This Exoplanet Is Turning Planetary Formation Scenarios Upside Down

What the heck is that giant exoplanet doing so far away from its star? Astronomers are still trying to figure out the curious case of HD 106906 b, a newly found gas giant that orbits at an astounding 650 astronomical units or Earth-sun distances from its host star. For comparison, that’s more than 20 times farther from its star than Neptune is from the sun.

“This system is especially fascinating because no model of either planet or star formation fully explains what we see,” stated Vanessa Bailey, a graduate astronomy student at the University of Arizona who led the research.

HD 106906 b is 11 times the size of Jupiter, throwing conventional planetary formation theory for a loop. Astronomers believe that planets gradually form from clumps of gas and dust that circle around young stars, but that process would take too long for this exoplanet to form — the system is just 13 million years old. (Our own planetary system is about 4.5 billion years old, by comparison.)

The discovery image of HD 106906 b, shown in thermal infrared light from instruments on the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The image has been changed to take out light from its very bright host star. The planet orbits more than 20 times farther from its host star than Neptune does from the sun. (AU = astronomical units, or Earth-sun distances). Credit: Vanessa Bailey
The discovery image of HD 106906 b, shown in thermal infrared light from instruments on the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The image has been changed to take out light from its very bright host star. The planet orbits more than 20 times farther from its host star than Neptune does from the sun. (AU = astronomical units, or Earth-sun distances). Credit: Vanessa Bailey

Another theory is that if the disc collapses quickly, perhaps it could spawn a huge planet — but it’s improbable that there is enough mass in the system for that to happen. Perhaps, the team says, this system is like a “mini binary star system”, with HD 106906 b being more or less a failed star of some sort. Yet there is at least one problem with that theory as well; the mass ratio of the planet and star is something like 1 to 100, and usually these scenarios occur in ratios of 1 to 10 or less.

“A binary star system can be formed when two adjacent clumps of gas collapse more or less independently to form stars, and these stars are close enough to each other to exert a mutual gravitation attraction and bind them together in an orbit,” Bailey stated.

“It is possible that in the case of the HD 106906 system the star and planet collapsed independently from clumps of gas, but for some reason the planet’s progenitor clump was starved for material and never grew large enough to ignite and become a star.”

Young binarys stars: Image credit: NASA
Young binary stars: Image credit: NASA

Besides puzzling out how HD 106906 b came to be, astronomers are also interested in the system because they can clearly see leftovers or a debris disk from the system’s formation. By studying this system further, astronomers hope to figure out more about how young planets evolve.

At 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius), the planet is most easily visible in infrared. The heat is from when the planet was first coalescing, astronomers said.

The astronomers spotted the planet using the Magellan telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Desert in Chile. It was visible in both the Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO) system and Clio2 thermal infrared camera on the telescope. The planet was confirmed using Hubble Space Telescope images from eight years ago, as well as the FIRE spectrograph on Magellan that revealed more about the planet’s “nature and composition”, a press release stated.

The research paper is now available on the prepublishing site Arxiv and will be published in a future issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: University of Arizona

How Do We Learn About An Alien Planet’s Size And Atmosphere?

The fun and challenge of exoplanet science is the planets are so far away and so tiny. Figuring out what they look like isn’t as simple as just pointing a telescope and observing. This new video from NASA explains how astronomers use the parent star to figure out the planet’s size, mass, atmosphere and more.

Alien planets are generally detected through blocking the light of their parent star (from the vantage point of Earth) or through their gravitational effects that cause the star to slightly “wobble” during each orbit. These methods can reveal the mass and size of the planet. As for the atmosphere, that takes a bit more work.

“As the planet crosses its star, its atmosphere absorbs certain wavelengths of light or colors, while allowing other wavelengths of light to pass through,” the video stated.

“Because each molecule absorbs distinct wavelengths, astronomers spread the light into its spectrum of colors to see which wavelengths have been absorbed. The dark absorption bands act as molecular fingerprints, revealing the atmosphere’s chemical makeup.”

And this science can reveal amazing things, such as the recent Hubble find of a “clear signal” of water in five exoplanet atmospheres. The video has more detail on how individual elements are identified, so be sure to check it out.

