Kepler Space Telescope Gets A New Exoplanet-Hunting Mission

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

After several months with their telescope on the sidelines, the Kepler space telescope team has happy news to report: the exoplanet hunter is going to do a new mission that will compensate for the failure that stopped its original work.

Kepler’s exoplanet days were halted last year when the second of its four reaction wheels (pointing devices) failed, which meant the telescope could not gaze at its “field” of stars in the Cygnus constellation for signs of exoplanets transiting their stars.

Results of a NASA Senior Review today, however, showed that the telescope will receive the funding for the K2 mission, which allows for some exoplanet hunting, among other tasks. The telescope will essentially change positions several times a year to do its new mission, which is funded through 2016.

“The approval provides two years of funding for the K2 mission to continue exoplanet discovery, and introduces new scientific observation opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae,” wrote Charlie Sobeck, the mission manager for Kepler, in a mission update today (May 16).

Artist’s rendering of the Earth-sized Kepler-186f (Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/Caltech)
Artist’s rendering of the Earth-sized Kepler-186f (Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/Caltech)

“The team is currently finishing up an end-to-end shakedown of this approach with a full-length campaign (Campaign 0), and is preparing for Campaign 1, the first K2 science observation run, scheduled to begin May 30.”

While Kepler itself was not being used for planet hunting, scientific discoveries continue because the telescope has a legacy of observations stretching between 2009 and 2013. One notable find: 715 exoplanets were announced in one swoop earlier this year using a new technique called “verification by multiplicity”, which is useful in multiple-planet systems.

Kepler also spotted the first known Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone outside of our solar system, which achieves the mission’s stated goal of finding extrasolar Earths.

Read more about NASA’s 2014 senior science review at this website.

Direct Image of an Exoplanet 155 Light Years Away


Chalk up another benchmark in the fascinating and growing menagerie of extra-solar planets.

This week, an international team of researchers from the Université de Montréal announced the discovery of an exoplanet around the star GU Piscium in the constellation of Pisces the Fishes 155 light years distant. Known as GU Psc b, this world is estimated to be 11 times the mass of Jupiter — placing it just under the lower mass limit for brown dwarf status — and orbits its host star 2,000x farther than the distance from Earth to the Sun once every 80,000 (!) years. In our own solar system, that would put GU Psc b out over twice the distance of the aphelion of 90377 Sedna.

The primary star, GU Psc A, is an M3 red dwarf weighing in at 35% the mass of our Sun and is just 100 million years old, give or take 30 million years. In fact, researchers targeted GU Psc after it was determined to be a member of the AB Doradus moving group of relatively young stars, which are prime candidates for exoplanet detection. Another recent notable discovery, the free-floating “rogue planet” CFBDSIR 2149-0403 is also thought to be a member of the AB Doradus moving group.

The fact that GU Psc B was captured by direct imaging at 155 light years distant is amazing. The international team that made the discovery was led by PhD student at the Department of Physics Université de Montréal  Marie-Ève Naud. The team was able to discern this curious planet by utilizing observations from the W.M. Keck observatory, the joint Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the Gemini Observatory and the Observatoire Mont-Mégantic in Québec.

An artist’s conception of the forlorn world of GU Psc b. Credit– Lucas Granito.

Universe Today recently caught up with researcher Marie-Ève Naud and her co-advisor Étienne Artigau about this exciting discovery.

What makes this discovery distinctive? Is this the most distant exoplanet ever imaged?

“Well, first, there are not a lot of exoplanets that were detected ‘directly’ so far. Most were found indirectly through the effect they have on their parent star. The few planets for which we have an actual image are interesting because we can analyze their light directly, and thus learn much more about them. It was also one of the “coolest” planets that have been directly imaged, showing methane absorption. And yes, it is certainly the most distant exoplanet to a main-sequence star that has been found so far.

This distance makes GU Psc b very interesting from a theoretical point of view, because it’s hard to imagine how it could have formed in the protoplanetary disk of its star. The current working definition of an exoplanet is based solely on mass (<13 Jupiter masses), so GU Psc b probably formed in a way that is more similar to how stars formed. It is definitely the kind of object that makes us think about what exactly is an exoplanet.”   

