had already passed the closest point in its orbit to the Sun in September of 2017. Together with other large telescopes, the VLT captured images of the asteroid using its FORS instrument.
What these revealed was that `Oumuamua varies dramatically in terms of brightness (by a factor of ten) as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. As Dr. Meech explained in an ESO press release, this was both surprising and highly significant:
“This unusually large variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape. We also found that it has a dark red colour, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it.”
These observations also allowed Dr. Meech and her team to constrain Oumuamua’s composition and basic properties. Essentially, the asteroid is now believed to be a dense and rocky asteroid with a high metal content and little in the way of water ice. It’s dark and reddened surface is also an indication of tholins, which are the result of organic molecules (like methane) being irradiated by cosmic rays for millions of years.
Unlike other asteroids that have been studied in Near-Earth space and the Solar System at large, `Oumuamua is unique in that it is not bound by the Sun’s gravity. In addition to originating outside of our Solar System, its hyperbolic orbit – which has an eccentricity of 1.2 – means that it will head back out into interstellar space after its brief encounter with our Solar System.
Based on preliminary calculations of its orbit, astronomers have deduced that it came from the general direction of Vega, the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra. Traveling at a whopping speed of 95,000 km/hour (59,000 mph), `Oumuamua would have left the Vega system about 300,000 years ago. However, it is also possible that the asteroid may have originated somewhere else entirely, wandering the Milky Way for millions of years.
Astronomers estimate that interstellar asteroids like `Oumuamua pass through the inner Solar System at a rate of about once a year. But until now, they have been too faint and difficult to detect in visible light, and have therefore gone unnoticed. It is only recently that survey telescopes like Pan-STARRS have been powerful enough to have a chance at detecting them.
Hence what makes this discovery so significant in the first place. As the first asteroid of its kind to be detected, further improvements in our instruments will it make it easier to spot the others that are sure to be on the way. And as Olivier Hainaut – a researcher with the ESO and a co-author on the study – indicated, there’s plenty more to be learned from `Oumuamua as well:
“We are continuing to observe this unique object, and we hope to more accurately pin down where it came from and where it is going next on its tour of the galaxy,” he said. “And now that we have found the first interstellar rock, we are getting ready for the next ones!”
And be sure to enjoy this ESOcast video about `Oumuamua, courtesy of the ESO:
In August of 2016, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) extra-solar planet orbiting within the habitable zone of the nearby Proxima Centauri star system, just 4.25 light-years away. Naturally, news of this was met with a great deal of excitement. This was followed about six months later with the announcement of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1.
Well buckle up, because the ESO just announced that there is another potentially-habitable planet in our stellar neighborhood! Like Proxima b, this exoplanet – known as Ross 128b – is relatively close to our Solar System (10.8 light years away) and is believed to be temperate in nature. But on top of that, this rocky planet has the added benefit of orbiting a quiet red dwarf star, which boosts the likelihood of it being habitable.
The discovery was made using the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), located at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. This observatory relies on measurements of a star’s Doppler shift in order to determine if it moving back and forth, a sign that it has a system of planets. Using the HARPS data, the team determined that a rocky planet orbits Ross 128 (an M-type red dwarf star) at a distance of about 0.05 AU with a period of 9.9 days.
Despite its proximity to its host star, Ross 128b receives only 1.38 times more irradiation than the Earth. This is due to the cool and faint nature of red dwarf stars like Ross 128, which has a surface temperature roughly half that of our Sun. From this, the discovery team estimated that Ross 128b’s equilibrium temperature is likely somewhere between -60 and 20°C – i.e. close to what we experience here on Earth.
As Nicola Astudillo-Defru of the Geneva Observatory – and a co-author on the discovery paper – indicated in an ESO press release:
“This discovery is based on more than a decade of HARPS intensive monitoring together with state-of-the-art data reduction and analysis techniques. Only HARPS has demonstrated such a precision and it remains the best planet hunter of its kind, 15 years after it began operations.”
But what is most encouraging is the fact that Ross 128 is the “quietest” nearby star that is also home to an exoplanet. Compared to other classes of stars, M-type red dwarfs are particularly low in mass, dimmer and cooler. They are also the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 70% of the stars in spiral galaxies and more than 90% of all stars in elliptical galaxies.
Unfortunately, they are also variable and unstable compared to other classes of star, which means they experience regular flare ups. This means that any planets which orbit them will be periodically subjected to deadly ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. In comparison, Ross 128 is much quieter, meaning it experiences less in the way of flare activity, and planets orbiting it are therefore exposed to less radiation over time.
This means that, relative to Proxima b or those planets located within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone – Ross 128b is more likely to retain an atmosphere and support life. For those who are engaged in searches for exoplanets around M-type stars – or are of the opinion that red dwarfs are the best bet for finding habitable worlds – this latest discovery would seem to confirm that they are looking in the right spots!
As noted, red dwarfs are the most common in the Universe, and in recent years, many rocky planets (sometimes even a multi-planet system) have been found orbiting these stars. Combined with their natural longevity – which can remain in their main sequence phase for up to 10 trillion years – red dwarf stars have understandably become a popular target for exoplanet-hunters.
In fact, lead author Xavier Bonfils named their HARPS program “The Shortcut to Happiness” for this very reason. As he and his colleagues indicated, it is easier to detect small cool planets of Earth around smaller, dimmer M-type stars than it is around stars that are more similar to the Sun.
However, many in the scientific community have remained skeptical about the likelihood that any of these planets could be habitable (again, due to their variable nature). But this most recent discovery, along with recent research that indicates how tidally-locked planets that orbit red dwarf stars could hold onto their atmospheres, is another possible indication that these fears may be for naught.
Being at a distance of about 11 light-years from Earth, Ross 128b is currently the second-closest exoplanet to our Sun. However, Ross 128 itself is slowly moving closer towards us and will become our nearest stellar neighbor in roughly 79,000 years. At this point, Ross 128b will replace Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth!
But of course, much remains to be found about this latest exoplanet. While the discovery team consider Ross 128b to be a temperate planet based on its orbit, it remains uncertain as to whether it lies within, beyond, or on the cusp of the star’s habitable zone. However, further studies are expected to shed more light on this and other questions relating this potentially-habitable world.
Astronomers also anticipate that more temperature exoplanets will be discovered in the coming years, and that future surveys will be able to determine a great deal more about their atmospheres, composition and chemistry. Instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) are expected to play a major role.
Not only will these and other instrument help turn up more exoplanet candidates, they will also be used in the hunt for biosignatures in planet’s atmospheres (i.e. oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor, etc.). As Bonfils concluded:
“New facilities at ESO will first play a critical role in building the census of Earth-mass planets amenable to characterization. In particular, NIRPS, the infrared arm of HARPS, will boost our efficiency in observing red dwarfs, which emit most of their radiation in the infrared. And then, the ELT will provide the opportunity to observe and characterize a large fraction of these planets.”
At this juncture, the process of exoplanet discovery is moving beyond detection and getting into the process of characterization and detailed study. Even so, it is nice that we are still making groundbreaking discoveries in the field of detection. In the coming years, we may transition from looking for an Earth 2.0 to a point where weare actively studying several at once!