Hubble Finds ‘Clear Signal’ of Water in 5 Exoplanet Atmospheres

For the first time, astronomers have found conclusive evidence of water in the hazy atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, two teams of scientists found faint but clear signatures of water in the atmospheres of five exoplanets. All five are so-called ‘hot Jupiters,’ massive worlds that orbit close to their host stars.

“To actually detect the atmosphere of an exoplanet is extraordinarily difficult. But we were able to pull out a very clear signal, and it is water,” said Drake Deming from the University of Maryland, who led a study characterizing the atmospheres of two of the five planets.

“We’re very confident that we see a water signature for multiple planets,” said Avi Mandell, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and lead author of another paper on the remaining three exoplanets. “This work really opens the door for comparing how much water is present in atmospheres on different kinds of exoplanets, for example hotter versus cooler ones.”

The five planets are all well-studied, and would not be friendly places for life as we know it — with blazing temperatures and unusual conditions. WASP-17b is an unusual planet in a retrograde orbit, and sodium had already been detected in its atmosphere.

HD209458b is much-studied windy world, with raging storms, and organic molecules and water had already been detected on this planet in previous studies.

The atmosphere of WASP-12b already has been found to hold vast amounts of carbon as well as water. WASP-19b orbits a nearby star, and has one of the shortest orbital periods of any known planetary body, about 0.7888399 days or approximately 18.932 hours. XO-1b has the distinction of being discovered by amateur astronomers

The astronomers involved in the new studies say the strengths of the water signatures in each world varied, with WASP-17b and HD209458b having the strongest signals.

Currently, studying exoplanet atmospheres can be done when the planets are passing in front of their stars. Researchers can identify the gases in a planet’s atmosphere by determining which wavelengths of the star’s light are transmitted and which are partially absorbed. Deming’s team employed a new technique with longer exposure times, which increased the sensitivity of their measurements.

In both studies, scientists used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to explore the details of absorption of light through the planets’ atmospheres. The observations were made in a range of infrared wavelengths where a pattern that signifies the presence of water would appear if water were present. The teams compared the shapes and intensities of the absorption profiles, and the consistency of the signatures gave them confidence they saw water.

“These studies, combined with other Hubble observations, are showing us that there are a surprisingly large number of systems for which the signal of water is either attenuated or completely absent,” said Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology, a co-author on Deming’s paper. “This suggests that cloudy or hazy atmospheres may in fact be rather common for hot Jupiters.”

Read the teams paper: Deming et al, Mandell et al.

Sources: HubbleSite, University of Maryland.

Kepler May Go Planet-Hunting Again! Infographic Shows How That Would Work

The planet-seeking Kepler space telescope had to stop its primary mission this summer after the failure of a second of its four reaction wheels, the devices that keep it pointing at a spot in the constellation Cygnus. NASA, however, has a backup plan. It’s considering stabilizing the spacecraft using the sun! You can see the details in this infographic.

The plan is still preliminary as it needs testing, and it also needs budgetary approval while NASA is fighting to keep other programs going at the funding levels the agency wants. But if it works, this is what NASA is proposing:

  • Keep the spacecraft oriented almost parallel to its orbit around the sun.
  • Gaze at a particular part of the sky for 83 days.
  • When the sun is close to coming into the telescope, move the spacecraft and do another 83-day observation period.
  • This would mean the spacecraft will have 4.5 “unique viewing periods” a year, NASA says.

“With the failure of a second reaction wheel, the spacecraft can no longer precisely point at the mission’s original field of view. The culprit is none other than our own sun,” NASA stated in a recent press release.

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The very body that provides Kepler with its energy needs also pushes the spacecraft around by the pressure exerted when the photons of sunlight strike the spacecraft. Without a third wheel to help counteract the solar pressure, the spacecraft’s ultra-precise pointing capability cannot be controlled in all directions.”

But this could be a way to counteract it. Mission managers put Kepler through a 30-minute test in October where the telescope looked at a spot in the constellation Sagittarius, which “produced an image quality within five percent of the primary mission image quality,” NASA stated. More testing is underway.

NASA should have more details at the end of this year as to whether to proceed to a 2014 Senior Review, which is held every two years to review current missions and decide which ones are still worth funding.