At a distance of 2000 A.U.s from its primary, how are astronomers certain that PU Psc b is related to its host and not a foreground or background object?

“As the host star, GU Psc is relatively nearby; it displays a significant apparent proper motion (note: around 100 milliarcseconds a year) relative to distant background stars and galaxies.

On images taken one year apart with WIRCam on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, we observed that the companion displays the same big proper motion, i.e. they move together in the plane of the sky, while the rest of the stars in the field don’t. We also determined the distance of the both the planet and the host star, and they both agree. Also, they both display signs that they are very young.”

Were any groundbreaking techniques used for the discovery, and what does this mean for the future of exoplanet science?

“Quite the opposite… most planet hunting techniques using direct imaging involve state-of-the-art adaptive optics systems, but we used ‘standard’ imaging without any exotic techniques. Planet searches usually attempt to find planets in orbits similar to those of our own solar system giants, and finding these objects, indeed, requires groundbreaking techniques. In a sense, there is an anthropocentric bias in the searches for exoplanets, as people tend to look for systems that are similar to our own solar system. Very distant planets like GU Psc b have been under the radar, even though they are easier to find than their closer-in counterparts. To find this planet, we used very sensitive ‘standard’ imaging, but we chose carefully the wavelengths where planets display colors that are unlike most other astrophysical objects such as stars and galaxies.”    

The general field of PU Piscium A & B in the night sky... note that this currently puts it in the dawn sky, near Venus and Uranus! Credit: Starry Night.
The general field of GU Piscium A & B in the night sky… note that this currently puts it in the dawn sky, near Venus and Uranus! Credit: Starry Night.

GU Piscium shines at magnitude +13.6 northeast of the March equinoctial point in the constellation of Pisces. Although its exoplanet companion is too faint to be seen with a backyard telescope, its angular separation is a generous 42,” about the apparent span of Saturn, complete with rings. And it’s shaping up to be a red dwarf sort of week at Universe Today, with our recent list of red dwarf stars for backyard telescopes. And the current tally for extra-solar planets sits at 1,791… hey; didn’t we just pass 1,000 last year?

Congrats to Marie-Ève Naud and her team on this exciting new discovery… and here’s to many more to come!

Read the original paper, Discovery of a Wide Planetary-Mass Companion to the Young M3 Star GU Psc.

14 Red Dwarf Stars to View with Backyard Telescopes

An artist's conception of a red dwarf solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

They’re nearby, they’re common and — at least in the latest exoplanet newsflashes hot off the cyber-press — they’re hot. We’re talking about red dwarf stars, those “salt of the galaxy” stars that litter the Milky Way. And while it’s true that there are more of “them” than there are of “us,” not a single one is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye from the skies of Earth.

A reader recently brought up an engaging discussion of what red dwarfs might be within reach of a backyard telescope, and thus this handy compilation was born.

Of course, red dwarfs are big news as possible hosts for life-bearing planets. Though the habitable zones around these stars would be very close in, these miserly stars will shine for trillions of years, giving evolution plenty of opportunity to do its thing. These stars are, however, tempestuous in nature, throwing out potentially planet sterilizing flares.

Red dwarf stars range from about 7.5% the mass of our Sun up to 50%. Our Sun is very nearly equivalent 1000 Jupiters in mass, thus the range of red dwarf stars runs right about from 75 to 500 Jupiter masses.

For this list, we considered red dwarf stars brighter than +10th magnitude, with the single exception of 40 Eridani C as noted.

The closest stars within 14 light years of our solar system. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain graphic.
The closest stars within 14 light years of our solar system. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain graphic.

I know what you’re thinking…  what about the closest? At magnitude +11, Proxima Centauri in the Alpha Centauri triple star system 4.7 light years distant didn’t quite make the cut. Barnard’s Star (see below) is the closest in this regard. Interestingly, the brown dwarf pair Luhman 16 was discovered just last year at 6.6 light years distant.

Also, do not confuse red dwarfs with massive carbon stars. In fact, red dwarfs actually appear to have more of an orange hue visually! Still, with the wealth of artist’s conceptions (see above) out there, we’re probably stuck with the idea of crimson looking red dwarf stars for some time to come.


Star Magnitude Constellation R.A. Dec
Groombridge 34 +8/11(v) Andromeda 00h 18’ +44 01’
40 Eridani C +11 Eridanus 04h 15’ -07 39’
AX Microscopii/Lacaille 8760 +6.7 Microscopium 21h 17’ -38 52’
Barnard’s Star +9.5 Ophiuchus 17h 58’ +04 42’
Kapteyn’s Star +8.9 Pictor 05h 12’ -45 01’
Lalande 21185 +7.5 Ursa Major 11h 03’ +35 58’
Lacaille 9352 +7.3 Piscis Austrinus 23h 06’ -35 51’
Struve 2398 +9.0 Draco 18h 43’ +59 37’
Luyten’s Star +9.9 Canis Minor 07h 27’ +05 14’
Gliese 687 +9.2 Draco 17h 36’ +68 20’
Gliese 674 +9.9 Ara 17h 29’ -46 54’
Gliese 412 +8.7 Ursa Major 11h 05’ +43 32’
AD Leonis +9.3 Leo 10h 20’ +19 52’
Gliese 832 +8.7 Grus 21h 34’ -49 01’


Notes on each:

Groombridge 34: Located less than a degree from the +6th magnitude star 26 Andromedae in the general region of the famous galaxy M31, Groombridge 34 was discovered back in 1860 and has a large proper motion of 2.9″ arc seconds per year.

Locating Groombridge 34. Created using Stellarium.
Locating Groombridge 34. Created using Stellarium.

40 Eridani C:  Our sole exception to the “10th magnitude or brighter” rule for this list, this multiple system is unique for containing a white dwarf, red dwarf and a main sequence K-type star all within range of a backyard telescope.  In sci-fi mythos, 40 Eridani is also the host star for the planet Richese in Dune and the controversial location for Vulcan of Star Trek fame.

Locating 40 Eridani. Created using Stellarium.
Locating 40 Eridani. Created using Stellarium.

AX Microscopii: Also known as Lacaille 8760, AX Microscopii is 12.9 light years distant and is the brightest red dwarf as seen from the Earth at just below naked eye visibility at magnitude +6.7.

A 20 year animation showing the proper motion of  Barnard's Star. Credit: Steve Quirk, images in the Public Domain.
A 20 year animation showing the proper motion of Barnard’s Star. Credit: Steve Quirk, images in the Public Domain.

Barnard’s Star: the second closest star system to our solar system next to Alpha Centuari and the closest solitary red dwarf star at six light years distant, Barnard’s Star also exhibits the highest proper motion of any star at 10.3” arc seconds per year. The center of many controversial exoplanet claims in the 20th century, it’s kind of a cosmic irony that in this era of 1790 exoplanets and counting, planets have yet to be discovered around Barnard’s Star!

Kapteyn’s Star: Discovered by Jacobus Kapteyn in 1898, this red dwarf orbits the galaxy in a retrograde motion and is the closest halo star to us at 12.76 light years distant.

Lalande 21185: currently 8.3 light years away, Lalande 21185 will pass 4.65 light years from Earth and be visible to the naked eye in just under 20,000 years.

Lacaille 9352: 10.7 light years distant, this was the first red dwarf star to have its angular diameter measured by the VLT interferometer in 2001.

Struve 2398: A binary flare star system consisting of two +9th magnitude red dwarfs orbiting each other 56 astronomical units apart and 11.5 light years distant.

Luyten’s Star: 12.36 light years distant, this star is only 1.2 light years from the bright star Procyon, which would appear brighter than Venus for any planet orbiting Luyten’s Star.

Gliese 687: 15 light years distant, Gliese 687 is known to have a Neptune-mass planet in a 38 day orbit.

Gliese 674: Located 15 light years distant, ESO’s HARPS spectrograph detected a companion 12 times the mass of Jupiter that is either a high mass exoplanet or a low mass brown dwarf.

Gliese 412: 16 light years distant, this system also contains a +15th magnitude secondary companion 190 Astronomical Units from its primary.