Source: NASA

Second Planetary System Like Ours Discovered

A team of European astronomers has discovered a second planetary system, the closest parallel to our own solar system yet found. It includes seven exoplanets orbiting a star with the small rocky planets close to their host star and the gas giant planets further away. The system was hidden within the wealth of data from the Kepler Space Telescope.

KOI-351 is “the first system with a significant number of planets (not just two or three, where random fluctuations can play a role) that shows a clear hierarchy like the solar system — with small, probably rocky, planets in the interior and gas giants in the (exterior),” Dr. Juan Cabrera, of the Institute of Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Center, told Universe Today.

Three of the seven planets orbiting KOI-351 were detected earlier this year, and have periods of 59, 210 and 331 days — similar to the periods of Mercury, Venus and Earth.

But the orbital periods of these planets vary by as much as 25.7 hours. This is the highest variation detected in an exoplanet’s orbital period so far, hinting that there are more planets than meets the eye.

In closely packed systems, the gravitational pull of nearby planets can cause the acceleration or deceleration of a planet along its orbit. These “tugs” cause the variations in orbital periods.

They also provide indirect evidence of further planets. Using advanced computer algorithms, Cabrera and his team detected four new planets orbiting KOI-351.

But these planets are much closer to their host star than Mercury is to our Sun, with orbital periods of 7, 9, 92 and 125 days. The system is extremely compact — with the outermost planet having an orbital period less than the Earth’s. Yes, the entire system orbits within 1 AU.

While astronomers have discovered over 1000 exoplanets, this is the first solar system analogue detected to date. Not only are there seven planets, but they display the same architecture — rocky small planets orbiting close to the sun and gas giants orbiting further away — as our own solar system.

Most exoplanets are strikingly different from the planets in our own solar system. “We find planets in any order, at any distance, of any size; even planetary classes that don’t exist in the solar system,” Cabrera said.

Several theories including planet migration and planet-planet scattering have been proposed to explain these differences. But the fact of the matter is planet formation is still poorly understood.

“We don’t know yet why this system formed this way, but we have the feeling that this is a key system in understanding planetary formation in general and the formation of the solar system in particular,” Cabrera told Universe Today.

The team is extremely hopeful that the upcoming mission PLATO will receive funding. If so, it will allow them to take a second look at this system — determining the radius and mass of each planet and even analyzing their compositions.

Follow-up observations will not only allow astronomers to determine how this planetary system formed, it will provide hints as to how our own solar system formed.

The paper has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal and is available for download here.

Here’s the Latest Kepler Orrery Video: the Orbits of the Planets Go ‘Round and ‘Round

If you’ve ever wanted to know what 3,538 exoplanets look like spinning around their stars, here you go!

This is the third and latest installment of the mesmerizing Kepler Orrery videos by Daniel Fabrycky from the Kepler science team. It shows the relative sizes of the orbits and planets in the multi-transiting planetary systems discovered by Kepler up to November 2013 (according to the Kepler site, 3,538 candidates so far.) According to Daniel “the colors simply go by order from the star (the most colorful is the 7-planet system KOI-351). The terrestrial planets of the Solar System are shown in gray.”

Not that our Solar System is boring, of course, but well, ya know… there are an awful lot of planets out there.

Check out Daniel’s previous version here.

22% of Sun-like Stars have Earth-sized Planets in the Habitable Zone

How common are planets like Earth? That’s been a question astronomers and dreamers have pondered for decades, and now, thanks to the Kepler spacecraft, they have an answer. One in five Sun-like stars in our galaxy have Earth-sized planets that could host life, according to a recent study of Kepler data.

“What this means is, when you look up at the thousands of stars in the night sky, the nearest sun-like star with an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone is probably only 12 light years away and can be seen with the naked eye. That is amazing,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Erik Petigura, who led the analysis of the Kepler and Keck Observatory data.

The Kepler telescope’s mission was to try and find small rocky planets with the potential for hosting liquid water and perhaps the ingredients needed for biology to take hold. For four years, the space telescope monitored the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, recording a measurement every 30 minutes.

Analysis by UC Berkeley and University of Hawaii astronomers shows that one in five sun-like stars have potentially habitable, Earth-size planets. (Animation by UC Berkeley/UH-Manoa/Illumina Studios)

For a recent focused study, scientists concentrated on 42,000 sun-like stars (G and K type stars), looking for periodic dimmings that occur when a planet transits — or crosses in front of — its host star. A team of scientists from the Kepler mission and the Keck telescope in Hawaii have announced that from that survey, they found 603 planets, 10 of which are Earth size and orbit in the habitable zone, where conditions permit surface liquid water.

Since there are about 200 billion stars in our galaxy, with 40 billion of them like our Sun, noted planet-hunter Geoff Marcy said that gives us about 8.8 billion Earth-size planets in the Milky Way.

But Marcy also cautioned that Earth-size planets in Earth-size orbits are not necessarily hospitable to life, even if they orbit in the habitable zone of a star where the temperature is not too hot and not too cold.

“Some may have thick atmospheres, making it so hot at the surface that DNA-like molecules would not survive. Others may have rocky surfaces that could harbor liquid water suitable for living organisms,” Marcy said. “We don’t know what range of planet types and their environments are suitable for life.”

Analysis of four years of precision measurements from Kepler shows that 22±8% of Sun-like stars have Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone. If these planets are as prevalent locally as they are in Kepler field, then the distance to the nearest one is around 12 light-years.Credit: Petigura/UC Berkeley, Howard/UH-Manoa, Marcy/UC Berkeley.
Analysis of four years of precision measurements from Kepler shows that 22±8% of Sun-like stars have Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone. If these planets are as prevalent locally as they are in Kepler field, then the distance to the nearest one is around 12 light-years.Credit: Petigura/UC Berkeley, Howard/UH-Manoa, Marcy/UC Berkeley.

All of the potentially habitable planets found in their survey are around K stars, which are cooler and slightly smaller than the sun, Petigura said. But the team’s analysis shows that the result for K stars can be extrapolated to G stars like the sun.

The Kepler spacecraft is now crippled because of faulty gyroscopes, but scientists say had Kepler survived for an extended mission, it would have obtained enough data to directly detect a handful of Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of G-type stars.

If the stars in the Kepler field are representative of stars in the solar neighborhood, then the nearest (Earth-size) planet is expected to orbit a star that is less than 12 light-years from Earth and can be seen by the unaided eye. Future instrumentation to image and take spectra of these Earths need only observe a few dozen nearby stars to detect a sample of Earth-size planets residing in the habitable zones of their host stars.

“For NASA, this number – that every fifth star has a planet somewhat like Earth – is really important, because successor missions to Kepler will try to take an actual picture of a planet, and the size of the telescope they have to build depends on how close the nearest Earth-size planets are,” said Andrew Howard, astronomer with the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. “An abundance of planets orbiting nearby stars simplifies such follow-up missions.”

Further reading: Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii; UC Berkeley; Keck Observatory; NASA; PNAS.

Life After Kepler: Upcoming Exoplanet Missions

Last week I held an interview with Dr. Sara Seager – a lead astronomer who has contributed vastly to the field of exoplanet characterization. The condensed interview may be found here. Toward the end of our interview we had a lengthy conversation regarding the future of exoplanet research. I quickly realized that this subject should be an article in itself.

The following is a list of approved missions that will continue the search for habitable worlds, with input from Dr. Seager about their potential for finding planets that might harbor life.

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)

Slated to launch in 2017, TESS will search for exoplanets by looking for faint dips in brightness as the unseen planet passes in front of its host star. With a price tag of $200 million, TESS will be the first space-based mission to scan the entire sky for exoplanets.

While the Kepler space telescope confirmed hundreds of exoplanets (with thousands of candidates yet to be confirmed) it stared 3000-light-years deep into a single patch of sky.  TESS will scan hundreds of thousands of the brightest and closest stars in our galactic neighborhood.

“TESS will find many planets,” explained Seager in our interview. “The ones we’re highlighting it will find are rocky planets transiting small stars.” One of the missions goals is to find earth-like exoplanets in the habitable zone – the band around a star where water can exist in its liquid state.

The team hopes that TESS will find up to 1000 exoplanets in the first two years of searching. This will give astronomers a wealth of new worlds to study in more detail.

While the stars Kepler examined were faint and difficult to study in follow-up observations, the stars TESS will focus on are bright and close to home. These stars will be prime targets for further scrutiny with other space based telescopes.