AD Leonis: A variable flare star in the constellation Leo about 16 light years distant.

Gliese 832: Located 16 light years distant, this star is known to have a 0.6x Jupiter mass exoplanet in a 3,416 day orbit.

The closest stars to our solar system over the next 80,000 years. Credit:  FrancescoA under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The closest stars to our solar system over the next 80,000 years. Credit: FrancescoA under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Consider this list a teaser, a telescopic appetizer for a curious class of often overlooked objects. Don’t see you fave on the list? Want to see more on individual objects, or similar lists of quasars, white dwarfs, etc in the range of backyard telescopes in the future? Let us know. And while it’s true that such stars may not have a splashy appearance in the eyepiece, part of the fun comes from knowing what you’re seeing. Some of these stars have a relatively high proper motion, and it would be an interesting challenge for a backyard astrophotographer to build an animation of this over a period of years. Hey, I’m just throwing that out project out there, we’ve got lots more in the files…





Spin! Exoplanet’s Day Finishes Blazing Fast Compared To Earth

Artist's impression of Beta Pictoris b. Credit: ESO L. Calçada/N. Risinger (

Between the time you got to work this morning and the time you leave today — assuming an eight-hour work cycle — an entire day will have passed on Beta Pictoris b, according to new measurements of the exoplanet.

This daily cycle, mapped for the first time on a planet outside of the solar system, may reveal a link between how big a planet is and how fast it rotates, astronomers stated. That said, caution is needed because there are only a handful of planets where the rotation is known: the eight planets of our Solar System and Beta Pictoris b.

The planet’s day is shorter than any other planet in our Solar System, which at first blush makes sense because the planet is also larger than any other planet in our Solar System. Beta Pictoris b is estimated at 16 times larger and 3,000 times more massive than Earth. (For comparison, Jupiter is about 11 times larger and 318 times more massive than Earth.)

“It is not known why some planets spin fast and others more slowly,” stated says co-author Remco de Kok, “but this first measurement of an exoplanet’s rotation shows that the trend seen in the Solar System, where the more massive planets spin faster, also holds true for exoplanets. This must be some universal consequence of the way planets form.”

Planets in our Solar system size comparison. Largest to smallest are pictured left to right, top to bottom: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Planets in our Solar system size comparison.
Largest to smallest are pictured left to right, top to bottom: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Astronomers mapped the planet’s equatorial rotation using the CRIRES instrument on the Very Large Telescope. What helped was not only the planet’s large size, but also its proximity to Earth: it’s about 63 light-years away, which is relatively close to us.

As the planet ages (it’s only 20 million years old right now) it is expected to shrink and spin more quickly, assuming no other external forces. The Earth’s rotation is slowed by the moon, for example.

The study (“Fast spin of a young extrasolar planet” will soon be up on Nature’s website and was led by Leiden University’s Ignas Snellen.

Source: European Southern Observatory 

What Steps Are Needed To Find More Earths?

Artist's rendering of Kepler-186f (Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/Caltech)

It wasn’t so long ago that we found out there is an Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone of a star. But how many others are out there, and do we know if planets like this are truly habitable?

“Looking towards the future, what we really want to do eventually is transform our knowledge from planets in the habitable zone to [characterizing] planetary environments,” said Natalie Batalha, a co-investigator on NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, in a webcast presentation today (April 28) .

This means that astronomers will be able to, from a distance, look at “biosignatures” of life in the atmosphere. What a biosignature would be is still being characterized, but it could be something like an unusually high proportion of oxygen — as long as abiotic processes are not accounted for, of course.

Batalha identified these parameters for finding other Earths in a presentation at the “Habitable Worlds Across Time and Space” conference presented by the Space Telescope Science Institute:

Detections of planets: other telescopes (left) vs. Kepler. Credit: Natalie  Batalha / NASA (screenshot)
Detections of planets in the habitable zone: other telescopes (left) vs. the Kepler space telescope. Credit: Natalie Batalha / NASA (screenshot)

– The telescope must be sensitive to an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a G, K or M-type star (which are stars that are like the sun);

– A uniform and reliable detection catalog with well-understood sizes, orbital periods and insolation fluxes (energy received from the sun);

– Knowledge of Kepler’s detection efficiency and the planetary catalog’s reliability;

– Well-documented and accessible data products for other community members to analyze.

What would also be helpful to planetary scientists is learning more about how a planet forms in the habitable region of its star.

Meet Kepler-22b, an exoplanet with an Earth-like radius in the habitable zone of its host star. Unfortunately its mass remains unknown. Image Credit: NASA
Meet Kepler-22b, an exoplanet with an Earth-like radius in the habitable zone of its host star. Unfortunately its mass remains unknown. Image Credit: NASA

In a presentation at the same conference, the University of Toronto’s Diana Valencia (an astrophysicist) pointed out there is no single predictor for how large a planet will get. It depends on how close a planetesimal disc is to its star, the rate of accretion in the area and dust opacity, among other factors.

She also gave a brief overview of processes that demonstrate how hard it is to predict habitability. Earth had at least two atmospheres in its past, presentation slides said, with the first atmosphere lost and the second built from volcanism and impacts. Valencia also pointed to complexities involving the Earth’s mantle and plate tectonics.

The University of Puerto Rico keeps a list of potentially habitable planets on its website, which as of this writing stands at 21.

The conference runs through May 1, and you can see the agenda here.

Take a Fly-by Of All the Known Exoplanets

This bubble chart shows the relative sizes of all discovered planets. The color corresponds to the mean equilibrium temperature of the planet. Click to interact on the Open Exoplanet Catalogue website.

Here’s a fun trip through the galaxy, put together by PhD student Tom Hands at the University of Leicester: In the above video, you can fly to of all the known exoplanets (around single stars only), ordered roughly by semi-major axis of largest orbit. Hands said the video is designed to give the viewer an overview of the current distribution of exoplanets.

Hands used data from the Open Exoplanet Catalogue.

Kepler Has Found the First Earth-Sized Exoplanet in a Habitable Zone!

Artist's rendering of Kepler-186f (Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/Caltech)

It’s truly a “eureka” moment for Kepler scientists: the first rocky Earth-sized world has been found in a star’s habitable “Goldilocks” zone, the narrow belt where liquid water could readily exist on a planet’s surface without freezing solid or boiling away. And while it’s much too soon to tell if this really is a “twin Earth,” we can now be fairly confident that they do in fact exist.

The newly-confirmed extrasolar planet has been dubbed Kepler-186f. It is the fifth and outermost planet discovered orbiting the red dwarf star Kepler-186, located 490 light-years away. Kepler-186f completes one orbit around its star every 130 days, just within the outer edge of the system’s habitable zone.

The findings were made public today, April 17, during a teleconference hosted by NASA.

“This is the first definitive Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone around another star,” says lead author Elisa Quintana of the SETI Institute at NASA Ames Research Center. “Finding such planets is a primary goal of the Kepler space telescope. The star is a main-sequence M-dwarf, a very common type.  More than 70 percent of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy are M-dwarfs.”

A visualization of the “unseen” red dwarfs in the night sky. Credit: D. Aguilar & C. Pulliam (CfA)
A visualization of the many “unseen” red dwarfs in the night sky. (CLICK FOR ANIMATION) Credit: D. Aguilar & C. Pulliam (CfA)

Unlike our Sun, which is a G-type yellow dwarf, M-dwarf stars (aka red dwarfs) are much smaller and dimmer. As a result their habitable zones are much more confined. But, being cooler stars, M-dwarfs have long lifespans, offering planets in their habitable zones — like Kepler-186f — potentially plenty of time to develop favorable conditions for life.

In addition, M-dwarfs are the most abundant stars in our galaxy; 7 out of 10 stars in the Milky Way are M-dwarfs, although most can’t be seen by the naked eye. Finding an Earth-sized planet orbiting one relatively nearby has enormous implications in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

“M dwarfs are the most numerous stars,” said Quintana. “The first signs of other life in the galaxy may well come from planets orbiting an M dwarf.”