“We plan to have a pool of planets, maybe a handful of them, that we can follow up with the James Webb Space Telescope … which will look at the atmospheres of those transiting planets, looking for signs of life,” Seager said.


While slightly under the radar, ExoplanetSat will monitor bright stars using nano-satellites. Each nano-satellite will be capable of monitoring a single, bright, sun-like star for two years.

The current design of ExoplanetSat. Image Credit: Pong et al. 2010
The current design of ExoplanetSat. The telescope is approximately the size of a loaf of bread. Image Credit: Pong et al. 2010 (SPIE 7731).

“The way that we describe this mission is not that we will find earth,” Seager said. “But if there is a transiting earth-like planet around a bright sun-like star, we will find it.”

Currently no planned mission has the capability to survey the brightest stars in the sky. TESS will observe stars of magnitude 5 through 12 – the dimmest our eyes can see and fainter.

The brightest stars are too widely spaced for a single telescope to continuously monitor. The best method is to monitor the brightest sun-like stars in a targeted star search instead.

The mission is pretty far along in terms of funding. It has already received a few million dollars and is about one million short of launching the first prototype.

After a successful demonstration the goal is to launch a fleet of nano-satellites to observe enough bright stars to find a number of interesting exoplanets.  One day we may be able to look at a bright star in our night sky and know it has a planet.

Direct Imaging Missions

Disentangling a faint, barely reflective, exoplanet from its overwhelmingly bright host star in a direct image seems nearly impossible. A common analogy is looking for a firefly next to a searchlight across North America. Needless to say, very few exoplanets have been seen directly.

Because of the difficulties NASA is fostering a study and soliciting applications with a single goal in mind: create a mission that will directly image exoplanets under a price cap of one billion dollars.

Seager is working with a team that plans to utilize a star shade – “a specially shaped screen that will fly far from the telescope and block out the light from the star so precisely that we will see any planets like earth.”

The shade isn’t circular but shaped like a flower. Light waves would bend around a circle and create spots brighter than the planets themselves. The flower-like shape avoids this while blocking out the starlight – making a planet that is one ten billionth as bright as its host star visible.

The star shade and the telescope have to be aligned perfectly at 125,000 miles away. Once aligned, the system will observe a distant star, and then move to another distant star and re-align. This is technologically speaking, unchartered territory.

While this mission may not occur in full tomorrow, or even years from tomorrow, astronomers’ synapses are firing. We’re coming up with new techniques that will advance technology and find earth-like worlds.


Above is a list of only a handful of future exoplanet missions – all at various stages in their production – with some still on the drawing board and others having received full funding and preparing for launch. With creativity and advancing technology we’ll detect a true-earth analogue in the near future.


Rocky Earth-sized World is a ‘Sungrazing’ Exoplanet

A newly verified planet found in data from the Kepler mission delivers on the space telescope’s task of finding Earth-size planets around other stars. The new planet, called Kepler-78b, is the first Earth-sized exoplanet discovered that has a rocky composition like that of Earth. Similarities to Earth, however, end there. Kepler-78b whizzes around its host star every 8.5 hours at a distance of about 1.5 million kilometers, making it a blazing inferno and not suitable for life as we know it.

“We’ve been hearing about the sungrazing Comet ISON that will go very close to the Sun next month,” said Andrew Howard, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy. “Comet ISON will approach the Sun about the same distance that Kepler-78b orbits its star, so this planet spends its entire life as a sungrazer.”

Howard is the lead author on one of two papers published in Nature that details the discovery of the new planet. He spoke during a media webcast discussing the finding.

“This is a planet that exists but shouldn’t,” added astronomer David Latham of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), also discussing the discovery during the webcast.

Kepler-78b is 1.2 times the size of Earth with a diameter of 14,800 km (9,200 miles) and 1.7 times more massive. As a result, astronomers say it has a density similar to Earth’s, which suggests an Earth-like composition of iron and rock. A handful of planets the size or mass of Earth have been discovered, but Kepler-78b is the first to have both a measured mass and size. With both quantities known, scientists can calculate a density and determine what the planet is made of.

Its star is slightly smaller and less massive than the sun and is located about 400 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.