Read more: Earthlike Exoplanets Are All Around Us

Still, there are many more conditions on a planet that must be met for it to be actually habitable. But size, composition, and orbital radius are very important first steps.

“Some people call these habitable planets, which of course we have no idea if they are,” said Stephen Kane, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at San Francisco State University in California. “We simply know that they are in the habitable zone, and that is the best place to start looking for habitable planets.”

Scale comparison of the Kepler-186 system to our inner Solar System (
Scale comparison of the Kepler-186 system and the inner Solar System (NASA Ames/SETI Institute/Caltech)

As far as the planetary system’s age is concerned — which relates to how long life could have potentially had to evolve on Kepler-186f’s surface — that’s hard to determine… especially with M-dwarf stars. Because they are so stable and long-lived, once they’re formed M-dwarfs essentially stay the same throughout their lifetimes.

“We know it’s probably older than a few billion years, but after that it’s very difficult to tell,” BAERI/Ames scientist Tom Barclay told Universe Today. “That’s the problem with M-dwarfs.”

A comparison of the Kepler 186 and Solar systems (NASA/Ames)
A comparison of the Kepler 186 and Solar systems (Presentation slide, NASA/Ames)

The exoplanet was discovered via the transit method used by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, whereby stars’ brightnesses are continually monitored within a certain field of view. Any dips in luminance reveal the likely presence of a passing planet.

Because of its small size — just slightly over 1 Earth radius — and close proximity to its star, Kepler-186f can’t be observed directly with current telescope technology.

The Gemini North telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea (Gemini Observatory/AURA)
The Gemini North telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea (Gemini Observatory/AURA)

“However, what we can do is eliminate essentially all other possibilities so that the validity of these planets is really the only viable option,” said Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist and a co-author on the paper.

Using the latest advanced imaging capabilities of the Gemini North and Keck II observatories located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, astronomers were able to determine that the signals detected by Kepler were from a small orbiting planet and not something else, such as a background or companion star.

“The Keck and Gemini data are two key pieces of this puzzle,” Quintana said. “Without these complementary observations we wouldn’t have been able to confirm this Earth-sized planet.”

Kepler-186f joins the other 20 extrasolar worlds currently listed in the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, maintained by the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. To date 961 exoplanets have been confirmed through Kepler observations, with 1,696 total confirmed altogether. (Source)

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

Read more: Mega Discovery! 715 Alien Planets Confirmed Using a New Trick on Old Kepler Data

Whether Kepler-186f actually resembles Earth or not, this discovery provides more information on the incredible variety of planetary systems to be found even in our little corner of the galaxy.

“The diversity of these exoplanets is one of the most exciting things about the field,” Kane said. “We’re trying to understand how common our solar system is, and the more diversity we see, the more it helps us to understand what the answer to that question really is.”

The SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array has surveyed the Kepler-186 system for any potential signals but so far none has been detected. Further observations are planned.

“Kepler-186f is special because we already know that a planet of its size and distance is capable of supporting life.”
– Elisa Quintana, research scientist, SETI Institute

The team’s paper, “An Earth-sized Planet in the Habitable Zone of a Cool Star” by Elisa V. Quintana et al., will be published in the April 18 issue of Science.

Learn more about the Kepler mission here, and read more about this discovery in NASA’s news release here and on the W.M. Keck website here.

Watch some video excerpts of team interviews and data renderings below:

Also, you can download the slides used in the NASA teleconference here.

Sources: San Francisco State University, Gemini Observatory, W.M. Keck Observatory, and SETI news releases

First Microlensing Detection of a Planet Circling a Brown Dwarf Candidate

This artist's conception could resemble a planetary system in front of a background star. Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Francis Reddy

When astronomers detect new exoplanets they typically do so using one of two techniques. First, there’s the famous transit technique, which looks for slight dips in light as a planet passes in front of its host star, and second is the radial velocity technique, which senses the motion of a star due to the gravitational pull of its planet.

But then there is gravitational microlensing, the chance magnification of the light from a distant star by the mass of a foreground star and its planets due to the distortion in the fabric of spacetime. While this technique sounds almost improbable, it is so accurate that every detection skips nominating planets as candidates and immediately verifies them as bona-fide worlds.

But without follow-up observations, the microlensing technique struggles with characterizing the incredibly faint host star. Now, a team of international astronomers led by PhD candidate Jennifer Yee from Ohio State University has detected the first microlensing signature, lovingly called MOA-2013-BLG-220Lb, that looks like a confirmed planet orbiting a candidate brown dwarf — an object so faint because it isn’t massive enough to kick-off nuclear fusion in its core.

Matter — no matter how great or small — curves the fabric of spacetime. It can ultimately acts like a lens by curving the background light around it and therefore magnifying the background source. In microlensing, the intervening matter is simply a faint star or perhaps a planetary system.

“As the ‘lens system’ passes in front of a distant, background star, the magnification of that background star changes as a function of time,” Yee told Universe Today. “By measuring the changing magnification of the background star, we can learn about the lensing star and perhaps whether or not it has a planet.”

In a planetary system, the light from the background star will be magnified when the foreground star passes in front of it. If there is a cirlcing planet, there will be an additional cusp in brightness (to a lesser extent but still a tell-tale detection nonetheless).

A sketch of a microlensing signature with a planet in the lens system. Image Credit: NASA / ESA / K. Sahu / STScI
A sketch of a microlensing signature with a planet in the lens system. Image Credit: NASA / ESA / K. Sahu / STScI

At the moment the planetary system transits in front of the background star (and for many years after) we can’t separate the two objects. While the light of the background star may be greatly magnified, its image is distorted because its light merges with the planetary system.

So the microlensing signature cannot tell astronomers anything about the lens system’s star. “It’s out of the ordinary,” Andrew Gould, Yee’s PhD advisor and coauthor on the paper, told Universe Today. “In other techniques people have definitely detected a star and they’re struggling to detect the planet. But microlensing is just the opposite. We detect the planet very clearly, but we can’t detect the host star.”

However, the microlensing signature does give away the lens system’s proper motion — the apparent change in distance over time — as it passes in front of the background star. MOA-2013-BLG-220Lb’s proper motion is extremely high, clocking in at 12.5 milliarcseconds (a distance on the sky that is 2400 times smaller than the size of the full moon) per year. This is roughly three times higher than average.

A high proper motion may be caused by an object that is very close by and is moving slowly or a very distant object moving rapidly. As most stars tend not to move at high speeds, the team assumes the object is relatively close, placing it at a distance of 6,000 light-years.

With a distance fixed, the team is also able to assume a mass for the object. It weighs in below the hydrogen-burning limit and is therefore considered the best brown dwarf candidate microlensing has detected.

“The double-edged sword of microlensing is that no light from the lens star is required,” Yee told Universe Today. “On the one hand, microlensing can find planets around dark or faint objects like brown dwarfs. The flip side is that it’s very difficult to characterize the lens star if its light is not detected.”

Astronomers will have to wait until 2021 to take a second look at the lens system. This time frame is how long we expect it to take before the candidate brown dwarf separates appreciably on the sky from the background star. Once it has done so astronomers will be able to verify whether or not the candidate is truly a brown dwarf.

The paper is available for download here.

Giant Planet May Be Lurking In ‘Poisonous’ Gas Around Beta Pictoris

Artist's conception of a hypothetical giant planet (left) in Beta Pictoris. The gas giant would sweep up comets into a swarm, causing frequent collisions. Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) are calling this the "preferred model" for observations they made. Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center/F. Reddy

A Saturn-mass planet might be lurking in the debris surrounding Beta Pictoris, new measurements of a debris field around the star shown. If this could be proven, this would be the second planet found around that star.

The planet would be sheparding a giant swarm of comets (some in front and some trailing behind the planet) that are smacking into each other as often as every five minutes, new observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) show. This is the leading explanation for a cloud of carbon monoxide gas visible in the array.

“Although toxic to us, carbon monoxide is one of many gases found in comets and other icy bodies,” stated Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland who participated in the research. “In the rough-and-tumble environment around a young star, these objects frequently collide and generate fragments that release dust, icy grains and stored gases.”