However, the close-in orbit of Kepler-78b poses a challenge to theorists. According to current theories of planet formation, it couldn’t have formed so close to its star, nor could it have moved there. Back when this planetary system was forming, the young star was larger than it is now. As a result, the current orbit of Kepler-78b would have been inside the swollen star.

This diagram illustrates the tight orbit of Kepler-78b, which orbits its star every 8.5 hours at a distance of less than a million miles. It is only 2.7 stellar radii from the center of the star, or 1.7 stellar radii from the star's surface. David A. Aguilar (CfA)
This diagram illustrates the tight orbit of Kepler-78b, which orbits its star every 8.5 hours at a distance of less than a million miles. It is only 2.7 stellar radii from the center of the star, or 1.7 stellar radii from the star’s surface. David A. Aguilar (CfA)

“It couldn’t have formed in place because you can’t form a planet inside a star,” said team member Dimitar Sasselov, also from CfA. “It couldn’t have formed further out and migrated inward, because it would have migrated all the way into the star. This planet is an enigma.”

One idea, suggested Howard, is that the planet is the remnant core of a former gas giant planet, but that turns out to be a problem as well. “We just don’t know what the origin of this planet is,” Howard said.

However, the two teams of planet hunters feel that its existence bodes well for future discoveries of habitable planets.

The two independent research teams used ground-based telescopes for follow-up observations to confirm and characterize Kepler-78b. The team led by Howard used the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The other team led by Francesco Pepe from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, did their ground-based work at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

To determine the planet’s mass, the teams employed the radial velocity method to measure how much the gravitation tug of an orbiting planet causes its star to wobble. Kepler, on the other hand, determines the size or radius of a planet by the amount of starlight blocked when it passes in front of its host star.

“Determining mass of an Earth-sized planet is technically daunting,” Howard said during the webcast, explaining how they used the HIRES (High Resolution Echelle Spectrometer) on Keck. “We pushed HIRES to its limit. The observations were difficult because the star is young with many more star spots (just like sunspots on our Sun) than our Sun, and we have to remove them from our data. But since this planet orbits every eight and a half hours, we were able to watch an entire orbit in one night. We clearly saw the planet’s signal, and we watched it eight different nights.”

David Aguilar from CfA said both teams knew the other team was studying this star, but they didn’t compare their work until both teams were ready to submit their papers so that they wouldn’t influence each other. “It was very encouraging both teams got the same result,” Aguilar said.

Howard also thought having two separate teams work on the same target was great. “We didn’t have to wait for further confirmation of the planet, because the two teams confirmed each other,” he said. “In science, this is as good as it gets.”

Francesco Pepe from the second team said they benefitted from using a twin of the original HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) which has found nearly 200 exoplanets. “HARPS North at La Palma has the same precision and efficiency as its twin,” Pepe explained during the webcast, “and we decided to guarantee time to follow up on small exoplanet candidates from Kepler. We optimized our observing strategy and we expect many more confirmations in the coming years from this technique.”

As for Kepler-78b, this is a doomed world. Gravitational tides will continue to pull Kepler-78b even closer to its star. Eventually it will move so close that the star’s gravity will rip the world apart. Theorists predict that the planet will vanish within three billion years. Interestingly, astronomers say, our solar system could have held a planet like Kepler-78b. If it had, the planet would have been destroyed long ago leaving no signs for astronomers today.

“We did not detect additional planets in this system,” said Howard, “but we hope to observe this system more in the future.”

Paper by Howard et al.: A Rocky Composition for an Earth-sized Exoplanet

Paper by Pepe et al.: An Earth-sized planet with an Earth-like density

Additional info: CfA, NASA, MIT, Keck, Nature.

Changing the Paradigm: Exoplanet Interview with Dr. Sara Seager

Astronomers have now discovered one thousand extrasolar planets, reaching a milestone in modern astronomy. (See a recent Universe Today article on the subject.) While many have contributed to this achievement, Dr. Sara Seager of MIT has played a large role over the past two decades by contributing vastly to the field of exoplanet characterization. Her theoretical work led to the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere.

The following is a condensed interview I held with Seager earlier this week.