ALMA captured millimeter-sized light from carbon monoxide and dust around Beta Pictoris, which is about 63 light-years from Earth (relatively close to our planet). The gas seems to be most prevalent in an area about 8 billion miles (13 kilometers) from the star — the equivalent distance of three times the length of Neptune’s location from the sun. The carbon monoxide cloud itself makes up about one-sixth the mass of Earth’s oceans.

Ultraviolet light from the star should be breaking up the carbon monoxide molecules within 100 years, so the fact there is so much gas indicates something must be replenishing it, the researchers noted. Their models showed that the comets would need to be destroyed every five minutes for this to happen (unless we are looking at the star at an unusual time).

While the researchers say they need more study to see how the gas is concentrated, their hypothesis is there is two clumps of gas and it is due to a big planet behaving similarly to what Jupiter does in our solar system. Thousands of asteroids follow behind and fly in front of Jupiter due to the planet’s massive gravity. In this more distant system, it’s possible that a gas giant planet would be doing the same thing with comets.

If the gas turns out to be in just one clump, however, another scenario would suggest two Mars-sized planets (icy ones) smashing into each other about half a million years ago. This “would account for the comet swarm, with frequent ongoing collisions among the fragments gradually releasing carbon monoxide gas,” NASA stated.

The research was published yesterday (March 6) in the journal Science and is led by Bill Dent, a researcher at the Joint ALMA Office in  Chile. You can read more information in press releases from NASA, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and European Southern Observatory.

New Technique Could Measure Exoplanet Atmospheric Pressure, an Indicator of Habitability

Artistic representations of the only known planets around other stars (exoplanets) with any possibility to support life as we know it. The authors of this study wanted to know how people react to the discovery of alien life and potentially habitable planets. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo.

Measuring the atmospheric pressure of a distant exoplanet may seem like a daunting task but astronomers at the University of Washington have now developed a new technique to do just that.

When exoplanet discoveries first started rolling in, astronomers laid emphasis in finding planets within the habitable zone — the band around a star where water neither freezes nor boils. But characterizing the environment and habitability of an exoplanet doesn’t depend on the planet’s surface temperature alone.

Atmospheric pressure is just as important in gauging whether or not the surface of an exoplanet may likely hold liquid water. Anyone familiar with camping at high-altitude should have a good understanding of how pressure affects water’s boiling point.

The method developed by Amit Misra, a PhD candidate, involves isolating “dimers” — bonded pairs of molecules that tend to form at high pressures and densities in a planet’s atmosphere — not to be confused with “monomers,” which are simply free-floating molecules. While there are many types of dimers, the research team focused exclusively on oxygen molecules, which are temporarily bound to each other through hydrogen bonding.

We may indirectly detect dimers in an exoplanet’s atmosphere when the exoplanet transits in front of its host star. As the star’s light passes through a thin layer of the planet’s atmosphere the dimers absorb certain wavelengths of it. Once the starlight reaches Earth it’s imprinted with the chemical fingerprints of the dimers.

Dimers absorb light in a distinctive pattern, which typically has four peaks due to the rotational motion of the molecules. But the amount of absorption may change depending on the atmospheric pressure and density. This difference is much more pronounced in dimers than in monomers, allowing astronomers to gain additional information about the atmospheric pressure based on the ratio of these two signatures.

While water dimers were detected in the Earth’s atmosphere as early as last year, powerful telescopes soon to come online may enable astronomers to use this method in observing distant exoplanets. The team analyzed the likelihood of using the James Webb Space Telescope to make such a detection and found it challenging but possible.

Detecting dimers in an exoplanet’s atmosphere would not only help us evaluate the atmospheric pressure, and therefore the state of water on the surface, but other biosignature markers as well. Oxygen is directly tied to photosynthesis, and will most likely not be abundant in an exoplanet’s atmosphere unless it is regularly produced by algae or other plants.

“So if we find a good target planet, and you could detect these dimer molecules — which might be possible within the next 10 to 15 years — that would not only tell you something about pressure, but actually tell you that there’s life on that planet,” said Misra in a press release.

The paper has been published in the February issue of Astrobiology and is available for download here.