What first pulled you in to the field of astronomy?
When I was 10 I got to see a really dark sky (well outside her hometown of Toronto, Canada). I stepped out in the middle of the night and I just saw so many stars. I wish you and everyone could see that. So many stars, I just couldn’t believe it.

You were working at Harvard for your PhD in the mid ‘90s when we first detected exoplanets. What was that like?
The mood was quite different. Today everybody wants to talk about it (exoplanets) and write about it. There’s a lot of hype. But back then it was very quiet.

There was a huge amount of skepticism too. People don’t like change. I want you to imagine a world where the gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn are very far from the star and the terrestrial planets like Earth, Mercury, Venus, and Mars are very close to the star. People had constructed theories on how planetary bodies form based on that one example.

So when the first planets around sun-like stars were found, they were Jupiter-mass planets, but they were several times closer to their star than Mercury is to our Sun. It offended all thoughts, theories, and paradigms … As scientists we’re supposed to be skeptical and push back on new discoveries and theories that are upsetting the system. There was huge skepticism.

An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist's impression). Via the IAU.
An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist’s impression). Via the IAU.

How difficult was it during this time to work on exoplanets?
Many people, including my graduate student peers and faculty said, “Why are you doing this (working on exoplanet research)? This is not going to happen. And even if exoplanets are real we’re never going to be able to study their atmospheres,” which is what my PhD was on.

What pushed you through despite all the skepticism?
Ironically, I was not committed to a career in science. I didn’t feel like I needed to be involved with something that was at the 100 percent certainty level. I was free because I didn’t have a plan. I had nothing to lose by doing something I thought was really cool and exciting.

When you’re doing a PhD you’re really learning how to answer a tough question. Usually if you do a homework set in high school, or college, there’s already a known answer. But when you’re doing a PhD, if you’re asking a really hard question that has never been asked before you’re answering that question with your own tools that you’ve developed yourself.

At that time, I knew… the real thing is not just what you’re working on but it’s the tools that you’re using and the things that you’re learning. At the end of the day if you don’t stay in science you have gained a skill that most people don’t have.

Artist concept of an exoplanet. Credit: David A. Hardy.
Artist concept of an exoplanet. Credit: David A. Hardy.

What changed then? What kept you in science after graduate school?
I had freedom and really enjoyed what I was doing.

What is your motivation for studying exoplanets? Why should we study exoplanets?
We want to know: Are we alone? We want to know if there is life beyond earth. Eventually we will have dozens to hundreds of potential earth-like planets to study in detail. We want to look at their atmospheres for signs of life by way of biosignature gases.

What do you think is the likelihood that we will discover an earth-like planet orbiting a sun-like star?
Well, it really just depends if we can rally resources and interest in doing this problem. We think we know how to find an earth-like planet around a sun-like star. But it’s a very very very hard endeavor. We think that the earths are out there. It’s just a matter of building the sophisticated space telescopes that we need.

So what are the chances? It’s really more of a political and economical question more than anything else. I think it’s inevitable that eventually we will find one.

Do you have a favorite planet?
I always like to say my favorite planet is the next planet. We have a sort of ADD (attention deficit disorder) in this field where we’re propelled and motivated forward by finding the next exciting planet.

Artist's impression of exoplanets around other stars. Credits: ESA/AOES Medialab
Artist’s impression of exoplanets around other stars. Credits: ESA/AOES Medialab

We’ve reached a huge milestone in astronomy of detecting one thousand exoplanets. What does this milestone mean to you?
There’s a caveat here, an uncertainty. We don’t know which one is going to be number one thousand because we don’t agree on the definition of a planet. And even if we did, there’s an uncertainty in the mass and size measurements such that some objects that are called planets probably aren’t planets depending on what definition you want. Occasionally a planet is retracted.

But in general, we’re about to pass the one thousandth mark. What do I think? I think it’s phenomenal. I mean I’m so excited.

The study of exoplanets really started as a field where no one wanted to work on it. People thought it was never going to happen, they thought even if there were real planets we’d never get any measurements beyond stamp collecting – a derogatory phrase we sometimes use in astronomy for science that is not that useful. You just find discoveries and they pile up because you don’t know what to do with them.

We’ve changed the paradigm of planet formation, found exotic types of planets, and we’re right on our way to finding another Earth. So I think it couldn’t be better.